When Kate McKinnon first took the stage at 30 Rock, it was a godsend. She joined the Saturday Night Live cast as a featured player midseason in 2012 — the same season Kristen Wiig left — and seamlessly transitioned into Wiig’s role as the show’s go-to female cast member.1 McKinnon was an almost immediate star for a show in dire need of star power. Like Wiig, she was a comedic Swiss army knife, capable of doing anything the SNL writers needed: over-the-top characters, spot-on impressions, Hillary Clinton. Like Wiig, she was nominated for four straight Emmys for her work. (Unlike Wiig, she won two of them — the show’s first in years.) Her unique brand of irrepressibly, unapologetically goofy energy and gymnastic facial contortions made her the perfect person to fill the Wiig-sized hole in SNL’s lineup.
So it was only a matter of time before Hollywood came for McKinnon, looking for her to be their “next Kristen Wiig” too. Her trajectory followed the familiar SNL crossover career path: a cameo in Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s Sisters. A scene-stealing breakout performance in 2016’s Ghostbusters (alongside Wiig, naturally). Solid ensemble work in Office Christmas Party, and then last year’s Rough Night, which — bonus points — gave her a chance to show off her Australian accent.
And now The Spy Who Dumped Me. The espionage-themed action comedy is a major step up on the call sheet for McKinnon; she’s got second billing alongside Mila Kunis. Her face on bus ads. Playing the almost-too-supportive best friend to Kunis’ Audrey, the pair get dragged into a globe-trotting international conspiracy after finding out Audrey’s shitty ex-boyfriend (Justin Theroux) worked for the CIA.
Midway through the movie, there’s a scene meant to give audiences their first clue that Theroux’s character is kind of a dick2: he tells McKinnon’s Morgan that she’s “a little much.” And I’m sure I won’t be the first to point out that, yes, she definitely is. And that’s exactly the point. She’s way too much. Tasked with doing all the comedic heavy lifting, her role is basically to see how many times she can get Kunis to break on camera.3 She singlehandedly saves The Spy Who Dumped Me by treating it like a “10-to-1” SNL skit that’s in constant danger of bombing.
The Spy Who Dumped Me is one of the dozen or so studio comedies released every year where it feels like there’s a better, funnier version of the movie somewhere underneath the forced diarrhea jokes and tonal whiplash from pinballing between light comedy and surprisingly heavy violence. But every time it feels like the movie is grinding to a halt with all its talk about terrorist syndicates and encrypted USB drives, McKinnon swoops in with a well-placed riff. The movie’s been getting mixed reviews so far, but McKinnon? Nothing but raves. It’s difficult to imagine this movie working with anyone else.
But knocking it out of the park as the designated comedy sidekick isn’t the same as getting your own leading role, and that transition is something that’s tripped up even the most promising SNLers. Just look at McKinnon’s nearest comparable, Kristen Wiig. Have we really seen her follow through on her own post-SNL promise? There’s Bridesmaids, of course, but seven years later, it’s Melissa McCarthy that ended up becoming the biggest breakout star from that cast. Sure, Wiig’s had a couple hits and interesting roles since4 — she’ll be playing the bad guy in Wonder Woman 1984, which, yes please — but she didn’t become the slam-dunk comedy superstar we all expected her to be off the Bridesmaids success.5
Maybe I’m just falling prey to SNL’s penchant for self-mythologizing, and the false equivalence between past results and future success. Sketch comedy stardom doesn’t inherently translate to mainstream comedy gold. I remain convinced that Bill Hader could (and should) win an Emmy for Barry someday. I’ve wasted countless hours theorizing about why Jason Sudeikis still hasn’t broken out as an A-list leading man. I’m probably one of only a half-dozen people more bummed out to hear Fox was cancelling Will Forte’s Last Man on Earth than Andy Samberg’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
In reality though, the skills that make someone an SNL MVP don’t necessarily translate to the big screen, the same way an Olympic sprinter’s 40 time doesn’t automatically mean they’ll be an All-Pro in the NFL. There’s a vast gulf between sketch character work and film character work. (Namely, the former only has to be funny for three minutes. The latter has to have staying power for another 90-120.) In all likelihood, Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, and Bill Murray, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, etc., etc. before them — these people were going to become comedy royalty with or without Lorne Michaels’ help.
Kate McKinnon is now SNL’s current longest-tenured active female cast member, which means pretty soon it’s going to be time to for her to follow Wiig’s lead again and leave the friendly confines of 30 Rock to do her own thing. To shoot her shot. If The Spy Who Dumped Me is any indication, McKinnon’s ready to take it.
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|1.||↑||And, when Fred Armisen, Bill Hader and Jason Sudeikis all left two seasons later, the show’s go-to cast member, period.|
|2.||↑||You know, besides the fact that he’s being played by Justin Theroux…|
|3.||↑||I’d suggest you make a drinking game out of all the times McKinnon gets her co-stars to crack, but I don’t want to be held liable for any medical bills.|
|4.||↑||I’ll stan for both The Skeleton Twins and Welcome to Me as supremely underrated indie dramedies.|
|5.||↑||You could make a convincing argument that both McCarthy and Rose Byrne came out ahead on that one.|