Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 38 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member every other week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.
Live cast sendoffs are a rare event on SNL and reserved only for the most well-liked players, and if Kristen Wiig’s farewell segment at the end of the season 37 finale was any indication, the art major-turned-sketch comedy superstar left her SNL stint on the best possible terms. Beloved by many for her sheepish, awkward, yet unabashed delivery and bringing to life a long list of hit recurring characters, Wiig – much like similar SNL sendoff receiver Will Ferrell – built herself into an indispensable force during her seven-year stint on the show without ever allowing her success to invade her onscreen work. Not loving her was almost impossible due to a rare mix of egolessness, demure charm, and careening, fearless comedic talent.
As an introverted child bouncing around between upstate New York and Pennsylvania, the young Wiig had no intentions to pursue a career as a performer; it wasn’t until after she attended the University of Arizona to study art that she first took an acting class, where she was encouraged by her teacher, thankfully, to keep at it. After dropping out, Wiig moved to Los Angeles to devote more time to performing and soon began taking classes at the famous Groundlings theatre while holding down jobs as a florist shop clerk, Anthropologie employee, interior painter, babysitter, mall hot dog seller, and waitress, though she took a three-month break to travel to India and meditate at a monastery.
After spending nearly a decade developing original characters with The Groundlings such as Target Lady, a forgetful tooth fairy, and the tragically unhip film reviewer Aunt Linda, in 2003 Wiig landed her first big television gig on Spike’s faux prank reality show The Joe Schmo Show, in which she played marriage counselor Patricia Lane AKA “Dr. Pat.” A string of small roles followed (shows I’m with Her and The Drew Carey Show; TV movies My Life, Inc. and June), but it wasn’t until 2005 that her life, and in turn SNL, changed forever. Joining fellow featured players Jason Sudeikis, Bill Hader, and Andy Samberg, Wiig joined the cast for its 31st season beginning in November and made her first big appearance as a drunk Judy Garland in Hader’s Vincent Price sketch “Variety Vault.”
Wiig took on over 60 impersonations such as former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, TV host/finance guru Suze Orman, Paula Deen, Katharine Hepburn, GMA wino Kathie Lee Gifford, Lana Del Rey, Gwen Stefani, Drew Barrymore, and Icelandic singer Björk. It was through her countless original characters, however, where Wiig shined, from the “A-Holes” to the young big-haired troublemaker Gilly. From the highly quotable (“I’m so freakin’ excited!” Sue; “Just kidding” Judy Grimes; “And I’m Dooneese”) to the old-school Hollywood (Mindy Gracin from “Secret Word; Lilia from “1920s Party”) to the completely absurd (Virginia Horsen; Triangle Sally; second half of Weekend Update improv singers Garth and Kat), Wiig left an inimitable stamp on all of her SNL sketches as a talented actor, singer, silly dancer, and impersonator and meshed with every single one of her fellow players. Her work on the show landed her four consecutive Outstanding Supporting Actress Emmy nominations from 2009-2012, not to mention an Outstanding Guest Actress nom in 2013 for her return to the show as host.
While some might argue that Wiig drove the concept of an SNL recurring character into a wall with polarizing welcome-overstayers like Target Lady and Gilly, her ability to swing energy from over-the-top (see Karina from “The Californians”) to meek and subtly physical (see Penelope or the oxygen tank-lugging Gail) – as well as her knack for both disappearing into characters yet making them uniquely her own – prevented Wiig from becoming a victim of overexposure or critical backlash. As high as her fame may have elevated her, in the words of The New York Times it seemed that “a relatively late arrival to fame [had] given her a sense of ongoing gratitude.” Whether it was the meditation experience or just her age-old public speaking-related fears kicking in, a sense of selflessness permeated even the snobbiest trademark Wiig characters, making her a likable unlikely star, level-headed budding film actress, and poster comedy hero for shy girls everywhere.
Up through the end of her final SNL season in 2011-2012, Wiig began to score more and more memorable movie roles, from 2007’s Knocked Up to 2009’s Adventureland all the way up through the smash 2011 hit Bridesmaids, which Wiig co-wrote with her fellow Groundlings alum Annie Mumolo and led to the duo earning an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Since then she’s stayed faithful to her comedy roots on a handful of top-notch series (Bored to Death, Portlandia, Arrested Development, The Spoils of Babylon), lent her voice to animated shows (The Looney Tunes Show, The Simpsons), costarred in big-budget films (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues), and delved into more dramatic fare in oddball indies (Girl Most Likely, Hateship Loveship, The Skeleton Twins). With several starring roles already lined up for the near future (Welcome to Me, Nasty Baby, The Diary of a Teenage Girl), Wiig’s future comedy/drama rise seems unstoppable. Her rare mix of undeniable talent, raw energy, grace, and lack of ego make her far too precious a commodity for Hollywood – and her many faithful fans – to dare ignore, and being named one of the “top three or four” SNL cast members ever by Lorne Michaels certainly doesn’t hurt.