“Earth, I love ya! Thanks for letting me stay a while.” This was Kate McKinnon’s way of saying good-bye to SNL during her final episode in May 2022, dressed up as her recurring character and alien abductee Colleen Rafferty. With an 11-season stint that makes her one of the five longest-tenured SNL cast members and nine straight Emmy nominations for her work on the show (including two wins), it’s hard to argue that McKinnon didn’t have one of the most tremendous runs in SNL history.
Joining the show during the tail end of Kristen Wiig’s last season, McKinnon quickly filled the spot of the show’s star. From creating some of the biggest recurring characters at a time when they were less common (Debette Goldry, Olya Povlatsky, Sheila Sovage) to bridging the song-parody gap between the Lonely Island and Chris Redd/Pete Davidson (“Twin Bed,” “Crucible Cast Party,” “Wishin’ Boot”) to becoming the go-to for most political impersonations, regardless of gender (Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Jeff Sessions), she routinely dominated our yearly charting of cast-member screen time. Despite her SNL superstardom crossing over to movies, McKinnon just couldn’t leave — she loved being and working on the show too much. She probably could’ve done the show for the rest of her life, but, as she said on Live With Kelly and Ryan in July, her “body was tired.”
In an at times emotional conversation, McKinnon spoke at length on Good One for the first time about her SNL departure and her good-bye sketch. You can listen to the full episode below, and tune in to Good One every Thursday wherever you get your podcasts.
So we’re going to start by talking about “Close Encounter.” The sketches were originally written by Mikey Day and Streeter Seidell. Do you remember them telling you about the idea?
Well, I definitely didn’t have anything for that week, I know that. Usually when that happens, you just sort of scrounge and try to do something, but every so often someone will put a miracle in your lap. The two of them came up to me with this idea about a woman who gets short shrift during an alien abduction, and I thought it was so funny. See, Mikey understands that I’m kind of … I don’t dress so fancy. I like stuff that’s kind of bad, and I relish in nasty, little, bad experiences, so he thought that I could just sort of play myself in this scenario, and then it might work out. So they typed up a draft, and then it didn’t need anything. That never happens — usually you have to hone over the week or find what you’re really trying to write about. It came out perfect the first time, and it was amazing. Everyone was really laughing at the table.
Colin Jost once described you as a meticulous, very cerebral writer. What does writing look like for you?
I must do it in conjunction with someone who’s a great writer. The only thing that ever made sense to me was doing a funny voice. I have always worked from the sound of a voice, which makes impressions easy, because you just copy what’s already there. Then I have other voices that just sort of naturally occur to me. So I just would sort of sit there and talk in that voice and contribute in that way.
How did you start building this character once you saw the script? What was the first step?
This is just a person who I knew would talk exactly like me, so it was just the addition of a pretzel stick as a cigarette — that was the only, like, character-building element. That’s me, baby. That’s how I am. That’s how I talk. I’m Rafferty, all right. I’m made of junk. Nothing about it was a stretch at all, so it was really nice.
How do you then elevate it? Do you conceive of this person’s life beyond the walls of this sketch?
The dudes really had this picture of a woman who lived in what we all assumed was like Nevada somewhere. For me, I hear a voice, and details just start to emerge, and then a hairstyle begins to emerge. Hair is the next thing; that’s the next most important character-defining trait. Then an outfit begins to grow from that. And this idea of a person who is the kind of person who gets abducted by aliens, but is the worst of that, to me suggested an endless world of: If that, then what? Some things feel like they already exist, and you just have to pluck them from the sky and flesh them out a little bit. And this felt like one of those.
When you were talking about the hair and the look, what were those conversations like with hair and wardrobe?
I knew that she would have hair that was short — kind of a haircut that suggests a person who doesn’t want to have to deal with anything and has gone a little gray and is just sort of like, “I don’t care, you guys,” and has clothes that also say, “I don’t care, you guys.” And she’s a very avoidant person — she’s not going to try to make life better than it is. She’s resigned, and she is able to find joy in what she knows is her reality anyway, and to have a sense of humor about that. And I get that, I really do. I feel I use humor in that way, and most people do.
What did you land on, to use sketch parlance, as the game of what her thing is?
One of my favorite sketch formats is the format of The Lawrence Welk Show and Dooneese. I love two normals and a weird, or three normals and a weird. That’s my favorite thing. And I love being the weird one, obviously. I mean, most of the characters I’ve ever played are the weird one in a group of three normals, and this was certainly no exception. And I would never have thought to have the normal thing be having a beautiful alien encounter. That’s the genius of Mikey and Street: They just are masters of setup, among many other things.
So the first time, it was a sensation, partly because everyone breaks — everyone but you, for the most part. But you smile a little bit. How do you remember it going? What was that first one like?
Looking back on my decade at SNL, it was the greatest thing ever. Every time we rehearsed it, there was laughter, and it just felt like soaring, just performing it. That’s because the writing was so good, and I was so excited for people to hear the turns of phrase that the guys had written, and they responded in a way that I hoped they would. It was certainly one of the top three moments I’ve had doing sketch comedy.
In general, how did you feel about breaking during sketches?
I felt ashamed, because we’re not supposed to, and there’s something unprofessional about it. And yet sometimes it was just too fun. There was a hint, I guess, of wanting the audience to know like, Oh, man, I love this. You have no idea how much I love Aidy Bryant and how much I love this job and how much I love these jokes. So sometimes I would allow myself to just go there.
The fourth time you did it, in 2017, Ryan Gosling was back. It feels like that was a time when the sketch refocused, and there was one big change, which was the guest now moves next to you, which then allowed you to sort of, in Gosling’s case, squish his butt, and then squish your face into his butt.
That then became the new beat — that you’re going to climb all over the host. You’re a very tactile sketch performer. With a lot of your characters, you like to touch the people who are also in the sketch with you.
In general, I think that despite the fact that you’re reading off cue cards, if the audience can watch you genuinely connect with someone in the sketch — if they can witness a genuine spark of friendship or of two people genuinely reaching out and, in some cases, physically touching each other — then it’s all the more fun to watch and feels all the more real. I forget who pitched me doing that with his butt, but it just seemed like someone ought to, I guess.
Do you have a favorite of the euphemisms for your body parts that become such a big part of the sketch?
There is a running list of these euphemisms for genitals. It’s, at this point, a very long document, and was always the best part of writing the sketch. The first one, I think, they added “coot coot” and “prune chute,” maybe right before air or certainly right before dress. It was not something we’d been rehearsing all week. A lot of the other ones were monosyllabic, and this was entire rhyming phrases, rhyme within rhyme.
The way that Colleen Rafferty talks is very basic. It has a timeless, mid-century quality. Like, “We’re not dealing with the top brass” — these are sort of old phrases, yet she uses them in a way that is very poetic. So though “coot coot” and “prune shoot” are coarse and base things to say, it has its own Brontë-esque majesty to it. I think that’s one of the great comedic juxtapositions about the character as well.
The last version of this sketch, of course, was your good-bye sketch in your final episode. Before we talk about leaving, I want to ask you about why you decided to stay as long as you did, especially as many cast members had left in the past when they started getting the actor roles you have been getting.
I definitely was not sure when the right time to go was. Leaving was in the back of my mind for a while, because it’s just a grueling schedule. I mean, I could do it for the rest of my life, happily, if the schedule were not so grueling and if I was not naturally a person who liked to wake up at 8 a.m. and go to bed at midnight. And I … Wait, what were we talking about?
What made you stay through seasons eight, nine, ten? What were the conversations like with yourself?
Part of it was the pandemic and how strange production had become, and wanting to wait until it was normal again. And mostly I hate change and I hate good-byes and I love those people. Sorry, I’m going to start crying …
It was really hard, and I really am not good at saying good-bye to stuff. Whoa.
Earlier this summer, you briefly talked about leaving on Live With Kelly and Ryan. You said your body was like, “I can’t keep on doing this.” What was it like noticing this?
I was having trouble staying up until 1 a.m. And I was like, Okay. I have to go. As scared as I am and as sad as I am, it’s time.
What was it like telling Lorne that you were going to be done?
Oh, man. Sorry, one sec. [Cries.]
Telling Lorne was really hard. He knew it was coming. He was very sweet. But he has been a father figure to me, and so much more. It was just really hard — simple human emotions, not wanting to say good-bye to something you love.
This is fresh. It only happened two months ago.
Let’s move back to sketch to make it a little bit easier.
Okay. Thank you, thank you.
So for your last show, what were the conversations like about doing a good-bye sketch? Whose idea was it to do one of the “Close Encounter” sketches?
It’s funny — I had thought about it for a long time. I’m not an ostentatious person, and I don’t like to make a show of myself, and I hate my birthday, but I did want a moment of catharsis of trying to encapsulate what the whole thing had meant to me and telling that to the audience. A while ago, Streeter and Mikey had floated the idea of me getting in a spaceship at the end, and I thought that was beautiful. I had one other idea where I would play my barfly character, Sheila Sovage, and make out, individually, with every one of my colleagues. But due to COVID restrictions and due to the other idea being such a beautiful idea, we went with that. So I didn’t get to make out with everyone, which is a bother, but maybe one day.
I anticipated it being this moment of absolute release, and it was, in a way. But it certainly was not the most meaningful moment of the whole thing … Jesus Christ, Kate, come on, get it together. It was not the most meaningful moment of the decade in the way that I thought it might be. The most meaningful moments, just looking back, were like … [Cries.] Okay. Long pause for crying, sorry.
Take your time.
The most meaningful moments were moments when, like on a Friday night at rehearsal, I decided to stop and look around at the people who I loved so much and just make a memory of it. Nothing special — we were all just sitting around, and Mikey was doing a bit or Alex was doing a bit, and we were catching up and just looking around at the crew. Those are the moments that meant the most.
There’s a moment in the sketch when you say this line: “I always kind of felt like an alien on this planet anyway.” I want to know what that line meant for you.
It’s interesting, because I did not write that line, Mikey and Streeter wrote it. I read it in the draft that they sent, and I was like, Oh, shoot, this kind of lays me bare, but I loved it. It was exactly what I would say if I had written it. I felt a little naked doing it, but in a good way — in a way that I had rarely felt in the decade of doing sketch.
I felt like I really did just want to say, “Thank you. And thank you for watching.” But then I had an unexpected moment when I was walking out of the studio, an hour or so later, and there was still a bunch of people waiting. I got to, like, give a bunch of hugs and I felt like, Wow, this is why I was doing this the whole time. So I got to say that to actual people, on an individual basis, which was also very meaningful and cathartic. So there were multiple catharses that evening.
So that sketch was the cold open, and the last sketch was you and Aidy. At that point, this is not your good-bye sketch as much as your last time doing a sketch with Aidy. What was that moment like?
That was great. It was just good to be up there with my dear friend. But it couldn’t quite encapsulate the enormity of what that relationship has meant to me. You can’t quite say in a moment what ten years means.
Is there a sketch idea from your time on the show that you thought was so funny, and you tried it and at some point it did not work, but you will go to your grave still being like, They were wrong. That was a good idea?
I have one that I can’t say, because if I ever host, I’m trying it, you guys.
But there was another: There was a year of my life at SNL when I tried every other week to play a Scottish person. I tried every possible permutation you could think of. I tried to be a magical troll that was Scottish. I tried to be the prime minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon. If something doesn’t go well at the table, the unwritten rule is that you’ve got to wait until it’s fresh again in people’s minds. I could not wait; I had to try again. I think everyone at the end of the year was ready to do some kind of intervention with me and be like, “Kate, the Scottish thing, for whatever reason, it’s not working. And you need to let it go.”
What was it about it?
I don’t know. I think the voice might have been just too far outside the realm of relatability to be funny to people, or maybe it was just more funny to me, because I am of Scottish descent. I know plenty of Scots, and it was just something that meant more to me and was more delightful to me than maybe my colleagues. So, sorry, but maybe one day.
It is August, so we’re getting to the point where I imagine usually you’re like, Oh, it’s August, and now we’re going to do a commercial parody soon. How are you feeling right now that you’re not doing that?
It hasn’t quite sunk in yet that I won’t be popping back into the office soon. I’m certainly excited for what the rest of my life will entail, and happy to have the opportunity to find out, and happy to be going to bed at midnight — so happy. I feel really healthy and really good. I’m wearing my retainer again. I’m taking vitamins for the first time.
I know that I will forever miss it, and especially the people — just the greatest people, and an absolute family of people. But I’m also excited to join new families and explore other parts of myself. I mean, I think that as you could maybe tell from listening to this interview, I also have sadness. I have joy and I have sadness, and maybe I’ll see if I can do something with that. I don’t know.
You’ve been doing sketch professionally, essentially, your entire adult life. You’ve done other roles, but it seems like characters are so much a part of it. What part of your SNL acting career do you feel will always be there?
Well, I never want to stop playing characters. I love people. I love finding out what is inside them and putting that on display, so I never want to stop doing that. But there is sort of a limitation in sketch, in that the characters can never grow and learn, and that’s something to explore.
When you think back to your time on SNL, do you have a moment when you felt most connected to the audience?
I will share two moments when I felt most connected. One was after Hillary had lost, and the cold open was me playing “Hallelujah” on the piano. I felt that for the people, for whom that was a tragic event, I felt very connected and in a very real way. Then I also felt really connected that first time when I did the alien abduction sketch. It was a completely different experience — people were laughing instead of crying — and yet it was the same recognition of, like, We’re all in this together, guys. We all feel the same way about something.
That, I think, is the most amazing thing about sketch as opposed to stand-up or any sort of filmed long-form piece like a movie or whatever. Sketch is like a show-and-tell: You show the audience this thing that delighted you about human behavior, and you’re laughing at it, and they’re laughing at it. And then you are bonded with them, because you both know that you both feel the same way about this thing. I just think that’s the greatest experience you can have.
This interview has been edited and condensed.