Cecily Strong Should Be Considered One of the All-Time SNL Greats
It happened last night, out of the blue yet totally predictable. In fact, we did predict it. In our story about this season’s Saturday Night Live premiere, an episode in which Cecily Strong didn’t appear, not even in the opening credits, we noted that the writing seemed to be on the wall near the door marked EXIT. Sure, she was finishing a theatrical run out in Los Angeles. Sure, Entertainment Weekly wrote, “Don’t worry, Cecily fans!” But we said, “color us skeptical.” Didn’t last season’s Jeanine Pirro finale, with Strong belting an intoxicated “My Way” in a giant box of wine, feel like a farewell? Wasn’t she making bank with all those Verizon commercials? ”This (situation) bears watching,” we said -- and Cecily proved us right last night.
When a tenured performer takes their leave, it’s not unusual for breathless tributes like SNL Twitter’s “one of the best to ever do it.” But dang if that’s not exactly right. We don’t need the benefit of distance to know that Cecily Strong is an all-time SNL great. She proved every damn week that she was a quadruple threat so let’s raise a box of wine to celebrate four of her comedy superpowers.
First, she had a Phil Hartman-esque ability to hold a scene together. The straight person in a scene seems like the easiest to play, but ask any sketch comic if that’s true. Better yet, ask Ryan Gosling.
Colleen Rafferty was one of Kate McKinnon’s most hysterical creations; poor Gosling can barely keep it together. But one reason the scene destroys is Cecily Strong tethering this baby to the earth. Her sincere, heartfelt descriptions of a group of small-town buds encountering alien life in the woods are sweet, funny in their own right, and absolutely necessary for Raftery’s incredulous “Wow, what floor were you guys on?” reactions. Strong told Jimmy Fallon that she was inspired by Hartman and you can see his influence. Castmates called Phil the Glue for his ability to anchor scenes without fading into the background; Cecily had a similar ability to engage while shining a spotlight on the sketch’s most outrageous characters.
That said, she could do some pretty outrageous character work herself. She broke out immediately as a repertory player in 2012, introducing herself to America as the spot-on Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started A Conversation With At A Party.
Strong used the Weekend Update desk as her personal character study platform, killing it with idiosyncratic weirdos like Heather from Work (the One-Dimensional Female Character from a Male-Driven Comedy), popular kid Kyra from Girlfriends Talk Show, and Cathy Ann, the chain-smoking mess who’s always yelling outside Michael Che’s window. Strong brought Cathy Ann out for an emotional, meth-fueled goodbye during her last Update.
So it’s not exactly a surprise that Strong was absent at the beginning of Season 48 to finish up her solo run in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, the Jane Wagner/Lily Tomlin opus that requires its one-woman lead to play eleven different characters. It’s a perfect vehicle for her talents. “As the writing itself moves from comedic caricature to real human beings, a lovely depth emerges in Strong's work,” said Entertainment Weekly. “She could easily have rested on the laurels of her SNL schtick, but she pushes beyond that to something much more emotionally resonant and lived in.”
Third, Cecily Strong was brave as hell. It’s no slight on SNL superstars like Kristen Wiig or Kenan Thompson to say that neither would have taken on a character like Goober the Clown Who Had An Abortion When She Was 23.
The bit was raw, angry, and necessary. “I didn't tell my own wonderful and supportive mom for years and Saturday I told live TV,” she wrote on her Instagram Story (adding three clown emojis to punctuate her point). Saturday Night Live could use fewer game show parodies and a lot more of this kind of personal expression. She told the ladies on The View that she was “surprised and moved by the reaction” to Goober, including private messages from women who also had abortions. “A lot of women say I'm the only one they've ever told, or will tell. So that still really moves me.”
Finally, Cecily could sing like crazy. In fact, we’re trying to remember a cast member with stronger pipes and, other than possibly Maya Rudolph, we’re struggling to think of anyone else who comes close. Lorne Michaels was smart enough to recognize that talent, producing Schmigadoon, Strong’s cheeky celebration of old-school musical comedy.
Of course, SNL also found ways to exploit her gifts like this Sound of Music parody with John Mulaney. Somebody had to say this, so might as well do it to the strains of Rodgers and Hammerstein.
So what other way was there to send Strong off into the world except with song? Host Austin Butler as Casual Elvis joined her last night for a sweet rendition of “Blue Christmas,” eventually joined by castmates like Kenan and Colin Jost who have been with her for the entire voyage. The emotional farewell drives home the conclusion that it’s time for Strong to move on -- she’s the grown-up in the room here, comforting old friends and looking like someone who knows the ride was amazing but it’s time for the next part of her journey. She leaves as the longest-tenured female cast member in the show’s history.
Take it away, Cecily. And thanks for the laughs.