A Love Letter to SNL’s Cecily Strong
It’s never an easy goodbye when a “Not-Ready-for-Primetime-Player” decides to become a little more primetime. The transition for Saturday Night Live from its most recent 47th season to its 48th season saw a notable change in the cast; Aidy Bryant, Kate McKinnon, Pete Davidson, and Kyle Mooney all departed at the end of the 47th season, and it was later announced, between the two seasons, that Alex Moffat, Melissa Villaseñor, and Aristotle Athari would also be leaving the show. And then (!) Chris Redd announced separately that he too would be leaving his cast member slot open. Longtime fans of the show, myself included, are no strangers to adapting to the exciting, and necessary, changes the cast lists go through, but we hadn’t seen a changeup quite like this in a long time. Truly, this has been the largest transition SNL has ever seen. But with returning cast members like Andrew Dismukes and Punkie Johnson bumping up to the main cast, James Austin Johnson and Sarah Sherman remaining in their featured slots, and the additional four new featured players (Marcello Hernandez, Molly Kearney, Michael Longfellow, and Devon Walker), SNL surely had a cushion to withstand the transition.
Then Cecily Strong left.
If you’re a part of the online Saturday Night Live fandom, there was an uproar at the beginning of season 48 for multiple reasons. SNL received a surprising facelift in its opening credits, including both the cast montage and the font used to announce the cast and the logo itself. (The font change elicited quite the online debate, more so than the new cast footage. Whether you are a fan of the new font or not, it was interesting that The Focus had claimed the new font might have been a “modified version of Andrew Footit’s ‘Hudson NY’ font,” when the font had actually been designed by SNL’s long-standing contracted design firm, Pentagram. If you’re a fellow font/design nerd, Pentagram’s site is a real treat for a collection of all their work on SNL over the years, as well as the rest of their catalog.) Aside from the font debacle in the new opening credits, however, most noticeably and unceremoniously Cecily Strong was missing.
The internet went into a tizzy
Luckily, with minimal digging one could find out that she was ending her stint in Jane Wagner’s one-woman play, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe in Los Angeles, but would indeed be back later in the season. Knowing that Cecily would be returning, the first three episodes of SNL season 48 were still enjoyable, but they carried the absence of something great. By the fourth episode of the season, Cecily’s opening credits montage had been filmed and woven into the opening credits like she had been there the entire time, making SNL whole again. But a mere five episodes later, between hosts Steve Martin & Martin Short and Austin Butler, news quietly broke that the ninth episode of Season 48 would be Cecily’s last.
Playfully outlasting Kate McKinnon’s record-breaking stint as the longest-running female cast member by only one episode, Cecily left SNL in the early hours of December 18th, 2022. Getting her start on Season 38 (only overlapping Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, and Jason Sudeikis by one year…and never overlapping Kristin Wiig, Andy Samberg, or Abby Elliot who left the previous season), she joined the cast in 2012 alongside Aidy Bryant and Tim Robinson. Tim left the cast after one year to, instead, join the writing team, and Cecily and Aidy would only spend one year as featured players before moving up to repertory cast members. Just as SNL is currently seeing another large revival in its cast structure, Cecily’s early years saw a lot of turnovers as well. Such is SNL. But in the wake of the great departure this previous summer and fall, Cecily’s departure came as quite a shock to most, if not in a logical manner where one can recognize that she has begun pursuing other projects (including AppleTV+’s outstanding Schmigadoon!, at least in an emotional capacity. To fully come to terms with her “loss,” I wanted to look back at a collection of some of my personal favorites that truly emphasize what a comedic powerhouse and professional Cecily Strong was and will continue to be.
Lonnie from “The Science Room” (Host: Adam Driver Season 45)
Cecily never acts alone in “The Science Room,” which always takes a recurring sketch to the next level. Lonnie, a young girl who is a student on the fictional PBS learning show, “The Science Room,” is always accompanied by TV classmate, Josh (played by Mikey Day), as the two are supposed to be learning classroom lessons about science. The host typically plays the teacher or professor teaching the lesson, who slowly becomes more and more irritated by Lonnie and Josh’s increasing inability to answer basic science questions. The students start out fairly quiet and timid as the sketch begins, but as the lesson goes on they become more and more confident in their incorrect answers, gradually egging each other on more and more. What Cecily brings to this sketch is her delightful face scrunching, as she thoughtfully listens to the questions and waits for her opportunities to impart the knowledge she does “know” (which most frequently includes sexual knowledge from her older sister, which she definitely doesn’t understand). Her eyebrows never stop moving as she thinks, answers, and reacts to the growing discontent of the teacher of the week. Mikey always delivers in this sketch too but hearing the PBS bump after returning from a commercial break always put a smile on my face knowing I was about to see Lonnie. This sketch could certainly continue with another student sitting in Lonnie’s seat, but Cecily’s passive energy will be hard to match.
Gemma (She’s Bri’ish) - (Host: Dwayne Johnson Season 42)
What’s fascinating about the Gemma sketches is that they’re just as much about Kenan Thompson’s “Gene” as they’re about Cecily’s “Gemma.” Gene, over the course of various seasons, is always on some kind of date, most frequently with his wife Lisa (a rare Vanessa Bayer straight man), that gets crashed by Gemma and whomever she happens to be dating at the time (played by the host). (The most recent Gemma sketch took place after Vanessa had left the show, and in that case, Gene was out “celebrating” his birthday just after his wife had left him.) The Gemma sketches are all fairly similar in that Gemma introduces herself as “Bri’ish,” her paramour remarks that her British accent gets him some variation of “rock hard” and questions Gene on whether or not she’s having the same effect on him, and then Gemma sings a song to a house beat that everyone in the sketch seems to enjoy, despite their initial distaste with her and her partner’s presence. It’s an extremely basic sketch premise, but why it works every time is Cecily’s commitment to Gemma’s authenticity. She may come off as a bit of a bimbo, but she’s really only there to have a good time and pump up the women around her. “Girl Power” and all that. Plus, the sketch linked above, gave Cecily another opportunity in which to interact with an adorable animal (in this case, a piglet), to showcase Cecily’s love of animals (most of her tenure in the cast credits was bolstered by her interacting with her own dog, Lucy). Gemma’s just a great character that always gave the host something fun to do, all the while letting stone-faced Kenan and Cecily the air time to consistently make the audience laugh. Drop her a beat! Ooonce, ooonce, ooonce….
“Love at First Sight” (Host: Chance the Rapper Season 45)
This sketch was a one-off, but boy did it leave a lasting impression on me. Cecily stars as a woman named Jennifer who is brokenhearted after a breakup. Her two friends (Ego Nwodim and Heidi Gardner) take her out to a fancy restaurant to cheer her up where Chance the Rapper’s “William” spies her from across the bar. They experience “Love at First Sight” which in this case means they begin to float mere feet above the floor. (The clip above is posted from the dress rehearsal, but if you can imagine that sketch being even more chaotic, that’s what the live taping captured.) As they’re floating, they move about the restaurant knocking everything over in their path, up until they share their first kiss…which sends William back to the ground. “Was my kiss weird?” Jennifer asks. “Nah, it was good. (?)” William responds. “Well, then come back up here, where all the love is.” “Please don’t pull my arm.” The entire exchange is awkward, stilted, and hilarious, made all the funnier by their extremely visible harness and stage wires. There’s even a button on the sketch that I won’t mention here that makes you realize and appreciate how a person like Jennifer continues to find herself in situations like this. This is one of those SNL sketches that you’re so happy they pursued after it was initially pitched, one that could have just as easily wound up on the cutting room floor. When thinking of Cecily’s greatest hits, this one stands out because it’s so different from her recurring sketches, and it’s the perfect blend of simple concept and high execution.
"Weekend Update: Goober the Clown on Abortion"
(Host: Kieran Culkin Season 47)
I can hardly believe “Goober the Clown” has only been around for one year (debuting on the November 6th, 2021 “Weekend Update”), and, sadly, that means that Cecily has only been on the proverbial map for a year. When Goober the Clown made a statement, following Texas’ decision to instill a six-week abortion ban over a year ago, a shock went through not only the comedy world but the entire news cycle. Cecily…I mean, Goober tells her story of getting an abortion the day before her 23rd birthday all while “clowning around” with water gags, balloon animals, and a spinning bowtie. She says it’s to make the subject more palatable, and that she’s tired of talking about her clown abortion, but she feels like she has to in the wake of the country’s burgeoning abortion bans. Plenty of television shows have covered the topic of abortion, but people rarely speak out on national television about their own, deeply personal experiences. Colin Jost (one of “Update’s” co-hosts and Cecily’s very close friend) tells her that she doesn’t have to do this, but Goober insists that she must. And as she does, she goes down in history as one of the bravest (if not the most brave) SNL comedians to ever grace the stage. The segment will forever be remembered as one that transcends the medium and showcases Cecily’s brevity and brilliance.
“The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation with at a Party,” Judge Jeanine Pirro, but mainly, my favorite, Cathy Anne - "Weekend Update" Medley
When Cecily joined SNL, she spent one season as a featured player before moving up to a repertory status and joining Seth Meyers behind the “Weekend Update” desk as his co-host. But in that first season, she debuted one of her long-running characters: “The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation with at a Party.” It’s a classic impression of a dumb girl pretending to be smart, mispronouncing every other word, whose sole intent is to make herself look good while drunkenly stumbling through what would now be called “woke” talking points. Cecily didn’t get to continue portraying TGYWYHSaCwaaP (phew) behind the desk, however, once taking up her co-hosting duties. So, for her first year co-hosting “Update” with Seth, and the subsequent year of co-hosting with new co-host Colin Jost, Cecily was unable to reprise some of her most memorable characters. “Update” hosts rarely step down from their post, but in Cecily’s case she requested to do so so she would be able to play around in more sketches and get behind the desk in other capacities, and it couldn’t have been a better decision. When Cecily left “Update,” new co-host Michael Che stepped in and those two co-hosts are now the longest-running hosts of Weekend Update. I like to believe Cecily, in her “Update” absence, allowed it to grow into this new state of security.
It also allowed her to bring characters that she portrayed in other sketches (Marjorie Taylor Greene and Tulsi Gabbard included) back behind the desk. One of the best impressions Cecily ever perfected has to be Judge Jeanine Pirro, and most memorably her wine-sloshing interactions with Colin during Update solidified this interpretation. Each of Jeanine’s appearances is stellar, but the episode that gets the most play is her Season 46 finale appearance where Jeanine, after spilling nearly one full glass of wine on Colin (over the course of a few minutes), crawls over the desk to get into a large, clear box of wine that had been rolled up on the stage. She starts playfully scooping full glasses of wine out of the box while singing “I Did it My Way,” throwing the liquid over her shoulder, managing to hit Colin each time without even taking a glance over her shoulder. Her timing, and aim, are impeccable. At the end of the segment, she dunks her entire body into the wine. This ending, coupled with it being the season finale, got a lot of people talking about whether or not she would be leaving at the end of Season 46, but luckily we all know how that went.
For how good the sendoff would have been if Cecily would have signed off with Judge Jeanine, her last Update appearance couldn’t have been any better. Cathy Anne has been a longtime recurring character for Update, famously known as Che’s neighbor who has a lot of strong opinions on, well…everything. Cathy Anne does not shy away from the tough subjects, and she’ll tell you exactly what she thinks. Che always introduces her affectionately, however, and even for how gruff Cathy Anne can be, she’s playfully relatable through her flirting with Che and never being able to stop talking or gesturing long enough to ever get her cigarette lit. She’s quietly held the mantle of one of the best “Weekend Update” characters of the past few decades, easily holding the same tier of acclaim as, say, Bobby Moynihan’s “Drunk Uncle,” or Bill Hader’s “Stefon.” Cathy Anne is a quiet type of funny, one that’s almost as funny in her pauses as she is during her exclamations.
Similarly to how choked up I got when Kate McKinnon’s “Ms. Rafferty” finally joined the aliens in her final “Close Encounters” sketch last season, Cathy Anne’s last appearance really got me. It’s a special last “Update” appearance, and just like with her boxed wine Judge Jeanine segment, you can tell just how much Che and Colin love, admire, and respect her as a fellow comedian. In fact, Cecily gets a second goodbye in an additional sketch later which starts with the premise that she’s a Radio Shack manager that’s finally leaving the store, that morphs into a sketch where Austin Butler begins to croon “Blue Christmas” to her in signature Elvis fashion. Cecily is meant to chime in and sing alongside him, while members of the cast join her on stage as well, but she struggles to make it through chunks of the song at a time. The cast gathers around her, surrounding her in song, all the while she smiles and tries to keep it together. By the end, she’s singing once again, but it’s definitely no Judge Jeanine singing “My Way.” Her final episode is remarkably Cecily-light, but it’s during this “Blue Christmas” sketch that you realize that’s probably more for Cecily’s benefit than the alternative. She’s a professional, but she’s certainly not made of stone.
As a huge fan of Cecily Strong, and one who goes on the record saying I think she’s been the best cast member for years, I was teary-eyed throughout the entire episode. Rewatching the sketches while writing this article has only strengthened my love for her, and I’m so happy we were able to spend this past decade with her. The best SNL cast members always come back home eventually, and I so look forward to a few years from now when she graces that infamous stage and regales us with tales of all the wonderful and exciting things she’s been up to. Perhaps she’ll bring Gemma back, or we’ll get to see Lonnie sit for one more “Science Room” lesson, but I hope they keep Cathy Anne in prison. Because when Cathy Anne sat at that Update desk for the last time, she finally lit that cigarette. And what’s a better send-off than that?
Thank you, Cecily Strong.
Bernadette graduated from DePauw University in 2011 with a Film Studies degree she’s not currently using. She constantly consumes television, film, and all things pop culture and will never be full. She doesn’t tweet much, but give her a follow @BeaGorman and see if that changes.