Compared with last year’s Saturday Night Live Christmas show, when the extremely contagious Omicron coronavirus variant necessitated a reduced cast and crew, this year’s managed to avoid any major disruptions. But one piece of news, released mere hours before last night’s airing, delivered an unexpected turn: The show would be Cecily Strong’s last.
Rumors about Strong’s exit began swirling when her fellow cast members Kate McKinnon and Aidy Bryant (both of whom started with Strong in 2012) departed SNL in May. Strong stayed, but her final season on SNL didn’t exactly amount to a full one. Beginning in October, she missed the first three episodes while appearing in the one-woman show The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe; she returned at the end of the month for the Halloween episode.
After 11 seasons on SNL and without anyone else to share the farewell spotlight with, Strong got an emotional goodbye comparable to Kristen Wiig’s in 2012. Last night’s final sketch unfolded in a Radio Shack—an apt analogy for the once ubiquitous SNL. The store’s boss (played by Kenan Thompson) delivered a moving speech about Strong’s last day, saying, “Honestly, I don’t think Radio Shack could’ve survived this long without Cecily.” The scenery eventually pulled back to reveal SNL’s main stage, and the host, Austin Butler, joined Strong to sing “Blue Christmas” (Butler played the part of Elvis, his leading role in Baz Luhrmann’s recent film of the same name). The moment grew more poignant as the cast slowly joined them onstage, standing together arm in arm.
Unlike it has with past departures, SNL didn’t limit Strong’s adieu to that final scene; her talents were spread throughout the episode. She appeared in a number of sketches, including as one of her most well-known characters: the slurring miscreant Cathy Anne, who’s often told wild tales to Michael Che at the “Weekend Update” desk. She said goodbye last night, sharing how all of the crimes to which she’d confessed to Che over the years had finally landed her in prison. Strong developed that story into a metaphor about leaving the show. “I got friends on the inside,” she said, while a picture of McKinnon and Bryant in orange jumpsuits appeared. “They seem to be doing okay.”
Be they delinquent characters such as Cathy Anne or her spot-on impressions of Judge Jeanine Pirro and the Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, Strong always played these personas with a little bit of acid. Where other veterans such as McKinnon and Thompson built a gleeful jest into their character work, Strong dug for deeper, grittier stuff. Her curiosity produced much: She was consistently excellent, an invaluable trait for a show that wavers so much from one week to the next. In recent seasons, Strong also rose to the forefront as one of SNL’s loudest political voices on the subject of abortion. Appearing first as Goober the Clown and more recently as Tammy the Trucker, she defended women’s right to choose. On a show that often tries to walk the middle of the political aisle, her clear, resounding criticism felt notable and welcome.
The Christmas show turned out to be a bright spot in the season’s ongoing search for steadier footing. In one of the funnier moments of the night, Butler helped spoof It’s a Wonderful Life in a pretaped bit. The sketch exploded the trope of classic movie protagonists who realize the error of their ways through witnessing warm scenes in people’s homes. The premise flipped that perspective, zooming in on the family Butler stared at and tracing their horrified reaction to the “pervert lurking in our window.”
Strong’s absence leaves Thompson as the one of the few remaining members of the “old guard.” As the longest-running cast member, with 20 seasons under his belt, Thompson has experience that, compared with the rest of the cast’s, is staggering. Outside of the “Weekend Update” stalwarts Che and Colin Jost, many of the current cast members joined in 2018 or after. That’s a lot of still-developing talent to helm such an iconic ship.
At the start of last season, SNL had the largest cast it had ever seen. Now it has perhaps the newest. With this latest departure, the future continues to feel unsteady. Strong wasn’t the one pinning everything into place this season, but alongside Thompson, she added a certain gravitas. As he said in the Radio Shack scene, “Every time she came to work, she had a new character or a new accent or a new impression that would just blow you away. She had a power and a joy to her performance that made you remember why you loved working at Radio Shack in the first place.”