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Writer Chris Kelly on the Magic of ‘Saturday Night Live’s’ Kate McKinnon

Kate McKinnon Chris Kelly New York
McKinnon: Rex/Shutterstock

For Variety’s latest issue, we asked former “Saturday Night Live” writer Chris Kelly to pen a tribute to Kate McKinnon, one of 50 people to make our New Power of New York list. Here’s why McKinnon represents a new generation of movers and shakers that capture the best of Manhattan. For the full list, click here.

When you’re a writer at “Saturday Night Live,” you usually watch the show from a monitor backstage in between making tweaks to another sketch. But occasionally, there’s something you have to watch from the floor. You just know you’re going to want to have seen it live. And for me, those sketches are called Kate McKinnon Sketches.

Whether she’s playing a frank Midwesterner describing an alien abduction in graphic detail, or smiling enthusiastically as any number of weirdos on “Weekend Update,” or accompanying herself on the piano while singing “Hallelujah” just days after the election, it’s always inspiring to watch her live. She’s just so commanding and weird, confident and slippery. There’s no one else like her.

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I’ve written hundreds of sketches with Kate, and still, during almost every show, I turn to my co-writer Sarah Schneider and say, “She’s incredible.” Because there’s nothing she can’t do, and no sketch she doesn’t make better. I cannot tell you how many times we’ve sent Kate out with writing we worried wasn’t quite there, only to watch her wring a laugh out of every sentence — and sometimes word. Kate can trick an audience into thinking they’re hearing good writing, and for that I love her.

But what people don’t see is how tireless she is behind the scenes. When we do music videos, she brings in instruments and writes the melody. When we rework political pieces on Friday nights, she stays until 4 a.m. rewriting with us, and then on the way home, texts us still more, better jokes. She just cares so deeply that the work is good but doesn’t ever want or need credit. And that is why, when she finally reads this, she’ll say, “No, no, I did nothing. It’s all you guys.”

But it’s not. It’s her.

Iveta Karpathyova for Variety

Chris Kelly left “Saturday Night Live” recently after six years with the show. Read the rest of our New Power of New York list.