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Q&A: “Saturday Night Live’s” Cecily Strong

Ahead of her Friday improv show at Arlington Drafthouse, the comedian talks creating characters, cheesy jokes, and how SNL is like summer camp.

Photograph of Strong courtesy of LEG Management.

During its nearly four decades on the air, Saturday Night Live has brought us some indelible characters. Stefon. Mary Katherine Gallagher. Matt Foley. Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party.

Okay, the last might not yet have achieved icon status, but the ditz-with-a-faux-conscience character—a creation of new cast member and Oak Park, Illinois native Cecily Strong—made quite a splash with audiences. (Rolling Stone called it “flat-out brilliant.”) Strong, like current comedy queens Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, came up through Chicago’s Second City improv troupe before landing at SNL last year, and is at the Arlington Cinema & Drafthouse this Friday and Saturday to perform a new comedy show she wrote with fellow Second City alum Sam Richardson.

We chatted with Strong by phone about the new show, our collective problem with navel-gazing, and wanting to be Amy Poehler.

What’s the schedule for today?

I’m still in New York, for three more hours, and then Sam and I are getting on the Amtrak and heading to Arlington.

Have you been in the area much before?

Both of us have—we toured with Second City, so we’ve been to Arlington a couple times, my grandma lived in Arlington, and both my [other] grandparents are in Arlington National Cemetery.

What can you tell me about this weekend’s show?

We’re trying to do a bit more sketch than originally planned. Sam and I are such good friends, it’s fun to get to write with each other. This is going to be the first time Sam and I are doing this show, so we’re in it together with this audience, trying to figure this show out. We’ll both do some solo character work, sketches, some improv games, some basic improv, and longform montage. Some audience interaction, so there’ll be some Arlington folks onstage with us.

But it won’t be your characters from SNL, right?

I don’t think we’re even allowed to do that! There could be future SNL characters on this show. And some of it is from my SNL audition, some characters from the auditions.

Where do you find inspiration for your characters?

I think it’s so on a day-to-day basis. You’re talking with your friends and they’ll laugh, and you think, “That’s a funny character idea.” It’s so spur of the moment and collaborative sometimes: Who have I seen on the street? Especially in New York, since there are so many people who live there, it’s great for people-watching.

Do your friends ever get nervous that things they say will end up in one of your bits?

I think there have been a couple times when people said, “Oh, you’re going to use that, aren’t you?” But if I did they would be probably secretly be so flattered.

How did you come up with your most well-known character, Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party?

That was also very collaborative, that voice and her affectation—it was something I played with but never defined so much as in the first episode we did it. I think it came from growing up in liberal circles, where everybody has their own blog, their own platform. There’s so much more bad information than good information out there—everybody’s got something to say and it’s usually wrong. I remember I was talking to this other reporter recently, and he described it as, “Instead of encyclopedic it’s Wikipedic knowledge.”

The thing that hit home for me was how she checks her phone mid-conversation, because that’s the norm now.

So much of our life now is social media. For a while I would yell at my parents, “It’s for my job!” But it’s half that I’m addicted.

So you do Facebook and Twitter and all that?

I do Twitter, but I’m still not great on it—I’m not good at writing short little jokes, so my Twitter’s not really a jokey thing. Facebook I would say I try to keep my most personal. Instagram and Twitter are both ones I have completely public. I like Instagram—I love pictures, I just don’t take them very often.

Speaking of jokes, do you have a go-to that you tell people?

I don’t really, it’s more just things that make me laugh, like me being someone’s uncle and making a pun and just cracking myself up. In New York there was this big sign for a new app, Hailo, which is for hailing cabs. So I started singing that Beyoncé song “Halo”—“I can see your halo, halo . . .”—and then I said, “I wonder if they asked Beyoncé if they could use it and she said, ‘Hail, no!’” That made me laugh so much. It’s the worst joke ever; the rest of the cab was silent except for me. I probably won’t be performing any of those.

Can you tell me about your experience with SNL so far?

It’s nice coming off and getting to celebrate this summer. I’ve never been happier my entire life—it’s a dream come true, and I feel lucky that I got to do as much as I did last year. It’s such a gamble, too, because you don’t know how you’ll be introduced to a national audience, and you don’t know how a live audience is going to take you, and they’re changing cue cards in front of you—you’re on air as they’re cutting things from the cards, which is a terrifying moment. So it’s high anxiety, but the payoff is so great. All the people I worked with couldn’t have been any nicer.

You knew a couple of SNL cast members from Second City beforehand.

The only ones I knew were Aidy [Bryant] and Tim [Robinson]—we all went in with each other. They told us, “You’re like a family for life when you go in together,” and we do feel that way.

Do you find you have a different rapport with them than with other cast members?

A tiny bit, but not really. I’ve made so many different friendships—I loved writing with Vanessa [Bayer] and Bobby [Moynihan]; you just find who you click with. 

Does the cast have to do any kind of bonding exercises to get to know each other, like you do at summer camp?

No! That would be so funny. It is like camp—you’re stuck with people every hour of your day, so it is like a bonding exercise, a ropes course, being stuck with people on the 17th floor of 30 Rock all day.

You’re following in the footsteps of some very big-name female comedians. Is there one in particular whose career you’d like to emulate?

I’m so humbled by it, I wouldn’t put my name with any of them. Having Kristen [Wiig] do a scene with me, I wanted to cry after. I’m such a huge fan of Amy [Poehler]; I got to meet her a little bit, and in all of her interviews, she’s so friendly and such a class act. If there’s a person I most want to be, I’d like to be like her—she’s so funny and kind and smart, and doesn’t ever seem to slip up and say something mean or catty or sell herself short.

Do you also hope to get into movies and scripted TV?

Absolutely. I’m doing some screenwriting, which I’ve never done before, and doing SNL is such a good boot camp for making you write when you think you’re just a performer. And Sam and I have written the whole show for this weekend.

Anything else people should know about this weekend’s show?

Just that it’s gonna be as new and fresh to me as it will be to the audience. We’re doing some weirder scenes, which are good for comedy snobs, and some more mainstream stuff for the general comedy audience, so hopefully it works out. Hopefully everyone has fun, including us.

Cecily Strong performs at Arlington Cinema & Drafthouse Friday, July 12, at 7:15 and 9:45, and Saturday, July 13, at 4:30 and 7:30. Tickets ($15 to $20) are available online.