You were one of three new members who joined the cast of Saturday Night Live this season. What was the best advice you received before you stepped out on the stage?
[SNL cast member] Bill Hader took the three of us out to dinner—he does it for all the new cast members. He’s the most supportive, friendly person, and he told us it’s OK to feel anxious about the job. It was really nice to know that it’s normal to feel so nervous. He said Amy Poehler took him to the same kind of dinner.
SNL has a long tradition of elevating young female comics. Is that something you thought about when, at 28, you joined the cast?
I feel really lucky to be doing comedy right now because women like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Kristen Wiig have opened so many doors. Because of them, people want to hear my voice as a woman and see well-rounded female characters who aren’t just the funny girlfriend commenting on how crazy her boyfriend is.
How did it feel when you auditioned last summer in front of Lorne Michaels, the creator and producer?
It was so insane. You know, you always tell yourself, “I’m never going to get SNL. Nobody gets SNL.” When Lorne Michaels came to a showcase at [Chicago improv theatre] IO, my parents were sitting right in front of him. I think they were more nervous than I was, because when I got offstage their faces were completely white. I thought, Oh my God, I totally screwed this up.
How did the audition process unfold from there?
I was flown out to New York four times over two months, twice for screen tests and twice for meetings. I cried every single time I got a call—I’m just a total emotional weenie. The first time I went out, I had to perform for Lorne and some of the writers. Later they also made me hang out for an hour and a half; they want to make sure you can hang. It was just a total whirlwind.
One of your characters—Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation with at a Party—has become a sensation. What’s that like?
You have to take it in stride. It’s really exciting, and I feel really lucky. But I don’t want to think about it too much. Anything can change.
Was that character inspired by the ladies you met at the Wrigleyville John Barleycorn over the years?
[Laughs.] It’s a mix of a lot of people—including myself, unfortunately. But it came about when I was talking to one of the writers, Colin Jost. And I said something that sounded like a drunk-girl ramble. And we just started riffing on that. And as it turns out, I’m not the only one who’s had a conversation with this type of girl.
Did anyone in your family always crack you up at the dinner table?
My parents are really funny. Laughter was a big part of my childhood. Of course, they tell a lot of bad jokes—but so do I. I tell a lot of bad jokes.
Were you the funny girl when you were in school?
I was voted funniest person in my middle-school yearbook. So I guess I was funny in middle school? I had a tough time in high school [Strong went to Oak Park and River Forest High School, then transferred to the Chicago Academy for the Arts]. It sounds so clichéd, but I’ve always been kind of different. I always liked being around weird kids.
You went to the California Institute of Arts to study theatre. What made you transition from acting to comedy?
My drama instructor suggested I try comedy. I was resistant at first because I considered myself a serious actor, but of course I fell in love with it.
How would you characterize the training experience in Chicago, which you experienced when you moved back after college?
It really ends up taking over your whole life. If you’re not in classes or performing, you’re going to see shows. And I also had to keep, like, four jobs to support myself. [But] Chicago has a real ensemble feel. It’s funny—since we [Strong, Aidy Bryant, and Tim Robinson, who all played at IO and Second City] got hired on SNL, it seems like there’s a lot more standup comedy in Chicago. As they say, there’s blood in the water.
SNL cast members are known for their impressions. Who might you attempt next?
It’s tough to say; I don’t think of myself as an impressionist. The only good characters I do are Katharine Hepburn and Judy Garland. I’ve also always wanted to do Nancy Reagan hosting a talk show. That sounds hilarious to me.
Has Tina Fey given you any advice?
No, but we had an awkward hug. I’m terribly awkward.
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Claim to Fame
This season, more SNL cast members have ties to Chicago than any other city. Here’s a look at the locals.
Played in the Chicago band Trenchmouth
Performed at IO, the Annoyance, Zanies, and Second City
Columbia College grad; IO and Second City performer
Evanston raised; Northwestern grad
Alum of Second City
Alum of Second City, IO, and the Annoyance