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In Serious Times, Heidi Gardner's Kansas City Sensibility Helps Make 'SNL' Funny

Steven Molina
Heidi Gardner (center left) as Representative Abigail Spanberger on the set of Saturday Night Live.

Saturday Night Live cast member Heidi Gardner understands that times are hard. The native Kansas Citian says she’s regularly approached and thanked for a funny line or the tackling of a tough issue, even when she wasn’t directly involved with the bit.

“People really need to laugh, because the current political climate is so crazy,” she said.

Gardner, who’s responsible for flipping the switch at the city's annual Plaza lighting ceremony on Thursday, doesn’t typically play political figures, though she has portrayed Abigail “Say My Name” Spanberger, a former CIA case officer and representative from Virginia.

She joined Saturday Night Live in 2017, after a lifetime of admiring the other performers, and now sees first-hand how the show walks a fine line when exploring the funny side of political and other sensitive news items.

Only months after Gardner became a cast member, at the outset of the #metoo movement, her female castmates did a skit about a girl band dressed in pink and silver — except they sing: “Oh, and this ain’t a girl group, we just travel in a pack for safety.”

Their song is called “Welcome to Hell,” inviting men into a woman’s world of hyper-vigilance and second-guessing their actions out of self-preservation.

One line goes: “Here’s a list of stuff that’s ruined for us parking and walking and Uber and ponytails, bathrooms and night time and drinking and hotels and vans.”

Gardner was cast as the male predator the women are singing to. She’s wearing a trench coat and mustache like the detective from the Pink Panther or Inspector Gadget, but in a 1980s flasher way.

Gardner said the seriousness of the message was hard to see from the set while she lurked in shadows and placed a white kitten out as bait for would-be victims. But she can, of course, see how the skit functioned for viewers.

“It’s the weird thing where it’s like you’ve been living in this hell, then someone finally comments on it, and it’s like this big breath of fresh air, and I don’t know if you want to laugh or cry, but you’re right,” she said.

Whatever the topic, that’s the power of the show, now in its 44th season. The cast has formed a safe space that allows everyone the freedom to talk about a wide range of feelings and ideas.

“I know it’s cheesy, but there’s a sisterhood with all of us,” she said.

But the nature of that relationship isn’t a perk of the job, it has a purpose. The more trust the cast members can have in each other, the deeper they’re able to dive into current issues facing their viewers.

That sisterhood is the source of characters and stories that truly resonate. Each member of the team, Gardner said, contributes his or her take on the world, which gives each character depth as well.

Her own contributions and work ethic are rooted in her Kansas City upbringing. Around the set, Gardner is asked pretty regularly if she’s from the Midwest. People see that there’s nothing entitled about her.

“I think by growing up in Kansas City with a mom who always had two or three jobs, you know, parents that were … nothing was necessarily comfortable,” she said. “I saw people work hard just to be able to go to the movies on a Friday night.”

Heidi Gardner spoke with KCUR on a recent edition of Central Standard. Listen to the conversation here.

Follow KCUR contributor Anne Kniggendorf on Twitter, @AnneKniggendorf.

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. Follow her on Twitter, @annekniggendorf.
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