For the season premiere of Saturday Night Live in the fall of 2020, comedian Chloe Fineman put on a brown wig with long beachy waves, a bright floral blouse, and stretched her face into distinct, expertly crafted contortions. “I am just like you, a boho, free spirit, mommy, mother, movie star!” she exclaimed with pitch-perfect vocal fry, lovingly yet precisely skewering Drew Barrymore and her new talk show.
Fineman’s impersonations have been a compelling reason to watch SNL. Her ascent has coincided with one of the strangest periods in the history of the show, amid a seemingly endless pandemic and during one of the most polarizing election seasons in recent memory, with an audience still largely on lockdown. The 32-year-old’s chameleonic impressions have served as a tonic—some low-stakes levity when we’ve needed it most. On SNL, she’s done everyone from Timothée Chalamet to Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Follow her @chloeiscrazy on Instagram and you’ll see Nicole Kidman or former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. What sets her characterizations apart is the intent: There’s nothing mean-spirited about them. Barrymore, for one, saw Fineman’s imitation and wrote on her Instagram, “@chloeiscrazy is the greatest thing.”
A self-described “normal girl,” who grew up the middle child of three “competitive, psychopath Jewish daughters” in Berkeley, California, Fineman experienced her first brush with improv when she was a toddler. In tow for one of her father, David’s, improv classes, she ran onto the stage. As her dad carried her off, she burst into tears. “My dad was like, ‘Let’s get a cookie,’” she recalls. To which she replied, “I just want to finish my scene.” Later she would rent SNL’s “Best of” specials from Blockbuster and watch them with friends at sleepovers. “I still worship Molly Shannon,” she says.
Despite being drawn to sketch comedy so early, Fineman graduated from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts feeling somewhat rudderless. “So much of [school] was, you’re given a script, you’re just handed stuff,” Fineman says. She moved back home, where she was inspired by younger sister Emma’s creative streak (she’s a “psycho-crafter”). “You just have to find something you’re obsessed with,” her sister told her.
What Fineman found was the Piedmont Boutique, beloved by San Francisco drag queens and Burning Man devotees alike. She bought a short spiky black wig specifically for character-building. She put it on and drove around the city feeling utterly anonymous. It was a revelation. “No one really cared,” she remembers. She started taking improv classes at the famed Groundlings Theatre in Los Angeles and making “weird videos” on Instagram. They caught the attention of fellow Groundling Jordan Firstman, who cast her in a short film he was directing. “That was my first acting job, at 27,” Fineman says. “I really am the latest of bloomers.”
In 2017, she tried out for SNL in L.A., as part of a large showcase of comedians. The following spring, she flew to New York for the next round, with a group that included current castmates Ego Nwodim, Bowen Yang, and Lauren Holt. (She did impressions of Winona Ryder, comedian Hannah Gadsby, and then–gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon.) “We all auditioned together years ago,” she says, “and then slowly have been added to the soup.” (For luck, her aunt Eileen, a Buddhist who lives in Palm Springs, chanted for Fineman for five straight hours when she first took the stage to audition in New York. “I truly felt it,” Fineman says.) In the summer of 2019, Fineman finally got the call: She’d been cast in Saturday Night Live.
It’s been a steady rise ever since. Fineman capitalized on viral cultural moments with her impressions of Tiger King’s Carole Baskin (“I could just slap that woman!” Baskin said in response) and Bridgerton’s Phoebe Dynevor. “I think zeitgeist is the name of the game,” Fineman says. She got to say her first “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night” at the end of the cold open this past February, as part of a sketch in which she played her childhood hero Britney Spears. “I think naturally the people I want to do impressions of, I’m obsessed with them,” says Fineman. “And I find them wonderful, and want to share them with the world.”