Kate McKinnon nears end of ‘Saturday Night Live’ contract (EXCLUSIVE)

Saturday Night Live” fans will scan the next episodes of the show for all the usual stuff: the surprise guests in the cold open and the kooky characters who pop up during “Weekend Update.” But they may want to focus on something else.

Kate McKinnon, the popular “SNL” cast member who has won plaudits for her impressions of everyone from Hilary Clinton to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, is nearing the end of her contract with the show, according to two people familiar with the matter. And while her representatives and “SNL” producers are working to find a way to keep her appearing on the program, it’s entirely possible McKinnon’s sketches over the next few weeks could be her last as a full-time member of the “SNL” cast.

A spokeswoman for “Saturday Night Live” declined to comment. “SNL” has three original broadcasts left in its 44th season.

McKinnon, who has appeared in several movies and in ads for Ford during her seven-year stint on “SNL,” has an intriguing new project on the horizon. She is slated to star in a dramatic limited-series about disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes. McKinnon would also executive produce the series, which is being eyed by Hulu for possible inclusion in its streaming-video lineup. Taking part in that venture could limit her ability to appear on “SNL” full-time next season, according to these people.

Talks between McKinnon and “SNL” are described as “fluid,” these people said, and a decision on the matter may not come until just before the show launches its 45th season in the fall. “SNL” executive producer Lorne Michaels typically doesn’t unveil changes to the program’s cast until the days before the start of the season. These people say McKinnon and Michaels have a strong relationship. Indeed, McKinnon and her sister, stand-up comic Emily Lynne, are set to launch a podcast through Michaels’ Broadway Video banner. Ultimately, however, these people suggest a decision may ultimately hinge on the array of projects available to McKinnon in months to come.

Michaels has persuaded other members of the cast to stay longer than they expected. Jason Sudeikis, a versatile cast member, mulled departing after the show’s 37th season, in the spring of 2012. Sudeikis, however, was known for an impersonation of Mitt Romney, the current senator from Utah who was the Republican candidate for president in the 2012 election. Sudeikis stayed for another cycle on the series.

McKinnon’s work resounds beyond the program, says Danna Young, an associate professor of communication and political science at the University of Delaware who has studied the effects of late-night humor on popular discourse. She has developed into a stand-out during her “SNL” tenure, not only for her bizarre impressions of newsmakers like Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions,  but for oddball characters like Sheila Sovage, the late-night barfly who ends up in nauseating make-out sessions, or Colleen Rafferty, a woman who is regularly abducted and abused in strange ways by aliens.

“McKinnon’s rise at ‘Saturday night Live’ has coincided with a new era of feminism and conversations about female empowerment and gender fluidity,” said Young. “Her status as one of the preeminent celebrity impersonators — not just female impersonations, but ‘person’ impersonations — embodies the spirit of this cultural moment. Just as today’s comics mention Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor as influences, I have no doubt that for decades to come we’re going to learn of female comics and character actors who were inspired watching Kate McKinnon as they were growing up.”

Other cast members are also juggling non-“SNL” projects. Kenan Thompson, a veteran member of the show, has taken up producer duties on a revival of the Nickelodeon sketch series “All That” and is involved in a sitcom in development being produced by Michaels’ Broadway Video. Aidy Bryant has gotten some notice for “Shrill,” a new Hulu series that also involved Michaels and has been renewed for a second season. Heidi Gardner, a featured player who has been getting more on-air time on “SNL,” recently appeared in an episode of HBO’s “Veep.”

The idea of a possible McKinnon departure is likely to spur a new round of debate about the direction of “SNL” that takes place whenever a popular cast member decides to pursue other projects.

At some moments, such concern has been warranted. The departures of Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg in 2012, followed by Sudeikis several months later, deprived “SNL” of some popular faces while the show was building up new cast members. But concern about “SNL’s” health in the summer of 2016 after Taran Killam and Jay Pharoah left for other projects proved unwarranted: Buoyed by Alec Baldwin’s impression of Donald Trump and McKinnon’s work as Hillary Clinton, “SNL” went on to enjoy its most-watched season in more than 20 years.

In reality, few members of the “SNL” cast pull completely out of the show’s orbit. Michaels has over the show’s four-decade-plus history built a network of comics who honor the relationship they had with the venerable series by returning as hosts or guests. Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd, who became famous during the series’ early tenure, continue to make occasional appearances. Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers have hosted in recent seasons. Adam Sandler, who rose to fame on the show in the 1990s, is slated to host this weekend – the first time he had done so since his departure. Even Ben Stiller, who had a short tenure as a featured player on “SNL” in 1988 and 1989, has come back, playing a version of former Trump attorney Michael Cohen and nabbing more prominent screen time than he did in the past.

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Most successful SNL cast members, Saturday Night Live
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Most successful SNL cast members, Saturday Night Live
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 2 -- Aired 02/08/2001 -- Pictured: Will Ferrell as Alex Trebek during 'Jeopardy' skit (Photo by Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- 'Anne Hathaway' Episode 1535 -- Pictured: Tina Fey as Governor Sarah Palin during the 'Vice Presidential Debate' skit on October 4, 2008 (Photo by Dana Edelson/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 8 -- Aired 12/16/2000 -- Pictured: Jimmy Fallon during 'Weekend Update' on December 16, 2000 (Photo by Dana Edelson/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 8 -- Pictured: Eddie Murphy as Solomon during the 'Pudge & Solomon' skit on December 10, 1983 -- (Photo by: RM Lewis Jr./NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 17 -- Aired 04/14/2007 -- Pictured: Amy Poehler as Dakota Fanning during 'The Dakota Fanning Show' skit on April 14, 2007 (Photo by Dana Edelson/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 9 -- Aired 12/16/2006 -- Pictured: Andy Samberg as guy during 'Dick in a Box' skit on December 16, 2006 (Photo by Dana Edelson/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 9 -- Pictured: Host Steve Martin on January 21, 1978 -- (Photo by: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 14 -- Pictured: Bill Murray during 'Weekend Update' on March 10, 1979 -- (Photo by: Fred Bronson/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 7 -- Air Date 11/20/1993 -- Pictured: Adam Sandler as Brian during 'The Denise Show' skit on November 20, 1993 (Photo by Raymond Bonar/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 6 -- Pictured: Julia Louis-Dreyfus during the 'Saturday Night News' skit on November 19, 1983 -- (Photo by: Alan Singer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Pictured: Chevy Chase during 'Weekend Update' -- (Photo by: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- 'Josh Brolin' Episode 1536 -- Pictured: Kristen Wiig as Suze Orman during the 'The Suze Orman Show' skit on October 18, 2008 (Photo by Dana Edelson/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 10 -- Air Date 02/15/1986 -- Pictured: Robert Downey Jr. as Julian Lynch during the 'Models Against the Wilderness' skit on February 15, 1986 -- Photo by: Al Levine/NBCU Photo Bank
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 7 -- Air Date 12/03/1994 -- Pictured: Mike Myers as Rajneesh Singh during the 'Civil War Memories' skit on December 3, 1994 (Photo by Alan Singer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 8 -- Pictured: Chris Rock during the 'Weekend Update' skit on December 7, 1991 (Photo by Alan Singer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- 'Mick Jagger' Episode 1620 -- Pictured: (l-r) Bill Hader, Seth Meyers -- (Photo by: Dana Edelson/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
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