Kenan Thompson, who is in his 17th season as a performer on Saturday Night Live, covered a wide range of show lore in a 90-minute appearance Sunday at the New Yorker Festival.
The firing of debut cast member Shane Gillis in September before his first episode and after racist jokes and comments surfaced online, reflects the current “woke times,” Thompson said. The mood has changed since the 2016 presidential election, and the job of all comedians has fundamentally shifted, he maintained. “It’s very touchy out there,” he said. “It’s interesting to see things like that happen, whatever side of the argument you’re on. I don’t think any of us who work there go out with the intent to offend people or hurt anyone’s feelings. Matching with that ideology, that’s the brand [show producers and NBC] want to keep alive.”
Other topics covered in the conversation with the magazine’s Vinson Cunningham included the Twitter uproar over Thompson’s Emmy show selfies and comments about female comedians. Thompson also traced his unorthodox path from humble roots in Atlanta doing musical theater through winning roles on Nickelodeon’s All That and Disney’s The Mighty Ducks franchise. Current and future efforts, including forthcoming NBC sitcom The Kenan Show, also earned brief mentions.
SNL talk dominated the session, though, and Thompson weighed in on a range of aspects of the show. He addressed his favorite all-time hosts (Dave Chappelle and Tom Hanks), the agony of sketches cut for time (as in one on this past Saturday’s show, in which he played R. Kelly in a parody of The Masked Singer), and the joy of cast giggle fits on live TV. Asked to identify the best moment of his 17-year run, he said it’s “usually the shocking ones” that stay with him. He admitted liking “train wrecks” like Ashlee Simpson’s lip-syncing meltdown in 2004. “That was kind of crazy. I had never seen anything like that,” he marveled.
Thompson reflected on the backlash he has faced over his view of the show. In 2013, when the show’s cast was notably more white and male than it is today, he said during a TV Guide interview that when producers audition new talent, they struggle to discover African-American women. “They just never find ones that are ready,” he said.
In the New Yorker chat, he clarified the context of the remark, which was the historical lack of representation within the sketch-comedy world, especially at feeder troupes like the Groundlings. “The closest experience to doing [SNL] is in these improv houses, and the numbers are not like that,” he said. “And if you know that, then you know what I was trying to say. If you don’t know that, it sounds like I think, like they said, that black women aren’t funny, which is insane. Why would I dis my sisters like that? It’s crazy.” He noted that Leslie Jones became a close friend after she experienced the show’s idiosyncratic rigors from 2014 to 2019. “She would even echo it to me,” he said of his observation.
Even when representing the show during a triumphant moment, Thompson found himself on the wrong end of a social media barrage. During last month’s Emmy Awards telecast, as SNL claimed the trophy for Outstanding Variety Sketch Series, Thompson was seen onstage smiling and taking selfies onstage. The optics bothered many viewers, given that producer Lorne Michaels at the same moment was delivering a sober and stirring remembrance of Adam Sandler’s tribute to his late colleague Chris Farley.
Thompson apologized for the seemingly tone-deaf moment. By way of explanation, he said Sunday that it was just his second time appearing on the Emmy broadcast, following a stressful 2018 outing as both presenter and nominee during NBC’s Michaels-produced edition. More liberated this year on Fox’s broadcast, with just his one moment onstage, he said he was “super excited” and caught up in the celebration. As he snapped pics and gathered castmates and others into a group photo, he couldn’t hear what Michaels was saying in his speech. “I apologize to everybody,” he said. “It was just an awesome moment for me.”
While the conversation featured plenty of laughs, Thompson grew much more melancholy in recalling the fall from grace of his childhood and former career idol Bill Cosby. The comedian has played Cosby in jail on the show, and years earlier got “a peek behind the curtain” at the star’s more “raw” side while on the set of the 2004 remake of Fat Albert, which featured a Cosby cameo.
While he recognized that the squeaky-clean, wholesome dad version of Cosby was a superficial veneer, the conviction of the comedian on rape charges hit Thompson hard. “It’s one of the more heartbreaking things of my life,” he said. At 41, Thompson spent much of his life absorbing the Cosby story and being entertained and inspired by his comic voice. “He was the first comedian I grew to know, and kind of talking about what comedy is.”
Cosby even indirectly gave Thompson his start on SNL. The comedian recalled that his first moment on the show was playing Cosby in a sketch spoofing Cosby’s gruff response to Wanda Sykes when Sykes did crowd work as one of multiple hosts of the 2003 Emmy Awards. Because of all of his ties to Cosby’s career, Thompson said, it was “very near to my life when it all came crashing down.” He didn’t find it difficult to imitate Cosby behind bars, however. “My job is to hold a mirror up to life,” he said.
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