Last year Kenan Thompson officially became the longest-running Saturday Night Live cast member, with 15 seasons under his belt. And, when he started on the show in 2003, he was the show’s youngest performer—a situation that seems worthy of some sort of SNL careerist medal.
Instead, this year he got his first Emmy nom focused entirely on acting–last year’s was shared with Chance the Rapper for their co-written comedy song “Last Christmas”. Of being recognized in the supporting comedy actor category this year he says, “To get into the mainstream makes me feel like I have a real career”—a typically funny riposte from a man who’s been a roaring success since his teenage ’90s stint on Nickelodeon’s All That and Kenan & Kel.
Thompson will certainly go down in SNL history for some of the show’s best-loved sketches, like “What Up With That?” and “Black Jeopardy!”, along with his impression of Steve Harvey hosting Family Feud, and great one-offs, like playing a New York club kid singing at a funeral with Scarlett Johansson.
Speaking from his home, where his family are mid-photo shoot with his brand new baby daughter, he says he’d happily stay on the show “forever,” but also has dreams of his own production company, and maybe even a crossover into dramatic film. “I would love to take the Tom Hanks approach,” he laughs. “Do a bunch of comedy and then turn into the biggest movie star ever. That would be so awesome.”
Historically you haven’t seemed to push yourself forward as the ‘star of the show’ on SNL. Do you think of yourself as an introvert?
I’m really not necessarily introverted, I just tend to stay very chill. It’s the Taurus in me. I just noticed that it seemed to be a very stressful position to be in when you were the go-to guy every week at the time. To me it seemed overwhelming. But as I’ve grown into the show, I’ve been able to relax into that kind of responsibility more and more. But I’ve noticed it can stress people out. It’s nothing I necessarily wanted to rush into because I didn’t want to spoil my experience there, because I think it is such an awesome job. Comedy is hard, it’s really hard.
When you first came to LA for work on Nickelodeon, I believe you tried stand-up a little bit. Why do you think it didn’t stick with you long-term?
I never really tried it honestly. I was more just a fan, going to the comedy clubs every week, just because I was a fan of stand-up. I never really got up on stage until I was already on SNL and everything.
When I first moved to LA I was 18 years old, so I didn’t really know what the hustle of a stand-up comedian’s life was really like. Getting a glimpse at that, I kind of respected it and I didn’t want to do something that I wasn’t going to be fully committed to standing next to those guys. I always respected Richard Pryor, and Eddie Murphy, and all those guys. Martin Lawrence, and Dave Chappelle, and George Carlin, and Jim Carrey, Ellen DeGeneres, Bill Burr, I could just go down the list because I watch them all. As far as me getting up on stage, I didn’t really have the time to dedicate towards it. Maybe I was being lazy.
What were the comedies you grew up on as a kid?
I grew up on ‘80s television sitcoms, so Different Strokes, The Facts of Life, The Cosby Show, A Different World, Family Ties, Silver Spoons, and that good stuff—just good old classic, four-camera sitcom life. And The Price is Right, of course.
Why is sketch comedy your sweet spot? What is it about that format that really speaks to you?
I guess I’m able to just go in and out of so many different things without it affecting my personal life. I feel like stand-up is such a personal thing, and a lot of great stand-ups like Jerry Seinfeld kind of just spend their time talking about what bothers them, you know what I mean? It seems to be occupying a lot of their day—like, “I’m bothered by this,” or “I don’t get that.” Where a sketch is concerned, you just throw on that Superman costume, do that voice, and you know, you’re done when it’s done.
As the person with the longest SNL tenure now, do you feel that recognition from your castmates?
I mean, yeah, somewhat. I try to help whoever asks for help or whatever. Or if I see something that I think could help a sketch, then I’ll try to voice my opinion on that, but that’s only been recent. But every cast member that comes in there, if they get the job, they’re ready to do it so they don’t need much advice.
There’s been this cultural shift in terms of diversity, including within the SNL cast and writers. If this industry improvement had begun sooner, how do you think your career might have been different, if at all?
That’s a good question. I don’t really know. It wasn’t necessarily a diversity thing that got me into auditioning for SNL. It was kind of like they were finally ready to look for people like myself, or I had finally matured to where they felt like I didn’t have the same baby face anymore. As far as my work on the show, I’ve always tried to keep work kind of like, if you were blind and listening to it, you could still laugh without thinking to yourself, I’m laughing at a black character. So even if the diversity thing happened earlier, I would have still been on the same page that I was on. Basically just trying to do the best work as an actor that I can do, and being a professional actor, or being a professional performer, or an artist of any kind, you want to be free to do whatever you want. I was always in the mind state of being able to be free to play any character that I could, as long as it was funny.
But there was a somewhat quiet period for you between leaving Nickelodeon and getting hired on SNL—so do you think it would have been easier to get work if there had been less industry prejudice at the time?
It wasn’t a diversity thing that was keeping me from SNL. Black people misconstrue that because I keep saying that it was like ‘black guy hiring time’, but that was just a joke. It was basically because Tracy Morgan left such a void in the show, so they were looking to fill that basically. That’s all.
You’ve previously described your preference for the ‘jolly’ work, but do you ever see yourself doing a big dramatic feature?
Yeah it would be awesome. I mean, I could totally do it. I grew up doing very serious theater in high school, it’s just my on-camera persona has always been very jolly and comedy. If I’m going to do comedy, I’d much rather it be fun than exhausting. You want it to be smart, but if it’s starting to stress me out then I’d rather not. I’d rather do something else.
What are some of your best memories of the show?
There are so many. From the first time I saw U2 do the show and Bono had this neon circle microphone he was swinging around on, that I thought was one the coolest things I’d ever seen. Paul McCartney doing extra songs after the show went off, just for the people that were there, that kind of sh*t was epic. Just so many different awesome things. Even Ashlee Simpson’s moment, that was crazy to witness.
Performance-wise, my first moment thanks to Maya Rudolph, the little Bill Cosby and Wanda Sykes awkwardness at the Emmys that we did was incredible to me. My first bomb, when I just flubbed my lines so hard and I was so nervous I couldn’t even ad lib out of the situation. I heard an audible “Aww” from one lady in the audience. Because those are learning lessons. All of the “Black Jeopardies”. By the time we were doing them we were in such a groove of knowing what our comic voice was that worked on the show, as far as doing humor that had anything to do with black culture’s concerns, it just felt great to communicate what we thought was funny the right way.
Do you think you’ll stay?
They’re like my big giant family. It’s spending quality time and doing quality work with quality people. If it was possible I’d stay forever and just retire as the one guy that never left, basically. I’d be totally fine with that, but at the same time I still have aspirations.
What are they?
I’ve always wanted to be like a Steven Spielberg type, where I have my own DreamWorks Studios/Tyler Perry situation going on. You know what I mean? I’m big about trying to get other things going for other people. I think I’d be good at that.
If none of this had ever happened to you, what do you think you’d be doing for a job?
Man, that’s a great question. I don’t know, there’s so many jobs out there. I’m pretty smart, so I don’t know if I’d necessarily be at MIT or something, but I think I’d be doing pretty good wherever I was. I’ve thought about being on like SWAT or something. A super duper sharp-shooter.