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Kenan Thompson Becomes Longest-Serving Cast Member On SNL


And I'm resisting the urge to give you a primal scream. We will instead talk about comedian Kenan Thompson, who has achieved a milestone. He is now the longest-serving cast member of "Saturday Night Live" in the 43-season history of that show. NPR's Eric Deggans met Thompson backstage.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hours before Kenan Thompson will rehearse a sketch with guest host Ryan Gosling, he gets a little touch-up on his haircut inside his closet-sized dressing room at "Saturday Night Live's" studio in 30 Rockefeller Center. It's the Thursday before "SNL's" season premiere last week. The show returned from summer break after its most successful season in decades and a big win at the Emmy Awards for best variety sketch show. Humble and soft-spoken, Thompson seemed surprisingly relaxed. He said the show's success last season came from providing great satire of the Trump administration just when America needed to see it.

KENAN THOMPSON: It was just that everybody was on the same page. That's what it was. You know what I'm saying? Like, when everybody's on the same page, everybody can hear the joke coming, and they can enjoy it. We're healing, like, a lot of wounds that people have to live with throughout their day. And they finally get to a Saturday night, and they can patch it up a little bit and go back to Monday.

DEGGANS: The week is also significant for Thompson, who edges out impressionist Darrell Hammond as the show's longest-serving cast member. According to the fan website SNL Archives, Thompson's also performed the most impressions on the show at 126. Some highlights include retired Boston Red Sox star David Big Papi Ortiz...


THOMPSON: (As David Ortiz) Do you like basketball and football but they too fun and fast?


THOMPSON: (As David Ortiz) Try baseball.

DEGGANS: ..."Family Feud" host Steve Harvey...


THOMPSON: (As Steve Harvey) Welcome to "Celebrity Family Feud." Y'all like this suit? It's the first suit made by Hennessy.

DEGGANS: ...And civil rights leader/MSNBC anchor Al Sharpton.


THOMPSON: (As Al Sharpton) This Eric Garner decision has upset me so much that in three days, I have gained over 100 pounds.


DEGGANS: All this leads to a natural question - how has he stayed so funny on "SNL" for so long?

THOMPSON: Man, I wish I could say, man. Like, it was a blessing just to get the job, you know I mean? Like, everything is so up in the air week by week, year by year in a place like this.

DEGGANS: Bryan Tucker, the co-head writer for "SNL" and a longtime collaborator of Thompson's, offers a few ideas.

BRYAN TUCKER: I think the biggest thing it takes is to have your own distinct voice that other people don't do. And then a willingness to do what we call, like, playing service. You know, stepping aside and letting someone else be the star. And when you come in in your three or four lines, you make them count.

DEGGANS: Finding that distinct voice is an important moment for an "SNL" cast member, that moment they click with the material, the audience and the times. And that moment came for Thompson in 2009 thanks to the sketch called "What's Up With That."


WILL FORTE: (As announcer) It's "What's Up With That," tackling the issues of today with soul.

DEGGANS: The sketch itself is a fake talk show where three completely random guests wait for Thompson as host Deondre Cole to finish singing the theme song. But the joke is he never really stops.


THOMPSON: (As Deondre Cole, singing) I woke up this morning and I got out of bed, had a big old cup of coffee...

DEGGANS: After years of searching for a breakout bit, the sketch was a triumph for Thompson. And his co-workers knew it.

TUCKER: He finished. The audience clapped. And then a bunch of "SNL" staff kind of applauded and gave him a high-five. You know, it's pretty rare I see that at "SNL," that everybody just decides, you know, we're going to acknowledge this for one person. And it was kind of a celebration of Kenan.

DEGGANS: Since then, Thompson has become one of the best sketch comedy actors on TV. He consistently knows how to score a laugh often just by making a face. The Atlanta native learned his comedy chops as a teen in local theater and then on Nickelodeon, where he starred on the mid-'90s sketch comedy show "All That" and then co-led a little sitcom called "Kenan And Kel."


COOLIO: (Rapping) Everybody out there go run and tell your homeboys and home girls it's time for Kenan and Kel.

THOMPSON: I was always very, like, professional in the approach to this, you know what I'm saying? And so it was never about what this could bring me. It was always just about, like, servicing whatever product I was doing.

DEGGANS: Thompson's had roles in films like "Fat Albert" and "The Smurfs." And at age 39 he's gone from joining "SNL" as the youngest cast member in 2003 to being the second-oldest this fall, encouraging his cast mates and guest hosts with the knowledge that he's gained from years on the stage. "SNL's" co-head writer Tucker remains surprised Thompson hasn't broken out into bigger stardom like former cast mates Tina Fey, Fred Armisen and Kristen Wiig.

TUCKER: Frankly, I often get a little frustrated that he hasn't broken out because I think he has this thing where you just like him no matter what he does. And I feel like that could translate to lots of other things.

DEGGANS: But Thompson evokes uber-producers like Brian Grazer when asked what he'd like to do next. A devoted husband and father, he's less concerned with superstardom than steady, quality work, perhaps another reason he's lasted longer than anyone else in one of the toughest jobs in show business. I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.