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In His 15th Season At 'SNL,' Kenan Thompson Still Knows How To Play It Funny

Thompson seems less concerned with superstardom than steady, quality work. (The actor is pictured here at a No Kid Hungry event in New York City earlier this year.)
Astrid Stawiarz
Getty Images for No Kid Hungry
Thompson seems less concerned with superstardom than steady, quality work. (The actor is pictured here at a No Kid Hungry event in New York City earlier this year.)

It was an odd sketch, tucked near the end of Saturday Night Live's season premiere, long after Alec Baldwin's crowd-pleasing Trump imitation and two performances by Jay-Z. Actor Ryan Gosling played a soft-spoken rock flutist performing with a motley trio in a run-down bar. He gets a call from the police during the show, and has to tell his bandmate/roommate that his good jeans have been stolen.

There was only one reason the sketch was even nominally funny: Kenan Thompson.

At a rehearsal the Thursday before SNL's premiere, Gosling and SNL cast member Kyle Mooney pretended to play flute and keyboard while real musicians provided the notes offstage. Thompson, meanwhile, gave notes on how to balance that fakery with their lines for maximum impact, guiding the scene as much as the show's actual director.

That preparation, professionalism and instinct for the funny has allowed Thompson to survive on SNL for 15 seasons — longer than any other performer in the show's history.

This season, he edges ahead of impressionist Darrell Hammond to become the show's longest-serving cast member. But ask how he pulled it off — how he has stayed so funny for so long — and Thompson doesn't really have an answer.

"Man, I wish I could say," he offers, relaxing in his closet-sized dressing room at SNL's studio in Rockefeller Center while his longtime barber gives him a touch up. "It was a blessing just to get the job, you know what I mean? Everything is so up in the air week by week, year by year in a place like this."

Two days before the first show of the season, the atmosphere backstage at SNL is like the first day back at school after summer vacation. There's a lot of anticipation: Last season was SNL's most successful in decades, with a big win at the Emmy Awards for best variety sketch show.

According to Thompson, the show clicked with viewers because their take on the Trump administration was just what the audience was thinking. "Everybody was on the same page, that's what it was," he says. "When everybody's on the same page, everybody can hear the joke coming, and they can enjoy it when it lands."

Thompson says being part of the cast last season was a singular experience, even for someone with 14 years on SNL's stage.

"To see Alec Baldwin as Trump getting a standing ovation — it was kind of weird," Thompson adds. "Because it's like they're cheering for Alec, I think. ...They were cheering for his impression and what it's doing for the world. We're healing a lot of wounds that people have to live with throughout their day. And they finally get to a Saturday night, and they patch it up a little bit and go back to Monday."

Soft spoken and humble, Thompson doesn't say much about his own performances, but SNL co-head writer Bryan Tucker (who has written for Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle) has a few ideas.

"He's always a guy who cast members can look to ... because he's going to know how to play it funny right away," Tucker says. "... I think the biggest thing it takes [to survive at SNL] is to have your own distinct voice that other people don't do, and then a willingness to ... do what we call 'playing service' — stepping aside and letting someone else be the star. And when you come in [with] your three or four lines, you make them count."

Flourishing at SNL is legendarily tough. Chris Rock didn't make much of an impression over three seasons; Jim Carrey and Kevin Hart didn't even get hired when they auditioned. It's important to have a distinct voice; to click with the material, the audience and the times.

Thompson found his voice in 2009 with a sketch called "What Up With That?" It was a fake talk show on BET with three random guests (the first trio included James Franco as himself and Bill Hader as Lindsey Buckingham) who wait for Thompson, as host Diondre Cole, to finish singing the theme song. But the joke is that Thompson never really stops. He's surrounded by a growing succession of oddball background players — Jason Sudeikis as a track suit-wearing dancer, Fred Armisen as a saxophonist who looks suspiciously like Kenny G.

After years of struggle, the sketch was a triumph for Thompson. And according to Tucker, his co-workers knew it.

"He finished, the audience clapped," Tucker says. "And then he went out into the hallway to change and a bunch of SNL staff — people from wardrobe, people from makeup, lighting, stagehands — were all kind of lined up on the wall, and they all kind of applauded and gave him a high-five. ... It's pretty rare I see that at SNL, that everybody just decides we're going to acknowledge this for one person. And it was kind of a celebration of Kenan."

Since then, Thompson has become one of the best sketch comedy actors on television. He consistently knows how to score a laugh in sketches, sometimes just by making a face. His likeability is his secret weapon.

"Sometimes when a writer just needs a joke in the sketch, or a laugh, you can write in the action line, 'Kenan reacts,' " Tucker says with a laugh. "It's kind of a cheat, but we know it'll work, so sometimes we get lazy and do it. ... He's just a guy you see and you like and he just knows how to play those moments."

Thompson, an Atlanta native, says his work as a teen in local theater provided valuable early training. His skills were sharpened further on the kid-centered network Nickelodeon — first as a star on the mid-'90s sketch comedy show All That and then on a little sitcom called Kenan & Kel.

"I was always very professional in the approach to this," Thompson says. "... It was never about what this could bring me. It was always just about servicing whatever project I was doing."

In 2003, Thompson joined SNL as the youngest cast member, and the first born after the show's 1975 debut. Now, at 39, he's SNL's second-oldest cast member.

Thompson's one spot of controversy in 15 seasons came from a 2013 interview with TV Guide which touched on the lack of black women in the cast. He had decided he wasn't going to play black women on the show anymore, after realizing roles like Whoopi Goldberg, Star Jones and Carol Moseley Braun were half the parts he was playing. But he says his quote about black women who audition for SNL — "they just never find ones that are ready" — was taken out of context.

"There's not a lot of black women in improv houses that Saturday Night Live chooses from," Thompson says, citing performance troupes like Upright Citizens Brigade and The Groundlings as pipelines for performers trained in sketch comedy and improv.

Controversy over the lack of black women, which sparked protests and analysis columns, eventually led the show's producers to hold specific auditions. They hired Sasheer Zamata and writer LaKendra Tookes, who have both since left the show, and current cast member Leslie Jones.

Thompson also shrugs off criticism that the show tends to feature broader depictions of black people, sometimes verging on stereotypes. He says SNL performers are creating characters based on things they've observed, things that feel comfortable to them.

He does worry, though, about how many black artists use the N-word in their work. He's unconvinced its pejorative meaning can be reclaimed.

"It's just weird to hear that word come flying out of anybody's mouth," Thompson says. "Anybody with any kind of sense of history, it just sends chills down your spine whenever you hear it. It pushed me off of listening to a lot of my serious hip-hop stations because they just let it fly."

SNL writer Bryan Tucker is surprised Thompson hasn't found bigger stardom like former castmates Tina Fey, Fred Armisen and Kristen Wiig. "Frankly, I often get a little frustrated that he hasn't broken out past the SNL bubble, because I think he's always good in whatever he is in," Tucker says. "And 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."

But Thompson doesn't cite the work of huge stars when asked what he'd like to do next. Instead, he evokes uber-producers like Brian Grazer and J.J. Abrams. (His explanation: They make more money than most journeyman actors). A devoted husband and father, he's less concerned with superstardom than steady, quality work. Perhaps that's another reason he's lasted longer than anyone else in one of the toughest jobs in show business.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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