Previously Known For: Kenan & Kel, All That, Good Burger and Fat Albert
|Currently Known For: Saturday Night Live|
“I thought that SNL was just going to be that bridge into being an adult actor. They’ve not only been a bridge. They’ve been a highway for me.” The first Saturday Night Live cast member to be born after the show’s premiere in 1975 and now the longest-running cast member in the show’s history with 15 seasons under his belt, Kenan Thompson knows a thing or two about sketch comedy even if he claims that good luck has always worked in his favor. But, truth be told, Thompson’s life could’ve easily turned out much different if it wasn’t for his mother’s keen intuition to keep her sons off the streets of Atlanta, Georgia by putting them both in acting classes at the local Youth Ensemble of Atlanta. While his brother begrudgingly went to class week after week, Thompson fell in love with the stage.
Starring in his high school’s production of The Gingerbread Duck, Thompson was determined to give acting his best shot and caught his first break as a kid when he joined TBS as a movie critic in their “Movies for Kids” program. Given the task of reviewing the latest films, he gained recognition after interviewing the cast of Mighty Ducks when, because of his natural talent and charm, he built a cult following of fans who encouraged directors to cast him in the next film, D2: The Mighty Ducks. Making his debut as Russ Tyler in the 1994 film (and reprising his role in D3 in 1996), Thompson caught the eye of Nickelodeon directors who invited him to audition for a part on their sketch comedy variety series, All That. Winning a spot on the popular show, Thompson’s talents blossomed as he and Kel Mitchell earned overnight fame for their “Good Burger” skit, which took on a life of its own thanks to the 1997 film of the same name.
Amid his success on All That throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium, Thompson appeared in popular television series like Sister Sister; Sabrina, The Teenage Witch; The Amanda Show; and Felicity while also starring alongside Mitchell in Kenan & Kel from 1996 to 2000. By the time the show wrapped, however, Thompson was ready to set himself apart from his longtime friend and costar as he pursued his dreams of transitioning to comedy full time by auditioning for a part on Saturday Night Live. “It’s just amazing to get the chance to audition, because I tried and tried to move on it, but they said I looked too young,” Thompson recalled of his early SNL dreams while still working on All That. “Finally, I got to try out and I never walked away from the job.”
Coincidentally, Thompson beat out Mitchell for the spot on SNL, which sparked widespread controversy that their friendship was over. However, that wasn’t the case at all as Thompson later argued that the two friends were struggling to define themselves as individuals after working together for nearly a decade. “People made it seem at first like we couldn’t do anything without each other, like we weren’t funny individually,” Thompson said. “Kel and I, we both decided that we wanted the world to know that there was a Kel Mitchell and a Kenan Thompson.”
Although Thompson got the better end of the deal with his new role on SNL, things weren’t exactly easy for the veteran comedian who struggled to find his niche on the popular series. “The first couple years, I was just panic-stricken, not knowing if I’m doing good or not knowing if I’m making an impression or the right impression,” Thompson said. But, after he developed the “What’s Up with That” skit, things changed as Thompson found his place on the series, winning over the show’s writers, his cast mates and audiences around the country with his natural knack for finding the funny in every sketch. “I just love for the sketch to go right. If I’m involved in it and it’s my thing, it has to be right,” he says.
Although he’s continued to add acting credits in films like They Came Together, Brother Nature, and Going in Style as well as television series like The Awesomes, Nature Cat, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Maya & Marty, Thompson has undoubtedly found his niche for comedy, especially now that he’s in his 15th season on SNL, which makes him the longest tenured cast member in the show’s history. SNL creator, Lorne Michaels, is grateful to have Thompson on board not only because he’s funny but because of his impact behind the scenes where his kindness and team spirit rub off on anyone who walks through the door. “If you were designing the person perfect for SNL, most of the components would look like Kenan,” Michaels said. “He’s a thing that almost doesn’t exist anymore, which is: he is a variety performer. He can sing. He can move. He can do comedy, and he knows who he is in front of an audience.”
Others feel the same way about Thompson with SNL co-head writer Bryan Tucker adding, “He’s always a guy who cast members can look to because he’s going to know how to play it funny right away.” Thompson’s fellow cast member, Will Forte, added, “He’s the person who can steal a sketch with not even a word—a cock of the eyebrow. I would imagine people watching must feel like he’s one of their buddies, or family members.” Longtime friend, Tina Fey, even joked about Thompson’s contributions to the show in January 2017 when she dressed as Princess Leia for a guest appearance and told host Felicity Jones, “If all else fails, you should know that back in Season 35, I put a fatal flaw in the system: If you take out Kenan Thompson, the studio will explode.”
While SNL may not explode without Thompson on board, no one has to find out anytime soon with the 39-year-old now well into his 15th season on the beloved show where he’s not only the longest tenured cast member in the show’s history but also holds the record for the most celebrity impressions at 122. Even so, Thompson remains humble about his success and, as his SNL friends are quick to point out, he’s often the first to step behind the camera to cheer new comedians on with a word of encouragement or a pat on the back. Of course, for Thompson, it’s all part of his dream and his passion. “Entertainment is my calling, in some form, at least,” he says. “I enjoy entertaining and laughing—it really is my thing.”