Kenan Thompson on his new sitcom, SNL, and how Atlanta “made me the man I am”

The College Park native is now the longest-tenured cast member in Saturday Night Live’s history and has a new NBC sitcom, Kenan.

Kenan Thompson
Kenan Thompson in 2019

Photograph by Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for The New Yorker

Most teenagers spend time going from class to class in school, daydreaming about what they want to be when they grow up. In the mid-’90s, a teenage Kenan Thompson was already wise beyond his years: realizing that bouncing between two production sets day-by-day for his block schedule would educate him on what it takes to become successful in television comedy.

Two decades have passed, and Thompson, 42, is on top of his game. The Emmy-winning funnyman now in his 18th season on Saturday Night Live—longest-tenured cast member in the show’s historyalso stars and executive produces his new self-titled sitcom, Kenan, also on NBC.

Thompson plays a widowed Atlanta morning talk show host that’s raising his two daughters with the assistance of his bro-manager [SNL castmate Chris Redd] and father-in-law [Don Johnson]. Kenan was originally given its series order in 2019 before going through a series of creative changes, followed by Covid-19 postponing production. After briefly taping SNL via Zoom last year because of the shutdown, Thompson now splits his time between New York City and Los Angeles to tape both shows.

Kenan Thompson
A still from the pilot of Kenan: Dani Lane as Aubrey, Kenan Thompson as Kenan, Dannah Lane as Birdie

Photograph by Casey Durkin/NBC

But the comedic actor is no stranger to multitasking and keeping his feet moving. The College Park native spent six seasons on Nickelodeon’s teen sketch variety show All That before pivoting for four more seasons into his own sitcom, Kenan & Kel, co-starring his All That castmate Kel Mitchell. Thompson also appeared in several feature films, including D2: The Mighty Ducks, Heavyweights, Fat Albert, Good Burger, and Love Don’t Cost a Thing.

An upbeat Thompson took some time from production to chat with Atlanta about his hometown, juggling two shows for NBC, the pandemic, writing some of SNL’s most memorable sketches, and collaborating with some of comedy’s most talented performers.

What was it like attending Tri-Cities High School?
I was only there for two years, my junior and senior year. I was still in and out doing my work at Nickelodeon, so I was there sporadically. I was in the theater department, and the whole department was run by my theater mentor, Freddie Hendricks. I was already in his Youth Ensemble of Atlanta outside of school. My first day of school, I was just a weird kid with his first time in public school, so I didn’t know how to dress. I was mad awkward, and my drama class was at the end of the day. I was super lost; I didn’t make no friends until my very last class, and I started seeing people that I recognized. From that point, I felt right at home. I was more happy than I could be. The rest of my high school experience was great from that moment on, but up until 7th period, it was terrible [laughs].

Where are your favorite spots to eat or hang out whenever you’re back in Atlanta?
There’s usually lemon pepper wings somewhere. I’ll find some good lemon pepper wings at different little shacks that might be still open. It might be called something like East Point Wings; I like random spots that have the most incredible wings you’ve had in your life, and definitely some soul food. I love the A, man. It definitely made me the man I am and carved the taste buds that I have. My people are still there, and I get back there whenever I can. We actually have a place in Tampa, so a lot of people come down there to visit.

How are you balancing the workload between Saturday Night Live and your new sitcom, Kenan?
It’s just two different beasts. I’ve done them both before; I gotta give Nickelodeon their credit because it trained me for exactly what’s happening in my life right now. I went from a sketch show to a sitcom. Saturday Night Live is a mental grind throughout the week to try to get things done, rewritten, and make sure it goes right because of all the anticipation leading up to 11:30 p.m. If you come up with an idea on Tuesday, then you have until Saturday night to try and get it right. For sitcoms, you have to be focused as soon as you come in the door, be ready to learn the whole scene, or have it already prepared from the night before depending on how you work. It’s performance time all day, every day, Monday through Friday. It’s not like you can half step. We shoot it until we get it right, and then we move on. It’s a constant go-go-go once you’re up and shooting because you’re under the time crunch. It’s not like I’m out here doing it by myself either. That would be way too stressful, so I lean into my writers, creators, producers, family, and friends. It takes a village to make the kid.

Kenan Thompson
Thompson on his new sitcom

Photograph by Casey Durkin/NBC

Could you explain how Covid has affected life on set?
It’s a lot of protocol, but they’re in place because they work. We’ve been able to get through our season, and SNL has been able to keep going steady. It’s a little more isolated, but it’s also helped me focus on what the overall point is, which is the performance. I don’t have a lot of distractions or people trying to come hang around or try to entertain people while I’m trying to do my work. Don [Johnson] was talking about this the other day, saying this is a once in a lifetime opportunity where we’re able to be able to create a whole show for a whole season without the super industry pressure of agents, lawyers, managers all being on the set together with egos getting involved. That’s a distraction from what we’re supposed to be doing, which is to harmonize and build a funny situation. It can get very touchy because the show has a lot of heart in it. It’s emotional, so you want a positive back-and-forth with creative engagement.

What does it take to evolve from a child star into a massively successful film and television star?
It’s the job. I stayed close to family and my theater friends. We all support each other. It’s a very positive place for me to retreat to. I just go back home to Atlanta and get back around like-minded people. We’re all doing the same type of actor-hustler at different levels, so I can engage with them to stay on top of the craft, what we’re learning about approaching different scenes, and just focus on the work as opposed to what fame can do for you.

How involved are you at SNL in the writing of Georgia-specific sketches like the Migos parody or “Blue Georgia“?
Those references are just overall consensual things that people think Atlanta people would say. I think everybody knows that I’m from Atlanta; I represent it really hard, so if they have a question about a good reference, then I would suggest they familiarize themselves with something like Outkast or Hank Aaron and what they mean to the city. If people have a specific question about Atlanta, then I’ll answer it.

How did it feel winning an Emmy for the “Come Back, Barack” sketch with Chris Redd and Chance the Rapper?
“Come Back, Barack” was incredible, man. I’m so proud of Chris; he could not be a cooler dude but also an incredibly talented individual. It’s nice to watch somebody not necessarily discovering their shine but definitely getting comfortable and shining on the world like that. When he blesses us with these comedic songs, he’s got a real gift for that. We teamed up with Chance twice, got nominated both times, and won the second time. Both of those brothers are incredibly gifted and gracious, and I’m so happy we were all able to get down with each other and come up with beautifully creative content that splashes across the world. Hopefully, it reached President Obama. In my mind and my dreams, Barack is boppin’ around, showing it to Michelle. To do those things with good people and then get rewarded at the highest scale in your career is just incredible. Carol Burnett presented us with that award; it was just a mind-blowing night. I’ll never forget it.

What do you remember about the Black Jeopardy sketch with Chadwick Boseman?
It was another unforgettable week we got to spend with him. I remember him being a hyper-focused individual; he wanted to figure it out. We were trying to figure out how to step up his episode past Tom Hanks, because he’d just done it, and that was the pinnacle for that sketch up until that point. We were struggling to figure out how to get him bigger and bigger laughs. We finally tightened it at the very end; he found it as well. It was a beautiful realization to hear what we were finding with the characters being matched by the audience watching it. It was just brilliant: another experience of building on something all week that’s done best when it’s live. Chadwick couldn’t have been more nice, gracious, loving, and creative.

What about your recent Golden Globes bit with Maya Rudolph?
That was my first time going to the Golden Globes. It’s a bittersweet blessing to me because it was an isolated experience because of Covid, so I didn’t really see anybody that would’ve made me nervous. It wasn’t a room full of celebrities: just normal people. They were very grateful to see us up there with bits, and the energy was just really positive. I was grateful and happy to be there. It was an opportunity of a lifetime; everybody was gonna watch. I was able to be with my sisters Maya, Amy, and Tina on satellite. I had an hour to chill, present my award, I was out of there, and back home by 7:15. That’s what I call a good Sunday.

Is there a larger statement that you’re trying to make with Kenan?
I don’t know if there’s a specific statement we’re trying to make. The overall concept about the show has heart in it because of the situation my character, daughters, and everybody around me is going through it. It’s heavy on all of the characters, and I wanted it to be like that just because I’ve never seen a sitcom explore that. Mr. Mayor kinda has the same theme, but that wasn’t out at the time [laughs].  The idea for me to be a widower actually came from when I met Jackie [Clarke], the co-creator and showrunner, because she had the same idea, but it was much closer to home for her. She actually experienced something like that. That was interesting, and I knew I had to make the show with her; nobody else did. Everyone had generic ideas. I’d already done that in the creative cycle twice with NBC, so I wanted to do something for my own instinct of what I think would be a good show. It matched up with her’s, so we just started running right then. We created a pilot, were able to redevelop it, and bring in other people into the cast to blanket the project with a bunch of great creatives and solid minds that are executing what you see. I’m just beyond happy and pleased, regardless of however long it took to get to this point.