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'Put Me On Blast': Kenan Thompson On 'SNL' And His New, Self-Titled Sitcom

Kenan Thompson speaks on stage during the 2019 New Yorker Festival. He's currently nominated for two Emmy Awards, one for <em>Kenan</em>, and another for his comic performances on <em>SNL</em>.
Ilya S. Savenok
Getty Images for The New Yorker
Kenan Thompson speaks on stage during the 2019 New Yorker Festival. He's currently nominated for two Emmy Awards, one for Kenan, and another for his comic performances on SNL.

Kenan Thompson says playing a widowed dad on his new NBC sitcom Kenan and being a dad in real life has been "a bit of a whirlwind."

"I'm living my character kind of 24/7 in a weird way," he says. "I wake up and make breakfast for my kids and then I go do a scene where I'm making some sort of meal for my TV children, too."

It doesn't help that the show is named after him. Calling the show Kenan, wasn't his idea, but he also didn't object: "I was like, 'Yeah, sure. You know, if that's how you guys are feeling, like, let's go. Put me on blast. I'm all about it,'" Thompson says.

Thompson's had a TV career since he was a child. He's currently nominated for two Emmys, one for Kenan and another for his comedy performances on Saturday Night Live. Thompson has been a cast member on SNL since 2003, which makes him the performer with the longest tenure in the history of the show. He would have started at SNL earlier, but he was told on his initial tryout that he was too young.

"It didn't seem like a closed door or a 'go away' necessarily," Thompson says of his initial auditions. "It just was like, 'I am too young right now.' ... And if that's the only argument, then, you know, I can definitely wait out the time. ... When I got the call that they wanted to let me try [again], I was like, 'Well, absolutely.'"

Interview Highlights

On playing a widower on Kenan, and changing the script to make it less sad

[The original pilot] started at the reception of the funeral. So the pain was so recent that it kind of didn't allow for a comedic setting to really take hold, and the show just played very melancholy. So we kind of moved it away, maybe a year or so. And it's not so fresh and so recent that he can talk without falling apart. But still spiraling out of control because he's juggling so much emotion with responsibility, and running a show, and all kinds of things. So just being overly vulnerable, but also being a dumb man, and not really one to admit when he's wrong when he needs to.

On messing up a dress rehearsal early in his SNL tenure

It was a sketch called "Randy the Bellhop" that a friend of mine wrote. ... And there was a line that I had that I just fumbled and I was showing like a couple into that room. And of course, it was like a rag-tag hotel, so like all the jokes were about everything kind of not working or being kind of Fugazi or whatever. And I just fumbled this line super hard and it was awkward and silent in the studio, and so quiet you could hear this one lady say, "Aww."

I guess someone else in the scene just picked up the next line and moved it forward and we finished it out. But I was like I dropped the ball on that for real and tanked the sketch pretty much. Everything I said after that that I thought was going to get a laugh was just a mediocre kind of chuckle and just the whole energy got sucked out of it. So it was my first fall on my face kind of moment, but [the sketch] got cut [from the show]. So it's kind of just an in-house kind of a secret or whatever. But I thoroughly remember it.

On performing "Black Jeopardy," one of his recurring SNL sketches, with Chadwick Boseman, who was privately battling colon cancer at the time

I mean, that was such an electric week in general. You know, like the King, Chadwick was just blessing us with his grace, No. 1, because Black Panther was the biggest thing going on at the time. And, you know, he contributed and gave all of his efforts and energy to our show like he did anything else while he was promoting a movie of that caliber. It was just unbelievable to witness. Let alone being able to do like one of my beloved sketches with him in very close proximity. It was just great. I was in close proximity with him, that whole episode.

It just floored me. Like the whole thing. ... The fact that he was working so hard and he was so focused. In between rehearsal tapes and stuff like that, he was like practicing karate moves, you know what I'm saying? So he was always looking like he had other things to do.

On his first commercial

I was fishing with my fake grandfather, and that was freaking me out a little bit because that was my first time working with another actor, like on a paid kind of thing. ... It was weird to try to play family with a stranger, especially as a little kid. Stranger danger was a big part of life back then.

But we were supposed to be fishing. And I say, like, "the fish aren't biting." And he hands me a piece of chicken. And I was supposed to take a bite of the chicken and say, "I like this kind of biting." You know, classic dumb-type comedy. So I got to eat chicken all day and I was happy.

I remember the director kept telling me to take a bigger bite of chicken, like "Take a big bite, take a big ol' bite bigger, bigger bite of chicken!" And I was like, this is starting to lean a little racist. But, you know, my fake granddad seems to be all right with it.

On feeling betrayed by Bill Cosby (Thompson played Fat Albert in the 2004 live-action movie based on the 1972 series Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids)

I felt like a heavy betrayal because he was the guy when I was growing up, he was like the one clean comic. So I watched Bill Cosby: Himself thousands of times. He was basically my introduction to what comedy was, and what sitcoms were. ... He was a prime example of a career that I wanted to have and the kind of guy I thought I wanted to be as far as being a father and being a comedian was concerned. ...

It gets to the point where real allegations and real numbers start coming out and that's when it's unavoidable. ... I felt super betrayed for being such a big fan and idolizing somebody who was, you know, entrenched in what they were entrenched in.

On playing Bill Cosby in prison in an SNL sketch

It was so crazy. It was kind of like playing O.J. [Simpson]. I don't take pleasure from it. But our job is to reflect our realities, and the reality is Bill Cosby was in jail, or there's a guy named O.J. back walking the streets and going to dinner with people. So it was one of those things like, you know, it's part of our job as opposed to like, oh, this is something I'm excited about doing.

Heidi Saman and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Seth Kelley and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.