In the two seasons of Saturday Night Live since a former guest host became the 45th President of the United States, one cast member has summed up the surreality of the current era with nothing but the look on his face. While Kenan Thompson is playing a seemingly endless range of characters, from the ebulliently unhinged “Weekend Update” senior correspondent Willie to the deadpan host of “Black Jeopardy!,” his genial, round face veers toward an expression that’s as enigmatic as it is hilarious. Whether his stare reads as blasted disbelief or wide-eyed hypomanic zeal, it’s a look that lands harder than almost any punch line. A teenage Nickelodeon star who joined SNL’s cast in 2003—he’s the longest-running cast member in the show’s history—Thompson took a trajectory parallel to slow-burn talents like Bill Hader: several angsty years as a sketch utility infielder before he found a character and moment to remake him as show MVP. Thompson’s breakthrough roles, like the beret-topped French Def Comedy Jam star Jean K. Jean and the Jheri-curled host of the faux BET talk show “What Up With That?,” revealed the comedic powerhouse Lorne Michaels recently ranked alongside Dana Carvey, Kristen Wiig, and a handful of SNL alums as being “fully realized in this form.” With his balanced mix of warmth and spontaneity, Thompson earned a 2018 Emmy for Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics and a nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series; he also formed the human heart of America’s bastion of edgy mainstream satire.
Congrats on the Emmy win last year. I’m one of a million people who only just realized how often and hard I’ve been laughing at your characters.
Thank you, man.
Now I hear you’re branching out and playing a beaver named Gus in the animated feature Wonder Park, out next month. Is Gus your first beaver?
I believe so… Yes. First, for sure.
Ever played an animal before?
Yes, several. Way back, I did Here Comes Peter Cottontail, but then I was recently in Nature Cat. Played Ronald the cat.
What do you bring to a beaver as opposed to a cat?
Beavers are, like, super-hyper. Especially when they’re building dams and slapping those tails—it seems like they’re always amped up, almost like reverse woodpeckers. A cat’s more chill, laid-back.
There’s something about your impressions: The facial expressions seem so complex, as though they’re both you and the person. How do they come together?
I mean, your take on the person is half the battle. You have to look and sound very similar to how people perceive them. If you’re off in any way, people don’t buy the comedy. There’s just something about Kate [McKinnon] that allows her to look like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or the opossum guy, what was his name? The attorney general?
Yeah, Sessions. Her Sessions has all these little nuances that make him Sessions but also Kate, and also what she thinks of Sessions. Cecily [Strong] is the same way, and Jay [Pharoah], to the extreme. Impersonation is really like a reflection of what you find interesting about the person. I just try to look and speak the way that person would, along with having it be apparent that they’re amusing to me, all at the same time.
What makes you lock into a character?
Just that twinkle of an idea that I see in a person, some kind of amusement—maybe that they’re amusing themselves with what they do. That helps, because it’s a much more fun experience, as opposed to somebody I have negative feelings toward and trying to make them funny.
You once said, “If there’s nothing jolly about someone, I can’t really play them.” That’s a bold statement, because there aren’t that many jolly people in the world.
I think of [SNL] as escapism, so I try not to lose the opportunity to go somewhere silly, you know what I’m saying? That’s what we’re supposed to be doing. We’re always getting pulled back to reality anyway, so we might as well stretch the rubber band as far as it will go before it snaps back.
You’re SNL’s rubber-band stretcher.
For sure. I grew up with movies like Spaceballs and The Wiz—that s*** is just as imaginative as it gets. I take things seriously when it’s time to take things seriously. But there’s also a way to address serious things through comedy. I feel like we should all want to be friendly with each other, to celebrate humanity. But we are affected by the things that go on in the world, and when we do something that ruffles the president’s feathers so much he has to Tweet about it—like, it goes all the way to the guy, you know what I mean?—that’s … crazy.
What’s it like being in that bubble?
I mean, it starts as something that gets written by a friend of mine that we rehearse among people that I know personally, and we shoot it in a place I’m very comfortable in, with the people we’re always surrounded by. Then the next day it winds up on the news, and I’m still me, being a person, in my home, reading the news, reading about the president responding to this joke, and then there’s a picture of my face. I mean, I do know [Donald Trump]. He hosted [SNL] twice. But he’s not, like, calling me out personally. He’s putting it out there for the world to see. Like, that’s insane to me.
Sketches like “Black Jeopardy!” manage to be sharp and funny about cultural differences in a way we haven’t seen before. The jokes have to land for both black and white audiences, and both have to feel that they’re authentic. How do you put sketches like that together?
It’s me and [SNL co–head writer] Bryan Tucker. We focus on the jokes, ’cause each question and answer needs to be one. But, yeah, they’re crossover-type jokes, so everybody can get them, and they have to feel right. We both work on that.
The main criterion for winning is essentially how “black” a contestant is. The Mighty Ducks II and III proved you’re a decent ice-skater, which is among the least stereotypically “black” things I know about you. What are some others?
I have an extensive knowledge of classic rock music. Not just Led Zeppelin, but deep vinyl cuts, going way back.
Every Saturday night, you look out at America with a kind of amazed—and amazing—expression. What do you actually see when you’re doing that?
On “[Weekend] Update,” I can see the studio pretty good, because it’s bright, but on some of the sketches they darken the studio, so I don’t really see much except the stage manager, camera, cue cards, and a couple of crew members. Mostly I’m listening—for reactions, basically. But still, when I’m doing “Update,” I play to people that are in front of me, but going back to the cards, keeping my rhythm, and playing to the hosts. Even though you’re talking to a person beside you, you always play to the audience at home.
You had been on SNL for a few years before you totally found your footing. When did you first feel you’d nailed it?
Oh, that first “What Up With That?,” one thousand percent. I remember the table read, singing the song with full-out energy, and people were like, “Oh, snap! This is like something that’s been worked on.” And it just stayed on this circuitous rhythm. Like, a guest will try to make a point, the music will kick in, they’ll get interrupted, and we’ll blow back up to theme song, all crazy. On Saturday, when we did it live, it got a great response, and when it was over, it was just like, f*** yeah.
So you wrote the lyrics and music?
Me and [Bryan] Tucker just sat down and wrote it. He’s really good at writing, like, four-bar songs. It’s gospel-infused, and if you’ve ever been to a shouty-type church, when they start shouting, the music rises up a half key, then a whole key, and there’s a big celebration, then it all dies down, then it rises up again. You can do that probably 12 times without anyone objecting. Celebration and release—that’s kind of what that sketch is.
I’ve read that after doing this for 16 years, you’re still starstruck by some guest hosts. Who are your favorites?
Well, Dave Chappelle and Tom Hanks both. Because one is completely in control of his standup career, so nobody tells him when and where to go, and that’s beautiful. And then Tom took his comedy approach and transcended that into a dramedy career and then two Oscars as an actor. And then they’re also two of the kindest gentlemen in the world, so they’re good dudes to look up to.
What if you can’t stand the guest host?
[Laughs.] There are plenty of things that are way worse than working with somebody I’m slightly uncomfortable with at Saturday Night Live.
BY THE NUMBERS
Place on Rolling Stone‘s 2015 ranking of every cast member in Saturday Night Live history (between Jan Curtin an Julia Louis-Dreyfus)
Place on VH1’s 100 Greatest Kid Stars of All Time list (his Kenan & Kel costar, Kel Mitchell was right behind him, at 40)
Year he played Christopher Columbus in a student musical that traveled to Spain
Age at which he started on the Nickelodeon sketch show All That
Jersey number his character, Russ Tyler, wore in the second and third Mighty Ducks movies
Record-breaking number of celebrity impression he has performed on SNL, as of December 2018
Primetime Emmy nominations for his work on SNL, including a win last year for writing the song, “Come Back, Barack”