This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes actor Kenan Thompson, who stars on “Saturday Night Live” and in the new sitcom “Kenan” on NBC. Thompson is an Emmy-winner for “Saturday Night Live” and its longest running cast member, currently in his 18th season on the sketch show. In their conversation, Thompson talks about how seriously he takes his comedic acting, both in sketch comedy and in his new sitcom. He says his work as a young actor on Nickelodeon was great preparation for his career now. And he talks about why he’s never tried to be a stand-up comedian.
The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. I'm Elvis Mitchell. My guest, Kenan Thompson has been acting probably his entire life, but we really got to know him as the longest running cast member of "Saturday Night Live." He's also starring in the new show "Kenan" on NBC. There's this sense of joy often in these characters that you play, and it's interesting watching you on "Kenan" because I really get a chance to see you act. That joy or that real spirit is reserved for when your character, who's a talk show host, is doing the show. Then you're a different guy when he's off camera.
Kenan Thompson: That's exactly right. It's been very interesting to be able to do both. My training at Nickelodeon was pretty much perfect for exactly what's going on in my life and career right now. And the joy that is usually exuding through a lot of my characters is just me trying to have a good time in a very stressful situation. And I would rather have fun with it than be stressed about it. So I lean into the silly; I lean into the fun, the faces, the joy, the happiness of it all in that way. I don't get overwhelmed by the fact that there are so many viewers, there's such a history, there's such a legacy there. Then stepping into the sitcom world, it's like, yeah, now I get to do that through character work as well and showcase those good thespian chops. It's a nice opportunity to get into the levels of it all, as opposed to when you're doing sketch comedy, you're really just trying to hit from moment one, basically.
KCRW: In "Kenan," you can see his body language is different with his family when he's off the set, when he's away from the studio. Talk a little bit about that because I figure part of this is that you were really responding to the acting challenge of this as much as anything else.
Thompson: Yeah, 1,000%. The responsibility of acting for a sitcom is the biggest job. I have to be able to allow for the dramatic to play because I am playing a man going through a widowship. I'm also playing someone who likes to entertain his audience as well, so there's the ups and downs, and to try to keep it very noticeable when it's up and noticeable when it's down. That means that I have range, and those are always good characteristics to have as a performer. But the seriousness of the show is always nice because I don't know if you get that often enough in sitcoms. Also, our show does a great job of balancing the grief, having it be a year departure from the actual incident, allowing for it to not be so heavy at times and allowing it to be an enjoyable, joyous sitcom at the same time.
KCRW: I'm really struck by your quality of listening to somebody. It's just interesting to watch you listen rather than have to react. And I wonder what that feels like for you as an actor to get to do that.
Thompson: It's the main skill set of acting. When you're doing very straightforward sketch performing, it can be a little more go for the gusto and not necessarily really listening to everybody's involvement. You hope and pray that everybody's doing their thing, but you're definitely focused on doing your thing. When you're performing outside a sketch environment, now you're lifting as a group, and that's always fun. You have to listen and pay attention to your fellow performers very, very specifically because their lines feed into your lines, as opposed to when you're doing sketch, your lines feed the overall story of the sketch that you're doing.
KCRW: As a sketch player, and this even goes back to "All That," you enter sketches with a lot of presence. You're what they call an impact player. I think one of the things that we respond to as viewers watching you is: anybody who radiates that much pleasure in a sketch, we can feel that generosity. You've got to take your emotional cues from the other characters, too, on "Kenan," don't you?
Thompson: Yeah, they have nice overlapping things. A sketch, SNL show is still a very ensemble kind of a thing, but it is different. You're there to do your one specific thing. Sketches are short form entertainment; it's only four or five minutes at the most, six if it's super long. So the urgency of constant laughter, immediate responses is just that much more prevalent when you're doing sketches. And in sitcoms, it's all about the levels. You don't want to peak early in the sitcom with a super hilarious moment in minute seven, and have nothing for the other 14-15 minutes.
Lorne [Michaels] also told me about that in sketch as well. You don't want to peak too early because you do have to get to page 9,10, or whatever, when you're doing a sketch. But when you have an audience there, you want to get a reaction out of them. You're doing a comedy and you're doing a comedy in a place where it's so beloved because it has given people such explosive reactions that you're constantly fishing for the first one to come, the second one to come and try to keep them rolling in a very tight, kind of a pattern. In sitcoms, you can just calm it down and let it breathe because it's supposed to be reflecting real life as opposed to created satiric life.
KCRW: I just remember that "Scared Straight" sketch where you lean in and start to stroke Bill Hader's cheek. And that was like somebody's paying attention in a real person situation; how do I get somebody to pay attention to me? And of course, Hader's reaction was pretty priceless. That to me felt this is somebody who's paying attention, whose character has a life in the sketch.
Thompson: Absolutely. When it's your sketch, you're hyper focused on every element as much as possible. When it's other people's sketch, you're kind of there to just do what they wanted you to come in and do basically, but when is your sketch, I'm well aware of what everybody's about to say, music cues, where people should be standing, like the whole gambit of it all. So that sketch being my first idea that I got on the show, I was just very, very laser focused on everybody in it and what they're supposed to be doing and what I'm supposed to be doing to get reactions out of them.
I knew Bill liked to break a little bit because that helps us not feel so stressed and not make it feel like work, but it also services the live television element. People like to see breaking the fourth wall when it feels natural. I would fish for it, but I would still have to get it from him in some sort of way, so it couldn't be the same move every single time. I had to come up with different things to try to break him, and then that started to become the game.
I had so much joy doing that character because I was already embracing the collaborative element of writing. But that one really showed me that I need other voices because I wanted to do “Scared Straight,” and I had that part of it, the character, but the fact that he uses movies, movie themes, to get his parables across, and they're usually like ‘80s movies, that came from Colin. He was my office mate for years, and that was the first thing that we worked on together. But it was also the first time I really had the chance to take an idea of mine and make it make sense for the show thanks to his involvement or someone else's involvement to make it a full sketch comedy vehicle.
KCRW: You’re the kind of performer, who is having pleasure in a sketch, and we respond to that, rather than being turned off by it. And it goes back even to Eddie Murphy, who's one of those guys who brings in that kind of exuberance, and it didn't make us think, well, what is he laughing at, but wanted us to join in on that joy.
Thompson: Yeah, I take the acting part of my life very seriously. I have drama faces tattooed on my back. It's not just a clown; it's both. It's my first tattoo. Kel and I got our first tattoos together, and we both got drama faces. We both grew up doing theater and musical theater, and in Atlanta, my mentors were theater cats that took it very seriously. They came from the same era of whatever was going on in New York that launched Fishburne and Wesley Snipes, and Sam Jackson. This was the Atlanta version of those guys. We had people like Thomas Byrd down there to look up to and learn from, and the common denominator was focus on being a professional and being able to do anything basically an actor is asked to do, including comedy.
KCRW: Who were the actors you grew up watching?
Thompson: Cosby and Richard and Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence and the Wayans family, Jamie Foxx, and Dave Chappelle in a linear form. But, I also paid very close attention to Jim Carrey. He was a very specific kind of a performer to me. And on the dramatic side, whoever was a movie star. Of course, I was paying attention to Denzel and people like that, Pacinos and De Niros, and just kind of wanting to enrich my knowledge of lots of different cultures and methods of acting.
KCRW: The early years of "In Living Color," those sketches all came out to kill because they only had a half hour to play with, so basically, they tried to hit the center of a bull's eye with every sketch.
Thompson: Yeah, absolutely, and they were trying to shake things up. It's not like they were introducing sketch comedy to the world, so you have to set your tone and set it early. And they did that in episode one: Keenan Ivory Wayans comes out, and he introduces his brother SW-1 as a DJ back then, not even doing sketches or comedy yet. Then the rest of the cast immediately starts coming and doing bits, I think in his first monologue, and then they went into the show. And, of course, Damon was the obvious first star with Homey the Clown, but the auxiliary people like Jim Carrey, David Alan Grier, and Tommy Davidson, I always watched as well, because they all had different styles and they all were getting big, big laughs out of the audience. It showed me there's a bunch of different styles, there's a bunch of different ranges, but the commitment to each one is what's evident, like the commitment to "Fire Marshall Bill" or the commitment to "Men on Film," or the commitment to anything Tommy Davidson ever even stepped forward or even touched on.
KCRW: Funky Finger Productions.
Thompson: Exactly. With the business card. And that was his whole thing. He had one bit, "bam," and he would milk that because everybody knew it was coming. So he had a fake laugh, and then he would fake laugh for a long time and then hit you with his business card, "bam!" When you have bits like that, and that's your go to, and that's all you have, and you still managed to stand out in the sketch and maintain in people's minds 30 years later, that lets you know that that's a very, hyper-focused professional individual. And that's what I looked up to, and wanted to be like.
KCRW: I feel people just say comedian all the time because I think they don't quite know what to make of you because you make it look so easy because you get so much enjoyment out of that that you pass on to people.
Thompson: I mean, it's definitely not and I'm human, so I have my days or weeks depending on whatever's going on. I could have been distracted by something, but I learned early that when I look back on things, and I have that feeling of incompletion or I could have done it better, I'd learned not to let my life distract me from my immediate job that I'm supposed to be doing at the moment. So I learned to kind of juggle both: all right, things are happening in my life. I'm also in the middle of a live show, so I can handle both and not necessarily get overly emotional or distracted by things unless it's like a super duper emergency, of course, but just being able to file things and put them in their place, basically, of what's in front of me.
It's almost like prioritization, but I don't want to make it seem like I'm prioritizing my job over my family or my life or anything like that. At the same time, we all understand that that's where communication comes into play. Everybody knows I'm on a live show. We all give our lively dedication to it. It's not just me, you know, it's my family support, it's their life as well, with me being absent.
Everybody in my life understands I'm a dedicated individual to my craft, and I have a love of performing. But I also have a respect for performing just like I have a respect for stand-ups. I haven't put out a stand-up comedy special just because I have a name, because that's not really what I do. And I respect it too much to get up on stage and talk for an hour. I can definitely do that. But stand-up is a formulated thing. And it's to be respected. It's a craft, so it's more so a respect of my forefathers, my elders, the mentors, the people that opened and held doors wide open for people like myself to come through in a much different path than necessarily going in Chicago for 100 bucks a night trying to get on stage. I was able to come through the era of television and Nickelodeon, so it was different for me.
I've always kind of been looked at as a different animal as well, because I'm in the same realm of a lot of people that the usual path is just through stand-up. And to be on stage with Eddie, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Tracy Morgan, all guys that came up through stand up, and I'm there sharing a moment with them, I guess saying to the world that I have equal amount of respect from people as all four of these brothers. I have more than enough pleasure eating that humble pie because I'm standing on the shoulders of giants.
KCRW: I was going to ask you about that moment, because that, to me, was certification that you belong, but also, you were the guy who wasn't raised by those guys, who made a different way for yourself, because what you had done had not really been done by a Black person before. Basically creating yourself out of sketch comedy coming out of TV for the most part, which most people know you from, but clearly, you've got some stage chops. In fact, having been at the show the night that you did one of my favorite pieces ever, "The Bride of Blackenstein," just watching you react again, once you listen to Nicki Minaj, as you realize, Oh, she can do this.
Thompson: Yeah, man. It's evident, and it's really, really nice. When people come to play, it's the absolute best. So when I'm tuned in to a person and what they're doing sparks the proper reactions out of me, like, I'm not just saying my lines, like I'm saying it because that's what I would be saying in the moment anyway, definitely going for a laugh, but it feels not forced, it's the best. So yeah, to be standing up there with those giants and feel so embraced by them, is what I've always wanted from day one.
You never really think you're going to get it. But as I got closer and closer to the orbit of Eddie Murphy being on SNL and knowing different directors over time that have done his movies and people that have been to his house, and finally, hearing the rumor that he's going to actually host one of these days. And then it's later down my tenure at SNL, I was like, oh, this is about to happen. Like I'm definitely gonna spend some time with the great Eddie Murphy finally. And it happened. The Christmas episode. It couldn't have been a better time of year.