Every SNL fan adores Kenan Thompson. He’s the longest-running cast member on the show, and he’s a comedy legend who finally gained leading man status NBC sitcom (Kenan, obviously) this year with a second season to come. He’s been making us laugh since D2: The Mighty Ducks and Kenan and Kal, and he’ll probably be the best part of the upcoming Home Alone follow-up on Disney+. He’s held countless SNL sketches together (he’s the greatest fake game show host of all time — sorry, Will Farrell) and earned the highest level of respect from his fellow cast members. No one ever has a bad word to say about Kenan Thompson’s character as a person. I dare you to go google that. You won’t find a thing.
Nope, the guy is simply committed to making you laugh, and he inherently knows what works, and what doesn’t, and when to just roll with it. And as Kenan told us, he absolutely loves it when sketches don’t turn out as planned, when the cast can’t hold it together and starts laughing, and when the energy flow from the live audience is palpable. That’s part of why SNL is an institution, and part of why Kenan’s been a ready, steady presence there for nearly two decades. He’s slightly less funny in a new ad campaign from Autotrader, which aims to make the car-buying process easier and, yes, fun. We chatted with Kenan about his career and why he’s so grateful for everything that he’s got going on these days, at work and in life.
I think that I’m obliged to pester you about how long you’re planning on staying at SNL, so let’s get that out of the way first.
Oh yeah, that’s a main topic of discussion. It’s a staple in my life and in America’s life, but yeah, I have my number that I would like to get to, and then after that, it’s up in the air-ish, you know what I mean? It’s just such a special place, and I don’t know that I ever have to leave, but at the same time, I would like to make room for others, so if I can get to my 20 [seasons], that would be great. And I’m on 19 right now, so that doesn’t seem too far-fetched.
What do you think it is about SNL that makes people ask that question? No one asks Law and Order: SVU people that question.
It’s the greatest comedy show in history. Just the live element and the air, and what the show has achieved. It’s a monument and a staple, and everybody respects it, and everybody protects it. So, when you’re inside of that studio, no matter how famous you are, people come back down to their human selves and have a good time. It’s just a special experience.
Well, one of my favorite things about SNL is when you guys break character when something is just so funny that you can’t keep it together.
Yeah, that’s another thing! That’s another thing that makes it special.
Last season with Keegan-Michael Key, he was beating the hell out of Muppets. You started to break. What goes through your head at a moment like that, when things are going off the rails.
I crave those moments. I want it to go off the rails. That’s what makes it different and exciting and much-watched TV and all of that. And when anybody like Keegan comes on, it’s hard for me to keep a straight face at all. But the fact that the audience gets to see the fun that we’re having as well, you know, that’s a whole different experience for everybody.
I got carried away last night rewatching “Black Jeopardy” sketches, and I was thinking of the major hosting mess with actual Jeopardy. Will SNL truly give its view on the host-changing fiasco, maybe through “Black Jeopardy”?
I guess we’re waiting on the official outcome before we harp on what has happened [laughs] so far. That’s usually how it goes. We have to wait for the finished story, so we can actually reflect it, basically. Right now, it’s still fluctuating or something, or did they finally land on a host?
For the rest of the year, Mayim Bialik and Ken Jennings are sharing things until they really figure it out.
Exactly, so I guess there will be little touches like me doing LeVar Burton in the Cold Open. And little mentions of LeVar, like the week before, I played Levar B. Burton because he’s in the zeitgeist right now, but as far as doing the whole journey of the Jeopardy! host, we’ll just have to wait until the end.
With interviews about commercials, things can get really random. When Ice-T did that Tide commercial, we talked about, you know, Twitter. Speaking of which, I saw that you saw that Dionne Warwick called you out. Did you figure out why?
I’m in trouble?! 👀😂 Whatever you need I’m here, Queen!!! ❤️❤️❤️ https://t.co/nQ3sk6PTxG
— Kenan Thompson (@kenanthompson) October 20, 2021
[Laughs] Not yet! But I’m intrigued. I think it’s so hilarious that Dionne Warwick tweets so much. It’s really funny. She was definitely on Ego [Nwodim]’s back when she did the impression, so I just think that’s great. We’ve got action with Dionne Warwick out there, that’s an awesome thing.
So how does an LA-to-New York guy like yourself get involved with Autotrader?
You know, they called! Luckily, I was checking a lot of boxes with them as far as people who could be potential faces for their brand right now. When they called and talked about their platform, I mean, I was familiar with Autotrader, but I wasn’t as familiar with all the advances that they’re making with their product, so I just thought it was great. And it was an easy thing for me to do. It was like a one-day shoot, so it checked a lot of boxes for me, too. It was a nice, pretty even conversation. I like what they’re doing. The car-buying experience is easier probably than it’s even been in history. It’s right there in the palm of your hand, and the car gets delivered to your house. That’s the thing.
Well, buying a car, traditionally speaking, is not a very fun experience.
Yeah, it’s a tough deal! Going and shopping and figuring out, “Which brand do I want?” Walking that strip in everybody’s town that’s just dealership row and just trying to figure out which one fits and what you want and what you can afford. Those are usually two very different things. They’ve really broken it down to a way where you can skip a lot of headaches and still have the involvement of the car salesman as well, so it’s not like you’re cutting out the middleman or anything like that. It’s just making it convenient for the everyday guy like myself.
You’re an everyday guy whose sitcom got renewed for a second season. Did NBC’s Kenan seem overdue to you?
I’m a big believer in destiny, so I believe that things work out like they’re supposed to. It doesn’t really help for me to have a chip on my shoulder like, “Oh, I should have done this years ago!” Because that might sour what I’m trying to do right now. I want to feel appreciative in the moment and just go to work happy and dedicated because I am doing the show, and nothing is necessarily promised. Not even tomorrow, so I just try to approach it that way and just take the blessings as they come and not harp on the fact that the blessings didn’t come when I expected them to. They say a lot in church and stuff that, you know, God comes when he’s supposed to and I think there’s validity in that. Things happen when they happen, and I think a better attitude about it is to be grateful when it does happen.
Here’s a tangent for you: Snakes On A Plane recently turned fifteen years old.
When was the moment while you were making that movie when you realized it would be such an instant cult classic?
I thought it was gonna be that from the idea. I hadn’t seen an airplane horror movie where snakes get loose on an airplane. I was like, “Oh, that’s a crazy idea in general.” And then Sam Jackson is probably one of the best on-deck players that there’s ever been. Whenever he takes a swing, it’s gonna go somewhere, so that was cool. And they added on the rest of the cast: Julianna [Marguiles] and everyone else. That was before anyone knew Chris Hemsworth’s wife, Elsa [Pataky]. I could tell, just from the vibing. Flex [Alexander] was in there, and he’s my brother, so I got to play a character with him. I was excited about building something with people that I liked… It felt like it had the pedigree. And when I was making it, everyone was taking it very seriously. I was like, “You all know we’re making a comedy, right?”
For sure, including your cockpit scene with Samuel. That was gold.
They were like, no, we’re making an action movie. I was like, “Sure!” And I was right. Everyone took it as a cult comedy because it became kinda silly with CGI snakes, early in the CGI game. It just looked kinda funny, so I enjoyed the whole movement of it becoming cultish. You know, “Get these snakes off this MF-ing plane!” It was becoming a thing even before it came out, so I think I was right in my approach that we should be having fun with it.
Back in the day, what led you to stick with comedy when you were sort-of at a crossroads after Kenan and Kel?
Acting, I guess, was always on my mind, the career trajectory path or whatever, was just going heavy in the comedy direction, so I didn’t feel the need to grind gears to a halt, just as I was getting started in the adult world. The kid world and the adult world are two different things, so I until I was able to get it going in the adult world, and I was qualified to be like, “I’m done with that and did everything I wanted to in comedy,” I was always in the mindset to just keep working and doing it, and then if I get dramatic opportunities, I’ll get a chance to showcase that, and it’ll be a thing later down the line.
I’ve read that a lot of funny people have a hard time turning off their comedy during downtime, and they always feel the need to entertain. Do you ever feel that way?
I guess it’s different for me because I approach entertainment through acting, so yeah, I can turn it off and on, I think. But like, my sense of humor and the need to laugh never goes away, but the need to entertain others, I don’t know if I have that itch.
It’s probably so much easier that you can turn it off at home.
Yeah! And I also don’t wanna, like, annoy my family.
No matter how cool you are in real life, your kids are never gonna tell you that you’re cool.
Yeah, they’re living their life. So, if I have jokes that actually pertain to their life and are on point, and what they’re going through and the timing of their day, yeah, they’ll laugh. But if I’m just making jokes like a jokester guy, I’m just their dad telling jokes.
We’re out of time, but if you could join any drama on TV right now, as a guest, what would it be?
It’s gotta be Law and Order: SVU, man. That’s the longest moving thing, that’s the mothership. Shout out to Ice-T.
23 years and counting. Good for him.
Let’s get you on there.
‘SNL’ is currently cranking through its 47th season, and you can find out more about Autotrader’s “Finally, It’s Easy” ad campaign at their website.