Kenan Thompson is living two dreams at once — and being doubly rewarded for it
The comedian spent the pandemic bouncing back and forth between the venerable New York sketch show and his Los Angeles-based sitcom Kenan, in which he plays a local talk show host and recently widowed father. The countless hours of travel — and multiple versions of the Kenan pilot — worked out, with Thompson earning nominations for both Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series for SNL and Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for Kenan.
"It's the ultimate pat-on-the back payoff, because it was very stressful," Thompson tells EW, while admitting that he got a bit of extra satisfaction from his first nod as a leading man. "I can feel the difference. I mean, Supporting has 'supporting' right in the title!"
To take stock of all the recognition coming Thompson's way, we chatted with him about dealing with a "long road" to get Kenan on air, navigating a whirlwind schedule amid the pandemic, and feeling like he never has to leave SNL.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your initial reaction when you realized you got nominated for both Kenan and SNL?
KENAN THOMPSON: I was waiting on it. I didn't know about the two-part, but I was just waiting for the nominations to come out and hoping my phone would start blowing up. And that's exactly what happened, like text message after text message, phone call after phone call. I was like, "All right, I must be in the mix." And then I looked at what everybody was saying and it was two noms, and I was like, "Ohhh snap." I guess Gold Derby predicted it, and my manager said he called it like a year ago, so give everybody their credit! But I was just insanely floored by it.
This is your fifth nomination for your work on SNL, and you and Chris Redd won a couple years ago for the digital short "Come Back, Barack." But does getting the nomination for Kenan hit a little different? Like, this is your baby. You are the Kenan on Kenan!
Oh yeah. SNL belongs to the ensemble, and so does Kenan. But this is an individual acknowledgement, so it's much more felt, because it's directed personally towards me. I can definitely feel the difference. I mean, Supporting has "supporting" right in the title! So it's always been about doing a good job amongst others, but this is them saying, "You have done a good job on this." And I will definitely take that.
It probably also adds some satisfaction given the lengthy process you went through to get Kenan on the air. You worked through multiple versions of the show, pilot, and cast. So how did you get to where you did in the end, with you as an Atlanta talk show host and widower, and why did that feel right?
Like you said, it was a long road. We did a couple different pilots, we had one cast and then redeveloped, and kind of stayed with the original idea of the show but pivoted my character from being a real estate person to a morning show host. That kind of matches my SNL energy that people are used to seeing, so it just felt like a more on-target type of role. As exciting as real estate is! [Laughs] And setting it in [Thompson's hometown] Atlanta, we brought it home towards me so that character could come through a little clearer without trying to overly explain why I do real estate necessarily, amongst explaining the widowhood and all of that. It was just too distracting, We moved the widowhood a year away from the event instead of starting at the wake reception. Little things like that just brought it up to sitcom tone while still having heart to it.
Speaking of the widow element of the show, I feel like blending comedy and drama and heavier elements is usually reserved for places like FX or HBO. What was it like finding that right tone and balance for a sitcom on NBC?
When we originally thought of it, that's exactly why we thought we should explore this, because I hadn't seen that before. It's just funny that when we came out, there was like three shows doing it. It was us, Mr. Mayor, and Jamie Foxx's show [Dad Stop Embarrassing Me]. And now it's just us and Mr. Mayor. But it's still different, like Mr. Mayor is much further away, I think, as far as the family aspect and how close they necessarily were before she passed. Ours, she was running the world and everything but she's been gone for a while now and we're trying to just pick up the pieces and go on. It's been interesting to explore such a somber, heavy topic and still find some comedy and laughs.
Considering SNL is based out of New York and Kenan was filming simultaneously in Los Angeles, how insane was your weekly schedule during those few months of overlap? Not to mention this all in the midst of a global pandemic.
When we were overlapping, we would work Monday through Friday in L.A. and then hop on the plane Friday afternoon, land in New York in the middle of the night, and then get to 30 Rock by noon-ish on Saturday and work the show. And then go home and fly the next morning, get back to L.A. before the day is gone. I kind of never got off West Coast time. It wasn't too terrible, but it was definitely a whirlwind.
As you and Chris are in L.A. for Kenan, I'm assuming you're still communicating with everyone back at 30 Rock and talking through sketch ideas, right? I can't imagine you just show up on Saturday and say, "Okay, Lorne, what's the plan?"
Yeah, otherwise you're not really going to be involved when you get there on Saturday. And that feels not so great because you've gone through a lot to get there. You want to try to stay in the mix just to make sure when you do show up, there's something for you to do.
For 18 years you've grown accustomed to one way of doing things at SNL, so what wast it like readjusting to the sitcom environment? You famously had some experience with it back in the Kenan & Kel days.
It's a whole other level. Because it is a sitcom, it's single-camera, so there's no audience, and we're shooting 12-, 14-hour days, every day. It's a lot of all-day focus. As soon as I come in for that day, you have to be ready to perform all day. It's not like a rehearsal day or a writing day and we can just kick it and just relax until Friday when it gets real for SNL. Monday morning, by the time I'm there for an hour or so, it's about trying to perform every single moment at my fullest that I want to go on television. So it's a grind. Last year we started in November, and then we had Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year's, so this [Kenan] season stretched until like March, but this time we're only going from like mid-August to late-October. Not so terrible.
It had to be nice to have your SNL and Kenan costar Chris Redd along for this ride with you. Especially dealing with this intense schedule, did that add a comfort level?
It's great. I would have been fine by myself, but it would have been a much more lonely experience. It's nice to share that memory with somebody. But I felt bad dragging him around; he might've had a couple days rest. At the same time, he's just as hungry for it as I am. I think he gets a thrill out of working and being creative, so we put our cowboy hats on and start riding.
We talked back in 2019, after I believe you'd recently shot the first iteration of the Kenan pilot. You said it's "every comedian's dream to get their own show on a major network." So now having done a full season and earned an Emmy nomination, how does it feel to not just be living that dream, but thriving in it?
I just want to continue going upwards. I want everybody to know how wonderful the cast is, and how wonderful the writers and producers are. It's not ever just about one individual, so I want that kind of light to shine on the show, as well as people patting me on my back along the way. Having done it through the pandemic, it's the ultimate pat-on-the-back payoff, because it was very stressful and worrisome. No. 1, just worried about staying alive. And then, are we making a product that people are going to like? And are they going to bring it back, and do we trust our instincts? There was a lot of that, so this is like the stamp of "Yeah, trust your instincts and keep moving forward." I'm very excited, and also just very flabbergasted, man. It's been a flabbergasting kind of deal for me.
When you return shortly to begin filming season 2, what are some things you'll be exploring? We left off with a few loose ends, with Kenan possibly getting back into acting and the effect that would have on his budding romance with Mika [Kimrie Lewis].
The throwback in the first episode was one of the funniest things in the show, so I want to get back into throwing it back to those times, because that wig was too funny. And that grainy footage look is great. I just thoroughly enjoyed that. Also, everybody's arcs and journeys; I want to see more what Taylor [Louderman] has got going on in her home life, and Fortune [Feimster], and Kimrie and myself, and figuring all that out — or not. Just blossoming all the characters. And Don Johnson shall rise to the top like a fine mouse running in the cream.
Don Johnson, a true legend who can do it all. What's it been like getting to work so closely with him? He was so funny in season 1.
He's incredible. He's so genuinely, amazingly awesome and sweet, and just a good dude and good soul. On top of that, super-funny, loves to laugh, and has a great sense of humor. We laugh all day long. Even when we're having a tough time finding a joke, we laugh about how hard it is to find whatever joke we're looking for. So it's just a real pleasure. But even past that, he's a f---ing trained veteran actor, he grew up in the theater, and he's been doing it for forever, and he takes it very seriously. Watching him work and break things down, it's funny to watch him make sure even the camera guys are doing their job, and asking them who exactly they're shooting. He's just very hands-on and involved. For him to be that way on my project is like, man, I couldn't have asked for anything better.
Last year marked your 18th season on SNL, continuing your run as the longest-tenured cast member in history. Do you have an idea of how much longer you want to stay? Other veterans like Cecily Strong and Pete Davidson have admitted recently that their futures are "up in the air," not even knowing whether they will be back in the fall for season 47.
I keep saying I'm trying to get to 20 [seasons]. So if they don't throw me out of there before, I'm trying to get to 20. And then I don't know if it makes sense for me to leave even after that point. As long as the show keeps going and they want me to be there and I don't feel like I'm in the way of somebody else's opportunity, should I just oblige? I don't really know what to do at this point, as far as leaving is concerned. Like, why should I ever have to leave?
If you could get to 20 seasons and and then even into the 50th season, that would be pretty insane.
It's crazy. It's like nobody thought to do it that way. Because it would seem like a hindrance in your career or something, like you're stuck. But for me, it's the exact opposite. It's always been a thing that makes people want to have me when I'm unattainable. So it's worked in my favor to be busy 10 months of the year.
You literally just proved you can be on SNL and at the same time go and have your own eponymous sitcom that you get an Emmy nomination for.
I wasn't the first one. Fred [Armisen] did Portlandia for a while before he left. He just decided to leave, but I don't think he necessarily needed to, because he was doing the same thing, a sketch show to a sketch show.
And Aidy just pulled off the same double-nomination as you, getting one for SNL and one for her Hulu series Shrill.
How about that Aidy Bryant?! She's incredible. So shout-out to her! I love her to death, and I'm so happy for her.
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