Kenan Thompson in Kenan
Kenan Thompson as Kenan and Chris Redd as Gary in Kenan
Dannah Lane as Birdie, Kenan Thompson as Kenan, Dani Lane as Aubrey and Don Johnson as Rick in Kenan
Kenan Thompson as Kenan, Dani Lane as Aubrey and Dannah Lane as Birdie in Kenan
Kenan Thompson in Kenan
There's multi-tasking, and then there's Kenan Thompson.
Thompson, 43, began performing as a child in his native Atlanta, broke into commercials at a young age and by his mid-teens was a familiar face in movies — including The Mighty Ducks sequels D2 and D3 — and on television — most notably, the Nickelodeon comedies All That and Kenan and Kel.
In 2003, he joined the cast of Saturday Night Live and is still going strong as the longest-tenured performer in the show's history at 19 years and counting.
Along the way, he has appeared in several other films, guested on numerous television series and lent his voice to dozens of animated movies and TV shows, from Crank Yankers to Clifford the Big Red Dog.
Last year, Thompson took his workload to another level with the premiere of his own NBC sitcom, Kenan.
Adding to the degree of difficulty: SNL shoots in New York, Kenan in Los Angeles.
In Kenan, Thompson stars as Kenan Williams, a widower balancing his job as the host of a morning TV show in Atlanta and his responsibilities as father to two young daughters, Birdie and Aubrey, played by real-life sisters Dannah and Dani Lane, respectively. Helping — and sometimes hindering — him are his brother, Gary, played by Thompson's SNL castmate Chris Redd, and his father-in-law, Rick, played by Don Johnson.
In perhaps the busiest year of his career — and no doubt the most stressful, due to the impact of Covid-19 — Thompson didn't just survive, he thrived. Not only did he score Emmy nominations for his performances on both SNL and Kenan, but the latter received a second season order just two months after its premiere.
The Emmy noms were the fifth and sixth of Thompson's career; he won in 2018 in the category of Outstanding Original Music & Lyrics for the SNL song "Come Back, Barack." Among those sharing the award: Chris Redd.
Kenan aired a special Christmas episode on December 15 and will return with new episodes on January 3.
Shortly before the launch of season two, we spoke with Thompson about what he's learned from a year of juggling two shows — on two coasts, with two different formats and comedic tones — and what to expect in the year ahead.
Spoiler alert: Funny comes first.
You've been doing both SNL and Kenan for a year now. How challenging is it to manage the logistics of travel between New York and L.A. and shifting gears between the different tones and formats of the two shows?
It's been a lot of back and forth, but the switch in my mind is usually easy once I get around the group doing each show.
When I get around the Kenan cast, they're in the mode of their character, you know what I mean? It's very clear, like, "Oh, they're locked into this one specific thing and then exploring everything else through that one specific thing."
Then, you get around SNL, and they're just improving [the sketches] left and right. So, it's like, "Oh, this is very clear — anything goes over here, and as long as we're grounded in reality, we can kind of do whatever."
It's easy shifting gears like that once I'm around the people.
And logistically, yes, it's been a lot of flights back and forth, but definitely a diminished version between how we did it in season one and season two. Season one was very stressful [regarding] the windows of opportunity to get things done once we were able to come back [when production resumed following Covid restrictions]. We were one of the first shows back.
Kenan has some adult elements, but it doesn't push things like a lot of TV shows do. I don't know how you landed on the tone, but it has captured an audience.
That's big for me. I want to be able to watch a show with my grandmother and not have to cover her eyes or ears for certain moments, just for pushing boundaries' sake. There are other shows for that, and they're doing it at a very high level, and that's cool.
I also don't know if it works for me and my face and my brand, you know what I mean? I might as well embrace the opportunity to build something that could have a much bigger audience instead of a niche type of thing.
It sounds like you know yourself and your audience, which may account for your career longevity. Also, it would seem like SNL gives you an outlet to do things that might be a bit more edgy.
I don't know. I was always involved in diverse projects. Like, The Mighty Ducks was diverse, and Nickelodeon was a diverse world — [projects where] the background of a person doesn't really matter.
We're all on this planet together, and we should all be able to laugh at one another, but also about topics we all are familiar with.
Of course, if you don't get the reference, then you won't get the joke. But for the shorthand of us as general citizens, we should all be able to laugh together, so that's always been in the back of my mind.
A few years ago, you became the longest tenured Saturday Night Live performer. 2022 will be your twentieth season — that's a big chunk of your life.
Not only have you stayed at SNL, but you've taken on more work with Kenan. I don't know if that's a reflection of you and your personality, but at the rate things are going, it feels like no one will touch your record.
You never know. Everybody's kind of been there for a long time. Colin [Jost] is even up there as far as overall time. His on-camera time might be less, but his overall time is starting to be like 16 or 17 years.
It's starting to become a world where you can do both, and I wasn't necessarily the first person to explore that. I think Fred [Armisen] was really the first one to really be double-dipping at the same time, and God bless his heart, he double-dipped in sketch comedy [with IFC's Portlandia], which has to be insanely hard. So, I give him all the credit in the world.
And Aidy [Bryant] has had a beautiful series run as well [with Hulu's Shrill], and she's still on [SNL]. I think it's always been a place where nobody wants to leave necessarily, but now, I don't know if you really have to.
Another example is your Kenan costar, Chris Redd. You and he have known one other from SNL, but now you're working more closely through Kenan. You also play brothers, which may be more intimate, in a way, than your work on SNL. How has your relationship developed as friends and creative partners?
We've had years to build that bond and friendship. Anybody spending that amount of time might get annoyed by little things. I'm sure I could be highly annoying at times. But it definitely hasn't come to any of that because we have a real brotherhood.
I didn't even know he was going to come on board [Kenan] at first. So, the universe playing it out like that is just a blessing. And it's been nice to watch him grow in his career. He's taken on several shows and is building his company and his strength as a stand-up — like, really, really strong — and his career is just going in an upward trajectory.
It's nice to witness your little brother doing it big and what the possibilities might be for him going forward. It's cool to see because it's not like I necessarily wanted to do the in-front-of-the-camera thing forever. I have other aspirations, too. So, if I move aside and there's an opportunity for somebody to fill in that time, he's definitely one of the GOATs right now to go to for that kind of stuff. It's nice to watch that happen with somebody that I have such a bond with.
Another one of your Kenan costars is Don Johnson. What have you learned working with him?
He doesn't age, he's super funny and he's a hyper-focused actor. He takes it very, very seriously. That has a trickle-down effect because it takes a lot of work to build a single-camera show without it taking, like, 17 hours every single day. So, if everybody locks in and we focus and we're having a hard time finding a better joke or something like that, eventually we'll get there.
You're the father of two young daughters, and so is your character on Kenan. As someone who began performing when you were young, to what extent do you give advice to Dannah and Dani Lane, who play your daughters on the show, or try to help them develop and grow in a challenging industry for kids who are so young?
I think we all surround the girls with love and focus and tidbits of information if we feel like we have anything to offer them. But we also want them to have their own experience, so this season they got an acting coach, and they were able to explore their line readings and things like that in their own way, which is a beautiful thing for an actor.
It's a lot of pressure, and I know it was super intimidating in season one. But it was nice to see how much they matured because of how seriously they take it and how much they really want to be good actors and have a career in this business.
And they're doing a lot outside the show already; they have a lot of different things going on. It's such a pleasure to watch. I wasn't necessarily that young when I got a professional gig, but their story is different, and they have a very strong family base and everybody's looking out for them, so that's nice.
Can you say anything about the direction Kenan is going in the new season?
We are headed toward the funny, sir! That's what I like to say. We spent a good chunk of time setting up the world with heart and charm and some good funny moments, but now we're kind of done with that. People can go back and remind themselves of all that exposition we were doing, but now it's time to just be funny and performative. Just putting it all out there for people to embrace entertainment-wise, so it feels like each episode is a good watch.
Beginning January 3, 2022, Kenan airs Mondays at 8:00 and 8:30 pm on NBC. Previous and current episodes can also be streamed on Peacock.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.