Kenan Thompson talks his heroes, his childhood and life after SNL

    Photo by Natalie Krebs / North by Northwestern

    The '90s came roaring back to Northwestern on Friday when SNL’s Kenan Thompson dropped in as A&O's winter speaker. Rather than constructing a standard standup comedy set, Kenan told humorous stories about his life and career, from the first time he smoked weed while working on Mighty Ducks 2 to the time Bill Cosby told him he’d need “two dicks” to handle the girls and fame after the release of Fat Albert (true story). He then opened it up to the audience for questions. The resulting half-hour Q&A session was highlighted by an audience member’s “All Frat” T-shirt, questions about possible hooking up on the set of All That, and a (fake? maybe?) interaudience marriage proposal. But it still left some rocks unturned regarding everyone’s favorite '90s Nick alum.

    Can you tell me what you like about standup comedy?
    Well, I mean I’ve been a fan of it since I was a child. It’s just one of those forms of entertainment, you know what I’m saying? So I guess what everybody likes: It’s a bunch of jokes, but the good ones can do it well without it seeming forced. I don’t know, now that I’ve gotten more into comedy I’ve done my research, but growing up I always used to watch like Richard and Bill and all those guys.

    I was gonna ask you, actually, if you had any comedy role models or influences.
    Dave Chappelle’s my favorite. Hands down. I think he’s brilliant. But, you know, I watch a shit-ton of Comedy Central. So I see everybody’s little half-hour joints. Some people become famous and some don’t, but they’re usually all pretty funny. I don’t know. It’s not really what I grew up in necessarily, so it’s kinda something I could be a fan of and not necessarily have to feel so involved in it, you know what I mean? I just enjoy it for what it is and that’s kinda how I look at it.

    Does working in TV and Saturday Night Live affect how you watch comedy shows?
    Yeah, you can’t avoid that. Once you kinda know the mechanics of something, you can kinda see how things work. I was watching The Price Is Right earlier today and I was like, "Oh shit, they rolled the wheel out!" It’s not just always there in a specific part of the studio. Being a kid I never thought about that, the technical side of it. When I listen to jokes I do think about the formula and where is it heading and is this taking too long, like the actual calculation of the telling of the joke instead of just listening to the guy tell the joke, you know what I mean? So I can’t really avoid that, but I think I still enjoy it just the same, like if it’s funny, it’s funny.

    What is the process of writing jokes for SNL like? Is it fun? Is it stressful?
    It’s fun. Having a deadline is stressful. We have a guaranteed deadline cause our show is live, so whatever we have, that’s what we’re going with. It puts pressure in like the earlier part of the week cause that’s when you know that you’re supposed to be responsible and try to have some kind of clear focus on something early in the week. That way by Thursday and Friday it can be touched on, as opposed to trying to start from scratch on Thursday and Friday because the table read is Wednesday, and that’s what they pick from.

    You mentioned in your set, you had that joke about Mick Jagger in 30 Rock. What’s the most random encounter you’ve had?
    That was one of them, for sure. But like, we had Paul McCartney last year, and he was this close to me. Like, we were in a meeting in between shows, where they’re cutting out stuff, and everybody’s in Lorne’s office, which is like really small, and he was in the back standing next to me and we were fucking chatting throughout the meeting. I was like, "This is Paul – well, who they’re saying is Paul McCartney.’ It was cool. There’s so many of them. They’re the most famous people you’ve seen, week after week after week, just coming through there. Like Elton John hosted, that was ridiculous. I spent seven days with Elton John, you know what I mean?

    From what you’ve seen, what makes a good SNL host?
    I mean, honestly, as long as people are happy to be there, it’s really not that difficult. We’ll figure out a way to present something they can do well. Regardless of whether they can do impersonations or not, they’ll figure out a way to squeeze them into something. I think it works well, sometimes the host can be really strong and the cast can take a break. Sometimes the host is one lane, one voice, doesn’t want to shave their moustache, they’re kinda in one look for the whole show, and that’s kinda where we pick up the pieces a little bit and have a tougher time, a tougher show. We’ll have more responsibility or whatever. But honestly, whoever’s just down to try whatever is usually the best people. If people are like, “I don’t want to do this, I don’t want to do that,” it makes it that much more difficult, cause we’re already scanning every idea that there is for that week to try and figure out something to do.

    So in addition to having all those modern celebrities, do you ever get kind of struck by the history of SNL? Like, "Oh my God, I’m doing this thing that John Belushi and Chris Farley did!"
    All the time. Our office is on the 17th floor, and where you get out of the elevator to go back to our office is like, The Wall, we call it. Well, I call it. It’s everybody’s headshot, from the beginning all the way down the line. It’s a long wall, and I walk past it every day. So the history of it is very prevalent. I mean, I’m a fan. I was a fan of the show in two different points. I was a fan of the Dana Carvey/Mike Myers years, and then I got back into it around the Sandler and Farley years, and then I watched like throughout Kattan and Will Ferrell and all those guys. So I've been watching in segments or whatever through time. Eddie Murphy was more so a research thing, like “The Best of Eddie Murphy.” But you can never really put it out of your mind, the fact that you’re trying to present what’s funny to you in a place that’s been presenting the funniest ideas from the funniest people in history. It’s a lot to live up to. It’s a lot of wanting to please your parents. They all kinda feel like elders of some sort, even though we only see a few of them. Ackroyd comes around, Chevy Chase has been around a couple times, but Garrett Morris came by maybe once, and Eddie’s never been back, but Chris Rock will come back. I think the people that have like a good standing with the show, like they had a good experience, come back and hang out.

    Right, Eddie kinda got burned.
    He didn’t necessarily get burned, he just had a different experience. It was a different show, and he was a major star while he was on it, his shit was blowing up like ridiculous, and he was very busy, you know what I mean? It wasn’t when Lorne was there, it was when Dick Epersol was running it, so it was just different. I don’t think he gives SNL the credit for blowing him up, I think he gives himself the credit, which is fine, but it’d be nice if he came back and hosted like for our sake or whatever.

    You mentioned during the set that you’re kinda wrapping up your time at SNL.
    Yeah, I’ve been there a long time.

    For your plans afterward, are you maybe looking to do like what Kristen Wiig did with Bridesmaids? Like do some writing?
    Well, we all want to do that. We all write, so that’s the dream. That’s one of the dreams is to write something and have it go really well and have it be accepted and maybe start a track of putting out kinda your flavor of movies. Like the Adam Sandler or Mike Myers run, just to have a run at it, is everybody’s dream. We’re all very, very proud of Kristen. I remember her first week, she came in killing it and hasn’t stopped, so she deserves it.

    Besides SNL, over the course of your career, what’s your favorite single movie or TV show that you’ve done?
    Wow, that’s tough. It’s hard to compare to Saturday Night, like there’s no other. It’s 36 years, it’s a definite chapter of American history, you know what I mean? Like the Nickelodeon stuff could be somebody’s preference, maybe, but SNL is going down, and to be on the list of that is just ridiculous. I don’t know, I love all the work. I just love the work. It’s a good feeling. It’s not like I have a career path, I just take the roles as they come and try to put my little splash on it. Just being in the business I guess has been a lot of fun. I owe a lot to every project. I can ice skate because of Mighty Ducks, and shit like that, little things.

    Smoke weed cause of Mighty Ducks?
    Yeah, me and weed are good friends. There’s just like a lot of learning experiences and a lot of memories and a lot of shit to look back on. It kinda freaks me out a little bit.

    Yeah, kinda going off that, we’re at the age where we were the All That audience, so what was it like for you talking with us and doing the Q&A session?
    It’s great! I feel like an older brother, like the older brother in Trans Am who’s still around, hanging out (laughs). But it’s cool. It’s weird, cause when we were doing it, you couldn’t tell me we weren’t the most famous people in the world. But as you grow up you realize, or whatever, and then to have people call that back is just a really good feeling, for sure. We were just kids being kids.

    Since you started so young, are you happy having a childhood like that? Would you rather it been different?
    I mean, I didn’t necessarily get busy until after 15-ish, so my childhood was pretty normal. But it’s a different business now. Being an actor-for-hire kinda sucks, you need to generate material, otherwise you’ll just be waiting forever and wind up in a reality show or some shit. I’d hate to do that, cause I consider myself a real actor. Like I have a drama face on my back. I like real theater and real performance. That’s why I give standup a lot of credit. To do it well is a real beast, it’s a real craft and you have to really hone it. Usually the ones that do it the best are really, really smart people, you know what I’m saying?

    Are there any specific standup comedians right now that you really dig?
    Yeah, I mean I work with a lot of them, like John Mulaney’s got his special coming out, and JB Smoove is hosting The Ruckus and he’s got his specials on, and he was hired with me as a writer and then went on to do bigger and better things like Curb Your Enthusiasm and killing it. He’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever seen. And I listened to Mitch Hedberg earlier, God rest him. Just people that were like really, really good at different shit. Like George Carlin, I watch his specials and I’m like, "that is mind-boggling, the amount of information he’s spitting out right now." Like within 10 minutes I think he covered like the first five chapters of the Bible in a comedic way, you know what I mean? It was crazy, and I like people like that. I like Ellen DeGeneres a lot, she’s really funny and casual with it, it’s not really forced. And I think Kevin Hart is doing great right now, he makes me laugh a lot.

    Would you ever consider cutting a Comedy Central special?
    Yeah, if I worked up a good hour. I take it very seriously. What I do is more of a storytelling thing, which makes it easier for me cause these are my stories. But if I were to go into joke mode, I would want to go into a joke mode where it’s like a great joke every ten seconds, and that takes time to build. I’m a little lazy, I can’t lie. But this is good practice. I get the formulaic part of making a joke or whatever. I would like to build a real set. Like even Bill Cosby, even though he’s talking about his family and his kids, it’s a set. It’s going from this place to this place and there’s a joke, a punchline or whatever. He does it for three hours, it’s crazy.

    Whereas you’re just, "Here’s my life."
    So far, yeah. Basically for me to get my feet wet in it. I was like, "These people want me to come do standup for an hour, but I don’t have any jokes, so what can I do?" But this whole telling stories thing and the Q&A thing, it’s a good hour, so far.

    Did you like the Q&A?
    It’s great, it’s my favorite part. I don’t necessarily like talking about myself, but I like telling funny stories, and I guess it’s my night, so I tell my stories and try to make them funny. But the Q&A is always my favorite part, cause that’s when it gets real and raw and it’s new every time. It’s never the same.

    Is there any particular question or two that you really liked?
    Yeah, I mean, I don’t know, people always wonder whether the All That cast was hooking up with each other. That’s a very 2000-type mentality. In the '90s it wasn’t all about hooking up like that. We were still kinda pure. That one, and like the engagement was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen anything like that during a show. I’m willing to quit right now. Can’t beat that. But yeah, it’s my favorite part. I like when people get specific about work that I’ve done, cause I never really watch myself. So when people call out things, it’ll take me like a minute to remember what they’re talking about. I’m like, "Wow, you must’ve really been watching, you know these character names." I don’t even know character names half the time, I just try to have fun with it.


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