From “What Up With That” to “Black Jeopardy,” inside the hilarious reign of Saturday Night Live’s longest-running cast member
Live from New York it’s… well, it’s Thursday night, and Kenan Thompson is back at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. In late August, he’s 57 floors above Studio 8H, sipping a Ketel and soda in the glittery bar at the top of the building, with jewel-box views of the city he’s called home since 2003. Just three weeks ago, his wife, Christina Evangeline, gave birth to their second child, a daughter named Gianna, and his family is still back in their Tampa, Florida, summer home. He’s got a couple of days of business in New York, but he needs to make it quick. “I’m on a hall pass,” he says.
Thompson is dressed for summer vacation — black Yankees cap, black Sean John short-sleeve button-front, cargo shorts — and talking about his job. He likes his job. He’s been doing it for a while. Thompson, who begins his 16th Saturday Night Live season September 29th, became the show’s longest-running cast member last year. He broke out in 2009 with “What Up With That?” based on a brilliantly simple character he created: the host of a talk show who can’t stop singing its theme song. Now, it’s hard to imagine SNL without him. Last season, he played parts ranging from a Bumble-dating O.J. Simpson to a Les Miz-singing diner lobster to a member of a Migos-style trio with a vocabulary limited to the word “Lambo.” He scored his first Emmy nomination as a performer in July — proof that sticking around has its rewards — and recently won a Creative Arts Emmy for the sketch “Come Back, Barack,” which also starred Chance the Rapper.
The longevity was never a plan. There was talk of sitcom deals and starring roles; he always told himself he’d leave when he got a green light. “By Season 10,” Thompson says, “I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m here. I’ll be here next year. And we’ll see where this whole thing takes me. . . .’ Andy [Samberg] left to Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Fred [Armisen] left to Portlandia, Kristen [Wiig], Bill [Hader] and [Jason] Sudeikis left to movies. Everybody else left to a job. That’s what I was waiting on, and then all of a sudden I was in year 13.”
Thompson is an institutionalist. He believes in the show, in its traditions and its disciplines, passing them on to new cast members. He takes it personally when they’re flouted, as in the case of one host in 2015. At a table read, in the middle of a sketch, Donald Trump took a phone call. “He’s a business guy, so if his phone rings, he’s like, ‘Hello, business,’ ” says Thompson. “That sketch died in that moment. That’s so unfair for the writer, who might’ve been up all night trying to type that shit. To not recognize the effort that goes into it is pretty shitty.”
When Thompson started at SNL, he was one of two black cast members, and the office culture was such that he had to bone up on white-nerd touchstones “to catch the references flying over my head,” he says, laughing. “I’m like, ‘Who is Yes? What the fuck is a Starship Trooper? The movie? No, the Yes song!’ ” Since then, “the show has come to him a bit more,” says SNL co-head writer Bryan Tucker. “He and I are really glad we can do ‘Black Jeopardy,’ where we have four black cast members and it’s not a problem.” Thompson accidentally jump-started the process in 2013 when he said, of the show’s lack of black female performers, that auditions “never find ones that are ready.” All he meant, he says, was that actresses who were ready gravitated toward other jobs. (“Come on,” he says, “I would never do my sisters like that.”) But the furor led to fruitful midseason auditions. “You can thank me for Leslie Jones,” he says, smiling. “I’m thankful for her too! That’s my buddy.”
He did his share of partying in his early days: Even after shows where he “doughnuted” — appeared in zero sketches — there were still “limos and shit afterward. Like, ‘Well, I’m still famous, bitch!’ ” But he’s on a dad’s early-rising schedule now, so he tries for a two-hour power nap most show days, snapping awake in his dressing room around 6:30 p.m. “It’s never a great nap,” he says. “It’s always very stressful.”
As we head out, a familiar 30 Rock security guard says hello, mentioning he’ll be working late shifts on Saturdays in the fall. Thompson smiles. “It’s the only night that counts,” he says
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