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Kenan Thompson on the Origins of SNL’s Classic ‘What Up With That’

Saturday Night Live’s longest-running cast member explains how he came up with his breakthrough sketch

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE 40TH ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL -- Pictured: (l-r) Sasheer Zamata, Cecily Strong, Kenan Thompson, Jason Sudeikis during the "What Up With That?" skit on February 15, 2015 -- (Photo by: Theo Wargo/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Sasheer Zamata, Cecily Strong, Kenan Thompson, Jason Sudeikis during the "What Up With That?" skit on February 15, 2015.

Theo Wargo/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images

In the fall of 2009, Kenan Thompson had a simple, ridiculous idea for a character that kept making him laugh: the host of a talk show obsessed with his own theme song. “He just can’t stop singing it,” Thompson says, in his interview for our recent profile. “I feel like if we made the movie version, it would haunt him while he was sleeping and shit. Over and over again, like, ‘I can’t stop.’” He approached Saturday Night Live writer Bryan Tucker (now the show’s co-head-writer) with the idea, and as they talked it over with another writer, Rob Klein, it quickly took shape as a sketch about a BET show called “What Up With That,” hosted by one Diondre Cole.

“I feel like he had a singing group at one point,” says Thompson, “or maybe a solo career that never went anywhere and he went triple-wood-in-the-hood when his album came out. He probably had his own church at one point, but it was taken away from him for tax issues or something like that.”

Katreese Barnes, then the show’s musical director (who won an Emmy for “Dick in a Box”), composed the actual song, based on a very rough sketch. “We had to sing the theme into a tape recorder,” says Tucker, “or what we thought the theme was and then she would turn it into something, so I do remember singing into a tape recorder, like, ‘oo-ee what’s up with that’ – maybe not exactly that melody, but close.”

Once SNL’s various creative teams got to work, Thompson had a deep sense of the character. “The wardrobe department felt like it should be a three-piece-type churchy-type suit,” he says, “and then the hair department thought it should be some kind of styled Jheri curl. Once I saw it all put together I was like, ‘oh, I know this guy – he’s the handkerchief preacher man, I’ve seen that guy a million times.’ Except this guy wants to sing his theme song over and over again. ‘Cause he paid for the studio time!”

And then there was Jason Sudeikis in his red jogging suit. “He had been in a couple sketches where he was a dancer,” says Tucker, “and I remember that I just loved his dancing and that was another underrated part of him.  I said ‘you’ll come out and you’ll just dance that kind of old-school b-boy dance that you do sometimes at parties,’ and then the look became a Beastie Boys thing from the ’80s.”

 

The sketch killed. “We didn’t really know we had something until it was done the first time,” says Tucker, “but it was certainly a lot of fun to write. and that’s always a good sign.” Over the next three years, the sketch recurred eight more times (once with the actual Lindsey Buckingham alongside Bill Hader’s glowering impersonation) , plus a quick revival on 2015’s 40th anniversary special. It hasn’t appeared since, but with Thompson still on board, Diondre could reemerge on any given Saturday night, microphone in hand.

In This Article: Saturday Night Live, SNL

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