Saturday Night’s Children: Kenan Thompson (2003-Present)

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Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 35 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member each week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.

Unlike most SNL cast members, Kenan Thompson came to the show with over ten years of experience acting in both film and television. To those who grew up watching 90s Nickelodeon shows, he is best known for his years on sketch comedy shows All That and Kenan & Kel, and he appeared in shows and movies like D2 and D3: The Mighty Ducks, Heavy Weights, Sister, Sister, The Steve Harvey Show, and Good Burger. He was hired at SNL in 2003, just three years after the last episode of Kenan & Kel, and has since racked up a growing list of recurring sketches and characters ranging from a maximum security prison inmate who berates teens using plotlines from movies to a talk show host more obsessed with transforming his show into a strange and soulful musical number than letting his guests speak. Thompson also reincarnated several of his Nickelodeon characters into their slightly more matured SNL doppelgangers, most notably his French Def Jam comedian character Jean K Jean, who is strikingly similar to Pierre Escargot, his Frenchman-in-a-bathtub character from All That.

Thompson’s carryover from child star to SNL player probably contributes to both his low-key off-camera demeanor and slow-but-steady rise to popularity on the show. “It’s just something that happens, maybe not as often as it should, when someone’s lighting up the stage and the other cast is at the side smiling and happy about it. He just makes everything you do funnier,” Lorne Michaels told New York Magazine in 2009 responding to a Scared Straight sketch, where Thompson plays prison inmate Lorenzo McIntosh and warns the same three troublemaker kids (Samberg, Moynihan, Hader) about the dangers of life in jail. My favorite part of Scared Straight is the way Kenan makes Bill Hader crack up every time through his intensely-delivered prison/movie plotline metaphors.

Some of my favorite Kenan moments come from him playing straight characters opposite from other cast members, like the boy whose arms are always broken in the Gilly sketches, Dakota Fanning Show band leader Reggie Hudson, and his role as Whoopi Goldberg in The View, where he draws the most laughs from a simple “We weren’t there” or scolding bug-eye toward the camera. In addition to these roles, Thompson has also impersonated celebrities like Bill Cosby, Steve Harvey, Al Sharpton, a pitch-perfect Jimmy McMillan, and Grady Wilson from Sanford & Son, who makes sex exercise tapes like Grady Wilson’s Burning Up the Bedsheets and Grady Wilson’s Fifty and Freaky. The Grady Wilson segments have become the Kenan equivalent of a Digital Short, and though initially they were blatantly sexual, like most of Kenan’s work, they fall more and more into absurdity as they develop.

Then there’s DJ Dynasty Handbag from the Deep House Dish sketches (“Brutiful!”), and of course DeAndre Cole from What’s Up With That?, one of the most bizarre recurring sketches ever, in which Thompson plays a 70s-era BET talk show host who turns every show into a stage for him to sing with an elaborately absurd crew of backup dancers. Instead of letting his guests answer questions normally, he has his band interrupt them with a hi-hat cymbal beat to encourage them to break into song, but it never works. While What’s Up With That? has received more than its share of critique from viewers, it is certainly SNL imitating itself. Initially I found this sketch hilarious, then off-putting, then really off-putting, then around the fifth or sixth one, I thought it was hilarious again. Part of me loves Kenan’s commitment as DeAndre, and another part of me just loves watching Jason Sudeikis dance in that track suit.

Since starting on SNL, Thompson has continued his career in shows and movies like Psych, Sit Down Shut Up, Fat Albert, Snakes on a Plane, Stan Helsing, and The Smurfs. Reruns of both All That and Kenan & Kel are set to air on TeenNick starting July 23rd, he is set to costar along with Morgan Freeman in Summer at Dog Dave’s, and in March 2011 it was announced that he would star in his own Lorne Michaels-produced comedy Party Starters, which is currently in development. Both films are scheduled to release in 2012, so maybe Kenan plans to transition from television to film? Then again, this kind of activity is nothing new for Kenan — he’s been here since he was fifteen.

Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.