underrated

Why Kenan Thompson Is the Most Underrated SNL Cast Member Ever

Kenan Thompson on SNL. Photo: NBC

Jan Hooks used to refer to Phil Hartman as “The Glue.” As a Saturday Night Live cast member from 1986–1994, Hartman discovered that the most effective way to separate himself from the rest of the herd was by binding the herd together. Even if he didn’t possess the showy, singular standout star factor of some of his castmates at the time, Hartman’s rare gift of selflessness shined through when he was being that adhesive to the ensemble, tapping into his own strengths as a performer by highlighting those of his co-stars and volleying that energy between himself and them.

Kenan Thompson is Hartman’s heir apparent, and not just because they both performed in sketches as two wildly eccentric chefs. As the longest-running cast member in SNL history (he’s performed through three different presidential administrations!), Thompson has spent the last 15 seasons cracking the code to cutting through the comedic Gordian knot of what it takes to elevate any and every sketch he’s in. He can button a scene together even when he’s just a peripheral player or, if he’s center stage, acts as the gravitational force that helps the other stars align. Thompson is both a great actor and reactor, delivering fully lived-in, meticulously crafted impressions (Whoopi Goldberg, Steve Harvey), absurdist original characters, or the perfect wordless cutaway glance with equal vigor. And his castmates bounce off of both to enhance their own performance … if they’re not too busy breaking because of him. He’s like Kobe Bryant if Kobe Bryant were also the consummate team player.

Thompson’s sketch-comedy credentials precede the Studio 8H stage. As one of the breakout stars of Nickelodeon’s sketch series All That, Thompson went on to create some of the more memorable — and dare I say timeless — characters that transcended just the kids’ corner of popular culture. So popular, in fact, that he and co-star Kel Mitchell were handed both a spinoff movie and spinoff show thanks to the Zeitgeist-y vein they were able to tap into. Thompson was fortunate enough to break the cruel and callous curse that befalls many child actors and pivot into films, television, and sketch comedy for adults, landing a coveted repertory-player spot on SNL in 2003. And while he still manages to dip out and make the occasional but always hilarious appearance in a film or TV show (or be the face of a massive commercial campaign), his primary, enduring home remains on that collaborative stage at 30 Rock.

Comedian Ron Funches has admired Thompson’s generous comedic spirit since the latter was a child actor on All That, and he continues to sing his praises to this day. Funches, whose first hour-long special, Ron Funches: Giggle Fit, premieres tonight on Comedy Central, imbues his comedy with a similar warmth and silliness, and he’s looked to Thompson’s 25-year-long career as an inspiration and guiding light for his own. While Funches is a proper stand-up, he, too, has leapt from film to TV to, yes, even sketch comedy in similar fashion. With Giggle Fit set to introduce him to a much wider audience and earn him an even larger following than he already has, Funches decided to hop on the phone and celebrate a comedy comrade who deserves far more mainstream love.

What’s an adjective you’d use to describe the type of career Kenan Thompson has had as an underrated person in comedy?
The main word I would say is consistency. I feel like Kenan is my generation’s Regis Philbin. He has been on television as long as I’ve been aware of television. By the time I was old enough to watch stuff, as I grew up watching Nickelodeon and All That, he’s just been on TV. He’s never been off TV. Now that I am in the business of entertainment, to know just how fucking difficult that must have been — as a black chubby nerd just surviving at making it year after year on television, to get up and do the occasional movie, survive being Fat Albert, and then go on and still be the best sketch member on Saturday Night Live, currently for sure, and he’s in the top ten, maybe top five all-time — is just an amazing feat. It’s a level of accomplishment that I don’t think I hear anyone talking about enough. He just now got a pilot on NBC. Just now!

It took 13 seasons for Kenan to get an Emmy nomination for his work on SNL, and he finally won his first one last year, which is crazy to think about. What would you say his best asset is as a comedic performer?
He is the best at faces. And people who work at Saturday Night Live have backed this up for me! I did an interview with Bobby Moynihan, and he says that they have numbers for Kenan’s faces. They’ll say, like, “We need a 36,” and then a 36 in a “Californians” sketch is different from him doing the 36 as Whoopi Goldberg. And he’s just been at it for so long, he can just dial them up. He can make a sketch that I don’t care about at all likable enough for me to get through. Then he’s been involved in these other sketches that mean a lot to me, especially as a black performer.

Is there a sketch that features Kenan you’d say was particularly foundational to your sensibilities?
The recurring sketch of “What’s Up With That?” It was just a perfect send-up of old BET shows and where some black entertainment was at that time, which was defined by being all catchphrases and being silly and stupid and there being no content. It ended up being a dumb running sketch that had a very smart message. Kenan played the host, who’d always find a way to burst into song and cut off his guests. At the time, I was not enjoying what I was watching on other shows from those types of networks. So to see someone poke fun at that with such an inspired performance made me realize there are other people like me who think that it’s stupid. That really helped me when I was younger.

Kenan really is the ultimate utility player in the tradition of Phil Hartman — the Everyman who is always committed to the character and in service of the ensemble. Do you think because of this he often gets overlooked when people discuss the all-time SNL greats? 
Yeah, I think that’s exactly what does get him overlooked. It’s that thing where you’re so good at everything that people can take it for granted. There are certain performers, like Jimmy Fallon … let’s just be honest about Jimmy Fallon. For the most part, in sketches, he was not good. He was just kind of there. Then occasionally he would bat it out of the park, or he would look at the camera and break, and it was memorable. That’s why people will say Jimmy Fallon was wonderful on Saturday Night Live. But when you back it up with the stats, he doesn’t have that body of work. His run on the “Weekend Update” desk was not the one that people remember the most. It’s just that when he swung hard, he hit home runs. With Kenan, he’s the guy who constantly gives you doubles and triples.

Kenan first made his mark as a young performer on All That back in 1994 where, coincidentally enough, a full-circle prophecy began as he got to share a sketch with Chris Farley, who was then at the height of his SNL popularity. What did that show mean to you growing up?
I love All That. People would make fun of me because Kenan and I were very close in age and we look very similar — husky black gentlemen with a similar natural haircut. A lot of times I would get made fun of at school. People would call me Kenan all the time and it would bother me. It would bother me because he looks so much funnier than me. I was like, “I can’t be this guy. He’s so hilarious.” I loved him as Pierre Escargot with just him in a raincoat in the bath speaking French. So much of that show was silly and surreal and had no point to it, especially since those were sketches with just him carrying it. It was him and his imagination. You could just tell by those Pierre sketches that this guy was gonna be good. I think that’s another thing we take for granted — that he was a child actor, a child star, and for most people, that doesn’t lead to getting better when you’re older or the respect when you’re older. Usually, people flame out, and the fact that he hasn’t is amazing. We look at Kel Mitchell and we’re like, “He doesn’t have that great a career,” when in fact, Kel had a great career, too. Kel was in Clifford the Big Red Dog! We don’t even talk about that because Kenan is still around. And then you have Good Burger. C’mon. That’s the Wayne’s World for black people.

Even as a kid he was able to discover how to balance both the big and broad central performance in All That with sliding into a supporting role as the put-upon straight man in Good Burger.
That really goes to show how good he is as an actor. Not many people are straight men and the funny guy. To be able to do both shows he has a lot of range and is a great actor, which is something you wouldn’t even expect from a Nickelodeon performer, which is a lot of memorizing your beats and knowing your cue and saying your lines. So the fact that he’s continued to go above and beyond is a testament to his comedic chops. I really hope that lives through in his pilot he has at NBC, too. I hope that show goes well because the subject matter of that is close to my heart. It’s about being a single dad and parenthood. I think just with society in general and on social media, there’s been a long stereotype of showing bad black fathers, and that’s not something that I like to see. I’ve been writing my own show about myself and my son, and to see that he has his own show coming out about what it’s like being a black father, that makes me feel more hopeful. It also makes me feel excited that more of these stories are being wanted and being told.

You were also a very underrated component on a very underrated sketch series, Kroll Show. What do you remember from your time there?
I remember being terrified, for sure.

Terrified?
Yeah. I hid in the bathroom a lot when I was supposed to be writing because I didn’t know how to use Final Draft. I learned on the fly as we went. I just remember how nice Nick [Kroll] was to me and how helpful he was and how he helped me learn what my strengths were. Then he let me start writing toward my strengths, which led me to writing sketches for myself in his show, which is beyond selfless. I just learned so much. I’m really proud of it because I look at all the people who were involved in it, and I see that they are pretty much taking over Hollywood. What Nick’s doing and what Jason [Mantzoukas] is doing and what Jenny Slate’s doing and Chelsea [Peretti], you look at those people and it’s like, Man, I was a small part of that! I wrote some of those sketches, and I was acting in parts of it, and that, to me, was a very special time in my career. It was the best time and we loved it. I look at that show, and I would confidently put it up against any other sketch show. Three seasons of high-quality work.

To wrap things up, is there a definitive Kenan sketch that showcases just how dynamic of a performer he is? Which one would you recommend to someone not familiar with his work?
There are so many to choose from. Maybe the first “Black Jeopardy” sketch, I really like him in that. He just instantly sets the tone. And I really like his acting in “The Californians.” It’s pitch-perfect. Honestly, I’d say if not one of those sketches, then just watch him in the bathtub with that rubber duck. Don’t even tell people who he is. I think anybody would laugh at that. You might go, Yeah, this is stupid as fuck, but I can confidently say anybody who watches it will also be like, Okay, I see it, I see it. You can really see who Kenan was as a performer back then and how he’s still that performer today. He’s a special person. Man, I didn’t know I was going to be as passionate about Kenan as I was! [Laughs.]

Kenan Thompson Is the Most Underrated SNL Cast Member Ever