‘What else do you have?’ Kenan on Emmys, 20 years of ‘SNL’


Kenan Thompson smiles and looks up in a portrait.

Kenan Thompson will headline the Primetime Emmy Awards on Monday.

(Kendall Bessent / For The Times)

Kenan Thompson is a man of many faces. He’s also a man of many hosts.

Thompson, the longest-running cast member in the nearly half-century history of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” has played a monumental number of offbeat characters during his 19 seasons on the sketch comedy series. But he is probably best known for playing a variety of hosts on talk and game show parodies. Among other duties, he emcees “Black Jeopardy” and the wacky “What’s up With That?” and does an impression of Steve Harvey’s “Family Feud” routine.

His latest character, though, is brand new: “Kenan Thompson, Emmy host.” The comedian will headline the Primetime Emmy Awards on Monday, fortuitously timed to coincide with the start of his 20th season on “Saturday Night Live” — and the series’ 48th — later this fall.

In an interview from New York last week, Thompson said he is hopeful that he will bring a lot of laughter to the proceedings: “It’s going to be a fun night.” He also discussed “Saturday Night Live’s” upcoming 50th anniversary and his thoughts about “Kenan,” his NBC sitcom which was canceled earlier this year after just two seasons.

So we’re used to seeing you play different characters, including a lot of show hosts. How are you feeling as you get closer to doing the real host thing?

I feel great. There’s a great team that’s involved. I definitely don’t feel like I’m floating out there by myself. I’m really excited about it. There’s some great pieces coming together.

Your “SNL” colleagues Michael Che and Colin Jost hosted the Emmy hosts a few years ago. Have you asked them for advice or counsel?

I have not been in touch with them, necessarily. I’m going to be pretty straightforward — a good monologue and keeping the energy up will be my approach. I enjoy honoring artistry and creativity.

Are you getting up to speed on all the nominated shows and nominees?

You would think! (laughs). If I were a smart host, I would be doing that. I’m just keeping it natural and watching what looks appealing. But I really should go down the list and comb through everything so at least I know the faces when I run into them.

What’s the biggest challenge in approaching this job?

For me, it’s waiting. Waiting on the day, waiting on the moment, waiting on that first laugh. Getting into it and getting it done. Everything else are things I’ve been doing all my life — rehearsals, writing.

Not to spoil it, but can you give any clues on what you’ll be doing? Will any of your “SNL” characters show up?

I’m still figuring that one out. But right now, it’s probably going to be mostly myself.

You’ve also got the new season of “SNL” coming up. What is your perspective about being on this show for so long and being the most veteran performer?

It’s earned every single time. If it’s something that people have seen before, you have to find a way to do it so that it seems fresh. The telling of each joke has to be earned. You have to set it up the right way, and it has to be funny on the back end for people to celebrate it. You just can’t sit back and rely on being liked or admired. You have to come with it. I definitely have noticed that in the past few years — being in a place of being adored but also like, “I’ve heard this before. What else do you have?” situation. It keeps you digging.

You have referred to this series in previous interviews as “my life’s work.” What is the value that you’re getting from the show?

A lot of stability, which is a high-[value] commodity for a work-for-hire actor. It’s nice to be in one place, [versus] having to deal with the beck and call from Vancouver or Australia or someplace like that. With raising kids, that kind of lifestyle is a nice thing to have. That is my most prized part of everything that is outside of what “SNL” can do for your career. It’s also always changing, and it’s live, with a high level of artists and musicians. But the thing I covet most is knowing where I am going to be a lot of the time.

A game show host at his lectern

Kenan Thompson during the “Trivia Game Show” sketch on April 16.

(Will Heath/NBC)

How do you keep it exciting creatively for yourself?

I don’t have to do anything. The show is a machine. It’s a force. When it’s firing on all cylinders, there’s no better place to be in the city at 11:30 on a Saturday night when we have a show. Whether or not people think it’s funny is an opinion. But the epicness of that show at any given moment is one of a kind. There’s nothing more exhilarating than doing something live in the moment and it’s going well and you know you’re in full control of it. It’s like, “Wow, I’m at 30 Rock, making this whole room laugh, and possibly the globe.”

Do you have a favorite character?

I love Diondre Cole of “What’s up With That?” Lorenzo McIntosh of “Scared Straight” was my first personal idea on the show. The impressions: “Family Feud” is a lot of fun, so is “Black Jeopardy.” Playing generic game show hosts is a lot of fun. It’s mostly about what’s working instead of favorites because it’s so highly emotional and we do carve through so many ideas — and try out some things that fall flat. It can be very fleeting, like you’re winding through the world of possibilities. It’s a panic-inducing environment, but you take the little wins. And the little wins are laughs.

The 50th anniversary of “SNL” will arrive in a few years. You have said you feel that executive producer Lorne Michaels might leave that series when that milestone is hit.

His presence has been undeniably critical during the entire run of the show. He has a love and level of expectation for that place. It set the example — that dedication, smart people and being free to be an artist matters. My generation, the people who grew up watching the show, have a respect for the show. But at the same time, can he do it forever? Does he want to do it forever? I don’t know. Fifty is a nice round number and a hell of an achievement for anybody. That’s all I was trying to say.

What about your future staying with the show?

I keep joking that they will have to throw me out of there one of these days. I’ve never been in a situation where I’m invited back an exuberant amount of times. There’s really no negatives, other than it’s highly stressful and emotional. It’s better than being out of town.

So many people have been on the show and then left to do movies or TV shows.

They move on when they’re in high demand and it’s not possible to do both schedule-wise. That’s when people make that tough career decision. My opportunities have been manageable so far, so I have not been forced to make that decision yet.

Of course you had your own sitcom. What did you take from that experience?

I had a strong support system with Universal, and never felt sabotaged in any kind of way. Everybody wanted it to work and everyone worked really hard on it. They gave it multiple shots. I couldn’t thank them enough. It was an all-around supportive effort. I can’t say why it didn’t connect numbers-wise. But it’s a lesson learned.

Going back to the Emmys, what would define a successful evening?

For me, personally, it’s jokes landing. If there’s a musical number, have to nail that too. I just need to do my part.


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