Kenan Thompson (‘Saturday Night Live’) on how comedy has changed since the ’90s [Complete Interview Transcript]

Kenan Thompson is now a four-time Emmy nominee, collecting another bid in Best Comedy Supporting Actor this year for his work on “Saturday Night Live.” He won an Emmy in 2018 for writing the song “Come Back, Barack” for the NBC sketch comedy series.

Thompson recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing writer Kevin Jacobsen about getting Emmy love over the past few years, the challenges of the at-home episodes of “SNL” this season and the development of his upcoming sitcom. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: You got your first nomination in 2017 for writing a song. You win the next year for another song. Plus, you get a nomination for acting. And now here you are again with four nominations, one win. Not a bad record. 

Kenan Thompson: That’s pretty intense, man. But thank you for that intro, man. When you hear it out loud like that, God, that feels good (laughs). 

GD: Well, what has it meant for you to be getting all this love suddenly from your peers over the past few years? 

KT: Love, whenever it comes, is highly accepted. So it feels great, of course. I used to avoid the Emmys, when I was more uncomfortable dressing up and stuff like that. I just felt tight in tuxedos. I didn’t like it much. So I just would just be like, “No, if I’m not personally nominated, then you guys go have fun or whatever, blah, blah, blah and I’ll support from home.” But once I personally started getting nominated, I was like, “OK, well, now I have to go.” And then I saw how big the room is in person. It’s a room filled with every single person that I’m familiar with. These are all famous people that have been working for years, heroes of mine, but also icons that are just all co-mingling. And then I was able to witness what award shows are really all about, the fellowship of artists celebrating each other and I started to get it. It wasn’t about the trophies at all. It was about the community coming together and people being able to catch up with each other that probably don’t get to see each other as often because you have a wonderful relationship when you’re shooting a movie but then you don’t get to work together again for the next 15 years, something weird. So this might be your chance of running back into somebody that you don’t get to see because you’re both very busy, type stuff. And it was a room full of that, a big, giant room full of all these famous people just loving on each other and that was incredible to see. So to take the stage in any form of that was just incredible and my first time going, Kate [McKinnon] and I had to do that opening number together opening the show and then I ended up having to give the last award away that they told me about at the last minute. I’m like, “Yo, what is happening? I’m opening and closing the Emmys my first time going.” It was just a whole lot to deal with and I felt the pinch of losing even though it was to a guy who couldn’t be a sweeter person ever in the world I don’t think ever existed, Henry Winkler. From day one, when I met him, he gave me a big hug and I’m like, “Yo.” We met on an animated show. Something to do with school. It was Mitch Hurwitz’s show from “Arrested Development.” 

GD: Was that “Sit Down, Shut Up”?

KT: “Sit Down, Shut Up.” Thank you very much. Very good. So I was going to a voiceover for that and it was just some backlot, maybe Paramount or something and I’m walking and Henry Winkler was, I guess, just finishing his session. So he’s walking towards his car and most of the time, when two people pass each other, they just pass each other. But he is a very present individual. So he looked me right in my face and was like, “Oh, bubalah, I love you.” We never met, and this is Henry Winkler talking to me like that. I’m like, “What?” It just blew my mind. So I never imagined that the Fonz would be so sweet. But he’s just an older little man now and Mr. Sweater Vest and all hugs so it was truly amazing to meet him like that. So to lose to him, it was just like, that’s not a loss at all.  To even be in the same conversation is a win. The same W I’m taking this year. It’s an incredible category of super gifted artists and to be in that conversation, it’s a win for me. So yeah, it’s been an incredible experience with this whole big side of the industry side of it starting to come around and pay attention to me. Yeah, it’s crazy. 

GD: Well, this was a unique season of “SNL” where the live shows had to be cut short. The last one, I think, was in March with Daniel Craig. 

KT: And it’s so crazy if you watch those good nights, we had no idea. Everybody was having fun, hugging. We were going into a two-week break. So we’re all like, “Man, thank you. We’re ready for a break, and as soon as the break’s over, we’re going to be right back.” No reason to say goodbyes for real for real. Everybody’s just high-fiving and it was crazy, and then shit got way too real, like, four days later. 

GD: Yeah, more than a two-week break. But you guys had to do your last three shows from home. What were your initial reactions and the discussions you were having when you realized that you probably weren’t going back to Studio 8H this season and that you’d have to adapt everything to this virtual setting? 

KT: I mean, it all was happening so fast and all at the same time as far as when information is coming in as far as how to protect yourself. “Are we able to move around? If we do move around, do we have to quarantine for however long?” There was just a lot to deal with on top of, “OK, well, work hasn’t called yet. So I’ll deal with that when they call,” and then they call and was like, “All right, we’re doing the show this week,” and it was like, “Shit, how?” We’re very last-minute anyway so I was used to, “All right, you’re going to be getting FedExes, this, that and the other and we’re sending your wardrobe,” and everything just started swirling like it does when we have a show that week, all these professionals come together and everybody does their thing, which always made me feel very comforted. I don’t feel like I’m going out there swinging a giant bat by myself at any point. It’s always a very, very big team effort and it was never more reflective than those times, for sure. 

GD: And the episode you’re actually submitting to Emmy voters is the second at-home episode, which, we saw the return of “What Up with That,” we saw Big Papi, we saw O.J. Simpson. I mean, a lot of your highlights, really. 

KT: Yeah, it was a lot of heaters in that one. That’s why I chose it.

GD: Yeah, well, I wanted to talk about “What Up with That.” I mean, it’s always a blast, but with this episode, obviously, it had to be virtual. Were there any challenges with adapting that sketch with all those different players, just giving it the same energy as a live show?

KT: No, and that was the beauty of it. The biggest hurdle was me staying on beat and in key to the music. So I’m like, “How are we going to figure that out over a Zoom recording where they’re on the Zoom and I’m recording on two phones or whatever?” They sent us an extra phone device to record with. So I’ve got two angles going and lights and all this stuff but the music has to be in time. So I had my earbud. Thank God I finally caught up with technology as an old man and I was like, “Well, if I’m just on a phone call with Eli [Brueggemann], our music director, and he’s just playing it on his phone, that’ll be as real-time as it gets. So I’ll be able to listen and sing without it bleeding into the audio that we’re recording on because I’m only calling him from my phone as opposed to the Zoom,” whatever the technical stuff was. That was the biggest hurdle. Once I had that figured out, my whole thing ringmastering everything was, I think, the hardest part. I mean, we can spray paint everybody else in. DJ Khaled showed up and did his thing and everybody just pitched in and contributed in such an awesome way. I hadn’t done it in a while because my buddies all left the show, so just out of respect or just want to do it with them, kind of thing, I just avoided doing it but this way, we could somehow get everybody back for it. So that was awesome. And Charles Barkley. My God. Thank you, Charles. 

GD: Well, the Big Papi cooking show, very interesting twist, because we always see him behind the Weekend Update desk and now you’re having to carry it as a sketch. I imagine maybe that might have been more of a challenge because it’s not like you’re bouncing off of someone, really, and it’s this new setting. What was that all like to film that? 

KT: It was interesting because it was a lot of dialogue. So I wasn’t really memorizing. I had a teleprompter kind of app going on an iPad in the distance where I could see it and check in on where I was at. So I was just juggling a lot of balls and I just was running through the dialogue and I didn’t really know how it was going to be when they put it all together. But thank God our director, Oz Rodriguez, is just impressively awesome, and he’s Dominican, so he had just a special flavor that he added when he added the music to it, added all these different roll-in things from the side and graphics and stuff like that. It made it a whole piece as opposed to just me in the kitchen talking. 

GD: And then we have the O.J. Simpson sketch, which you’ve done before, and you’re always toeing that line into darkness, I guess, which I love. What is that like, though, when you and the writers are doing a parody of a real-life person and going as far as you can and sort of pushing the limits but not going too far, that balance? 

KT: Yeah, I mean, that episode is a favorite of mine as well because I wrote with my three favorite dudes. Me and [Bryan] Tucker write “What’s Up with That” along with our man Rob [Klein], but Rob departed the show. Big Papi is written by [Colin] Jost, one of the greatest writers that gave me my first sketch, “Scared Straight,” when we were sharing an office together. I was trying to figure out how to make “Scared Straight” into a sketch that has more legs than me just yelling at people and he added in the ‘80s movie references and just made it a full piece as opposed to a one-sided thing and he’s just brilliant. So whenever he’s written for me or we’ve written together or whatever, it’s always come out wonderful and he’s written all the Big Papis for me. He’s dope, and then Michael Che is just insanely, incredibly funny and he wrote the O.J. thing and we write “Black Jeopardy” together, me, him and Brian Tucker’s idea, but when Brian and Che get together and walk that line together, it’s impressively funny. So yeah, that was a reflection of three of the dudes that I really work with a whole lot in one episode, too. So it was a very special one. 

GD: Yeah, well, I’m wondering in general, you’ve been in the business of television comedy for decades now, even dating all the way back to “All That,” which you’re now executive producing the new version. I’m curious just what changes you’ve noticed since you were first starting out as far as what was funny then may not be as funny now, just the types of opportunities that are available now and just how much things have changed in the industry, what the landscape looks like now versus then. 

KT: Yeah, I mean, everything is completely different from, I would say, even 10 years ago, which is still in the 2000s. So going back to the ‘90s is like, I’m sure you can find a lot of things that are like, “Oh, well, maybe…” but I’ve never done anything in malice so it’s always been where everybody’s mentality is at at the time. Now, everybody’s waking up. You can’t still lean back on old habits just because you know that those habits tend to get a laugh, because if you’re softening the blow on important issues, you might be undermining something and that’s not great, just because it gets a laugh. So I try to be very mindful of that. But yeah, it’s a real minefield out there. Anybody’s liable to step on something with the way they say something or whatever, but as long as people can either apologize or clarify what they were trying to say and move on, and it’s not done in a particular “Fuck you” sort of way, we should be able to be fine because there’s bigger things going on than what a joke-teller does, basically, I guess.

GD: It’s probably a healthy attitude, and you’ve got a lot of other things you’re doing as well. You’re also working on your new series, which is called “Kenan.” 

KT: (Laughs.)

GD: Groundbreaking!

KT: I had to reach hard for that one, yeah (laughs). 

GD: (Laughs.) Can you talk about the development process of that and what gave you the inspiration to make that leap? 

KT: I mean, that one has definitely been an ongoing experience. But yeah, I’m just so proud of the times. Like you say, Kel [Mitchell] and I are both executive producing “All That” and I think it’s an awesome thing to be able to stay in the business long enough to have something come back around to where you can be involved on a different tier as opposed to, like, “OK, we’re gonna be the older dudes in the cast because it’s back now.” We can actually get on the business side of things and the behind-the-camera actual functionality, adult version of being involved in the show is concerned. So that feels amazing and it feels amazing that we’re both able to do that together. He’s definitely super hands-on because he’s in California. So he’s been on a number of episodes and I’m sure that feels good for the younglings to feel better about having to fight up against whatever legacy we put forth back when we were on the show. So I think these times are really great, but at the same time, it’s very tough to build a show and that’s been my experience with my sitcom. It’s always changing. It’s always evolving. When you think it’s like, “OK,” you should probably go back to the drawing board because you want it to be without a doubt. It’s like, “Oh, that was good.” Like, that’s trash. You might as well throw it away. You’re gonna find out in a couple of weeks or a couple of months down the road after they start testing what you feel just OK about and then it’ll really let you know where the numbers are at and then it’s like, “Oh, snap. We need to try to aim for the heavens every single time, every single idea, joke possibility, whatever.”

So that’s been the experience and then trying to figure out what do we want to call the show and then do I feel comfortable with it being my name? It’s like, OK. Yeah, fine. But as long as everybody else feels good about it, NBC and Lorne [Michaels] and Jackie [Clarke] and David Capse, my two awesome show creators and writers and our director, Ken Whittingham, who’s done almost every sitcom in the world, good buddy of mine, that collective thought group, as long as they’re feeling good about it, then I feel about it. And that’s how most of it went, like, we all sat down and watched the pilot in different versions, like, “Which version do we mostly all gravitate towards?” And that was the one that we were like, “OK, well, let’s just do this one.” And it was OK but it wasn’t a super home run because we would’ve just went straight into production, probably. So NBC gave us time to redevelop some things and go back and check it out as opposed to the rushed process of a pilot, because you’re trying to basically set up a show that can hopefully run for season after season in seven days, basically. So it’s a very rushed situation. Thank God they were able to give us the time to develop it to where it’s at and massage things like taking it from “The Kenan Show” to just “Kenan” and simplifying and adding awesome comedians around me as well. So it won’t be just about me trying to be the head of everything and I’ll be able to do what I do and everybody will be able to, too. And then people can love the show and not just tune in just to see… I’ve never wanted to be that guy where it’s just like, “This is mine and I’m the head dude in charge.”

GD: Your name in lights, yeah.

KT: Yeah, I’ve never been that guy. But if it’s an opportunity to get a show up, I’m the tunnel that is going to run through it then I’m all about that. 

GD: Well, just in the final moments here, you also have a podcast that you started up called “You Already Know” that you started back in May. I’m curious just what made you want to jump into podcasting also and talking about pop culture in particular. 

KT: Yeah, because it’s one of those mediums that I ignored for a long time, just like social media and it was like, “Well, I don’t even really know why I’m ignoring these things.” It just felt like it’s going to become another job that I have to do but I had to just switch my way of looking at it and just incorporate these things into your life because they’re going to be incorporated one way or the other whether it’s people talking about things in conversations and you feel left out, or it’s something you notice and you want to share, but you don’t feel like sharing it quickly enough or whatever and then you get to these platforms that allow you to scratch those itches, basically, and you just wind up on Instagram anyway. So you might as well just embrace it, and then podcasting was a buddy of mine was trying to tell me that I need to do a podcast because he thinks it would be funny to listen to me talk. And I’m like, “I don’t think so.” I’m only talking like this now because we’re talking and you’re asking me questions. But in my normal life, I’m chill. I’m just watching TV or responding to what other people say. It’s not like I’m actually the showman. So I was like, “I don’t really know about that.”

But then I went home and I was kicking it with my other buddy, who does talk a lot, and whenever we start talking, we chat for hours. I’m like, “You should probably do a podcast.” And he was like, “Nah, people have told me that, blah, blah, blah, but I don’t want to do it just by myself. But let me sleep on it.” Comes back the next day, he’s like, “OK, this is the plan. You and I are going to do a podcast and we’re going to build this company. We’re going to do it, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” So that’s where we’re at with that. I was like, “That makes total sense,” because whenever we’re just chilling, talking, especially we start harping on movies or TV shows that we love, he’s the behind-the-scenes guy that knows the writer or the DP or the director and we start just talking about that sort of framework stuff that has put out all the things that we love. So we feel like maybe if we investigated far enough, when we start creating things that we have the right team in place, we can make something incredible. So it’s those kind of conversations and they come pretty easy to us so we just started recording one and now we’re, like, 17 deep. 

GD: Now you’re a podcaster.

KT: Straight up. I kind of dig it because it’s like we get to express ourselves but also express ourselves very clearly, and it’s coming directly from me. So there’s no chance of misrepresentation of what I’m trying to say and I’m always able to clarify or do a pickup or whatever. It’s like, “OK, well, let me clarify my point here,” or add an apology like, “OK, I was wrong. That was fucked up. Please forgive me.” Luckily, so far, knock on wood, I haven’t had to do that. But it’s been an awesome thing to unveil myself because people only get to see me when I’m either on a talk show or on a show. I don’t do a lot of at-home material, basically. 

GD: We get to see the real you. Thank you so much, Kenan, congrats again on another Emmy nomination, good luck with the virtual ceremony, which should be an adventure. 

KT: I’m getting dressed up! I don’t know about everybody else.

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