Brow Beat

Why Saturday Night Live Writers Lean on Kenan Thompson

Clockwise from top left, Kenan Thompson as himself, as SNL's Jean K. Jean, as SNL's Grady Wilson, and in MTV's What Up With That host.
“He has the same ease in front of a camera that most of us do when driving a car.”

Photos by Michael Buckner/Getty Images; NBC Universal; MTV

This weekend Saturday Night Live kicks off its 40th season. To mark the occasion, we asked writers from the show to tell us about performers they loved writing for. On Wedesday, Jack Handey remembered Phil Hartman. Below, current co-head writer Bryan Tucker explains the versatility of Kenan Thompson.

Here’s a secret. If you’re a Saturday Night Live writer, and you want to get an extra laugh in your script, just add this line: “KENAN REACTS.” Sure, it’s sort of cheating. But we still do it sometimes. Because it works.

In my nine seasons at SNL, Kenan has been one of the few cast members who writers lean on. Put him in your sketch somewhere, anywhere, and your sketch will get better. Because Kenan knows how to take ordinary lines and make them funny, and take funny lines and make them special.

Sometimes you don’t even have to write him lines. This past season, Kenan had everyone laughing at our Wednesday table read just by interpreting stage directions: “KENAN ACTS OUT ‘PRICE IS RIGHT’ THEME” or “KENAN FAKES SIGN LANGUAGE BEHIND THE PRESIDENT” or just “KENAN DIES.”

We trust his instincts implicitly. He’s been doing TV and movies almost every week since he was 15 years old. Try to think about something you’ve been doing every week for the past 20 years. He has the same ease in front of a camera that most of us do when driving a car. It’s why he’s the guy who sits next to the host when we read all of that week’s sketches out loud for the first time. It’s why occasionally during rehearsal, he will say, “Don’t you think we should do this line in a close-up?” And our Emmy-winning director, without hesitation, will say, “Yep,” and note the change in his book.

“Joy is apparent in everything he does. I think that’s why he’s fun to watch,” says Kate McKinnon. And that joy puts everyone around him at ease. Four years ago, Kenan and I were in Orangeburg, N.Y., shooting a piece of nonsense called “Grady Wilson: Fifty and Freaky.” Kenan played Grady, an old man in a T-shirt and boxer shorts who decided to make a sexual instruction video alone in his garage. Sigourney Weaver was the host that week, and we had talked her into participating as a European woman whom Grady had somehow befriended. She entered the set with trepidation, touching Kenan’s arm and asking, “So, how does this work?”

Kenan said, “It’s hard to explain. Just follow my lead.” The director called for a test run, and Kenan suddenly sprung to life, running around the garage performing puerile moves that didn’t really even come close to resembling sex. The fun was contagious. Sigourney Weaver jumped right in. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her be more wonderfully ridiculous.

And Kenan loves ridiculous. He’s been on several mainstream comedy shows, but that doesn’t mean he has mainstream tastes. Actually, the more unconventional the idea, the more interested he seems to get. One Tuesday night he came by my office. “You said you had a character for me?” he asked.

I said, “His name is Jean K. Jean, and he’s the top Def Jam comedian in Europe. So instead of referencing roaches and ass-whoopings, he talks about Vespas and Gruyere cheese.” Before I was done talking, Kenan had already settled on my couch. “I love it. Let’s do it.” We wrote Jean K. Jean’s first appearance in about 45 minutes.

All those hours he’s spent on screen are not always an advantage. He’s in his 11th season on SNL, but people on the street still yell, “Where’s Kel?” They treat him less like a TV star and more like a childhood friend. Strangers hug him without permission (not that he objects). Everyone wants a picture. Almost always, he obliges, smiling and saying, “Absolutely. Come over here.”

It’s that same cuddliness that endears him to the staff at SNL like no other cast member. The first time Kenan did “What Up With That?” in 2009, something happened that I had never seen before. After the sketch was over, everyone stopped working and lined the backstage hallway to give Kenan a high-five or a pat on the back. Hairstylists, costume designers, PAs, and other cast members clapped, treating the moment like it was a high school football game, and the home team had just won.

The other writer on the sketch, Rob Klein, and I came by Kenan’s station after the celebration died down. Earlier that day, we were worried that “What Up With That” might be too random and silly for people. But Kenan held it together by singing, sweating, and staying undeniably in control.

“Wow! That was great,” I said. “The crowd was totally on board.”

“Yeah,” he said, easing into his chair. “We got ’em that time, didn’t we?”

No writer on Earth would have failed to notice that he said “we.”

The longer you stay at SNL, the less vital things feel. Moments lose their intensity and begin to blend together. You learn to take your ego out of the process and just look after the show as a whole. Victories feel less triumphant. Failures stay with you for a shorter period of time. Still, there are times when you just can’t help it.

It’s three years ago. Kenan and I wrote a sketch that we both loved, but which got cut after dress rehearsal. I’m livid, but I bottle it up. I’m still at work and need to act like it. In the absence of complaining, I’ve decided to quickly walk down the hallway with my head down. I have no real destination. The first person I see when I look up is Kenan. I give him a look of exasperation and shake my head.

“What?” he says.

“It’s just … there’s no reason it should’ve been cut! It got an applause break at dress!”

Kenan puts his hand on my shoulder. “Come on, Bryan. It’s sketches, man.” He gets in closer. “It’s TV. It’s not real.”