It’s taken seven seasons, but Saturday Night Live’s Kenan Thompson is finally a major not-ready-for-prime-time player. The comedian’s sketches—“Scared Straight,” “Virginiaca,” and “What Up With That?”—are clicking; his impersonations of everyone from Tiger Woods to Charles Barkley to Bill Cosby have become highlights. And his boss has taken note. “Kenan’s on fire this season,” says SNL creator Lorne Michaels. “There’s an old phrase comedy writers used all the time in the fifties about Lucille Ball, that she ‘takes it off the page.’ And Kenan does, too. He doesn’t overthink anything, which is a joy.”
For someone who traffics in bugeyes and butt jokes, Thompson’s off-camera personality requires a little adjustment. We’re sitting in his dressing room, and the posters on his wall—of J.Lo, a signed bikini-clad Brooke Burke, and Scarface—are an incongruous frame for the measured, respectful 31-year-old sitting in front of me. “I like making people laugh, but I do have a super-serious side, and I’m very quiet. It’s just this weird thing; when the cameras start rolling, it’s time to work. It’s the joy of entertaining that draws me in. I don’t have that much joy in my usual everyday life,” he adds.
Thompson is admittedly dogged, a perfectionist (if a skit goes awry, he’ll brood for days), and a workaholic. But he’s genuinely okay with his slow rise on the show. “Everybody has their moments, you know? I like that I’ve been here for as long as I have, because it’s given me time to be on the ground floor, and I’ve gradually gotten to the point where I’m hopefully getting a sketch a week—that’s everyone’s ambition,” he says. And it’s not like he wasn’t warned. “Lorne Michaels once told me if you’re not changing the face of the show, like ‘Digital Shorts’ or whatever, it will probably take a while for people to catch on to your style.” Thompson is a straight-up sketch artist—a character actor rather than a reactor or someone who riffs off the news—and that can be a long haul, says Michaels: “You really have to earn the audience getting comfortable with you. There’s a strong resistance in the audience to new people, particularly if their favorites have left. Early on, he could be somewhat better at dress rehearsal than on air, but now he’s just on his game.”
And he’s been training for most of his life. The former child actor grew up in Atlanta and landed his first job at 13 on a TBS kids’ news show. That was followed by the lead in the Nickelodeon sketch comedy All That, on which he played a variety of characters, some of whom could be younger cousins of the ones he’s doing now. Thompson stayed at Nickelodeon until he was 22 and started at SNL three years later. “Kenan has a background in this world, so he was way more polished than most people by the time they get here,” says Seth Meyers, SNL’s head writer. “Maybe in some ways, that worked against him, because the growth spurt had already happened, and some of the joy of SNL is watching people grow.” Meyers and Michaels both talk about Thompson’s facility with impressions and his willingness to tackle whatever the writers throw at him—and that, of course, means virtually every black character (notable exception: Barack Obama is played by Fred Armisen), which comes with its own built-in pressure. Thompson has caught a lot of flak for his broader impersonations, particularly Virginiaca, a gaudy, overtly sexual black woman; he has been accused of racism, sexism, even of putting on a minstrel act. “Angry African-American women, you know, thought that it would be the image that people would associate with them. Virginiaca is definitely art imitating life, but I understand where they’re coming from, and I don’t have to project that onto mainstream America,” says Thompson, who nevertheless revives Virginiaca two weeks later in a sketch with Blake Lively. As for the accusations of sexism, he says it’s the female writers who love putting him in a dress—and Tina Fey in particular, when she was still on the show. “What’s funny is funny,” he says. “This place is well known for getting angry letters—Lorne keeps 50 of them outside his office. It keeps you grounded in the fact that in late-night comedy, you’re going to have to burn somebody.”
Thompson visibly loosens up at a rehearsal for that week’s show. He’s doing a run-through of the “Scared Straight” skit, in which he plays a convict hired by police to intimidate upper-middle-class teens. The skit incorporates both eighties-movie plots and prison-rape jokes. “You think I never got caught speeding before? One time I watched my doctor friend get shot dead in the street over plutonium. So I hopped in his car, got it up to 88 miles per hour, and pretty soon I was back in 1955 and my own mother was trying to kiss me!” Thompson’s cast mates Bill Hader, Andy Samberg, and Bobby Moynihan have broken character and are giggling madly. “That’s the plot of Back to the Future,” one of them interjects, before Thompson gets up in Hader’s face. “Boy, you better keep your mouth shut or you’re going back to the shower, and the only speed you’ll reach is 88 dudes per hour—and we ain’t talking about a flux capacitor, we’re talking about a butt capacity! And yours just hit 1.21 jizz-a-watts!” The joke lands loudly, and the cameramen and prop guys let out a big whoop. “It’s 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,” Michaels tells me later. “He just makes everything you do funnier.”