Awards Daily talks to NBC’s MVP Kenan Thompson about juggling SNL and Kenan, working with Don Johnson, and being the leading man.
Unlike many of us who didn’t achieve our quarantine goals, Kenan Thompson kept busy with his You Already Know podcast, his long-running streak on Saturday Night Live, and launching his own NBC sitcom, Kenan. But like the character he plays on the show, he always has his family on the brain.
“I try to keep the office hours from 9 to 5 mostly,” says Thompson. “The SNL schedule is a little different, but we’re used to that family-wise. Fitting in the Kenan shoot, the family came out [to LA] for six weeks, which was nice. I was able to be around them. There were still a lot of long hours, but at least them being in town, I felt much closer to them.”
Another family member who followed him out to LA was SNL cast member Chris Redd, who stars as his brother Gary on the NBC series.
“Chris is such a good dude and he’s so beyond talented. I think it would be the same kind of vibe had we met on the Kenan set. I’m more than excited with the fact he’s playing my brother, almost as if my real brother were playing my brother.”
‘The Character I Needed to Be’
Watching Kenan, you see a different side of this actor, mostly known for his off-the-wall characters like Diondre Cole. On the series, he plays a widower raising his two daughters alongside his father-in-law (Don Johnson) and brother (Redd).
“I guess it became the character I needed to be. I was thinking definitely down the ‘dad role’ with this creative cycle—what was going to be my version of a good dad sitcom? One thing I hadn’t seen really explored at that time was a widower, so that’s where that came into it, and I thought that would be an intriguing show. And of course we would cover the comedy side and I thought that would be a rich show to engage as an audience member.”
He also gets to play more of the straight man to the ridiculousness around him in the form of a comedic team including Fortune Feimster, Kimrie Lewis, and of course, Don Johnson.
“I love tossing up big giant softballs for them to hit out of the park. I think it makes the show better. And who knew Don Johnson was funny?”
Of course, audiences know Johnson for dramatic roles like Miami Vice and most recently Watchmen, but Thompson admits that Johnson’s comedic skills were a complete surprise on set.
“It’s the greatest thing in the world that Don is so cool and chill. He hit his stride along with us. He was definitely not a comic coming into this situation, so he was figuring out his rhythm and he figured it out quickly and rose to the challenge.”
The Benefits of a Sitcom
In the episode “Teacher’s Strike,” the show utilizes many child guest stars, when the children of employees who work on Kenan’s show are forced to hang around set and cause chaos, since they have nowhere to go following a teacher’s strike. Since Thompson is a child actor himself (All That, D2: The Mighty Ducks), I asked him what it was like working with this younger generation of actors.
“Nobody makes you stutter quicker than kids,” he laughs. “They’re great. They’re still kids, so you can’t be like, tighten up, until it’s actually the time [to shoot]. If you’re not really ready to go, they’ll lose their focus two seconds later. Don’t even waste your breath making them not be kids. Let them have fun.”
Just as audiences love when a celebrity drops in on SNL, Thompson loves the benefits of a sitcom, where you can bring in new actors each week for guest roles, like Vanessa Williams in Season 1 of Kenan.
“I forgot about the fact that shows become vehicles for guest stars to come in, people that you don’t expect. I remember watching Martin and Biggie Smalls showed up. I forgot how cool it is that sitcoms offer those opportunities on a pretty regular basis—every episode could be a guest star of some major-level actor. I would love to see a long list of that [for Kenan].”
Kenan airs on NBC.