There is a widely held belief, a trope if you will, that comedians are socially-stunted, ragingly insecure misanthropes. Their humor is a mere coping mechanism, a pacifier of sorts to calm and soothe them. And then there’s Kenan Thompson. “I try to be nice. I like nice,” he says, via Zoom.
And the thing is, you believe him, because Thompson exudes nice. The former child star and current Saturday Night Live stalwart has an expressive yet restrained brilliance to him. He’s not a camera hog. Nor is he into showboating. In life, too, he’s thoughtful and exceptionally modest, despite having been famous for most of his formative years, starting as a teenager on the Nickelodeon show All That. Now he’s come full circle: Thompson is hosting the 2021 Kids’ Choice Awards on Nick. And on Tuesday, he’s headlining his own NBC sitcom, Kenan, about a widowed dad raising two kids with an unwelcome assist from his father-in-law (Don Johnson).
That’s in addition to playing Reba McEntire/Bill Cosby/Al Sharpton/Darius Trump/Steve Harvey/Diondre Cole on SNL, as the show’s longest-tenured cast member. “I feel like an athlete right now. I’m just in the bubble. I put my hoodie on, my headphones on and I go to sleep and when I wake up it’s in another place. But wherever I wake up, I know I’m probably going to work that day,” says Thompson.
He talks to Fatherly about being the hardest-working dad on two coasts, being part of a team, and why he was born to be a parent.
How, in the midst of a pandemic, are you able to work not one, not two, but now three jobs?
It hasn’t been that bad. It’s only been back and forth twice so far. I’m also going back and forth to very loving environments — we’re building something special here, so everybody’s really happy and excited and getting along with each other. The working relationship is still in this honeymoon phase. And then it gives me a breath of fresh air to go back to my home. To go back to SNL, even though it’s notoriously one of the most chaotic environments ever, I’m very comfortable there.
SNL changes every single week. So just when you think, Oh, I have this figured out, it’s constantly evolving, you know, and you miss it when you’re gone. It’s a stress injection, basically. There’s a certain kind of adrenaline rush that you get, especially once you leave there and start developing and getting into the audition cycle and all that, everything slows down dramatically and for a creative person, you need that output on a constant basis. I feel like I can do both. I’ve been able to do both so far pretty good. So I’m not worried about being tired necessarily. I’m worried about missing my wife and babies and my family.
How did being a dad of two daughters influence you playing a single dad on Kenan?
It’s a different kind of thing because these girls are much older. As kids grow, they become their own people very quickly. My kids are still young, so I’m still very on top of them. But my grieving, I don’t even really know if I’m coming close to portraying correctly because I’ve never even been there. I would dread the day to even have to face something like that. And I’ve tried to watch what I’ve noticed from other people that I do know have gone through something like that, but at the same time until you’ve ever experienced it… Now how we’re playing it, it’s, you know, like a year or so away from it. And it’s just a little further from the waterfall of emotion. Now it’s just about trudging through the mud.
What does being a dad mean to you?
It’s everything. Along with being a husband, that was the goal. I stopped my bachelor life and just was spending a lot of time by myself because they say, when you stop looking, you will find it. And then I met my wife and we had the same ideology. We wanted to get married and we wanted to start a family and keep a family. It’s my daily focus — is everybody taken care of? And then my other focus is, how am I taking care of everybody. That’s what probably drives me to work like such a maniac. I want to personally satisfy the need to provide like that.
Do you see yourself reflected in your daughters?
My big girl is one of the biggest hams I’ve ever seen. She is so funny. She’s six years old. It’s going hand in hand, her being funny and her also being highly energized, just all over the place and just being a kid. And my baby girl, she’s such a sweetheart, but she has a real devious sense of humor too. So I think that’s more from her mom’s side.
Back to SNL for a minute — indulge me while I ask you about some of my favorite bits. Scared Straight? What’s Up with That?
The idea came from the concept of Scared Straight. I went to Colin (Jost), because we were office mates, I was like, ‘Have you ever seen Scared Straight?’ I told him he had to watch it. I think it could be funny to do. And he came up with the idea to wrap parables around ’80s movies references, and that’s what made that sketch brilliant. So it took that what he brought to it to make it a solid sketch.
What’s Up With That? It’s simple. I had a talk show and we didn’t let people talk.
And of course, I need to ask you about your epic performance as Reba McEntire.
I had done it the week before and failed miserably — I’ve always watched her do her little smirk when she talks. There’s a side smirk. And I saw her do a save the bald eagle commercial. It just made me laugh so hard. I want to redo that commercial. And then we just never explained why I looked the way I looked and it didn’t work because it was just too crazy. And then (Andy) Samberg and those dudes picked it up the next week and were like, ‘We think we can make this work in a song’ and God bless them. It definitely did. They ended up explaining the crazy throughout as it goes. And it was just awesome. So that’s what I love about teamwork, man. Teamwork makes the dream work.
It was so sweet watching the SNL at home episode where you were sitting with your girls and had them say bye. You so rarely share pictures of them.
We want to be very protective of them. I’m sure they want to go to red carpets. They’ve just been too little basically to go. It’s also a lot. It’s pretty overwhelming for a kid. I just let them hang out in awesome hotel rooms. Like even dragging my wife to it, I feel a little bit guilty. Like I know she is happy to support me and stuff like that. But at the same time, she’s stuck spending her day doing what I have to do basically as opposed to us being out on a date or something. So it’s a cool thing to be able to share it with somebody. But at the same time, I try not to burden them with everything.
Kenan hits NBC on Tuesday nights, starting on February 16.
The Kids’ Choice Awards will debut on March 13 on Nickelodeon.