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Kenan Thompson on Trying Something New With Kenan and Moving On from Saturday Night Live

Lauren Piester
·4 min read
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Kenan Thompson does not have an answer to your questions about leaving Saturday Night Live.

He knows he's been on the show for nearly 20 years and is now the longest-tenured cast member ever. He also knows he's got a brand new NBC show of his own—appropriately titled Kenan, Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m.—that shoots on the other side of the country. He knows it's ridiculous to fly between L.A. and N.Y.C. multiple times a week to be able to do both things. He also knows people tend to leave SNL when they want to do something else, like a network sitcom. But what would SNL be without Kenan at this point?

"It's a weird thing. Before, I was having a problem associating that the show was the same show before I got there. I was such a big fan of it and then to see me on it, I was like, 'Is this the same show? This is crazy!'" he tells E! News. "And now, I've been there so long that it would be weird for me to leave it, which is even crazier. So I don't even know what to do at this point."

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There are good signs that Thompson might have to make that decision relatively soon. Kenan, on which he plays a TV anchor and widower raising his two kids, premiered to strong ratings last week, becoming the No. 2 new series debut for the 2020—2021 season with four million viewers. Young Rock, Kenan's lead-in, is No. 1.

"How can you lose, piggybacking with The Rock?" Thompson quips. "That guy can carry anybody."

Truth be told, Thompson doesn't need anybody to carry him. He's one of the most beloved Saturday Night Live cast members, and before that, he was a beloved star of All That, Kenan and Kel and Good Burger. He's been entertaining in front of a live audience for decades, and the single-cam, no-audience comedy required for Kenan is something new for him.

"It was a bit of an adjustment to try to be OK with knowing that we have what we were looking for somewhere in one of the shots. You gotta believe in the editing room a little bit and let it go, which is really hard," he says. "We're doing it in silence. The crew is chuckling, but they're not really allowed to laugh out loud. We're kind of going on instinct."

Thompson says that even after nearly 30 years of doing comedy on TV, he's still learning "the feeling of it all" when it comes to acting without an immediate response. It helps, he says, when the editors use the take he thought they'd use, meaning his instinct is still "on point" even when there's no one there to laugh.

Usually though, Thompson knows when he's done something good. That meant there was "tons" of anxiety leading into last week's series premiere and the reaction that would come from it.

"There's a lot riding on it, like my whole name," he says. "Whole name, face, I'm out there. It felt really good to get the feedback we got this week, and we just gotta keep it going."

KENAN, Kenan Thompson
KENAN, Kenan Thompson

Luckily Thompson's got a buddy with whom to share some of the pressure. Chris Redd co-stars on Kenan as his brother, and Redd also has to fly back and forth between New York and Los Angeles each week for SNL.

Thompson was shocked when their SNL boss allowed not just one but two of his cast members to take on a project like this. He thought SNL people would be "off-limits," but Lorne Michaels was happy to lend him a friend.

"Lorne was just like, 'You know, I think we should surround you with funny people, make the show just full of comedy people,'" he says, adding that bringing on Redd was a "duh" decision.

It also helps to have someone else who is dealing with the same crazy schedule, and who is also missing out on the goings on at 30 Rockefeller Center throughout the week.

"You feel very left out," Thompson says. "There's lots of bits and inside jokes and stuff that go on during the week, and you just feel left out of all that. It's nice to at least be in the show in some capacity, but I definitely would love the Monday through Saturday experience."

Kenan and SNL's schedules will soon take a break from overlapping as the sketch show takes one of its usual short hiatuses, giving Thompson a little bit of a break. But he's not too stressed, even if he's looking forward to an eventual nap.

As he says, "It'll all pay off soon."

Kenan airs Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m. and Saturday Night Live airs Saturdays at 11:30 p.m. on NBC.

(E! and NBC are both part of the NBCUniversal family.)