What IS up with that? Kenan Thompson answers 20 questions ahead of his 20th season on SNL

·16 min read

This fall, you might notice that Saturday Night Live looks a little different. (Goodbye to Kate McKinnon, Aidy Bryant, Pete Davidson, Kyle Mooney, Chris Redd, Melissa Villaseñor, Alex Moffat, and Aristotle Athari.) (Hello to these four new cast members.)

Throughout the cast comings and goings that are ritual for NBC's late-night sketch comedy series, though, there always seems to be one constant, one man whom viewers can rely on for lots of levity or just to keep things level: Kenan Thompson. The All That and Good Burger alum — and host of the Emmys earlier this month — already reigns as the longest-tenured SNL cast member in history, and now he's entering his 20th (!) season. Before the show returns for its 48th season on Oct. 1, and to recognize his true commitment to the bit and the show, we decided to ask Thompson 20 questions. Whether you follow along in the video above or read his answers below, you'll learn exactly what is up with that.

1. If you could travel back in time, what advice would you give your younger self before your first SNL audition?

Wear a diaper. I'm just kidding. It'll be fine, you know what I mean? Just believe in what's gotten you there to that point. But that s--- would've gone in and out of one ear. I wouldn't have listened to myself even then, because it was just, like, so much at stake, you know? SNL is no joke, and to me it didn't seem like I would have more than one opportunity to try out. If I blew it, that was just going to be it. I would try to calm myself down, but it wouldn't work. It is a life-changing kind of thing. And at the same time, I had to do standup for the first time for this life-changing moment. But at the same time, there was a little bit of, "I got this." A little bit. But it wasn't much.

2. What is the character or line that fans ask you to do or so say the most?

Well, I think they say it to me is: "What's up with that?" A lot of people go, "What's up with that?" It's good for passing kind of conversation: "What's up with that?" "What's up with that." All right. Honk-honk.

3. What is the key to writing a breakout SNL song?

I think it depends on the topical-ness of it — how current the idea is. It's gotta kind of [be a ]Venn diagram of something that people have been wanting as well as something that's right below the surface that they're just not fully predicting. And then you have a nice reveal of what it is. I feel like that "Come back, Barack" was kind of like exactly what people were thinking, but they didn't know they needed the musical version, you know what I mean?

4. How long does it take you to fall asleep after a show?

A while. It takes a while to wind down from that adrenaline because it's been kind of building all day on Saturday. Like, we go in at noon and once you're at 30 Rock, you feel it. You know it's Saturday. There's no leaving until the show is done. You know what I'm saying? So there's no getting off the roller coaster. And yeah, it takes at least an hour or so, or two maybe to just calm down, settle down, either cry or pat yourself on the back, whatever it is, and then off to bed you go.

5. You're a huge fan of The Price is Right, so Plinko or Cliffhangers? As a frequent game show host in sketches, what is your favorite game show in real-life?

I'm a huge fan of The Price is Right, and I love the Cliffhangers song, but Plinko I think is the ultimate. "My god, what is going to happen?" "Ohhhh! " or "Yay!!!" Plinko, man. It graduated into The Wall now — hello! — it's a great conceptual thing to watch.

6. Which SNL host most surprised you?

I think the SNL host that surprised me the most was Charles Barkley, just because he continues to just have a good time with whatever he's doing. The main quote I've taken away from him after all of the run-ins over the years is, "I never work more than two hours." Because when he was growing up, practice was two hours, games were two hours, and he just keeps that mentality rolling. So even in his announcement career, he's broadcasting games, which is two hours, you know what I'm saying? And that's how he lives his life. I'm like, man, that's beautiful. That's the secret to that no-stress look that he has all the time.

7. What is your pre-show ritual before going live?

I have several pre-show rituals before going live. One of the main ones is I sing the warm-up. I mean, it's not necessarily my ritual; it's kind of the show's ritual. It's just a thing to get the audience in the mood to receive talent in a bunch of different ways, I guess. So it's kind of forced karaoke a little bit. But they enjoy it. And just going over everything a million different times basically and double checking. I don't look over the shoulders of my departments necessarily, because I trust them at this point. But in the beginning, I was trying to make sure I had my clothes straight or a hat or everything just lined up for whatever sketches I had that night. And it wasn't a lot in the beginning. So I had to make sure I got at least that right. All systems go!

8. What is one surprising thing about SNL overlord Lorne Michaels?

He's actually very gentle. He's a gentle giant, you know what I mean? He's a titan of industry, of course, but he's a very humble dude, and he's got his feet on the ground and he wants to help out his fellow man. I tell this story — I was walking, we have these host dinners on Tuesday nights and sometimes when the weather's nice, he'll walk from 30 Rock to a restaurant and back or something. So I walked with him one time.

This homeless guy was just like, "Can you help me out? I'm trying to find a mission or something, blah, blah, blah, and I could really use a dollar." And I was like, "Man, I don't have any cash." And Lorne was like, "Yeah, no problem," opens his wallet and gives a guy a hundred dollars. Mind you, that's all he had was a wad of a hundred bucks [Laughs], but he gave him one! He wasn't like, "Oh, I got only hundreds. I gotta go make some change." He didn't do that. He just slid him one and didn't think twice about it. We kept it moving. We were in the middle of a conversation and he kept talking and blah, blah, blah, and he was like, "God bless you." I found that to be very sweet.

9. How did it feel to earn Phil Hartman's nickname of "The Glue" from your fellow SNL cast members?

To be in the same sentence as Phil is always incredible. I met him once, and I feel like I don't even know if it was a dream or not, because it was on an airplane, you know what I mean? So it was like in the clouds and everybody kind of got up and was schmoozing around a little. It was first class — I'll go ahead and say it: We were schmoozing around the first class area of a cabin, okay? And people wanted to talk to each other. And he came over to me and Kel [Mitchell], I think we were promoting Good Burger at the time. He was just like, "Man, I'm such a fan of you guys." And we were just like, "Please stop, because you're the one of the GOATS that's ever done it," as far as straight delivery being really, really funny. Like the Leslie Nielsens and the dry delivery or whatever.

Phil had a charisma to it as well as like a physical level there that was just unmatched. He felt like everybody's dad, and to be compared to that kind of a feeling for other people, it's amazing, because it has to be a warm thing. So if people come around me and they feel warmth or they feel security or they feel like somebody's got their back, that's such a pleasure to give that.

10. How do you unwind on your one off-day from SNL?

Lately it's been Broadway. My one day off of SNL go-to unwinding relaxation thing has been catching a Broadway show. I recently came to terms with the fact that I have not taken advantage of my New York experience living there for 19 years now. And I've seen some things, it was very sporadic or whatever, but I never overly went out of my way to make sure that I was seeing a bunch of musicals and stuff like that and recently embraced it. I've seen a lot of plays and musicals lately, and man, those people never disappoint. They're so talented and they work so hard. Yeah, it reinvigorates me to go into the next week to be like, "Oh no, don't get lazy. Don't get complacent or any of that, or don't think you work hard because in comparison, I don't know if we really do." [Laughs.] Straight-up. Shout-out to Broadway.

I know the theater life. I grew up doing theater and stuff like that, so I don't know. It would have to be something really close to home or really powerful for me to feel like I could climb that mountain of doing a six- to nine-, 10-month engagement — eight-shows-a-week sporadic break kind of thing. That's a lot. That's a lot of working out to get to that level even. A lot of people get famous and then they run to Broadway thinking that, "Okay, I can just do it because I have acted before." But it's like, no, you need to act, do choreography, sing, arrange, and you know how to carry those notes and not lose your breath and stay on target, man. What? And remember lines on top of all of that and blocking and participating with your fellow actors on stage as well, and just being aware, not falling off the stage? Bro, I respect it, but yeah, I could skip that.

11. What's an impression you would never do again?

That's a tough one. I don't know if I've ever offended anybody to the point where I would never do it again. I don't know if I pushed anybody's button. Everybody is pretty friendly. So that one, I don't know if I hate any impression necessarily, or need to archive anything in any specific way, I guess... Well, s---, I just thought about [Bill] Cosby, but at the same time, I don't know if I would never do it again because we did do Cosby in jail. So if it's a way to make it make sense and not bum people out, then probably we'll do it or something.

12. What is the sketch you are proudest of?

I mean, no disrespect, but I love "Scared Straight" so much because it was the first kind of self-generated thing that I got on the show. I had been kind of writing and offering ideas for years. And this was my fifth season, basically, still haven't [had] one from the old noggin on there yet. And that one was close to home because I grew up with those movies and stuff like that. I mean, I identify with Black guys in jail and being upset about it and s--- like that and want to come down on the youth, like, "What the f--- are you doing in here?" So that one always made me very happy to do. But "What Up With That?," "Black Jeopardy," "Family Feud," all of them, they're all my babies and you want them all to go well. And I feel like the ultimate, it's between "What's Up With That?" and "Black Jeopardy," but personally, "Scared Straight" has a special place in my heart.

13. Who is the one ex-cast member you wish you had the chance to work with?

It's probably Tracy [Morgan]. That guy makes me laugh so much. He's been like a very close big brother, this whole kind of experience. And I've never witnessed anybody more naturally hilarious — like, just off the top of his head at any given hour, any given setting, you know what I'm saying? It's just his mentality, basically. And that boy says wild things. It's really hilarious. But he's got a heart of gold. He's always had a kind of a big brother thing for me, you know — he's very protective or wanting to give me knowledge and stuff like that. So to witness him in a work environment would've been a lot of fun. He's one of those guys that you just got to start writing when he talks, you know what I'm saying? Because he'll never come back to that idea again — he's just spit-firing — so it's on you to grab these things and then hold them and then reintroduce them to the world. But, man, he's such a joy to be around.

14. Is there an All That sketch that you think would work on SNL?

I want to say there's some sketches from All That that would work on SNL. I feel like Pierre Escargot could work, you know? Even if he slid out on the Update desk or something like that in the tub or something like that. That could be funny. I mean, I want to say Good Burger would work in a way — just the adult version or something like that. Adults having to work at Good Burger or whatever that version would be.... A lot of the interstitial straight-to-camera things remind me of early Weekend Update when they were doing Roseannadanna and like those very straight to camera without anybody's help. Loud Librarian or Amanda, when she was the angry little girl yelling about it. Ask Ashley. Yeah, Ask Ashley! I think those kind of things would work because it's a talent showcase, and that's what SNL is. It's like, "Here are the people we think is funny. Go." And America usually tends to agree.

15. What's the craziest thing you've seen at an SNL afterparty?

It wasn't necessarily crazy, but it was crazy-awesome, if that counts. Maya Rudolph just performed at the finale and she has a Prince cover band that she travels around with. So she brought out Wendy and Lisa from Prince's band and performed for like an hour and a half, and destroyed it. And it's in the ice skating rink — there's no more ice, so it's just a roller skating now. But it's like underneath 30 Rock, one of the tallest buildings ever, the golden statue, it was just like, "Yo, this is a magical f---ing moment."

16. Show us your three favorite "Kenan reacts" faces in response to these emotions:

[You really need to watch the video for this one.]

17. Who is the one former cast member you want to host your final show?

The one cast member I would want to return for my final show question was answered when Eddie Murphy hosted, so now I have to think… I've worked with Will Ferrell because he's hosted. He was another one where I was just like, "I would just love to…" but that's happened a few times. I haven't met Cheri yet. I think Cheri Oteri would be very cool to be around. Every woman I've ever met from SNL is insanely quick-witted, funny, smart, classy, gorgeous, like all of it. You know what I mean? It's just a pleasure usually to be around them. So I would love to meet Cheri.

18. What is your strategy to keep from breaking?

My go-to strategy to keep from breaking is to allow the smirk to happen. Just allow a little acknowledgement of, "This is funny," and then plow through, basically. It makes me laugh. You'll see people genuinely smile at something because they are amused and there's nothing more humane than those moments. I think that's what everybody's always watching for. Of course we're watching for the biggest version of that, where everybody starts laughing and crying and can't get through it. But also any kind of break in it is just as enjoyable.

19. Who is someone behind the scenes at SNL that deserves more credit?

I would say the entire crew, because the entire crew is the blood and the veins of that human experience. Every department — from production to the guys lifting the walls — they're all mandatory, they're all special. I think they all appreciate the place. I'm lucky to be of the generation where I would say 95 percent of the people working there are fans of it. You know what I mean? So we're coming into it with a very gracious approach, as opposed to a "you're welcome" kind of attitude. I think everybody's pretty humble around there, so yeah, I'm going to give it to the crew, for sure.

20. What is up with that?

Well, the funny thing about what is up with that is some people ask, like, "Is it, 'What's up with that?' or 'What up with that?,'" and I'm like, "It's both." Because sometimes you're just so nervous, you're not paying attention to being specific enough in the moment. So whatever I ended up saying in the moment was just what I said. And the title is "What's up with that?," but the original, where it came from 25th Hour, when the guy that says, "S-------t" in every movie, his sidekick, they were interrogating Ed Norton, and he was like, "And then you went over to this other school and got kicked out of one school, and then you went and sold drugs to this other school," and he was like, "Yeah, what up with that?" Love that saying.

Make sure to check out EW's Fall TV Preview cover story — as well as all of our 2022 Fall TV Preview content, releasing over 22 days through Sept. 29.

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