When Thompson couldn't make it through a "dress rehearsal" without stuttering his lines, he says in his new memoir that he "spiraled into a full-on panic" and felt writers began avoiding him like "COVID"
In his new memoir When I Was Your Age: Life Lessons, Funny Stories & Questionable Parenting Advice from a Professional Clown, which hits bookshelves Tuesday, the comedian, 45, reveals that his first couple of years on the late-night variety show were "marred by a ton of rookie mistakes."
His confidence "sunk to an all-time low" when he "tanked" a sketch written by T. Sean Shannon called “Randy the Bellhop." Thompson was to take on the role of Randy, a bellhop who shows Alec Baldwin and cast member Rachel Dratch to their room in "all the wrong ways."
"I was excited for the first opportunity to showcase my chops on the big stage," he recalls in the book. "Thing was, I couldn’t make it through dress rehearsal. I stuttered over this one line and couldn’t ad-lib my way out of it."
Though the 20-year SNL veteran would be able to recover from the mistake now, Thompson says he "spiraled into a full-on panic" as a rookie and even heard an "involuntary 'Oh no!'" slip from "someone's mouth."
"If a slip up like that happened at Nickelodeon or in the movies I’d done, we could just do another take," he continues. "At SNL there was a lot riding on the live performance, obviously, and to no one’s surprise, the sketch didn’t make it to air."
Thompson felt like he let Shannon down, though the writer understood having been through failed sketches plenty of times. But from then on, the Kenan & Kel alum says that "he and every other writer avoided me like COVID" and Thompson began to think he'd never "get a character of my own."
He adds, "I had no idea if I was doing a good job or not. When the season finished, I didn’t even think I’d be asked back. I knew I needed to get better at writing my own characters, and prayed I’d get another season to take a stab at it."
The actor frequently got “donut’ed" — industry jargon that meant "having zero airtime during a show" — and "almost quit" because of them.
"I was like, 'What the hell am I doing here?' I was famous enough that people were trying to follow me off the subway, but I couldn’t get on the show," he writes, sharing that he took the cuts personally and often wondered "if there was space at SNL for my kind of comedy."
"It led to many depressive feelings," he says, until he mustered up the courage to approach Maya Rudolph to ask why he was chosen. "'It was a no-brainer,' she said. 'We could tell you were ready and you’re adorable. We all said, ‘Obviously, it’s Kenan,'”
"I fully freaked out hearing that. I literally had a seat next to one of the most talented performers I had ever seen. Her pedigree was legendary," he gushes. "To be complimented by someone you admire was humbling and enlightening. I wasn’t just a kid laughing at his own jokes in front of the mirror. I’d been validated."
"To hear that the things I was doing resonated with people was heavy, man. That had a huge impact on me and was a turning point," he writes.
Going forward, Thompson learned how to better support other players' wins and "celebrate the show outside of myself."
He continues, "After being promoted to team player, I was in a cold open for the very first time screaming, 'LIVE FROM NEW YORK, IT’S SATURDAY NIGHT!' And let me tell you, that never gets old. It’s exciting every single time."
Thompson joined SNL in 2003 and holds the record for the longest-tenured cast member in the show's history. He has been nominated five times at the Emmy Awards for his work on SNL, and took home a statue in 2018 for co-writing the sketch "Come Back, Barack."
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When I Was Your Age: Life Lessons, Funny Stories & Questionable Parenting Advice from a Professional Clown is now available from Harper Books, an imprint of HarperCollins.
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