If Kenan Thompson comes back to Saturday Night Live — whether in May or this fall (depending upon a potential WGA strike) — he’d be due to start his record-setting 15th season as a cast member on the venerable network TV sketch comedy program.
No one would fault Thompson for leaving. But SNL creator Lorne Michaels isn’t the only one who hopes he sticks around for a while longer.
As this new profile of the 38-year-old comedian (he’ll turn 39 on May 10) in The Huffington Post shows, many of Thompson’s past and present colleagues consider him an essential glue. Seth Meyers, former SNL head writer and now host of Late Night on NBC, responded to the profile by calling Thompson a “first-ballot sketch HOFer.” Meyers wrote on Twitter: “The hardest I laughed at SNL was the first time Kenan did “What Up With That?” at table read.”
Speaking of which, the HuffPo profile by Maxwell Strachan suggests that it wasn’t until the first What Up With That? sketch in 2009, a full six years into Thompson’s tenure at SNL, that he found his place.
It would take time. To other people at SNL, Thompson clearly possessed a knack not only for memorizing his written parts, but calmly delivering them so consistently that he would become a safeguard for the writers on the show. He also enjoyed a comfort onstage that he had been building since his Nickelodeon days, and an ability to play any number of small parts on short notice. But what, exactly, did he do better than anyone else? Even he wasn’t sure.
“The first couple years, [I was] just panic-stricken, not knowing if I’m doing good or not knowing if I’m making an impression or the right impression,” Thompson said.
So he made himself essential in other ways. Behind the scenes, his kindness became a calming presence. “It’s a real hard job,” former cast member Darrell Hammond admitted. “I looked for him every day just to talk, just to shoot the shit about something. He made me feel good.”
But after six years of working at SNL without ever quite thriving in it, Thompson finally found something in “What Up With That.” It was bizarre and disorganized and unlike anything else on the show. And it was a hit ― and his hit to boot.
“Once it happened once, I was like, ‘Oh, this is a great formula,” Thompson said. “Then when we did it the second time, I was like, ‘Oh, I can do this.’”
“What Up With That” gave Thompson confidence, and it gave SNL writers an understanding of his greatest strength: his ability to act as an on-stage director, calmly and selflessly pulling the most out of the people around him amid confusion.