The quiet brilliance of Kenan Thompson, ‘SNL’s’ longest-tenured cast member

Elahe Izadi

NEW YORK (THE WASHINGTON POST) – Kenan Thompson is a sketch-comedy savant.

He’s seen how the tiniest diversion – uttering an errant word, glancing in the wrong direction, taking a half-second too long to rip off tearaway clothes – can create a disruption.

“He’s a master in that studio,” says “Saturday Night Live” executive producer Lorne Michaels. “He knows the best way to do just about everything.”

That includes realising how distracting it would be for the audience to know there’s a performer with a broken arm. So when the “SNL” star got into a bike accident on his way to work four years ago, his first thought was: “‘Oh my, I have to go to the hospital, but I don’t want it to be a story.’ “

“The writers, they work so hard, they spend all night, and then the only thing people would be mentioning would be like, ‘Did you see Kenan’s broken arm?’ That’s whack,” Thompson says. “You never know how long they’ve been incubating an idea that they got on the show that week.”

He went to an urgent care clinic, slept sitting up and, before Wednesday’s table read – during which performers run through roughly 40 sketches – Thompson called three places to find a doctor who could cast his arm discreetly and quickly.

Three days later, “SNL” was hosted by Donald Trump, probably the biggest distraction in the universe. But Thompson took no chances in creating a minor one, even for a moment. He strategically propped his clothed, fractured arm on his waist, delivered his lines and no one noticed.

Dani Lockett as Emma, Kenan Thompson and Dannah Lockett as Sophie in ‘The Kenan Show’, an NBC single-camera comedy Thompson will executive produce and star in as a widowed father of two daughters. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
Kenan Thompson, 41, will start his 17th season on ‘Saturday Night Live’ in late September.

“Even just the smallest distraction throws off the potential of the experience of the joke,” Thompson says. “You kind of don’t have permission to not be perfect.”

Thompson, 41, is hyper-aware of camera positions, timing and the ripple effect his actions have on people just trying to do their jobs. That serious professionalism, multiple colleagues say, is the other side to what television audiences see at home – the breeziness of a natural performer who can summon humor anywhere. It’s a talent that puts him everywhere: as the straight man, as the bad guy, as the steady anchor in an iffy sketch centered on a rookie player. But his presence is like oxygen, not the sun. His power is essential, yet invisible; stimulating, not scorching.

“I would point to Kenan Thompson as the performer that I would watch and hope to attain that kind of confidence and ease and fun when he was performing,” says “SNL” alum Bill Hader, who struggled with severe nervousness during his time on the show. “He was like the safety net.”

Thompson, who will start his 17th season on the series in late September, occupies a rarefied place in popular culture. He’s the longest-tenured cast member on a famously challenging show to endure, where comedy icons are molded and tend to leave. And although he has several other projects in the works, including a new NBC comedy due in 2020, he has no desire to walk away from “SNL.”

“That’s the forever plan,” Thompson says. “To never have to leave that show.”

Thompson had broken an arm before. In second grade, he flipped off a swing but “never cried,” recalls his mother, Ann Thompson. “Very, very stoic.”

He was that kind of kid: self-contained, fearless and with a big imagination. He grew up in College Park, Georgia, the son of a nurse and a mechanic, following his older brother, Kerwin, around, riding bikes and memorizing the lines to ‘80s movies. While Kerwin sang at choir rehearsal, four-year-old Kenan would sit on the ground and play with toy cars, dreaming up people and scenarios.

“He didn’t need constant attention where I had to hold him or reassure him all the time,” Ann Thompson says. “He just, he had his instructions, he would follow them and do his thing.”

When Thompson was 5, she enrolled him in acting classes at the urging of her friend, who saw talent in his childish play. His first role – Toto in a church production of “The Wiz” – had no lines, but “he absolutely stole the show,” his mother says.

He’d eventually go on to audition for 100 roles before ever booking a commercial gig.

“It’s really a challenge to console a child who didn’t get the part, but he wasn’t whining about it,” Ann Thompson says. “He always knew.”

Thompson eventually was hired to review movies on a kids’ news show, which led to his role in “D2: The Mighty Ducks ” and then Nickelodeon’s “All That.”

“All That” executive producer Brian Robbins, now president of Nickelodeon, remembers a 15-year-old Thompson walking into the audition and effortlessly performing a “crazy spot-on” Bill Cosby impression.

“Everything was easy for him comedically,” Robbins says. “I had never met someone that young so gifted and smooth comedically.”

The show, conceived as an “SNL” for children, debuted in 1994 and would endure as a cultural touchstone for ‘80s and ‘90s babies.

“It’s not water-cooler talk, because we weren’t in any offices, but it definitely was juice-pouch talk,” says comedian Ron Funches, who grew up watching “All That.” “You know, just sitting around at lunch, eating our snack packs, drinking our Capri Suns and talking about how funny Kenan is.”

For the next six years, Thompson juggled several jobs, including “All That” and, along with castmate Kel Mitchell, the spinoff series “Kenan & Kel” and the “Good Burger” movie. During that time, Thompson honed the techniques and skills needed for being funny on camera, but he also exhibited the same spirit and work ethic he’s known for today, Robbins says.

“There was a moment there where he was one of the biggest kid stars on the planet, but he was always the same kid,” Robbins says. “He has not changed, and I believe that’s part of why he has sustained for so long.”

Thompson sits next to Jimmy Fallon, puts on goofy glasses and grabs a mug. They’re playing sportscasters, reciting lines generated by a game of Mad Libs they just played on “The Tonight Show.”

“All right, welcome back, baseball fans,” Thompson says with a whistly affect. “I’m Steve Butt.” The word “butt” comes out like a punch, drawing a laugh immediately.

Thompson has been coming up with voices and facial expressions for nearly three decades. “I could’ve done that in my sleep,” Thompson later says of the bit as he walks through Rockefeller Center. “I mean – prewritten, and we just have to read? Reading is fundamental, kids.”

He heads to Studio 8H, where “SNL” shoots and, standing among the auditorium seats, looks down at the spot on center stage where he auditioned 16 years earlier. If he didn’t get the job, Thompson thought at the time, “I’m going to be stuck in my childhood forever.”