Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'SNL' actor Kenan Thompson says, 'I am definitely an ensemble-minded individual'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. Comedian and actor Kenan Thompson is often referred to as the glue that holds "Saturday Night Live" together. He's been on "SNL" for 21 seasons, making him the longest-running cast member in the show's history, with his popular bank of characters like Darnell Hayes, the fictitious host of "Black Jeopardy!," or Diondre Cole, the game show host who sings "What's Up With That?"


KENAN THOMPSON: (As Diondre Cole, singing) Ooh-wee. What's up with that? What's up with that? Ooh-wee. What's up with that? What's up with that? What's up with that?


MOSLEY: Kenan has entertained us for most of his life, first acting in commercials starting at just 5 years old, and later on, Nickelodeon with shows like "All That" and "Kenan And Kel." Of course, that's the story most of us know. In his new book, Kenan takes us behind the curtain, revealing for the first time stories that he's never shared before, like a dark financial period in the early 2000s that almost ruined him, the time he thought about giving up acting altogether and what really happened between him and his longtime co-star Kel Mitchell. Kenan Thompson's new book is called when "I Was Your Age: Life Lessons, Funny Stories And Questionable Parenting Advice From A Professional Clown." He currently stars in the animated musical comedy film "Trolls Band Together" as the voice of Tiny Diamond and as the co-star of "Good Burger 2" with Kel Mitchell. "Saturday Night Live" is also back for its 49th season. Kenan Thompson, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

THOMPSON: Thank you very much. Thank you very much. It's nice to speak to you this morning.

MOSLEY: Yes. So, you know, every time you're introduced now, it's as the longest-running, longest-serving cast member of "SNL." How does it feel to hear that you're, like, this popular, high school senior - you know? - among the "SNL" cast?

THOMPSON: Yeah. I mean, it's crazy because, you know, we're all young at heart, basically. So you forget exactly how old you are sometimes.

MOSLEY: I know.

THOMPSON: And, you know, when you start hearing accolades, it's like, good Lord...

MOSLEY: You're like, I'm actually...

THOMPSON: ...I'm just used to getting...

MOSLEY: ...Middle-aged.

THOMPSON: ...Up and getting dressed and - yeah, I'm getting up and getting dressed and going to work every day, and you just forget that time moves on, man, you know? So it's an amazing thing to hear all the time, but it's hard to conceptualize because it's getting to the point where I've been on the show almost half of its existence - you know? - and it was a place that I didn't ever really think was going to be possible. So to hear those things is such a paradox.

MOSLEY: Yeah. It was an aspirational place for you growing up.


MOSLEY: You know, people have written these really long think pieces about how you're the glue that holds "SNL" together. Do you see yourself that way?

THOMPSON: I mean, I don't know. Like, I'm tough with self-praise, I guess, but I am definitely an ensemble-minded individual. And if that echoes across, you know, in a way that people want to consider me as a glue, great, you know? But I just try to go out there and do my job and, you know, give showcase to these brilliant writers and brilliant minds and all of our departments - makeup and hair and directors and this, that and the other. You know what I mean? Just...


THOMPSON: ...Trying to be a team player. But those things come along with being consistent, which is definitely, you know, much appreciated.

MOSLEY: Well, those who grew up with you and Kel Mitchell on "All That" and "Kenan And Kel" know how much it means to see the two of you all together again in "Good Burger 2," which recently came out. For those who don't know, "Good Burger 2" is a sequel to "Good Burger," and it was originally a sketch on the '90s Nickelodeon show "All That" before becoming a movie. The original came out in 1997, so why did this one take so long?

THOMPSON: Life journeys, you know? Like, once we ended up leaving Nickelodeon and going our kind of separate ways for a little while, you know, it just - it took a while for it all to come back together, basically, in a way where it can go forward without cracks.


THOMPSON: You know what I mean? Like, and yeah, it just, I don't know, it just took a lot of, like, friendship, healing and stuff like that to make it all happen. And when I say friendship healing, I mean, like, a four-minute into a half an hour phone call that we had had after years of kind of not speaking. So, you know, it was really, really, like, refreshing to just have my brother back.

MOSLEY: What do you think made you and Kel such a good comedy duo?

THOMPSON: I mean, I think admiration and respect, but also familiarity because very, very similar dudes, similar cities, you know, growing up in, similar experiences. So, like...

MOSLEY: He's from Chicago, you're from Atlanta. Yeah.

THOMPSON: Yeah. And, like, both of us are very Black, you know what I'm saying? Like, we could easily be, like, Carltons or something. Like, he could be, you know, Will and I could be Carlton or whatever, but it wasn't like that. It was like we were both Wills and, like, we had the same kind of, like...

MOSLEY: From "Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air," by the way. Yes.

THOMPSON: Yes. "Cooley High" references and things like that, basically, like, that shaped us as people in reference points. So when we would reference those things, we would know what was funny about it or what was funny that we would bring up John Amos or anybody like that, you know? So it was just very familiar territory to play in. And he was just a great partner because when he runs, he runs, you know? So I had to keep up with him.

MOSLEY: Right. 'Cause how do you think you guys complement each other? You were the same, but you also had different comedic styles.

THOMPSON: Yeah. I mean, I realized early I couldn't do what he did, you know? So I had to let him do what he does and figure out what it is that I do, which was, like, maybe go the more subtle route or when it's time for me to, like, really go out, like, go all the way out as much as I can. But along the way, he was always making me laugh. So it was always an enjoyable thing. Like, if I was playing a straight man, I was happy to do so because I'm front row seeing it like I do at "SNL," which is why I stay there. You know, I got a front row seat to a whole lot of talent.

MOSLEY: So after "Kenan And Kel," you guys went your separate ways. You started to work individually. And so the separation and the not talking, it just came from the space.

THOMPSON: It did. And then it just grew into, you know, rumor mill kind of nonsense that just kept us kind of pursuing our own kind of, like, lives, basically, like learning what it is to be a grown man trying to get a job and keep a job and this, that and the other. So there wasn't really a lot of time for what wasn't directly in front of us. And since we weren't directly in front of each other, you forget that you haven't spoke to your friend in a while. You know what I mean? And then, you know, you let a rumor from a person go in and out of someone's ear or whatever, and then, you know, you just decide not to speak a little longer and then a little longer and then whatever. It just all becomes kind of, like, we don't really know why we're not talking kind of thing. You know what I mean? And that's what happened. And then thankfully, you know, we were, like, you know, forced reunited by doing the "Good Burger" thing on "The Tonight Show" back in the day, but...

MOSLEY: Was that the phone...

THOMPSON: ...You know, it was something that...

MOSLEY: ...Call that you got to do that skit?

THOMPSON: That was the phone call that needed to happen before we did it for sure because we just hadn't really talked. You know what I mean? And, like, that needed to happen before we could perform together, for sure.

MOSLEY: Right. When you say he's like a brother, he was really one of the first faces you saw when you joined Nickelodeon for "All That." You guys were both cast members. Both 14 years old, and immediately, you just clicked.

THOMPSON: Yeah. You know, he was, you know, the other Black face. I'm like, yo, what's up? Like, that's my people. Now we got numbers, you know what I'm saying?

MOSLEY: I've heard you differentiate being a stand-up comic from being, like, a comedic actor. And is that something that you're self-conscious about? I know you write about in the book, like, going to comedy clubs and hanging out there and not really feeling welcome.

THOMPSON: Yeah, I was made to be, you know? Like, before that I was like, oh, it's all good. Like, everybody's Black. You know what I'm saying? Like, I'm enjoying the show - blah, blah, blah. I didn't really know that people do that. I didn't know people steal jokes. I didn't know people, you know, come around people and not give them opportunity when they go get opportunity. Like, I wasn't aware of the dark sides of, you know, the industry, if you will. You know what I mean?

I was just a fan, and I was trying to learn where my people were. And then I see a lot of my people, so I'm like, all right, cool. This is kind of the environment I feel comfortable in - blah, blah, blah. And, like, I wasn't aware of what I was representing to them - you know what I mean? - like, how they were looking at me kind of thing. And then once I was made aware, you know, I didn't want to be flaunting my success in a way kind of thing, because I didn't have to worry about, you know, trying to get a spot onstage or to make myself, you know, known to the industry through the microphone at all.

Like, I was doing it a different kind of way, the only way I had known up until that point, which was being an actor and auditioning. Like, I didn't know how to - like, I didn't really have an interest in doing stand-up like that and grabbing open mics like that because I'm more ensemble-minded. Like, I talk about that a lot. Like, I'm not big on boasting and, you know, having my opinion be the one that people have to listen to. Like, forced listening to me is, like - you know, it was very intimidating, you know? But performing for people is different. You know what I mean? Like, it's just different.

MOSLEY: Yeah. Was there a moment when you were a kid when you realized that you were funny?

THOMPSON: Yeah. I mean, I realized that cute and funny was what I had going early. And...


THOMPSON: My also, like, personal sense of humor I enjoyed more so than the reactions of anybody else. So, like, my personal sense of humor being carved, like, by hanging out with my brother and, like, watching "48 Hours" and watching, you know, Eddie and, you know, Martin and, you know, early Will Smith and, you know, just all these people - like, you know, once I got onto Richard, forget about it.

MOSLEY: Richard Pryor, yeah.

THOMPSON: Yeah. You know?

MOSLEY: You know we got to say his whole name because we're in a new era now, we are.

THOMPSON: Master Pryor, the legend.

MOSLEY: Yeah (laughter).

THOMPSON: Sir Master Richard, the legendary Pryor - absolutely. We were introduced to him, like, almost through "Superman III" before I knew about his stand-up comedy, you know? And, like, once I started really gathering up my education about it, it was like, man, I really, really enjoy comedy. Like, I enjoy performing it. I don't necessarily like telling jokes, but I enjoy doing voices and, like, requoting full movies like it's nothing, like, from top - from the beginning, opening credits, soundtrack, like "Coming To America" front to back straight up.

MOSLEY: Would you be doing that, like, at home or in the back seat of the car and stuff like that?

THOMPSON: Yeah, it was mostly road trips.


THOMPSON: Mostly road trips, driving our parents crazy.

MOSLEY: (Laughter) Yeah. OK, let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest today is actor and comedian Kenan Thompson. He's written a new book called "When I Was Your Age: Life Lessons, Funny Stories And Questionable Parenting Advice From A Professional Clown." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR, and today we're talking to actor and comedian Kenan Thompson. We're talking to him about his new memoir, "When I Was Your Age: Life Lessons, Funny Stories And Questionable Parenting Advice From A Professional Clown." Kenan is the longest-serving cast member on "SNL" with 21 seasons under his belt. He was nominated for an Emmy Award in his role on the "Kenan" show, which ran for two seasons on NBC. He currently stars in the animated musical comedy film "Trolls Band Together" as the voice of Tiny Diamond and is the co-star of "Good Burger" with Kel Mitchell. "Saturday Night Live" is also back for its 49th season.

Well, one thing you reveal in this book, the thing you say is your deepest and most humbling secret, is that you were conned by an accountant who was managing your money. You had to file for bankruptcy. What happened?

THOMPSON: Yeah. Basically, long story short, you know, the promise of looking out turned into taking advantage of. And, like, we were, you know, unfortunately, like, ignorant enough to give a person power of attorney when they should never have had it. Like, I have never given anybody that since. But, you know, when you're struggling and somebody, you know, comes along and helps you in one situation, you think they can help you in another situation. And that's what happened. Like, the dude helped my mom with her tax problem, and she thought he was a good enough dude to help me, like, manage what was coming in. She didn't want me, like, you know, spending everything and just going crazy or whatever. So I understood that and, you know, went along with it. And I don't fault her for that to this day, but I know she carries that burden. And it breaks my heart, you know, because it's not her burden. It's not her karma. It's totally his. But basically he just, you know, disappeared with everything.

MOSLEY: He wiped you out. And we're talking about your, like, Nickelodeon money, so this was early in your career.

THOMPSON: He wiped me out, but I also didn't pay my taxes. So the IRS came for, you know, what they were supposed to be owed. And it didn't matter that the money was gone, so they just came at me. So I had to file bankruptcy.

MOSLEY: What were those years like, those lean years? You were living in LA at the time.

THOMPSON: Yeah. It was really tough, you know? Like, it's humbling when, you know, people in the McDonald's drive-through line recognize you and then they also recognize that you're paying for a meal with change (laughter). You know what I'm saying? And it's like...

MOSLEY: That happened to you.

THOMPSON: Oh, for sure, you know, on the daily. I wasn't too proud to, like, get by, necessarily, but I would definitely watch the reactions on people's faces. And, you know, some people would make jokes, but then some people didn't notice either. And some people were just like, have a nice day, and just happy to see you. You know what I mean?

So I had the balance of, like, seeing that not everything is all the way one way or the other. It's like, not the end-all, be-all, but it's also not, you know, the greatest day ever because, you know, somebody didn't notice that I was paying with change or whatever. They were just, you know, high-fiving me for being a human being and not about being, like, a famous person, even. It was just like, you know, a professional employee telling their customer to have a nice day kind of thing. So having the balance and being able to see all of that was actually a gift, honestly, because I might have been, you know, a little bit numb to that, you know, stop-and-smell-the-roses moments of life, you know, and just kind of skipping past it, you know, based on the pursuit of consumerism, I don't know.

MOSLEY: Right. You had to sleep on a lot of friends' couches.

THOMPSON: I mean, I slept on my couches, but I had friends' to sleep on. Like, we had an open-door kind of policy because, you know, it was just about who can, like, help us, you know, make a couple of hundred bucks a day. Like, anybody got any ideas? Like, people that know California better than I do - and that's not necessarily the best way to live your life.

MOSLEY: One of my favorite chapters in the book is about you being a church kid. What did being a church kid look like for you growing up? Was it just on Sundays, or were you, like, a weekday church kid, too?

THOMPSON: In the beginning, you know, we went to church a lot, especially, like, if we were in Virginia, you know, at my grandparents' house, she would send us to church almost every night just to, like, get us out of the house, number one, but also, like, keep us out of trouble. But growing up in Atlanta, yeah, we were in the choir. We were in the teenage choir, just in youth groups, Bible study. And so it was at least three days a week of church, for sure. Ushering, you know?


THOMPSON: Yeah. A lot of church dedication and, like, that was the community, as well. That's how, you know, those are all the people we knew that were around us.

MOSLEY: Yeah. You know, you - as you write in the book, you aren't religious now as an adult, but as a former church kid, too, I just wonder how you navigate community with your girls now, because church does offer kind of, like, this third place from, like, home and school or work and school, especially for kids. And you talk about in the book looking forward to when you were a kid, roaming the halls and hanging out with your church girlfriend and all of that.


MOSLEY: Your girls, though, they're living a very different life.

THOMPSON: I mean, they go to church, you know, here and there. Like, whenever, like, they're around their grandparents, they'll take them, usually.


THOMPSON: But I don't specifically go to church as much anymore. I'm not nonreligious. I'm just, like, more spiritual and, like, kind of listening to, you know, a lot of people's different stories. So I'm kind of just open to, like, you know, whatever is on the positive side of things. So whoever has stories that lead towards that, I'm, like, I'm listening. So I'm not like a devil worshiper, but...

MOSLEY: OK (laughter).

THOMPSON: ...I can't say that I'm specifically Baptist or I'm specifically Methodist or, you know, Episcopalian. I'm just - I'm - I love God, you know, I love the universe. You know, it's just bigger to me than that. Like, it's just more inclusive to me.

MOSLEY: I love how you write about your relationship with your mother and the lessons that she taught you. There is this one story you tell, I think you're in 11th grade, and you write about cops following you as you drove to a friend's house, and you had this awakening that night. You raced to your mom and you're like, I understand now. I get it now. What do you remember about that moment?

THOMPSON: Well, that was two different times. I had, you know, being followed by the cops in Atlanta wasn't anything new, necessarily, but it hadn't happened to me yet. So I ran home and told her about that, and she was like, well, what were you doing? I was like, we were just riding around looking at houses. She was like, well, you have to be aware, you know, like, those things might happen, and make sure that you're, you know, not riding dirty and this, that and the other.

But the time I actually came home with an awakening, I had just learned a whole bunch from, you know, outside of high school kind of theater department kind of people that were, you know, giving us knowledge that wasn't in the current curriculum kind of thing. And I was, like, putting, you know, kind of two and two together about all these things. And I just came home and just unloaded on, you know, all these things that I was like, well, this is happening, and this is happening, and this is happening. Did you know this? And did you know that? And can you believe this? And she just had to sit there and be like, yeah, I'm aware. And, like, that's - that is what it is. And I remember the sadness on her face of watching my innocence go away like that.

MOSLEY: You think about that with your daughters. Like, there will be a time, there will be a moment when they understand their place in the world and then just the greater world, you know?

THOMPSON: Yeah. And hopefully, you know, on the other side of the bridge, they'll understand that their place is defined by them, you know, and it's not necessarily defined by any specific system. You know, like, there are systems in place that might make it difficult, but at the same time, you are the individual, and this is your life to live. So, you know, you can confront whatever walls you come across, basically.

MOSLEY: If you're just joining us, our guest today is Kenan Thompson. We're talking about his new book, "When I Was Your Age: Life Lessons, Funny Stories And Questionable Parenting Advice From A Professional Clown." We'll be right back. I'm Tonya Mosley, and this is FRESH AIR.

THOMPSON: Yeah, Tonya.


MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley, and today my guest is actor and comedian Kenan Thompson. He's got a new memoir called "When I Was Your Age: Life Lessons, Funny Stories And Questionable Parenting Advice From A Professional Clown." He currently stars in the animated musical comedy film "Trolls Band Together" as the voice of Tiny Diamond and as the co-star of "Good Burger 2" with Kel Mitchell. "Saturday Night Live" is also back for its 49th season. Kenan holds the distinction of being the longest-serving cast member on "Saturday Night Live." And, Kenan, people might be really surprised to learn that "SNL" salaries, for starters, aren't that high at all. When you first started, you weren't instantly rich.

THOMPSON: No, it took a while.

MOSLEY: Yeah, I mean, in part because you were coming into it after dealing with that bankruptcy. But also, it's - you know, I think people often think, you're on TV, so you're balling, basically.

THOMPSON: Yeah. I mean, I think people know now because they've made enough kind of jokes about it on the show. But in the beginning, yeah. It's like not only, you know, are you up for grabs basically every summer. So you don't know, like, where your life is going until they tell you to come back. But, yeah, it's, like, the first...

MOSLEY: 'Cause the show goes on hiatus in the summer, right?

THOMPSON: Exactly. And then they choose...

MOSLEY: And you're not paid during that time.

THOMPSON: Yeah. And then they choose whether or not you're going to come back. It's not like you just get a two- or three-year kind of deal in the beginning. It's like, no, every summer, it's based on performance. So it's a lot of unknowns and mystery in the beginnings of your "SNL" existence. And that goes on for a while. You know, it's a seven-year before you renegotiate or whatever. And, like, some people become, you know, very popular early. So their renegotiations might come earlier than others. But if that doesn't happen for you, you know, you got to do that seven-year stretch. And it can really, like - I don't know - make your...

MOSLEY: It sounds like a lot of pressure.

THOMPSON: Yeah, that's what I'm saying. Like, it can either make you the adult you're going to be, or it can break you.

MOSLEY: It was hard for you at first, though. I mean, you were brought on to "SNL" to replace Tracy Morgan. Tracy took you to dinner and gave you some really good advice, though. What did he say?

THOMPSON: Yes. So my first day, it was like Tracy was still on the show because he was just there, still holding court in the middle of, like, the conference room, like, just telling jokes, like, with the writers and stuff, like, you know, doing stand-up from a chair, basically. And I was like, yo. This is unbelievable. Like, he's here. You know what I mean? Like, I thought he was off the show or whatever. I thought he was gone, like, doing other stuff or whatever. But he's, like, really right here. And that was amazing because I was a huge fan of his for years and years and years. And he just immediately, you know, little brothered me. And, like, I had been wanting that, you know, from adult performers for so long. Like, I had so many heroes in the game, and I had been in the game for a while. And, like, I just hadn't been, like, little brothered like that. Like, nobody took me...

MOSLEY: Mentored.

THOMPSON: ...Under their wing yet.


THOMPSON: Yeah, like, not super-duper mentored from, you know, my heroes. And, like, you know, with Tracy, it was immediate. And he took us to TGI Fridays, and he gave us all kind of advice, you know?

MOSLEY: But what did he say to you? He gave you advice that sticks to you to this day.

THOMPSON: No. 1 was don't peak at dress. That's the main one that he always tells everybody because it's like...

MOSLEY: And what does that mean? Yeah.

THOMPSON: It means don't do your best when it doesn't matter. I mean, it matters, but, like, that's not the one that really counts. The live show is what counts. So if you peak at dress and then the live show is kind of just iffy or whatever, it's not a real score. And then you've spent your whole week - I don't know. You just - you let it off too early, basically.

MOSLEY: But how do you do that? - like, because you're trying to sell the skit, too - right? - the sketch 'cause, like, as you're rehearsing it, you want people to see it...


MOSLEY: ...The team to see this is, like, a viable thing. But you don't want to give too much.

THOMPSON: I don't really know. I just end up double-performing, you know, and just blowing it out. And that's, like, usually why I slept for a lot of Sundays in the beginning because I would just go all out, you know? Like, I didn't know what else to do.

MOSLEY: Yeah. I talked to Leslie Jones a few months ago, but you know you're all in her memoir. She says that...


MOSLEY: ...You're one of her favorite people.

THOMPSON: That's my sister.

MOSLEY: Well, part of why Leslie Jones became a cast member, in part, is because you refused to play the role of a Black woman on "SNL" because you were playing these roles. They dress you up in a dress and a wig. Was there a straw for you, a moment when you said, nope, I'm not going to play a woman anymore?

THOMPSON: I don't remember a specific moment. I just remember it had gotten to a point, you know? And I was like - I feel like it was around when Michelle was starting to emerge before, you know, Barack ran for his campaign. Like, they were just emerging as people.

MOSLEY: Yeah, Michelle Obama.

THOMPSON: And at that point, like, I had done, like, a lot of random, you know, kind of impressions that weren't really impressions. They were just people that existed, like Carol Moseley Braun. Like, I don't have a Carol Moseley Braun impression. You know what I mean? And I don't have a S. Epatha Merkerson impression. You know what I mean? It's just like, these are just people that have names and are out there in the world. And S. Epatha was doing a lot of, like, "Law And Orders" or something like that, so her name would come up in the zeitgeist in that era. But, like, you know, I didn't spend my life growing up, you know, doing impressions of, like, Whoopi even, you know? So it just became, like, a lot. And I was like, I feel like, No. 1 we're missing the opportunity of finding someone incredible. But also, No. 2, like, this is kind of tapped out, you know? Like, we told this joke before, basically.

MOSLEY: Yeah. Yeah. If you're just joining us, my guest today is actor and comedian Kenan Thompson. He's written a new book called "When I Was Your Age: Life Lessons, Funny Stories And Questionable Parenting Advice From A Professional Clown." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. And today we're talking to actor and comedian Kenan Thompson. We're talking to him about his new memoir, "When I Was Your Age: Life Lessons, Funny Stories And Questionable Parenting Advice From A Professional Clown." Kenan is the longest-serving cast member on "SNL," with 21 seasons under his belt. He was nominated for an Emmy Award in his role on the "Kenan" show, which ran for two seasons on NBC. He currently stars in the animated musical comedy film "Trolls Band Together" as the voice of Tiny Diamond and as the co-star of "Good Burger" with Kel Mitchell. "Saturday Night Live" is also back for its 49th season.

When there is a guest host, you most often are always the one standing next to them in the promos or part of their opening monologue. How and why does that happen? I mean, I've made up a theory in my mind. I would love to know how it works.

THOMPSON: I mean, I think the promos rotate, but, you know, it's nice when they call you to do it often because it feels like, you know, you just help deliver things - you know what I mean? - in a way that makes it a lot less of a headache or something like that. If I can make anybody's job easier, then, you know, call me up. I'm here for it. And then monologue things is just, you know, if one of the writers, you know, has a joke for it or an idea for it, or it fits, or if I have an idea, like with Chadwick, you know, I just had that idea to...

MOSLEY: Chadwick Boseman, yeah.

THOMPSON: Yeah. God bless him. I just had that idea to do Panthro - you know what I mean? - because "ThunderCats" was big in my life growing up, so I just knew, you know, everybody would understand it. But, you know, people were kind of 50/50. Like, some people knew, and some people didn't really get it. But once they saw me in the full costume, that definitely delivered it home, which was great. It was so great to dress up as Panthro. Like, it was a dream come true.

MOSLEY: Oh, my God. So just to remind people, the late Chadwick Boseman guest hosted. You were part of the opening monologue. That's what you're talking about. And you got to dress up.


MOSLEY: Can you tell us a little bit more about it?

THOMPSON: Yes. Well, I interrupt Chadwick's monologue fully dressed like the character Panthro from the "ThunderCats," which was a cartoon in the '80s. And everybody assumed that Panthro was Black because of how his voice sounded. And that was just, you know, what we ran with as kids. That was the rumor - you know what I mean? - because he just - he sounded like a Blaxploitation kind of character, like, you know, any Black man that don't take no mess kind of thing. Like, I don't even know if he was Black or not. Like, it hasn't been proven, but in my mind, he was. So I interrupt Chadwick talking, and I'm claiming to be the original Black Panther, who's not getting enough love, dressed as a light blue, bald-headed panther.


CHADWICK BOSEMAN: Whoa, Panthro from the "ThunderCats."

THOMPSON: (As Panthro) Yeah. That's right. You must be the Black-Panther-style superhero who has space-age technology. Where have I heard that one before? Oh, right - from when it was me.

BOSEMAN: All right. All right. All right. Panthro, Black Panther was created in 1966. "ThunderCats" are from the '80s.

THOMPSON: (As Panthro) No, actually, ThunderCats are from Thundera, the cat planet where cats lived in harmony until Mumm-Ra made it explode - not that you care.

BOSEMAN: Panthro...

THOMPSON: (As Panthro) Come on, dude. I know you guys are doing a sequel. Hook a brother up. It's hard out there for a Black space cat with spiky suspenders.


BOSEMAN: Hey, man. I got to ask. Is this another one of the bad ideas the writers had that I'm in right now?

THOMPSON: (As Panthro) No. I actually heard that this was Kenan Thompson's idea, and I'm told that he stands by it.


THOMPSON: (As Panthro) Fifteen seasons, baby.

MOSLEY: You know, you meet so many guest hosts, and so many cast members rotate, come in and out over your 21 seasons. But it sounds like this is one of those that you'll always remember.

THOMPSON: Absolutely.

MOSLEY: You have those that probably come to mind to you.

THOMPSON: Absolutely. I mean, there's a number of them. I usually remember them when I watch them back. And it's really like - I don't know. It's extreme to see how many people there - it really has been and how many moments and how many, like, cultural moments it's been, you know, just like really, really big across the board of, you know, music and talent. It's just - it's wild. But definitely like, you know, Chadwick sticks out, you know, amongst others. But it sticks out because we had so much fun, you know, let alone, you know, how amazing he was as a person. But we also did a great show.


THOMPSON: So that's when the full cake has been made for sure.

MOSLEY: Oh. I like that - the full cake. Do you ever look back and say, I don't even remember doing that at all? Are there ever those?

THOMPSON: Oh, yeah, oh, yeah, like, full sketches where I'm, like, sitting there, saying all kind of stuff, dressed in, you know, all kind of stuff and, like, doing all kind of stuff. And I have no recollection of it at all. And I'm like, that's crazy.

MOSLEY: I know - part of getting older, too.

THOMPSON: Like, Pee-Wee Herman - like, Paul Reubens had to remind me, you know, of his time on the show in a digital short, you know, in, like, Samberg's, like, first or second year or something like that. And I had to watch it back and then remember, like, oh, yeah, we actually were shooting at night with Paul Reubens, you know?


THOMPSON: And, like, it's such a, like, second-hand thing because "SNL" is so big and broad, and the people that come in and out of there, like, could be anybody at any given moment. So if you focus too hard on it, it can be overwhelming in my opinion. It was overwhelming for me. So I tended to probably disassociate or tune out or something. And he, like, reminded me. He was like, remember, like, blah, blah, blah? And I saw it. I was like - once I saw it, I was like, yeah, totally, I remember that night because I remember that shirt. And I was like, you know, but I had forgotten, you know, what the sketch was even about because I don't think I was watching the shows back early...

MOSLEY: Back then.

THOMPSON: ...On in my years because it was just too awkward for me. And, like, I didn't want to like, second, you know, second guess or, you know, overly, like, criticize myself or whatever. So yeah, it was just one of those things that was, like, lost in the memory banks.

MOSLEY: You got over not watching yourself, but you do watch yourself back. What are you looking for when you're watching yourself back?

THOMPSON: Mostly just enjoying what I heard happen in the room. I was like, oh, I heard that that, you know, when I was listening as I was performing, that that went well. So I would kind of see, like, what everybody else saw just out of curiosity. Like, I did this, like, you know, like, a tape to my kids sketch thing where I was like - this is a video explaining something, you know, when the character kind of like passes away or something like that or whatever. And I think it was when Zoe Kravitz hosted. And they were fast-forwarding through the video. So then I was like doing the fast-forward movement like the tape was fast-forwarding. And, like, you know, it really - it got like an applause break, like, twice or whatever, you know, because it was like really funny or whatever. So I remember watching that back, and I was like, oh, yeah, that's pretty funny.

MOSLEY: Yeah, yeah because - right. I mean, when you're in scene, do you even sometimes hear the clapping or the - like, knowing what hit? You ever - listening back and, like, oh - or you watch back and you're like, oh, that was what hit. I didn't even realize it in the moment.

THOMPSON: Yeah. No, I definitely, like, acknowledge it in the moment. Like, oh, no, I know what they're clapping about.


THOMPSON: Like, I know that that's the gag, basically, but I don't necessarily expect it to hit that hard. I was like, oh, wow, well, thank you. You know, I didn't realize I had blown y'all's minds like that.


MOSLEY: Right. So you know when a bit really hits or a moment in a sketch really hits. What about when you think something is really funny and nobody laughs in the room, you know?

THOMPSON: It's the funniest thing ever, you know? Like, it really makes me laugh because it's like, oh, man, like, where did we miss? Like, where is the disconnect here? And why am I such a weirdo that I think that that's funny and nobody thinks it's funny?

MOSLEY: (Laughter).

THOMPSON: You know? Like, just it starts to, like, offer a lot of questioning, which is a lot of fun because, you know, you're digging a lot of the time as a creative, you know? You're digging for something that's going to stick when you're trying to build something. So...

MOSLEY: How do you save a skit when you see it's failing? Do you have any specific tactics while you're in the moment? Like, OK, I see where this is going, I need to turn it around.

THOMPSON: I mean, the word should save, you know, itself in general. So, like, if there's a dead pocket, hopefully you wrote something that has legs around any specific moment that doesn't, like, work. You know what I mean? Like, maybe the overall sketch won't work as big as you hoped, but usually there should be something coming after that moment that's also a laugh. You know what I mean? It's not like that's the one laugh in the thing, you know? So if one thing misses, it's like, all right, well, we got these, you know, 15 other things. So did those all work? Great. Then we'll cut that one thing that didn't work and that's our sketch.

MOSLEY: You know, it was really fun to read more about your idols, those you look up to in the industry - all of the favorites, of course, Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence and Chris Farley.


MOSLEY: But it was Bob Newhart that you learned a very important lesson from about work.


MOSLEY: What did he teach you?

THOMPSON: He taught me what consistency looked like, you know, because as creatives, we have a tendency to always want fresh or always want new or always want to, like, switch it up, you know, in pursuit of topping, you know, the last person that was on that subject and, you know, just pushing things forward, which is fine. But he also taught me, like, there is a way to do it where you can, like, be a steady adult and be in one place, you know? And, like, that is a possibility. It's not necessarily what happens for 90% of us, but, you know, it is a possibility.

So once I saw that, I was like, oh, I will keep that coin in the back of my pocket for sure, because that's a very cool thing. Like, he spent 14 years, same stage, same dressing room. You know, like, the street's now named after him kind of thing. And he lived 10 minutes away on his bicycle in the Valley, like, before global warming. Like, that's a beautiful existence.

MOSLEY: (Laughter) Right, right.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

MOSLEY: And now you're doing something similar at "SNL," for sure.

THOMPSON: Yeah. You know, like, predictability is not a luxury for actors. So, you know, it's been nice to be able to - you know, be able to at least predict for one year, you know?

MOSLEY: Yep, yep.

THOMPSON: Like, it's crazy.

MOSLEY: Well, you've got this memoir. Now you and Kel are back as a duo in "Good Burger 2." You also toy around but stop short of saying that you might sooner or later leave "SNL." What is the verdict? You can give us the scoop.

THOMPSON: I mean, the scoop is unfortunately the same. Like, I wish I knew, you know? Like, I know I'm supposed to be there through the 50th, but that's all I know as far as what they want from me kind of thing. And then what I want at this point? Yeah, I mean, I could see myself, like, hanging it up. It's been a long run. You know what I mean? But at the same time, I could also see myself being the guy that never left kind of thing. I don't really know. It's kind of, like, still a blank canvas. But, you know, it just - it kind of all depends on how it's going with the babies, and do they still love New York? And am I able to spend enough time with them, because "SNL" is a very demanding schedule?

MOSLEY: Well, Keenan, I've really enjoyed talking to you. Thank you so much for this conversation.

THOMPSON: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

MOSLEY: Kenan Thompson's book is called "When I Was Your Age: Life Lessons, Funny Stories And Questionable Parenting Advice From A Professional Clown." Coming up, John Powers reviews a new documentary about one of the world's greatest artists. This is FRESH AIR.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.