Kenan Thompson: Knowing What You Do Best

If Kenan Thompson ever decided to give up his career in show business, he could be a master trainer teaching teams how to put ego aside for the good of the team.

“I’m tough with self-praise,” Thompson tells Tonya Mosley on Fresh Air, “but I am definitely an ensemble-minded individual. And if… people want to consider me as a glue, great.” Thompson sees his role to “showcase to these brilliant writers and brilliant minds and all of our departments – makeup and hair and directors” and many more.

Thompson has been a cast member of Saturday Night Live for twenty-one seasons, the longest tenure of any performer on that show, which will mark its fiftieth season next year. Thompson has also done film and television and lots of voice-overs. And you can catch him on commercials, too, something that was his first break into the business as a child actor. His new memoir is When I Was Your Ageand as the title says, it has many life lessons. 

Facing hard-knocks

Thompson had early success on Nickelodeon, but sadly, earnings from that show were pilfered by an unscrupulous accountant who cleaned out Thompson’s holdings and left him with a huge bill for unpaid taxes. It was a humbling experience because his stardom had made him famous but now he was broke and paying for fast food with change. “I wasn’t too proud to, like, get by, necessarily, but I would definitely watch the reactions on people’s faces… 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.” 

Fortunately, he had friends. “I slept on my couches, but I had friends’ to sleep on. We had an open-door kind of policy because, you know, it was just about who can help us make a couple of hundred bucks a day.” In retrospect, this loss of wealth taught him to appreciate life more fully.

One person who helped Thompson career-wise was Tracy Morgan, the actor he replaced on SNL. “And [Morgan] just immediately ‘little-brothered’ me. I had been wanting that, you know, from adult performers for so long.” Receiving support from others helps build confidence, something that, when done right, enables you to do the same for others on their way up.

Keeping polishing your craft

Thompson, like many performers, did not watch his performances in his early years. “Because it was just too awkward for me. And I didn’t want to second guess or overly criticize myself.” In time, he eased upon himself and started to watch sketches that had gone over well with the audience. He did not ease up on his work ethic. “You’re digging a lot of the time as a creative. You’re digging for something that’s going to stick when you’re trying to build something.”

Bob Newhart is an inspiration to Thompson. Newhart, who had three long-running television series, “taught [Thompson] what consistency looked like, you know, because as creatives, we have a tendency to always want fresh or always want new or switch it up in pursuit of topping the last person that was on that subject.” 

Such drive has its place but so too does stability. Newhart, who lived close to the studio producing his shows, showed Thompson who has two daughters “there is a way to do it where you can be a steady adult and be in one place… It’s not necessarily what happens for 90% of us, but, you know, it is a possibility.”

The ability to be consistent in what you do is a form of self-knowledge that breeds self-confidence. And that confidence gives performers the sense they can be their best and do their best individually and as part of an ensemble.

First posted on 2.20.2024