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17 seasons later, Kenan Thompson is still having a blast on ‘Saturday Night Live’

"Saturday Night Live's" Kenan Thompson with musical guest Lizzo and host Eddie Murphy.
“Saturday Night Live’s” Kenan Thompson, right, was thrilled to be there for Eddie Murphy’s return to the sketch show, and for musical guest Lizzo.
(Rosalind O’Connor / NBC)

“If all else fails, you should know that back in Season 35, I put a fatal flaw in the system: If you take out Kenan Thompson, the studio will explode.” Those are the words of actress Tina Fey, during the season opener of “Saturday Night Live” in 2017 but they feel just as true today.

Thompson, who wrapped up his 17th season with the show in the spring, has become one of the go-to MVP’s on NBC’s long-running sketch comedy series. The easygoing 42-year-old holds the record as the longest-tenured cast member and for doing the most celebrity impressions. Thompson won an Emmy for his work in 2018 and is nominated for the supporting actor comedy prize again this year for a season that included three prerecorded remote episodes of the show due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thompson looked back at this unusual year during a recent phone interview.

First up, congrats on finishing up the season on a high note. How did you feel about the 2019-20 season?

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I thought this past season was great. I just watched the last show we did in the studio, the Daniel Craig episode, and I thought it was such a good one and that we were really in stride as a team. It was a little bittersweet because it made me want to be back in the studio, regardless of how emotional or grueling the schedule can be. Sometimes life doesn’t get any sweeter than when you get “SNL” right!

Of course, I’ve very thankful for the time I’ve had at home with my babies and my wife. Looking back, the biggest segment that really reminded me of how special the show was for everyone was the “Dreams” sketch that was written by Cecily [Strong] and one of our great writers, Kent Sublette. It was about all of us dreaming about walking in Times Square or being outside in a restaurant. We didn’t know what the future would hold or when we would be able to get back to normal life. People called me and told me that sketch really touched them. My wife and I were watching it together. She was crying and I had a lump in my throat.

It was also a strong season in terms of guest hosts — from RuPaul and Eddie Murphy to Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Scarlett Johansson, Jennifer Lopez and Will Ferrell. Tell us about working with Eddie Murphy.

Working with Eddie Murphy was so surreal. You just can’t help it, you just want to stare at him. You can’t believe he’s standing in front of you. I mean, this is a guy that I’ve been watching and have been a big fan of all my life. Everybody felt the pressure because Eddie had been the guy who hadn’t come back to the show yet. Oh, man. that was an incredible week. We had some amazing shows. Whenever a good news story comes out, I always think, “Oh, man, why aren’t we in production!” We would be all over Kanye right now!

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You started your career early, starring in Nickelodeon’s “Kenan and Kel” and “All That.” How did being on those shows prepare you for your “SNL” years?

Those shows prepared me to be a professional actor, knowing how to play in front of the camera, take the words off the page and try to get a laugh. But I didn’t have the burden of writing on those shows. That was something new that I had to learn. There is no job security when you start at “SNL.” You don’t know whether they are going to bring you back at any point. That probably helps people perform at a very high level every week. It’s easy to look back and think that everything happened quickly, but people weren’t really catching on that I was on “SNL” until my fifth or sixth year.

In 2013, you decided to stop playing Black women. How have changing attitudes toward Black representation and diversity impacted the show?

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Diversity and inclusion has always been challenging. It’s really a weekly battle for us to make sure that many voices are represented. The show is supposed to make you laugh, not necessarily forget what’s going on in our society and in the news. We like to figure out a way to soften the blow a little bit. That’s kind of our job, to comfort the audience during uncomfortable situations through comedy. It’s always a challenge to make sure we’re walking those lines. We really have to be diligent and continue to make sure we move forward with inclusion and diversity. That seems to be in front of people’s minds, which will hopefully lead to better decision-making. There seems to be more opportunities now, but you still have to earn them.

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Speaking of Kanye, what was going on in your mind on that night in 2018 when he just took the mike and gave his pro-Trump speech at the end of the show?

It’s always interesting with that guy! I kind of knew when they gave him the microphone that he didn’t have a song coming and he was just going to talk. So I figured I’ll just excuse myself from that situation. I’m glad I did, because he kept my poor cast members onstage: They were held hostage and had to listen to him rant and rave. I thought, I’m good on that. Everyone is entitled to their opinions. But I didn’t think it was necessary for me to be there! It’s not like he’s making a speech about climate change!

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What was the reaction to your playing Black Trump?

That made me laugh. A lot of people were mad that we called the sketch “Them Trumps.” But it was all in fun. It made me laugh. It’s always interesting when we are able to find similarities in what seems to be polar opposites. Like doing “Black Jeopardy” with Tom Hanks and T’Challa (“Black Panther’s” Chadwick Boseman).

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Kenan Thompson in the “Saturday Night Live” sketch, “Them Trumps.”

“SNL” creator and producer Lorne Michaels has said that you were the person he’d most rely on in the cast. What do you think has been the secret to your success and longevity on a very challenging show?

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I wish I knew. I approach each show with the same kind of dedication as every other show. Because we’re a live sketch comedy show, it allows for that kind of constant start-from-the-beginning mentality. In comedy, you have to earn every laugh. I’ve never been of the mentality of sitting on past achievements. It’s true that you’re always only as good as your last thing. That has always kept me humble and hungry. I like to get along with people. That really helps. I like to have fun and not be overly stressed about work. We’re on a show trying to make people laugh, which has an amazing legacy and history of people like Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Will Ferrell, Tracy Morgan, Maya Rudolph, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, to just name a few. You hope that people look at you in the same eyes as these people.

What are your top three favorite sketches through the years?

“Scared Straight” was one of the first ideas that I came up with and it was very funny to me.

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Kenan Thompson and Betty White star in an edition of “Scared Straight” on “Saturday Night Live” (2010).

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Then, there’s “What Up With That,” which became really popular. The reach that it had was incredible to me. People told me they were singing that song while they were decorating their Christmas tree. I was like, “Wow, this is really part of pop culture now!” I know I’m the ringmaster, but it’s really great to see how much fun everyone else was having. Big Papi and Steve Harvey are also close favorites.

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