Atlanta native Kenan Thompson, enduring ‘SNL’ figure, branches out to lead sitcom

Kenan Thompson plays an Atlanta morning show host in his NBC sitcom "Kenan." (Photo by Casey Durkin/NBC)
Kenan Thompson plays an Atlanta morning show host in his NBC sitcom "Kenan." (Photo by Casey Durkin/NBC)

Credit: NBC

Credit: NBC

‘Kenan’ has Thompson playing a fictional Atlanta morning TV host

Tonight, TV viewers will see Kenan Thompson play a widower with two daughters and host of an Atlanta early morning chat show called “Wake Up With Kenan.” His father-in-law is played by a super peppy Don Johnson. Chris Redd portrays Kenan’s pesky manager and best friend.

The setup could very well be a skit on “Saturday Night Live,” Thompson’s home for the past 18 years, making him the longest-running cast member in the venerable show’s 46-year history.

But it’s actually a new NBC sitcom which debuted last month called “Kenan” starring the Atlanta native. The fourth episode airs today at 8:30 p.m. after Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s comedy “Young Rock.”

“I had to give my hometown a shoutout,” said Thompson in a phone interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution during a break on set in Los Angeles earlier this month. “I miss East Point and going to the corner store to get some sweet tea. I miss the underground vibe of Atlanta and knowing the ins and outs of the place.”

Thompson, now 42, said his show character is not that different than he is in the sense they are both in the public eye and are raising young daughters. His real-life wife Christina Evangeline, though, is very much alive.

“It’s funny that we talk about me living my character,” Thompson mused. “I’ll spend my day doing scenes with my television children, sharing a meal and checking their homework. Then I go home and do the exact thing.”

Thompson’s basic amiability permeates the show, where his character can say insulting things and get away with it because there is not a trace of animus or ire behind anything that comes out of his mouth. How his character handles grief is to ignore the grief, to work harder and try to parent his daughters even better. It doesn’t always work.

Kimberly Potts, a co-host of the “Pop Literacy” podcast and author of the 2019 book “The Way We All Became The Brady Bunch,” said seeing Thompson in this type of role is still a bit disconcerting after watching him do straight sketch work all these years on “SNL.”

“We’re not used to seeing him in this context,” Potts said. “But there’s a lot to like. He’s charming and funny. He adapts very well to the sitcom vibe. I hope the show eventually hits its stride.”

Thompson has been preparing for this moment for decades, building his love for stage work with the Freddie Hendricks Youth Ensemble, which is now known as the Youth Ensemble of Atlanta. He was there around the same time as Xscape star and “Real Housewives of Atlanta” cast member Kandi Burruss. “That place was known as an incubator for talent,” said Ray Cornelius, entertainment reporter for 91.9/WCLK-FM. “It was set up a little bit like the school in ‘Fame.’ You had to be a triple threat: sing, dance and act.”

As a teenager, Thompson cut his teeth in sketch comedy on the Nickelodeon show “All That,” sitcom work in “Kenan & Kel” and film roles in “Good Burger” and “The Mighty Ducks” franchise.

Kenan Thompson (right) starred with Kel Mitchell in a kid-oriented sitcom on Nickelodeon from 1996 to 2000. Courtesy of Nickelodeon
Kenan Thompson (right) starred with Kel Mitchell in a kid-oriented sitcom on Nickelodeon from 1996 to 2000. Courtesy of Nickelodeon

Credit: Nickelodeon

Credit: Nickelodeon

Lorne Michaels, a man whose keen eye for comic talent is unmatched, hired Thompson when he was 25 and did not regret it.

Thompson quickly became an indispensable comedy cog who could be placed almost anywhere. Whether he plays a chipper O.J. Simpson, a boisterous Steve Harvey or the quixotic “What’s Up With That?” talk show host Diondre Cole, Thompson makes sketch comedy look easy.

For most of his years there, he was content to play second fiddle to the likes of Amy Poehler, Kristin Wiig, Bill Hader and Jimmy Fallon.

Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph and Kenan Thompson at the 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 28, 2021. (Photo by Rich Polk/NBC)
Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph and Kenan Thompson at the 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 28, 2021. (Photo by Rich Polk/NBC)

Credit: NBC

Credit: NBC

But as he became a veteran cast member himself, he became more comfortable with the idea of helming his own show.

“Having a sitcom is one of the ultimate goals for a comedic actor,” Thompson said. “I decided it was time to step up to the plate.”

Several ideas came and went, including an effort to make Thompson a real-estate agent. But last year, producers finally found a concept that worked where he would play a role that was closer to what people know him as: a performer.

“I don’t believe him as a lawyer or doctor,” said Jackie Clarke, one of the executive producers of “Kenan” who came up with the concept of Kenan trying to piece his life back together after the love of his life died. “We felt like this morning show conceit was a fun way to take advantage of his multiple talents.”

And no matter how cool and collected he appears on the exterior, Thompson isn’t immune to the vagaries of ratings, social media buzz and being No. 1 on the call sheet.

“It’s a lot of pressure,” he acknowledged. “My name is on vans and billboards. It’s all over the place. But I feel blanketed and secure with the people we have in place here. I don’t feel like I’m out there by myself. They’re just using my first name.”

It doesn’t hurt having someone like the “Miami Vice” veteran Johnson around.

“He may be known as Mr. Handsome or Mr. Badass, but he loves to laugh,” Thompson said. “He lights up the room. I love to work a good joke or punchline with him.”

Thompson also has his “SNL” buddy Redd as his sidekick. “He is my brother,” Thompson said. “I couldn’t be happier going on this journey with him. We have so much history together. We’ve won awards together. He makes my job so much easier.”

Regardless whether “Kenan” works or not, Thompson has zero intention of stepping away from “SNL” any time soon.

“‘SNL’ is my rest haven at this point,” Thompson said. “That’s been my family for 18 years.”

It doesn’t hurt that “SNL” creator Lorne Michaels, at age 76, remains a pillar of that show. “It’s priceless to have a guy like that by your side,” Thompson said. “He’s seen it all, and he’s still standing. It’s a privilege to be around him and garner knowledge from him.”

Chris Redd as Gary, Dani Lane as Aubrey, Kenan Thompson as Kenan, Dannah Lane as Birdie in the premiere episode of NBC's 'Kenan." (Photo by  Casey Durkin/NBC)
Chris Redd as Gary, Dani Lane as Aubrey, Kenan Thompson as Kenan, Dannah Lane as Birdie in the premiere episode of NBC's 'Kenan." (Photo by Casey Durkin/NBC)

Credit: NBC

Credit: NBC

Don Johnson as Rick (from left), Kenan Thompson as Kenan, Chris Redd as Gary star in "Kenan." Casey Durkin/NBC
Don Johnson as Rick (from left), Kenan Thompson as Kenan, Chris Redd as Gary star in "Kenan." Casey Durkin/NBC

Credit: NBC

Credit: NBC

ON TELEVISION

“Kenan”

8:30 p.m. Tuesdays on NBC and available the next day on Hulu and Peacock

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