Live from Ames: ‘SNL’ comedian Kenan Thompson comes to ISU

Comedian Kenan Thompson will perform at 8 p.m. Wednesday at C.Y. Stephens Auditorium. Doors open at 7 p.m. and ISU tickets are $20, with a limit of two tickets per person. All seating will be general admission.

Melissa Garrett

From musical theater to television to stand-up comedy, comedian Kenan Thompson has done it all.

Having recently wrapped his 12th season on Saturday Night Live, Thompson started his comedy career as a young comedian on Nickelodeon’s “All That” and said he never imagined becoming an SNL regular could be his real job.

Thompson will step away from his Saturday night schedule to perform a comedy show for Ames audiences at 8 p.m. Wednesday at C.Y. Stephens Auditorium.

Doors will open at 7 p.m. for the 8 p.m. show. ISU student tickets are $20 and adult tickets are $30.

Tickets are available for purchase via Ticketmaster and can be purchased from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday at the Iowa State Center Ticket Office.

Growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, Thompson was the youngest brother in his family and had an extensive musical theater background, though he said he was a quiet kid.

“I was the younger brother, so I followed my brother around a lot, and we played, like, sports in the street—a lot of bicycling, a lot of football,” Thompson said. “I was quiet, but I enjoyed playing with my G.I. Joes and cars and stuff like that.” 

Scoring one of his first comedy roles on Nickelodeon’s “All That”, Thompson has an extensive background in musical theater and said he has always been known for his “funny bone.”

“I guess I was always kind of like the comic relief [even] in the musical theater-type deals. I would always have like a line or two that would get laughs,” Thompson said. “[I]t’s like a natural thing, I guess.” 

As he got older, Thompson realized that pursuing comedy as a career and performing on Saturday Night Live was the real deal.

“Just going from my first TV show experience in the first place with ‘All That’ was awesome, you know; every single day was awesome. We had like really cool musical guests from the very beginning, like TLC,” Thompson said.

“I was a kid, I was protected, [and] I started to go to school and work a lot, but they wrote the material [so] we just had a great time. And then to get our own show [Kenan & Kel] was just like, ‘Oh my god,’ like it was just amazing, and like, ‘we are Hollywood superstars right now.’” 

Thompson went from being a young comedian on Nickelodeon’s “All That” to getting his own popular spin-off show “Kenan & Kel” with “All That” costar Kel Mitchell. Thompson said when he was younger he saw SNL as “such an institution” that he never foresaw becoming a regular on the popular late night comedy show.

“When we were on ‘All That’ and stuff like that on Nickelodeon, we were saying we were like the SNL kids or whatever, but I never thought… I would ever have the chance to get on the show,” Thompson said. “[It was] such a farfetched idea [since SNL] was such an institution.” 

Trading California sunshine for the Big Apple, Thompson went from west to east coast almost overnight when he “got lucky” and landed a job with SNL in New York. Thompson described the transition from performing on Nickelodeon’s “All That” to SNL as “pretty epic” but terrifying to try out for.

Learning what it was like to be in between jobs, Thompson said he was never scared of moving from California to New York. He said he was lucky to have a few family members already in New York, which helped his transition from west to East Coast living.

As a regular cast member on SNL for 13 years, Thompson has played a number of hilarious characters on the show. A few of his favorites include “Scared Straight dude,” “What Up With That dude” and David Ortiz. Thompson is known for some of his other characters, including Rev. Al Sharpton, Steve Harvey and Weekend Update correspondent “Jean K. Jean.”

Thompson is also credited with a number of film roles, some of which include “Good Burger,” “Barbershop 2: Back in Business,” and even lending his voice to “The Smurfs” and “Space Chimps” among others. 

With experience acting, writing and producing, Thompson described the collaboration process for SNL and how ideas go from him to the writers and vice versa.  

“It’s cool,” Thompson said. “You go try and find a writer for an idea you have, or a writer will come to you for an idea that they have, so you hope to try and be in the mix and try and hang out with people and see which writers can grab ahold of it and turn it into like 10 or 12 pages.”

Though Thompson has been in the business for a while, he admitted that he only recently started watching himself on TV. Thompson usually watches with his family during the daytime. As a highly recognizable face in the crowd, Thompson felt it was only right to become familiar with his comedy sketches so that he could interact with fans properly and do them justice. 

I realized that people would come up to me and reference the show and I would have no idea what they were talking about, since there’s so many sketches, and that was kind of doing them a disservice a little bit,” Thompson said. 

Thompson is a busy man, especially when he’s filming for SNL–putting in six-day work weeks, Monday through Saturday. On hiatus weeks, he spends time with his family.

“I’m raising my daughter and being a good husband, so that’s what my free time is,” Thompson said.

Thompson enjoys spending time with his family as much as possible and has brought his daughter to work in the past. 

Given the array of humorous characters that he played or lent his voice to, Thompson said he is not necessarily trying to be “the funny guy” all the time, but he is definitely trying to be mindful of his fans who run into him on the street; especially when it comes to their attention to detail on remembering SNL sketches. 

“Even if I don’t necessarily feel like taking a picture, it’s better to give those people their once in a lifetime experience; especially in New York. It’s not like you’re gonna run right back into these people, so this is their one chance, and it makes sense that they would want to remember [it],” Thompson said. 

Thompson said one of the craziest things a fan has ever done is cry.

“I guess like the whole crying thing is always weird. You know, I don’t like to see people cry—I want to try and cheer them up,” Thompson said. “It might be like tears of joy or something like that, but it’s still weird.” 

Working with so many guest stars each week on SNL, Thompson, too, gets star struck and admits it happens all the time.

“I’m weird around famous people,” Thompson said. “I just become such a nerd and a fan and I get all quiet and awkward. I’m growing out of that shell.

“Paul McCartney was like that, but he’s so nice that I kinda snapped out of that really quickly.”

Thompson said there are several people to admire in the celebrity realm, but he admires people who are working and being positive. He looks up to some of his friends who are working and raising a family.

Getting to make people laugh for a living is definitely a dream job for Thompson.

“There’s not gonna be many jobs that kind of compare to this,” Thompson said. “The projects will come and go, the people will come and go, [but] right now, I’ve known these people for 13 years—and that’s just like the producers and writers and crew members…There are generations of people working there, and it’s crazy.”

If he wasn’t doing comedy or pursuing musical theater, Thompson said he would probably want to work for the S.W.A.T. team, “like a kicka** sniper.”

For future comedians, Thompson said, “Be patient. When you go out there, always try to tell it, and don’t let a bad show deter you, ‘cause bad shows are the best shows; that’s where you learn the most.”

For more information on Thompson’s show, visit the Iowa State Center website. To learn more about Thompson, see more of his Q&A at