Kenan Thompson Touches on "Woke" Times at 'SNL,' Shares Hopes for NBC Sitcom

The veteran 'Saturday Night Live' star spoke about the show's responsibility in wake of the Shane Gillis ouster, while looking ahead to 'The Kenan Show' and season 45.
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Kenan Thompson

Kenan Thompson touched on "woke" culture in comedy during a visit to the 2019 New Yorker Festival on Sunday.

During a wide-ranging 90-minute chat with The New Yorker's Vinson Cunningham, the veteran Saturday Night Live star brought up the recent casting controversy with Shane Gillis, who was fired for using racial and homophobic slurs on a podcast shortly after his announcement as a season 45 new castmember, alongside Chloe Fineman and Bowen Yang. 

The NBC show’s longest-tenured castmember, who joined SNL 17 seasons ago, acknowledged on Sunday how much the climate of the show has changed since the early 2000s. "Especially during these woke times," said Thompson, referencing the post-Trump era. "It's very touchy out there. We had a recent example with a hiring situation this year. You have to be very responsible with what you're doing. It's interesting to see things like that happen. Whatever side of the argument you are on, I don’t think any of us who work there go out with the intent to offend or hurt anyone’s feelings. Matching with that ideology, that’s the brand they want to keep alive."

Though SNL didn't outright address the incident when the show returned for the season 45 premiere in late September, Thompson had previously told THR about the incident being turned into social commentary: "They put their stamp on there — which everyone would have assumed about SNL anyway — that we don’t tolerate abuse or disrespect of anyone, racial or otherwise. It’s just not conducive to a comedy show."

As for the now-two new castmembers, Thompson praised both Fineman and Yang (who was first a contributing writer) for their seamless transitions and standout work so far. "The writing staff is representing a lot of different areas of our culture," he said when shouting out Yang as the only Asian-American full-time castmember. The new faces were announced along with the news that Leslie Jones would not be returning. Thompson spoke about how sad he was to see his friend go, while also urging black families to think about sending their children to SNL training stomping grounds like the improv schools Groundlings or Second City. “The closest experience to doing SNL is in these improv houses, and the numbers are not like that,” he said of the lack of black women.

Most of Sunday's chat focused on Thompson's tenure at SNL. The castmember shared his all-time favorite hosts (Dave Chappelle and Tom Hanks), revealed who wasn't "super happy" about being impersonated (Steve Harvey) and the last sketch idea he had that got cut (a Masked Singer bit where he played R. Kelly dressed as a hamburger).

He also reflected on the hard-hitting news of Bill Cosby after idolizing the comedian for his younger life. Cosby, who was his first-ever impression on SNL during a bit with Maya Rudolph, also exposed more of his "real nature" to Thompson when they finally met while working together in the 2014 film Fat Albert. "I got a peek behind the curtain of, 'Oh this is not just Mr. Clean or whatever,'" said Thompson. "I had never even heard him curse. Just hearing him talk casually was shocking to me. And then it all blew up after that. Fat Albert was good for the kids, and you can watch it still if people can put that aside." Similar to impersonating O.J. Simpson, Thompson said he has no issue doing Cosby because his job is to "hold a mirror up to life."

In addition to continuing on SNL, Thompson is working on a forthcoming sitcom for NBC, The Kenan Show, which he said was the result of pitching the network his own show ideas for years. Thompson said he starts shooting the show summer 2020 and that it will premiere "whenever it premieres," noting that it's up to NBC. He noted that the schedule should only overlap with SNL at the tail end of the season.

The single-camera comedy, exec produced by SNL boss Lorne Michaels, was ordered to series in May and stars Thompson as a newly widowed dad who is determined to be everything for his kids, while begrudgingly letting his persistent father-in-law (Andy Garcia) become more involved in their lives.

"I would love for it to have an awesome run where it makes its way into the households of everybody," he said of his hopes of the show reaching multiple generations. "Bunch of seasons; primetime," he added. "Any time you get a platform like that, I'm sure there will be some episodes that can really make an impact."