Nickelodeon veteran and seasoned Saturday Night Live cast member Kenan Thompson stopped by Cornell Sunday night to talk about his career and experiences. He needed no grand introduction, as most audience members were familiar with his work, whether they had grown up on Nick at Night or currently tune in to SNL every week. His act, rather than a pre-planned stand-up routine, consisted of a casual conversation as he walked us through his varied resume.
Thompson shared the story of his first job as a movie critic of kids’ flicks on a TBS children’s news show, which led to a part in Mighty Ducks 2. From there, Thompson claimed his place in show business, and gained his next role in the movie “Heavyweights,” alongside Ben Stiller. He joked that his connection had alerted him of “the perfect role” for Thompson to play, which turned out to be a movie about kids who go to a fat camp. Yet as Thompson shared his experience with the part, he didn’t seem the slightest bothered by the role. “We were a bunch of fat kids smoking weed and eating Taco Bell. It was great.” The audience, even the cops standing at Bailey’s entryways, laughed, especially when Thompson specifically addressed our men in uniform, repeatedly assuring them that those days of childhood mayhem were all in the past, wink wink, nudge nudge.
Following “Heavyweights,” Thompson went on to play roles on Nickelodeon that many 90s children remember nostalgically. All Thompson had to do was bust out the first note of the “All That” theme song, and the majority of the crowd immediately joined him. And as he referenced his favorite character to play from the show, he had barely finished the words “Pierre Escargot” when the audience erupted with cheers. Thompson acknowledged the college generation’s love for his “All That” period, a time when we were much younger, and joked, “You guys are my babies. Look how grown up you are!”
The biggest crowd reaction came when Thompson moved the conversation to “Kenan & Kel” and “Good Burger,” and shouts of “Orange soda!” erupted from various locations in Bailey. Thompson reflected that at the time, he was living large, and it was the most success he’d then experienced. Afterwards, however, Thompson faced what were, in his words, “dark times.” He recalled his random assemblage of TV work here and there, including episodes of “Felicity” and “The Parkers,” along with his side role in “Barbershop 2.”
He then explained how he got back on track, landing the lead in “Fat Albert,” and relayed a fascinating anecdote of how Bill Cosby warned him that Thompson had better “grow two dicks,” as the Fat Albert role would make girls come running. “You’ve got to give old people leniences,” explained Thompson, amidst bewildered audience laughter.
Finally came what Thompson described as “the dream,” or rather, landing a spot as a full time cast member on Saturday Night Live. Thompson joked that he was hired to “replace” Tracy Morgan, and add some of “the blackness” back to the show. After he was hired, Thompson basically moved to New York overnight, and now he’s on his ninth season with the show. “It’s a magical place,” he said, where you can walk down the hall and stumble upon “Mick Jagger looking for the bathroom.” He also recalled a favorite early sketch when he wrote Halle Berry a character that was crazy for Thompson’s.
As he finished catching us up on his life story, Thompson called on the audience for participation. A brave soul volunteered to sit through Thompson’s Lorenzo MacIntosh routine, in which Thompson pretends to be a convict who interacts with teens in a “scared straight” program.
Soon after, Thompson opened the show to a question and answer session. The questions ranged from creative and funny to awkward and inappropriate. One member asked if there was ever a character he’d wanted to play but hadn’t been able to, and Thompson answered that his desire to play a One Direction band member didn’t really work out. However, he reminded us of the time he played Reba, and treated the audience to a short impression. Fielding another question, he answered that Mike Tyson had been the most bizarre person he’d ever smoked with, and also commented on Samuel L. Jackson’s bizarre and unexpected off-screen personality.
Some of the questions got weird, as multiple audience members mixed up Kenan’s “Good Burger” character with Kel’s, and another girl simply approached the mic to ask, “Am I the prettiest girl in the room?” One girl made the poor decision to reference a racist internet meme of Thompson’s Pierre Escargot character, and asked, “Are you really the first [n-word] in Paris?” Thompson handled the question with grace, but I’m proud of my fellow Cornellians for booing her until she sat down. Things became more interesting as the audience became more daring, with one person asking for a hug, another asking for an autograph, and a third for a photo. The hug was denied, but Thompson obliged the other two requests, and even invited the girl on stage so she could take a camera-phone selfie of the two of them together.
When I sat down with Thompson for a quick interview after the show, I mentioned how awkward some of the questions must have been for him, but he brushed it off. He understood, he said, that people can get excited or nervous. As Thompson appeared tired after the show, I thought the conversation might take a quieter or more somber turn, especially when I referenced Lindsay Lohan’s recent appearance as a host. Immediately defensive of Lohan, Thompson stated that she’s “the show’s baby– especially Tina’s,” what with Fey’s and Lohan’s work together on “Mean Girls.” He continued, stressing that Lohan is one of the “genuinely good folks” that Thompson and the SNL community know.
Our talk turned lighter when I asked what Thompson’s babies were, sketch-wise, or in other words, which roles he has created and built, and which he holds at an elevated level. He settled on his “What Up With That” sketch, with its vast array of random, yet high-status, guest stars. Then we turned away from SNL, and I asked how he thought the night’s event went. Thompson noted how it’s a different experience when one performs without a set routine, and while it’s tough to start shows, it’s nice to “mix it up” and get the chance to “just talk.” He referenced his 90s material again, claiming that “it’s clear what works,” and that people respond to Nickelodeon conversations the best. Thompson isn’t annoyed by the persistent 90s questions, again acknowledging his lucky breakthrough and fortunate success: “It’s flattering to get the job in the first place.”
Images by Slope Media Photographer Colin Budd and from CUPB. To view all of Colin’s pictures from the night, click here.