HUFFINGTON POST: But after six years of working at SNL without ever quite thriving in it, Thompson finally found something in “What Up With That.” It was bizarre and disorganized and unlike anything else on the show. And it was a hit ? and his hit to boot.
“Once it happened once, I was like, ‘Oh, this is a great formula,” Thompson said. “Then when we did it the second time, I was like, ‘Oh, I can do this.’”
“What Up With That” gave Thompson confidence, and it gave SNL writers an understanding of his greatest strength: his ability to act as an on-stage director, calmly and selflessly pulling the most out of the people around him amid confusion.
“He’d make me look funny,” said Hader, who would return as the always-silent Buckingham many more times. It was a generosity multiple cast members mentioned.
But Thompson, Hader said, had another weapon. Unlike most of the show’s actors who might have pre-performance jitters, Thompson was never nervous. Instead he’d mess with other actors seconds before they went on air, sending them onstage with a laugh and an air of confidence. He watched sketches when he had free time, offering words of encouragement when something fell flat. And onstage, Thompson didn’t compete. He facilitated.
When I told Thompson how often his peers brought up “What Up With That” as being one of their favorite skits, he brushed it off with a joke. “I love a good party!” he laughed. But later on, his willingness to put the sketch above himself became clearer.
“I just love for the sketch to go right,” he said. “If I’m involved in it and it’s my thing, it has to be right.”
Inside SNL, Thompson’s innate understanding of sketch comedy, built over a lifetime of practice, has become an anchor for the show, providing a steadiness that can be hard to come by, even among the world’s best comic actors.
In January, Tina Fey, dressed as Princess Leia during a guest appearance, told host Felicity Jones, “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.”
The ability and willingness to adapt on the fly to the writers’ desires is one of the most important skills a cast member can acquire, and it’s what makes Thompson indispensable, Hammond told me. And boy can he adapt. According to the SNL fan site SNLarchives.net, he has already impersonated well over 100 people during his time on the show, more than any other cast member in the show’s history. He’s played Al Roker, David Ortiz and Cee Lo Green, as well as Tyler Perry, Whoopi Goldberg and Sway. He has also played Sir Mix-a-Lot, Maya Angelou and Neil deGrasse Tyson.
“He’s a thing that almost doesn’t exist anymore, which is: He’s a variety performer,” Lorne Michaels said. “He can sing. He can move. He can do comedy, and he knows who he is in front of an audience.” MORE