How Kenan Thompson Went From Nickelodeon to ‘SNL’ to the Walk of Fame

“I’m going into the concrete!” a stoked Kenan Thompson exclaims, pondering the fact that his three-decade career in entertainment is about to be celebrated with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and taken by the permanence of the honor. “I don’t know any other example of a reflection of a pat on the back actually being cemented in the ground like that.”

Longevity has become a hallmark of Thompson’s career: he began performing as a child on stage before landing films including “D2: The Mighty Ducks”; segued into wildly popular teen stardom with the Nickelodeon’s sketch series “All That,” which led to the spinoff series “Kenan & Kel,” which in turn begat the 1997 film “Good Burger,” beloved by a generation.

He found success as an adult on “Saturday Night Live,” where his ongoing tenure has spanned multiple cast eras and more than 1,500 sketches thus far — heading into his 20th season with the venerable weekend stalwart, Thompson is the longest tenured performer in the show’s storied history. In 2018, he won an Emmy for writing the “Come Back Barack” music video, an impassioned plea to the former president. After this story went to print, Thompson was named the host of the upcoming Emmy Awards.

Even with all that accumulated history, Thompson still found himself taken aback when he was named as part of the Walk of Fame’s Class of 2022. It was the surprise result, he admits, of an only semi-serious campaign launched by the production team of “You Already Know,” the podcast he co-hosts with Tani Marole.

“I didn’t think it would become true, and then I ended up with my name getting voted on and then getting the green light to actually get it,” he says. “I was like, ‘What? This is crazy!’ It’s crazy to think about being a chapter in a book, because when I started out, I just wanted to be an actor. I didn’t know what came along with fame or anything like that, or even what the business was. For me, it was just all about the performing of it all. And I figured if you do good enough performances, the rest of it will figure itself out. I don’t think I was necessarily wrong.”

Kel Mitchell and Kenan Thompson
©Nickelodeon Network/Courtesy Everett Collection

It’s a sensation he’s been chasing from the very beginning performing on stage at age 5.

“I enjoyed running around and noticing that people were smiling at what I was doing,” he says. “I did enjoy amusing people, playing around. So, it’s easy for me to still feel young, even though I look back and there’s, like, 30 years of work back there.”

While he didn’t start out dreaming of becoming a comedian, it was during his breakout era with Nickelodeon that Thompson discovered and embraced his facility for joy-making comedy.

“At first it was like, ‘Yeah, I got a couple voices or whatever, I have a few references of things I’ve heard in an Eddie Murphy movie or an old time-y ’70s movie, or just my general zeitgeist of old Black guys,’” he laughs. “But stretching that out over several seasons, you start really seeing what your potential can be.”

His future comedy partner and longtime friend Kel Mitchell vividly remembers the very moment he laid eyes on Thompson during their “All That” auditions, making an entrance on “Mighty Ducks” roller blades.

“He was superstar already,” Mitchell laughs. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to hang out with that kid.’”

Their chemistry, both in sketches and off-screen, was electric.

“We were riffing off one another and ripping on one anot her and all the jokes were just working,” he chuckles. “It’s so cool to see a lot of the things manifest that we talked about as kids — going through the drive through after shooting on the show or just having talks in the dressing room, about where we wanted our career to go and where our life should go.”

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Eventually, Thompson set out to find solo success.

“We were like, ‘We know we work well together, but I think if we’re going to have longevity or a chance to have longevity, people should know us as individual performers as well,’” he says of the shift. “This was our chance to not necessarily be attached at the hip going through our lives and be vulnerable to people liking the both of us at all times.”

By the time he got to “SNL” at 25, he let go of the nerves of being in front of the camera. But fitting into the lightning-paced, hyper-competitive environment was difficult at first, he says. “’SNL’ is such a machine that nobody really has time to hold your hand and walk you through it, necessarily. It’s definitely learn on the fly.”

Thompson was “so much younger” than the types of performers creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels usually looked at for the show. However, his kids had put Thompson on Lorne’s creative radar.

“He was immediately impressive. … There’s a core thing with Kenan, which is he just radiates goodness,” Michaels says. “Whatever he’s doing, even if he’s playing O.J. [Simpson], he’s charming. He knows that you have to make your characters likable. Because if the character’s unlikable, the audience won’t pay any attention to it. You have to trust that the writing will say everything that has to be said, but you have to have charm. Obviously, he has that more than anybody else.”

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Kenan Thompson during the “Trivia Game Show” sketch on “Saturday Night Live.”
Will Heath/NBC

Soon enough, even among a deep bench of heavy-hitters, his go-to versality and appeal was noticed and deployed by writers including Tina Fey, Seth Meyers and Colin Jost. Then, after a few seasons of reading others’ material, he honed the ability to create his own and mine a moment for instantly discovered comic bits.

“It’s definitely one of my sharpest tools, to always be kind of radar-up for something that might strike me funny that I haven’t necessarily done before,” he says. “I don’t necessarily love stressing about, ‘Got to come up with something new that’s going to go viral,’ like every single month. That’s just way too stressful. But I do try to stay sharp.”

Michaels was pleasantly surprised at how Thompson took on a leadership role: “It never looks like he’s teaching particularly, but he’ll show: ‘This is why this camera’s there,’ or ‘This is the best way to make that entrance.’ He has no official role. He’s just, over time, became that person that is the most helpful and the most supportive and just makes you better.”

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Now, even as Thompson’s “SNL” run grows increasingly legendary, he’s applying those lessons to new ventures through his production company Artists for Artists.

“This company is the culmination of my dreams,” he says of the entity, which has already optioned off-kilter properties such as the Instagram account My Therapist Says for TV development, and has a foundation of podcast properties and talent to build upon. “The potential for what that company can really do is all of my wanting to be Steven Spielberg one day.”

Even as he eases into the empire-building phase of his career, Thompson says: “It’s not the typical, like, ‘Oh, you blow up on “SNL,” and then you go blow up in real life, and then you’re Hollywood Hills mansion all the time and Ferraris and all that.’ I’m still putting in the work. I’m still definitely boots-on-the-ground, still very blue-collar mentality.”

But that fabled mansion in the hills? “I definitely expect to get it. I just haven’t gone there yet.”

He even sees that brand-new star on the Walk of Fame as a future dealmaking site.

“I’ll say, ‘Meet me on this corner and let me just show you something real quick so you know who exactly you’re talking to.’ And I’ll just be sitting there next to my star with a candle, like, ‘This is me. I do this. I think you can trust my opinion on whatever it is we’re about to build together.’”

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