Kenan Thompson has been a sketch performer since the start of his career, but on his new NBC sitcom Kenan, he shows a completely different side of his talents. Kenan premieres tonight, February 16, on NBC.
The actor plays a self-titled character who is a single father of two girls and a morning show host trying to cope with life after the loss of his wife. His father-in-law Rick, played by Don Johnson, lives with him and his brother. Thompson’s fellow Saturday Night Live actor Chris Redd takes on the role of his brother and manager.
Kenan is a project Thompson has been trying to get off the ground for quite some time.
“It was a long process from starting with trying to find someone to settle in on an idea with. And me and [writer] Jackie [Clarke] talked for the first time over the summer, I think, two years ago,” Kenan Thompson told us.
“And we both had a similar idea, what we thought would be a good show that we, kind of, haven’t seen before and would also maybe fit the tone of stuff that we have, so just trying to figure out a different twist on the positive father‐figure type of thing.”
Thompson, who also executive produces the show, added, “And it’s gone in one direction for the original pilot that we shot when Chris Rock was involved, and that was all great and stuff like that. And then we had a moment and an opportunity to, kind of, sit down with it and flesh it out even further as opposed to being under the pressures of pilot week or whatever.
“So now we’ve stretched it out to where it is right now, and I think we are all pretty grateful that we had a chance to live with the material for a while. The universe has just unfolded in a way to where we have the cast we are currently dealing with now. And even until the last hour, we ended up getting some pretty great people in it. So, it’s been a long road, but it’s apparently been a very necessary road.”
And while that long road included many different show ideas, the final version was inspired by the writer’s real life. Jackie Clarke explains…
“My mom passed when I was little, and I always, sort of, thought what if you had a guy like Kenan who was just truly doing everything, the nicest guy in the world, devoted to his daughters? It’s just ‐ it was just always the idea. I guess she didn’t have to die, but that’s just, sort of, where ‐ that was always the genesis for the idea. And it felt like just something that you
would immediately empathize with that character and really be rooting for him and this family the whole way through.”
“I’ve seen divorced houses and things like that, but I’ve never seen in a sitcom anybody deal with a situation like this. So that’s where it started,” Thompson chimed in.
Clarke continued: “When we have a mom that’s deceased in a show, it always drives me crazy that that becomes, like, a ghost. And we really wanted to give this person, Corey, Kenan’s late wife a real personality and really feel her. So, you are going to see her in these flashbacks a couple of times throughout the season. And the backstory is that they were, kind of, teenagers on a sitcom.
He added: “An early sitcom called ‘Grownup Little Boy’ where Kenan at 19 was playing 14 and she was 20 playing 45, and it was his mom. But they had fell in love, and that, sort of, led to their cancellation because their energy was just a little too tight, but we are playing with that a lot in the show, and you are going to be seeing a bit more multi-cam in future episodes.”
For now, Thompson and Redd will both film SNL in NYC and then jet off to LA on weekends for Kenan.
“I mean, we’ve only done it once so far. So, we’ll see how exhausting it gets when it has to become a repeat kind of a thing. But, yeah, we did it for the Christmas show, and me and Chris went out there on Friday and showed up at rehearsal that night and stuff like that and ended up doing the show and then getting ‐‐ we had three weeks off before we had to be on another job, basically,” Thompson said.
“So it wasn’t that stressful, but we’ll see how that turnaround goes when it’s only one day in between. But I’ll be rushing back to my new family. So, I won’t be overly exhausted because we’ll hold each other up.”
“I haven’t decided to leave,” Redd said of SNL. “I’m just having fun being able to create with one of my best friends and also be able to still go and and do sketch. I love sketch. I don’t want to see it as an exit strategy; I just see it as it another way to create.”
Throughout most of his career, Thompson has worked in front of a live audience, but Kenan is unlike anything he’s done.
“We definitely have an audience amongst each other. Like, I definitely listen out for Jackie’s laugh to know where I am as far as delivering my lines and stuff like that, but it’s different. This show was always designed to be different. It wasn’t going to be a multi-cam with an audience type of thing. So, we have to figure out the way to find those moments that we would stretch out just because we heard audience laughter and responding to a certain thing, how to make that work in a single‐camera version.
“And we are shooting it three cameras at a time right now because we are dealing with COVID and stuff like that and time restrictions. So that’s given us the feel of a multi-cam because we are just doing a lot of different takes covered in a bunch of different directions and stuff like that. So, I guess, when they edit it all together, it kind of feels like one big performance, I think. But, yeah, the look of it, I think, will always be more, hopefully, film style, you know, with Scorsese’s out here.”