TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Kenan Thompson, is nominated for two Emmys for his comedy performances on "Saturday Night Live" and for his starring role in his new NBC sitcom "Kenan." On "Kenan," he plays the host of a local morning TV show in Atlanta. The show is all about advice, recipes and cheerful talk. But he's still grieving the loss of his wife and is now a single father, raising his two young daughters and finding it hard to devote enough time to his family while also hosting the show. It's been renewed for a second season. And you can watch the first season free streaming on NBC Peacock.
Kenan Thompson won an Emmy in 2017 for co-writing the "SNL" song parody "Come Back, Barack." Thompson has been with "SNL" for 18 years, making him the performer with the longest tenure in the history of the show. Among the recurring sketches he's best known for are the game shows Black Jeopardy and What's Up With That? Some of the characters he's played over the years include Steve Harvey, Al Sharpton, O.J. Simpson, Charles Barkley and Bill Cosby. Thompson played Fat Albert, one of the characters Cosby created in the live action adaptation of the "Fat Albert" animated series. Cosby voiced the character himself in the animated series. Thompson has had a TV career since he was a child.
Kenan Thompson, welcome to FRESH AIR. It is great to have you on our show.
KENAN THOMPSON: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
GROSS: So I want to start with a clip from an episode of Black Jeopardy because that's always so funny. And this is a very special episode of Black Jeopardy that I want to play because it features Chadwick Boseman as the guest contestant. And for any listeners not familiar with this recurring sketch, could you just explain the premise of Black Jeopardy?
THOMPSON: I mean, it's basically in the title. You know, it's the Black version, like if "Jeopardy!" was hosted and produced by a mostly Black, you know, situation basically. And this is just to lean into that, you know, different jokes and stuff like that. And what those joke premises are about basically would be in the Black section of things instead of just the "Jeopardy!" section. So there you have it.
GROSS: OK. So here's an episode of Black Jeopardy with, of course, Kenan Thompson hosting. And the contestants are Chris Redd, Leslie Jones and Chadwick Boseman but in the role that he plays in "Black Panther," T'Challa.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")
THOMPSON: (As character) All right, Rashad (ph). It's your pick.
CHRIS REDD: (As Rashad) All right. Let's go with Oh Hell Naw (ph) for 400.
THOMPSON: (As character) All right. The answer - the airline says they want to charge $25 to check your bag. Shaunice (ph).
LESLIE JONES: (As Shaunice) What is - oh hell naw, looks like I'm going to fly to Jamaica with a 50-pound suitcase in my lap?
THOMPSON: (As character) You're damn right. You're damn right. That's right. And I dare the stewardess to stay something. That's right. Let's keep going.
JONES: (As Shaunice) Let's say with Grown Ass for 600.
THOMPSON: (As character) All right. You send your smart-ass child here because she thinks she's grown. T'Challa.
CHADWICK BOSEMAN: (As T'Challa) What is - to one of our free universities where she can apply her intelligence and perhaps one day become a great scientist?
THOMPSON: OK, well, the answer we was looking for was out my damn house.
THOMPSON: (As character) You know what? I'm going to give it to you, T'Challa. Y'all must not have no means streets in Wakanda. All right. The board is yours.
BOSEMAN: (As T'Challa) Very well. Let's go to Aw Hell Naw for 800.
THOMPSON: (As character) OK. The policeman says there's been some robberies in your neighborhood and asks if you have any information.
BOSEMAN: (As T'Challa) What is - not the only do I tell this man what I know, but I also assist him in tracking down the offender. After all, our ministers of law enforcement are only here to protect us. Is this correct?
THOMPSON: (As character) I mean, it should be, but I'm thinking you haven't spent much time in America. Let's just hear about today's prizes. Johnny (ph).
GROSS: So that was an episode of Black Jeopardy hosted by my guest, Kenan Thompson. That is so much fun.
THOMPSON: Man, my goodness.
GROSS: Yeah. And then, of course, listening back to Chadwick Boseman. That must bring back memories for you.
THOMPSON: Absolutely. I mean, that was such an electric week in general. You know, like, the king, Chadwick, was just blessing us with his grace, No. 1, because "Black Panther" was the biggest thing going on at the time. And, you know, he contributed and gave all of his efforts and energy to our show like he did anything else while he was promoting, you know, a movie of that caliber. It was just unbelievable to witness, let alone being able to do like one of my, you know, beloved sketches, you know, with him in very close proximity and stuff. It was just - it was great. I was close proximity with him that whole episode. Like, we did a monologue together where I just, you know, thought I had a good idea to play Panthro from the "ThunderCats" back in the day. So we built a full Panthro costume. It was the most ridiculous thing in the world. But I had fun. And, you know, he was committed to that, too.
So the thing about Black Jeopardy that week where we were trying to figure out exactly how to make his, you know, elevate from Tom Hanks, who had just, you know, destroyed it the last time, so it was an uphill battle. But we got there. And he stayed, you know, in it with us. He never, like, got mad or frustrated or, you know, you know, just like going back-and-forth idea wise in the wrong direction or anything like that. He just trusted us to kind of find it and we did. And, you know, all the credit to him, you know, he performed the hell out of it.
GROSS: He knew he was sick at the time, that he had cancer. Did you know that?
THOMPSON: Absolutely not.
GROSS: Not. And so what was your reaction when you later found out that you were working with him when he was actually very sick?
THOMPSON: It just floored me, like the whole thing. You know, it was just a crazy few months, you know, with like him and Kobe and, like, man, it was like a lot of things just coming out of, you know, left field. But the fact that he was working so hard and he was so focused because in between, you know, rehearsal tapes and stuff like that, he was like practicing karate moves, you know what I'm saying? So he was always, like, looking like he had other things to do and stuff like that.
Like, as far as living is concerned, you know, I never saw him coughing or anything like that, you know. So him being, you know, of ill health was the furthest thing from my mind. If anything, he looked like he just needed maybe a vacation at some point, but a super baller one because he was on top of the world.
GROSS: Yeah. So how did you come up with the sketch for Black Jeopardy? Was that your idea?
THOMPSON: No. It was Bryan Tucker's idea and him and Michael Che collaborated on it. And just, you know, from the very beginning, you know, it was just very straightforward of what it was going to be. And when he originally pitched it to me, I was like, you know, I hope they let us do it because, you know, Will Ferrell kind of territory is pretty sacred. So I just wanted to make sure if we were going to step anywhere near that kind of, you know, echoing of his brilliance, it had to be brilliant in its own. And it definitely was. It was just, you know, an opportunity for us to do a bunch of, you know, old-school Black jokes in a very smart way. So it was, you know, just very refreshing to able to laugh at kind of older-school humor, you know.
GROSS: So let's go to 2017. You won an Emmy that year for outstanding original music and lyrics...
GROSS: ...For the song "Come Back, Barack," which was - why don't you describe what the video is like? This is like a song parody.
THOMPSON: Yeah, it was, you know, reminiscent of the old-school '90s kind of R&B era with, you know, the Jodecis and, you know, Silks and All-4-Ones of the world and 112 and all that kind of stuff and, you know, slow jams, you know, big silky suits and canes and hats and sunglasses and slow motion walks and fans and, you know, deep voices trying to entice the other side of the spectrum to maybe have a wonderful, wonderful evening in the bedroom somewhere or something, but we happen to be singing to Barack Obama to come back to the White House, so that's...
GROSS: Right. And so we're going to hear an excerpt of this. And we're going to hear Chance the Rapper singing lead. Chris Redd is one of the singers. And we're going to hear you doing, like, the monologue (laughter) in the middle of the song. Who did you think about doing a monologue in the song?
THOMPSON: It was, like, you know, kind of - I think Boyz II Men used to do it. So they had a very deep voice. You know, a guy, I think his name is Mike, and he would always take a moment and be, like, girl, you know what I'm saying? Let's take a moment and, like, just slow it down. Slow it down. You know what I'm saying (laughter)?
GROSS: (Laughter) OK, so this is "Come Back, Barack" from "Saturday Night Live."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME BACK, BARACK")
KENAN THOMPSON, CHRIS REDD AND CHANCE THE RAPPER: (As characters, singing) Oh, so come back, Barack.
REDD: (As character) Come on, man, we out in the rain.
THOMPSON, REDD AND CHANCE THE RAPPER: (As characters, singing) Don't leave us here alone.
REDD: (As character) It's definitely too cold to be in the rain though.
THOMPSON, REDD AND CHANCE THE RAPPER: (As characters, singing) At least pick up the phone.
CHANCE THE RAPPER: (As character) I mean, I know you busy with that library and everything.
THOMPSON, REDD AND CHANCE THE RAPPER: (As characters, singing) The White House ain't a home.
CHANCE THE RAPPER: (As character) But Trump don't even got a dog, man.
THOMPSON, REDD AND CHANCE THE RAPPER: (As characters, singing) Just come back, Barack.
THOMPSON: (As character) You know, it's been a long time, Barack, almost as long as since a guy talked over a record like this.
THOMPSON: (As character) But for real, why would you leave us? Oh, 'cause you had to because of the Constitution? But you can come back, right? Oh, you can't? 'Cause that would undermine the very institutions that we barely holding on to as it is? I see. I guess we stuck with this dude for a while then. Maybe you can come back and make a speech. How much would that cost? For real? Oh, no, we definitely can't afford that.
THOMPSON: (As character) So I'm just getting rained on for nothing. That's interesting. Well, you enjoy your retirement, homie.
THOMPSON, REDD AND CHANCE THE RAPPER: (As characters, singing) So come back, Barack.
CHANCE THE RAPPER: (As character, singing) Get change.
THOMPSON, REDD AND CHANCE THE RAPPER: (As characters, singing) We need you oh, so bad.
THOMPSON: (As character, singing) Get change. Super bad.
THOMPSON, REDD AND CHANCE THE RAPPER: (As characters, singing) 2020's looking sad.
THOMPSON: (As character) Maybe Michelle could run.
THOMPSON, REDD AND CHANCE THE RAPPER: (As characters, singing) Like, really sad, like, super sad, what-the-hell-we-gonna (ph)-do sad.
THOMPSON: (As character) Nah, let's not put Michelle through that.
THOMPSON, REDD AND CHANCE THE RAPPER: (As characters, singing) Come back, Barack.
THOMPSON: Let's not put Michelle through that - hilarious (laughter).
GROSS: (Laughter) What was the music you grew up with?
THOMPSON: I grew up with my parents playing a lot of Motown and, you know, soul music and stuff, gospel, of course and, you know, Southern hip-hop, basically, so a whole lot of Outkast.
GROSS: Yeah. And you grew up in Atlanta, where Outkast is from.
THOMPSON: Exactly. They went to my high school. Yeah.
GROSS: Oh, really?
THOMPSON: Yeah. We're always very proud of that at our school.
GROSS: Kenan, I think we need to take a short break here, so let me reintroduce you. My guest is Kenan Thompson. He's nominated for an Emmy for his performance on "Saturday Night Live," and he's nominated for another Emmy for his starring performance in his new NBC sitcom "Kenan," which is now streaming free on NBC Peacock. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JAMES BROWN'S "LICKING STICK - LICKING STICK")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Kenan Thompson. He's nominated for two Emmys for his comedy performances on "Saturday Night Live" and for his starring role in his sitcom "Kenan," which premiered this year.
Do you have any nightmare moments from "Saturday Night Live" that you wish were not preserved?
THOMPSON: In history? Yeah.
THOMPSON: I mean, I had my nightmares early, so they were things that never made it into the show, I guess, because they were so green, you know? But I definitely had, like, a full fumble moment, drop-the-ball moment on a sketch and just was way too green to know how to improv out of it and just let it die and be an awkward situation, you know? But the sketch got cut anyway, so it just lives in the vault wherever it is. But I have the scar of the memory for sure.
GROSS: Can you describe what happened?
THOMPSON: Yeah, it was a sketch called Randy The Bellhop that a friend of mine wrote. And it was, you know, probably my first season. And there was a line that I had that I just fumbled. And I was showing, like, a couple into their room. And, of course, it was, like, a ragtag hotel. So, like, all the jokes were about everything kind of not working or being kind of Fugazi or whatever. And I just fumbled this line super hard. And it was awkward and silent in the studio and so quiet, you could hear this one lady say, oh.
THOMPSON: And I was just like, well, this is not great. And, you know, I guess someone else in the scene just picked up the next line and moved it forward, and we finished it out or whatever. But I was like, I dropped the ball on that for real and tanked the sketch pretty much because everything I said after that that I thought was going to get a laugh was just a mediocre kind of chuckle. And just the whole energy got sucked out of it. So it was my first fall-on-my-face kind of moment, but it got cut, you know what I mean? So it's kind of just an in-house kind of a secret or whatever. But yeah, I thoroughly remember. It sucks.
GROSS: It got cut before the show was broadcast?
THOMPSON: Yeah, it got cut out of the live rundown, basically.
GROSS: I see. So you're still in front of an audience.
THOMPSON: Yeah. And, I mean, dress rehearsal's in front of an audience, so it's two audiences, I guess. And then...
GROSS: They're separate audiences, right?
THOMPSON: In between - yeah, in between shows, you know, we get the rundown of what's going in the show.
GROSS: Well, as a viewer, I kind of enjoy it when there's a little bit of a fumble or when somebody breaks...
THOMPSON: Oh, absolutely.
GROSS: ...And they start laughing when they're not supposed to 'cause it makes you realize that it's live. And it also seems like, oh, they're really enjoying doing this. And that makes me enjoy it more.
GROSS: One of the times when John Mulaney hosted the show - and he loves Broadway musicals. So there was a sketch - oh, I think it was called, like, Lobster - Diner Lobster.
THOMPSON: The Lobster Diner, yeah.
GROSS: Yeah. And so it's set in a diner, and Pete Davidson makes the mistake of ordering lobster. And he's so like, no, no, no, you never order lobster in a diner. He said, well, I want lobster. And he was like, no, no, lobster's never good in a diner. And then it breaks into, like, a parody of "Les Mis," and you're the lobster who's going to be eaten. So you're singing about that. And you're in this, like, big lobster tank with, like, lobster claws - gloves that look like lobster claws. And everybody's laughing, and you're just, like, singing (laughter).
THOMPSON: It was the - one of the most, like, just brilliant things, like, we were finally able to, like, bring to life because we'd done it at the table years before when John was a writer there, and it tanked because it was just way too random. So for some reason, they brought it back, and it just made all the sense in the world. And it was like, oh, well, duh, we're definitely doing this. And I'm like, that's funny, because the first time we did it, you know, it was just swept under the rug and didn't make it past the table. And then at dress rehearsal - so I'm, like, Jean Valjean. Is that who I am? Yeah. There's, you know, I'm in that giant lobster tank, and, of course, it's on wheels, so they have to push it through a door. But, you know, of course, they, you know, they didn't cut the doorframe, like, very much bigger than the tank.
So when a thing like that is on wheels, like, when it rolls forward and rolls backwards, it changes direction until the wheels can, like, turn into the forward direction or whatever. So that little shift to the left or the right can, like, get me stuck when I'm trying to, like, get through the door if they don't set the wheels beforehand. So of course, at dress rehearsal, the wheels weren't set in the direction they needed for me to just go out straight. So it shifted a little bit while it was trying to get the wheels turned straight. And I was hitting the side of the wall. The crew guys were, like, hitting the side of the door with this giant tank while the music is playing. And I have, like, six more beats before I have to start singing. So all you can see is, like, a tank trying to get through the door.
GROSS: (Laughter) Oh, no.
THOMPSON: And there's fog and, like, these weird claws and, like, an antenna head. You can't even see it's me. And they barely get me out right before I have to sing. And my first line is like, who am I? And me and Aidy were talking about that in between shows and just dying laughing. Like, it was so hilarious. Like, we would love to know the answer to that question. Like, what is happening here? Like, who am I? It was just so perfect.
GROSS: Why don't we hear that? So here's Kenan Thompson doing a parody version of "Who Am I" from "Les Mis"...
GROSS: ...In the role of a lobster.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")
THOMPSON: (As character, singing) Who am I? And why am I condemned to boil alive when all that I have done is live my life?
JOHN MULANEY: (As character, singing) And why would someone, on a whim, choose from all to order him? Who's this guy?
THOMPSON: (As character, singing) I thought that there was an unspoken rule that lobster in a diner's never cool. A diner menu's way too long and half the things are fake or wrong.
CECILY STRONG: (As character, singing) Must he die? How can you ever face his lobster friends? How can you ever face yourself again? Monster.
THOMPSON: (As character, singing) I've lived here 40 years - I know, an age that lobsters never grow. And in that time, there's been no one to order any crustaceans. Who am I?
KENAN THOMPSON, CECILY STRONG AND JOHN MULANEY: (As characters, singing) Lobster No. 1.
GROSS: That was my guest, Kenan Thompson, in a sketch from "Saturday Night Live."
So what was the "Saturday Night Live" cast that you grew up watching?
THOMPSON: The main one I honed in on for myself - like, I remember, like, watching over my dad's shoulder when I wasn't supposed to be when he was watching, like, Eddie Murphy do hot tub and stuff. But my era was the Sandler-Farley years and Chris Rock years.
GROSS: Were there sketches that you tried to memorize?
THOMPSON: Oh, yeah. I mean, Nat X.
GROSS: That was, like, his first thing. That was, like, Chris Rock's first character, I think.
THOMPSON: That was, like, his, like, almost one and only, damn near. And the van down by the river, we used to do a lot of that, kind of just Farley gesturing in general that he would do in a lot of sketches. And, yeah, that whole era, basically. "Tommy Boy" was, like, my favorite movie for forever growing up. And, you know, I was a big Farley fan.
GROSS: You were 25 years old when you started on "Saturday Night Live." And I know you were told by - I don't know if it was Lorne Michaels or other people who were doing casting. You were told that you were too young.
THOMPSON: For a long time, yeah.
GROSS: When you were told you were too young, how come you didn't take that as a hard no? Like, because sometimes people try to be polite and say, oh, you're very funny, it's just that you're too young. So leave us alone, you know? Like, that could be the implicit message, like, go away.
THOMPSON: Yeah. I mean, I guess, in that sentence, you know, allows for time, you know? It just was like, all right, I'm too young right now. So maybe at one point I won't be too young. And if that's the only argument, then, you know, I can definitely wait out the time to where they think I look older. And maybe I'll be funnier or more experienced or whatever. So it didn't seem like a closed door or a go away, necessarily. It just seemed like it's - the second time definitely felt like - a little more like maybe I should leave this alone, but I don't know. When I got the call that they wanted to let me try, I was like, well, absolutely. I'll try again for sure. The first two times was, like, me knocking on the door. The third time was them calling, so it was different.
GROSS: Oh, yeah. That must have been a great phone call.
THOMPSON: Absolutely - terrifying but still great.
GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Kenan Thompson. He's nominated for two Emmys for his comedy performances on "SNL" and for his starring role in his new sitcom, "Kenan." We'll be back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Kenan Thompson. He's been a performer on "Saturday Night Live" since 2003. This year, he got his own NBC sitcom called "Kenan." He's nominated for two Emmys - one for "SNL," the other for his starring role on "Kenan." He won an Emmy in 2017 for co-writing the "SNL" song parody "Come Back, Barack." He's been on TV in one kind of role or another since he was a child.
So now you're starring in a sitcom called "Kenan," like we were saying before, and you play the host of a local morning TV show called "Wake Up With Kenan." And this is a show with advice and cooking. It's all very kind of light humor. Your wife has recently died, so now you're the single father of two young girls who you're doing your best to raise with the help of your late wife's father, played by Don Johnson, and your brother, played by Chris Redd, who's also on "SNL." And it's really hard for you to talk about your wife. Like, the grief is still so raw for you. So I want to play a short scene from the first episode. You're live on TV on your show "Wake Up With Kenan." And so you're hosting the show, and your co-host, who's kind of proud of being shallow, is there. And your guest is a doula who's giving advice to women about childbirth.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "KENAN")
ELAINE KAO: (As Ellen) You know, the No. 1 thing I tell new moms is to have a birth plan. But when baby comes, throw it out the window.
THOMPSON: (As Kenan Williams) And I hope you mean the plan and not the baby.
THOMPSON: (As Kenan) No, but seriously, that did happen with my wife Cori and I.
KAO: (As Ellen) And we can talk more about that because I'm sure the audience would love a personal story, Kenan.
THOMPSON: (As Kenan) Yeah. Yeah, no, of course. So we had a birthing plan for both of our babies, but when that pain hit, it went straight to hell. I'm telling you, my wife was probably the first woman in history to get an epidural at zero centimeters.
THOMPSON: (As Kenan) And I would never let her live it down. She would stub her toe, and I'd be like, we need an epidural, stat. Or we'd go to a restaurant, and I'd say, she'll have the kale salad, the risotto and the epidural (laughter).
KAO: (As Ellen) I love that. But all jokes aside, moms should wait as long as possible for drugs if they can stand the pain.
THOMPSON: (As Kenan) So you calling my wife soft now?
KAO: (As Ellen) What? No, it's just better for the baby.
THOMPSON: (As Kenan) Oh, so now she wasn't looking out for our babies. I'm sorry, but my wife was an amazing woman, OK? And she gave birth to two beautiful girls, all right? Ellen, thank you. And it's not like she took the easy way out and got a C-section or nothing like that.
KAO: (As Ellen) Oh, to be clear, C-sections aren't the easy way out. It's a very serious surgery.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Very serious.
THOMPSON: (As Kenan) No, right, right. No, I was joking. No, I was joking. No, I was joking.
THOMPSON: (As Kenan) No, Ellen, I was joking. My wife used to even joke. She used to say, stay-at-home moms can just pop them things out at any old time, but she was so busy, she needed that C-sizzy (ph). Am I right? Am I?
KAO: (As Ellen) Sorry, are you criticizing stay-at-home moms now?
THOMPSON: (As Kenan) Oh, God, I hope not. OK, in conclusion, I just want to say, stay-at-home moms work harder than working moms. Nope, they both work equally as hard. All moms are heroes. So it goes like this - it goes the troops, and then stay-at-home moms and working moms are tied for second. And then 9/11 first responders - didn't mean to mention 9/11.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) What is happening to you?
THOMPSON: (As Kenan) Oh, come on now, y'all. Y'all acting like I called Beyonce fat.
THOMPSON: (Laughter) Yeah, it's spiraling out of control. I love it.
GROSS: You know, I think for anybody who is in a relationship and loves their partner or spouse, that thinking about their possible death is just, like, so painful. Is it hard for you to do the show? And I mean, you're married. You've been married for - I forget how long. Eleven years maybe?
THOMPSON: Going on 10, but yeah.
GROSS: So is it hard for you to play the role of somebody who's just lost their wife? Is that too painful to think about sometimes?
THOMPSON: It is. And that's kind of another thing that we kind of moved away from, from the pilot originally, the original pilot. Like, we started at - you know, the - almost the reception of the funeral. So, like, the pain was so, so recent that it kind of didn't allow for a comedic setting to really take hold, basically, and the show just played very melancholy. So we kind of moved it away from, like, you know, maybe a year or so. And it's not so fresh and so recent that he can talk finally without falling apart and stuff like that but still spiraling out of control because he's juggling so much emotion with responsibility and running a show and all kinds of things. So, you know, just being overly vulnerable but also being a dumb man and not really one to admit when he's wrong when he needs to.
GROSS: Is it sometimes weird to be playing a father on TV who's not being - who's not able to be home with his kids as much as he wants because he's so busy, and you're playing this father, which is keeping you from being home with your kids because doing that show, playing the father, is keeping you so busy?
THOMPSON: Yeah, it's a bit of a whirlwind, you know? Like, I wake up and make breakfast for my kids, and then I go do a scene where I'm making some sort of meal for my TV children, too, you know? Like, I'm living my character kind of 24/7 in a weird way. But it keeps me focused on the fact that I am, you know, a parent and how attentive I really do want to be with my children and my wife and, you know, my family as well. Like, my brother, sister - my parents are still with me. Thank God. My - you know, I just want to make sure that I'm available to whoever. So I don't know. I'm just like that. I would rather not sit in solitude necessarily unless I'm taking a nap.
GROSS: You grew up in Atlanta. You had your first paid gig when you were 10 in a TV commercial for Lee's Famous Recipe Chicken. Was that a local chicken place?
THOMPSON: Yeah, it was local in the South, but there wasn't one in Georgia, so I never got to see the commercial. It was in, like, all the surrounding states, like Tennessee and, like, the Carolinas and, you know, Alabama and stuff like that. So that bummed me out. I wish I could see the commercial now. I tried looking for it but couldn't find it.
GROSS: What did you have to do in it?
THOMPSON: I was fishing with my fake grandfather (laughter). And that was freaking me out a little bit because that was my first time, like, working with another actor, I guess, like, on a paid kind of thing. I don't know. It was just weird seeing, like, some dude just, like, getting into character, and we're supposed to be acting like we're family or whatever. Like, what I'd done up until that point was all much more, like, random things, like Mr. White Cat (ph) in "Hansel And Gretel" and stuff like that. You know what I mean? So it was weird to try to, like, play family with a stranger, especially as a little kid. So - stranger danger was a big part of life back then (laughter).
But we're supposed to be fishing, and I say, like, the fish aren't biting. And he hands me a piece of chicken, and I'm supposed to take a bite of the chicken and say, I like this kind of biting - you know, classic duh-dum-dum-type (ph) comedy basically. So I got to eat chicken all day. And I was happy.
GROSS: Did you think to yourself when you were 10 and you were doing this part, this isn't very funny, but I'll do it anyways?
THOMPSON: Well, I remember the director kept telling me to take a bigger bite of chicken, like take a big bite of chicken, big ole bite, bigger, bigger, bite the chicken. I was like, this is starting to lean a little racist. But, you know, my fake granddad seems to be all right with it.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us. My guest is Kenan Thompson. And he's nominated for two Emmys, one for his performances on "Saturday Night Live" and the other for his new sitcom, "Kenan," which is on NBC and is now streaming free on NBC Peacock. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Kenan Thompson. He's nominated for two Emmys for his comedy performances on "SNL" and for his starring role in his sitcom "Kenan," which premiered this year.
So you did a couple of things for Nickelodeon. And then you did the live-action adaptation of the animated series "Fat Albert," based on characters originated by Bill Cosby. And he voiced Fat Albert in the animated - in the original animated series. What did you like about the character? Like, describe the character for anyone who's not familiar with him.
THOMPSON: Fat Albert's just a big, jolly leader of the gang, you know. And he's all about - this is the guy the lessons come through. So whatever the lesson is, the episode is about, you know, Fat Albert will be the leader of, you know, helping to discover and bring to light for those characters that need to learn something, whatever it is they need to learn, mixed with music.
You know, and Cosby was just like one of those go-to, like, feel-good American dad kind of destination's when I was growing up. So to get a chance to play the, you know, iconic character, you know, Fat Albert's a big character in the culture. I think FUBU had just finished doing their line of, like, Fat Albert character clothing and stuff like that. And it did really well because it was such a retro kind of thing that everybody loved from their childhood and stuff like that. So it just felt like, you know, an opportunity to do something big for the culture.
GROSS: So - how old were you when you started doing it?
THOMPSON: When I did Fat Albert? I was 25, 26.
GROSS: So you had a catchphrase - hey, hey, hey. What's it like to have a catchphrase? I mean, do people come up with you and repeat it to you?
THOMPSON: Oh, yeah. I mean, when we were promoting that movie, definitely people would run up, you know, when they saw it. I mean, it was a big promotion. Like, the whole poster was just my face and, you know, me in that sweater. And you could kind of see that I'm a larger kind of person. So, like, seeing big giant, like, billboards and, like, they had a huge banner down the side of Madison Square Garden, like, it was a lot, you know. Like, they put me on blast. And I was like, wow, this is a big, big, big thing. And it was, you know, very flattering. It was very cool. But, you know, it definitely was, you know, for someone who kind of enjoys their privacy, not necessarily like the most private moment. Like, my face was everywhere.
GROSS: Are you very private?
THOMPSON: I mean, I'm protective, I guess. So I never want, like, my celebrity to, you know, bleed on other people's, you know, security or, you know, how their day is going. Like, if somebody wants to, like, say something negative to, you know, my family members based on just trying to be funny because they want to comment on something that I've done or anything like that, I'm like, I always hate that.
GROSS: Were you close with Bill Cosby when you were doing Fat Albert?
THOMPSON: Not necessarily close, but, you know, he was a very busy man. So when he was around, he was very engaging and open and stuff like that, but he was only around like three times. So I didn't get to spend much time with him. But promoting the movie, he was you know, he brought me to the Apollo to open for him once. That was my first time, like, being at the Apollo and stuff like that. In Philly, we were doing, like, interviews and stuff like that together where we had the premiere for the movie. So he was available when he was available, but no, I didn't spend much time with them.
GROSS: What did you do when you opened for him?
THOMPSON: I made a fool out of myself, basically, like tell people where the exit doors were instead of doing jokes. Like, I didn't have any jokes. I'm not a standup. So I just felt like a real fish out of water. But basically just getting everybody psyched to see Bill Cosby. And then he would go out and perform for three hours wearing a sweater with my face on it, like a Fat Albert sweater. It was crazy.
GROSS: How did you feel when you found out about the roofies and how he sexually assaulted women? What was that like for you?
THOMPSON: I mean, I'm sure nothing in comparison to, like, the people that were really affected by it. But it definitely didn't feel good to be close to any kind of behavior like that. So I wanted, you know, whatever justice that could be served, be served. But, yeah, the whole thing just felt gross, you know. I mean, it felt gross to be in such a close proximity to that. But I was proud of the work that me and my cast mates did on that movie because we spent a lot of time together. And we had a great time. You know, it was a lot of work, but we got through it together, like through laughter and just us being close and young and good people. So I was still proud of the movie, but definitely kind of devastated that it had this, you know, shadow around it now.
GROSS: You were not the person who was assaulted, but did you still feel betrayed by him? You know, you had looked up to him.
THOMPSON: Oh, absolutely. I felt the exact betrayal.
GROSS: You know, he was just a father figure for so many people.
THOMPSON: One thousand percent. I felt like a heavy betrayal, basically, because, you know, he was, you know, the guy when I was growing up, he was like the one clean comic. So, you know, I watched Bill Cosby himself thousands of times. Like, he was basically my introduction to comedy was and what sitcoms were and all that kind of thing. And then like learning his history of his career. And, you know, he's like the first probably autobiography that I read and stuff like that. So yeah, he was a prime example of a career that I wanted to have and, you know, the kind of guy I thought I wanted to be as far as, like, being a father and being a comedian is concerned and stuff like that.
And then you hear rumors about, you know, when Eddie Murphy came out and said that he wasn't, you know, treating Eddie Murphy right. And, you know, Eddie was like, well, I want to be my own person, you know. Whatever. You let that wash off your back. And then you hear rumors of this and that and the other as time goes by. And it's like, all right, well, I guess he's got weird stuff going on or whatever. Like - but, you know, it's in the court's hands. I guess they're capable people. Like, whatever is happening is happening, and they'll find out exactly, you know, how to go about it - let me mind my business type of thing. But then it gets to the point where real allegations and real numbers, like, start coming out. And that's when it's, like, unavoidable. And the outcome is, you know, the present outcome and the present reality that we live in. And it just sucks, man. It really sucks. I felt super betrayed for being such a big fan and, you know, idolizing somebody who was, you know, entrenched in what they were entrenched in.
GROSS: So you got to play Bill Cosby in a very funny sketch in which Cosby is in prison. So the premise is you're alone in your cell when the prison guard brings in a new prisoner who is going to be your new cellmate. And the new prisoner is played by Seth Meyers. So let's hear a clip from this sketch. And Seth Meyers as the new prisoner speaks first.
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SETH MEYERS: (As character) So what are you in here for?
THOMPSON: (As Bill Cosby) You don't ask a man that in here. You put your head down, keep to your business.
MEYERS: (As character) Wow, old-timer - you really know the ropes. I've never done time before. This friggin' sucks.
THOMPSON: (As Bill Cosby) Hey, you don't come in here...
THOMPSON: (As Bill Cosby) ...With your filth and your foul, foul filth. You need to get a job.
REDD: (As character) Hey, Cosby, keep it down. This is the tenth warning in - you've only been here four days. Lights on.
MEYERS: (As character) Wow. Bill Cosby, I mean, on behalf of every one of your fans, it is so disappointing to be meeting you now.
THOMPSON: (As Bill Cosby) What? I am in my prime.
THOMPSON: I'm in jail and loving it - no kids with the darndest things, limited interactions with Camille. And when I was fighting incarceration, I had no idea that one of the staple foods of the prison system is Jell-O.
GROSS: So that's a sketch from "Saturday Night Live" from 2018 with my guest, Kenan Thompson, as Bill Cosby and Seth Meyers as his new cellmate.
How did you feel about playing Cosby in prison?
THOMPSON: It was just so crazy, you know. Like, it was kind of like playing O.J. I don't take pleasure from it. But, you know, our job is to kind of reflect our realities basically. And the reality is Bill Cosby was in jail, or there's a guy named O.J. back walking the streets and going to dinner with people, you know. So it was one of those things like, you know, it's kind of part of our job as opposed to like, oh, this is something I'm excited about doing.
GROSS: Well, Kenan Thompson, it's been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.
THOMPSON: An absolute pleasure. I can't believe you listened to all of that (laughter).
GROSS: Kenan Thompson is nominated for two Emmys for his comedic performances on "SNL" and for his starring role in the NBC sitcom "Kenan." After a break, Maureen Corrigan will review a new novel about a nun who can no longer be deferential to reckless priests. This is FRESH AIR.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. When's the last time you read a moving and deadpan funny novel about religious life, faith and doubt? Our book critic Maureen Corrigan says she has one to recommend. It's called "Agatha Of Little Neon," and it's by first-time novelist Claire Luchette.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: I was a Catholic schoolgirl during a strange moment in the 1960s when Catholicism infiltrated American popular culture. For a brief time, nuns, in particular, were everywhere. "The Flying Nun," starring a buoyant Sally Field, was on TV. The Singing Nun appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show," and her life was made into a movie. There was "The Trouble With Angels" and the mother superior of all nun movies, "The Sound Of Music." Nuns, of course, have greatly diminished in numbers since the '60s. And in recent decades, when they do make an occasional appearance on screen, they're often grim, even baroque characters like Meryl Streep's Sister Aloysius in "Doubt" or Jessica Lange's Sister Jude in "American Horror Story." The implication is that there must be something off about a woman who would choose such a life of self-abnegation.
Claire Luchette debut novel, "Agatha Of Little Neon," offers a counter narrative about a young 21st-century nun who's neither a holy fool nor a musical miracle worker nor a monster. I picked up "Agatha Of Little Neon" for its unusual subject. And I got pulled in by Agatha's voice. Sharp and, by turns, melancholy and wry, Agatha narrates her own belated coming-of-age tale about, as she says, learning how to distinguish an idea of yourself from the real thing. Agatha tells her story in retrospect, beginning in 2005 in her convent outside of Buffalo, N.Y. It's a place with walls painted the color of mayonnaise, ruled by a beloved, elderly mother superior frail as filament. Agatha has spent seven years there, ever since she took her vows at the age of 22. She and three fellow sisters - all the same age - run a day care center. But when the novel opens, the diocese is going broke because, as Agatha tactfully says, the men in charge had been reckless. Later on, when Agatha is all out of deference, she's more lacerating about the recklessness - sexual as well as monetary - of those priests who are in charge. Abruptly booted out of their convent, the four sisters are transferred to a halfway house in the depressed Rhode Island town of Woonsocket. There, without any training, they're expected to minister to recovering addicts and ex convicts.
Here's Agatha's first impression of her new posting. (Reading) Woonsocket, a tuckered-out town in northern Rhode Island, split down the middle by a river of waste. The sidewalks were littered with condoms and crushed empties. From Woonsocket, you could vomit into Massachusetts. From Massachusetts, kids came to buy liquor and fentanyl after 9. The halfway house is the color of Mountain Dew, a yellow-green discount paint that makes the house visible from three blocks away, hence the name "Little Neon." Agatha observes that usually, when people saw our habits, they ceased to see our faces. And most of the halfway house residents behave that way, barely interacting with the sisters. But one recovering addict named Tim Gary is different. Tim, who's lost half his jaw bone to cancer and got hooked on Dilaudid, recognizes a fellow lost soul in Agatha. And Agatha is further pulled away from her community when she's ordered to teach geometry at a nearby girls Catholic high school, an ordeal that should qualify her for sainthood. What's especially striking about Luchette's novel is that it affirms the age-old writing workshop wisdom of show, don't tell.
Despite the fact that our narrator lives a contemplative life, she doesn't devote a lot of space to ruminations. Instead, every short chapter here is structured as a precise vignette dramatizing different incidents in her and her fellow sisters' lives from the mundane to the harrowing. For instance, there's the poverty of regular meal times at little neon where cut-rate concoctions like chopped walnut tacos make appearances, and a scene where Agatha describes how her mother hemorrhaged to death after giving birth to a baby brother, and how, for a grieving Agatha, church was the only thing in her life that pulled her forward - until it doesn't. (Reading) You could learn to live without a part of yourself, Agatha tells us, (reading) I did. For years, I lived like this. And then I started to yearn for what I had lost. You don't have to be Catholic to connect with Luchette's nuanced and vivid story of a lonely young woman yearning for community and also yearning for everything she's had to give up to be part of that community. The nuns don't fly or sing or torment the helpless in "Agatha Of Little Neon," but they do make an indelible impression.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Agatha Of Little Neon" by Claire Luchette. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the latest revelations about what Trump tried to do to subvert the results of the election. My guest will be Katie Benner, who covers the Justice Department for The New York Times. We'll also talk about the DOJ under Merrick Garland. I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our producer of digital media is Molly Seavey-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
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