Kenan Thompson has been a man who has been making us laugh for many years, from his Nickelodeon days on Kenan & Kel to films like Barbershop 2: Back In Business and Snakes on a Plane. The comedic actor also stars on Saturday Night Live, which comes back with its new season premiere on September 26 at 11:30 PM ET with host Megan Fox and musical guest U2 and he's also guest-starring on an episode of the popular USA Network hit Psych, which will air the night before on Friday, September 25 at 10 PM ET on the USA Network. Thompson recently held a conference call to talk about both endeavors, and here's what he had to say.
I wanted to ask you first of all a Psych question. They said that your character is one of an A cappella group. Do you actually have a good singing voice and will we hear it in the episode?
Kenan Thompson: Yeah, we have to sing. We have to harmonize, me and Jaleel White with Dule. The first day we got to Vancouver we had to go like straight in the studio and learn all these harmonies. It was fun and I don't know if I have a great singing voice but I did sing in church as a child; I can hold a note.
And is there something different about when you have to do this kind of a harmony like an A cappella; is it different - is it more difficult than the kind of stuff you sang in church?
Kenan Thompson: Absolutely because, you know, singing a melody is like a lot of easier and when you sing harmony you have to really kind of know music and listen to the music and be able to hear the notes or whatever. So I don't know like Dule had like a harmony - he had a high harmony part and all my harmony parts were kind of lower. Which is funny because my voice isn't usually that low it's only low right now because I'm a little sick.
You're three years younger than Saturday Night Live. So tell us about growing up with Saturday Night Live. At what point did you become aware of the show and how big was that in forming where you became a sketch comedian?
Kenan Thompson: It was pretty large in my household. You know, I became aware of it sort of like in the mid-80s when Murphy was on. And I became an instant fan because, you know, I thought he was so great or whatever. And then I started learning about the show and learning that it was, you know, older than 1984 basically when I started watching or whatever. And, you know, started doing more research and watching like all through the late 80s and 90s and stuff like that and like became a real fan. So I think it definitely had a large impact on my life.
What made you want to be a part of the show Psych?
Kenan Thompson: My homey Dule called me and like I guess he was trying to call me through (Jorma Taccone) but (Jorma) has been busy with the MacGruber movie this summer so I didn't get the message from him. They finally like got my manager people on the phone. I was like yeah I'll do it with Dule. Like I met him when he was on the West Wing and stuff like that. So he's a good dude. And then they told me Jaleel was doing it and I was like he's the man too so we just had a good time and did it.
Now what about playing on Saturday Night Live continues to challenge you?
Kenan Thompson: It's just a challenge doing live television every week, you know, it's a challenge to come up with new material every week and stuff like that and try to keep it current, you know what I mean, like it's just, you know, it's a kind of a stressful environment. Like I didn't really realize that we had a show this Thursday until yesterday.
Do you ever still get nervous going on?
Kenan Thompson: Absolutely. I mean, it's not even - I try to like turn the nerves into more of like, energy, you know, and hype myself up or whatever. But, yeah, you can feel that definitely that countdown, you know, from 11:25 basically to 11:30 is crunch time. So especially if you're in the cold open like you really feel it in the cold open because you're kicking it all off. You know what I mean? And like if the first joke doesn't hit you can fail. I mean but that's the beauty of dress rehearsal as well so it kind of calms all that down. You figure out like what's really funny by the time it's a live show hopefully; that's the aims.
So I really enjoyed all the different impressions that you do on SNL. And with so many under your belt, I mean, is there any impression that you've ever tried to nail down but couldn't or somebody who you found really, really hard to mimic?
Kenan Thompson: I mean like I keep thinking to my - every time I watch like Jay Leno and his new show like I don't even know if I'll ever get a chance to be on there because I went on the Tonight Show and tried to do a Jay Leno. He hated it.
Kenan Thompson: Yeah, I mean it was a bad Jay Leno impression. I don't even think they aired it when, you know, they showed the interview or whatever it was just like an awful moment. But he really hated my Jay Leno impressions. I guess that's one I need to work on.
When you are trying to kind of impersonate someone what do you go for as far as like their traits go? Do you opt for like the funniest trait of theirs or the hardest one that people may have not tried to mimic before?
Kenan Thompson: Yeah, I mean, you try to go with something that's familiar to people and that way they can jump on board with what you're trying to do basically. No I only mimic people that really have like interesting voices because it's really hard to mimic like someone who just talks regularly like me like there's nothing fun about that.
Now what about feedback from those that you have impersonated, I mean, has anyone ever just really, really praised your impersonation of them? They're like hey I actually thought that was me you know?
Kenan Thompson: Yeah, Roker was nice about it; I did Al Roker like once or twice. I think I'm going to do him some more; he's a cool dude. Cosby - Bill Cosby was cool about it. I did Whitney Houston's daughter one time and she was quite upset about that.
Kenan Thompson: Well that was wrong, she was a child, you know what I mean, like I didn't need to do that but we did it anyway and it was funny. But, you know, that was probably one of those things I would maybe, maybe or maybe not do again; I'm not sure because I really enjoyed doing it and it made us laugh. But, you know, it was kind of not fair to pick on a child basically.
With everything in the news these days I mean is there anyone that you're really, really excited to kind of try your hand at this upcoming season?
Kenan Thompson: I wanted to do that whole (Hellgate) story but it's kind of an old story now. And maybe we'll take a poke at Kanye a couple times or something.
Oh that'd be fun awesome. Well thank you so much, Kenan, best of luck with the new season.
I first wanted to ask you if you had any thoughts on the new casting and departures this season?
Kenan Thompson: Yeah, I mean, I hear we welcomed two new cast members and two of our older cast members have moved on to greener pastures. I mean, and, you know, it happens, you know. I remember when Nancy and JB left me behind and I was like all alone by myself for years and years so.
Have you started working with Jenny and Nasim? Have you guys...
Kenan Thompson: Yeah I met them last night and we were writing for the Thursday show this week and we got like a table read today. So yeah we're all working.
And it's going well?
Kenan Thompson: It is going well. They're nice girls and we've got like a lot of new writers and everybody's really, really nice. And they seem like they're not too nervous and they want to get right into it or whatever so, you know, best of luck to them.
Are you going to be taking over Weekend Update at all or do we know what's going to happen with that for the Saturdays?
Kenan Thompson: Yeah, I mean, I'm down, you know what I mean. If they make me do it I'll do it but we haven't really discussed that yet this year. I remember we had the auditions with Seth took over and everything but like that was the last time we talked about that so bring it back up I'm down with it.
Are there any reoccurring characters that we'll be seeing of yours this season?
Kenan Thompson: Sure, I'm sure we'll try to do like a scared straight guy again. The only masculine character that I have.
Can you give us any hint on what the first digital short is going to be of this season? What it's going to encompass?
Kenan Thompson: I wish, I wish I knew. I mean I know those guys are like working hard; they barely came out of their office yesterday.
I was just wondering over the last couple of years until now what have you seen change in what we find funny?
Kenan Thompson: I definitely think like, you know, television has changed a lot in the last few years like, you know, I find it funny that there's (unintelligible). I found it funny that there's a - real intense like those kind of shows like make me laugh. I mean just the looks of those people it's like funny. And, you know, there's people, you know, hoards of women chasing after them for episode after episode or like muscled up dudes chasing after day to day love so like just those kind of situations make me laugh. I think (unintelligible).
And have you noticed any change in the tone of what you guys are writing about on SNL?
Kenan Thompson: Yeah, I mean, we try to keep it smart you know what I mean every week, you know, every season we get a lot better. I know I've learned a lot more, you know, I've studied by classic rock history for the last two years so maybe I'll be able to pull a joke out of there, you know what I mean, and not have it seem so random. Stuff like that you know? Smarten it up because, you know, we only have a few days after we've written something to like perfect it as opposed to like months and months of discussion.
I was just wondering what did the sketch comedy in your younger years teach you about the sketch comedy that you do now? What can you apply from it?
Kenan Thompson: Just trying to tackle characters immediately, you know what I mean, like I guess I got good at trying to throw a voice on a character from the very beginning as opposed to like reading it and sitting with it and, you know, mulling over it and stuff like that just try to read what it is and then try to put a funny voice to it like as soon as possible and stuff like that. And then once you get laughs with your voice then you can start thinking about, you know the physical characteristics and how they might walk or if they stick out their buck teeth or if they wear an afro and stuff like that. I think like finding the voice of the character helps to like build the wardrobe and everything else.
I just wanted to know what did you find different about shooting Psych than you did about shooting - doing the live sketch; did you like it better or...
Kenan Thompson: It was cool. They work really hard on that show, you know, like they shoot like 12-14 hours days every day. And they take the weekends off or whatever but it's just weird because they start a new episode in the middle of the week as well because they do seven-day shoot weeks so it's Monday through Friday and then Monday and Tuesday and then by Wednesday they're on another episode. So it's a little confusing for I'm sure for them. But for me it was super easy. They were nice and we had a good, good time and a lot of laughs. I hope to do it like six more times.
I just wanted to know which impression is your favorite?
Kenan Thompson: I like Al Sharpton. I like - I want to do some more Al Roker, I think I have a different take on him so. The last time it was just more about doing a silly voice. I think I have a pretty funny take on him now. I enjoyed like - I don't know I just like doing impressions if I can do them well, you know what I mean, like if they're genuinely getting laughs that's, you know, that's when it's fun. But when I feel like I'm stretching, you know, that's when it's like okay maybe this isn't the best impression.
I also want to know have you ever gone out for a night on the town while still in character?
Kenan Thompson: I should. I mean I want to go out as a scared straight guy and try to talk to high school kids.
One of my favorite characters is when you do I guess the ghetto mom. How did that come about?
Kenan Thompson: Virginiaca? It came about me with me and James Anderson who writes the (unintelligible) sketch with me. We just started doing like some ghetto lady voices just, you know, I was trying to make it different than the Shanaynay or the this and the that that everybody has done like Wanda and stuff like that. So I was like what if it was somebody's mom that was acting like that. And then I was like and let's take it a step further and like what if it was somebody's mom who just kind of married into the family so she doesn't really - these aren't really her kids but, you know, she is their mother or whatever like they're mean step-mom and stuff.
Do you think this season we'll get to see more of Virginiaca?
Kenan Thompson: I don't know, I caught a lot of flack for this Virginiaca thing. So I don't know, I don't want to make every black woman in America mad at me so I'll see.
And just one other thing with U2 coming up and so forth what groups have just awed you? I mean when you're there even as much as you've been around stars and so forth what guest music acts or guest hosts just still awe you to this point?
Kenan Thompson: Well U2, man, like they're incredible, you know. They've been doing it for so long. And then they'll mess around and like do songs after the show is off just for the people that are there and stuff. So that's always like a mind-blowing thing, you know. Like any time we have like a double host music guest that's always fun like the Janet Jackson thing and we have Taylor Swift doing it this year and Jennifer Lopez doing it this year so I'm excited about that .
You can watch Kenan Thompson guest-starring on Psych on Friday, September 25 at 10 PM ET on the USA Network and you can catch Kenan on the 35th season premiere of Saturday Night Live with host Megan Fox and musical guest U2 on Saturday, September 26 at 11:30 PM ET on NBC.