Pre-‘Saturday Night Live’ Sketches That Showed the Genius of Kenan Thompson
Before Kenan Thompson became the Cal Ripken Jr. of Saturday Night Live, setting longevity records that likely will never be broken (20 seasons and counting!), he was spending his childhood years doing, what else? Performing sketch comedy. First on Nickelodeon’s All That and then on its Kenan-centric spin-off Kenan and Kel, Thompson honed the sketch skills that would earn him an adult living. In fact, Thompson’s genius comic chops were on display right from the start.
Here are some early bits that gave television viewers a sneak preview of the comedy to come…
Superdude vs. the Milkman
Some things you just can’t teach. Other kid actors could put on a super suit and goof around, but Thompson’s innate likability is what makes Superdude a winner. That’s not to say his only talent is affability — Thompson is kid-funny in a scene that requires him to pull off both an Urkel-esque secret identity and a powerful (though lactose-intolerant) Superdude. Considering the “villain” in this sketch is wildly inappropriate with his physical advances on the young lady of Superdude’s dreams, he gets everything he deserves.
Kel Can’t Live Without Soda
Mugging for the camera is a skill lots of talented kids can pull off, including Thompson. His partner in crime, Kel Mitchell, was equally adept. But you know what’s harder to do when you’re a young teenager? Playing the straight man, an essential role in comedy from Abbott and Costello to Martin and Lewis. Watch Thompson keep a scene grounded in (a Nick version of) reality while Mitchell devours the scenery. The exasperated eye rolls, the slow burns? Thompson had the goods from the start.
Kenan Saves the President
Saturday Night Live writers admit to using Thompson as a safety net. When a sketch needs a laugh and they can’t come up with a joke, the script might read: KENAN REACTS. It’s lazy, but it works — a Thompson facial reaction will probably get a better audience response than anything a sleep-deprived writer can dream up. You can see those talents on display in “Kenan Saves the President,” showing off his famous SNL takes while convincingly morphing from badass to scared kid and back again. Oh, and no big deal, he saves the president’s life.
Sure, sure, Kid Kenan is great, but can he do characters? Check out Ishboo, a weird foreign-exchange student from an unknown country. Ishboo’s customers are indeed foreign — he brings his host a bag of hamsters and makes out with his pal’s parents. But Thompson elevates the Nick-level jokes here, creating a guy who’s simultaneously irritating and lovable. It would be easy for this kind of character to veer into cancel territory, but somehow Thompson finds a way to suggest otherness without making it seem mean or derogatory.
At some point early in his Saturday Night Live career, Thompson swore off portraying any more Black female characters. The fact that he found himself playing all the Whoopis and Oprahs highlighted the fact that SNL had no Black female cast members, a problem that he was instrumental in fixing. But he didn’t have the same qualms back in his All That days, dressing up as Miss Piddin, the Mrs. Doubtfire of the tween set. It does make one wonder why she gets so many trick-or-treaters at her house — you’d think the word would get out that she’s giving out peas.
Everyday French with Pierre Escargot
It’s another foreign character, but Thompson turns him into something more. This eccentric weirdo dispenses semi-education about how to learn French from his bathtub, using a disconnected steering wheel to guide the tub along its way. Pierre Escargot was a popular recurring character and it’s easy to see why. His nasal laugh sounds like a broken car horn, punctuating every demented translation. A recent Atlantic profile described Thompson’s talents in way that applies then and now: “He brings that same craftsmanship even to lackluster sketches, wringing humor out of unfunny material by imbuing his characters with a winking charm.”
Cooking with Randy and Chef Farley
You want real proof that young Kenan had the goods to hold his own on Saturday Night Live? He proved it when SNL’s own Chris Farley showed up at Nick Studios to cause some comic mayhem. “It was amazing,” Thompson remembered years later. “That dude was insanely talented. Chris came in and destroyed it from one rehearsal.” Literally.
The All That powers that be asked Farley please not to demolish the cake, which was likely all the invitation he needed to decimate the prop. The fact that one cake meant the two comics would only get one take — and that Thompson nailed the scene with Farley — tells you that the kid was destined for comedy greatness. “(Farley) was nice to the directors,” Thompson recalled, “but I don’t think he was taking direction like that. He knew what he wanted to do.”
The lesson for young Kenan? No matter what anyone tells you, commit 100 percent to what you know is funny.