Kenan Thompson Nearly Quit ‘SNL’ in His First Season After the Writers Abandoned Him for Bombing
This past October marked the 20-year anniversary of Kenan Thompson’s debut on SNL. The veteran comedian has appeared in over 1,500 sketches over his ongoing and historic run, ranging from eminently forgettable scenes all the way to every single time he’s done his Steve Harvey impression. Thompson’s career runs the gamut of SNL moments with all the highs and lows that come with it – including an uncomfortable serving of “donuts” in his early years. As Thompson revealed in his new memoir, When I Was Your Age: Life Lessons, Funny Stories & Questionable Parenting Advice from a Professional Clown his rookie season was marred with multiple episodes wherein he appeared in zero sketches as the writers threatened to entirely excommunicate him from the series.
In an excerpt from the book obtained by PEOPLE, Thompson writes that he held himself back during his early years on SNL with “a ton of rookie mistakes" – including a cataclysmic flub that nearly knocked him out of the show for good. According to Thompson, he once messed up his lines so badly during dress rehearsal that, not only was the sketch cut, but the writing staff effectively cut him out of the entire season. Funny how Jimmy Fallon never once felt that kind of punishment for screwing up the script.
"I was excited for the first opportunity to showcase my chops on the big stage," Thompson recalled of a sketch written for him by Emmy-winner T. Sean Shannon. In the scene, titled “Randy the Bellhop," Thompson played an incompetent porter who helps Alec Baldwin and Rachel Dratch get situated “in all the wrong ways.” A rookie Thompson was eager for the screen time as he hadn’t yet had his breakout character on the show and was eager to make his mark – and Randy the Bellhop was, unfortunately, more of a breakdown than a breakout.
Wrote Thompson, “I couldn’t make it through dress rehearsal. I stuttered over this one line and couldn’t ad-lib my way out of it." Thompson quickly “spiraled into a full-on panic” that spread throughout the theater as the sketch sunk further and further out of final cut contention. Thompson claimed that he even heard an "involuntary 'Oh no!'" escape out of "someone's mouth," signaling the end of poor Randy – and possibly Thompson’s SNL career.
"If a slip up like that happened at Nickelodeon or in the movies I’d done, we could just do another take," the All That and Kenan & Kel star recalled, "At SNL there was a lot riding on the live performance, obviously, and to no one’s surprise, the sketch didn’t make it to air." Thompson says that he “sunk to an all-time low” following the bomb, which was compounded by the writers’ aversion towards including him in any future sketches.
Though Thompson says Shannon was graceful about the screw-up, “he and every other writer avoided me like COVID" for the rest of the season, and Thompson worried that he’d missed his chance to "get a character of my own." Wrote Thompson, "I was like, 'What the hell am I doing here?' I was famous enough that people were trying to follow me off the subway, but I couldn’t get on the show." Thoughts of quitting entered his mind as he wondered “if there was space at SNL for my kind of comedy.”
Thankfully, Thompson turned to a veteran for advice before making any rash decisions – when he asked Maya Rudolph why he had been brought back for another season when he seemed like such an ill fit for SNL, she told him “It was a no-brainer,” explaining, “We could tell you were ready and you’re adorable. We all said, ‘Obviously, it’s Kenan,'”
"I fully freaked out hearing that. I literally had a seat next to one of the most talented performers I had ever seen. Her pedigree was legendary," Thompson said of Rudolph’s encouragement. “To be complimented by someone you admire was humbling and enlightening. I wasn’t just a kid laughing at his own jokes in front of the mirror. I’d been validated.”
Over 1,500 sketches later, Rudolph’s wise words have become the unofficial slogan of the writers’ room that once shunned Thompson whenever they need a heavy-hitter to punch up an otherwise unremarkable script – “Obviously, it’s Kenan.”