Kenan Thompson Biography
Got Laughs from Early Age, Found Fame and All That, Earned His Own Comedy Show
Kenan Thompson has been making people laugh ever since he was a school boy impersonating Bill Cosby. Since then he has spent nearly half his life entertaining people—from wacky sitcom antics on Nickelodeon to grown up gags on Saturday Night Live to a real-life portrayal of cartoon biggie Fat Albert. Is there a secret to his hilarious success? "I'm a happy person, and I want everybody else to be happy," he told People Weekly. "Nothing wrong with that."
Got Laughs from Early Age
Kenan Thompson was born on May 10, 1978, into an Atlanta, Georgia, household steeped in Southern traditions of manners and cordiality. Thompson told People Weekly that his mother Elizabeth Ann, a nurse, "raised me to be a Southern gentleman. To this day she keeps me in line." Thompson first got a taste of the spotlight at the age of five when he won the role of the Gingerbread Man in a school play. Soon after he discovered that he was funny. "It came from being so much younger than my brother, I was often entertaining myself," he told the Bay State Banner. "People would laugh at what I did. Later on I figured out how to format that but I really wanted to be an actor."
Thompson kept acting all the way through high school, where he met teacher Freddie Hendricks. "[He was] the person who made a difference for me," Thompson told the PBS Web site. "[He] taught me drama in high school and got me involved in his theater group." A self-proclaimed good student—"I didn't want to be the class clown and get in trouble," he told a PBS interviewer—Thompson juggled his school work with auditions. "I tried out for like a million and one commercials before I got my first one," he told PBS.
At the age of 15 Thompson made his film debut with the role of Russ Tyler in D2: The Mighty Ducks, the story of an underdog pee-wee hockey team making it big. The following year he had a small role in Heavyweights, and in 1996 he reprised the role of Russ in D3: The Mighty Ducks. He also had a stint as a movie reviewer for the CNN program "Real News for Kids."
Found Fame and All That
While he earned sporadic small credits on the big screen, Thompson was rapidly becoming a star on the small screen. In 1995 he auditioned for Nickelodeon's All That, a comedy skit show featuring an all-child cast. Thompson landed a spot on the show after auditioning with a routine he had done since his playground days: a dead-on Bill Cosby impression. "His timing and ability to mimic were amazing," director Brian Robbins told People Weekly.
All That soon became Nickelodeon's top-rated show and Thompson learned to adjust to life as a teenaged celebrity. "It was great," he told New York Daily News. "We couldn't go certain places. We would go to the mall and see how long it would take before we would get attacked by little girls." He added, "we had middle-school stalkers."
On the All That set Thompson met his comedic soul brother, Kel Mitchell. "The chemistry between me and him happened when they put us together in an All That sketch called 'Mavis and Clavis,'" Thompson told Daily News. In the bit, the teens played a pair of cranky senior citizens heckling the show. Midway through the first rehearsal Thompson and Mitchell began improvising and soon had the entire cast and crew in stitches. "They had us dying on the first run-through," Robbins recalled to Daily News. "They had these brain waves. It was magic. After we did the first season of All That we all knew that these guys had to have their own show."
Earned His Own Comedy Show
In 1996 Thompson and Mitchell became the first African-American actors to headline a primetime show on Nickelodeon. Kenan and Kel followed the comic misadventures of the always-scheming Kenan Rockmore and his dim-witted best friend Kel Kimble. "We could have just played characters from All That on the new show, but this is more of a challenge," Mitchell told USA Today. "And besides, these guys are more like us." The show became a hit for Nickelodeon and cemented the duo's fame.
With child-aged fame came adult-sized responsibility. "I know kids look up to us—little kids," Thompson told the Virginian Pilot. With that in mind, the teens kept a clean image and promoted education on shows such as BET's discussion forum, Teen Summit. Kenan and Kel garnered several award nominations and won the 1998 Kid's Choice Award for Favorite Television Show.
Thompson and Mitchell also starred in the 1997 feature film Good Burger as a couple of bumbling fast food workers trying to save their mom-and-pop employer from ending up in the deep fryer at the hands of a competing burger giant. Though not a box office smash, Nickelodeon fans ate it up. Parents also appreciated the good intentions the film served on the side. "There are lots of lessons to learn like not to lie, don't judge a book by its cover and whatever you sow, you reap," the then-19 year-old Thompson told Jet.
Grew Up to Saturday Night Live
Kenan and Kel finished its four-year run in 1999. The following year, All That signed off the air. Thompson teamed up once more with Mitchell in 2000 for a 90-minute Kenan and Kel television movie called Two Heads Are Better Than One. Meanwhile Thompson took up residency all over teen TV. He had recurring roles on Felicity and The Steve Harvey Show. He also appeared on Sabrina the Teenage Witch, The Parkers, and Sister, Sister. He made it back to the big screen with bit parts in the feature films Big Fat Liar and Love Don't Cost a Thing.
By 2003 Thompson had been starring in shows for young people for over eight years. Though still baby-faced, he was 25. It was time to grow up. To do so, he auditioned for and landed a spot on the cast of Saturday Night Live (SNL), late-night television's grand-daddy of adult sketch comedy. "In SNL, we are free to do edgy-type stuff. On Nickelodeon, we couldn't touch certain stuff," Thompson told the Boston Herald. "The clean stuff doesn't really work at night. No one wants to see that stuff."
SNL also pushed him creatively. "We're responsible for coming up with new characters," he told the About Hollywood Movies Web site. "It's like a new experience for me. And it's challenging too because if I don't write my own stuff, then I'll be playing somebody's daughter. … I'll be a victim of somebody else's sketch." In addition to a handful of characters, Thompson has expanded his impressions repertoire to include dozens of celebrities from Gary Coleman to Serena Williams to Chaka Khan.
Hit the Big Time with Fat Role
In 2004 Thompson landed a bit part in Barbershop 2: Back in Business, the sequel to the wildly popular, all-black ensemble feature about life in an African American barbershop in inner-city Chicago. However it was life in inner-city Philadelphia that gave Thompson his first leading role. Bill Cosby's cartoon Fat Albert, based on his childhood in the projects of Philadelphia, was a staple of Saturday morning television in the 1970s. After years of trying, Cosby finally got a film version of Fat Albert into production by 2004. Rumor has it that Cosby watched Thompson's audition tape for less than 15 seconds before choosing him for the title role. When asked why he thought Cosby chose him, Thompson told the Philadelphia Tribune, "Because the character had to be charming and compassionate and whatnot. I just believed in my likeability!"
Despite nearly a decade in front of the cameras, Thompson was terrified to meet Cosby. When the pair finally met up on the first day of filming, Thompson hid his nerves by launching into his now-famous Bill Cosby impression. Cosby didn't react. He later told People Weekly, "It was not the time to fool around." Despite the chilly introduction, the two men became friends, and Cosby admitted to being a great fan of Thompson's impression. Thompson told the Bay State Banner about a visit to a Philadelphia club where Cosby was performing. "He insisted I get up on the stage and do my imitation of him. He loved it!"
Though critical reaction to Fat Albert was uniformly dismal, Thompson's characteristic good humor would not be dampened. "I think right now I'm seasoned enough to handle whatever's gonna happen, whether I become a huge star or whatever," he told NPR's Tony Cox. With parts in the 2005 films Candy Paint and Peter Cottontail: The Movie, plus his continued laugh tracks on SNL, "huge star" seemed a much more likely prospect than "whatever."
D2: The Mighty Ducks, 1994.
D3: The Mighty Ducks, 1996.
Good Burger, 1997.
Two Heads Are Better Than None (TV), 2000.
Big Fat Liar, 2002.
Barbershop 2: Back in Business, 2004.
Fat Albert, 2004.
Peter Cottontail: The Movie, 2005.
All That, 1995-1999.
Kenan and Kel, 1996-99.
Saturday Night Live, NBC, 2003–.
Bay State Banner (Boston), December 9, 2004.
Boston Herald, December 19, 2004.
Daily News (Los Angeles), July 22, 1997.
Jet, August 11, 1997.
People Weekly, January 10, 2005.
Philadelphia Tribune, December 24, 2004.
USA Today, August 15, 1996.
Virginian Pilot, July 25, 1997.
"Kenan: 'All' the Better," New York Daily News, www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/story/302608p-259066c.html (April 5, 2005).
"It's My Life: Kenan Thompson," PBS Kids, http://pbskids.org/itsmylife/celebs/interviews/kenan.html (April 5, 2005).
"Kenan Thompson Joins the Crew of Barbershop 2," About Hollywood Movies, http://movies.about.com/cs/barbershop2/a/bb2kt013104.htm (April 5, 2005).
"Interview: Kenan Thompson," NPR Special with Tony Cox, December 24, 2004.
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