Kenan Thompson and Bowen Yang on ‘SNL’ Milestones, Controversial Hosts and Making Comedy in the ‘Most Scrutinized Time’ Ever (2024)

Kenan Thompson and Bowen Yang have had very different “Saturday Night Live” trajectories. And yet, they both have made history. Thompson, who joined the show in 2003, is the longest-tenured cast member in the show’s history. When Yang joined, first as a writer in 2018 then moving to the cast the following year, he became the first Chinese American “SNL” player.

Despite joining the show 15 years apart, they adapted in a similar way: by listening.

Thirty years ago, Thompson was on the premiere of “All That,” the kids’ version of “SNL” that aired on Nickelodeon in the 1990s. “To have Kenan be at the show now is only a sign that he has the foresight, fortitude and forbearance to just be a pure master at this,” says Yang. He turned to his co-star: “I don’t take it for granted that I sit next to you at read-through. I absorb so much just being in proximity.”

Thompson’s flattered, but he also understands. “That’s how I felt when I started. It was Jimmy Fallon and Tina Fey. And then, go down the list: Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch, Will Forte, Fred Armisen. I used to just sit and watch. It was all about participating and learning timing,” he says. “I learned a lot by watching, especially Maya. Jesus Christ, I’ve never seen someone so versatile.”

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Right now, everyone’s focused on “SNL’s” upcoming 50th season. But Yang and Thompson agree 49 is just as important — “if not more,” says Thompson. The season started off strong, with former cast member Pete Davidson returning to host.

Thompson can’t help but gush over how “proud” he is of Davidson, especially since his personal life is always in the media. “It’s not easy to be in all that scrutiny all the time. I feel like this is the most scrutinized time on the planet,” he says. “Everybody’s watching everything and commenting about everything.”

Kenan Thompson and Bowen Yang on ‘SNL’ Milestones, Controversial Hosts and Making Comedy in the ‘Most Scrutinized Time’ Ever (3)

Of course, this is especially true in the world of comedy. With cancel culture at an all-time high, “you can’t just be a dumbass grabbing the mic,” says Thompson. “You actually need to read, and you need to be aware. You can’t just be stuck on stupid.”

Yang points out that comedy is already subjective, which makes it even more complicated. “Everybody is highly personal about what they find funny, so it’s everyone’s value systems meeting at the same time. That makes it completely ripe for conflict,” he says, then stops and reconsiders his choice of words. “Not conflict. I always boil it down to a healthy discussion about what’s going on in the world.”

This season of “SNL” included a few of those conversations. First, in Episode 10. At the end of the episode, Dave Chappelle, who has made headlines for transphobic and anti-LGBTQ+ jokes, jumped up on stage during the goodnights. Eagle-eyed viewers saw that Yang, who is gay, was standing on the opposite end of the stage with his arms crossed.

That night, Yang popped up in headlines for “distancing” himself from Chappelle, with one story claiming he “appeared unimpressed.”

For the first time, Yang clears the air. “I stand where I always stand on good nights. It was not a physical distance that anyone was creating,” he says. “It had to do with so many things that were completely internal.”

If anything, the headlines were a reminder that everyone was watching every moment.

I press a little harder, asking whether or not he was unhappy with Chappelle’s appearance.

“It was about other people’s response in the show. I was just confused, that was it,” he says. Thompson chimes in, too, noting that the fact that people made it a story is a bit “jarring,” but that everyone was confused because Chappelle wasn’t part of that episode, which was hosted by Dakota Johnson.

The next two weeks, choices made at “SNL” also raised eyebrows; in Episode 11, Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley appeared. Then Episode 12 featured host Shane Gillis, the comedian who was cast in 2019 but fired for making racist, hom*ophobic, Islamophobic and misogynistic jokes on his podcast.

“Controversy,” Thompson laughs when I bring up the three episodes. Yang adds, “I’m going to give Lorne Michaels some credit to that meta-narrative. There’s a story around the show now, and it’s his show. He gets to do whatever he wants.”

So, how did they feel about Gillis being brought back? Yang is used to their names being mentioned together, since they joined the same year. (Gillis never actually appeared, as he was fired before the premiere.)

“Anytime our names are in the same sentence, at least in a journalistic way, it always feels deleterious. It feels like one person is trying to undo the other. I was just really curious about what that show would be like and if it would be an opportunity to really move past it,” Yang says. “I think he and I have done enough things in our careers now to really not [have] that be the definitive beginning or the thing that casts a pall over everything else that we do going forward.”

Kenan Thompson and Bowen Yang on ‘SNL’ Milestones, Controversial Hosts and Making Comedy in the ‘Most Scrutinized Time’ Ever (4)

Thompson can relate to the feeling. His past roles come up often, especially as of late with the new allegations of abuse against “All That” producer and “Good Burger” writer Dan Schneider in the docuseries “Quiet on Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV.”

Last year, Thompson reprised the role of Dexter Reed in a “Good Burger” sequel; Schneider wasn’t part of it but is credited in creating the characters. Thompson would do more “Good Burger” movies, noting that many different writers are responsible for Dexter Reed and Kel Mitchell’s Ed.

“Those guys know the cadence of those characters just as well, without having tarnished careers,” says Thompson. “It’s about us, as opposed to who had the first idea years ago. It’s just sad that that has to be our conversation… The separation of the artist and the man conversation didn’t come into my life at all until recently. There was no need to do that. A guy was a pig, and we knew he was a pig, but it wasn’t like the deviousness since, like, [Bill] Cosby and [Harvey] Weinstein. All that sh*t is just way out of bounds. If people were like that, it’s coming to the light, and that’s great.”

He continues, “That whole thing has just been such a burden for recent times — the conversation of, ‘Do we still listen to Michael [Jackson]?’ ‘Do we still listen to R. Kelly?’ What do we do with ‘The Cosby Show’? I think we’re all still figuring it out and navigating. Because the trauma is real, the victims are very real. I don’t want to gloss over that. We also don’t want to just throw really solid, creative things in the trash either.”

Thompson previously said that he has positive memories of his time at Nickelodeon — something that’s difficult to feel now.

“I feel so guilty saying that. All those things started happening after our tenure, because, I guess, no one would even dare. It wasn’t that kind of environment. There was no dictatorship about it all,” he says. “We were all building something and, when you’re building something, I don’t think anybody’s co*cky enough to be pulling things behind the curtain.”

Controversies or not, Season 49 of “SNL” has been a hit. The episode hosted by Ryan Gosling earned the best seven-day viewership numbers since 2021 and became the most-watched episode to date on Peaco*ck.

Yang and Thompson are partially to thank for those numbers, but they’d never say that. For them, it’s all about the writers, who have been able to keep stories so relevant. “The show’s doing an incredible job, in my opinion, just allowing for the times to dictate what is appropriate, what’s funny and what’s not,” says Thompson. “It feels like the New York dinner table.”

The fact that Thompson is the longest-running cast member and a Black man is not lost on him. It feels great, he says, “until I get into a group of Black people and they’re like, ‘We don’t watch ‘SNL.’ I’m like, ‘You know I’m representing for you all!’”

Yang gets the same reaction: “This is what I run into too, with queer people and with Asian people. ‘Oh, we don’t watch.’”

Kenan Thompson and Bowen Yang on ‘SNL’ Milestones, Controversial Hosts and Making Comedy in the ‘Most Scrutinized Time’ Ever (5)

While the comedians don’t feel pressured to represent their communities, Thompson notes that one sketch raised eyebrows — and questions were then directed at him. In 2023, he portrayed “Funky Kong,” a Mario-inspired character that, he says, everyone at “SNL” found hilarious.

“Then you get into the world, and the world sees a Black man in a monkey costume, and it starts to go to that conversation — which is the furthest thing from all of our minds,” he says. “It’s not that we shun it like it’s not a real thing. At some point, there was probably a moment where our people were looked at like that, or whatever. I don’t deny those things, because I’m aware of it. I look at ‘Planet of the Apes’ sideways, so I get it. But when do we advance? When do we leave that in the past and just allow ourselves to just have free-thinking ideas?”

While Yang says he’s not necessarily the right person to comment on it, “SNL” is the right place: “I feel like if Kenan is talking about advancing something out of one very rigid stereotype, or one rigid portrayal, then isn’t ‘SNL’ the perfect place to be the front line for that? Doesn’t that character kind of transcend a lot of those things if it works through it, around it and doesn’t actually dwell on anything ethnic? A sketch show should be the perfect arena for that.”

Bowen/Thompson’s Styling: Michael Fisher
Kenan Thompson and Bowen Yang on ‘SNL’ Milestones, Controversial Hosts and Making Comedy in the ‘Most Scrutinized Time’ Ever (2024)


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