Kenan Thompson Reveals What He Believes Is The Key To ‘Saturday Night Live’s Enduring Success

The secret behind the enduring success of Saturday Night Live is its ability to evolve and diversify its talent base, according to Kenan Thompson, who pointed to the iconic ‘Black Jeopardy’ sketch as an exemplar.

Speaking at Cannes Lions, the SNL stalwart said the near-50-year-old format is “constantly changing,” adding: “Every week there’s a new host, every season there’s a new cast, also it’s weird how the crowd all seems to stay young, and I keep getting older.”

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During a 21-year-stint on the show, Thompson said it has evolved in several ways, including format changes from its live Saturday night presence to videos being shared on a Sunday morning.

But a bigger change has come in its diversity, he added.

“It’s more than format changes, it’s reach,” he said. “For decades, SNL had only one maybe two Black cast members. Today, I’m one of five, and we also have Asian, Hispanic, LGBTQ+ members in our cast. It’s just not about appearances, it allows the show to do comedy it never could before. With a sketch like ‘Black Jeopardy’, it only works if we have enough Black cast members to make it feel authentic to the community. Sketches like ‘Black Jeopardy’ open up the show to a whole new audience who never felt the show was for them.”

Thompson added: “My boss Lorne Michaels likes to remind us that we’re on in all 52 states. It’s his way of saying we’re a big tent show and our mission is to appeal to all ages and ideologies, just one night when we Americans and all of us across the globe come together and laugh at stuff. The big tent that Lorne Michaels always talks about just keeps getting bigger.”

Thompson referenced occasions on the show when he impersonated OJ Simpson on a date and Bill Cosby in jail. “Even though the humor was a little dark, I still tried to have fun with it. If we can laugh about something, it’s one step closer to healing.”

“Humor cuts through the noise,” he added. “We live in a state of constant assault on our senses, but if something is funny, you’ll seek it out. People will pass it around to lighten the day. It doesn’t mean we shy away from tough stuff, humor is one of the best ways to deal with rough things going on in the world.”

Quizzed about how to create a viral cultural moment that transcends the show, Thompson had a simple reply: “I don’t know. This past year, SNL did many sketches about people in the national spotlight – Taylor Swift, George Santos – and yet the biggest sketch of all was about Beavis and Butthead, two cartoon characters from 30 years ago.”

“You can’t manufacture a cultural moment,” he added. “All you can do is maintain a level of quality and consistency that opens the door for those moments to happen. I was taught how to be consistent by greats like Maya Rudolph and Bob Newhart.”

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