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How Kenan Thompson's Talent Took Him From All That to Studio 8H and Beyond

Thompson's certainly earned his Hollywood Walk of Fame star: His career has yielded three decades of laughs, and SNL wouldn't be the same without him.

By Jessica White

Many Saturday Night Live cast members past and current built a successful comedy career before they even took the stage in Studio 8H, and Kenan Thompson is a prime example.

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Thompson is the longest-running cast member in SNL history, with 21 seasons under his belt. But prior to that, Thompson was cracking jokes as a cast member on the children's sketch comedy series All That. Thompson first rose to fame in the early 1990s, quickly proving himself a certified star, effortlessly packing punchlines and witty one-liners into each of his projects. 

“I enjoyed running around and noticing that people were smiling at what I was doing,” Thompson told Variety, looking back at launching his career on All That. “I did enjoy amusing people, playing around. So, it’s easy for me to still feel young, even though I look back and there’s, like, 30 years of work back there.”

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Thompson has forged an incredible career since making his debut on Nickelodeon, and the beat rolls on. Read on for a recap of Kenan Thompson's career history in TV and movies, to learn how Thompson went from beloved child star to SNL legend.

Kenan Thompson's early career: All That and Nickelodeon fame

John Leguizamo and Kenan Thompson cook together

Thompson first achieved fame as a child star on Nickelodeon, first appearing as part of the O.G. cast of sketch comedy series All That in 1994. The casting was a foreshadowing of his future SNL career a decade later. Thompson's memorable characters included the meme-worthy Pierre Escargot—a questionably-French man in a raincoat who'd bask in a bubble bath for "Everyday French"—plus Bradley the Big Ol' Baby, Baggin' Saggin' Barry, and Superdude.

Another beloved long-running All That joke was the meta "Mavis and Clavis" characters, featuring Thompson as Mavis and Kenan Mitchell as Clavis,  elderly hecklers who'd introduce musical guests and often stir chaos for the rest of the cast. From Seasons 1-5, each episode ended with Clavis falling asleep in the audience, prompting Thompson's Mavis to yell, "Hey Clavis, wake up! The show is over!" 

Thompson was a main All That cast member from Seasons 1-5, and had a guest role on Season 7. He also guest-starred in Seasons 10 and 11, executive producing for the eleventh season. Thompson executive produced the 2019 reboot of All That alongside his longtime costar Mitchell.

Kenan & Kel 

After appearing in dozens of All That sketches together in seasons 1-4, the Mavis & Clavis duo had proved that their undeniable chemistry could bring their dynamic to the big stage with the Nickelodeon sitcom Kenan & Kel

The series followed straight-man teenager Kenan Rockmore and his orange soda-loving best friend, Kel Kimble, through various misadventures and ridiculous get-rich-quick schemes. Each episode kicked off with Kenan chatting with the audience about what to expect from the episode, much to a confused Kel's dismay. Thus sparking Kel's catchphrase, which began and ended each episode: "Awww, here it goes!"

Kel Mitchell and Kenan Thompson being interviewed by Jay Leno

"We were riffing off one another, and ripping on one another, and all the jokes were just working,” Mitchell told Variety. “It’s so cool to see a lot of the things manifest that we talked about as kids — going through the drive-through after shooting on the show or just having talks in the dressing room, about where we wanted our career to go and where our life should go.”

Kenan and Kel was a smash hit, airing for four seasons from 1999 to 2001. Thompson reprised the role of Kenan Rockmore in a 1998 episode of Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, and a 1999 episode of Cousin Skeeter. 

Kenan & Kel's Legacy: Kenan & Kelly

Kenan & Kelly

The sitcom's impact lives on. In a 2019 episode of Double Dare, Thompson and Mitchell appeared as contestants in a battle between Team Kel vs. Team Kenan. And in a sketch from Keke Palmer's 2022 SNL episode—featuring a cameo from Mitchell himself as Kel—Palmer expressed interest in playing "Kelly" in a new reboot called Kenan & Kelly.

Kenan Thompson's early T.V. guest roles

Thompson has appeared in dozens of television projects throughout his three-decade career. While starring in Kenan & Kel, Thompson also had guest roles in Sister, Sister (1997), The Amanda Show (1999), The Parkers (2000), Felicity (2001), and Off Centre (2002)

2003 was a pivotal year for Thompson, as it's also when he first took the Saturday Night Live stage.

Kenan Thompson has been on SNL for 20 years

Weekend Update: Tyler Perry

Thompson joined Saturday Night Live as a Featured Player in Season 29, and was promoted to Repertory status in Season 31. Thompson has since starred in over 1500 sketches, creating characters like "Black Jeopardy" host Darnell Hayes, "What Up with That?" host Diondre Cole, and of course, the opera-singing "Diner Lobster" headed for disaster. His array of on-the-nose impressions includes a spot-on Steve Harvey.

What Up With That: Oscar Isaac, Emily Ratajkowski and Nicholas Braun

“He was immediately impressive..." SNL creator Lorne Michaels told Variety. "There’s a core thing with Kenan, which is he just radiates goodness. Whatever he’s doing, even if he’s playing O.J. [Simpson], he’s charming. He knows that you have to make your characters likable. Because if the character’s unlikable, the audience won’t pay any attention to it. You have to trust that the writing will say everything that has to be said, but you have to have charm. Obviously, he has that more than anybody else.”

Thompson took home a 2018 Emmy for writing SNL's 90s R&B-inspired “Come Back Barack” musical sketch, starring alongside Chris Redd and two-time SNL host Chance the Rapper.

"[The SNL cast and crew are] like my big giant family. It’s spending quality time and doing quality work with quality people," Thompson told Deadline. "If it was possible I’d stay forever and just retire as the one guy that never left, basically. I’d be totally fine with that, but at the same time I still have aspirations."

Kenan Thompson's T.V. roles outside SNL

Thompson's popped up on children's shows like Rugrats (2005), iCarly (2011), Scooby-Doo and Guess Who? (2019), primetime comedies such as Psych (2009), The Awesomes (2013-2015), and Tina Fey's Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt in two episodes as Roland. Thompson also made a cameo appearance in Season 3 of SYFY horror comedy Chucky.

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Kenan Thompson's NBC sitcom Kenan

Kenan Thompson Emmys Host2

Premiering in 2021 and airing for two seasons, Kenan followed morning talk show host Kenan Williams as he navigated the tightrope act of having a family and a thriving career. Serving as an executive producer alongside SNL's Lorne Michaels, Thompson also scored a 2021 Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor In A Comedy Series.

Kenan Thompson's Good Burger

Good Burger, the 1997 comedy inspired by Mitchell and Thompson's infectious All That sketch of the same name, is widely considered a timeless '90s classic. The film follows mischievous high schooler Dexter Reed (Thompson) as he takes a summer job at his local burger joint, Good Burger, where he meets cashier Ed (Mitchell).

In 2015, Thompson and Mitchell reprised their Good Burger roles in a tribute sketch on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, in which Fallon appears as one of their coworkers. 

In November 2023, Thompson and Mitchell graced fans with a long-awaited sequel, Good Burger 2. The film follows Dexter and Ed as they reunite 26 years after the first film's events at the beloved burger restaurant where the chaos all began. 

Kenan Thompson claps from the stands during a hockey game

Kenan Thompson's film roles

Prior to All That, Thompson played Russ Tyler in sports comedy D2: The Mighty Ducks alongside Emilio Estevez, later reprising the role of Russ in the 1996 threequel D3: The Mighty Ducks. In 1995, Thompson starred in the Ben Stiller comedy Heavyweights as camper Roy Murphy. 

The same year Thompson began delivering laughs on SNL, he starred in 2003's Love Don't Cost a Thing as Walter Colley, the romcom My Boss's Daughter alongside Ashton Kutcher, and in 2004's Barbershop 2: Back in Business. Thompson also played the titular role in 2004's Fat Albert.

RELATED: SNL Wins 2022 Emmy for Outstanding Variety Sketch Series

You've likely heard Thompson's voice acting work, too: He voiced Lewis in the 2000 adaptation of The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle as Lewis and took on the role of a circus ringmaster in the 2008 animated comedy Space Chimps.  In 2011, Thompson voiced Greedy Smurf in The Smurfs, reprising the role in the 2013 sequel. He starred with Luke Wilson and J. K. Simmons in the animated action film Rock Dog, as well as the 2018 reimagining of The Grinch as the Grinch's jolly neighbor Bricklebaum.

In 2020, Thompson took on the voice of Tiny Diamond in the Trolls sequel Trolls World Tour, appearing as the dazzling troll again in the 2023 third installment, Trolls World Tour, the Trolls animated series Trolls: TrollsTopia, and the 2021 holiday special Trolls: Holiday in Harmony.

Close up of Kenan Thompson flying a plane in a movie

Thompson's filmography is a testament to his tireless work ethic, appearing in dozens of live-action films alongside his animated pursuits. One of Thompson's most popular film roles was his role as Troy in the 2006 side-splitter Snakes on a Plane. Thompson also appeared in the comedies Wieners (2008), Stan Helsing (2009), and dramedy The Magic of Belle Isle with Morgan Freeman.

Thompson teamed up with his SNL buddy Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd for the 2014 romcom parody They Came Together, and collaborated with SNL legends Taran Killam, Bobby Moynihan, Mikey Day, and Aidy Bryant in the 2016 comedy Brother Nature. In 2021, Thompson appeared as a real estate agent in the sixth Home Alone film, Home Sweet Home Alone. Thompson also played a hologram of James Baldwin in the 2022 romantic comedy Bros.

RELATED: SNL Reunited Aubrey Plaza and Amy Poehler

Kenan Thompson's Production Company Artists for Artists

After years of entertaining the masses, Thompson began focusing his energy off-screen. Launched in 2021 alongside co-founder and CEO John Ryan Jr, his production company Artists for Artists already has several projects underway.

“This company is the culmination of my dreams,” Thompson told Variety. “The potential for what that company can really do is all of my wanting to be Steven Spielberg one day.”

RELATED: Watch How SNL Created The 'I'm Just Pete' Sketch In Just 12 Hours

Kenan Thompson, the host with the most jokes

Kenan Thompson appears on stage during the People's Choice Awards.

In 2021, Thompson was the host of the Kids' Choice Awards and the infamous Jonas Brothers Family Roast. The same year, Thompson hosted the People's Choice Awards—and it was such a hit that he returned to emcee the 2022 ceremony. In 2022, Thompson also hosted the 74th Primetime Emmy Awards.

RELATED: SNL and Late Night with Seth Meyers Score 2023 Emmy Nominations

Kenan Thompson's Awards and Hollywood Walk of Fame star

Kenan Thompson Career4

Thompson has taken home several prestigious honors himself. In 2000, Thompson won a bright orange blimp for Favorite Television Actor at the Kid's Choice awards for All That. Aside from his 2018 Emmy for "Barack Come Back," Thompson took home two Black Reel awards in 2020 and 2021 for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series for his work on SNL. In 2022, Thompson's superstardom became immortalized with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. 

"I didn’t know what came along with fame or anything like that, or even what the business was," Thompson told Variety following the ceremony. "For me, it was just all about the performing of it all. And I figured if you do good enough performances, the rest of it will figure itself out. I don’t think I was necessarily wrong.”