Entertainment Creative SNL

Kenan and commercials: SNL star on why advertising needs laughter, not lectures


By Amy Houston, Senior Reporter

March 25, 2024 | 8 min read

He has been making people laugh since he was still at school. After three decades at the top of the comedy business, Saturday Night Live star Kenan Thompson shares how he’s using humor to make ad spots seem less like a classroom.

Kenan Thompson

Kenan Thompson / Autotrader

Kenan Thompson began his acting career in the early 90s, featuring on shows such as sketch comedy All That and then starring in Nickelodeon’s Kenan & Kel. Three years after the show ended in 2000, he joined the cast of Saturday Night Live, where he has remained ever since, becoming the longest-running actor in the show’s history.

At 45 years old, he’s been in the business for three decades, continuously making people laugh. “I’ve always loved how contagious smiles are,” he tells The Drum. “It travels across cultures, language barriers or anything. It’s a very base level, human interaction.”

He says that when he realized that jokes and great storytelling raised people’s moods, he began to take it seriously as a profession. In his own words, he’s someone who wants to spread cheer and focus on being happy as opposed to giving too much power to negativity.

It’s something that he’s now bringing into the advertising partnerships he has. Most recently, there’s a commercial for Autotrader – a perfect fit for Thompson, whose love of cars is well known and which he puts down to the car shows of the 80s and films like Night Rider.

He believes that entertainment and adland have a lot to learn from each other. “When people try to advertise something, they try to figure out how to make it look appealing to someone who doesn’t know anything about what it is or what it could possibly do, and that allows actors to come in and look at the messaging and say if it feels natural or if it felt like something people would say.”

In the Autotrader ad, viewers see Thompson in typical movie scenarios, including a crime scene, a Baywatch-style beach and even a UFO sighting. Each character he plays has a unique comedy style that has become so distinctive to him.

“Humor is the sugar that lets the medicine go down. The medicine is the information on how to use the Autotrader platform. But if you can put a little humor into it, put some good feelings into it, then it doesn’t feel like, you know, you’re in class, basically.”

Thompson knows that he is a familiar face to so many and believes that is key when it comes to holding people’s attention, especially in an era of short-form videos. He’s been a recurring fixture on NBC’s Saturday Night Live for 21 seasons and, two years ago, hit the 1,500 sketches mark.

“I was a ginormous fan before I got there. My experience being there has been incredible because of the incredible people who work there, in front of the camera and behind the scenes. It’s like a very large family, you know? Multigenerational even in certain departments.”

The show has been going since 1975 and Thompson holds it as a very special place and completely one of a kind, adding that growing close to creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels has been a “privilege” and that if they keep calling, he’s going to oblige.

“I’m not in a hurry to leave. I started working so young, I’ve kind of seen the industry before I got there. A lot of people don’t necessarily have that perspective.”

He says many comedians go on to SNL and work there until they get so popular they want to take on new opportunities. For Thompson, coming into the show when he was 25 with a decade of show business already under his belt meant he had a different outlook.

“I don’t necessarily need to leave the show to do all that stuff, for one, or just rush back into the lifestyle of auditioning or waiting for a project-by-project basis kind of existence.” For Thompson, SNL is an incredible place that he feels he can’t adequately put into words without it coming across as a cliché.

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So, in an industry that can often be so fleeting for so many, what’s the secret to Thompson’s long-lasting success? “I take it very seriously. I’m not out here trying to get in front of the camera just to be famous. That doesn’t interest me.” However, he says that one day, he does hope to win an Oscar, of course.

When you approach it like that, the actor says that people respect you and see what you’re truly about. The corporate side of showbiz is something that Thompson has always been interested in.

At the end of 2021, he and long-time friend John Ryan Jr launched their own production company, named Artists for Artists. As well as its production efforts, the company serves as an incubator for actors who want to create and produce their own material.

“I’ve always loved giving opportunities to others. I can only be in one place at a time, but if I’m a producer, I can put thousands of people to work. We have these dreams of wanting to be like Paramount or Sony Pictures one day. To just really be immersed in the business side of show business. You know, we’re fans first. So, we’re big fans of artists capitalizing on their talents as much as possible.”

Over the next couple of years, they have 30 different projects in the pipeline, spanning TV and movies, scripted and non-scripted. “It’s exciting because it has so many different arms that will hopefully be a very resourceful tool as far as helping other people professionalize their existence.”

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