The Grinch has always been in Kenan Thompson’s life. He can remember their first meeting, well before his record-breaking 16-season run on Saturday Night Live or even his early claim to comedy fame on millennial childhood touchstones like All That and Kenan & Kel. For Thompson recalls specifically when he first watched How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, the original 1966 animated adaptation with Boris Karloff’s narration, and then was promptly deceived.
“It was the cartoon, for sure,” Thompson tells Den of Geek about his introduction to Dr. Seuss’ Grinch character. “Coming on every single year and watching it, and then watching the weatherman lie about reindeer being on the weather radar.” It’s a funny line as an adult, but the actor muses he’ll never forget that bit of misdirection. Hence why it seems so serendipitous that years later, he’d be cast as the Grinch’s best friend.
Indeed, the Grinch is coming down the chimney again in Illumination Entertainment’s The Grinch, an animated (and feature-length) retelling of Dr. Seuss’ beloved children’s classic, now with celebrity voices like Benedict Cumberbatch as the Grinch, Pharrell Williams as the narrator, and Kenan Thompson as Bricklebaum, a new character who happens to be the Who of Whoville that lives closest to the Grinch. This also compels him to believe that he and the green one are super-BFFs. (The Grinch is less certain.)
It’s an amusing dynamic that allowed Thompson to lean into his most jovial and lighthearted inflections as a Christmastime obsessed Who; it also plays to his ability of sketching broad characters, which has been his passion for well over a decade on SNL. In our below interview, we discuss how Thompson’s own yuletide traditions informed Bricklebaum, as well as how the process of performing for animation differs from sketch comedy—and what those 16 seasons mean to him. We also consider the creation of a personal favorite, Lorenzo McIntosh, as well as his recollections of the week Kanye West circa 2018 came to 30 Rock.
I wanted to begin by saying I actually saw you, years ago, when you hosted Lewis Black’s comedy special at UNC, and I really enjoyed it. So I wanted to ask you is it true that you don’t generally consider yourself a standup comic? Because you seem to have a natural ease on the mic.
Kenan Thompson: Oh, thank you very much. Yeah, I’m not a traditional standup only because I don’t have a real standup set where I do a bunch of observances. Like I’m able to stand in front of people and talk, but I’ve never spent the time in the comedy clubs building the set, so I can’t really qualify myself as a standup. I respect those guys too much for that.
That makes sense, but I do think you tend to bring a natural humor to all venues, which I think leads us to The Grinch, because I wanted to know what the experience of acting in a sound booth is like versus in front of a camera, or a live audience.
Yeah, the animation experience is much more isolated because it’s just me and the script, and a picture of my character basically, and I’m just kind of doing it all in my head, especially once you start before the animation starts, so it’s a lot more imaginatory, which is fun. It kind of brings you back to your childhood and playing in your room with your toys or whatever, and just being in your imagination like that. But at the same time, it’s very tedious because you want to make sure the director’s happy, the producers are happy, the writer’s happy, and all these people when you first get started so you don’t have to redo everything. You know what I mean? Once you run down the road in one direction or one voice or whatever, you want to stick with that, because you’re going to have to re-record it over and over and over again as the animation comes along, or whatever. So if you’re going down the wrong road in the beginning it’s best to catch it early.
How much then do you improv, and how much have you created this Bricklebaum character and his sound and his kind of cadence when you get into the booth the first time?
For me I just sat on this voice based on what I heard, and they were fine with it, so we just ran with it that way, and it just didn’t do it a disservice, so we didn’t have to start over, you know what I mean? Like everything was just very jolly and everybody was fine with the tone that I was living in. All the other performances were kind of just falling into place, because it was just an excitable character. So as long as my energy was up, and I wasn’t too shouty or something, it seemed to work.
Do you remember what first introduced you to the Grinch as a story? Was it the book or the original cartoon?
It was the cartoon, for sure. Coming on every single year, and watching it, and then watching the weatherman lie about reindeer being on the weather radar.
Yeah, I fell for that one myself.
Yeah, I didn’t forget it.
But yeah, does it feel like your film is trying to maybe go back to the roots of that Boris Karloff animation as opposed to maybe what Jim Carrey did about 20 years ago?
Well this version is, yeah, it’s back to animation or whatever, and I lean towards that probably just because that’s what I grew up with. No disrespect to Jim Carrey and everybody that was involved in that one, Ron Howard on down. But that was the live-action version, and the live-action version of things are always more limited than animation, of course, because you can just take the reins off of gravity, or off of what Jim Carrey is feeling like doing that day. You know what I’m saying? Make whatever happen that you want.
In this film you play a very Christmas loving Who. Can you relate to that kind of yuletide passion?
A thousand percent. My yuletide starts at Halloween.
Have you begun your Christmas decorations today, or a festive sweater?
No, but we have them laid out, and we got it all scheduled out, like when we’re starting to pull out the sweaters that light up, that’s always like the last week before Christmas and stuff like that. But decorations and all that stuff has to wait for Thanksgiving. I respect the holidays, but lined up and ready.
You have a battle plan ready. Any chance you’re going to deck out your house like Bricklebaum? A Griswold Christmas?
I mean, I want to, but we always wind up going on hiatus like the week before, and I never really have time to get up on the roof and decorate it all like I want. And then my wife won’t let me buy something super-duper inflatable for the front yard, she just thinks that they’re kind of obnoxious, and I can’t be obnoxious enough, so I have to find some middle ground.
In the film, Bricklebaum calls the Grinch his best friend. Could you explain that relationship in the movie?
He’s dying for the Grinch to be his best friend, because I think he’s the closest Who that lives near the Grinch, I think, if I’m not mistaken. But he’s always inviting the Grinch over for a dinner or if hes having a party, or a Christmas party and he never comes, but he never gets discouraged. He’s just like, “One day you’re going to come around, and when you do, we’re going to be as happy as we’ve ever been.” So he’s just a very positive, glass is very full, kind of optimistic type of dude.
As a performer, how do you get into the head space of someone that jolly, that positive?
It’s more of a sound, and an inflection thing when I hear it. Whatever the wordage is that I need to read back, as long as it sounds like a happy person is reading it, and it ends on something, and it feels natural, and it doesn’t feel forced or whatever, that’s when I’m like, ‘Okay, I’m good with that take,’ or whatever. Like any kind of weird pitch or something like that, you could just feel it. It’s like nah, that’s awesome. Or that take felt perfect all the way through or whatever.
The Grinch, like so much else now, feels like a tradition at this point. Is it important to you for this film to pass that on to a next generation?
Oh, a thousand percent. I think traditions are super-important, they go hand in hand with history and culture. It’s like can’t know where you’re going, until you know where you’re coming from. [Laughs]
On SNL, we’re at 16 seasons. I know you’ve said you fear leaving SNL one day, but I’m curious, what do you imagine life would be like the day after SNL?
It will be fine, I’m sure, it’ll just be different, you know? Like, I’m a Taurus, we don’t really like change like that. I always compare—when I say I fear it, it’s only because when I see my friends that have graduated from the show come back, they always look like they miss it terribly, you know what I mean? And I’m not looking forward to that. I like being in the mix when I’m there.
I’ve loved a lot of your skits all this time you’ve been there, and I wanted to ask you about one of my favorites. Could you talk about the inspiration and how you developed and knew you could keep coming back to the “Scared Straight” skit?
Oh my God, thank you so much. I’m glad you like that one; I love that one. That was my first idea that I got on the show that came naturally just from me or whatever. And it was when Colin Jost first started and we were office mates, and Mike Shoemaker, who produces Seth Meyers’ show, put us together in an office and was like, “You two guys will work well together.”
We couldn’t be more different, but that’s the kind of thing that works over there when you take two super-duper different people with the same kind of sense of humor, but just from two super-different backgrounds and put them in the same environment, and just watch how all these bridges connect for each other based on an idea from the extreme background of my culture, or an idea from the extreme background of his culture, and figuring out a way to make those ideas appeal to pretty much anybody that’s watching it.
So I came to Colin, and I was like, “I don’t know if you’ve seen this documentary called Scared Straight, but I thought it was hilarious when I was growing up,” just because they were yelling and spitting in these kids’ faces and shit. And then he was like, “I think it’s brilliant but to make it a whole sketch it needs a turn,” and then he had the brilliant idea to make the turn be about I’m trying to teach them what not to do through ‘80s movies references. We both had a love for that, and that was a brilliant way to make it a well written piece, you know what I’m saying? We could do it over and over again. So that was his brilliance, awesome Harvard National Lampoon President, presidential writer. He’s just awesome.
Is it your goal when you’re doing that skit to try and break the other actors?
It definitely became that. When I first started, I just wanted the jokes to land and try to figure out if people are going to agree with this character or not, because I’m kind of just yelling the whole time or whatever, but that’s funny to me. But Lorne is always like, “It needs to go somewhere. You can’t just start at 10. You need to ramp up, otherwise you’re going to have a long experience of people not reacting to what you think they’re going to.” So we had to figure out smarter ways to get into it, so I could yell throughout it and have it still seems fresh or whatever. And then of course the game became, “Can we break Bill?” Which was a lot of fun.
“Scared Straight” is also a great venue to work with different hosts who can bring different energy. What do you think makes a great Saturday Night Live host?
It starts with willingness, the willingness to participate, the willingness to laugh at yourself, the willingness to contribute. Whether it be time or ideas, or other joke lines or anything like that. All those are pluses, you know what I mean? Anything that goes down the line of argumentative, or “I’m not feeling like doing that,” or “I’m tired,” just doesn’t help the situation. Like, we’re all tired, we’re all exhausted. It would help if we would just realize that we know we’re all in this together, and it’s for them. It’s their show, anyway. I’m talking about the host, it’s their week. It’s their incredible journey in their career that has gotten them to that point anyway, so we should be celebrating that, in my opinion.
Do you have a few favorite hosts you’ve worked with over the years?
Tons. I mean, I feel like the election year my two favorite hosts that year were Dave Chappelle and Tom Hanks. I just thought they were both incredible, but we just had an incredible year with Black Panther, as well. That was an incredible. I think that was the same year. Chadwick [Boseman] came, and Sterling [K. Brown] came, and it was just epic times because their movie was so huge and then we had both of those guys come through there and have great shows. It was just awesome.
Yeah, I really liked what you did with “Black Jeopardy” with Chadwick.
Yeah, exactly. Thank you.
But I am curious though, because what are your thoughts, I’m sure you’ve been asked before, but about specifically Kanye coming on only a few weeks ago, and claiming that people told him not to go out with that hat. Did you see him going out with that hat and any reaction from anyone?
I didn’t see it on that Saturday. I saw on Tuesday when we did promos. He was wearing a hat then and nobody stopped him from doing it. He even asked, “Should we do a take of the promos without the hat?” Like “[will] I make people mad?” And everybody was like, “It’s your choice.” You can do it or not, you can wear whatever you want. We’re not going to tell you what to wear or what not to wear, you know what I’m saying? It’s like we’re all adults. The message you send out is the message you’re responsible for; it’s not necessarily this show is responsible for the message that you’re sending out. So, no, I didn’t see any of that.
All right. Well, I did want to swing back though to you’ve had so many really great recurring characters over the years on SNL. Do you have a particular favorite?
Yeah, Lorenzo McIntosh is always one of my favorites. Diondre Cole from “What’s Up with That?” is a favorite. Big Papi, LaVar Ball. Any of them that’s received pretty well. “Black Jeopardy” is always great. We’ve got to make sure we come correct with those.
Thank you for speaking with me today.
Oh my pleasure, man. Thank you.
The Grinch tries to steal Christmas early in theaters on Nov. 9.