Kenan Thompson On Origins of SNL’s Scared Straight Sketch
Kenan Thompson breaks down creating Lorenzo McIntosh in Saturday Night Live's "Scared Straight" sketch and why it's one of his favorites.
“Scared Straight” is special for those who recall the first time Kenan Thompson debuted his soon-to-be recurring character, Lorenzo McIntosh. Committed to a volume of 10 and then raising it from there, Lorenzo was an homage (or cackling caricature) of the type of documentaries that aired on 1970s television with the most earnest of intentions—to scare teenagers away from crime—and were awarded Oscars for their efforts. Yet to Saturday Night Live viewers, it quickly became the recurring sketch in which Thompson and SNL hosts as wildly different as Tracy Morgan, Betty White, and Charles Barkley tried to break other castmates (most notably Bill Hader) while screaming the plots of 1980s and ‘90s movies.
When we caught up with Thompson last week, he admitted to having a special affinity for Lorenzo McIntosh, as he considers the character and sketch the first recurring bit that came naturally from his own imagination, as well as that of future SNL co-head writer, Colin Jost.
“I love that one,” Thompson tells us of the popular sketch. “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. 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.”
So it was in 2008 when Thompson pitched the idea of doing a riff on the 1978 documentary Scared Straight.
“I thought it was hilarious when I was growing up just because they were yelling and spitting in these kids’ face and shit,” Thompson says. “And then [Jost] 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… We could do it over and over again.”
further reading: The 8 Best Hosts in SNL History
When I ask if the goal was always to make it about cracking up the other castmates in the sketch, Thompson says with a smile that it eventually 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, but that’s funny to me. But Lorne [Michaels] 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.”
Indeed, the sketch is still a lot of fun. Below is a version of it with Taylor Swift as Skeet Devlin.
When we sat down with Thompson, it was to discuss his new role in Illumination Entertainments’ reimagining of The Grinch. We will have that full interview tomorrow, including of Thompson’s thoughts on the best hosts of SNL he’s worked with, and his experience on his record-breaking 16th season, including the lead-up to Kanye West’s now legendary appearance in the season premiere.
David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.