Tracee Ellis Ross and Kenan Thompson Weigh in on the State of the Black Family Sitcom and Shepherding the Next Generation

Some people get upset when you toss around the world “icon” too freely, but “veteran” doesn’t seem strong enough to describe either Tracee Ellis Ross or Kenan Thompson.

Both have been comedy staples for decades: Ross spent eight years on “Girlfriends” before jumping onto ABC’s “Black-ish,” which is now another sitcom with an eight-season run and a show for which she has nabbed five lead comedy actress Emmy nominations. Meanwhile, Thompson was known for kids’ favorites “All That” and “Kenan & Kel” before joining “Saturday Night Live,” where he is now the longest-tenured cast member and for which he snapped up a music and lyrics Emmy in 2018. Now he pulls double duty on NBC’s late-night sketch series and his own eponymous sitcom on the same network and is seeing new Emmy noms for each (lead comedy actor for “Kenan,” supporting comedy actor for “SNL”).

Both are now also juggling multiple responsibilities as performers and producers, representing Black family sitcoms in a landscape where those experiences are still few and far between, and sharing their years of experience with new generations on their series.

Sounds pretty iconic to us, hence why Variety wanted to bring them together in conversation.

There are so many realities of family life your shows reflect, but changing children dynamics is one of the big ones. How does that affect your process?

Tracee Ellis Ross: We both have the benefit of working with really talented children, which I think is made a huge difference on my show, and I know, even watching your show, Kenan, sometimes I’m just like, “My goodness.”

Kenan Thompson: I feel like I’m in their way half the time. Chris Rock, when he was directing the original pilot, he kept asking us like, “Are you sure you want to have kids [on the show]?” Because it’s tough with the labor laws and having to go to school and your shooting day, especially when you’re shooting single-camera, it becomes about their timing, and it’s a real commitment. And I was like, “Yeah, that’s what the show is.” I was persistent about having not one but two girls; I wanted to have a new reflection of young talent, as well as us old folks doing a little dance. Especially once I saw them audition for the very first time; I watched their tape for two seconds and was like, “They’re superstars.”

Ross: I think it’s part of what lends itself to the dynamics of this kind of storytelling and really allows you to show what it’s like to pass on information — Is it tradition, is the culture, is it personal, is it race, is it identity? — particularly in the case of “Black-ish.” And when you get to see that played out through generations, it makes such a difference. I also have to say from a personal level, working with kids has been one of the most rewarding things about the show — watching them grow and blossom and become the people that they become. They all started as like stars — they were so talented from the start — but then you see their talent grow, you see their confidence grow, you see the influence that you have even though I take no credit for the kids that I work with — their parents have done incredible jobs and they’re also just incredible people. But you realize that being around kids as much as we are, who you are and what you say has an influence on them and you see it, and sometimes you hear it back. I wrote school letters and college entrance letters for the kids, and I don’t have children, so it’s very special. I have a lot of nieces and nephews and a lot of godchildren, but my TV kids hold a really special place in my heart.

Both of you have been in this business for a long time and have probably seen some bad behaviors on set and adopted by other actors. Do you feel a responsibility to mentor them so they have different experiences?

Ross: Because of how I was raised and then having brothers that are 15, 16 years younger than me, and being a Black person, I have always been very conscious of how I comport myself. And professionalism is something that I come from, and I think it’s incredibly important, and I do think that the atmosphere on set is something you create — it’s not a given. I have had the benefit of working on extraordinary productions where it is a fun place to work, where it’s also professional and work gets done, but that is an example that you set. And you can imagine what it would be like for young kids to start their career on sets where there’s bad behavior and we’ve all heard about it; I’m sure some of us have seen it.

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Tracee Ellis Ross (left, with Anthony Anderson) picked up her fifth Emmy nom for “Black-ish” this year. ABC

Thompson: Who are you looking at?

Ross: I’m not saying you, I just mean someone in the industry has obviously seen it, so you know it exists. And then also, we’re all human beings and there are days when you get to work at 6 o’clock in the morning and we do 24 episodes a season and there are good days and bad days. To me, the beauty of it is being able to say, “Yeah, it was a tough day.” And I’ve had some of those conversations with the kids, like, “That was a tough day yesterday. Thank you for being patient with me” or whatever that is. I think that’s the example of what it is to be a human being doing a job in a professional environment where the stakes are really high.

Thompson: I definitely just want to protect their childhood — I don’t want them to grow up too fast just because they’re in a professional setting or they’re having careers at a very young age. I want them to still have as much energy and be as loud and as annoying as they can without distracting from the job — allowing them to be their kid self because trying to tame all that energy is a waste of time. I definitely envy the amount of energy that those two girls exude in rehearsal even. Just when we’re waiting, in between that time where we’re getting set to shoot or whatever, they’re still [getting] laugh after laugh after laugh. It’s unreal. And the fact that they’re sisters, it just couldn’t be sweeter. So, I’m very protective of them having as happy a childhood as they can while they’re thrown into this whirlwind of an industry. I always want them to know we’re there to support them in a way, shape or form possible, but it is always a pleasure to just let them be. Kids are amazing with the things that they pick up on without even having to ask them, and that’s what we’ve been lucky enough to grab: a couple of girls that are really taking this whole thing very seriously.

Ross: It’s interesting, I’m thinking that sounds like [how] you would describe Anthony [Anderson] and I on set. The kids are like, “Can we focus please? Did you not hear the director say action!?”

Having such high energy and excitement in between takes can say volumes about the show. Tracee, was there something in Season 7 that ticked a new box for you — something that gave you that excitement because you felt like you were waiting to do it and now you got to?

Ross: I don’t know that I was waiting to tell a COVID story, but I have had the blessing — and Kenan you have tool you have and I have been in long-running situations and there’s something really special that happens. Obviously “SNL” is from a different perspective, but in that kind of creative environment, when you’re with the same people or in the same structure for a long period of time, the sense of safety that occurs allows you a freedom that I don’t know that I could have found any other way. Particularly with me and Anthony, I feel like I can do things and play in a way that I know I’m not going to fall and he knows he is not going to fall. There’s times when like, I’ll skip the line, he’ll say the line, a script supervisor will come over and we’re like, “Yeah we know but we just want to keep going.” We’re just dancing, and it’s the reason we’re going into Season 8 and I cannot wait to go back to work! I think the biggest thing for me last season, particularly with how scary it was — and I was one of those people who was deeply, deeply frightened by COVID — a lot of the safety that was already established, we notched that up to 150. And I don’t know that I could have done that and done the work that I was able to do if it was with a family that I was just meeting. But I felt so safe. So I think, for me, last season it was the freedom I felt within a really restrained environment to do what I love, joyfully.

Thompson: I think it shows. One of the conversations you had with your television son coming home from a party, that was not acting; it was so real. It was like two people that have known each other and loved each other for a long, long time trying to discuss logically what you could have been thinking about by putting us all at risk over a party or hanging out or whatever it was. It was probably one of the realest [scenes] I was watching.

Ross: Thank you. It’s very kind of you to say. Were you scared?

Thompson: I was scared, but we had already been in the “SNL” mix. We’d been in the protocol of testing and just daily, “Where was I at last night? worries and trying to stay in a bubble of sorts without going crazy. I was more so worried about how I was going to affect the getting to knowings of everybody that needed to be close, like the cast and the director — people that needed to huddle. We were able to do it with our protocols, but it was highly annoying, No.1, but very, very scary because we went through moments where people were falling by the wayside, like, “Oh snap, we have a new person. Why?” There were a lot of things going on, but we were just grateful, almost on a 12-hour reset basis for several months. We’d been sitting around for six months before “SNL” even came back. We shut down in March and everything went into the fucking hellfire, basically, and when they said we could go back to work, we were terrified but grateful. The second version of that was more like, “All right, this is an opportunity. This is the window where this can get done, the studio is behind it, we need to get it done right now.” It had been such a long journey and we had the cast and there were so many elements to getting everybody’s schedules right, it just felt like this was the window to do it, regardless of how scared we were. So, it was a lot, and we were definitely happy that we got it done. But everybody was so sad when those little girls actually cried for the first time for real because it was their last day. The older one is the sassy, tougher one; to see her in tears [was heartbreaking]. They were always clowning us for being old, so for them to have a real moment, it was unbelievable.

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Kenan Thompson (second from right with Vanessa Williams, Dani Lane and Dannah Lane) made it into a lead acting Emmy race for the first time with “Kenan.” Casey Durkin/NBC

Ross: That is a big part of working with children that we did not discuss: being clowned for being old is just a daily occurrence that you just have to get used to. The skin’s got to get thick. It’s really bad when you get to the place where you’re explaining to your TV child how cool you are. It is really hard on the soul.

Thompson: You never convince them that you are as cool as you were.

Ross: I’ve gone home with just a burn. It will just playback at home.

Thompson: I need to be with adults — real adults that know me and respect me,

Ross: And understand that I am cool! Yeah, very humbling.

What were the discussions like about bringing COVID into the stories? Obviously “Black-ish” did that and it gave you, Tracee, a chance to show Rainbow at work a bit more, but Kenan, why did you guys opt not to do it?

Thompson: For us it was just another deterrent that we didn’t want to have to push through because we already had a heavy sensation with [my character] being a widow. We didn’t want to make it too heavy and we also wanted to be optimistic of a world that we would be beyond those days as well. So, for a show starting off fresh with the choice, we were like, “Yeah, we’ll be in the post-COVID future.”

Ross: I think we made the choice because [my character] is a doctor — it was more around Bow being an anesthesiologist and the fact that during COVID even people that wouldn’t have been in ERs were ending up on the front lines. But we straddled it because how many scenes can you do in a mask? We did a couple around that but we let it go at a certain point. And I love anything that feels like a bit of a challenge and offers a little bit of some ridiculous physical thing. I’m like, “Bring it on.” And the same thing with a really real moment, which I feel like we earn on “Black-ish” — and you guys do, too. It’s just telling truth from a different perspective. I didn’t have much influence in it, but I loved it. I loved that scene [you referenced before, Kenan] so much, and it was so hard to be that upset at Marcus [Scribner]. He has such a sweet face, and when he looks like he’s done something wrong, Tracee was like, “Oh.”

Let’s go back for a second because Kenan, similar to what I asked Tracee about getting to tick a new box this season, you have played so many different characters on “Saturday Night Live,” was there something you still had been waiting to do that the new show allowed you to?

Thompson: I think I’m getting there. I think I am definitely in a better opportunity for that to happen. In a previous version of the show I was a real estate agent, and as hilarious as real estate is it doesn’t really give me like a chance to like have like a crazy character moment like “Martin” — some super physical moment or some kind of crazy idea performance wise as a performer. Our first season was definitely very establishing for a lot of story and character. And I’m a bigger fan of everybody else scoring because I feel like I’ll do my thing, but I’m always paying attention to make sure that everybody else is having beats, and then I’m waiting to explode — to naturally find a moment where it makes sense for my character to just go off the rails completely.

Ross: There’s nothing better than going off the rails. It’s an actor’s dream. As I explain to directors, you can always tell me to be smaller. “Just know I’m going to start at a 15; if you need an eight, just give me a gentle tap.”

Thompson: Otherwise I’m going to be hovering around a 15.

Ross: Yeah, and if you let me do too many takes at 15, just know we’re going to 30.

Looking at the general state of sitcoms on television, how do you feel about the amount of representation for Black families in that genre today?

Thompson: I think you have a lot of representations, but it’s a mixture between “Love & Hip Hop Atlanta” and “Love & Hip Hop New York” and artistic versions and actor versions of wanting to reflect the Black family. There’s a lot of different networks nowadays, so Tyler Perry might be busy at BET right now or other great writers may be busy at other networks. I don’t really know [the amount] exactly, but it is special when they do come around — when it’s Martin [Lawrence’s] time, when it’s Bernie Mac’s time, when it’s Jamie Foxx’s time. Great shows usually come out of when it’s been massaged or when it’s somebody’s time. I’ve been around the development cycle three different times with different ideas, but this is the one that made sense.

Ross: It’s a beautiful story. That hug that happens in the pilot episode — when you see all these men hugging these two girls, there’s something really special about that story being told, which is similar to what I felt when “Black-ish” first started. But when you were naming that, I was like, “Martin, Bernie, Chris Rock, it’s all men.” Sounds like there’s a little bit of space for a Black female-led family.

Thompson: Absolutely. With the time to reflect, I wish it wasn’t in such a corrective nature. But we do have “Insecure” and “A Black Lady Sketch Show” and Gina Yashere’s show [“Bob Hearts Abishola”]. But where is the Black lady “Murphy Brown?” I feel you.

Ross: One of the things that’s been so special on “Black-ish” has been being able to see an American family that is Black — not that happens to be Black — where we are dealing with all of the things that any family is walking through but through the lens, the face, the beingness, the experience and the specificity of what it is to be a Black person in America. That’s the DNA of “Black-ish” [and] what we pull apart because it’s all these things are living on the wallpaper of our lives, that we all just “are” with because they’re there, and we take it off the wall, throw it in the middle of the kitchen floor and see how this family’s going respond to it. It’s been a really exciting journey expanding this idea of what a TV woman is — not a TV wife, not a sitcom wife, but a TV woman. So, even if the story is not told through my eyes, every time I’m on screen, we know that this is a woman whose life is happening elsewhere and that every point of view that I have is not based on [Anthony Anderson’s character Dre]. And that’s what you’re doing, Kenan: you’re building small people — tiny humans — that can grow up to be those kinds of women. When “Mixed-ish” was on, it was about, “What was the family that made this kind of woman that is Bow Johnson? Where did she come from?” I really think about that: whenever I make choices, I think about, “Does this work for my character, does this work for the scene, and then how does this look in the context of television?” And I do that mostly because there are still not enough images of Black women on television [and] I feel one scene can actually start to create a specific idea. I try and be really expansive in the choices I make. I joke about it all the time, but I like saying it over and over again [that] I made the phrase at work, “Do I have to be doing this lady chore? Why doesn’t Anthony chop and I walk in from work?” If it doesn’t make a difference to the scene, it changes what our wallpaper looks like as people and how we assume roles. I think all that stuff matters. We know that culture influences policy and changes how we see each other; the expansiveness comes from what entertainment gives us. It’s so influential.

A lot of that sounds like it comes from you wearing the producer hat. For both of you, how do you feel having that role affects the things you’re thinking about on set and the way you are able to express yourself and be heard?

Thompson: Anytime like I feel like this is a moment that is gonna reflect back on the community directly, it’s like, “Are we getting this right?” Because if we get it wrong, there’s a whole lot of comments I’m not really trying to read or just engagements from angry people that I’m going to have to deal with on top of the normal, every now and again, troll just for the sake of trolling. If I’m going to open myself up to actual trolling like that, I’m going to be pissed.

Ross: I wasn’t a producer on “Girlfriends” and I used my voice in the same way. I don’t think they had to listen to me, I don’t think they have to listen to me now, but I’ll tell you this: what makes people listen [is] a really good argument. I really do like to speak up. Sure, I have more clout as a producer, but I think really it has more to do with the point of view and the argument. My mom always says, “Why do I have to call it the argument — call it my point.” So, when the point has credence to it, then sometimes it’s easier to be listened to.

How are you making decisions about what to attach yourself as a producer to and how much to exert yourself in that role once you’re there?

Ross: I absolutely am looking for projects that are expanding how we see each other and sharing different kinds of narratives. The place for me where being a producer has been the most influential is behind the scenes — all of the different places for hiring and where money is spent. Having the producer [title] has given me the courage, and given me the ability to say, “No, I actually am going to say something about that. How much is she getting paid? She needs to be getting the same that he’s getting paid” or “Who are we hiring? Let’s look at the department heads across the board. What social media company are we hiring? Let’s make sure that it is a social media company that’s run by women or people of color.” It does give me the voice and the power to be able to speak up in that way and for that I’m really grateful.

Thompson: For me, I’m always looking for what’s going to sell. If we can send a message, then that’s icing on the cake. [Laughs.] You said everything that I could have possibly said on that, so you know what I mean. Of course we’re looking for a balancing of the scales across the board. We’re definitely trying to pay as much attention to that as possible. As my show goes along, that’s going to be more of a conversation: who all is getting an equal version of representation here on a pay scale, it’s a real thing.