Chris Redd was already a successful stand-up comedian and TV actor before he got cast on Saturday Night Live. So when Lorne Michaels asked him to costar on SNL-veteran Kenan Thompson’s new self-titled single-camera sitcom, Redd was good and ready to fly back and forth across the country every week in the middle of a pandemic for a second demanding job. And just last week, it was announced that Redd would be joining a third Lorne Michaels–produced comedy on the network, Bust Down, about bored casino workers in Middle America.
On Kenan, airing Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m./7:30 p.m. CT on NBC and streaming on Peacock, Redd plays Gary, Kenan’s live wire and very single brother. Kenan (the character) is a successful morning-show host, self-help author, and father of two daughters who has recently lost his wife. He’s living with his kooky white father-in-law, played by Don Johnson—and despite how much he typically has it together, he’s falling apart. Gary, by contrast, is gleefully shallow and childish, and Redd plays him with a hilariously shifty-eyed unpredictability.
Vanity Fair spoke to Redd over Zoom about getting into character as a “confident dummy,” juggling two prime-time shows, staying funny during the pandemic, and what he’s learned from sketch-comedy legend Thompson.
Vanity Fair: Kenan takes an unexpected angle on the sitcom form; I didn’t know what to expect going in, especially because I haven’t watched a network show in awhile. Waiting for a new episode each week—turns out that’s an exciting way to watch TV.
Chris Redd: I think it’s what excites me about it a lot too. And it’s crazy, because I want everybody to see it all [at once], because I’ve been streaming like crazy. But it’s interesting to get one episode a week again. It brings the fun back.
And you’re shooting right now, in the middle of a pandemic. What has it been like to be in that bubble?
Well, the show is a single cam, so there’s not much audience. But then for the morning-show stuff [Thompson’s character is a TV host], there’s a tested audience. So everybody goes through the same procedures. We come in here with all the shields and the masks and all of that. And Cinnamon Toast Crunch [holds up a box of cereal], which has nothing to do with it. It’s just really tough to get into the building with any sniffles or cold or coughs of any kind.
You have to hide that stuff.
I swear, I ate a cookie the other day—and I get tested every day—and the cookie got caught in my throat, and I coughed twice. Somebody was like, “You got it?” And I was like, “That’s not fair.” Sometimes you got something in your throat, man. It ain’t got to be ’rona every time.
And on top of that, you’re shooting two shows on opposite sides of the country. Usually, people will have to leave SNL to establish themselves beyond it. What has it been like to do both at the same time?
It’s been wild, it’s exciting. I’ve been toying at my comedy career for about 12 years doing stand-up. Since stand-up is not around right now for me to do safely, it does kind of feed that bug of [wanting to] jet-set everywhere. It is a little crazy, because I like SNL when you’re able to be there all week and just cultivate ideas with the hosts and with all your friends and then kind of build it.
But there’s still something really special about being able to come in on the night [of the show] and have to just know what you’re doing and get to it. It’s exciting. I love it. And I’m not done with sketch. My parents always told me, don’t leave a job until you have another job. Then I told myself, I don’t leave a job until I’m ready to leave the job. I want all the jobs. So I’m just trying to get all the damn jobs.
Yeah, be greedy. That’s good.
Hey, man, I was broke all through my 20s. I didn’t have a real money job until I was 31 years old. I want all of the jobs.
I was excited to see you in Kenan because I love the various roles that you take on at SNL. Especially the roles where you seem to be playing an innocent character, then there’s something strange that comes out of left field.
Yeah. I love playing distinct weirdos, very confident dummies. Because no matter how dumb you are, there’s an intelligence to everybody. And I just like finding that little line and walking it. Gary is really energetic and just really tries to sell his whole thing all of the time. But at the heart of it, he’s loyal and he cares about his brothers. I like just being a loose cannon, man. It’s a real fun place to be. They always told me I shouldn’t do that when I was in school, and now look at y’all. Wrong as hell.
Kenan’s character is this very accomplished, even-keeled person who’s going through his own struggles. And Gary’s always just crossing the line of appropriateness. How do you approach striking that tone, and how do you play off of the other actors?
It’s easy. Because you find things that people love to play with, and the chemistry with the whole cast just kind of hit immediately, which was beautiful. With me and Kenan specifically, we’ve been playing and riffing with each other for years now. We just have a shorthand with comedy. We’re both willing to go anywhere with a riff. So we just like to find the funny and the rhythm in it.
On set, I’m always running around joking. I stay on, and stay sharp, because I’m tired. So if I stop or I sit down too long, I’m going to go to bed…. It’s the stand-up in me—I like to figure out what makes people laugh, what makes people tick. And I try to hone in on that and keep it playful and keep things fun…. It’s like a big old playground with masks, you know?
And you’re working with children, as well. I feel like children are so honest. They can’t really fake it.
Oh, honest. Cannot fake it at all. Man, I come from a huge family. My family is like 200-plus of us from the South. So, I’m like a big kid when they come around, my little play-nieces [actors Dannah Lane and Dani Lane]. They’re my real nieces now, I told them. And they’re like, “Well, okay. But I…” I love them, man. They’re so smart. They’re little stars.
I know that this project’s cast went through a lot of iterations, which is pretty common. When did you get introduced to it, and how?
It was the Eddie Murphy show, SNL, and Lorne had called me up to his office. So I’m already having the best week of my life, since my favorite comic who got me into comedy is coming back [to SNL]. And I’m sitting there with Lorne and he’s like, “Hey, we’re doing the Kenan show and we’d like you to play his brother. Would you like to do that?” And you’re talking about one of my best friends at the show, you know what I’m saying?
I’m like, “Hey, hell yeah. Yes, I would like to play his brother. Yes, that would be fun.” I didn’t even read the script, nothing. It didn’t matter—it was Kenan. Kenan deserves a show. Kenan should have been a show. If I could be a part of that, I’m going to be a part of that. And then I read the script and it was really good, and the whole cast was amazing. It was a no-brainer for me, for real.
We could’ve been doing anything. We could’ve been doing a prank show. I wouldn’t have liked it as much as this though. I would’ve been like, “Damn, you owe me for this prank show.”
I imagine Kenan probably mentors a lot of people on the show, since he’s been around for so long. But specifically, what is your relationship like with him?
It’s a big brother relationship. I’m a big brother in real life and I have a big sister, but I’ve never had a big brother before. And it’s just kind of like that. I think he’s a big brother to a lot of us. He’s always the calming presence when everything gets really hectic. And the man has kids in the family at home. My anxiety would be going crazy; I’d be stressed out. And I look at Kenan just chilling. And I’m thinking, if he’s chill, he work where I work, and he got kids, I think things will be alright. \
He’s just so comfortable. He’s been doing it a long time, and there’s little tricks of the trade that you pick up. You can just learn by being in his presence.
Another interesting dynamic is between you and Don Johnson, who plays Kenan’s father-in-law. You’re playing vastly different people, and he has his own very specific energy.
First of all, [I’m a] huge fan of Don Johnson. So when I’m seeing him, I’m like, Miami Vice, Knives Out, Nash, everything. I was so excited. And then the chemistry between us was just immediate…. We have a very open, very communal way of bringing each other up and just continuing to build on ideas and riff.
And he just jumped right in and fit right in. I mean, at times, I don’t even think he knows how funny he is. Because we’ll do a take and it’ll be hilarious. And then he’ll be like, “I don’t know about that.” I’m like, “No, man, that was it right there.” And it’s so cool to see somebody find what they really do well in the comedy realm, especially a legend like that. So, it’s cool, man. We hit the ground running and haven’t stopped ever since.
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