08 April 2023

What Is Up With That, Anyway?

A personal Saturday Night Live favorite is "What Up with That?" The sketch features Kenan Thompson as a flamboyant BET talk show host unable to stick to his already out-there format. This loveable pile of silliness is becoming vintage, having appeared not once but twelve times since 2009. On paper, the skit shouldn't have worked even once. On stage, it keeps me grinning, and this can teach something about writing funny stuff.

Yes, twelve times. No one can wear out a successful skit like SNL. If an idea catches fire, each next outing--and they'll come often--clings to the original set-up. "What Up with That" is no exception--with a sub-exception I'll get back to later. 

The "What Up with That" formula goes like so:
  1. A hype man announcer (various cast members) introduces host Diondre Cole (Thompson) and three celebrity guests. The hype man says we'll tackle the events of the day...with soul.
  2. Diondre breaks into the rousing theme song and keeps at it, crowding the camera and immediately undercutting any sense we'll be tackling serious topics. His house band includes a Kenny G knock-off (Giuseppe, played by Fred Armisen), back-up singers Pippa and Poppy (various cast members), and a beat boy forever busting the Running Man (Vance, played by Jason Sudeikis).  
  3. Diondre finally remembers to start the show. It doesn't take. He loses focus and relaunches the theme, ever more in gospel style. 
  4. An exhausted but beaming Diondre gets around to his guests. Legit celebrities, too. The third guest, until 2021 anyway, is invariably Lindsay Buckingham (Bill Hader). The bit goes that Buckingham has been booked, bumped, and re-booked on every show for twelve years--only again and again to get bumped for time. 
  5. No sooner does Guest #1 start plugging their stuff than the house drummer lures Diondre back into yet more theme song. Diondre brings out random freaky associates, including disco flutists and Europop acts and a sexed-up banjo player. The big number devolves into a mini-carnival.
  6. Predictably, Diondre runs out of time before getting back to his guests. Buckingham goes through the stages of irritation to good sport acceptance of yet another bumping. 
  7. The show closes to--wait for it--Deondre and his whole shebang grooving on the theme music.
Summarizing this gleeful mess doesn't do it justice. Here are a few prime examples:
SNL almost didn't run that first "What Up with That." Not everyone likes their humor this over the top. Hell, Diondre sails over any top and up past the stratosphere. Some folks may laugh, and some folks may change the channel. Diondre's lesson one for humor writers: Funny to me may not be funny to you. Accept that and plow toward your north star.

Which Thompson did. The skit was his idea, and he sold it to the SNL doubters. Thompson saw something the writers missed. Thompson saw Diondre would pop if only the actor fully committed. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Thompson explained how he understood Diondre Cole and what must've been his failed preacher backstory. Some part of Diondre might really want to talk issues. He won't because he just can't. He's there to put on his kind of extravaganza. The lesson here is, if you're going to go there on a character, go all the way. A half-hearted Diondre flops royally. 

Thompson has the skills to bring Diondre alive. He still needs a weird world to thrive inside. Smartly, the template surrounds him with complementary characters. The band's tireless groove echoes his endearing obsessions. The volume and ridiculousness of his walk-ons suggest his entourage is a non-stop spectacle. For a counterpoint, the guests are usually name actors or public figures playing themselves--and playing it straight. Their bewilderment of Diondre hogging the air time grounds the silliness.

I mentioned a sub-exception earlier. This skit did wear thin as SNL went to the "What Up with That" well a ton. I've never gotten tired of it, though, to include just now rewatching on YouTube. What keeps me laughing isn't that Diondre wastes the entire show rehashing his theme. It's how Diondre wastes it, how he can't help but be egged into it. Diondre can't stop, won't stop, and even has those walk-on interruptions ready off-stage to amp up the party. 

And look, I've run out of word count. 

We'll wrap with my main humor takeaway. I spent 700 words parsing through comic dynamics--and I did not make you laugh. Nothing kills humor like explanation. "What Up with That" never bothers to explain itself. The skit doubles and triples down on the premise, constantly asking but never answering the very question Diondre's spectacle presents: What is up with that, anyway?


  1. Kind of like the endless riffs on "More cow bell". After a while, you wince.

  2. I well remember What's Up. It's even funnier when you point out he might have been a failed preacher only to become a 12-year success in show business.

    My SNL favorite was Mr Subliminal, followed by any number of adverts. As you say, SNL tended to overly extend some comic series, but I was disappointed Mr Subliminal didn't add a few more shows.


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