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Why SNL Star Kenan Thompson Got a ‘Real Job’ at Old Navy


Observatory, the creatives behind the clothing brand’s new content series, directed by Jason Woliner, speak to LBB’s Ben Conway about Kenan’s immature internship

Why SNL Star Kenan Thompson Got a ‘Real Job’ at Old Navy

What would happen if Saturday Night Live’s Kenan Thompson was let go? Would he write an autobiography? Enjoy an early retirement? Or… become an intern? Well, that’s the exact premise of this new content series from clothing retailer Old Navy - created with LA-based agency Observatory and Broadway Video, SNL creator Lorne Michaels’ production company. As well as the iconic late-night sketch show, Broadway Video is behind some of television’s most celebrated series - ‘The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon’, ‘30 Rock’ and ‘Portlandia’ - not to mention classic comedies for the big screen, such as ‘Wayne’s World’ and ‘Mean Girls’.

Old Navy’s ‘Lil Interns’ series puts the cat among the pigeons, or should we say, the ‘big intern’ among the ‘lil interns’ - as Kenan attends lectures and activities from real Old Navy executives alongside a class of child interns. Full of juvenile charm, hilarious improvised moments and a little bit of chaos, the series takes the viewer through Old Navy’s departments, from finance to design, marketing and retail - teaching you about the brand’s processes while antics ensue. Kenan may be smarter than a ten-year-old, but he’s seemingly just as immature!  

To discuss how this branded series came to be, the benefits of long-form content in the commercial world and why it’s important to give child actors freedom (even if that means lots of poop jokes), LBB’s Ben Conway spoke with creatives and leaders from Observatory, Old Navy and Broadway Video. 

From the agency side at Observatory, Ben spoke with Linda Knight, president and CCO; Hunter Hall, creative director; Schuyler Hunt, associate creative director (ACD) and copywriter; and Megan Nakazawa, ACD and art director. Contributing from Old Navy is Julie Luker, senior director of brand engagement, and from Broadway Video is its president, Britta von Schoeler.

LBB> How did this project come about? Have you worked with Old Navy before? What was the brief for this campaign like?

Linda (Observatory)> Old Navy was looking to develop an entertainment property that offered content that people would seek out, regardless of their affiliation with the brand. We presented them with a ‘book of ideas’ which included short and long-form episodic series, as well as experiential and other ideas. The idea of a show about ‘Lil Interns’ stood out from the beginning.

We have a history with Old Navy, who we first worked with in 2014 to create a back-to-school campaign called ‘Unlimited’ - which was nominated for an Emmy - and have continued to work with the brand on several different projects throughout the years.

Julie (Old Navy)> When we wanted to develop an entertainment property, Observatory immediately came to mind as disruptors and pioneers in the brand-produced content space.

Linda (Observatory)> Brands are ultimately looking to make real connections with people. Offering entertainment content - whether it be a series, a movie, or even an audio documentary - is not only a powerful way for brands to show their personality and values, but it offers something of value to the viewer. 

LBB> What is there to consider when doing a long-form content series? How is your pre-production/creative process different from a campaign for TV/OOH etc.?

Hunter (Observatory)> This project took over a year from its inception to completion, which is much longer than a typical ad production. Because we intentionally wanted ‘Lil Interns’ to feel like a show, we chose Broadway Video and Jason Woliner as our entertainment production partners. It was a great collaboration throughout the entire process.

Schuyler (Observatory)> Working with partners like Broadway Video means collaborating with entertainment experts who have been making hilarious shows and films for decades - it's great to collaborate with and learn from the best of the best.

Linda (Observatory)> Once we landed on the concept, our creative team led the process and collaborated with world-class TV writers like Claire Friedman and Sophie Santos. Otherwise, it is very similar to other creative and production processes; we came up with the concept, worked with our clients, talked to partners, and oversaw the production.

Megan (Observatory)> There was also this wild card element of creating a rough narrative framework for Kenan and the 12 kids to improvise [within]. With this kind of content, you need to give more consideration to the characters' dynamics, which we had to observe and react to in real time during the shoot.

LBB> Why was Kenan Thompson selected as the person to front the campaign? With his SNL pedigree, how involved did he get in the creative process behind the sketches?

Hunter (Observatory)> Kenan Thompson has been one of America’s favourite comedic actors and sketch performers for two decades. He has the chops to handle both scripted material and improv in the moment. We discussed many comedians for our ‘big intern’ role, but we were all super excited about Kenan because he’s a big kid at heart - and we knew he’d be a perfect fit. Even when he’s throwing tantrums, Kenan is hilarious and highly likeable. You often find yourself rooting for him and his crazy antics.

Schuyler (Observatory)> Some of the best moments in the series are from Kenan making it his own thing. He is a gracious actor, and his experience working with kids and non-actors was tremendously helpful on set. He was very present and could redirect the kids’ energy into pure comedy.

LBB> Did it take a lot of persuading to get the Old Navy executives to star in the series? How important was this layer of authenticity to the overall series?

Linda (Observatory)> We knew we had to use real employees because we needed it to feel authentic. Hats off to Old Navy for leaning into this from the beginning and helping us cast the employees who guided and mentored our ‘Lil Interns’. 

Julie (Old Navy)> All of our employees started out a bit intimidated at the idea of being on camera with Kenan, but he made them quickly feel at ease. By the end of it, they were having a blast. After we wrapped filming, Kenan sent a doughnut truck to the office as a thank-you. He was a class act.

LBB> Why was Jason Woliner chosen to direct the series? What does he bring to the production?

Schuyler (Observatory)> We looked at a list of hilarious directors with amazing reels, but with Jason’s experience in the semi-scripted worlds of ‘Borat Subsequent Moviefilm’, ‘Nathan For You’, and ‘Dinner with Friends with Brett Gelman and Friends’, we had an expert at combining scripted and unscripted humour. 

Linda (Observatory)> Jason does what we set out to do, capture real moments with real people and make them funny. We had a script, but we also wanted improv and natural reactions. Not only is Jason a talented writer/director, but he’s honestly the nicest guy to work with.

Britta (Broadway Video)> We love to work with brands - especially when they have a great sense of humour. Luckily, our partners recognise comedy that successfully connects them with their target audiences in an authentic way.

LBB> They say you shouldn’t work with children or animals - but these kids really brought the laughs and charm to this series. How much freedom did the Lil Interns have to… well, be kids and improvise? How was the process of writing for them?

Linda (Observatory)> The kids had full freedom. We wanted this to feel real and somewhat unscripted, so we let them react naturally to everything. Of course, there are some lines that we could have never planned for (many involving poop jokes), and then we also shot some scripted responses.

Britta (Broadway Video)> We wanted to capture the kids being themselves rather than delivering canned lines, so we scripted scenarios that would set them up for funny verbal and physical responses. But even so, we got some surprising moments, like their fascination with undressed mannequins. Kenan and our director, Jason Woliner - who was a child actor himself - were able to bring out the best in the kids. They did a lot of wrangling throughout the week.

Megan (Observatory)> Watching the kids was a pretty funny reminder that, as people, we all have our days. From a meltdown or two to the zoomies, to a kid going from stoic in one day to falling off his chair three times in one scene the next day, chaos is very human, no matter your age.

LBB> What are some of your favourite jokes and moments from the series and why?

Julie (Old Navy)> We have so many favourite moments that we actually had a small run of mugs featuring two of our favourite series quotes: ‘Not caring is one of my best attributes’ and ‘when do we get paid?’ made. We also released a collection of GIFs so that fans can share their favourite moments and quotes.  

Hunter (Observatory)> ‘Archie-nemesis’ makes me laugh every time. That was a line Schuyler threw out on set. I loved the kids’ natural exploration and nervous laughter while undressing the mannequins. Kenan chimes in, ‘Well, that got explicit fast.’ That was all unscripted, and I loved that we had the flexibility to capture it as it unravelled naturally.

Schuyler (Observatory)> Zaria’s reply to Kenan aggressively asking, ‘Do you have parents?’ is a drawn-out and conflicted ‘ye……sssss?’. She absolutely has lovely parents who were on set with her, but Zaria was given no instruction on how to react. She created that funny moment on her own.

Megan (Observatory)> As a creative, I love the trend funnel bit in ‘Design’. Hayden in ‘Finance’ was such an incredible sport and a complete natural with his comedic timing. Avery was a personal favourite of mine. He is a total agent of chaos, and I couldn’t get enough of his rambling. Xavier’s naturally unimpressed reaction to Kenan when we shot ‘Peer Reviews’ was also incredible.

LBB> What was the hardest challenge you faced on this campaign, and how did you overcome it?

Hunter (Observatory)> The biggest challenge was ensuring we delivered the most entertaining show people would want to watch and share. This type of content has to live in the entertainment world, and we must be as good as things in that world. So we’d often simply check ourselves by asking, ‘Yeah…but is it funny?’.

Megan (Observatory)> Being on set was incredibly fun, but the edit was more challenging. Luckily, we tracked everything we captured on set, thinking about how certain bits would come to life during post-production. Not everything we shot was linear or planned, so we spent time crafting the final cuts with our partners at Broadway Video and being ruthless by removing anything that wasn’t serving the goal of making this as entertaining and funny as possible. 

LBB> Do you see long-form and non-traditional content growing in popularity? How do you do it well, and what should brands avoid?

Linda (Observatory)> Content consumption is up in every demographic, in every region, and on every type of device in the world. But ad avoidance is also up. Consumers are savvy and will know if you create a commercial campaign pretending to be an entertainment series. So you’ve got to commit to whatever you’re doing…and do it well.


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Observatory, Wed, 18 Jan 2023 15:22:00 GMT