This year marks the 21st anniversary of the classic Nickelodeon film Good Burger, starring Kenan Thompson and Kel Mitchell. The film has endured since its release in 1997 among millennials and has become a cultural touchstone. In fact, there’s probably not a 20 or 30-something in America who can’t tell you their favorite moment from Good Burger.
The film’s plot is simple enough: Kenan’s character, Dexter Reed, has to work over the summer to pay for the damages he incurred after wrecking his teacher’s car. He takes a job at Good Burger—a homey-yet-dysfunctional fast food restaurant—and instantly gets more than he bargained for in the form of Kel ’s character, Ed. Ed is easily Good Burger’s worst employee, but he’s also one who has the most heart. The combination of Ed’s naive sweetness and Dexter’s cunning lead the two on an adventure that saves Good Burger from a decline in business while helping eliminate its competitor, Mondo Burger.
While the plot is full of adventure for any young person, the real magic of the film’s success lies in Kenan and Kel’s comedic chemistry. Arguably, Good Burger would have only been just OK with any other duo. But with Kenan and Kel, the film became part of the zenith of Nickelodeon’s vice grip on ‘90s youth while cementing the two as one of the best comedic duos of the decade, if not the 20th century. It also gave the two bragging rights for having the most iconic friendship of the decade. Their secret ingredient to it all is a genuine friendship that made their talent sparkle even brighter.
A Tale of Two Comedians
In 1993, the two instantly struck up a friendship after being cast for All That. Both Kenan and Kel talked about this in Entertainment Weekly’s 20-year retrospective of the duo’s Nickelodeon show, Kenan & Kel. “I think we just had very similar experiences in life like he happened to be from Chicago, and I’m from Atlanta, but most black families are pretty much the same, like very close and fearful of our five-foot mothers and s**t like that,” Kenan remarked. “We both have very similar taste in comedy, even though his is more physical and mine is a little more standing around-ish.” He said that it was during an ad-libbing session for their “Mavis and Clavis” skit—a sketch that features the two portraying crotchety old men—that they both realized they had something unique. “It all happened pretty much the first day because that was when we were like, ‘Oh, we’re the same dude.'”
In hindsight, their natural ability to riff off of one another is probably why their legacy has endured beyond their split and eventual reconciliation. It’s also why people desperately want to see the duo back together. When fans do get that chance to see them in the same room, such as when the two reunited on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, fans usually go wild with nostalgic glee.
Kenan and Kel’s friendship also seemed accessible to their fans. It was as if we were all friends with them, witnessing their dynamic play out on screen in Kenan & Kel and Good Burger. These were two guys who were our contemporaries and with whom we felt like we could hang out. It felt like they understood us because they were growing up at the same time we were. The only difference is that they were growing up in the limelight, entertaining us. Kenan and Kel could have easily been unrelatable because of their stardom at such a young age, but, instead, they acted like the kids next door. The cherry on top was that it felt like they were inviting us along for the ride.
There is also an absurdity to the fact that they were child stars. In general, being a child star means your everyday life is filled with surrealism because of the fame and fortune that filters everything you do. But maybe Kenan and Kel could handle the fame because the way in which they processed life through comedy was, indeed, also absurd.
Wacky by Design
With Kenan and Kel’s humor, a trip to the realm of the absurd was and is almost always guaranteed. This is particularly true with Kenan, who has had specific on-brand absurdism since his All That days. How else can you describe Pierre Escargot, a French guy in a yellow raincoat and hat who sits in a bathtub reciting nonsensical French sentences? Or “Cooking with Randy and Mandy,” which features Kenan and Angelique Bates as the hosts of a public access cooking show who do nothing but oversaturate dishes with chocolate? Or Baggin’ Saggin Barry, a character who has everything his high school classmates could ask for in his vast magical pants? The skit gets wilder when Barry is challenged by Baggin’ Saggin Mary (Alisa Reyes), who can pull out even more stuff from her pants. It’s only with the help of old man Clavis (one of Kel’s recurring All That characters) that Barry realizes he can beat Mary by pulling none other than Abraham Lincoln out of his pants.
Of course, there is the fact that a lot of children’s programming is absurd in ways like this. For example, H.R. Pufnstuf and Fraggle Rock are nothing but safe absurdity, where the world around characters is continuously vacillating between the believable and “what exactly is happening right now?” Even something as simplistic and gentle as Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood dabbles in absurdity through the magic of imagination. When he takes his viewers to the Land of Make Believe, tigers talk and wear watches, and a trolley can communicate by the dinging of its bell. Nickelodeon cartoons of the ’90s and early 2000’s like Aaahh!!! Real Monsters, Rugrats and Spongebob Squarepants are other great examples of children’s programming near-obsession with varying levels of absurdity as a perpetual state, not just a single device.
But what is the reason children’s programming so often dives into absurdity? The answer may lie in the fact that being a kid, in general, is such an absurd phase of life. Children are at that moment when anything seems possible, and your imagination feels as real as the sunshine on your face. Nickelodeon embraced this fuzzy area of life in all of its programming. And, when it came to on-air talent like the All That cast, the network made sure to nurture these child stars’ interest in exploring what it meant to be a kid.
That sense of exploring life through a kaleidoscopic lens is something Kenan has kept alive, even through his work on SNL. While his most mainstream and recurring skit is “Black Jeopardy,” the skit that’s the funniest and most psychedelic is “What’s Up With That,” in which he plays Diondre Cole, a TV show host who’s a cross between old-school Rev. Al Sharpton and a 1970s lounge singer. Cole’s gimmick is to his guests as a built-in audience for his increasingly lavish stage shenanigans.
“It’s a skit that’s begging you not to ask questions. If you’re willing to go with it, ‘What’s Up With That’ will lead you into the abyss of random,” Rembert Browne wrote, at the new defunct Grantland, in 2014.
“Like the time Paul Brittain and Abby Elliot came out as Vili Fualaau and Mary Kay Letourneau. Or when Zach Galifianakis was introduced as ‘the ambidextrous disco flute player R.J. Sizzle and then did a flute solo in a pantsuit. Or when Kristen Wiig came out as Picabo Street. Or Bryan Cranston and Jay Pharoah came out as sex funk duo Doo Doo Man and Squiggy. And yes, behind them, that is Morgan Freeman and Ernest Borgnine.”
Even though Kenan has made a name for himself nowadays on SNL as a master of the absurd, Kel also is proficient in making the ludicrous fun, just like how Nickelodeon encouraged. Take, for example, his “Repairman” skits, in which the titular character is a child-safe, bizarro take on the already-bizarre Fire Marshal Bill character created by Jim Carrey on In Living Color.
The “Good Burger” skits themselves show Kel flexing his absurdist muscles. As a character, Ed is a strange combination of tropes. He talks like a ‘90s surfer stereotype, has catchphrases to rival Family Matters’ Steve Urkel, understands directions in the same vein as literary character Amelia Bedelia and has a box-braid bob like Jada Pinkett Smith in Set It Off. Ed’s actions are also just as weird: he never gets orders right, gives poor customer service and only knows the lyrics to one song: “I’m a dude, he’s a dude, she’s a dude, ‘cause we’re all dudes, hey!”
Fast Laughs, Not So Fast Food
Elements of Kenan and Kel’s trips to the absurd can be seen throughout Good Burger. The amount of celebrity cameos alone is a start. Would you typically expect for legends like Parliament Funkadelic’s George Clinton, Sinbad, Abe Vigoda, Carmen Electra and Shaquille O’Neal to be in a kids film? Okay, except for Shaq, who probably still hadn’t lived down 1996’s Kazaam by the time Good Burger rolled around. Children’s movies aren’t averse to having cameos, such as the Michael Jordan-led Space Jam, which also featured Larry Bird, Charles Barkley and Bill Murray among its star cameos. But what’s truly absurd about Good Burger’s cameos is the random assortment of stars it enlisted: a funk legend, a comedian, a dramatic actor from The Godfather, a Baywatch sex-symbol icon and a basketball star. Somehow, they all agreed to be in a Nickelodeon film about a bumbling fast food employee who dreams about flying with talking burgers.
Vigoda and Sinbad’s parts are probably the most incredible since their roles weren’t cameos in the literal sense. Vigoda played one of Ed and Dexter’s co-workers, Otis. He gets locked in the mental hospital with them because he tried to stop Mondo Burger from poisoning Good Burger’s money-maker, Ed’s Secret Sauce. Sinbad, on the other hand, played Mr. Wheat. Dexter’s high school teacher, Wheat still dresses as if it’s 1975, complete with a patchwork suit and afro. Mr. Wheat is the reason Dexter’s working at Good Burger; while enjoying his summer vacation, Dexter accidentally totals Mr. Wheat’s car, and now Dexter has to spend his entire summer working to pay it off.
Good Burger’s star lineup gets even more absurd looking back on the film 25 years later. For instance, did you know Linda Cardellini of Legally Blonde, Mad Men and Marvel fame, was in this film? If you think back hard enough, you’ll remember seeing her in one of the best scenes of the film involving Dexter and Ed breaking out of the mental hospital. Her character, a psychiatric hospital patient named Heather, is not only a small role but in today’s climate, quite problematic in its showcase of mental illness. But it’s a cameo that can make the film’s now-adult fans give a double take.
In fact, the entire mental hospital breakout scene is awash in Kenan and Kel’s particular brand of absurdity. On one level, it’s a classic bait-and-switch found in many heists and jailbreak adventure films. Initially perplexed by Ed’s ability to bring the entire group of patients together in a flash mob, Dexter realizes he can use this opportunity as a way to get the keys from the guards. On another level, the scene works as a break from the film itself. It’s like an oasis in the middle of what has been a fair amount of tension—there’s only a small window of time before Good Burger opens for business, putting customers at risk of eating the poisoned sauce. If Ed, Dexter and Otis want to save the day, they don’t have a lot of time to do it.
But on yet an entirely different plane, the dance scene serves as a fracture in reality altogether. The elements of George Clinton and his psychedelic hair, his band’s hit “Not Just Knee Deep,” and Kel leading a group of dancers in an asylum, shouldn’t work in a children’s film. And yet it does, in large part because of how fluent Kenan and Kel are in the language of the absurd. They make the nonsensical not only make some sense but be downright hilarious.
A Not So Accidental Dynasty
It’s also this talent for the hilarity that made Kenan and Kel cool. During their All That days, they were among the show’s fan favorites. This was due to their ability to capture an audience and provoke a laugh out of them by turning what shouldn’t be funny, such as a boy in a bathtub saying random French phrases, into comedy gold. But even if Kenan and Kel never became All That fan favorites, just being a part of the show landed the cast of kid comedians cool cred.
All That was the Saturday Night Live for kids and tweens, and with that mantle, the show was taken as seriously as any adult sketch comedy series. TLC doing All That’s theme song is already legendary. But take a look at the roster of musical talents that graced the All That stage: Da Brat, Aaliyah, Blackstreet, Usher, Monica, Jon B., Erykah Badu, Dru Hill, A Tribe Called Quest, Faith Evans, Coolio, Silk, Xscape, Mase, Busta Rhymes and LL Cool J are just a few of the hottest R&B and hip-hop acts to come to Nickelodeon to give the All That audience the performances of a lifetime.
Similarly, All That had a rotating door of guest stars, including John Leguizamo, Tia and Tamera Mowry and Malcolm Jamal-Warner. Several guests were a part of skits starring Kenan and/or Kel, such as Sinbad, who guest-starred in a skit involving Kenan’s recurring foreign exchange student character, Ishboo. Or when Tyra Banks came on an episode to play an attractive girl in line at Good Burger, leading Ed to fantasize about marrying her.
Even Tommy Davidson joined Kenan on his “Cooking with Randy” segment. There he cameoed as Randy’s grandfather who wanted to rein in his grandson’s expensive cooking habit. Meanwhile, Kenan played against Chris Farley on “Cooking with Randy” as a baker who smothers ketchup all over his choco-tastic chocolate cake.
All of the guest appearances cemented the show as one of the few kids shows that were seen as able to go toe-to-toe with grownup comedy. But the particular additions of Davidson, who got his start on In Living Color, and Farley, who was an SNL star, illustrate just how much respect the All That cast and name carried with those in the sketch comedy business. In fact, it should be no surprise that an incubator such as All That was able to give Kenan the tools to hone his talent and follow in Farley’s footsteps, becoming the longest-running cast member on SNL.
A Legacy Intact, A Recipe Unchanged
Kenan and Kel were Nick superstars before Good Burger, but the film took them to even greater heights among their fans. By this point in the ’90s, Kenan and Kel were already starring in their All That spinoff, Kenan & Kel, which was well-received by critics for its unique spin on the Hollywood formula of comedic duos of yesteryear. In fact, writer Kevin L. Clark called Kenan and Kel the “Black Abbott and Costello” in his 2012 Ebony article about the duo. “You two were our Black Abbott and Costello, our PG-13 version of Keenan Ivory and Damon Wayans,” he wrote. “Armed with an ability to disarm with charm and hatch schemes while singing songs to carbonated beverages made you, alongside Kel, seem like a comedic force in the making. To any 12-year-old, you two were able to fill the void for those who weren’t old enough to listen to legendary funnymen like Eddie Murphy or Richard Pryor.”
I’d also include I Love Lucy’s Lucy and Ethel (Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance) since that’s who Kenan and Kel reminded me of growing up. As a kid who would watch I Love Lucy and tons of old TV on Nick at Nite, I would instantly compare Lucy and Ethel’s antics, such as stuffing their faces and uniforms full of chocolate bonbons in the classic conveyor belt scene, to the ridiculous stunts Kenan and Kel would do, like the chaos they create trying to find and cook a new Thanksgiving turkey after Kel eats the original.
The film took what was great about the original “Good Burger” sketches and Kenan and Kel’s natural comedic timing and created a well-rounded, unique comedy that appeals to kids as well as adults. In fact, Good Burger is right out of the SNL wheelhouse of turning popular skits into films, such as Wayne’s World (1992) and A Night at the Roxbury (1998), both of which are also buddy comedies like Good Burger.
Good Burger, like the SNL films, hit its audience at a particular point in their lives. For many people who were teens or young adults in the early ‘90s, Wayne’s World is that seminal film, regardless if older generations see its value. The same goes for Good Burger. It hit its demographic right at the sweet spot between adolescence and adulthood, and it commented on the experience of growing up by showing it as a magical, surreal and adventurous time.
Good Burger is a time capsule of ‘90s fun. But it’s also a long-lasting reminder of how beloved Kenan and Kel are by their fans and how important they are to the history of young black comedians. With Good Burger and their body of comedic work in the ‘90s, Kenan and Kel helped a generation of fans have fun while facing the perils of adolescence. They lived out a child’s dream of being a Nickelodeon star, but they constantly kept us with them every step of the way by offering us a bit of their real-life friendship. We were able to be a part of their success story, and maybe that’s why the two are still so loved by people like me. Kenan and Kel felt like and still feel like our buddies. Or as Ed might say, our dudes.