All That and Then Some
Not a single head turns when Kenan Thompson and Kel Mitchell stroll into a Hollywood burger joint; the crowd here skews just a little too old to recognize the young actors. But put them into a roomful of 6- to-15-year-olds and chances are a commotion would ensue.
Older folk may not have heard the news yet, but Thompson and Mitchell are comedic superstars to kids who watch the Nickelodeon cable network. The duo began making an impression three years ago as cast members of “All That.” The sketch comedy program was conceived as a kind of giddy, preteen version of “Saturday Night Live.”
Thompson and Mitchell became the “All That” troupe’s breakout stars, scoring some of the show’s biggest laughs with wild characters such as the crotchety old men Mavis and Clavis, the spectacularly inept Repair Man Man Man Man Man, and a mess-making, chocoholic cooking show host. Last year, as the two continued to appear on “All That,” they debuted a spinoff show, “Kenan & Kel,” which has become equally successful for Nickelodeon.
One of “All That’s” most popular sketches has featured Mitchell as Ed, a dreadlocked, almost surrealistically dimwitted surfer dude desperately attempting to man the counter of a fast-food nightmare called Good Burger. And on July 25, Mitchell and Thompson will bring their estimable comic talents to their widest audience yet, with the release of “Good Burger,” a Paramount feature film.
In conversation, the 19-year-olds are remarkably free of child-star precociousness or Hollywood attitude. They’re friendly, down-to-earth and ready to break into character voices at the slightest encouragement. And they are clearly a team. Thompson, the husky Atlanta native with the killer deadpan, and Mitchell, the wiry, wide-eyed Chicagoan, display the camaraderie of best buddies, finishing each other’s sentences, embellishing each other’s stories and cracking each other up.
“We were both a little nervous when we started doing ‘All That,’ ” says Thompson, who prior to the TV show had appeared in such films as “Mighty Ducks 2" and “Heavyweights.” “But from the first sketch we did together in the first week, we knew work was going to be fun. We felt good about it, and we felt even better when we saw everybody looking at us kind of funny, saying, ‘Wow--you two have chemistry.’ ”
“They let the cameras roll and we just went goofy,” Mitchell adds. “And that’s how we did a lot of the movie too.”
Mitchell says he’s not entirely surprised that Ed, the perpetually confused burger seller, is the star of that movie. “Ed started out when I was about 8. I used to watch professional wrestling and copy the kind of wild ‘dude’ voices the wrestlers had in their interviews. When ‘All That’ started, Ed went from being a wrestler to being the Good Burger guy, and I had a feeling he was going to be big. He turned into such a popular character right away and started turning up in every episode. So when we got to build a movie around Ed . . .”
”. . . It was a dream come true,” Thompson jumps in. “Coming to theaters everywhere.”
‘Good Burger” is the second feature film to come from a partnership of Paramount and Nickelodeon (both owned by Viacom), following last summer’s “Harriet the Spy.” In addition to Mitchell as Ed and Thompson as Dexter, a beleaguered student who takes a summer job at the burger stand, the cast includes Sinbad, Shaquille O’Neal, Abe Vigoda and Carmen Electra. It was directed by Brian Robbins, who has served as co-creator and executive producer for both “All That” and “Kenan & Kel.”
Robbins, a former star of TV’s “Head of the Class,” says he has been so impressed with the pair’s talents that he jumped at the chance to do a feature with them, despite some grueling deadlines.
“Kenan’s not just a great comic, but a great actor, and Kel--who was just this bundle of raw talent when I first auditioned him--has become an amazing physical comedian. Kenan’s an old soul, Kel’s an eternal kid, and it’s an amazing combination,” Robbins says. “We’d all been living ‘Good Burger’ for three years, so a chance to make the film was fantastic, even though it was a race to the finish line. The film was greenlit in January, and we were shooting seven weeks later. But the advantage was that we all knew the movie we wanted to make, so when they said, ‘Go,’ we were ready.”
Robbins says that it was on the Los Angeles set of “Good Burger” that Thompson and Mitchell passed the first great test of finding fans beyond Nickelodeon-watchers.
“Hollywood movie crews can be some of the most jaded, skeptical people in the world--they’ve seen everything and nothing really impresses them. I could tell on the first day that our crew guys were thinking, ‘I’m working on a stupid kiddie movie. Well, it’s a paycheck.’ By the second week they were transformed. They were all busting up laughing every day, and they loved Kenan and Kel. These grizzled veteran grips and gaffers and carpenters couldn’t wait to work with these kids each day.”
Thompson and Mitchell were equally impressed by those with whom they got to work. Mitchell says his favorite scene in the film is one in which he dances with funkmeister George Clinton in an insane asylum, while Thompson is partial to the scene in which he barrels his car into Sinbad’s. And both have high praise for Vigoda.
“A great man,” Thompson says in hushed tones.
“I don’t think he had any idea who we were at first,” Mitchell adds. “But he was hilarious. As soon as the camera was rolling he’d sneak up and tell a little joke right in your ear to crack you up.”
Each of the young actors says he grew up listening to the work of Bill Cosby, while sneaking Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor tapes when he could get away with it. The duo may soon be ready to step into the wide world of comedy and join the ranks of such adult entertainers, but they say they have no immediate desire to turn away from the young audience that has delighted in them so far.
“We’re 19, so you know we’ve got some adult thoughts in us,” Mitchell says with a laugh. “But it means a lot to us that we’re playing to 14- to 15-year-olds, and relating to younger kids and giving them all something really fun and positive to enjoy. We take that very seriously.”