Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Generation VHS: Good Burger

Posted By on Wed, Jun 5, 2013 at 5:03 AM

Last week, Generation VHS went back to the hardwood to witness the epic matchup between Air Jordan and the monsters of Moron Mountain in Space Jam, which, in my humble opinion, is the defining cult movie of our series.

It’s paramount to this retrospective that we establish the grandfather status of Space Jam over the other film in this series, because, quite frankly, it’s the standard of what a cult movie can be within the bounds of Gen VHS.

But let’s continue our look past that fateful summer of 1996 for a lesser-known title (to those outside the generation parameters, of course).

Anyone growing up in the ’90s has an affinity to children’s programming on Nickelodeon. It’s like saying the sky is blue, the grass is green and Star Kid is a terrible movie (and a title I will NOT be covering. Seriously, even at the age of 4, you expect me to take your movie seriously with a tagline that says “Kick some alien butt”? Sorry, Tim from Jurassic Park, I’m not lauding that one).

I think Nickelodeon caught on so well with kids of this time period because of its place as the counterprogramming to the sweet, desperately inoffensive options of Disney. The Nickelodeon brand was drenched in green slime and playground coarseness. It was the “pull my finger” uncle at the television family table — the adults groaned whenever it popped on the tube, but the kids couldn’t get enough of it.

Nickelodeon was, essentially, the anti-Disney. Sure, Doug was pretty tame, but the network branded its own label effectively with such ’90s television hits as Rugrats, The Angry Beavers, Hey Arnold and of course, All That — as well as its own awards show, the Kids’ Choice Awards, which still chugs along to this day.

The animated fare spoke for itself. Sure, the shows started to increase in their unbelievable zaniness as the years went on, but what I watched as a kid comes nowhere near to the self-referential surrealism of shows like Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time and Regular Show (you thought talking babies were strange).

All That, though, was Nick’s live-action masterwork.

When you think about it, the show’s premise was actually a fairly decent idea. All That took a group of humorously gifted pre-teens, placed them in a Saturday Night Live-inspired environment and let them go to crazy lengths to leave young folks at home in stitches. I remember fondly tuning into Channel 27 (what Nick was back in the olden days) and catching All That every Saturday night (aptly placed, if you ask me).

The sketch show heavily relied on physical comedy and large messes to land its gags. It was an overstated, hands-waving type of program that would only appeal to Nick’s hoped audience. Much like Saturday Night Live, its more mature predecessor, lots of mid-to-late ’90s pop culture also fell in parody’s way, truly making this show SNL Jr. (Oh, Hairy Spice, how I miss thee).

The sketches were quite irreverent for regular ’90s children’s programming, but they left any given 4-12 year olds howling with laughter. Watching cast member Kenan Thompson dressed in drag as a lunch lady lamenting the wonders of peas to her eye-rolling students is moronic to most. To All That’s target audience? Sheer gut-busting brilliance.

While there were plenty of solid cast members that added their own brand of uniqueness to the show’s melting pot of comedy, it was always obvious who the stars were. Kenan Thompson and Kel Mitchell were Generation VHS’s Abbott and Costello. In a crowded pool of young talent, Thompson and Mitchell stood out as the show’s true stars. The young comedians had such a natural chemistry with each other that flowed in each and every sketch the duo co-starred in.

Thompson and Mitchell were like the funny pair of pranksters in math class that both aggravated the teacher and left the other students rolling. Kenan always took the role of conniving straight man, while Kel was usually the lovable goofball.

One of All That’s most beloved bits was “Good Burger,” a fast food restaurant-centered sketch starring Mitchell’s hapless counter-working Ed. The act would usually involve Ed greeting an angry customer with, “Welcome to Good Burger, home of the Good Burger, can I take your order?” before trying to field their complaint about their misconstrued meal order.

For example, one sketch featured Kenan as an angry construction worker who, instead of receiving a milkshake, gets a burger. Ed solves the problem by sticking the burger in a blender, firing the bad boy up and dishing out a shake-esque liquid in a cup. Problem solved. Cue the laughs.

It was a big event for Gen VHSers when Kenan and Kel got their own movie, which just so happened to be an adaptation of the “Good Burger” sketch (naturally called Good Burger). Nickelodeon had just begun its feature-film production venture with an adaptation of Harriet the Spy hitting screens in 1996. As far as I know, the film doesn’t really hold any nostalgic leanings for our generation despite earning back its keep at the box office.

The "Good Burger" adaptation was the first time Nickelodeon attempted to take one of their own existing properties and adapt it into a movie, and it’s really the first time any of this generation got to see a fresh show concept adapted for the big screen. A year before The Rugrats Movie changed the game on how television-to-movie adaptations were presented, it was an unusual novelty to see a Nickelodeon character like Ed at the local multiplex.

Stretching out a short concept into a full-length movie worked well for SNL with the Wayne’s World series, so it seemed right the more kid-appropriate option would take a gamble with the concept. This time around, Kenan took the role of a fast-talking grade-school student named Dexter, who, after driving without a license and wrecking into his teacher’s car (a fun small role for Sinbad), is forced to work at Good Burger for the summer to pay off the damage. Ed, our airheaded, big-hearted cashier, was the primary cause of Dexter’s accident due to his clumsiness on the skates.

The film follows a blossoming friendship between Dexter and Ed through their efforts to stop Mondo Burger, the big-chain behemoth to Good Burger’s locally owned scrap shop, from taking over as the town’s primary burger stop.

I found a DVD copy of the film at the old Davis-Kidd Bookstore in Green Hills (may it rest in peace — KINDLE!!!!!) and just recently popped it in for a friend who had somehow missed out on the movie as a kid. All these years later, Good Burger still works because Thompson and Mitchell managed to hit the same groove that launched them to Gen. VHS stardom with All That. The film follows its plot like a by-the-numbers scribbling book (what they really are — kids don’t color, they scribble), but packs in enough snicker-worthy humor to satisfy anyone who thinks that someone swimming in a shake machine is funny.

Good Burger also has plenty of cult-worthy moments of bizarre glee. Just the fact that Abe Vigoda is in the movie is enough to make my oddity-identifying radar buzz. One scene late in the second act finds our heroes trapped in a mental institution with Vigoda, Linda Cardellini (known to pop culture nerds as Lindsay Wier on Freaks and Geeks and to Generation VHS as, yes, Velma in the Scooby Doo movies — my film-nerd card is going to be revoked by the end of this series) and Parliament-Funkadelic’s George Clinton (no, I’m not making this up).

Ed gets the bright idea to change the room’s music to, you guess it, Funkadelic’s “(Not Just) Knee Deep,” inspiring the fellow patients to dance. Dexter decides the pandemonium is as good a moment as ever to try to distract the guards, creating on one of cinema’s most confusingly amazing dance/break-out sequences.

At its best, Good Burger is a strange but ultimately fulfilling venture that helps showcase two of Generation VHS’s most notable talents. After the movie, Kenan and Kel continued to star on their own television show (naturally called Kenan and Kel). It was essentially the same plot of Good Burger, only Kel was a grocery frequenter with a special love of orange soda. Kenan was still Kenan.

Today, Thompson is a vet of SNL (a role well-suited for him after years on All That), and Mitchell works primarily in the music field, occasionally taking on a voice role (most recently on Nicktoon’s Wild Grinders). The duo’s impact on Generation VHS is immeasurable. All That was an important bridge into mainstream comedy for many VHSers, and Kenan and Kel were two of the primary guides. Good Burger is an excellent representation of the kind of humor that flourished back in the day.

Plus Good Burger gave us Ed’s “I’m a Dude” song with a full band’s backing. That alone is reason to celebrate:

“I’m a dude, he’s a dude, she’s a dude, we’re all dudes! Hey!”

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