4 Comedy Lessons We Learned From 90s Kids Shows
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The 1990s were a golden age for kids’ television, and not just because Pete and Pete created a wardrobe template for every 2000s hipster.
Basic cable boomed, with Nickolodeon shows like Rugrats, All That, Hey Arnold!, and Ren and Stimpy busting out of the tired Saturday morning cartoon mold that dominated children’s TV for decades.
But those shows provide more than nostalgia. Yesterday’s Nick producers are running the world now (All That creator Brian Robbins is now running Paramount Pictures, for Pete and Pete’s sake.) And many of the shows that 90s kids grew up on have had a profound influence on today’s most popular comedy. Here are four lessons that 90s kids’ shows taught the comic minds of today.
Hire a cast that looks like your audience
Here’s host George Clooney waving goodbye after a 1995 episode of Saturday Night Live.
And premiering that same year, here’s the cast of junior sketch comedy show All That.
It doesn’t take a detective to see the difference.
Tim Meadows was Saturday Night Live’s only Black cast member when the show kicked off in 1995, appearing alongside ten White cast members. Even back then, the show’s overwhelming whiteness was perceived as a problem. Comic W. Kamau Bell dreamed of being on the show when he was a kid, inspired by the hilarity of Chris Rock and Eddie Murphy. But as his comedy career developed, he started to wonder, “Huh, how come there are only ever one or two black people ?”
While the cast is now starting to resemble the diverse All That crew, it’s been a long time coming. As recently as 2013, SNL cast member (and All That alum) Kenan Thompson complained to TV Guide that he was tired of cross-dressing due to the cast’s lack of black women performers.
With Kenan, Ego Nwodim, Melissa Villaseñor, Chris Redd, Bowen Yang, and Punkie Johnson, SNL is finally expanding its performer base. It’s something that shows like All That figured out from the jump.
“What I loved is that the All That cast was so diverse,” says original cast member Alisa Reyes, one of the show’s four female actors who outnumbered the males. “You have African-American, you have me (Dominican, Irish, Italian, and Caribbean Indian), you have Caucasian. So there are kids that were able to sit home and go, I look like her, I look like him, I can relate. That was really important for me … cause there's nothing more boring than a Brady Bunch concept.”
The cast’s make-up had little to do with political correctness. All That’s producers knew its audience would be diverse, says The Atlantic, and simply created a show to reflect who was watching. It took Lorne Michaels a few more years to figure that out.
The Ren & Stimpy Show was one of Nickelodeon’s first ever cartoons, a show definitively stranger than anything on network TV, especially TV made for children. The humor was dark and adult, the innuendos were sexual, the show appeared designed to shock. Unfortunately, dark sexual stuff wasn't just limited to show creator John Kricfalusi's art, as he has several accusations of sexual misconduct with children.
That being said, the cartoon influenced a number of the shows that came after it, including Rick and Morty. Creators Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon say The Ren & Stimpy Show shifted their perception about “what could be done stylistically and tonally in animation.”
Small homages abound, like the “W mouth” that Rick and Morty animators borrowed from the 90s cartoon. “That’s a famous thing John (Kricfalusi) would do with Ren,” says Roiland. “That was kicking around in my subconscious when I was designing the characters.”
Here’s one more unfortunate lesson that Harmon shared with Ren and Stimpy: How to get the creator fired. Phoenix New Times called Ren and Stimpy the Community of its day due to Nick firing creator John Kricfalusi from his own show. The specifics on the erratic behavior differed, but both men had trouble turning in their shows to meet network deadlines. It may sound like an odd combo platter, but both Kricualusi and Harmon combined procrastination with perfectionism, keeping them from delivering their shows until they were deemed absolutely flawless.
The Ren & Stimpy Show’s influence extends far beyond animation style. Its commitment to bizarre adult humor, dressed up in what looks like a kiddie show, created a template that South Park and an entire generation of Adult Swim shows followed. Somehow, Ren & Stimpy’s subversive streak would often air directly after Rugrats.
“The eccentric nature found in titles like The Amazing World of Gumball and Gravity Falls first appeared in Rocko’s Modern Life and CatDog,” says culture critic Michael Pementel. It’s that mixture of the wholesome and the bizarre that shows up in today’s quirky favorites like Adventure Time and Summer Camp Island.
Adopt a hip/hop sensibility
From Bo Burnham to Lonely Island, comedy in the 2000s leaned heavily into hip-hop. The first YouTube video ever to go viral was Lazy Sunday, Andy Samberg and Chris Parnell’s rap ode to do-nothing weekend afternoons. And sometimes the lines between hip-hop and comedy blurred entirely:
Thing was, 90s kid shows got their first. Who grew up in that decade without having Coolio’s theme to Kenan and Kel tattooed on their brains? Awww, here it goes:
“Shout out to Coolio,” laughs Thompson. “It was the best. He had been on All That before, so we felt like we knew him. That’s how you are when you’re young, ‘Oh yeah, Coolio’s my best friend.’”
It’s hard to imagine 21st century Saturday Night Live without that hip-hop/R&B influence, ranging from the smooth new jack swing of D*ck in a Box to the hard-core rhymes of Natalie (Portman)’s Rap.
But it’s more than the comedy sketches -- it’s the vibe of the shows themselves. All That, with its dope theme song by TLC (whose members were only a few years older than the show’s cast), booked a steady stream of artists that hadn’t yet found a home on network TV, including Usher, Aaliyah, Da Brat, and Brandy in the show’s first season.
Let’s compare those artists to the musical guests booked on Saturday Night Live that same year. On consecutive shows, viewers got: Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, Edie Brickell, REM, Tom Petty, Green Day.
Cool acts. But you get the idea.
“Music has always been a big part of SNL, and I wanted the same for All That,” says creator Brian Robbins. “Hip-hop and R&B was the pop music of the time, so we sought out those acts—they fit the urban flavor of the show.”
“I was always excited about the musical guests,” confesses Kenan. “I was watching BET, VH1 and MTV like everybody else. I thought it was really cool that they were getting those kinds of people. I respected that. It made me want to perform a little harder.”
Despite hip-hop’s growing popularity in the 1990s, Nick was one of the few spots that you could catch many of the artists outside of Yo! MTV Raps. We were really cutting edge at that time,” says Kel Mitchell. “We really focused on the music. I mean, even when you think about the theme songs of the show, to have TLC at that time do the theme song, that was huge.”
SNL has since embraced a more diverse set of musical guests, but it took them a number of years to catch up.
Well, that’s a no-brainer.
Or was it? When Saturday Night Live cast Thompson back in 2003, he was hardly a household name despite starring on two Nickelodeon comedy shows. And SNL’s short history of hiring actors who had been funny kids (hello, Anthony Michael Hall) was not full of success stories. In fact, Thompson had auditioned for the show even earlier, but was told he was too young.
“It didn't seem like a closed door or a 'go away' necessarily,” Thompson told NPR. “It just was like, 'I am too young right now.'
Give Lorne and his staff credit -- they remembered Kenan and had him try again. And his work at Nick gave Kenan the experience he needed to nail the audition. “(The All That sketches) were all great,” he remembers. “We had fun doing a bunch of different characters and having a good time. Then after we finished all the development, real character development stuff started to become actually really exciting.”
“He grew up in a television studio and he grew up with this form,” Lorne Michaels told The New York Times. “He’s comfortable with it.”
Of course, “hire Kenan” is both a good idea and one that’s impossible to replicate. “He’s just so good-natured inside,” says former SNL head writer Bryan Tucker. “You can write something that’s somewhat controversial or might rub people the wrong way, but because he’s saying it, people take it a lot easier, because they know there’s no malice behind it.”
Kenan seems born for this, just like he did back in the 1990s. Now the longest-tenured cast member in the show’s history, with six Emmy nominations and counting, he’s not going anywhere soon, despite also taking on his own sitcom, cleverly titled Kenan.
“There are people who are fully realized in this form,” Lorne says. “It uses all of their talent — their ability to create characters, be funny and be in the moment — and goes to all of their strengths, and those people should be there forever.”
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Top Image: Nickelodeon Studios