Back in the ‘90s, long before McDonalds served kale, Arby’s threatened robot workers, and the Burger King mascot looked like a serial killer, fast food was in its golden age. Golden arches were popping up in every remote corner of the globe and the diners were still relatively blissfully unaware of the obesity epidemic their habits were contributing to. Though we were all becoming addicted to food that was slowly killing us, life in those days felt a lot happier, didn’t it?
These were simple times full of complex ingredients. And just as simultaneously simple and complex is the story of Good Burger, the fast-food themed Nickelodeon comedy that spent over two decades transitioning from variety show stand-out sketch to feature film to beloved cult classic. Released in the summer of ‘97, the film follows slacker student Dexter (Kenan Thompson), who takes a summer job at a local burger joint, where he befriends a ditzy but kind-hearted cashier, Ed (Kel Mitchell). But when a shady mega burger chain opens up across the street, the duo suddenly find themselves performing acts of wacky corporate espionage in order to save both their jobs and the fast food consumers of the world.
To commemorate the film’s 20th anniversary, Complex found the minds and faces behind this artifact of childhood nostalgia to compile an oral history on the quintessential fast food comedy and the hapless but lovable character at the center of it. Welcome to Good Burger.
Welcome to Good Burger
Chasing the success of their prior hits, You Can’t Do That On Television, and Roundhouse, Nickelodeon began casting another sketch show in 1992 that they hoped would become a Saturday Night Live for kids. Named as both a slang term for coolness and a reference to the varietal nature of the program, All That debuted in 1994 as a an hour special. Once it was picked up for series, the show began shooting in front of live audiences in Nickelodeon Studios at Universal Studios, Orlando, before moving to Los Angeles at the start of the third season. With its memorable characters, random humor (before random humor was an obnoxious cliche), and top notch actor and musical guests, All That became a tentpole of the SNICK programming block for over 10 seasons, acting as a launchpad for the careers of celebs like Amanda Bynes and Nick Cannon. But even in its infancy, one particular sketch and one stand-out pair, Kel Mitchell and Kenan Thompson showed real signs of promise.
Brian Robbins:All That, which is where Good Burger came from, was a Nickelodeon sketch show that myself, Mike Tollin, and Dan Schneider created. “Good Burger” was one of the most popular sketches to come out of it.
Kevin Kopelow: We wrote so many sketches before we even started shooting, and “Good Burger” was one of the first. I worked at a restaurant and some of the jokes came directly from that. Someone would say “I didn’t order it this way. This is well done,” and I’d go “Oh, thank you!”
Brian Robbins: We thought we’d do a sketch about that guy at the fast food restaurant who’d be just like Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Kel’s basically doing Spicoli.
Kel Mitchell: I really liked Keanu Reeves, and he has that type of voice with “via con Dios” and all that, so I took it from there and watched a lot of Saved by the Bell and mixed those into this “dude” voice I would do all the time in [my hometown] Chicago for my friends.
Heath Seifert: Kel had actually done that surfer guy in another sketch.
Kel Mitchell: Ed was introduced in a sketch called "Dream Remote," where there was this pizza guy and Josh Server played a kid who had this dream remote control. So, the pizza guy who came was played by me and had this voice. They liked that voice and created Ed around that.
Kevin Kopelow: It was me, Heath, and Dan Schneider and we pitched it to Dan and Brian and we all took it from there as a group. Dan came up with the name "Good Burger," and we wrote it. Then, when we got it on its feet, Kel put on that wig and started coming up with the voice and then it all came together.
Kel Mitchell: I used to love to go to the makeup and wardrobe room and add stuff to my characters. I walked into the hair room and found these Milli Vanilli/Brandy “I Wanna Be Down” braids.
Kenan Thompson: I wasn’t in the first sketch but I remember it was super funny and Kel was killing it, hitting home runs. We didn’t know which sketches were standing out but we knew who the strong performers were and I’d say Kel was the strongest one of us.
Kevin Kopelow: We started coming up with so many bits that we couldn’t fit them all into the first one, let alone the second, so we just said we’d put it in the next one. Then we started thinking up themes for the sketches.
Heath Seifert: The sketches started to have more of a story. Each sketch would tell more of a tale about Ed. We couldn’t just have three more customers come up and have annoying interactions. We had to start putting twists on them.
We used to shoot on the Universal Studios lot at Nickelodeon Studios in Orlando. After a while, you’d be walking through the [theme] park and hear people quoting “Good Burger” Ed.
Kel Mitchell: It wound up being this very popular sketch with a lot of great guest stars: Coolio, Tia & Tamera [Mowry], Britney Spears. Everybody you can name walked into that restaurant.
Kevin Kopelow: You just know when something’s funny. But we also used to shoot in front of a live audience and it would kill.
Brian Robbins: The secret to the whole thing was that Kenan and Kel were so frickin’ good, talented, and funny. And Ed is such a great character.
Heath Seifert: We never actually call Ed stupid. We refer to him as selectively intelligent. There’s a sort of sweetness in that character that resonates.
Kel Mitchell: Ed has no angst in his heart at all and is just a loving character who wants to help others. It’s like a Forrest Gump appeal. And a lot of kids can relate with a summer job, working at a fast food restaurant. I think he was only one who really loved his work and did it well out of all my characters. The others kinda messed their jobs up a lot. [laughs after being reminded that Ed messed his job up quite a lot as well] Okay, yeah, he definitely did. But, in his heart, he thought he was doing well.
Heath Seifert: Having written so many "Good Burger" sketches, we were always talking about things we could do with that character if we took him out of the restaurant, so there was probably a file cabinet worth of jokes and bits and ideas that we could work into a movie.
Feature Length Fast Food
By this point, Mitchell and Thompson’s exceptional comedic talents and natural rapport with one another had been noticed and spun off into another program, Kenan & Kel, which premiered in July 1996. It was formatted as a more traditional sitcom and shot between seasons of All That. At this same time and at the the height of the network’s success, Nickelodeon was breaking into the film market. They debuted their first original feature, Harriet the Spy, in 1995 and were on the prowl for a suitable follow-up.
Heath Seifert: Paramount was launching Nickelodeon Movies. Obviously, being on a Nickelodeon show, we started thinking about what we could do as a movie. I think we all naturally gravitated toward this sketch as having the legs to carry a whole story.
Brian Robbins: Dan and I got the idea to just write a movie, and then sorta reverse engineered it.
Heath Seifert: To try and get the executives excited, I remember we wrote an extra-long "Good Burger" sketch, maybe 15-18 minutes. As they watched this lengthier sketch with a narrative arc and see the live audience reaction to it, I think that got everyone excited about the possibilities.
Kel Mitchell: They took us aside and told us “Good Burger” is doing amazing as a sketch and we want to make a movie out of it. I remember being so excited because, while Kenan had done Mighty Ducks, this would be my first movie. To have a popular character and a film getting made around it right out the gate was a blessing.
Kevin Kopelow: We were in the room thinking about how we could fit Kenan into it since it had to be Kenan and Kel, of course, but Kenan wasn’t really part of the sketches.
Kenan Thompson: I found out they were thinking about doing the movie and I was trying to figure out what my part in it would be. I’d always been different characters coming into the restaurant. I was happy for Kel but not knowing if I’d be a part of it.
Heath Seifert: I think there’s a draft out there somewhere that has Kenan as Ishboo coming to live with “Good Burger” Ed.
Brian Robbins: The other writers from the show, Kevin Kopelow and Heath Seifert, also worked on the screenplay and it was like “all for one, one for all” as this big family that had been making All That, and that carried over to the movie.
The first two seasons of All That were out in Orlando and then we moved it [to LA] in the third season. And we were shooting on the Paramount lot, so we put together a great table read of the script for the studio. John Goldwyn, who was president of the studio at the time, came to the read and we were all scared babies. None of us had directed or produced a movie at this point.
The table read rocked. It was funny as hell and went really well. Later, Goldwyn summoned me to his office and said “I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is I wanna make the movie. The bad news is I want it out this summer.”
At this point it was January, so we had to rush into production. But this was to be the first movie I’d ever directed so I didn’t know any better and it seemed fine to me. In retrospect, it was insane. I think we had six or seven months to turn it around and only four weeks to prep. But we had a script and we had Kenan and Kel.
Heath Seifert: We always had the philosophy that you don’t write down to kids. You write what you think is funny, and you still have to tell a good story. There’s just a smaller well of material for you to draw from because you’re not going to do overtly political, sexual, or contemporary jokes. Nonetheless, we’ll still make a joke about Abe Vigoda dying and not worry about it being too upsetting for kids. We never censored ourselves in any sense like that. Standards were maybe a little looser for a movie than they were for TV.
A Cast of Wildcards
There must’ve been something in the secret sauce, because the Good Burger movie somehow managed to lock in a cast full of past, present, and future legends, and not just from the realm of acting. Beyond Kenan, Kel, and some other All That favorites, the movie had small roles for Linda Cardellini, who would go on to do Freaks & Geeks soon after and starred in prestige TV hits like Bloodline and Mad Men. For the role of aged fast food worker, Otis, they got the incomparable Abe Vigoda, a veteran actor versatile enough to play a mook in The Godfather or goof around in a Conan O’Brien sketch. Comedy legend and movie star Sinbad featured in the film as Dexter’s retro teacher, Mr. Wheat. Despite all these legends and cameo appearances by Shaq and George Clinton, the most interesting casting decision was choosing Baywatch and Singled Out sexpot, Carmen Electra, as a femme fatale sent to seduce company secrets from Ed.
Carmen Electra: My agents at UTA said you have an audition and sent over the sides for Good Burger. I loved what I read and really wanted to do it but, at the same time, I was nervous and exhausted. Back then, I was working for MTV and almost every day. I didn’t want to go in and not nail the audition so I tried to get out of it at first. But they insisted it was a great opportunity and that I had to go. This was the first big movie I would have ever done with a premiere and red carpet and all that. I didn’t come to LA to be an actress. I was a dancer and had studied my whole life to do that. So, when they told me I got the part I almost had to pinch myself.
Kenan Thompson: We were all floored by Carmen getting involved. She was really nice for doing it and super game. And she was going out with B-Real from Cypress Hill at the time, so he was dropping her off on set every morning. It was awesome.
Carmen Electra: It was my first time doing physical comedy. But when we started shooting and everyone was laughing, I really liked it because that actually is my personality. I love to make people laugh. I’d just never done it in front of a bunch of strangers. And they were all really happy that I went all out with it. This opened the door for me to do Scary Movie and all the other goofy stuff I love to do by letting the audience know that I’m willing to make fun of myself.
Kenan Thompson: The shoots were longer for me and Kel, being in pretty much every scene, but it was a pretty straightforward, easy shoot overall. Just hanging out with Abe Vigoda was an awesome thing. And our good buddy Ron Lester was around so that was good times.
Kel Mitchell: George Clinton from Funkadellic was in the film and my dad was a huge Funkadellic and Parliament fan so, for me to be able to work with him was awesome for my whole family. Sinbad had been on All That, so we’d already met a few times, but to be able to do a film with him and get great advice on set was another thing. Abe [Vigoda] had mad energy. He was older but would climb fences and run after the ice cream truck with the rest of us.
Kenan Thompson: Sinbad was an icon and had been on the show a few times. Back then, Sinbad was [Bill] Cosby’s first underling so it was a big deal. Cosby put that stamp on him like this guy’s the next whatever. So, I was pretty intrigued and in awe of Sinbad every time he showed up to work. And there were rumors like in his contract he got to bring his own huge trailer, ‘cause he was big star, so you know we had to go see what the trailer was like. Movie star Sinbad, as opposed to standup Sinbad. He was super friendly and funny, though.
What Comes Next?
Despite its rush to production, and getting little love from critics, Good Burger proved a hearty meal at the box office, pulling in close to $24 million. While a surprise return on investment like that today might result in an entire cinematic universe, Nickelodeon seemed happy to leave it at that, and the writers and actors went back to their TV jobs. Not long after, Thompson and Mitchell left All That and wrapped on Kenan & Kel. Thompson went on to become one of if not the most tenured cast members on SNL. Mitchell, who auditioned for SNL the same year as Thompson, spent his post-Kenan & Kel years doing stand up and various acting gigs before winding up back at Nickelodeon on another Dan Schneider brainchild, Game Shakers, in 2015. A decade after the cancellation of Kenan & Kel, rumors began to circulate of a feud between the co-stars. In September 2015, those allegations were put to rest as the two reunited for a brand new Good Burger sketch on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.
Brian Robbins: I think Good Burger cost $9 million to make, which, at the time, for Paramount, was lunch money, so they gave us total freedom. No one was really paying that much attention. And when we came back and delivered the movie, they were shocked that it tested at a 99.
Heath Seifert: Oddly, we were still working on All That and Kenan & Kel at the time so we just thought it was cool that we made this great movie with all these people we love so let’s just go back to work with them tomorrow doing more sketches.
Kevin Kopelow: In the present era, we’d already be on Good Burger 5 and have real Good Burger stands up across America. It seems like there was something there that wasn’t capitalized on that could’ve been really fun.
Kel Mitchell: It was supposed to be a three-picture deal. We were contracted to do another two, but they didn’t have to be Good Burger. So, it ended up being a TV movie, Two Heads Are Better Than None. If you remember the Abbot & Costello movies like where they meet the Wolfman, they were doing a horror comedy like that. From that, I did Mystery Men, and some other cult classic films. It was good catapult for me.
Kevin Kopelow: There’s actually a sequel called Good Burger 2 Go, where somebody forgets their change and Ed follows them across the country to get it back to them. I think that came out as a book.
Kenan Thompson: Kel and I fell out of contact a bit, but that was just because we were going through career growing pains and to show everybody that there’s a difference between the two of us and we’re not attached at the hip.
Kel Mitchell: Dan Schneider was friends with some of the writers over at Jimmy Fallon’s show. They hit him up and said “we’ve got this great idea.” They’d just done a Saved By the Bell reunion and wanted to do another for Good Burger.
Kenan Thompson: We had a long talk when that sketch came up. Mostly about about how long it’s been and how we haven’t spoken in a while. A really nice reconciliation.
Kel Mitchell: Sometimes with friends, you need to have that one sitdown. I think the issue was there were other people around us telling things and we both made the mistake of listening to other people. So, I got his number and gave him a call and we talked for hours, catching up. This was before we filmed the Fallon sketch. And I thought, whether we do this [reunion sketch] or not, it’s just cool to have this conversation. So we made a pact to stay in touch better and never do that again. Ever since then, we talk like every other day.
Kenan Thompson: When we did the sketch, I got to see his family again, who I hadn’t seen in a long time: his mom and dad and sisters, one of whom was a baby back in those days and now is 20 years old or something. It was great to see all of them, my whole second family. And we’re in much more close contact now.
Kel Mitchell: It was an emotional moment when we were backstage before filming it. We hadn’t been in those outfits in a long time and hadn’t worked together in a while either. We both said, “Man, we’ve really kinda done a disservice to the fans.”
While the stars, writers, producers, and network behind Good Burger went on to their subsequent projects, little did they know that the film was quietly developing a cult following. Those who’d seen and loved the movie in theaters as kids were now grown and streaming the comedy to their own offspring. Celebs like Ariana Grande expressed their affection for the movie, rappers gave lyrical shout outs, and Seth MacFarlane threw Good Burger references into a number of his shows. Bloggers discussed the presciently anti-GMO subtext of the plot. Meta-essays dissecting the film’s growing cult status sprang up as well. ‘90s kids just couldn’t get enough of this weird farce from childhood.
Carmen Electra: It had all the right fun elements to stick in people’s minds forever. People, to this day, still come up to me like “Roxanne, from Good Burger!”
Heath Seifert: I mentioned to Dan, not too long ago, it’s shocking how much I think back on those days and how fun they were. Being in the trenches, working around the clock, hardly sleeping. And the Good Burger movie was the fruition of all that.
Kel Mitchell: I do the Good Burger voice about ten times every day. No matter where I go, people are gonna ask me to do it. Any kind of burger place, I get free burgers, wherever I go. Any drive through, they do the voice with me like “welcome to In-N-Out, home of the In-N-Out.” I do enjoy it, though. I’m not one of those actors who gets upset. I totally love that people dig it.
Brian Robbins: It was an ok performer at the box office. It wasn’t a major success. But here we are today, talking about its crazy cult status. My sons, who are 17 and 19, every week, they are hounding me to write a sequel to Good Burger. And this article makes sense for Complex because I know every hip-hop artist loves Good Burger. I know Tyler the Creator has a Good Burger poster in his room over his bed.
Kel Mitchell: I met Tyler. He’s a real superfan of Good Burger. I actually got to guest star on [Tyler’s Adult Swim show] Loiter Squad because of it. A lot of surprising people come up to me and tell me the movie changed their life. I did the Kids’ Choice Sports awards yesterday and me and [Golden State Warriors shooting guard] Klay Thompson did a challenge on stage and he announced to the crowd that it was his dream come true to be partnered with me.
Kenan Thompson: We were excited it was working while we were shooting it, and audiences were happy with it when it was done, and that was that. It wasn’t like an overly explosive blockbuster or anything. And then for years it just stayed around in people’s living rooms. Everyone had that orange tape and just kept watching it over and over. And then another generation starts watching it. I’m just proud to have been involved with it because it’s as much a part of our childhoods as it is for everyone else’s.
Kel Mitchell: What shocks me is the new generation of kids discovering it. I have a new show on Nickelodeon now called Game Shakers and those kids have never seen Good Burger and only know my new character, but then their parents introduce them to it. It’s a classic and it’s cool to be a part of something like that. Not every actor gets that.