Good Burger turns 18 tomorrow! Join Eve and Vann as they discuss the movie’s plot, cultural significance, and artistic relevance.
Art by Eve L. Ewing and Trey Smith
ELE: Okay, maybe we can kick it off by talking about the music since that is a big part of why we wanted to do this. I would say the two reasons we had the idea to commemorate this masterwork of cinematic history was 1) the George Clinton scene and 2) our shared love (and apparently the internet’s shared love?) for Kel Mitchell. So maybe we can start one of those places?
VN: sounds good. let’s start with Kel.
ELE: Yes. So the other day I came across a video featuring Kel that was like “Kel’s top 5 90s quotes” which ended up being entirely awesome becaaaaause [dramatic pause] Kel is going to once again be starring in a Nickelodeon show. I posted “Kenan or Kel?” on Twitter and we got all these crazy emotional responses in favor of Kel. Very little love for Kenan. And you had kind of an interesting theory for why that is.
VN: Well, for the record I’m very sympathetic to Kenan. Very. He was a mastermind, and he just wasn’t cool enough to capture the audience, especially the audience of hyper kids that watched All That and Good Burger. But I think people usually gravitate towards the more creative/artistic/oddball type in these duos, and they’re a common trope in kid’s TV (think Pinky and the Brain). People like Kel because he’s similar to Pinky: he’s free and in the process of his freedom he exhibits a sort of wisdom that his partner can never really reach. Also, Kel is on shrooms. Like. He’s high as shit.
ELE: You are definitely more of a Kenan. I definitely agree with you in that people love the wacky one in the wacky/straight man duo, although in watching this again I was reminded of how serious a comedic influence Kenan was on every boy in my class from like fifth through eighth grade. (Chris Harris, I am really looking in your direction.) But I feel like essentially Kenan’s comedy stylings were modeled after a generic black grandma character. Like a lot of his flustered mumblings– one of my favorite ones in the movie was when he said “the rollerblader got all up in my sight-vision!” Calling out “whyyyy?!” in exasperation was a staple of your standard 90s class clown wannabe. But yeah… much love for Kel. Also, Kenan is a huge jerk for most of this movie. People’s generally gravitating towards Kel makes me wonder why he hasn’t really done a lot since the 90s.
VN: I see a lot of Andre 3000 in Kel. Did you say I was more of a Kenan btw?
ELE: My account was hacked. I apologize to all my fans.
VN: You better watch your butt, man. Kenan is cool though. But I think once you embrace the wackier side of cool it’s hard to grow as a comedian or whatever. Folks always want you to be that same way forever. There’s probably some burnout in being in character all the time vs Kenan basically playing himself.
ELE: I read this article where Kel said that in his audition for All That he had midterms that day and didn’t prepare a monologue, but when he walked out onto the stage he tripped over a bunch of cables and played it up like it was intentional and the producers started laughing really hard. Then he just did a bunch of impersonations of his uncles. Also by the way I thought you were gonna say I better watch my butt or I’m gonna end up in the grinder, a la Kurt, the absurd villain who was the owner (??) of Mondo Burger. Or like… franchise… manager? It was unclear.
VN: Look at that fucking alphet. This is Ben Stiller in Dodgeball.
ELE: Hunger Games meets Gwen Stefani meets German techno. Or, like, a parody of what people think German techno looks like if they’ve never seen or heard techno. It’s Ben Stiller plus Seth Green.
VN: I’ve always been sort of unclear about the Mondo Burger, in general. But it seems like a generally unpleasant place to eat. Although having a shroomed-out teenager slap tomatoes on your burger from his pocket would probably not be the greatest Yelp review.
ELE: Kurt is an entrepreneur. He has mastered several of the villainous arts. 1) Getting a black dude who looks like a Ken doll and doesn’t have a name to be his henchman and occasionally call him “bro.” 2) Speaking in the third person. 3) Having dope plans like putting “shark poison” (I have questions) in the sauce, from a vial that has a skull and crossbones on it. 4) Making up awesome slang. At one point he says “that coils it. You guys are grass!” #wut
VN: Wait. Hold On.
There are levels at play, here. Dodgeball so stole Good Burger’s swag.
ELE: Oh snapppppp. Ben Stiller is gonna read this and have us silenced.
VN: We know too much already.
ELE: Somewhere he’s salty because he wasn’t in this movie. I feel like it somewhat predates Ben Stiller becoming a thing, but there are so many delightful 90s friends who make appearances. There’s the dude who plays Roger in Sister, Sister, there’s Linda Cardellini who is the main character inFreaks and Geeks. She plays Heather, who is Kel’s girlfriend for like five minutes when they’re in the Demented Hills mental institution. And there is of course– sporting a wig that is an odd hybrid between an afro and a jheri curl– Sinbad.
VN: There’s also platinum-selling, award-winning artist Shaquille O’Neal, the only person to work with Nas, Biggie, Janet, and Michael Jackson on songs.
ELE: I’m sorry, you must have him confused with Dr. Shaquille O’Neal, who is a contemporary art curator.
VN: Or perhaps Officer Sha….never mind. I’m totally listening to that Shaq song right now btw.
ELE: The scene where they meet Shaq is so deep because Kenan– sorry, Dexter– has already given this obligatory confessional wherein he confides in Kel that he has no relationship with his dad, who gave him a whistling light-up yo-yo and then was like “deuces!” So it’s really epic when they see Shaq and they run to him in slow motion, and then embrace him and jump up and down in unison while “Chariots of Fire” plays, and Shaq is strangely not weirded out. He is just like, “yes… my sons….” in a Mufasa voice. Or at least that’s how it sounded in my head.
VN: Last note on Shaq and then more on the guest stars. He’s wearing two different double-breasted velvet blue pinstripe suits in this movie. I love the 90s.
ELE: Yes. As a man of sartorial taste I was hoping you’d comment on that partially because I didn’t have the right menswear vocabulary to describe it. In my notes I wrote like “blue… purple… not plaid? Pinstripes? But with horizontal stripes that go across the vertical?” And like a million question marks.
VN: I just realized the second suit isn’t pinstripes but a blue velvet windowpane suit, which is actually the only way you could get more 90s aside from fleeing the cops in a white Bronco. So there’s this scene with Carmen Electra…
VN: Yeah…she plays a middle-aged woman paid to seduce a high schooler into giving up a secret sauce recipe. Umm…forget I mentioned this?
ELE: Oh no, let’s go there. What was most striking to me about that whole bizarre scene was how much her whole role was like a compilation of the stuff that happens to pretty women in misogyny-lite viral Vine videos. Like haha, you’re a woman and you got injured! It’s funny cause you’re attractive! [high-five] But I had no sympathy for her because she was a grown lady tryna get it in with Kel. She reminded me of various mugshots I have seen of those teachers in like Ohio who are like “I’m in love!!” with their ninth-grade varsity basketball students. Mad gross.
VN: Keep in mind this was 97. She hadn’t even married Dennis Rodman yet. This is early-stage Carmen. Her first Playboy was ‘96. I remember. I definitely remember.
ELE: True facts. If they had made this movie now who would be Carmen?
VN: The answer is so Miley Cyrus.
ELE: To paraphrase Comic-Book Guy, there is no emoji for what I am feeling right now.
VN: How did we get here? Is this my fault?
ELE: Yes. Things will become normal again when the Angels win the pennant.
Okay but. SINBAD. Definitely my favorite cameo with the obvious exclusion of George Clinton whom we’ll get to shortly. So you know how people are always talking about how the 90s were the heyday of black television and sitcoms and stuff and we didn’t even really appreciate it at the time? Sinbad’s presence highlighted for me how this movie is like a super Black movie without explicitly or solely being a Black movie, in a way that I really don’t think would fly now. Dude plays a high school teacher named Mr. Wheat and appears wearing a patchwork jacket on which he has handwritten “black is beautiful” with a Sharpie. At one point he screams at Kenan because he messed up his car’s leather, which is “Detroit leather” he had special ordered from Detroit.
VN: You’re right. This movie is effortlessly Black in a way you’d be hard-pressed to find today. Two Black leads, a centerpiece involving “Not Just Knee Deep” from George Clinton, Shaq, Sinbad, and some sick 90s hip-hop styles.
ELE: Also, in a psychic nod to Black Twitter before there even was such a thing… in the opening scene, Kel literally drags a white girl. Attached to a jump rope. While rollerblading. No word on if he read her later.
VN: You’re maybe my favorite person right now for this reference.
ELE: [takes a bow] That scene is one of several points in the movie where it’s basically a live-action cartoon. Like Kel runs into a lady, takes her baby by accident, then crashes into a basketball game where he switches the baby with a basketball and a dude dunks the baby.
VN: Ball is life.
ELE: And when Carmen gets hit with a golf ball they play the cartoon birds-flying-around-your-head sound effect.
VN: That little element of juvenile women-getting-violence-as-just desserts thing sits really bad looking back. That’s always the thing about re-living old comedy. We see just how much social mores have changed. You think there would be transgender jokes. casual statutory rape references, and a place called Demented Hills in a kid’s film today?
ELE: Yeah. I was especially bummed out by Demented Hills. The one really pleasant surprise though was Monique, the love interest (homegirl from Moesha) who was really likable and who spends most of the movie treating Kenan’s life until he proves himself to be a good friend to Kel… until, of course, she finds out that he has forced Kel to sign an exploitative contract that takes advantage of the fact that he’s only pseudo-literate. Kenan, did Mr. Wheat teach you nothing about the Civil Rights Movement?! You read about literacy tests and fraudulent contracts and you were like “I can use this.” For shame.
VN: So about that time you called me Kenan….
ELE: Hey man. I’m just saying, in a dichotomous set of options… actually, no. I think we’re all a little bit Kenan and a little bit Kel. Kel is like the id and Kenan is the ego. And the superego is… Sinbad? Or maybe Lori Beth Denberg.
Who is also in this movie.
VN: I think we just came up with a definitive answer for the Kenan vs. Kel debate. Kel would never exploit a person’s literacy. As a dyslexic person, I’m so pro-Kel now.
ELE: Kel is super sweet. He buys Kenan the yo-yo at the end! What’s not sweet is that he takes a jacuzzi in the milkshake machine. Honestly I wish Kel (actual Kel Mitchell) all the best in returning to television. If he ever decides to make adult comedy I would probably enjoy it. I am also a Kenan fan. I still think Pierre Escargot is hilarious. And I like some of his SNL stuff. But Kel is from Chicago, so… ride or die.
VN: Speaking of SNL, Good Burger gave us one of the first instances of the trope that would end up defining Kenan’s career:
ELE: Sigh. Sigh. Black men dressed as grannies or just women in bad wigs. On the one hand, so demeaning and tired. On the other hand, in many instances so hilarious. See also: Vine, Martin Lawrence’s whole career. That scene made me so sad though because Kel legit looked so sad standing there in his lingerie. And he had no lines so he just stood there looking demoralized.
VN: OK, so I just gave myself one of those Men In Black neuralyzer thingies. Ready to talk about North Carolina’s greatest statesman, George Clinton?
ELE: Very much so. Okay, so true or false: George Clinton’s presence is the definitive factor that makes Good Burger a beloved classic.
VN: True. 100% factual. Without the Demented Hills scene, Good Burger is an overlong Black version of The Adventures of Pete & Pete (never talk bad about Pete & Pete by the way).
ELE: I never ever ever ever ever would. I have the lyrics to “Hey Sandy” (the opening theme) memorized. Clearly our next conversation has to be about Pete & Pete. But go on.
VN: I’m free all summer to talk about Pete & Pete. But ahh…Good Burger becomes an entire different film in the walls of Demented Hills. Again, some parts wouldn’t hold up today, but there’s plenty of rich stuff in here. There’s the full reveal of Kel’s genius and then, out of nowhere, a full video performance of a Funkadelic classic. Considering this as the official video.
ELE: It’s a gorgeous moment because it highlights what makes Kel loveable. In the preceding scene Kenan says “don’t worry, I’ll handle it.” But actually dude has no escape plan. Kel just happens to be sitting next to George Clinton, who complains about the music, and Kel, a kind person who takes people at face value, is like “this elderly man with multicolored yarn hair, which one day will be a popular fashion statement but now is a strange thing, wants to hear different music.” And he obliges.
VN: Right. Kel’s kindness gives us this incredible scene, and I’m glad that it involves Clinton, because he’s sort of a godfather to the Black cosmic weirdo tradition that Kel dabbles in. Here’s me making everything about Afrofuturism again (because it is), but that line about Kel’s characters reminding me a little of Andre 3000’s stage persona wasn’t a throwaway. Black spookiness/weirdness has an awesome tradition going back to and through George Clinton and Funkadelic wearing diapers on stage and stuff. The thing this film got the most right-and it’s an astonishing thing because it involves a really nuanced view of that history-is identifying the strains of funk in Kel’s outcast (outkast?) character. I think that’s why he’s the most-loved character of the two. ALSO “Not Just Knee Deep” is in my knowledge the first place the word “twerk” was mentioned in pop culture. So Good Burger may very well be the place where the word comes from in modern usage. You’re welcome.
ELE: You know, your boy Kenan is actually from ATL. So the plot thickens. But you’re right. And for me that scene was so memorable because I saw the movie in the theater with my mom and my brother, and when George Clinton appears there was this huge excitement that we could share. It’s been a trick in children’s media for a while to include stuff for the parents as kind of a wink and a nod, and George Clinton is somebody black parents could enjoy, but really like with their kids. Because as Future said on HuffPost Live the other day, growing up black also means growing up listening to and honoring multiple generations of black music. And if you think about this time, Dr. Dre was dropping all this music that sampled George Clinton, too… man. (Also, tangentially, there is randomly a Snoop song that plays in the credits of the film? After Kel’s ska rendition of “I’m a Dude”?)
VN: We haven’t talked enough about that soundtrack. That’s how you really know this movie is Black as hell, just like Space Jam was. There’s songs from 702, the Pharcyde, Warren G, De la Soul, and a George Clinton/Digital Underground collaboration.
ELE: That’s so bananas. Honestly, when I look back at that era there aren’t many movies I remember seeing in theaters, but this is one of them. It ranks up there with like Phantom Menace and The Lion King as one of my most memorable moviegoing experiences of the 90s. And maybe that’s why. I remember how elated I was when the title screen appeared. I think that Nickelodeon was where we went to feel seen and understood, in the way Twitter is now.
VN: There’s something here about All That having some DNA in our social media experience. Is that a stretch?
ELE: Man, we stretchin. Stretch on.
VN: I think about the high level of like…context needed to understand our jokes. The memes. On the outside a Michael Jordan meme isn’t funny. I saw a meme of MJ in Pluto and cried for 5 minutes. Same way I would have as a kid at a little Pierre Escargot referencing some older joke or Repair Man(x15) that would seem incomprehensible to an unfamiliar. It’s in how recursive Black humor is and that little bit of call and response in it. Or am I doing too much?
ELE: As you were writing I just said “Repair-Man-man-man-man-man” out loud to myself and then laughed. I meeeean, I dunno, man. Let’s call it right now. People are gonna read this and be like “Eve and Vann, you wrote 11 pages about Good Burger. That stuff wasn’t in the movie.” But I saw this lecture recently with Stuart Dybek and he said something that stuck with me. He said the art of reading and the art of writing is not the same. It’s not the writer’s job to endow a work with infinite meaning. That’s the reader’s job. The example he gave is that Herman Melville didn’t intend to endow Moby Dick with enough analytical material to fill thousands of pages of English dissertations, but in interacting with the reader, those meanings emerge. That’s what makes art great. So no, you’re not reaching, and yes, I just compared Good Burger to Moby Dick.
VN: Moby Burger. Good…Moby.