It’s just weeks before his 27th birthday, and Kenan Thompson is already facing a midlife crisis.
That’s what returning for the 10th anniversary special of the show that launched your career — the children’s comedy-variety program “All That” — will do to a member of the Gen Y generation.
“All these little kids are running around and I feel like a ghost, I feel like an old man, I feel like an old ghost,” Thompson says earnestly as he leans forward on the couch in his dressing room above the Hollywood sound stage where “All That” is taped.
Then, leaning back on the couch and breaking into that exuberant “hey, hey, hey” voice that is instantly recognizable to anyone who saw him in this year’s film “Fat Albert,” Thompson (who in person is stocky but not fat) quickly adds: “I’M A LITTLE FREAKED OUT!”
One floor down on the “All That” set, the scene would be enough to freak anybody out, resembling as it does more the waiting room of Kids TV Heaven than a television show.
Scores of faces, almost all them instantly recognizable to any preteen with cable TV access, are crammed onto the stage, waiting for the director to shout “Action!” as they create the hour-long 10th anniversary episode that will air 8 p.m. ET Saturday.
Jamie Lynn Spears, the star of TV’s “Zoey 101,” is fidgeting uncomfortably in her high-heels while rapper Bow Wow, standing a few feet away, is engaging in some bonhomie with the former stars of the 1990s children’s shows “Pete and Pete” and “Figure it Out.” The stars of Nickelodeon’s current hit “Drake and Josh” are excitedly tossing copies of a new CD of their show’s songs to “All That” creator Dan Schneider.
Every few minutes someone is knocking over a piece of stage equipment, sending it crashing to the floor with an impressive-sounding bang.
Faces from the pastAlmost all of the show’s cast members from years gone by are appearing on the show, as well as numerous other stars from films, TV and music.
The Godfather-like presence looming large over the moment, though, is Thompson, one of the original members of the cast dating back to 1995, then left with fellow cast member Kel Mitchell in 2000 to star in the variety show “Kenan and Kel.” Soon after that came “Saturday Night Live,” where Thompson is now in his second season as one of the show’s featured players. Then there are the movies, including “Fat Albert” and “Barbershop 2: Back in Business.”
“It’s just funny that they talk to me like I’m such an entity when I look at myself like I’ve SO just been playing,” muses Thompson, dressed all in black with a large gold crucifix dangling from his neck. “And now they’re looking at me like how I used to look at Sinbad and those kind of people.”
Even Spears, whose big sister, Britney, isn’t exactly an unknown, confides that one of the thrills of coming back to do the anniversary special was the chance to meet childhood heroes Kenan and Kel.
“It was cool. I was like, ‘Oh gosh!’ It was kind of weird,” giggles the 14-year-old who says she grew up watching the show before joining it for its eighth and ninth seasons.
Christina Kirkman, 12, who joined the cast last year, claims she can recall watching “All That” when she was 2.
“Every night I sing the theme song in my sleep,” she says her mother tells her.
Devoted fans“All That” and its stars, from Thompson and Mitchell to Amanda Bynes and Nick Cannon to current cast members Kirkman and Lisa Renee Foiles, have managed to maintain that kind of awe-struck devotion from the show’s audience for a decade now. It’s an accomplishment all the more impressive given the fickle nature of a preteen audience that can turn something popular this week into something “so last week.”
Some of the show’s clever “Saturday Night Live”-like comedy sketches are partly responsible for the audience’s attention over the years. Thompson and Mitchell’s bumbling but lovable “Good Burger” fast-food employees proved so popular that the sketch was spun off into a hit movie, while Spears’ and Foiles’ Joan and Melissa Rivers-like mavens Carly and Marlee, with their “passion for trashin’ fashion,” are warmly remembered on numerous Internet message boards.
Then there was Thompson’s Superman-like character “Superdude,” whose weakness wasn’t Kryptonite but milk; he was lactose intolerant. Years later, Shane Lyons would revive a version of the character with Bucketman, a janitor-turned-superhero whose crime-fighting abilities were severely limited by the fact he could never get the bucket that gave him his superpowers off his head.
“All That” creator Schneider also credits the show’s success to its ability to keep finding talented cast members, all of whom were unknowns when they joined the show.
“‘All That’ is this machine for finding young talent and developing them,” he said. “You find a kid, you put them on ’All That,’ and two years, three years, three seasons later, you might spin them off to their own show.”
Among the best known who made that leap was Bynes, now 19, who went on to movies and the TV series “That’s What I Like About You.”
“I remember when Amanda was a baby,” Thompson recalls fondly.
“Now she’s all tall and kissing boys on TV,” he continues, shaking his head.
“I can’t watch that show,” he adds. “I DO NOT want to see that.”
Instead, he’d rather revel in what it was like to be young — or, in his case, younger — recalling such favorite moments as prompting fist fights between the show’s girl stars and then hiding from Schneider. Or of getting to see guest stars like Grammy-winning musician Usher before they were beautiful and famous.
“We had Usher on when Usher was chubby,” he laughs.