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All That was SNL for kids—and it aged with the same spotty inconsistency

The Internet is choked with nostalgia for the youth-oriented entertainments of the not-too-distant past: Tumblr blogs regurgitating images of half-forgotten toys; YouTube compilations of long-lost TV-show intros; countless blogs playing “Remember when?” with movies and video games whose rose-colored recollections aren’t always properly earned. With Memory Wipe, The A.V. Club takes a look at some of our formative favorites with clearer eyes and asks that all-important question: Were they really that great to begin with? This installment looks at the series premiere of the Nickelodeon sketch-comedy series All That.

Before I was a fully grown person in complete charge of when I went to bed on the weekend, one of life’s greatest privileges was being allowed to stay up and catch a glimpse of Saturday Night Live. Raised by parents who were in their late teens and early 20s during the reign of the Not Ready For Primetime Players, SNL held a certain distinction in our house. They continued watching the show long after I was born, and being allowed to watch it with them was like gaining a 90-minute window into what grown-ups were up to while us kids were asleep. The jokes sailed over my head, but it still felt like a treat when, say, I got to stay up to watch Billy Joel sing “We Didn’t Start The Fire” on the show’s circa-’89 art-gallery set.

The show’s various incarnations permeate my childhood memories: One time, my grandma videotaped the original SNL Sports Spectacular for me (I was really excited about seeing clips from Wayne Gretzky’s season-14 appearance), only to have her hit “eject” after the Schmitts Gay ad. After I got my driver’s license, my Saturday-night curfew wasn’t a precise time—I just needed to leave wherever I was after Weekend Update was done. (Sometimes I’d stretch it to the 10-to-1 sketch, because like those end-of-the-show oddities, I didn’t always play by the rules.) Needless to say, the idea of a Nickelodeon take on SNL was right up my alley in 1994.

The original All That cast with guest star Sinbad

Created by future Smallville and One Tree Hill producers Brian Robbins and Michael Tollin, All That was not the first attempt at sketch comedy to air on The First Kids’ Network. It was, however, the first to so clearly mimic the style and format of SNL. Canadian import You Can’t Do That On Television opened the door for sketch on Nick, cherrypicking strategies from throughout the history of sketch on TV: A little gross-out absurdity from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the behind-the-scenes shared universe of SCTV, the rapid-fire gags of Laugh-In. Roundhouse, meanwhile, came to the network with an In Living Color pedigree. Roundhouse brought sketch into the weekend rotation of the network’s SNICK lineup, but its stagy earnestness and adult cast made it feel like a lecture series as much as a variety show. All That’s musical taste hasn’t aged well (IV Xample, anyone?), but it never featured a performance as corny as this one.

All That’s attempt at giving children of the ’90s their own SNL began with the masterstroke Lorne Michaels hit upon nearly two decades earlier: If your comedy show is supposed to reach a certain generation, let that generation tell the jokes themselves. The original All That cast—Angelique Bates, Lori Beth Denberg, Katrina Johnson, Kel Mitchell, Alisa Reyes, Josh Server, and Kenan Thompson (the last of whom can still be seen on SNL)—could’ve been your friends or the funniest kids in your English class. If Roundhouse was a community-theater production parents dragged their kids to, All That was like those kids keeping themselves entertained in the darkened playhouse: Passing private jokes, engaging in light slapstick with siblings, generally ridiculing the stuffiness of grown-up life.

The SNL parallels don’t stop with casting. Every episode of All That features a musical guest, the recurring characters came pre-loaded with catchphrases (“Welcome to Good Burger, home of the Good Burger, can I take your order”), and the deadpan advice of Vital Information stands in for the fake news of Weekend Update. The original intro sequence even acknowledges the show’s debts to Lorne Michaels’ creation. Later replaced by the show’s signature call to action (“Fresh out the box. Stop, look, and watch. Ready yet? Get set—it’s All That!”), the episode that debuted on Christmas Eve 1994—the ostensible series premiere, following the pilot that aired the previous April—declares itself “Not quite live, but ready for primetime.”

All That - 1x01 - Da Brat by nickcaminero

There’s more than a little bit of hype in that statement: The cast shows up polished and professional, but what they put on screen is spotty. That’s another thing this half-hour shares with Saturday Night Live, the most consistently hit-or-miss comedy show in television history. More so than other sketch comedies, both series live and die on a scene-by-scene basis—without the framing segments of a Kids In The Hall episode or the overarching themes of You Can’t Do That On Television, there’s an additional amount of strain placed on each individual sketch. The complete run of any given SNL or All That doesn’t stick in the mind—catchphrases, premises, and punchlines do.

Consider the case of All That’s most lovable loser, Walter The Earboy. As played by Josh Server—who was 21 by the time his final episode aired—the character’s entire existence gets a succinct theme song summary: “He’s Walter The Earboy / His ears are really big.” Short, sweet, weird, and properly calibrated for converting adolescent anxieties into belly laughs. But the particulars of the Earboy sketch from the premiere fall away over time, and the script’s only obligations are to hitting the expected beats: Walter’s nonconformity, his friends with other insult-derived features, their attempts to fit in at school, and a visit with Walter’s oldest pal and trusted confidant, Texan billionaire and two-time presidential candidate H. Ross Perot.

In a segment boasting a number of questionable choices—the makeup for Earboy comrades Egghead and Four Eyes is bone-chilling—the presence of Katrina Johnson in full-on Perot drag is the most bizarre. That’s my current distance from Perot’s last political campaign speaking, though being 18 years out from the 1996 U.S. presidential election has a positive effect on the character. What I remember about Perot in 2014 is comparable to what I knew about him in 1994: The big ears, the charts, “Can I finish?” The premiere’s approach to celebrity impressions is charmingly childlike, applying the same broad strokes to Johnson’s Perot and Kenan Thompson’s rendition of Bill Cosby. (An impression that followed the actor into adulthood.) This is sketch comedy by way of the Looney Tunes shorts Nick once programmed: Find a character’s most pliable trait, wring a few punchlines out of it, and maybe a catchphrase will fall out, too. In Perot’s case, that was the repetition of his net worth (“I got $4 billion.”); for Cosby, it’s constant invocations of copyright-skirting “Yell-o Pudding.” As the scenes play out, each catchphrase takes on the mantra-like musicality of beleaguered stagehand Kevin and his regular cold-open refrain, “Five minutes!”

The simplicity of these segments—Earboy seeks acceptance; Cosby hijacks the radio-advice show of [record scratch] Dr. K—explains why Nick relied so heavily on sketch comedy in its nascent period. They’re the live-action equivalent of the cartoon shorts or music videos that used to fill out the network’s programming days, bite-sized entertainments designed to grab a viewer’s attention for a limited time only. What All That has working for it and against it is familiarity. Once you’ve seen the Cooking With Randy And Mandy sketch at the top of the premiere episode, you’ll know where every Cooking With Randy And Mandy sketch winds up: in several large puddles of chocolate.

The method for combatting that familiarity is already in place in Lori Beth Denberg’s maiden voyages behind the Vital Information desk: What the kids raised on All That would later refer to as “randomness.” Just as Randy and Mandy introduced their young audience members to the basics of cooking-show parody—like a de-gored riff on Dan Aykroyd’s hemorrhaging Julia Child—Denberg gave crash courses in non sequitur. (“At fine restaurants, it’s considered rude to butter yourself.”) This sort of thing was in line with the anarchic spirit of the series, but I remember being actively irritated when the out-of-left-field nature of Vital Information punchlines wound up seeping into the rest of the show. It couldn’t have occurred to me then, but a line like “It’s a bad idea to put bacon on your face and then run around screaming ‘Look at me, I’m Pork Boy The Breakfast Monkey!’” wasn’t a betrayal of the SNL-aping sketches of the premiere episode—it was a sign of the show discovering its own voice. (I write none of this to detract from the young Denberg’s ability to deliver these jokes, a theatrical flourish that mitigates the showier aspects of kiddie acting.)

Hearing my younger cousins shout about Pork Boy was like nails on a chalkboard to my adolescent ears, but it’s truer to the show All That was and would become than the standard-issue “Ed is bad at customer service” beats of the premiere’s Good Burger sketch. But sense of humor evolves like any other aspect of a personality, and I was probably too old to be watching All That at that point, anyway. (And too old to be watching it now, which offers partial explanation for the look I got from my wife the other day while watching the Earboy sketch at the gym.) It began as my sketch show, then grew into a sketch show that my cousins, my brother, and other, younger people could call their own.

The basic building blocks laid out in All That’s premiere were essential tools of understanding when I ditched staying up for SNICK and began binging on Saturday Night Live and Kids In The Hall reruns on summer afternoons. That kind of show was no longer an occasional treat that required late-night tiptoeing or use of the old “pretend like you’re sleeping” trick. All That was a serviceable substitute at the time, but it couldn’t beat the real thing then or now. The “real thing” being the season 26 of Saturday Night Live, featuring Will Ferrell in peak condition, the refinement of the Tina Fey-Jimmy Fallon Weekend Update team, Amy Poehler’s SNL debut, and one of the few truly flawless episodes of the show’s 45-year run: Jack Black with musical guests The Strokes. And if you disagree on that count, then clearly you’re a boring old adult who deserves some sort of All That-style comeuppance.