The Quiet Radicalism of All That

When Nickelodeon's sketch comedy show debuted in 1994, it upended the norms of children's TV with its diverse cast, un-condescending tone, and kid characters played by actual kids.
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The Season Four cast of All That. (Nickelodeon)

The ’90s were golden years for Nickelodeon. The children’s cable television network was home to now cult-classic shows like Are You Afraid of the Dark? (1991-2000), Clarissa Explains It All (1991-’94), The Secret Life of Alex Mack (1994-’98), and Salute Your Shorts (1991-’92)—arguably heretofore unmatched in their clever, un-condescending approach to entertaining young people. Nick News with Linda Ellerbee launched in 1992, and remains to this day one of the only shows on-air devoted to frank, engaging discussions of teen issues and opinions.

But perhaps the program that best embodied the values of Nick in those years was All That, a sketch-comedy show that premiered 20 years ago today. Created by Brian Robbins and Mike Tollin, All That ran for an impressive 10 seasons before it was canceled in 2005. The prolific franchise spawned a number of spin-offs (Good Burger, Kenan & Kel, The Amanda Show) and launched the careers of several comedy mainstays: Kenan Thompson, Amanda Bynes, Nick Cannon, and Taran Killam.

Like Saturday Night Live (which would later hire Thompson and Killam), All That was a communal pop-cultural touchstone. The parents of ’90s kids had the Church Lady, “more cowbell,” and Roseanne Roseannadanna; the kids themselves, though, had Pierre Escargot, “Vital Information,” and Repairman Man Man Man, and we recited their catch-phrases to one another in the cafeteria and on the playground. Although All That was clearly designed as a SNL, Jr., of sorts, it wasn’t merely starter sketch comedy—it was an admittedly daring venture for a children’s network to embark on.

In its own right, All That was a weirdly subversive little show. It never explicitly crossed the line into “mature” territory, but it constantly flirted with the limits of FCC-approved family-friendliness. Take, for instance, the “Ask Ashley” sketch. A barely tween-aged Amanda Bynes (Seasons Three to Six), played an adorably wide-eyed video advice-columnist. Ashley (“That’s me!”) would read painfully dimwitted letters from fans with clearly solvable problems. (Example: “Dear Ashley, I live in a two-story house and my room is upstairs. Every morning, when it’s time to go to school, I jump out the window. So far I’ve broken my leg 17 times. Do you have any helpful suggestions for me?”) She would wait a beat, smile sweetly into the camera, then fly into a manic rage; emitting a stream of G-rated curses, always tantalizingly on the verge of spitting a true obscenity into the mix.

All That had its moments of being downright radical, too. Consider the “Loud Librarian” sketch: Lori Beth Denberg (Seasons One through Four) played a school librarian who, in her efforts to maintain absolute silence among the stacks, ends up being far more disruptive than her students. “QUIET, THIS IS A LIBRARY,” she screeched into a bullhorn on one occasion. Was it the most sophisticated humor? No—but viewers loved “Loud Librarian” all the same. After all, what kid hasn’t experienced the maddening realization that authority figures are often, in fact, totally prone to hypocrisy?

What’s more, at a time when TV programming remained largely segregated by race (think Seinfeld and Friends; Martin and Living Single), All That featured an effortlessly diverse cast both in terms of ethnicity and gender. “I thought it was awesome because none of us look like each other,” cast member Alisa Reyes (Seasons One to Three) told Complex. “We were like a total melting pot of diversity.”

The original cast included four girls (Denberg and Reyes, with Angelique Bates and Katrina Johnson) and three boys (Kenan Thompson, Kel Mitchell, and Josh Server); three white performers, and four performers of color. Compare that to the concurrently running Season 20 of Saturday Night Live (1994-95), which featured a cast of 17. Only four were women, and only two were of color.

All That’s producers knew its audience would be diverse, too, and embraced that fact wholeheartedly. The opening credits were scored with an original song by TLC, and weekly musical guests ran the gamut of late ’90s and early 2000s pop, alternative, R&B, and hip-hop acts: Aaliyah, Coolio, Sugar Ray, Nas, Erykah Badu, Britney Spears, Missy Elliott, Barenaked Ladies, and *NSYNC, to name a few.

Furthermore, the kids of All That were refreshingly normal-looking. Some were traditionally attractive, sure. Others were still growing into their features. Absent were the hyperactive, over-costumed Disney Channel tweens (Lizzie Maguire, et al), or the pouty, brooding 26-year-olds playing 16 on The WB (like the weirdly grown-up high schoolers of Dawson’s Creek or Popular). The cast of All That reflected the nature of its audience: They were growing up—lanky limbs, zits, and all.

This highlighted a distinct understanding among the adult writers and producers of All That (though it should be noted that its young performers were frequently encouraged to write their own material and improvise). The show was unique because it avoided the two predominant perils of programming for young people. It managed to be precocious and unruly without slipping into purposeful obnoxiousness—an unfortunate trend peddled and perpetuated by contemporary Nickelodeon cash cows (i.e. SpongeBob SquarePants)—or becoming a sexy marketing tool for clothing and gadgets, like the CW’s bevy of glossy teen dramas. At the same time, All That consciously rejected family-friendly standards. It was messy and irreverent—a show unapologetically written for kids, not their parents. And in that regard, it remains truly one-of-a-kind.

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Jake Flanagin is a writer for The New York Times's Op-Talk.

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