Good Burger (1997)

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When I was a goofball, media-hungry youth I used to look forward to Saturday nights where I could manage to land myself at a house with a cable connection so I could watch new episodes of the sketch comedy hallmarks All That & Saturday Night Live in a single evening. Watching Kenan Thompson make the move from Nickelodeon to NBC, then, felt like just as much of a natural transition as graduating from high school to college. He’s grown as a comedic performer steadily over the years even if his range is somewhat limited & it’s been fun to take the journey with him as a sketch comedy fan. The one career milestone Thompson is likely never to top came before this transition to network television mainstay, though. In the mid-90s, Kenan found himself starring as the protagonist of a legitimate feature film, a cult classic screwball comedy about fast food workers called Good Burger. If I had more steady access to a cable connection as a kid I very well might’ve caught Good Burger in a Nickelodeon broadcast & grown up with it as an oddball favorite. Watching the film for the first time as an adult had its advantages, however, and I was surprised to fall completely in love with the film as a work of mild surrealist humor & laidback stoner charm.

The biggest surprise about Good Burger is just how far Kenan Thompson is outshined by his then-comedy partner Kel Mitchell. As the classic straight man in the duo, Kenan assumes the unfortunate task of trying to elicit preteen cool while Kel goes full Looney Tunes & runs chaotic circles around him. Even if you can’t commit 100 minutes of your life to a screwball comedy starring former Nickelodeon talents as a pair of mismatched fast food workers, I urge you to at least watch Good Burger‘s opening five minutes, which are a masterfully bizarre introduction to Kel’s boundless obliviousness as the living enigma Ed. Ed dreams a Pee-wee’s Playhouse style animation sequence about burger assembly, which then morphs into Better Off Dead-inspired burger puppetry before he wakes to shower while wearing his full uniform & sing the wonderfully egalitarian personal anthem “I’m a dude, he’s a dude, she’s a dude, we’re all dudes” to himself. Ed then starts his day with a reckless rollerblading adventure that sets in motion mayhem as varied as a baby being slam-dunked on a basketball court & a life-threatening car accident. Most of Ed’s humor is similar to the children’s book series Amelia Bedelia or the character Drax the Destroyer  from Guardians of the Galaxy. He’s a painfully literal personality, so a request for “a burger with nothing on it” lead to customers receiving an empty bun & the threat “Watch your butt!” leads to him walking in circles. This line of humor isn’t, you know, height of comedic wit or anything, but Kel’s performance makes it charming & his other, almost supernaturally bizarre attributes makes the performance approach high art.

At heart, Good Burger fits firmly in the genre of the weedless stoner comedy, joining the respectable ranks of cult classics like Wayne’s World, Dude Where’s My Car?, and the Bill & Ted series. Ed’s chaotic rollerblading antics set in motion a contrivance that traps Kenan’s straight man audience surrogate Dexter in a menial summer job meant to teach him humility/responsibility. Once he gets over his own selfishness & emotionally-distancing sarcasm, Dexter finds a higher calling in destroying Good Burger’s flashy corporate competition, Mondo Burger, who are threatening to deliberately put them out of business almost entirely out of spite. There’s some kind of emotional core in this plot about a heartfelt quality product outshining & dismantling the more shrewd, calculated machinations of big business, but the true nexus of Good Burger is much more closely tied to Kenan & Kel’s junior high stoner humor. The same high fructose visual design (the kind of look you’d find in a cereal commercial or the Vanilla Ice vehicle Cool as Ice) & gay panic bro humor that adorns almost all other weedless stoner comedies are aplenty here. That latter aspect is something I might find annoying or abhorrent in a Seth Rogen or Adam Sandler picture, but it’s so relentless & out of place in this context that it almost plays as downright subversive. I particularly liked the exchange “He doesn’t like  you [as a friend]. He wants to use you.” “That’s not natural!” and the uncomfortable reveal that Kel looks disturbingly beautiful in drag.

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Good Burger proves time & time again that it’s well aware of the genre confines it’s working in and it’s a lot more well-versed in how to make them work than what you might expect giving its preteen media pedigree. For instance, when the Good Burger‘s manager exclaims “Ed, what are you doing inside the milkshake machine?” you’re not at all tempted to roll your eyes at the humor’s simplicity. Instead, you laugh to yourself & think “Classic Ed.” Well, I did at least.

Just about the last thing I expected when I watched Good Burger was for it to stand as my all-time favorite comedic use of Abe Vigoda and, yet, here we are. Besides Kenan & Kel’s great comedic chemistry, there are tons of bit roles & one-off cameos that shine in the film. George Clinton, Linda Cardellini, Carmen Electra, Sinbad, and Shaq all have their moments of unexpected charm, but it’s Abe Vigoda that manages to steal the show (as much as Kel will allow). Vigoda’s morbid line of self-deprecating humor is top notch here, with nearly every line referencing the idea that he probably should not still be alive. At one point another character asks of their geriatric Good Burger coworker, “How long could he possibly live?” Since Vigoda just passed away a few months ago, the answer ultimately was about two decades. Vigoda seemed to have a blast turning himself into something of a living novelty in his final years in projects like Joe Versus the Volcano & The Conan O’Brien Show, but I contend that Good Burger was his finest comedic performance of them all.

The film’s cast & general vibe is about as perfect of a mid-90s time capsule as you could ask for, right down to the Less Than Jake rendition of “We’re All Dudes” featuring guest vocalist Kel Mitchell. For what the film set out to accomplish it’s difficult to imagine any area where it could’ve been improved. I’d even go as far as to say that its fictional Good Burger delivery vehicle the Burgermobile is more of an enviable possession as any version of the Batmobile I’ve ever seen onscreen. Kenan Thompson’s performance could’ve used a little work, but it’s an act he’s gradually fine-tuned over the years & the film stands as a great document of his humble beginnings. Oddly enough, it’s Kel’s tour de force creation of Ed that I would’ve altered slightly in a re-write of the film’s screenplay if I could change just one thing about the film. At Good Burger‘s climax Ed hugs his newfound pal Dexter goodbye, completely misreading the finality of their friendship. If I had my way Ed would’ve been returned to his home planet in this moment though alien abduction & fulfilled his lifelong dream of “shaving a Martian”. The fact that he wasn’t feels like an opportunity missed. This (& only this) plot detail stands as the one area where Good Burger could’ve been improved. Considering the means & scope of its origins it’s an otherwise flawless edition to the weedless stoner comedy genre, this time with a 90s Nickelodeon preteen sheen.

-Brandon Ledet

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