Sub-Cult

Does Good Burger Deserve Cult Status?

Sub-Cult is Nathan Rabin’s ongoing exploration of movies that have quietly been attracting devoted followings and are on the verge of becoming full-on cult sensations.

by | September 29, 2015 | Comments

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Once you pass a certain age, it’s hard to watch television shows pitched exclusively at children on Nickelodeon or The Disney Channel and not feel about as creepy as a grown man who sneaks into a high school locker room wearing only a too-tight Speedo and too-baggy trenchcoat. So there is a good reason why, despite my curiosity about Hannah Montana as a strange pop culture phenomenon that then birthed the even stranger pop culture phenomenon of whatever the hell Miley Cyrus is these days, I never set out to watch a single episode of Hannah Montana. 

Over the past 20 years or so, television comedy for adults has grown increasingly sophisticated and mature in its storytelling and structure, as the influential but ultimately conventional Seinfeld gave way to the much darker and more challenging Curb Your Enthusiasm, and one-camera sitcoms with no laugh track went from being weird outliers to the default form for shows with any kind of ambition.

But if adult television comedies grew more sophisticated, television comedies for kids traveled in the opposite direction. Instead of running away from the hoary old conventions of sitcoms and sketch comedy shows — frenetic mugging, cartoonish characters, the unseen but oppressive laughter of easily impressed masses, idiot plots, gags older than Methuselah and twice as tired — the shows of kiddie TV kingpin and Head Of The Class cast-member Dan Schneider (All That, Kenan & Kel, The Amanda Show, Victorious) doubled down on them.

That makes sense from a commercial standpoint. If you’re trying to appeal to a hip, educated, and refined audience, you do not want to be shackled to the cornball conventions of an earlier age. But if your target demographic is children who may not even possess a sense of humor, let alone an advanced comic sensibility, then it’s commercially savvy to spoon-feed them as much possible, especially if you’re not even bothering to try to appeal to an adult audience.

For Good Burger, the big-screen spin-off of Nickelodeon sketch comedy hit All That, almost comic-book-level broadness, non-stop comedic mugging, corny wordplay, and one-dimensional characters aren’t flaws so much as cornerstones of its sensibility. That’s a beyond-broad, candy-colored, family-friendly sensibility that obviously connected with a lot of children at the time of the film’s release and holds up surprisingly well 18 years later.

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“Mitchell plays Ed as an amalgam of Fast Times At Ridgemont High’s Jeff Spiccoli and The SimpsonsRalph Wiggum.”

Good Burger opens with Kel Mitchell’s Ed chirping, “Welcome to Good Burger, home of the good burger. Can I take your order, please?,” a seemingly mundane bit of banter that Mitchell repeats so frequently and with such demented glee over the course of the film (and earlier, in the “Good Burger” sketches on All That that inspired the film) that it has become a surprisingly ubiquitous catch-phrase and gif.

Before the film puts Ed in front of customers whose increasingly apoplectic orders he thoroughly and, I would argue, unprofessionally fails to grasp, he first has a dream in which he soars above the earth with talking hamburgers with eyes, exclaiming exuberantly, “I’m flying with hamburgers!”

I enjoy this scene both because it signals that the film will be a little goofier and more surreal than you might imagine, given its Nickelodeon pedigree, but also because it suggests that the entire film might very well be the subjective hallucinations of a drugged out madman, the kind of utterly insane lunatic who imagines himself flying with fried meat patties.

Mitchell plays Ed as a surfer/space cadet/stoner amalgam of Fast Times At Ridgemont High’s Jeff Spiccoli and The SimpsonsRalph Wiggum, with a little of MTV’s Jesse Camp thrown in for good measure. In other words, he is a wholly original combination of ubiquitous comic icons (except for Camp, who might as well be in witness protection for how often he pops up in the news these days). But Ed is another comic staple as well: he is the uncomprehending fool, whose lineage can be traced back to the baggy pants comedian of the vaudeville stage and before, who can be counted upon to misunderstand every verbal interaction in the most comedic manner imaginable.

Ed works at the eponymous fast-food establishment, a ramshackle employer of kooks, goofballs, and misfits alike (as well as Abe Vigoda, who acquits himself nicely with some inspired nearly-dead jokes) where he mans the register despite a pathological and, at times, quite comical inability to understand the English language. His unfamiliarity with colloquialisms, colorful phrases, cliches, and anything other than the most literal kind of language constitutes about 90 percent of the film’s humor; if the rimshot-worthy wordplay were removed, the film would be reduced to the Nickelodeon logo immediately followed by the end credits. Honestly, Ed’s grasp of English is so feeble, he might as well not speak it at all.

While Ed’s life revolves around his love of Good Burger (when it comes to blind devotion, the people of Jonestown had nothing on Ed’s feelings toward his employer), cool dude Dexter (Kenan Thompson, the “Kenan” part of Kenan & Kel) indulges in shenanigans like stealing his mother’s car and crashing it into the automobile of teacher Mr. Wheat (Sinbad). Sinbad plays Mr. Wheat in what appears to be a “Funky Black Power Buffoon” costume from a failing Halloween store in an outlet mall, but throws on a shiny giant butterfly collar so that the look isn’t overly sedate and understated.

Dexter will get into serious trouble unless he can raise the money to pay off Mr. Wheat, so he reluctantly gets a job at Mondo Burger, Good Burger’s fierce rival and a mega-food-emporium that’s part nightclub, part Disneyland, and part fast food establishment. Mondo Burger dwarfs Good Burger in every respect, particularly the size of the restaurant and the size of their burgers.

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“It’s kind of adorable the way Good Burger intermittently attempts to be an actual movie.”

That is because Mondo Burger has been using an illegal additive to make its burgers freakishly large, and I have officially given Good Burgers plot far more time and attention than it merits. Dexter ends up working at Good Burger after getting fired from Mondo Burger, and after Ed invents a delicious secret sauce that gives Good Burger a competitive advantage, Dexter takes advantage of his friend’s wide-eyed naiveté by trying to swindle him out of the money he is owed for his remarkable discovery.

It’s kind of adorable the way Good Burger intermittently attempts to be an actual movie instead of a 95-minute blast of random tomfoolery. It’s sweet that Good Burger feels the need to provide an origin story for Kenan & Kel’s relationship and their jobs at Good Burger, as if otherwise audiences would just never buy that a teenager like Dexter would be working flipping burgers.

About halfway through the film, Dexter and Ed bond when Dexter comes clean about the deep scar his father’s abandonment left within his soul as they gaze up at the stars on the roof of Good Burger. The tone in this scene is so sentimental and jarringly off that it’s hard to tell whether the filmmakers are trying to shoe-horn in an arbitrary element of “emotion” and “pathos” in a movie that neither needs nor can support either quality, or if they’re merely setting up a joke and taking their time in doing so.

It turns out Good Burger is doing both. After Dexter is done spilling his heart out as much as anyone can expose themselves emotionally in a film like Good Burger, he reflects that he doesn’t even remember what his father looks like, to which Ed obliviously retorts, “I don’t remember what my dad looks like either, but at least I get to see him every day,” which is technically a comic payoff for the scene, I suppose, but really raises more questions than it answers. Why can’t Ed remember what his father looks like from hour to hour? Does he have face blindness? Is he afflicted with a form of amnesia like the protagonist of Memento? Or is he just utterly insane, as is suggested over and over again throughout the film, overtly and otherwise?

Speaking of insanity, at one point in Good Burger, Ed and Dexter are shuttled off to Demented Hills Asylum after they find out too much about Mondo Burger. This part doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, even for a live-action cartoon like Good Burger, but while lurching about in the loony bin one day, Ed literally bumps into George Clinton and leads his fellow mental patients in a “Thriller” style group dance to the funk Clinton is laying down.

If I was on the fence about Good Burgers brightly lit, endearingly goofy nonsense before this sequence, this production number conclusively tipped me over to the film’s side. It’s not funny, necessarily, but it is genial, likable and mildly amusing throughout, and full of gags and characters that hint at a subversive intelligence being kept in check by the necessity to appeal to a mainstream family audience.

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“It’s Mitchell’s daffy, dadaistic innocence that powers the movie.”

Very early in the film, for example, Ed wakes up from the dream where he’s flying with hamburgers and, upon encountering his alarm clock, he screams out in horror, “A clock!” suggesting that he isn’t freaked out by the prospect of being late, but by the existence of a clock in the first place. Ed seems to inhabit a different universe than everyone else, one where people in mental hospitals spontaneously break out into choreographed dance numbers, and words almost invariably mean the opposite of what they’re supposed to mean.

In their bid to uncover the secret of Ed’s much sought-after sauce, Mondo Burger dispatches a sexy vixen played by Carmen Electra to learn its ingredients, but a man who cannot comprehend the basics of human communication cannot be seduced because he similarly cannot comprehend the basics of seduction. Ed is a weird little saint in Good Burger, a true believer in the transformative power of fried meat and french fries, and though Thompson would go on to have a more impressive career, thanks largely to the seven decades he has spent essaying the role of the “black guy in a dress” on Saturday Night Live, Mitchell gives the more impressive performance here. Thompson is a fine straight man, and his chemistry with Mitchell is strong, but it’s Mitchell’s daffy, dadaistic innocence that powers the movie and gives this silly, endearing little trifle its surprising longevity.

To people who grew up on All That and Kenan & Kel, the bright lighting, goofy performances and cartoonish shtick of Good Burger doesn’t just look and feel like the television shows they liked when they were younger. For these nostalgic souls, Good Burger looks and feels like their childhood. That connection to one’s youth is ultimately more powerful and important than any mere consideration over whether a movie is “bad” or “good.” Good Burger didn’t transport me back to my childhood. No, that was defined by such unassailable exemplars of quality as Saved By The Bell and You Can’t Do That On Television. But after watching Good Burger, I understand the younger generation’s love for it, and share at least part of it to the extent a geriatric old soul like myself can.


My Original Certification: Rotten
My Re-Certification: Fresh
Tomatometer: 33 percent

Up next: Punisher: War Zone

  • Adzl33t

    Live action kids show comedies or “kidcoms” are terrible because they are made Film School rejects that rather be doing something else like a proper mature stuff

    Kid comedies for animation are however are better than before, because they are made by people that have fun, or that’s my personal theory

    Nostalgia Critic/Doug Walker can explain it better https://youtu.be/qXpWAO0F7ck

    • Unexpected Dave

      Hey, Savage Steve Holland is not a film school reject.

  • Fran

    Good Burger is one of my favourite films from my childhood. It’s just so stupidly hilarious. Plus, Kenan & Kel are a great duo. Loved their reunion on Jimmy Fallon last week.

  • poontang3zizo

    I’m a fan of Kenan & Kel and let me tell you – NO. Good Burger does not deserve cult status. It’s a bad movie. Poorly shot, written, acted, directed and executed. I am amazed that this article takes this film so seriously in the first place. What made K&K work well was that it was pretty short. Good Burger was completely unnecessary. I remember as a kid being disappointed after watching this film. It was and will always be a bad movie. Stop looking at the past with rose colored glasses. Not everything was gold.

  • Matty Adams

    While I completely agreed on the cult status article for “Grandma’s Boy”, I have to go the other direction on this one. I understand the points trying to be made, but I actually watched this recently and struggled to keep the movie on. When I think of nostalgia and childhood particularly with t.v. shows, I think of “Pete & Pete”, “Salute Your Shorts”, and even to a lesser degree “Are You Afraid Of The Dark?” Personally, “All That” and “Kenan and Kel” were very hit or miss, just like this movie. Truly well made shows have not only nostalgic value, but can be enjoyed even decades after due to the nuances and subtle humor. In my opinion, “Good Burger” is meant to be enjoyed for ages 10 and under, and then never again.

  • kunsabagay

    woah, a clock!

  • MidnightNoon

    Actually, since “Good Burger” came out a couple of years before the MTV VJ contest that thrust Jesse Camp upon us, wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that the movie inspired him and not the other way around?

    On a side note, no mention of Linda Cardellini as Ed’s brief love interest at the asylum?

  • To paraphrase Frasier Crane, “Well, we’ve certainly analyzed the crap out of this.”

  • Senor Forty

    I just want to know where the soundtrack is

  • Vits/Vicente Torres

    It doesn’t.
    It does have funny moments, but the characters aren’t very likeable. I didn’t buy DEXTER & ED’s friendship. None of the actors really stand out as good or bad… except for Kel Mitchell whose surfer dude voice is so annoying! Watch the movie with the Latinamerican dub (it has better acting). One of the supporting characters was a vegetarian. Why was she working in a fast food restaurant?!
    4/10

  • Dark enV

    My brother and I use to love watching this movie as kids, it’s still a fun movie to watch even with all the cheesiness haha

  • Jack Burton

    It’s just goofy stupid fun, not for everyone of course but silly flicks like “Better Off Dead” or “Weekend at Bernies” somehow work for many of us. “Good Burger” is one of them.

  • EB

    Spot on regarding how wretched children’s (really… tween) TV has become. I tried in good faith to watch Girl meets World and it is beyond awful in acting, execution and characters. I mean, what happened to stuff like Are you Afraid of the Dark and Pete and Pete (and even the earnest and talented people on Where in the World is Carmen San Diego). Fortunately, animation has grown so complex and well-written. Over the Garden Wall. Batman the Brave and the Bold. Adventure Time. Regular Show. All are really excellent.

    • Actually, Adventure time has become less relevant than it really is.

      gravity falls and Steven universe is where the actually-good animations are. Both have terrific characters, plot, and actors. Plus, they both are more mature animations, so you can enjoy their depths in terms of story.

      I would’ve said Looney Tunes reboot as well(which surprisingly isn’t that bad), but that has become irrelevant as well.

  • Mykl Levi

    NO!

  • Clark

    Ugh this movie is garbage. Apart from Trick R’ Treat, which is an awesome movie, and Grandma’s Boy. Which is just fun, all of the movies in this article have been trash. Good Burger? Grease 2? Seriously? You mostly basically pick terrible films that are widely considered terrible, and then just make up reasons why they are not that bad. Just because a terrible movie gets older, doesn’t mean the awfulness has worn off in any way. Case in point, Good Burger. I applaud anyone that makes it all the way through this lame ass movie.

  • Scottie Rock

    This movie is awful and has no saving grace.

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