Kenan and Kel: The story behind America's favorite orange soda-loving best friends
Kenan Thompson and Kel Mitchell look back as their show celebrates its 20th anniversary
Lucy and Desi. Abbott and Costello. Kenan and Kel.
For some it might seem like one pair of names doesn’t belong, but if you’re of a certain generation, you know exactly why the final pair made the cut. For kids growing up in the ’90s, Kenan Thompson and Kel Mitchell were the pinnacle of comedy, whether it was All That, Good Burger, or their very own sitcom, Kenan & Kel.
It may be hard to believe, but it’s been 20 years since the world first met Kenan Rockmore (Kenan Thompson) and his orange soda-loving best friend, Kel Kimble (Kel Mitchell). To honor the milestone anniversary, Thompson and Mitchell caught up with EW, looking back on the first time they met, having a show named after them, and hanging with Coolio.
“Oh, we’re the same dude.”
In 1993, Nickelodeon scoured the country looking for talented youngsters for their new sketch comedy show, All That. Included in the initial cast were two unknown 15-year-olds, Thompson from Atlanta and Mitchell from Chicago. They clicked immediately.
“I think we just had very similar experiences in life, like he happened to be from Chicago and I’m from Atlanta, but most black families are pretty much the same, like very close and very fearful of our five-foot mothers and s–t like that,” laughed Thompson. “We both have very similar taste in comedy even though his is more physical and mine is a little more standing around-ish.”
Even 20 years later, both actors vividly remember the moment when their soon-to-be dynamic comedic relationship first began. “When we started doing sketches together that was when we kind of saw the Kenan & Kel magic,” says Mitchell. A sketch that would become one of their most popular started it all. “Kel and I did Mavis and Clavis together where we were ad-libbing back and forth and sort of clicked and made each other laugh,” Thompson remembers. “It all happened pretty much the first day because that was when we were like, ‘Oh, we’re the same dude.’”
“We hit the goal, I guess we can retire now.”
All That became a huge success for Nickelodeon and Thompson and Mitchell proved to be two of the biggest breakout stars. Not only would they soon get their own feature film, Good Burger, based off of their memorable characters from the show, but they’d also land an opportunity that few actors do — a show with their names in the title.
“During the seasons of All That they used to see Kenan and I off-set, just kind of telling jokes and hanging out — that is basically what led to the Kenan & Kel show,” says Mitchell.
The show’s creative direction started where every great show does — a Sinbad birthday party. “I was actually at a birthday party for the comedian Sinbad and an exec from Nickelodeon was introduced to me at the party,” shares Kim Bass, the creator of Kenan & Kel, an expert at comedy duos after creating Sister, Sister. “And when she heard my name, the woman actually said to me, ‘You’re Kim Bass? We’ve been looking for you, I thought you were an older white lady.’” Bass, who is black and was then in his late 30s, jokingly responded, “Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you, I’m not. Why have you been looking for me?”
A few months later, Bass was on a plane to meet Thompson and Mitchell, where he immediately saw their incredible dynamic. “They were the same,” he recalls. “During our first lunch they were just hilarious. You were having a conversation with two people, who were in a comedic rhythm. I remember how engaging, how entertaining, and how funny they were just having a normal conversation. It was almost as if it was rehearsed even though you knew it was organic. It was just a rhythm thing between them.”
Once the second season of All That was complete, the actors stayed at Universal Studios in Orlando, where the show filmed, to immediately begin Kenan & Kel. “It was unbelievable,” says Thompson. “We didn’t feel that we could do any better. We hit the goal, I guess we can retire now.”
“Oh yeah, Coolio’s my best friend.”
When searching for an artist to create the theme song for a new show on a kid’s network, where do you turn? For Nickelodeon it was Coolio, the rapper who had recently found success with the Grammy winning track, “Gangsta’s Paradise.”
“Shout out to Coolio,” laughs Thompson. “It was the best. He had been on All That before at that point, so we felt like we knew him. That’s how you are when you’re young, ‘Oh yeah, Coolio’s my best friend.’”
With “Aw, Here It Goes,” named after one of Kel’s many catchphrases, Coolio created a magnetic, catchy song that not only captured the essence of the show, but was the perfect combination of artist and material for the time.
Mitchell enjoyed the song so much that he has since integrated it into his stand-up career. “That hook, the song still holds up today,” he says. “When I do shows I’ll play the Kenan & Kel theme song and come out to the stage to that or I’ve even been in the club and they play it.”
“I’m happy that people enjoy the show and are still drinking orange soda”
Every great ’90s sitcom had a catchphrase. On Friends it was, “How you doin?” Over on Family Matters, Urkel was always wondering, “Did I do that?” Perhaps no catchphrase is more synonymous with Kenan & Kel than, “Who loves orange soda?”
“I don’t think any of us knew how big that was going to be, even today I still get that,” says Mitchell of his character’s euphoric way of declaring his love for his favorite beverage. “When my wife and I go out to eat, it doesn’t matter what type of restaurant we’re at, whether it’s a five-star restaurant or a burger shack, people go crazy if I don’t get an orange soda. And they’re like, ‘Oh, what are you going to drink? Orange soda?’ And they just crack up, but I enjoy it. I’m happy that people enjoy the show and are still drinking orange soda.”
While it’s easy to assume that an actor could be annoyed by a catchphrase that he’s heard from people for 20 years, that’s not the case here. “I think it lives in a very special place in people’s hearts, so regardless of what either one of us have continued to do people always think back on those times and they’re like, ‘Who loves orange soda,’ still to this day, “ says Thompson. “I can’t get mad at it because I love those times too and I feel where they’re coming from because it’s their childhood.”
“Look how cute this little kid is, don’t you want to put him on your show?”
Following four seasons, 62 episodes, one TV movie, and probably hundreds of bottles of orange soda, Kenan & Kel was over. After six straight years of working together non-stop, the stars were going their separate ways.
“I mean leaving Nickelodeon was definitely an adjustment,” shares Thompson. “Because then it was back to the real world of, ‘Now I’m an adult looking for a job,’ as opposed to a kid that’s getting introduced to all these people like, ‘Look how cute this little kid is, don’t you want to put him on your show?’”
Mitchell doesn’t think it was strange for him and Thompson to be doing their own work individually, but it was for audiences. “For other people I think it was when they saw us in other roles and guest-starring on other TV shows and stuff like that,” he says. “[It] kind of freaked people out. They’d ask him, ‘Where’s Kel?’ and they’d ask me ‘Where’s Kenan?’”
Thompson had a few minor TV and film roles after the show ended before he got cast in the ultimate sketch show, Saturday Night Live, where he has been since 2003. Mitchell embarked on a stand-up career, while making occasional TV appearances, but last year he returned to Nickelodeon as one of the stars of Game Shakers.
Despite working separately for so long, the two reunited for a Good Burger sketch last year on The Tonight Show and more recently for a Fandango commercial. “When we did the Fandango thing, we got to work and hang out all day together and that was, ‘Oh, I remember these times when we would just crack each other up off camera all day,’” Thompson says.
And in a time where audiences are obsessed with nostalgia and reunions, could we see more Kenan & Kel? “I mean, we might as well; it couldn’t hurt, “ teases Thompson. “If people want it then they should have it.”
“I miss and love those guys, it was awesome times.”
Mitchell and Thompson grew up not in a classroom, but on theme park rides between takes at Universal Studios and on the set of a music video with Coolio. “What I really think about is just how much fun this show was,” Mitchell reflects. “We shot it in Florida in the ’90s, which was cool because back then it was just like us and Shaq.”
While Thompson says that the episodes almost all blend together at this point, what he will remember most are the people and the relationships. “I miss and love those guys, it was awesome times,” he says. “I wish we could just pick up and do Kenan & Kel: The Grown-Up Years, getting everyone back working together. I feel like it would be an awesome moment for everybody.”