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The Way Kids Are: Dazed, but not confused

In the ultimate reality check, comedy production duo Tollin/Robbins taps kid humor at the source......
September 1, 1998

In the ultimate reality check, comedy production duo Tollin/Robbins taps kid humor at the source…

hen we were holding auditions for our Nickelodeon sketch-comedy show All

That, we decided we’d try something a little different. Instead of just handing kids scripts to read, we let them improvise. We were blown away.

Here was this perky little 11-year-old girl named Katrina, doing a killer Ross Perot imitation! A 15-year-old named Kel Mitchell, who’d been nervous and slightly awkward with a script, suddenly transformed into a preacher, then a singer, then an old man, when we let him do his own thing. His physical comedy was something from another era.

Then we paired him with another young comedian, Kenan Thompson (who we swear must have spent a former life in the Catskills). Within a half-hour, you would have thought they’d been lifelong friends; they had instant chemistry. They started to riff, and before you knew it, they were doing this routine of two old men sitting on a park bench, reminiscing.

Katrina’s Perot imitation and Kenan and Kel’s ‘Mavis and Clavis’ routine became two of the most popular sketches on All That. Kenan and Kel became such a huge hit that we spun them off into their own show (Kenan and Kel), their own feature film (Good Burger), and we have plans for more.

The point is this. As writers and producers of entertainment for kids, your greatest resource is the kids! They may sometimes have a dazed look in their eyes, but today’s kids are incredibly smart, incredibly intuitive. They have strong opinions, and they’re crying out to be heard.

V/O, prudently inclusive producers

BRIAN: The biggest danger lies is in talking down to kids, or underestimating them. When I starred in Head of the Class, a TV series about a group of high school students, I always wished that we, the actors, were able to be more involved in the process of creating the shows: I felt we were a lot closer in age and mindset to the audience we were trying to reach than the 50-year-old producers.

MIKE: I started out producing nonfiction shows with kids for HBO. I talked to real kids about real stuff, and I realized then how much you have to listen to kids, how much wisdom they have to impart.

* * *

On All That and Kenan and Kel, the kids inspire us to write. Their ad libbing, and the funny characters, voices and walks they do, all end up enriching the material. Our writers, Kevin Kopelow, Heath Seifert and Steve Holland, have great rapport with the kids, and when you have an open dialogue, things just happen.

The kids on our shows are pretty much like all kids today; they’re highly intelligent and highly aware of pop culture and everything that’s going on in the world. They’re not naive. They feel very loose and free to explore; they’re really uninhibited, and that’s what makes them so funny!

We tape in front of a live audience every week. Maybe the networks test their shows once or twice a year, but every Friday night we have an audience of 200 to 300 kids, and that’s the biggest test marketing of all! We really react to their responses.

One of our sketches on All That is called ‘Ask Ashley,’ with Amanda Bynes playing Ashley, a kind of Dear Abby for kids. She always starts out by reading, ‘Dear Ashley,’ then looks at the audience, points to herself and says, ‘Tha-a-at’s me!’ When you have 200 kids responding in sync, ‘Tha-a-at’s me!,’ you know you’ve struck a nerve. Ashley starts out sweet and sugary, then after she reads the letter, she completely breaks character and starts ranting, ‘What a stupid question! Get a stinking clue!’ Kids love that, because that’s exactly what they’re not allowed to do. How many times in the course of a day do they roll their eyes and feel that way? But they’ve been taught it’s not proper manners or proper behavior to express their frustration.

Maybe we’re biased, but we feel that Nickelodeon provides a sense of kid empowerment, a sense that ‘kids rule.’

Every year, kids seem to grow up a little quicker. They’re exposed to much more at a much earlier age, which is both good and bad. As parents, we think, `What’s the hurry?’ But on another level, kids should grow up at their own speed, and find out what they are interested in. Being exposed to so much media at a younger age may not be making kids smarter or more sophisticated,

but it’s certainly making them a more discerning audience. They’ve seen more and they’re harder to impress.

As producers of kids entertainment, that really keeps us on our toes. And ultimately, that’s a good thing!

The tippy-toed Mike Tollin and Brian Robbins are the co-founders of Tollin/Robbins Productions. They produce All That and Kenan and Kel for Nickelodeon, along with Cousin Skeeter, making its debut on Nick this month. They’re also the producers of the feature films Good Burger (Paramount Pictures/ Nickelodeon Movies), starring Kenan and Kel, and the upcoming Varsity Blues (Paramount Pictures/MTV Movies), starring Jon Voight and James Van Der Beek.

hen we were holding auditions for our Nickelodeon sketch-comedy show All

That, we decided we’d try something a little different. Instead of just handing kids scripts to read, we let them improvise. We were blown away.

Here was this perky little 11-year-old girl named Katrina, doing a killer Ross Perot imitation! A 15-year-old named Kel Mitchell, who’d been nervous and slightly awkward with a script, suddenly transformed into a preacher, then a singer, then an old man, when we let him do his own thing. His physical comedy was something from another era.

Then we paired him with another young comedian, Kenan Thompson (who we swear must have spent a former life in the Catskills). Within a half-hour, you would have thought they’d been lifelong friends; they had instant chemistry. They started to riff, and before you knew it, they were doing this routine of two old men sitting on a park bench, reminiscing.

Katrina’s Perot imitation and Kenan and Kel’s ‘Mavis and Clavis’ routine became two of the most popular sketches on All That. Kenan and Kel became such a huge hit that we spun them off into their own show (Kenan and Kel), their own feature film (Good Burger), and we have plans for more.

The point is this. As writers and producers of entertainment for kids, your greatest resource is the kids! They may sometimes have a dazed look in their eyes, but today’s kids are incredibly smart, incredibly intuitive. They have strong opinions, and they’re crying out to be heard.

V/O, prudently inclusive producers

BRIAN: The biggest danger lies is in talking down to kids, or underestimating them. When I starred in Head of the Class, a TV series about a group of high school students, I always wished that we, the actors, were able to be more involved in the process of creating the shows: I felt we were a lot closer in age and mindset to the audience we were trying to reach than the 50-year-old producers.

MIKE: I started out producing nonfiction shows with kids for HBO. I talked to real kids about real stuff, and I realized then how much you have to listen to kids, how much wisdom they have to impart.

* * *

On All That and Kenan and Kel, the kids inspire us to write. Their ad libbing, and the funny characters, voices and walks they do, all end up enriching the material. Our writers, Kevin Kopelow, Heath Seifert and Steve Holland, have great rapport with the kids, and when you have an open dialogue, things just happen.

The kids on our shows are pretty much like all kids today; they’re highly intelligent and highly aware of pop culture and everything that’s going on in the world. They’re not naive. They feel very loose and free to explore; they’re really uninhibited, and that’s what makes them so funny!

We tape in front of a live audience every week. Maybe the networks test their shows once or twice a year, but every Friday night we have an audience of 200 to 300 kids, and that’s the biggest test marketing of all! We really react to their responses.

One of our sketches on All That is called ‘Ask Ashley,’ with Amanda Bynes playing Ashley, a kind of Dear Abby for kids. She always starts out by reading, ‘Dear Ashley,’ then looks at the audience, points to herself and says, ‘Tha-a-at’s me!’ When you have 200 kids responding in sync, ‘Tha-a-at’s me!,’ you know you’ve struck a nerve. Ashley starts out sweet and sugary, then after she reads the letter, she completely breaks character and starts ranting, ‘What a stupid question! Get a stinking clue!’ Kids love that, because that’s exactly what they’re not allowed to do. How many times in the course of a day do they roll their eyes and feel that way? But they’ve been taught it’s not proper manners or proper behavior to express their frustration.

Maybe we’re biased, but we feel that Nickelodeon provides a sense of kid empowerment, a sense that ‘kids rule.’

Every year, kids seem to grow up a little quicker. They’re exposed to much more at a much earlier age, which is both good and bad. As parents, we think, `What’s the hurry?’ But on another level, kids should grow up at their own speed, and find out what they are interested in. Being exposed to so much media at a younger age may not be making kids smarter or more sophisticated,

but it’s certainly making them a more discerning audience. They’ve seen more and they’re harder to impress.

As producers of kids entertainment, that really keeps us on our toes. And ultimately, that’s a good thing!

The tippy-toed Mike Tollin and Brian Robbins are the co-founders of Tollin/Robbins Productions. They produce All That and Kenan and Kel for Nickelodeon, along with Cousin Skeeter, making its debut on Nick this month. They’re also the producers of the feature films Good Burger (Paramount Pictures/ Nickelodeon Movies), starring Kenan and Kel, and the upcoming Varsity Blues (Paramount Pictures/MTV Movies), starring Jon Voight and James Van Der Beek.

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