Nickelodeon offers ’90s nostalgia with ‘Kenan and Kel,’ ‘All That’ and more

July 21, 2011

For a contingent of Americans born between 1975 and 1992, Monday night is going to be a childhood fantasy fulfilled. Starting at midnight, Nickelodeon is digging into the archives and airing four classic shows in a block of neatly packaged programming: “The ’90s Are All That.”

Go ahead and watch a promo, the one with Kenan Thompson sitting on that bright, orange sofa. Yes, he is on the Snick couch. The Snick couch.

“The good old Snick couch!” Thompson is as excited as you are. “That brought back so many memories for me, immediately. Years and years of it, all around that couch. I think we had the couch in the ‘Kenan and Kel’ intro.” Filming that bit, Thompson said, “was very nostalgic.”

Sitcom “Kenan and Kel” will air weekdays on the network’s TeenNick channel alongside sketch comedy “All That,” “Clarissa Explains It All” (Nick’s first live-action comedy) and animated series “Doug” — four of Nickelodeon’s most iconic shows from the 1990s. Obsessives can also sign on to The90sAreAllThat.com to connect with other fans, access exclusive content and lobby for beloved shows they want to see on-air.

The block began to take shape last summer, when a group of young Nickelodeon interns gave a presentation to Nick executives. “Bringing back classic Nickelodeon is a real digital opportunity,” they said.

“When the numbers went from 9 million Facebook fans to 15 million fans, we said, ‘This is more than a digital opportunity. This is a TV opportunity,’ ” said Cyma Zarghami, president of Nickelodeon, citing the multiple sites viewers created to demand the return of these old shows. “We’re hoping to make it very interactive. . . . Part of the goal is letting people tell us what they want.”

Fans love ’90s Nick more than Kel loves orange soda. But why?

Nickelodeon quickly became the kind of weird, wacky channel kids would have dreamed up for themselves, right down to the orange splat logo. Kids don’t want squeaky clean. Kids want to be slimed. Kids want pies to the face. Kids want to see other kids being kids. Nickelodeon was the place that provided it.

“Nick was the first and only branded network for kids,” Zarghami said. “One of the reasons I think people remember Nick fondly is that we housed all the stuff they loved. . . . Our original mission was to lead people to believe that Nickelodeon was run by kids, and that if you walked down the halls of Nickelodeon, you would see kids who looked just like you playing there.”

Brian Robbins was the writer and creator of “All That,” a “Saturday Night Live”-style show that launched the careers of Thompson, Amanda Bynes and Nick Cannon. “There was really nothing like it on television,” Robbins said. “The show had a really urban, pop flavor. Everything up to that point was very soft, nice and sweet — very cookie-cutter. This was a very irreverent show.

“Kids felt ‘All That’ was all theirs. . . . It felt cool, like it spoke to them.”

But those kids who spent Saturday nights watching Snick are in their 20s and 30s now; isn’t it time to put away childish things? What is a devoted “Friday Night Lights” fan going to get out of “Double Dare”? What themes left unexplored by “Mad Men” are explained in total by Clarissa?

It is exactly because these fans are “too old” for these shows that this programming is so popular. This is television that’s not really about television. Turn on TeenNick, and you get to time-warp to a carefree childhood.

Shawn Robare, a 34-year-old from Atlanta, launched his Web site, Brandedinthe80s.com, in 2000, when he was in his early 20s. The site revisits the pop culture from Robare’s childhood: the songs, the comics, the television shows. “I had just married my wife. I was giving up a lot of stuff about being a teenager,” Robare said. “As soon as I started having those responsibilities, I wanted to become a kid again.”

Hillary Buckholtz, a 31-year-old D.C. area native, produces a Tumblr blog called I’m Remembering, an online nostalgia-fest for the toys, games and movies she loved growing up. The blog was sparked by her way of coping with stress at work, which was to Google-image things from her childhood. “It made me feel soothed.” she said. “Becoming an adult is stressful. Having a job is stressful. Being reminded of something sublime, it lowered my blood pressure.”

What people know anecdotally to be true of nostalgia is, in fact, backed by science. Tim Wildschut, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Southampton in Britain, has been conducting research on nostalgia for 10 years.

“When we don’t feel that great, or there’s some kind of psychological threat, people recruit these predominantly positive, warm, tender memories, which then, in turn, makes them feel more capable of dealing with the threat,” Wildschut said.

Another study, done by Jason Leboe, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, suggests that the act of remembering makes people happy, even if the memory is bad. Recalling something — say, the lyrics to the Camp Anawanna alma mater — makes you feel good, even if you didn’t like “Salute Your Shorts.” That’s why one-upping friends with arcane Nickelodeon trivia is so much fun: The act of remembering is an end unto itself.

Anyone with a television set is familiar with the pleasant feeling that stems from rewatching the shows you grew up on: From “I Love Lucy” to “The Andy Griffith Show” to “Happy Days” to “The Golden Girls,” syndicated series are the televised equivalent of comfort food.

The Internet has allowed people to engage in reminiscing on an unprecedented scale. It’s easier than ever to dig up the past and communicate with people who share the same memories.

“The Internet is perfect for nostalgia,” said Taylor Trask, whose site, IMiss90sNick.com, aggregates videos of ’90s Nickelodeon shows.

Trask is only halfway pleased with Nickelodeon’s foray into retro programming. “I would love if they would do some online streaming component,” he said. “They could be making money on these things [with] ad revenue and Amazon and iTunes.

“They’re putting their toe in the water, which is a good start. I wish they’d do more. . . . You can tell they’re kind of scared. Like, it’s on from 12 [a.m.] to 4 [a.m.], so if nobody watches, it’s fine.”

The appeal of this block, Trask said, is obvious. In an increasingly fragmented society, people crave a communal experience. “We watched it together before, let’s watch it together again.”

“Some of the most popular things I’ve ever posted are Nickelodeon-related,” Buckholtz said.

“I think we’re trying to hold on to something that we lost,” she said. “This is a reminder of watching the same thing at the same time. . . . It makes me feel like I’m not alone. It makes me feel like I’m part of something.”

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