Before the term was ever pegged, Kenan Rockmore and Kel Kimble were all of our “squad goals.” From their slap-stick humor in opening scenes before the curtain called, to the back and forth banter between bros, the Kenan & Kel show introduced a best friendship that would keep 90s kids rolling well into adulthood.
Believe it or not, it’s been 20 years to the day since Kenan & Kel premiered on Nickelodeon on August 17, 1996. And although reruns of the hit sitcom can be caught after midnight (if you’re lucky) on 90s Are All That (turned The Splat), millennials are still reciting lines from the show and professing their love for orange soda.
Kenan Thompson and Kel Mitchell, the show’s dynamic duo had frequently been paired together on the popular Nickelodeon skit, All That, before being cast as the wise-cracking, Chicago teenagers who always managed to get in trouble for their mischievous schemes. But the self-titled show took their bromance and improvisation to another level. Kenan, the mastermind and brains of many operations always left us on a cliffhanger, wondering why he needed miscellaneous objects like a screwdriver or a can of tuna. Meanwhile, his fun-loving and ditzy companion, Kel, had the punch line and a bottle of his favorite bubbly drink on deck.
Looking back on two decades and four seasons of Kenan & Kel, it still creates all those great feelings of nostalgia. The best friends have parted ways since the show’s end in July 2000, but they still look back on their time together with the same fondness as the generation they inspired. In celebration of Kenan & Kel’s 20th anniversary, VIBE caught up with the co-stars to hear about their favorite memories and fun facts.
VIBE: How did you guys find out about getting the show at the time?
Kenan: Bryan and Dan approached me and Kel and pulled us aside, and they asked us how we would feel about having our own show. We looked at each other like, ‘Man, stop playing. Of course it would be the best thing ever.’ I think it was a two-minute type of a meeting. We were going to try and shoot a pilot during our Christmas, holiday break, and that’s exactly what we did. Then they picked the show up, and it started right after the All That season.
Kel: We would always hang out and crack jokes in between scenes on All That. The writers saw that and wanted to put together a Kenan & Kel spinoff show. Kim Bass, who also created Sister Sister, Brian Robbins, Mike Tollin, and Dan Snyder and all of those great guys who took a hand in making All That amazing, worked on Kenan and Kel. I remember they took us to the side close to the last week on All That, and they said, ‘Hey, how do you guys feel about starring in your own show? It’s going to be a sitcom like Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Martin.’ I was like, ‘Oh man, that’s awesome.’ Kenan and I were so excited. We shot the pilot episode. And it was cool because it was really different than All That. All That was a sketch show, many crazy characters. And this was more real, but it still had the same hilarity.
Did you know the show was going to be so well received?
Kenan: It was all a shock. We were so happy just to be doing this, and then the fact that people caught on to it, was just an awesome thing. We were blown away from the fact that All That had TLC, Aaliyah, Usher, and all these people coming through. We didn’t know our show was overly popular; we just thought we were part of a cool thing that was happening at Nickelodeon. But we wanted people to love it because we would go to the mall and stand around and see if anybody noticed us. And they didn’t, not for a while at least. But now, it’s more of a nostalgia thing. I’m glad that people love the show. It was our blood, sweat, and tears. It’s as much a part of my childhood as anybody else’s.
Kel: It’s really been a blessing. It says a lot to all the writers and the producers, and Nickelodeon because it still holds up.
The theme song with Coolio is still remembered as one of the best theme songs along with Sister Sister and The Proud Family. How did that come about?
Kenan: Coolio had been on All That before. He was already down with the production family. So I guess they turned to him and asked him if he would do it and he did it! It was like Christmas Eve for us, hanging out at Universal Studios with Coolio. It was awesome.
Kel: When we did the theme song, the day we shot it at Universal Studios City Walk in LA, Coolio got on the radio station on Big Boy’s Neighborhood!, and was like, ‘Yeah, we’re doing this theme song for Kenan & Kel. Everybody come down.’ And all of LA was at City Walk that day. That place was super packed. That was a huge moment.
The show is pretty ‘iconic’ for 90s kids and even younger generations that didn’t get a chance to watch 90s Nick went it was airing. Why do you think the show was able to last beyond its time?
Kenan: It was the genuine friendship that we had. It’s the same way when I watched Friends now. I look back at Friends, and it’s like they look so comfortable and so natural with each other. It was like they were destined to do that show. And it was so natural for us. It didn’t seem like we were trying or making an effort to be there and do it. It was a pleasure to work on the show. I think that’s what really comes across the screen of how much fun we had together. When I watch the episodes I barely remember that hair cut, but I remember how silly we were when we’re going back and forth with each other. There were good times.
Kel: Kenan & Kel reminds me of I Love Lucy. You could turn on I Love Lucy right now and those stories were years ago, but they still hold up; they’re still funny. Like the orange soda thing, I didn’t know that it would blow up like it did. Dan wrote it, and it just said ‘Who loves orange soda? I do, I do,’ but they allowed us to ad-lib and improv. So I threw a little sing-songy on it, and it just took off. I think right there we saw the magic of the show. The stories that we had, the friendship of Kenan and Kel, it was just a fun story. If I’m flipping channels and see it, I have to stop and watch it and laugh.
What are some of your greatest memories on or off screen during the show?
Kenan: It’s a mixture. There’s obviously work memories where we are laughing so hard that we can’t get through certain takes. We were just having fun. Kel would make me laugh and then I would try to make him laugh. And that’s how we would spend the day. Also, outside of work, hanging out in the same apartment complex, at nights doing laundry, walking back, throwing up because of the smell of the sprinklers and memories like that. I smelled those sprinklers [outside of the set] and puked in front of everybody, and all Kel did was laugh at me. It was amazing.
Kel: There are so many great episodes. A lot of our episodes were directed by child stars who were adult at that time – Kim Fields, Freeman, Malcolm-Jamal Warner. So that was cool for us as well. I remember we had a ton of great celebrity guests that would come on to the show. One of my favorite episodes is where I got to rap on the show. I rapped about orange soda, but that was pretty cool. But there were so many memorable moments. One of the most memorable moments was in the pilot when Kenan and I were excited about him getting a new car because he just got his driver’s license. We were sitting there on the couch trying to imagine what would happen with us in this new car. It was just this crazy moment of us hitting the horn, talking to girls, rolling down the window. Every time we shot it, it was different every time because we were just improving and ad-libbing. The thanksgiving episodes were pretty fun. I got to run around with a turkey because my hand got stuck in the turkey.
Is there something that people actually don’t know about the show or your characters?
Kenan: We never had any characters go missing. No one went up stairs and never came back. But I don’t know if people really know, when you shoot a TV show like you’re really family and it really works, it’s because it seems real to everybody, even to us. We were all so very close. I don’t think people really know how much we enjoyed doing it as much as people enjoyed watching it. Kel and I will be brothers for life. I’m so glad to have gone on that journey with him. I can’t believe 20 years have gone by; it’s been a flash.
Kel: The name. Everyone goes crazy about the name, like, ‘How did they come up with Kenan and Kel?’ And I remember it was a dinner that we had. They didn’t have a name at all. It was this huge list of all these crazy names like: Two Friends, Me and My Homie. It was just a whole bunch of names and Kenan and I are sitting there like, ‘I don’t know.’ Everyone had to put in the hat which one they liked, and I can’t remember who it was, but someone got up and was like, ‘Just name it after them.’ And that’s how it happened. There were talks at that time of a Kenan & Kel Goes to College. We were going to do that at another station as part of Viacom, but that didn’t pan out. We probably would have just kept going: Kenan and Kel get jobs, grown up.
What lines do people frequently quote around you?
Kenan: It’s always orange soda. ‘Who loves orange soda?’ ‘Where the orange soda at?’ ‘Soda man, orange drink guy.’ Then I’m like that’s Kel’s thing; that’s not really my thing. And they’re like, ‘Well, yeah, but you was on it, too.’
Kel: ‘Aww, here it goes’ is big. People want me to say [it] with them. Some people come up to me with requests like Kenan used to do at the end of the show. They’ll be like, ‘Hey, Kel, go grab me this…’ And then I have to say, ‘Aww, here it goes.’ They’d wait for me to say it if I didn’t. Another one is, ‘I put the screw in the tuna,’ which is also one of my favorite episodes. And of course, ‘orange soda’ is number one.
Do you remember the moment you taped the last episode of the series?
Kenan: It happened weirdly. It was kind of still up in the air whether it was going to be the end or not. Then we did a three-part episode that was supposed to be a movie, but they just played it as an episode. And that was it. I kind of knew it was over, but we were just celebrating the end of the season as usual, and then contracts were up and we decided to move on. It was very surreal and scary. It wasn’t like I said goodbye and went right into a new job. It was our first experience of being an adult actor for hire.
Kel: It was emotional because we’d been working together for so long. But then for Kenan and I, we were still doing All That. We knew we would still see each other, but for parting with the rest of our cast, it was a chapter that was closed. We still stay in contact with everybody which is cool. I just saw Ken Foree, who played Kenan’s dad the other day.