Column
July 20, 2017

Twenty years of taking orders

By Brett Yates

The Nickelodeon-produced major motion picture “Good Burger” debuted in theaters on July 25, 1997. Two decades later, it feels more popular than it was at the time of its release, when it met modest box-office success and critical revilement. With the children who saw it, it made a lasting impression, and now they’re all grown up and expressing pop-culture nostalgia through social media is the only thing keeping them alive at their boring cubicle jobs.

“Good Burger” originated as a bit on “All That,” the juvenile version of “Saturday Night Live” that aired Nickelodeon-style sketch comedy some two and a half hours before the grownup iteration was broadcast each weekend. “All That” presented itself as the product of the spontaneous high-spirited goofiness of real children, but the imprint of its adult writing staff was always evident, and the “Good Burger” sketch—in which Kel Mitchell played an incompetent burger shack employee who would mechanically recite the canned corporate greeting (“Welcome to Good Burger, home of the Good Burger, can I take your order?”) but otherwise was unable or unwilling help the customers in any useful way—was basically a middle-aged white man’s lament at the decline of service in Fast Food America, where teenagers seemed to be growing stupider and less respectful by the day.

The abovementioned catchphrase, however, contained a nugget of addictive absurdism, and it turned the “Good Burger” skit into a mini-phenomenon, necessitating a big-screen adaptation in the style of similarly paper-thin “SNL” premises that had recently been extended to 90 minutes with “It’s Pat” and “Stuart Saves His Family.” For the movie, the point of view has switched from that of the frustrated customer to that of the suddenly well-meaning Good Burger staff; Mitchell’s character, Ed, still makes plenty of wacky mistakes behind the counter, but he’s now an earnestly devoted employee who even sleeps and bathes in his Good Burger uniform and nametag—a meta-joke at the narrow limits of sketch-comedy characterization. Kenan Thompson, who was then serving as half of the TV comedy duo Kenan & Kel, joins him in the burger-slinging business—as the film’s straight man, Dexter—when, in the early moments of the story, he crashes his mom’s car and subsequently needs a summer job to pay for the repair; the two ultimately become partners in a scrappy quest to save the Good Burger as an evil competitor, the futuristic Mondo Burger (which uses illegal food additives to beef up its patties), opens across the street.

For Ed’s part, there’s no implication that the Good Burger represents a summer job or that he goes to school at all: in the movie’s opening scenes, as Dexter sits in a classroom and counts down the final seconds of the school year, Ed is already at work. He may be only 16 or so, but he already intuits that, for him, fast food is permanent.

“Good Burger’s my life,” he happily acknowledges.

Some of the movie’s painfully predictable gags—for instance, when the movie’s villain menacingly warns Ed to “watch your butt,” the only vaguely idiomatic nature of the phrase lets the viewer know, before the joke has really begun, that Ed will turn his head and soon be spinning in circles, like a puppy chasing its tail, in an attempt to heed the command literally—seem to imply a mental handicap, but Ed (equally predictably) undercuts this notion by performing a feat of brilliance in the movie’s climax, suggesting that what appears to be idiocy is in fact only a symptom of the high-level spiritual transcendence that allows for his zen acceptance of his role within America’s postindustrial economy.

More realistically, the only explanation for Ed’s behavior, as he obliviously knocks over children on his rollerblades and sticks French fries in his ears, is that he is almost dangerously stoned all the time, yet there are no drugs in sight here. His cinematic ancestor, obviously, is the doped-up surfer Spicoli from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” whose rebellious rough edges were softened, somewhat, in “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” and then lost altogether. But if Spicoli was a somewhat tragic leftover hippie in Reagan’s 1980s, separated from the utopian summer-of-love philosophy that would have given meaning to his commitment to good times and anti-authoritarianism, Ed has fully bought into Clinton’s neoliberal 1990s.

“Good Burger” extends one of the ideas communicated three years earlier by the movie “Clerks,” which is that, in low-stakes, low-wage labor, there’s actually more room for individual expression than at a “real job,” simply because nobody at the top cares that much what you do. But unlike the convenience store in “Clerks,” the fast food restaurant here is not in any sense a grim place whose workplace codes and procedures must be outwitted; fast food is presented as a fundamental feature of the contemporary landscape, and the existence of the aesthetically bizarre and morally repugnant Mondo Burger only affirms the wholesome role of an old-fashioned, all-American hangout like Good Burger—where terrible food is cooked and served by terrible employees, yet it remains the preferred postgame snack of NBA superstar Shaquille O’Neal (making a celebrity cameo, alongside Carmen Electra)—within the national fabric.

There’s no connection here between fast food work and poverty; Ed lives in a beautiful Craftsman home on a tree-lined street in Pasadena. The strip-mall wasteland where he works is significantly less attractive, but somehow it’s still a totally awesome place to be.

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