When you’re a kid, one of the best things about summer break is the television. Not just television, in general, but the summer event television that kid-centric channels like Disney and Nickelodeon throw all their energy into making glimmer just for you. Summer TV isn’t limited to the kids’ space, of course—one side effect of the Post-Peak TV era has been the explosion of summer programming at the more mainstream level—but for a true here’s a whole technicolor summer,
jam it in your eyeballs experience, it’s still the kids’ networks hitting all the home runs.
This fact makes June’s near back-to-back debuts of Nickelodeon’s All That and Disney Channel’s Just Roll With It especially compelling. Taken alone, each live-action comedy series makes a fun, energetic argument for the kind of summer vibe its home network is going for: Nickelodeon is diverse, broad and nostalgic; Disney is diverse, boundary-pushing and silly. Taken together, though, the argument turns generational: What does it take in 2019 to make kids (and their parents) laugh, and how can linear networks possibly compete with the ever-innovating behemoth of digital/social media? And while All That and Just Roll With It take diametrically different approaches when answering each of these questions, the fact that at the end of the day both Nickelodeon and Disney saw new spins on live-action, intergenerational comedy as the best place to start is notable.
If you aren’t a kid, or if you don’t spend a lot of time either around kids and/or watching kids television, odds are good that if either of these shows was already on your summer radar, it’s All That. Rebooted by Nickelodeon 25 years after it first premiered with the blessing (and producorial aid) of multiple original cast members, the half-hour Saturday Night Live-adjacent sketch show is the perfect vehicle not only to showcase both a diverse cast of kids and today’s biggest pop stars, but also for Millennial nostalgia. This is a fact All That isn’t even a tiny bit shy leaning into, featuring as it does original cast members Kel Mitchell, Lori Beth Denberg and Josh Server throughout the reboot’s pilot, and leaving TLC’s flawless original theme song untouched. (Save, of course, for the addition of Kenan Thompson—easily the original’s most comedically famous alum—as announcer.)
If you’re a grown-up 90s kid shocked you were able to sing along with every single word of that theme song despite not having heard it for decades, well, that level of sense-memory recall is half the revival’s point. As a nostalgia vehicle, All That is a kind of Platonic ideal: Its live-action sketch format a perfect fit both for today’s sketch-friendly internet video landscape, and for the original cast members to make cameo appearances that are splashy enough to draw in the original’s grown-up fans—whether they have kids in the revival’s target demographic or not. Not for nothing did the official All That YouTube channel start churning out slick, nostalgia-fueled content three years before the revival’s official premiere. Between nostalgia-hungry Milllennials and the YouTube-obsessed kids of the late 2010s, All That’s potential digital fanbase is as big as, or even bigger than, the audience it is likely to find on linear television.
(Anecdotal case in point: A twelve-year-old of my acquaintance, when asked if she’d caught the premiere on Nick over the weekend, exclaimed frustratedly that NO, she had NOT, even though she really wanted to, after the Good Burger sketch that had been posted to YouTube the day before the premiere aired had proved so funny. As of publication, that sketch, featuring the episode’s musical guests, the Jonas Brothers, had 1.1 M views, while the full episode, also posted to YouTube, was hovering around 864k. Saturday night’s linear premiere? 695,000 viewers.)
All that (pun intended) said, nostalgia alone can’t keep a show afloat. For this newest iteration of All That to succeed, both linearly and on YouTube, it has to be funny, too, and not just in a way that will speak to the target demo’s thirtysomething parents. This means moving beyond OG classics like Mitchell’s Good Burger and Denberg’s Vital Information and letting the new class of funny kids—Ryan Alessi, Reece Caddell, Kate Godfrey, Gabrielle Nevaeh Green, Nathan Janak, Lex Lumpkin and Chinguun Sergelen—pioneer their own characters and ape their own pop culture. Happily, while a significant portion of Saturday’s premiere was dedicated either to honoring the original or to showing off the premiere’s musical guest, Jonas Brothers, it still managed to give goofily solid comedic introductions to all the new cast members, as well as to hint at the kinds of new bits they’ll be taking on. Judging from the “Masked Video Game Dancer: Celebrity Edition” and “Marie Kiddo” sketches, celebrity impressions—enthusiastic, if not exact—will be a mainstay, but so too will send-ups of general internet culture, with Janak’s sharply funny cancel-culture sketch, “CANCELLED with Nathan,” already a bit/character I hope comes back again and again. (Janak’s Aria Grande impression in the “MVGD:CE” sketch was also an easy standout; early moves for revival MVP!) Presuming that the balance between throwback and new sketches shifts in favor of the latter over the course of this coming season, the new kids of All That are situated to be a dependable force for funny on Nickelodeon’s every variety of airwave.
While also live-action, and also casually (though more pointedly) diverse, Disney Channel’s nostalgia-free Just Roll With It is an entirely different comedic beast. Starring adult improv comedians Suzi Barrett and Tobie Windham and kid improv savants Kaylin Hayman and Ramon Reed as the blended Bennet-Blatt clan (say that five times fast), Just Roll With It is the kind of half-hour that comedic television rarely sees: completely, utterly new. A combination scripted family sitcom/live improv experiment, each episode is filmed in front of a live studio audience. That live studio audience isn’t just there to laugh, though, but also to vote on wild interruptions for the actors to have to contend with at literally any point throughout the episode: A disgusting burrito bar taste test, say, or a surprise cameo from one of the actor’s relatives, or a live-action Double Dare-esque videogame obstacle course that has to be beaten before a scene can move on. The actors know something might be coming, but they don’t know what, and they don’t know when. They just have to (insert rimshot here) roll with it. (Smartly, the camera follows the actors backstage while the audience is voting, giving a fascinating dynamism to what could just as easily be a momentum killer.)
If you’re finding this tricky to picture, no worries. Disney’s own YouTube channel is ready with a clip of the series’ very first audience vote—Windham and Hayman taking on the gross burrito challenge—to help you out:
As one might imagine, the more experience the actors get with this format, the better they are not only at incorporating these mini-disasters into the script they’ve already memorized, but also at predicting which points in a given episode are most ripe for interruption. In the series premiere, it’s clear that all four actors are primed for, like, bats to swoop in from offstage literally any moment. In the second episode provided for review though, taken from later in the season, the actors are noticeably savvier. Rather than letting this savvy dull the premise’s shine, though, the show uses it to kick things up a notch. One of the audience votes even ends up being intense enough that I, a grown-ass adult, shrieked from the safety of my own couch.
Depending more on narrative context and extended audience attention than All That—and being way more ambivalent about courting Millennial eyeballs—Just Roll With It is likely to have less of a digital second life than its Nickelodeon play cousin, and that’s a shame. But while I genuinely hope that you lean into the nostalgia All That has awoken and take an occasional break this summer to camp out on Disney Channel like you might have when you were a kid to catch Just Roll With It in real time, whether we adults tune in or don’t doesn’t matter. What matters is, from sketch to improv, kids these days are all set to be funny with or without us.
All That airs on Nickelodeon Saturdays at 8:30 p.m. Just Roll With It airs on Disney Channel Wednesdays at 8 p.m.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.