The hit Disney channel show Austin & Ally has become the hottest new series that the channel has produced. After the success of Hannah Montana and Wizards of Waverly Place, Austin & Ally has what is called “glorious talent”. You can thank all of that due to the team of writers. Primarily that of Heath Seifert and Kevin Kopelow. They’ve both been a magnificent writing team for over 20 years now and keep taking Hollywood by storm from one hit show to another! I think many fans can appreciate their earliest work and that was the Nickelodeon sketch All That. You’ll hear from Heath just how this show came to be and how so many memories were flooded in on just how writing for that and Kenan & Kel was for him at the time. You can see him talk about the musical acts, the dedication that people have who loved it, and just what went on behind Nickelodeon Studios in the 90s. Thank you to Heath and you can catch the current, and final, season of Austin & Ally every day on Disney channel.
- How exactly did the two of you end up being a part of All That?
We were writing questions for the show “Singled Out”. The creators, Sharon Sussman and Burt Wheeler heard that Nickelodeon was looking for funny writers for some new sketch show and recommended us. We were so excited that we stayed up all night coming up with ideas. We went in and pitched the next morning. We literally pitched about 25 sketch ideas. We even wrote up a version of the sketch that would become “Complaint Department”. We only realized a year or so later that most people come in and pitch three or four ideas! Just about every sketch we pitched that day ended up getting produced in the first two seasons. Kevin actually lived right next door to where we had the meeting, and when we were walking back into his apartment only a few minutes later, the phone was ringing – It was the job offer to go work on All That!
- What was your first impression of Nickelodeon Studios when you got there?
It was amazing. First of all, it was on the Universal Studios lot, and part of the tour, so there was already an element of fun built in. I had to pass the slime kitchen to get to my office. I remember taking the Universal Studios tour in LA as a kid and looking at all the production bungalows and thinking how cool it would be to work in one some day. Then there I was – getting paid to do my dream job. Everybody was super nice and made us feel super welcome.
- What was a typical day like being there?
24 hours. But seriously, a typical day there was usually close to that. We lived at the studio. We wrote around the clock. It was exhausting, but getting to produce this amazing show kept us going. The first year especially, we slept at the studio all the time. We were there seven days a week. There was nothing we’d rather be doing. In order for a script to be photocopied in time for the Monday morning read-through at 9, we had to be done writing it by 6:30 am. There were so many times that we would stay up all Sunday night writing, turn in what we had at6:30, then we’d have about two hours to either sleep on a couch, or maybe go home and shower. Usually we’d go get breakfast, come back for the table read, go home and sleep for two or three hours, then come back to rewrite all Monday night. We did everything on the show, so when we weren’t writing, we would be playing small roles in the show, recording VO’s for post, sitting in editing, writing music for the show… We rarely saw daylight or the outside. Occasionally we would hit a wall, and walk over to the Universal commissary at like 3 am to get a hamburger. Rarely we would sneak out for ten minutes during the day and go on a ride. That was a perk of being at Universal Studios. We could usually get someone from the park to sneak us to the front of the line. Occasionally we would walk through the rides after hours when they were shut down. If a security guard ever caught us we would say we were scouting for a location shoot. Once we got a security guy to turn on all the lights inside the King Kong ride for us. The real exceptions to living at the studio would be during hiatuses or Friday nights. Friday’s a huge group of us would go out and celebrate after the live taping. During hiatuses we would take a few extra days off. Sometimes we’d come back to LA. Later on, we would maybe go down to Miami or something for a few days. When we first were brought to Orlando, our contract was only for three weeks. Right at the end of the three weeks, Brian Robbins and Mike Tollin took us to lunch to thank us for everything. At the lunch they surprised us by asking us to stay the rest of the season. It was one of the most memorable lunches of my life. I had to call my girlfriend and tell her that I wasn’t coming home, I was gonna stay in Orlando for four more months! That next hiatus I had to go shopping for socks and underwear and clothes, because I’d only packed enough to stay in Orlando for a few weeks!
- Did the sound stages help out alot to make your job easier considering how the large the studio was?
Well, the space was nice, but they weren’t true sound stages. That was one thing. A lot of times we had to hold a take and wait for an airplane to pass because the mics were picking them up. Also, being Orlando, it would rain like crazy for about an hour every single day. I remember waiting until the rain subsided to shoot. Another odd thing about the stages was the fact that the control booth was on the second floor. (Nowadays we don’t even sit in a booth, we are on the floor with the actors and the cameras.) Back then if we wanted to give a note to an actor or director, or if they had a question for us, we would pick up a phone to talk to them. We called it the bat phone. You couldn’t dial on it. It was just bright red, and a huge light on top of it would flash when someone was trying to call. If we wanted to talk to anyone face to face we had to race down a flight of stairs.
- So many different musical guests performed on the show. From your experience who was the coolest to see or hang out with?
Ahhhh! So many good ones! Personally, I loved Run DMC, so getting them on the Xmas episode was really amazing. TLC were special to the show. Obviously, they wrote the theme song. We tried to develop an MTV show for them and got to hang with them a bit and watch them rehearse and stuff. I loved Erykah Badu’s performance. Outkast were memorable. So many others! Salt N’ Pepa! Missy Elliot! Destiny’s Child! Lots of fun memories of the guests hanging out too. Because we were a “kids show” I think everyone was always on good behavior and super-friendly and just there to have a good time. I remember one time everyone panicked because some 7-year-old extra was missing. It turned out that Coolio and his posse took the boy into Universal with them to go on rides. Another time The Backstreet Boys almost broke up in our green room!
- Do you remember other shows being filmed where you were at?
Barely. Gullah Gullah Island I think was next door. There was always some game show in production. We were always friendly with the people working on the other shows. Sometimes we’d help out. During one of our early hiatuses they were shooting a behind the scenes special for Guts. I was hanging around that day and they asked me to play a security guard in it. I had to arrest Mike O’Malley or something. I remember he was trying to give me acting notes and I was just like “Dude, I’m not an actor.” There was a show called Seaquest (I think that’s the right name) being shot on the stage next door. A few times we sneaked on to their set in the middle of the night and ran around. The doors were all locked up, except for the one that led to the roof, and we could get to it by climbing up to the roof of our stage and walking across.
- When Kenan & Kel was introduced it’s now dealing with comedy in a sitcom formula. Was the schedule easier this time around as opposed to All That which had so many things going on around it (sketches,prosthetic,musical performances)?
It was definitely a different beast, but it came with it’s own set of challenges. We still wrote and rewrote constantly. The schedule was still the same (Table read Monday morning, producer run through Tuesday afternoon, network run through Wednesday afternoon, shooting Thursday and Friday, live audience show Friday evening) On All That, if a sketch wasn’t really working, you could always just throw it away. If we were ever shooting something that we knew wasn’t great, we also knew that it was only gonna occupy two minutes of airtime, and that we could bury it between two amazing sketches. On Kenan and Kel, if the story wasn’t working, well that’s a big problem. You’re rewriting 50 pages, not 5.
With All That we would just shoot as many sketches as we could physically produce every week. We figured it would be almost a show and a half every week. That’s a lot of content. I think the schedule was for us to shoot 20 episodes in 13 or 14 weeks. Somewhere around week nine or so we would realize that we were gonna have to deliver even more shows in the same amount of production weeks. We would end up booking a few extra musical guests and writing a few extra cold opens for the last week of shooting. Shows would always be easy to get to time. On a sitcom, it’s more challenging to tell a story and get it to exactly 22 minutes and 30 seconds.
- Was it exciting time to be living and working in Orlando, being known as “Hollywood East” in the 90s, from all of the TV and film production going on in the area though it has since decreased over the years?
As I mentioned before, it was insanely exciting for me. Just to be able to call myself a working writer. It felt special being put up in an apartment. At that point of my life, it was really the only time I’d spent living away from Los Angeles. I think even if everyone agreed that it was the least exciting time to be there, I would think the opposite.
- What was the best part about having a live studio audience and have guests take a tour of the studios from a glass monitor while watching you guys film or rehearse down below?
I have always loved the live studio audience. It feels like the party at the end of the week for me. You work so hard putting together the show, and it’s immensely gratifying to get to watch it performed in front of fans. I also love the instant feedback of the live audience. You know pretty quickly if a joke is funny or not. I love coming up with new, better jokes during the live tapings.
The studio tour was very surreal, because you would forget that there were people watching you. We’d be in the booth having a heated discussion about something, and you would turn around and see thirty kids looking at you. When we were on set we liked to wave up to the people taking the tour. I’m sure it was exciting for them to see the actual cast rehearsing.
- Was there a reason why both shows moved to California after two seasons and any differences between filming in Florida and Cali?
Well, there were differences. In LA, I pretty much never have to pull over to help carry a tortoise across the street before it gets smashed. I don’t think there was any real reason to move the shows to Los Angeles, except that, for a lot of us, our lives were in LA, and it became increasingly difficult on a personal level to fly back and forth so often. The way it timed out, we moved back to LA for All That Season Three, then went back to Orlando to do one more season of Kenan & Kel. We brought a lot of the crew from Orlando out to LA with us, so we were still surrounded by friendly, familiar faces. There were no major differences in the production (I don’t think), but we did have more personal distractions in Los Angeles. We still worked 100 hours a week, but in LA, I had to turn down a lot more invitations from friends to do stuff.
- Did you have a favorite ride at Universal Studios Florida?
Ha! I think the Terminator ride had just opened, and we liked that a lot. After that, I remember liking ET, and I also liked how it always smelled like bananas inside the King Kong ride.
12. If there was any type of prop from the set or studio you can own what would it be?
I actually have a ton of props from those days – cans of orange soda, Earboy’s ears, a talking Goodburger Ed doll. I have boxes and boxes in my garage.
13. How great was all the staff who worked there? I always hear positive stories.
Everyone was super nice and made us feel welcome right away. We spent so much time there that we really bonded quickly. There was an amazing community of artists and musicians that I hit it off with and spent as much time as I could at their parties, art openings, open mic nights, etc.
14. Do you still talk to anyone from the show?
Absolutely. When a lot of the crew moved to LA to work with us, they would stay at my house until they could find a place and I’m still friends with a lot of them. We saw a lot of the cast a little while back at some reunion at a comic book convention and it was nice to see everyone. There are a few people I’ve definitely stayed closer with over the years… I keep in really good touch with Danny Tamberelli.
15. Favorite behind the scenes memory.
Too many! Hanging out with the cast and crew on shoot nights were absolutely my favorite times. One thing I think of a lot is one of my first days at the studio. Me and Kevin had just written the Schoolastic Snacks sketch – a fake commercial for edible school supplies. The last line of the sketch, which we threw in at the last second, was “From the makers of The Cheese Phone”. We turned in the sketch and a few hours later I walked down to the stage, and there was our prop guy Davey Jordan carving a phone out of cheese! I can’t explain it, but it was just this moment where I felt like I was finally, really a writer. I wrote the words “Cheese Phone” and there it was!
16. With All That just having its 20th anniversary last year it’s become a cultural landmark in children’s television. How do you feel knowing that All That, Kenan & Kel and the rest of 90s Nickelodeon shows made such a positive impact on fans and is still loved today?
It’s insanely gratifying. Those shows were a huge part of my life and it means a lot to hear how much it influenced people. So many of the people we work with now tell us they grew up on the show and that it was their favorite. Kevin hears it more than me, just because he was on the show so much. I never get tired of hearing how much people loved the show!
17. What do you think made Nick Studios so great and special?
It was just a great place and time. TV making was really evolving, and there was a little bit of a Wild West vibe to what we were all doing. Everyone was excited and happy to be there. It was hard work, but my memories of it, are that it was like one big long crazy vacation.
18. Would you like to see it be re-opened?
Of course! And maybe we can shoot an All That or Kenan & Kel reunion special there!