INTERVIEW WITH DANNY TAMBERELLI AND LORI BETH DENBERG BY JAMESON KETCHUM
PHOTOGRAPHS BY JEREMY SAFFER
We live in a culture of nostalgia, that beautiful cyclical phenomenon we all clamor for and have been fulfilled by via YouTube and Disney+. If you’re a child of the 90s, meaning you were born in the mid to late 80s and grew up during that seminal period, you probably begged your parents to let you watch Nickelodeon for 24 hours straight on the regular. Amazing programming such as The Adventures of Pete & Pete and All That were comedy staples in every healthy American kid’s diet. Thankfully, Danny Tamberelli and Lori Beth Denberg, giants in kid comedy from both of these pivotal hits, are giving us another taste of personified nostalgia with…Nostalgia Personified, their road show where dirt is dished, behind the scenes tales are told and, God willing, some green slime makes a cameo. We sat down with the two game changers separately in the hopes of getting some closure on our childhoods.
What first sparked the idea for the Nostalgia Personified tour? I know the fans were clamoring for it.
Danny Tamberelli: I’ve been doing it with Mike Maronna from The Adventures of Pete & Pete. We have a podcast we do and have a residency at a place, and I wanted to do a show that was more than the typical talking heads podcast. We thought we’d show some old clips of us and just kind of Mystery Science Theater the thing to make fun of each other. It was the 90s, we had bad hair, the clothing was ridiculous, etc. That spurs conversations like, “Do you remember what you were doing during that shot?” In making fun of each other, we’re also giving the audience a little deep dive into what we were doing at that time because they love that. Lori Beth is just a perfect fit because we worked together on All That and Figure It Out. We’ve been friends forever and we both have thick skin and love to make people laugh at each other’s expense. She’ll probably say some terrible things about me and they’re probably true (laughs).
“WE’VE BEEN FRIENDS FOREVER AND WE BOTH HAVE THICK SKIN AND LOVE TO MAKE PEOPLE LAUGH AT EACH OTHER’S EXPENSE.”
It’s funny, when I told a few friends I’d be doing this interview, we all talked about how we didn’t have cable, but we would go over to friends’ houses just to watch All That and Pete & Pete.
Tamberelli: That sounds like me with the Nintendo. My dad was an Atari guy, and I’d have to go over to my friends’ houses to play some Super Mario.
You were an Atari family?
Tamberelli: He sticks to brands (laughs).
“WHAT KID DOESN’T LIKE FEET AND CHEESE JOKES? IT’S THE MEAT AND POTATOES OF CHILDREN’S COMEDY”
You’ve been doing some form of sketch comedy for the majority of your life. When you were making Pete & Pete and All That, did you have an idea that you were making something that would last and connect so deeply with people?
Tamberelli: With All That, it was something I did when I was maybe a year or two too old to really pay attention to it. I was all cool in high school and being a dummy. Going back and watching these episodes, they were written real well. What kid doesn’t like feet and cheese jokes? It’s the meat and potatoes of children’s comedy, and we were really good at doing those jokes.
Did you have a sense back then of who was gonna emerge as a top performer? Or did it just feel like you’d do this thing as kids and then move on?
Tamberelli: For me, it did feel that way. I loved sketch comedy and grew up on Monty Python because my dad was a fan and watching SNL and Mad TV. I was really into it. I was so pumped to get on the show and make characters or make characters your own and throw whatever voice you think it could be on it. Watching that as a kid was really cool to see how people took characters they were given and how they grew into what they are. Jack Campbell Fat Cop was basically my uncle, an NYPD cop who throws his weight around, just a boisterous guy. That’s how I found my big character.
“IT WAS AN AWESOME EXPERIENCE. WHEN IT WAS OVER AND I WAS GOING TO COLLEGE, I JUST DITCHED EVERYTHING”
Did you ever think much about who was going to maybe go the distance?
Tamberelli: They picked the right group of people. I got to write on season six, and I got to go and be a part of the writer’s room and a few of the sketches I wrote went to air. It goes back to how awesome Nickelodeon and their crews are. They let an 18-year-old kid be a part of the writer’s room and get sketches on the air. It was an awesome experience. When it was over and I was going to college, I just ditched everything, I went to school, and played music and left sketch behind for awhile. When I graduated and came back to New York, I found a couple old friends who were trying to get into comedy and we’d do sketches together as Man Boob Comedy and making YouTube videos. It was really important to get back to that feeling of making comedy. I went to public school and was surrounded by kids always talking about the next step. If I missed prom because I was shooting in LA or something like that, those were the things that were important to me at the time. When I came back from shooting my senior year, everyone was applying to colleges. I wanted to be a normal kid and take a step back.
I’m sure that was difficult.
Tamberelli: I could have been Nick Cannon, you know? I was one Drumline movie away (laughs).
You and Michael Maronna went on to do a podcast together. How has your creative relationship with him evolved over the years?
Tamberelli: We are definitely real TV brothers. We’ve known each other since I was seven and he was 11, so it has run a long time with a little gap. When I went to high school, he went to college. And when I went to college, he was moving to New York. We ran into each other outside of a concert in Brooklyn, and I was hung over and I puked between two cars. “Oh, hey, things are going great. It’s been awhile (mimics vomiting sound), do you want to start a podcast (more vomiting).” It just opened up a line of hanging out again. We started doing these reunions, then we started doing the podcast. Most of it is just off the cuff, we just bullshit and it’s a casual, no agenda podcast. We have guests and short minis, and we have a hotline where people can leave us messages and we’ll respond to them on mini episodes. He was an older brother figure to me, and because I’m the oldest in my family, I never had that. He is definitely my influence as far as preferences and music he was into. He introduced me to Nirvana. He got me into the Pixies. He’s a very cool dude. His kid’s name is Gerard and my kid’s name is Alfred, both old man names.
Do you feel like your humor is the same?
Tamberelli: Pete & Pete was such a specific sort of older brother who wants to be an adult, but he has a little brother who’s still a kid and he’s jealous that the little brother has no shame. That Halloween episode is the perfect example with, “I don’t want to trick or treat with my little brother. I wanna smash pumpkins instead.” It’s that perfect push and pull of not wanting to be a kid, but wanting to be able to get away with kid shit. At the end of the day, we’re always friends.
You’re doing the tour with Lori Beth Denberg. Can you share a favorite or embarrassing memory of yours involving Lori Beth?
Tamberelli: Embarrassing Lori Beth? Lori Beth is hard to embarrass. She’s so fast. We did a New Year’s Eve Nickelodeon thing. We were doing the wraparounds for the day on the network. We were in Times Square at the Viacom building and everybody was gone. We were all just hanging out in this office building overlooking all the craziness. Lori Beth was just looking around saying, “There are so many people!” She couldn’t get over that fact. I told her she wasn’t from New York.
“WE DO A THING CALLED DIRTY SECRETS WHERE WE TELL SECRETS ABOUT OURSELVES OR EACH OTHER. WE GIVE A LITTLE DISH.”
Besides a lot of nostalgia, what can fans expect from the live show?
Tamberelli: The format is that it’s a 75 minute comedy show showing old clips of us as kids. We’ll show old commercials, or if one of us had a guest spot on a 90s TV show, we’ll show that. We’ll do some improv games because Lori Beth and Mike are really quick. It keeps us happy and keeps our brains working. We’ll do a Q&A at the end and answer them the best we can. We do a thing called Dirty Secrets where we tell secrets about ourselves or each other. We give a little dish.
Okay, you gotta give us an example.
Tamberelli: An example would be when I was on the set of Pete & Pete, I used to shake PAs down for cigarettes, as a 12-year-old kid. I was putting them in a bad position like, “I don’t want to give cigarettes to a 12-year-old kid, but he’s also the talent.” I wasn’t thinking back then. It’s a terrible position. What a jerk I was.
We’d be remiss to not mention your band Jounce. What’s currently going on with that project?
Tamberelli: It’s been almost 20 years of playing music together. We have a new record we’re working on right now. We’ll go into the studio to record our fourth full-length soon. The guitar player Matt [DeSteno] and I are the two who have stuck in it this long. We’re like a Dinosaur Jr. stoner rock kinda thing.
Does it scratch a creative itch that acting may miss?
Tamberelli: When I left LA after All That was over, I’d already been playing with this band, this trippy hippy jam band in high school. I have been playing in bands since I was in 8th grade—that was my passion. When I decided to go to school, I was gonna go to college for music. That was my jaded moment of being like, “You’re always taking direction from somebody else. Music is mine, I write the lyrics, I write the music.” In hindsight, the angle was maybe bad, but it did push me to dig deep. When I went to college, I figured it all out. I immersed myself in jazz theory, rudiments, etc. The last 12 or 15 years, we’ve kinda gotten back to what I grew up being into—90s alternative music, Guided by Voices, etc. “Who Hates the Office” was really our first record as Jounce. It’s a good song.
It’s crazy to go back and realize all the places you pop up during those years—The Mighty Ducks, The Adventures of Huck Finn, etc.
Tamberelli: The Adventures of Huck Finn was my first foray into knowing that you can be completely cut out of a movie (laughs). I was in the trailer and a few scenes, but I had a much bigger role. It just ran long, and they just didn’t think they needed those scenes in the movie. I thought it was funny. I didn’t lose sleep over it. “I did this cool movie. I can’t wait to see how they edited it. Oh, I’m not in it.”
What does it mean to you when people say, “You were my childhood?”
Tamberelli: It’s a huge thing. It’s the best feeling that there is, having someone say that to you and knowing that something like Pete & Pete was a crazy cult show. It wasn’t for everybody, and you had to be a certain kind of person to get it. I grew up the same way, so I completely get it—to have a show that wasn’t such a cookie cutter show. Same with All That—there were no real children sketch comedy shows, so when they’re done well, they really resonate with people. 99 percent of people who say that Pete & Pete affected their lives are people I’d end up running into in a bar and striking up a conversation. It’s a humbling feeling, and I can relate because it did the same for me.
I hear that you might try and do some West Coast dates with this tour.
Lori Beth Denberg: Hopefully, in January we’ll get to visit the Pacific Northwest.
I interviewed Danny last week, so now you get to hear his answers as we go.
Denberg: I get to hear all the lies and refute them.
I asked him for an old embarrassing stories of you, and he said that you can’t be embarrassed.
Denberg: (laughs) Yes, I’m pretty out there, man.
How about ones about Danny?
Denberg: I’m just a few years older than him, which doesn’t make a big difference now, but when we were working on All That, I was 21 or 22 maybe, and he was about 15. His mom had to go out of town for a weekend when he was out in LA shooting All That. His mom asked if I would take over guardianship of him for the weekend, and I was like, “He’s not a handful, no problem.” He was fine, but just a punk teenager with his big over the head I’m a teenager listening to my music headphones. I was like, “Oh, you’re such a teenager Danny.” And meanwhile I’m like 21, so I’m so mature (laughs). Danny was a pretty goofy guy, too, so it’s hard to embarrass him, but I do bust his chops, which he makes pretty easy.
Were you guys pretty close back then as well?
Denberg: I was a big fan of Pete & Pete, so the first time I got to meet him and Michael Maronna when they came to Orlando, I was star-struck. Eventually, he came and worked on All That, and we got closer and I spent time with his family in Orlando and Los Angeles. It was when we did Figure It Out, which had a celebrity panel, we did a bunch of those together and that’s when we really started to get closer and see how much fun it was to riff off each other.
“IT CAME FROM US GETTING TO SPEND TIME TOGETHER ON A PROJECT AND HAVING SO MUCH FUN. WE WONDERED IF PEOPLE WOULD ENJOY WATCHING US SPEND TIME TOGETHER.”
For the Nostalgia Personified tour, fans were hoping you’d do something like this, but on your end, what was the first spark?
Denberg: Danny and I worked on a digital series together called The Tonopah Five. It’s not quite finished yet, but it’s been in some festivals and stuff. There was a part in it that would be good for Danny, so I reached out to him and he said yes. Working together again was so much fun, and he came up with the idea of Nostalgia Personified like they’ve been doing for Pete & Pete but for All That. I think it came from us getting to spend time together on a project and having so much fun. We wondered if people would enjoy watching us spend time together.
Looking back, did you have any sense that what you were doing would be as impactful as it was? Or did it just feel like something you’d do as a kid and then move on?
Denberg: I had always wanted to be a performer since the time I was five or six. I did every play in school and knew everyone’s lines. I was way more into it than anyone else. I didn’t know how I was going to get into being a professional actor, but that was always my goal. I got my job on All That through a drama competition in high school. It was just kind of random. I say it was random and it was. Half of show business is luck, if not more, but I really dedicated everything to working in theater. I loved sitcoms and watched stand-up comedy and honed my skills in comedy. It was always the goal, so it seemed random that I ended up on a TV show. I was like, “Okay this is the start.”
From there, were you just thinking you’d go up and up?
Denberg: I didn’t have any specific “my dream is to be a movie star!” but I definitely wanted to continue to work, and I really liked working in the media of television, multi camera television, etc. I’ve also done movies and some more dramatic stuff. I love it all. The hope was that I would keep doing this, meaning All That.
“WE HAVE FAR FEWER TRAGEDIES THAN MAYBE SOME OTHER PLACES, SO THAT’S HEARTENING—THE FACT THAT I’M STILL FRIENDS WITH PEOPLE AND HAVEN’T HAD TO BAIL ANYONE OUT OF JAIL YET.”
It was like a dream scenario. Nickelodeon seemed like such a great place to work. The public just hears the horror stories of child actors or places like Disney, but Nickelodeon seemed to really create a great environment.
Denberg: It was pretty good. I think we have far fewer tragedies than maybe some other places, so that’s heartening—the fact that I’m still friends with people and haven’t had to bail anyone out of jail yet. Although, I’m still holding out for Danny for that call in the middle of the night.
Speaking of, Danny mentioned you’d be doing a segment called Dirty Secrets. His dirty secret was that he used to bum cigarettes from PAs.
Denberg: What a horrible human.
Can you share one of yours?
Denberg: You should know I haven’t done one of these shows before (laughs). Dirty secrets, what would that be? This is so low key, but when we were on Figure It Out, they would drop goo and yucky stuff on you. There would be all these things that were clues for the puzzle—tuna salad, plastic forks and knives, etc. We’d just steal that stuff. Once there were pool balls that we took, and they had to come to us and say they belonged to someone and they needed them back. Also, we’d get introduced for Figure It Out from behind the bleachers where the audience was sitting. If you were under the bleachers you could see everyone’s feet and the moms’ purses. We’d take the purses, and then when we’d get introduced, we’d go out and return them and they’d just be confused. It was just a fun little confusing gag for us. I guess it’d be a dirtier secret if we went through them and stole money.
“YOU THINK OF NOSTALGIA AS SUPER OLD, BUT THAT MEANS I DID SOMETHING OF WORTH SO LONG AGO THAT THEY REMEMBER IT FONDLY.”
It’s so cool now to see people around our age now making stuff in Hollywood and bringing their nostalgia to the forefront. Are you surprised this has all come back around?
Denberg: I certainly didn’t expect it. When we were making a TV show 25 years ago, I wasn’t saying, “I bet in 2020 this will be the biggest thing ever!” That is what’s interesting about it. There was a time where I didn’t pursue acting for about a decade. During that time was when people would find me. That was when Workaholics found me and asked me to be on. It’s super funny and a trip to be nostalgia. You think of nostalgia as super old, but that means I did something of worth so long ago that they remember it fondly. That is a total trip and it’s great, especially having done All That and Figure It Out that I’m proud of. It’d be different if I did something I hated. People responded to the show because it was funny and edgy. The parents loved it, too. I meet people who are fans that are millennials and their parents who say, “I had to watch a lot of crap with my kids, but I enjoyed your show.” It appealed to people differently based on what their deal was. You’re right, it’s people who grew up on me and Danny who are now writing, producing, and directing, so that’s really fun. People will hit me up to be on their web series or in their film. I’ve turned down some. Anything with bad grammar in emails is a red flag, like, “We want you to be in our short film and I’m a Nigerian prince.” I don’t think I want to do that one. I’ve also gotten to meet and work with some really cool talented people, just like The Tonopah Five. The writers and producers reached out to me to do a cameo as myself in another web series called The Doll. Based on everything they showed me, they were legit, and they came to me with another project where I was the lead and Danny came in as the second lead. That’s the kind of stuff that’s been really fun. Even when I wasn’t pounding the pavement with an agent, I still got to play and meet people who are fun to work with.
Did you have a sense back then of who was going to go the distance in show business? Or did you all feel mostly on the same level?
Denberg: Well, of course, not. It was definitely me (laughs). You look at someone like Keenan [Thompson] who has done fabulously well and I never thought, “Oh, he’s going to be a big deal and be on Saturday Night Live,” but he was always so good and funny and smart. What people would think of at the time for Nickelodeon was gross out and messy, but he was just always so smart and subtle and a really funny guy to watch and work with. You’d see him and say, “You could see him doing more.” It’s so gratifying to see him become successful doing what he’s so good at. When I looked at Danny, I thought, “Well, he’ll probably be dead by 20 of a heroin overdose.” (laughs) And he’s proved me wrong! He’s going strong!
“USE THAT AS A HEADLINE SO I SEEM LIKE A REALLY ELOQUENT PERSON. LB SAID, ‘ALL THAT WAS LEGIT AF!’”
It’s easy to think that the child star thing would work against someone like Keenan, but I recall him saying that he’s been doing sketch for the majority of his life. All That was ahead of its time. For how young everyone was, your comedic sensibilities were great.
Denberg: It was legit, man. It was legit AF. Use that as a headline so I seem like a really eloquent person. LB said, “All That was legit AF!” (laughs)
It’s easy to be snooty as an adult, but you’ve all gone the distance, disproving the kid star stereotype.
Denberg: I think that’s what All That turned out to be, giving kids more credit than usually what they’re given, what they can do, and what they can enjoy. It was goofy and messy, but it was smart. I think that’s what stood the test of time. You don’t look back and think it’s lame. I mean, I used to watch Full House every week, but watching it now is like, “Oh, Dear Lord.”
Did you watch the Full House reboot?
Denberg: I might have watched a couple, and I thought I’m just going to let the people who enjoy it, enjoy it and I’ll be okay.
“I HOPE PEOPLE ENJOY THIS CONTINUATION MORE THAN I WAS ABLE TO ENJOY THE CONTINUATION OF FULL HOUSE.”
I tried with Girl Meets World, but you’re just watching to see how the characters have aged.
Denberg: Meanwhile I’m doing some work on the All That reboot (laughs). So, on that tip, I hope people aren’t watching it like that. I don’t think they’re calling it a reboot but a continuation. I was on the first four seasons of All That, but they did 10, so coming back this last year, it’s called season 11. It’s not starting over, it’s a continuation, and they’ll be new kids and they’re so friggin’ awesome. I just had a dream last night that I had to take care of all of them and I was bad at it. I’ve been working on that and doing some old characters. They’re having some original cast members come back to do some of our old sketches, and it just fits in seamlessly with the new things and the kids are great. I hope people enjoy this continuation more than I was able to enjoy the continuation of Full House.
I just watched the Vital Information where you pass the torch. I think you’re doing it the right away. “Reboot” is becoming a dirtier and dirtier word.
Denberg: Exactly. Reboot is the new reality show like, “Oh, we’re doing another reality show or reboot because we don’t have any ideas.” I wouldn’t have just gone in for anything. I shied away, maybe to my detriment, because everywhere I went someone would ask me to do some Vital Information, and it was like “Guys, no. I’m not gonna dine out on this thing I did 20 years ago.” Going back to the actual show and doing the Loud Librarian sketch seemed totally fine with the new kids and new people for me to yell at. It doesn’t feel yucky, if that makes sense.
Totally, it’s a double-edged sword. You’ve created something 20 years ago that still resonates today, yet you don’t want to be known only for something you did back then. It’s like telling someone to go date the person they dated 20 years ago or work the job they worked 20 years ago.
Denberg: It’s like the really sad quarterback who became a townie and still goes to all the games. I don’t want to feel like this pathetic thing where I’m clinging to the glory days.
What is your top requested thing? I know Kel [Mitchell] can’t go to any burger place.
Denberg: Danny and I share this affliction as two Vital Informationers. People will say, “Give me some vital information,” and I’ll say, “Why don’t you?” I don’t think there’s anything I can post on Facebook where someone doesn’t comment. It could be like, “Dad’s funeral was hard, but I got through it with the help of friends and family.” And someone will comment, “That’s vital information for your everyday life.” (laughs) No matter what I post.
You know that person who posted that is just so happy thinking they got you.
Denberg: My dad is still alive, that’s just an example. Just the other week, and this is so frustrating, we were doing a live show for All That and I had done a library sketch on a Thursday then Friday is the live show. They set up chairs and stuff with people just hanging out in the library set. There’s a bunch of kids there, and during shooting, these kids wouldn’t stop talking. I went up to them a few times to tell them to be quiet. Other people told them, too. I got really frustrated, so I went up and told them they needed to be quiet. Sitting in the library set I can’t tell someone to be quiet. They thought it was a joke. It was so frustrating! I was completely neutered in the situation (laughs).
“I’M LOOKING FORWARD TO SEEING TEENY TINY DANNY WHEN HE WAS THE CUTEST KID IN THE WORLD THEN WONDERING WHAT HORRIBLE FATE BEFELL HIM TO TURN HIM INTO WHAT HE IS NOW.”
What can fans expect from the live Nostalgia Personified show?
Denberg: I’ve never been to one, so I don’t know! I’ll be as surprised as you will be! I think it’ll just be fun to see how much fun Danny and I have together. You always think of people you watch on TV or your heroes, and you know they say, “Don’t meet your heroes because what if they’re total dicks?” That should be the title “LB says don’t meet your heroes, they’re total dicks” (laughs). I think it’ll be fun for people to see that we are like our personas that people have received through our work and that we really have affection for each other and how that affects the work. They’re digging up clips of me, so I don’t know what that will be like. I’m looking forward to seeing teeny tiny Danny when he was the cutest kid in the world then wondering what horrible fate befell him to turn him into what he is now.
Danny and I talked about how funny it is to go back and see him pop up in so many movies from that era, like The Adventures of Huck Finn and The Mighty Ducks.
Denberg: My boyfriend and I were looking for a movie to watch a while ago, and I said “Mighty Ducks 2?” And he wanted the first Mighty Ducks, so we watched it, and I thought, “Danny is gonna be so cute!” Then we watched Mighty Ducks 2, so we could see super cute Keenan.
It’s cool to see Keenan reference stuff like The Mighty Ducks or Good Burger on SNL a few times over the years. It’s not lost on him.
Denberg: You can’t come off from it because then you’re just some Shia LaBeouf serious guy that turns weird.
That could be a whole other conversation.
Denberg: There’s a balance between enjoying and being proud and understanding that the work I did means something to people versus clinging onto it like, “I’m a Hollywood icon!”
It’s how you got to where you are.
Denberg: It’s part of what gets you where you’re going. I’m really lucky that I can look back at the work I did on Nickelodeon and say I did a good job and I was given good material. Maybe I’m luckier than most so I shouldn’t judge, but yeah, that guy is a mess (laughs).
Don’t miss both the All That and Pete & Pete Nostalgia Personified tour in 2020: http://nostalgiapersonified.com
Keep up to date on all things Danny and Mike here: http://theadventuresofdannyandmike.com