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Nick Cannon: 'I'm a big kid at heart'

Critic's Notebook: The talented young writer-director-producer has carved a niche for himself on television. His latest project is Cartoon Network's 'The Incredible Crew.'

February 07, 2013|By Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times Television Critic

Let us consider Nick Cannon, who is never long out of sight but busy out of sight as well.

He may currently be seen as a version of himself on Kevin Hart's BET reality-show parody, "The Real Husbands of Hollywood," and when it's in season, as the host of NBC's "America's Got Talent." He co-hosted ABC's "Disney Parks Christmas Day Parade" special in December; a revival of his MTV improv-games series "Wild N Out" is currently in production; and simply by virtue of being married to Mariah Carey and the father of their twins, he remains more or less constantly in the public eye.

Now Cannon has created "The Incredible Crew" — not for Nickelodeon this time but Cartoon Network — a single-camera sketch comedy already in progress. (Its third episode premieres Thursday.) One of the more delightful comedies of the winter season, on any network, it is smart, silly and alive, with a talented young cast — a real ensemble, right off the bat — that notably includes Jeremy Shada, the voice of Finn on CN's magnificent "Adventure Time."

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"I was looking for a real specific cool type of kid," Cannon told me recently by phone, "a kid that everybody would aspire to be like — more of a leader, in a sense. I was looking for kids with attitude."

He is himself a veteran of teenage sketch comedy, having been first a writer ("the youngest staff writer on television") and then a cast member, from 1998 to 2000, on Nickelodeon's long-running "All That."

Unusually, I am sure, I first got interested in Cannon, now 32, as the writer and director of "School Gyrls," an eccentric high-school musical and cross-platform marketing project that premiered on Nickelodeon in 2010. As far as I can tell, I am as good as alone among America's TV critics in having liked it — indeed, in having noticed it at all — but its ragged unpredictability, within the barely acknowledged strictures of such films, I found charming and fresh.

I was also surprised to learn that he had the title of chairman of TeenNick — not an honorary title but an executive one.

"Even as a kid, as a writer," Cannon recalled, "I was more intrigued by what was going on behind the scenes in the business of entertainment than what was going on in front of the camera. What's going on in front is the easy stuff; in my mind, I wanted to continue to write and produce and see how networks work on a corporate level."

As for Cartoon Network: "They're doing some extremely exciting things, especially in the world of live action. They have an edge, so that was intriguing; I could do some things that were a little more risky in kids' television than I could do other places.

"You don't get the opportunity to see young people pulling pranks, necessarily — a lot of people would get scared of putting kids in uncontrolled scenarios in public places; we had a chance to do that quite a bit on 'Incredible Crew.'"

His own early viewing included "everything from 'The Cosby Show' all the way down to Saturday morning cartoons, like Mighty Mouse," but he would also stay up to watch "Saturday Night Live," "In Living Color" and HBO stand-up specials. "Watching 'Eddie Murphy: Delirious,' I was, like, I want to do that, I want to make people laugh. That was always my dream."

He first performed publicly "opening" for his minister father, who "had his own public-access production, in a televangelist format, and would go to different churches and events and let me open up for him." Cannon would do "cute little kid jokes with Bible references, and I would throw a few of my impressions in there. I remember doing Richard Pryor in church — that didn't go over too well."

By 15, he was trekking from San Diego to Hollywood to play the Improv and the Comedy Store.

"They used to call me the Chicken-Finger Comic, 'cause I'd have to stay in the kitchen until I went onstage, and they would bring me out like the chicken fingers."

A year later, he was warming up the audiences for Nickelodeon's "Keenan and Kel" and "All That"; he moved to the writers' room and eventually scripted himself onto the air: "I started writing stuff for myself — I would write myself into an episode."

He followed his run on "All That" with two seasons of "The Nick Cannon Show," a knockabout roving reality-comedy in which he would "take over" a different institution each week (school, a circus), often surrounded by kids, with whom he has a natural rapport.

"I'm a big kid at heart," Cannon said, "so I kind of think like them. Everybody loves to see a kid laugh or smile, so instead of trying to make them the butt of the joke it's more about allowing them to make you the butt of the joke."

I wondered whether he thought his involvement in children's programming and family fare was somehow fated, a result of something within him, or just the place his career happened to take him.

"It's interesting," he said. "As a young comic, looking up to guys like Dave Chappelle, Chris Tucker, Eddie Murphy, I tried to fight it. What I didn't understand is that I appeal to a broad demographic, and as I got older I just started to embrace it. I may not be the edgiest dude, but to see people bring their kids and their grandmothers to my shows and at the same time to be able to make my own age group laugh, it's actually become quite a blessing.

"If you want to say it's fate, I'll take that."

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

'The Incredible Crew'

Where: Cartoon Network

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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