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Quiet Down for Mrs. Hushbaum, One of Nick’s Most Memorable Characters

In an interview, Lori Beth Denberg explains her “motherly role” among the cast of ‘All That’ and why playing the Loud Librarian felt cathartic

Nickelodeon/Ringer illustration

Thirty years ago this week, a rising but not-yet-ubiquitous kids network by the name of Nickelodeon launched its first original animated series. Introduced on August 11, 1991, under the brand of “Nicktoons,” Doug, Rugrats, and The Ren & Stimpy Show would quickly become hits and change the course of animation, television, and popular culture at large. To mark the anniversary, The Ringer is looking back at Nick’s best-ever characters and the legacy of the network as a whole. Throughout the week, we’ll be publishing essays, features, and interviews to get at the heart of what made Nick so dang fun—and now so nostalgic.

Mrs. Hushbaum is, first and foremost, a renaissance woman. An amateur weight lifter, bowler, karate chopper, and stone chiseler. A natural with a megaphone and a sledgehammer. The world’s only airhorn enthusiast. Furthermore, she’s a librarian. Yet one thing she has never been, and never will be, is quiet. That’s the basic gist of All That’s “Loud Librarian” sketch, which pits an inconsiderate custodian against a room of students who would like some freaking peace and quiet, please. In the early days of the show, Mrs. Hushbaum’s antics were, from a human resources perspective, not great: excessive paper-shredding, aggressive shushing, ownership of a parrot. But as she returned episode after episode, her offenses transcended workplace etiquette and morphed into flat-out absurdity: jackhammers, fireworks, and live bullfighting. It was outrageous, performative noise-making, noise-making that would shake even the most seasoned 411 operator to their core.

Behind the cacophony was the inimitable Lori Beth Denberg. At 18, she was the eldest and most precocious member of All That’s original cast, and adapted naturally to the variety show’s most commanding roles. (Other performances during her four years there include the cheery, unflinching school teacher Ms. Fingerly and, notably, herself as the host of the poetic faux news sketch, “Vital Information”). Twenty-seven years later, Mrs. Hushbaum stands out as Denberg’s crown jewel amid her murderers’ row of chaotic characters. The Ringer chatted with the 45-year-old podcaster and comedian to discuss the Loud Librarian’s origins, navigating her elaborate props, and Nickelodeon nostalgia.

What was your original All That audition like? Were you a child actor?

I was always involved in theater since I was 6, but like community theater, schools, that kind of thing. Never going on auditions, never had the head shots. But it was all I lived for. So I got the All That audition because of a drama competition I was in, in my senior year of high school, and the scene I was in won first place. At a showcase of all the first-place scenes, the producers from All That were scouting for kids. So they saw me perform my scene at the little showcase and then they called me in to audition. It was my first professional audition. It was at Paramount studios in a little theater. So when they called and were like, hey, come audition for this, I was like, yeah whatever. So I just kind of went on a lark. It wasn’t like “this is my big break” or anything like that. I did what I do, which is take whatever piece of material I have and try to get it across as it’s intended and even better and funnier. And then they called me back for one callback. And then they called and said that I’d gotten the job.

What was the creative process once you were on set and rolling?

From a production standpoint, doing sketch comedy is like doing 10 sitcoms a week. It has its own thing, cameras. You couldn’t ask for a more immersive education in production. And that was just great for me, especially because I was so eager to take it in. I felt like I was making up for 15 years of not having actually been an actor professionally like I’d wanted to be. I always knew I wanted to be an actor, I had no idea how it was going to happen, but then this is how it happened.

All the different characters fit the cast members’ personalities perfectly. How did you end up establishing a chemistry with your other costars as you guys started filming?

The stock answer for everything is always like, “We were like brothers and sisters, and we fought.” The youngest was 10 and I was 18, and that’s a big gap. When you’re 13, 14 to 18, that is a big chasm. So they would all play a bit goofy, and I would be the annoyed older sister. I kind of mom out and go camp counselor on everybody, and I still do it.

We were just at some convention, a bunch of us, and it was time to go do the panel, and we’re all backstage in the greeting room part, and so the woman from the convention, is like, “OK, it’s time to go,” and nobody’s paying attention, and I go, “All right, kids, let’s go.” I just get on it. And I remember Josh [Server] was like, “Nothing has changed.” I’ve got the loud voice. I just don’t stand for guff.

So you took on this motherly role.

Yeah. Motherly role, but not necessarily nurturing. If that doesn’t speak to Mrs. Hushbaum, I don’t know what does.

I understand the origin of the character.

You were saying all the characters fit us perfectly. And that’s because we had the sketches written for us when we got there, and then as we kept going with Season 1, as the writers and producers got to know us more, they started finding our strengths and started creating things more suited to us. A really good example is a sketch called “The Island Girls,” where it was me and Alisa [Reyes] on a deserted island. I’m LB. I’m annoyed and I’m sarcastic. And Alisa is like, 11 or 12, and so bouncy and so annoying, and they know that that’s like real life, and they’re like, “They should be stranded on a desert island together.” You know what I mean? And so that’s how something like that was born.

And then the Loud Librarian, I think it was just an idea that they had. I think Kevin Kopelow and Heath Seifert, who are just freaking awesome, extraordinarily accomplished writers, producers, executive producers, and show creators. They were original writers on All That, and then writers and producers. Kevin is Kevin the Stage Manager, who would say, “Five minutes, five minutes.” So I think that was just a character that they had tried to get going, and by the time everyone got to know each other, things just fit.

Did you audition for roles?

No, they just assigned people based on what they knew about us. It’s like, you have the teacher character, I’m going to be the teacher character. You have the Superdude character, it’s going to be one of the boys, which one? And they would just assign things out based on what went on. Once they got to know us more after a couple, three weeks, and spending time with us, they could really start to home in more on our individual little skill sets or quirks or whatever, to come up with more tailored stuff, like “Island Girls,” or even like my character Connie Muldoon. That came out of … Kenan played somebody who had a radio call-in show first season, and I was one of the people calling in to ask a question about my son, and I used this Minnesotan accent that the guys would use on Mystery Science Theater 3000, which is one of my favorite shows, one of my real comedy influences. So I just did it like that, and people just loved the voice. They were like, “It’s so funny.” And I’d done the voice, and then one day I go, “Why don’t I have a character for the only voice I do?” And they were like, “OK, fair enough.” So then they made Connie Muldoon, who just started as this woman with a funny voice, and then of course turned batshit crazy as time went on.

No matter which character you play, it starts with you having a certain teacherly or camp counselor aura, and then evolves into you going batshit crazy.

It’s like we always used to say, “There’s two ways to end an All That sketch: someone jumps out the window, or the cops come.”

Before Mrs. Hushbaum was created, what was your experience with librarians? Had you ever been shushed by one?

I have been shushed by many people in my life, but I don’t think by an actual librarian. The character of Mrs. Hushbaum isn’t based on anyone. It’s not. If it was, she would be in jail. It just was a nice little nugget of irony to play really straight. She’s a librarian telling you to be quiet, but she’s really loud.

Does she have a backstory in your mind? Like, where did she come from and how did she get so loud?

No, there is zero backstory to the Loud Librarian. I’ve never even thought about it before. Oh my God, now I really feel like a really delinquent actor.

It’s a sketch comedy—I don’t think you have to.

Mrs. Hushbaum during the Great Depression was a cannery worker and a housewife.

We have a background now. Is she the biggest troll on earth, or does she not know how loud she is?

No, I don’t think she knows it. I think she is absolutely earnest, but also horribly violent and mean. I did some tour dates before COVID, and hopefully we’ll do more. Me and [fellow All That actor] Danny Tamberelli, we would go and do little ones, like go to venues, breweries, and bars and stuff. We’d watch old sketches. And we just watched these Loud Librarians and I’d go, “She’s so violent. She’s so awful.” It gets the laugh, and it’s funny, and it’s ironic. But in hindsight she should not be allowed to teach at a junior high.

Definitely not. The props eventually got so elaborate that it must’ve just been a feat to navigate, because you’re just zooming across the stage.

When I first had Loud Librarians sketches in Orlando, I would go in at night, when everyone was gone, to work with my props. I would go through the sketches and practice stuff, because it was tons. You know, it’s like I have to throw this, and then I have to slam everything. And I would go through and do my own rehearsal just based on the props. There’s no one else there. I didn’t have to feed anyone else lines. I could just focus on that. As they got bigger and bigger, you have to keep topping yourself, especially in sketch comedy. You have to keep topping yourself. So yes, then there’s a bowling alley, then there’s a drum kit, then there’s a motorcycle. And it is a lot. It is a frigging marathon. That’s why people ask me, what’s your favorite character? And I’m like, I would say the Loud Librarian, but it’s so hard. But it’s also very cathartic to get to just scream shit, and throw things. I just get to throw things. It’s really cathartic to get to do that sometimes.

Did you have a place that you sourced that from? Did you ever get amped up and listen to, I don’t know, like Limp Bizkit or something beforehand?

No. I guess I’m just a person seething with rage. That could be it. That’s what you’re getting from me, right? Maybe I’m just one of those people that enjoys it. Like I was at a friend’s house and they were doing some construction. And so they were tearing down a wall and I was like, “Can I take a few smacks at it with a sledgehammer?”

What do you think about the intense amount of Nick ’90s nostalgia? Did you ever expect it to have this lasting effect?

Of course not. We all liked the show. I liked what I was doing. I thought I was doing a good job and I’m getting to do what I love to do, and thought it was funny and people liked it. But to think 30 years later, however long it’s been, that I’d still be having these conversations about it—it’s really great. And it’s really super nice.

At some point five years ago, it seems like all the ’90s kids got together and decided what they were going to say when they saw me was, “You made my childhood.” I hear that phrase all the fricking time and more. And I get amazing shit like tons of people saying, “You’re the only person that looked like me that was on TV” … or, “I was gay and I got bullied and then you would make me laugh.” All kinds of shit that you just can’t imagine, really, that—[I’m] just doing my job, trying to do what I need to do to put out into the world will have this effect on people. And that’s amazing. And then it just also doesn’t occur to you that, en masse, these people will grow older and become the center of society and make what they like the thing to be.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.