Reconsidering Amanda Bynes, a Truly Underrated Comedian

Twenty-five years after her Nickelodeon debut, it's clear she changed the landscape for teen actors.

amanda bynes
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One of the early-aughts archetypes that gets praised today is that of the teen comedienne—think Lindsay Lohan, Raven-Symoné, or any number of girls featured in the now mythical 2003 Vanity Fair profile, “Teen Engines: Riding with the Kid Culture.” But before any of them, there was Amanda Bynes. Twenty-five years ago, Bynes made her debut on Nickelodeon’s sketch comedy show All That, inadvertently kicking off a renaissance of tween and teen TV and film.

In an era of fervent 2000s revisionism, it’s worth reconsidering Bynes—an actress whose contributions are often eclipsed in the public memory by her Twitter-enabled 2013 breakdown. A master of physical comedy, she had a knack for showcasing the kind of emotional extremes that belie hidden vulnerability. She could communicate rapid tonal shifts with just a wide-eyed look or quirk of the mouth. As Penny Pingleton in Hairspray, she was sweetly awkward; as Bible-thumper Marianne in Easy A, she stretched bubbly pep to its breaking point. She was at once an everywoman and a character actress, game for any wacky or messy stunts while remaining impossibly endearing and relatable, which would become the general rule for the 2000s teen starlet.

These qualities were present from the start. The fifth episode of the 1996 season of All That introduced a 10-year-old Bynes to the world in the sketch “Ask Ashley,” in which she played an advice columnist. Ashley was quintessential Bynes: An exercise in extremes, Bynes oscillated between an angelic little girl and a rage monster, infuriated by the stupidity of the questions she’s being asked. The premise didn’t exactly reinvent the wheel, but the sharpness with which she zipped through emotions captured a generation of fans.

Starting off every question proudly stating, “Dear Ashley … that’s me!” with a toothy smile, Bynes came off like a classic child actor: innocent and sweet. But then, she would swerve into adult-sounding, syntactically complex insult comedy like an old pro. Discovered by Nickelodeon producers while doing stand-up at Los Angeles comedy club Laugh Factory, she wasn’t a children’s comedienne so much as a comedienne who happened to be 10 years old.

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Bynes quickly emerged as a breakout star on All That, and within four years, she was headlining—and starring in every sketch on—The Amanda Show (1999-2002), a tween version of The Carol Burnett Show. The Amanda Show marked a definitive shift from ’90s teen media into the punchy irreverence that categorizes the 2000s. Silly and sharp in equal portions, it spoofed all ends of the pop cultural spectrum, taking on cheesy ’90s toy commercials, Judge Judy (“Judge Trudy”), The Sopranos (“Tony Pajamas”), and melodramatic teen fare like Dawson’s Creek (“Moody’s Point”). It also featured a reflection on obsessive fan culture in the form of the formidable meta-character Penelope Taynt, played by Bynes, who conducted a series-long quest to meet Amanda by any means necessary.

The Amanda Show became the blueprint for Nickelodeon’s ’00s style of comedy. The next decade of shows homed in on its wacky and quasi-surrealist style of humor, which helped shaped the tastes of the Vine and TikTok generations. Where The Amanda Show had the inexplicable dancing lobsters, iCarly had the random dancing segment. The Amanda Show’s sentient non sequitur, Debbie (who “liked eggs”), walked so the resident “random” characters like iCarly’s Gibby and Victorious’s Sinjin could run.

She wasn’t a children’s comedienne so much as a comedienne who happened to be 10 years old.

In the age Before Amanda, the main site of TV’s teen idols was The WB, “the rite-of-passage network for young performers whose characters brave a shadowy minefield of peer pressure, sexual awakening, tattoo decisions, and shape-shifting succubi decimating the cafeteria staff,” as Vanity Fair put it back in 2003. But Bynes helped Nickelodeon—and Disney alongside it—emerge as an alternative TV empire of “artificial sunshine and gooey slapstick.” Alongside fellow All That veterans Kenan Thompson and Kel Mitchell, Bynes became the archetype for Nickelodeon’s (and later Disney’s) pantheon of cross-property stars in the late ’90s and 2000s.

While Bynes’s most significant post-Nickelodeon TV move was a starring role on the four-season WB sitcom What I Like About You, the bulk of her generational impact in the 2000s came from her film career. She’s the Man — perhaps her magnum opus — is pure camp. A high school adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, it casts Bynes as Viola, who pretends to be a boy in order to play soccer at a rival school.

She’s the Man skewered toxic masculinity before the term was part of the mainstream lexicon. Viola performs “manliness” to the nth degree, in one instance getting a parade of her beautiful girlfriends to pose as a string of devoted ex-booty calls to impress her new “bros” (“brothers? brethren?”). She adheres to every possible stereotype, satirizing what we, culturally, require in order to be confident that someone is in fact a man. Bynes’s empathetic portrayal of Viola’s gender performances—both her quest to seem like a man and her own gripes with the specific femininity expected of her—touched the anxieties we all face when choosing how to enact gender on a daily basis.

Throughout her career, Bynes has played multiple characters who are defined by their rejection of "girly" pursuits, like wanting to play soccer rather than be a debutante in She’s the Man, or moving into the nerd college house rather than joining an elite sorority in Sydney White. This could read, in 2021, as anti-woman, but Bynes’s plucky underdog appeal allows those roles to hold up to contemporary scrutiny.

amanda bynes
Christopher PolkGetty Images

What were you up to at 10 years old? Because Amanda Bynes was becoming the face of a network and a generation, acting as the breadwinner for her family, and embarking upon a 14-year work streak before retiring from acting at 24. But we all know child stardom often comes with a catch, particularly in the early ’00s, when networks regularly refused to support their stars when they needed it most. For Bynes, this came as a very public set of behavioral struggles and alarming, hateful Twitter tirades fueled by rumored drug use, body dysmorphia, and depression, ultimately resulting in her being placed in a conservatorship with her mother at the helm.

At 10 years old, Amanda Bynes was becoming the face of a network and a generation.

Similar to fellow early-aughts star Britney Spears, Bynes’s breakdowns have been discussed in the court of public opinion as justification for her parents to take control over her life. Her story reflects the danger of assuming that creativity has to come at the price of the artist's stability or sanity — which is particularly damaging when applied to young people with little control over their lives and million-dollar empires riding on their backs. This trope often obscures and absolves the toxic forces and bad actors that are the actual sources of the artist’s pain. Another thing we’ve learned from the Free Britney movement is the seemingly simple fact that, in Bynes’s own words, “It definitely isn’t fun when people diagnose you with what they think you are.”

We don’t know much about how Bynes feels about performing now. What we do know is that after her meteoric rise in the mid-’90s, there was a discernible shift in youth media across the board, shaping young adults’ comedic sensibilities for the last 25 years. In 1998, Lindsay Lohan made her film debut in Walt Disney Pictures’ remake of The Parent Trap and would go on to star in several more Disney-affiliated movies, all of which are considered teen classics. In 2001, the Disney Channel launched one of its very first female-led live-action TV shows, Lizzie McGuire, and lead actress Hilary Duff would kick off Disney’s line of highly successful multimedia banner stars.

In Bynes’s wake, the entertainment industry truly did begin “raining teens” who emulated her particular brand of Mary Tyler Moore-esque ingenue charm. So the next time you pop on one of your favorite ’00s teen flicks or binge your favorite childhood sitcom, thank Amanda, please.

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