One day in 2009, Nick Cannon, the rapper and former child performer best known for portraying the likes of “Latanya” the diva-ish convenience store clerk on early-2000s Nickelodeon shows All That and The Nick Cannon Show, as well as for having married Mariah Carey once the acting and music work dried up, arrived at the Viacom offices in Times Square with plan to recapture the adolescent demo that had been his audience. “I walked into the office with a bunch of stacks of paper, and a portfolio, and said, ‘I think I can take the network to another level,’” he recalled, “and, as crazy as it sounds, they should put the network in my hands.’”
Mr. Cannon was soon hired as chairman of what would become TeenNick (a Nickelodeon spin-off that began life as The N, a nighttime programming block on now-defunct network Noggin).
“I made ’em make that decision,” he said of his hiring. “And they went with it. They were impressed with how prepared I was”—he trailed off for a moment—“and my vision.”
Mr. Cannon was sitting in his 40th-floor corner office, wearing an orange suit that matched the Nickelodeon logo—albeit in a somewhat dustier shade—pink striped socks and loafers. The room, which was cluttered with unopened gift baskets as well as an Everlast boxing dummy, doubles as a set for his TeenNick promo and teaser shoots: “It’s kind of good branding,” he said, “to pull the velvet rope, to be like, ‘Yo, come in, and be a part of our network.’” (An anteroom next door was cluttered with T-shirts reading “BITCH I’M FAMOUS,” back issues of The Hollywood Reporter, and boxes of FRS Healthy Energy, an energy drink Mr. Cannon promotes.)
The network is now home to the teen show Degrassi (a spinoff of the long-running Canadian series), H2O, about a trio of Aussie mermaids, and popular reruns of 1990s Nickelodeon programming including Mr. Cannon’s own series. “That’s the beauty of what the Nickelodeon brand has always represented,” he said. “Even when I was 17 years old I was a staff writer at a television show for Nickelodeon. From the youngest staff writer in television to the youngest chairman, it makes sense. Kind of.”
Keith Dawkins, senior vice president and general manager of TeenNick and general manager of Nicktoons, meets with Mr. Cannon twice a week. “I look to leverage him for the things he’s excited about, his insight and knowledge and access to our audience—creative ideas he’s passionate about,” Mr. Dawkins said. “He’s a thought partner in that way.”
Mr. Cannon also has a number of other gigs. Since 2009, he’s been the host of NBC’s American Idol–type talent competition America’s Got Talent, and he wakes before 6 a.m. each morning to host a four-hour drive-time radio show on 92.3 NOW, Rollin’ With Nick Cannon. (That is, when he’s in New York; Mr. Cannon is often on the West Coast for America’s Got Talent, in which case he broadcasts through the night.) Each week, he tapes a nationally syndicated radio show called Cannon’s Countdown. He has a recurring role as a talk-show host on the sitcom Up All Night, which has been picked up by NBC for a fall premiere, and he manages several bands (including School Gyrls, an all-female foursome that had their own TeenNick TV movie co-written and directed by Mr. Cannon). He is also a new father, with 4-month-old twins Moroccan and Monroe, a boy and girl, respectively, with wife Mariah Carey, to whom Mr. Cannon reportedly renewed his vows in the maternity ward under the auspices of the Rev. Al Sharpton.
“He doesn’t sleep,” said Sharon Osbourne, a judge on America’s Got Talent. “You see him taking 20-minute naps between takes.” She added that Mr. Cannon has also been eager to restart his music career. “We talk about it a lot. Nick wants to do everything.”
Like Mr. Cannon’s efforts as an actor, which trailed off into supporting roles and small independent films after the 2005 fizzle of Underclassman, a movie he wrote, Mr. Cannon’s efforts as a recording artist have been on hold since the mid-2000s. But he appears to be revving up to re-enter the fray. He recently released a single, entitled “Famous.” In the video, Mr. Cannon appears in one of those “BITCH I’M FAMOUS” T-shirts and parodies stars like Michael Jackson and MC Hammer. (Sample lyric: “Lights, stars, money, cars / When this beat drop let them know who you are.”)
“We have a lot of other stuff coming down the pipeline,” he promised. “I never really left the music industry. I just was behind the scenes doing other stuff. So now we have this single on TeenNick and MTV—it’s one of those things I do because I love it.”
Ms. Osbourne said she had tried to get Mr. Cannon to quit his drive-time radio show to free up some of his time. “He loves it too much!”
She added: “He’s so much into pop culture, with youth, and TV, and film, and cartoons: he’s into everything. He’s going to be one of the next great billionaire entrepreneurs.”
One of Mr. Cannon’s signature achievements at TeenNick, he and others said, is spearheading the network’s annual HALO Awards, which honor young viewers for their charitable endeavors. (Last year’s winners included a high school senior who used Twitter to help Haitian earthquake victims find their families and the young president of a foster youth advocacy organization.) “It kind of just helps it build an identity,” Mr. Cannon said. The goal, he explained, was to make a statement about what TeenNick represented. “A socially aware, socially conscious, young-minded kid or teenager is who we look to gear towards,” he said.
TeenNick has made still more of a splash, though, with the launch of “The ’90s Are All That,” a programming block of Clinton-era Nickelodeon programs aimed at a slightly older viewer, the nostalgic 20-something, including reruns of Kenan and Kel (on which Mr. Cannon was credited as a writer), All That (on which he starred), Doug and Clarissa Explains It All. The idea was an instant hit: on the first night, TeenNick had four of the top 10 programs among 12 to 24-year-olds in the midnight-to-2 a.m. time period. Overall, the network saw a rise in total viewership of 114 percent from the previous year, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Perhaps more important, the repackaging of this archival material sparked a frenzy on Twitter and Facebook.
Credit for the coup is hard to assign. According to Mr. Cannon, he has been pushing the idea since starting his new job. “It was one of the first things I talked about,” he said. “It was probably more of a sell for myself—like, people love that! On Twitter, all the time, people were like, ‘Bring back All That! Bring back Kenan and Kel!’”
Mr. Dawkins, however, suggested that the idea had other origins. “The late-night block was an idea independent of Nick,” he said. “That was about the audience speaking out in volume, 15 million strong: ‘Bring our Nickelodeon back!’ We were hearing that out there on Facebook, Twitter, video-based sites. And then there’s a bunch of 20-somethings who reflect that audience who work here now, and they presented us executives the same idea.”
Mr. Cannon, he said, was helpful as a sounding board: “I asked him what it was like, what was the audience feedback,” he recalled. “I showed him the spots. I wanted to hear from anyone who was part of that journey.”
Mr. Cannon’s entertainment industry journey began early: he grew up in San Diego and Charlotte, N.C. (Dad was a televangelist), getting his start in local talent shows. After making San Diego his permanent home at 15, he began auditioning and was eventually cast on All That, sort of an SNL-for-kids, that still has numerous admirers. “At the time I thought I was too old to be on there, because there were younger cast members,” he said. “I was 18. Looking back, it was the perfect age.”
There are those to wonder if, at 30, he isn’t a little young to be the face of a network. Last year, to retaliate for the rapper Eminem’s various attacks on Ms. Carey’s virtue, Mr. Cannon released a comedy single under the persona “Slick Nick,” which included the lyric, “I dunno if I should hit him cuz he’s feminine, Slick / Excuse me, Eminem, but why you lyin’ on your dick?” Around the same time, he Tweeted that late-night host Chelsea Handler was “white trash” and “looks like she got hit in the face with a hot bag [of] nickels.” These are not the kind of comments that are likely to get someone a HALO award nomination.
Mr. Cannon was asked about such unguarded moments. “I think that’s part of life,” he said. “There’s a difference between my occupation and who I am. But it’s always from respect and positivity. I don’t attack people, but I stand up for what I believe in. And I think that’s what we teach our viewers. From Degrassi to the HALO Awards, everything represents using your voice to stand up for what you believe in.”
Mr. Cannon often finds himself standing up for Ms. Carey and their relationship. When we ventured that many observers found the pair’s 2008 wedding surprising due to an 11-year age difference and a certain perception of Mr. Cannon’s role, he finished our sentence. “Errand boy?” he said.
He chalked up the misconception to “everything from my youthful exuberance—the fact that I look young—to the fact that people think I don’t deserve to be in certain situations.” As for tabloid rumors: “It’s so damaging to their own credibility. It’s so untrue—to me, obviously untrue—if it seemed like a possibility that I could be a womanizer or my wife could be overpowering—all that stuff is so ridiculous to me.” (Mr. Cannon is somewhat reticent about his personal life these days, having perhaps learned a hard lesson about acting out a romance in the public sphere: in October 2007, he and his then-fiancée, Victoria’s Secret model Selita Ebanks, broke up just five months after he broadcast his proposal to her on the giant MTV Networks Times Square Jumbotron.)
Asked whether Ms. Carey ever advised him on his various endeavors, Mr. Cannon said pillow talk between them rarely touches on work. “There’s so many other things to talk about,” he said. “When you’re at home you want to talk about anything but work. We try to have fun, even though the media tries to make up stuff—we just have the perfect relationship.”
Not that ever loses sight of his No. 1 goal. “I just want to be a part of great entertainment, at the end of the day, whatever aspect it could be,” he said. “Whether I’m on stage telling a joke, making a record, TV, acting, hosting, producing, starring in a film, I just love entertainment. You ever have a sports buff, who loves golf, and basketball, and loves going to horse races—you’re a sports enthusiast. I’m an entertainment enthusiast.”
And he’s not alone in that: Ryan Seacrest, for example, produces programming for E! while hosting American Idol and a nationwide radio show, and Andy Cohen juggles a gig managing Bravo’s programming with another as host of a late-night talk show. The Observer asked Mr. Cannon how he’d compare himself with the two, and he pondered for a moment. “People say I’m the hardest-working man in entertainment,” he began, whereupon Mr. Dawkins walked into his office.
“Like those shoes, man,” said Mr. Cannon.
“A little Cole Haan, actually,” said Mr. Dawkins. The two discussed the more fashionable choices the shoe company’s designers had been making of late.
“It’s funny, I was watching—with my wife—your stand-up on Showtime,” Mr. Dawkins noted, referring to Mr. Showbiz, a special from this year during which Mr. Cannon referred to Eminem as “Enema.” He said she was pleasantly surprised. “I think she has a certain lens on what Nick Cannon is, and she was like”—Mr. Dawkins feigned surprise—“‘this is funny!’”
“It’s so funny that people say that,” Mr. Cannon replied, aware that his reputation as a kiddie entertainer has created a certain perception. “I’m sorry you were thinking it would be not hilarious.” Mr. Dawkins said Mr. Cannon would need to prove himself continuously. “Andre 3000 said it best,” said Mr. Cannon. “You’re only funky as your last cut.”
We asked Mr. Cannon, again, how he’d compare himself with Mr. Seacrest and Mr. Cohen. “I think it’s a new kind of entertainer now,” he said, before reconsidering. “Actually it’s not a new kind of entertainer. You think about Bob Hope and Johnny Carson, Desi Arnaz—he was a great producer. It’s the same thing where—I call it an entrepretainer. It’s a businessman and an entertainer at the same time. That’s kind of what you have to be.”
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