Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Inside SNICK: Saturday Night Nickelodeon [Updated]

Originally published: Tuesday, August 15, 2017.

Submitted for the approval of the Midnight Society: the untold story of SNICK, 25 years later.

Illustration by Chiara Marinai. Logo courtesy of Nickelodeon.

The couch was in the middle of the forest, ready for its close-up. A large, Pantone-orange sofa with thick black trim and comfy cushions, it came with a dedicated crew to transport it from place to place, like an actual celebrity. But then, it technically was a celebrity.

How a piece of furniture went from eccentric creation to coveted pop-culture icon had as much to do with its sun-bright hue as what it was made for in the first place: a groundbreaking Saturday programming block on Nickelodeon, the First Kids’ Network.

The purpose of Saturday Night Nick, better known as SNICK, was to serve a young audience that had been consistently deprived of quality nighttime weekend entertainment. With it, the network could secure the late-Saturday attention of pre-teens—a slightly older demographic than its daytime viewers, though not quite old enough to be out and about with their friends. When the block first premiered in 1992, 25 years ago this August, it quickly became appointment viewing for its target audience.

“That’s what you wanted to see on a Saturday night,” says Kel Mitchell, best known for his work on second-generation SNICK programs All That and Kenan & Kel—though he was also a regular SNICK viewer before being hired at the network, told Vanity Fair. “If you were a kid around that time, that’s definitely where your face would be glued.”

Before SNICK, prime-time Nickelodeon was the home of Nick at Nite, which featured reruns of classic shows like Bewitched and I Love Lucy. But the network had begun inching closer to all original programming. With the success of Nicktoons—an animated Sunday morning lineup including Doug, The Ren & Stimpy Show and Rugrats—head of programming and development Herb Scannell looked to keep up the momentum.

“We saw it both as an opportunity to program a night that was a big thing in kids’ lives and to also steal some ratings,” says Scannell. Former Nickelodeon Senior Vice President (SVP) Geoffrey Darby recalls sitting with Scannell, “taking him through my thoughts of what we should do with this block—and then light bulbs went off in his head.”

The 8 P.M. anchor was Clarissa Explains It All, starring Melissa Joan Hart as a computer-savvy teenager trying to navigate school, parents, crushes, and her annoying little brother, Ferguson. “Clarissa was the monster hit,” explains Rich Ross, a former Nick executive and the current group president of Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, and Science Channel. “Melissa had become a relatively big star.”

At 8:30 P.M., Nick opted for a new program called Roundhouse, made specifically with SNICK in mind. Developed by former In Living Color writer Buddy Sheffield and his then-wife Rita, it was an unconventional variety show centered on an oddball family with a crotchety dad who roamed around the set in a motorized recliner while a diverse cast of friends and strangers dropped in. It had the thrill of a live stage production, complete with bizarre non sequiturs and a dizzying array of pop-culture references.

Credit: From Alamy (Are You Afraid of the Dark?). Everything else from Everett Collection.

Clarissa Explains It All ran at 8 P.M., Roundhouse at 8:30, The Ren and Stimpy Show at 9, and Are You Afraid of the Dark? at 9:30.

At 9 P.M. came The Ren & Stimpy Show, a animated series from creator John Kricfalusi that reveled in gross-out, snot- and pus-related humor. At 9:30, anthology horror series Are You Afraid of the Dark? began. Like Roundhouse, it was made specifically for SNICK; the show focused on a group of kids known as the Midnight Society, who gathered each week to sit around a campfire telling scary stories.

“It was like a kid Twilight Zone,” recalls Mitchell. “I remember one episode where a girl turns into a doll. . . . It was just a wild show.”

Each show stood on its own, but together, they were a motley package. “You’re going from variety to sitcom to cartoon to scary stories,” says Darby. “There’s no flow there, which was done on purpose. We didn’t want to go sitcom-to-sitcom, and then cartoon-to-cartoon. We actually wanted to mix it up.”

To make the block feel more cohesive, the network turned to its creative director, Scott Webb. “We got the assignment that we needed to make Saturday night special,” says Webb. “We did Nick at Nite, but creating a nighttime destination for kids was new and different. It was a little more sophisticated.”

Using an old photography book called Red Couch Portrait America as inspiration, Webb and the promotions team came up with the idea of crafting a giant orange sofa—to match Nickelodeon’s famous logo—and making it the block’s official mascot. The promo team then began shepherding the couch from location to location (a beach, a farm, a gas station, a forest) for commercial shoots. The ads were meant to hammer home the idea that SNICK was mobile, communal, a movement anyone could join.

Art director Steve Thomas, who designed the official black-and-purple SNICK logo, recalls many of those early oddball ads—and how frequently the couch had to get reupholstered: “It [got] funky,” he says. Adds Barbara Kanowitz, the director who shot the spots, “The orange couch was sort of the metaphor for what they were doing with SNICK. We would bring the orange couch to different locations . . . [and] use the couch as its own identity.”

The couch would also be featured during in-network bumpers between shows, where talent or guest celebrities like the Spice Girls would come host SNICK from its cushions. It became the perfect glue for a diverse lineup—and the sofa quickly took on a life of its own. Everyone wanted to sit on it, take a picture with it, own it. “When we were doing GUTS, we weren’t in prime-time but we wanted the couch [on set],” says GUTS co-creator and former Nickelodeon president Albie Hecht. “There were many, many fights over the couch.”

What happened to the original sofa? “Oh my god,” says a laughing Darby. “I don’t think anyone has it.” Jokes Hecht, “I will tell you where the couch is. Remember the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark?”—a reference to the giant government storage facility that houses the Ark of the Covenant.

In reality, there were multiple orange couches. One had black piping and was used for promos; another was trucked around for events with fans. As of 2017, one of the originals is still at Nickelodeon headquarters. A second is owned by former N.B.A. star Shaquille O’Neal. According to O’Neal’s manager: “he liked it, asked for it, and they gave it to him.”

Courtesy of Steve Thomas.
Sketches testing out various logos for Snick. Steve Thomas developed the concept, and the artist James Spegman helped develop the logo.

Like the rest of Nickelodeon’s golden age, SNICK was different from everything children’s TV had stood for in the past. In its early days, the network bucked trends and ignored experts, capturing an impressionable generation’s attention during the rise of cable. “Before Nickelodeon, there were two kinds of kids TV: there were puppet-derivative pre-school shows, and Saturday-morning cartoons. And we saw the opportunity to give kids what adults had,” Scannell explains.

“Whenever you’re an early teen or tween, there is not a lot to do on Saturday nights. Nickelodeon found a way to plug in to that particular demographic and give us stories with real people that we could connect to,” says Adam Sweeney, co-director of an upcoming Nickelodeon documentary called The Orange Years. “A lot of those characters in a way felt like our best friends.” SNICK even helped Sweeney keep in touch with his real-life elementary school best friend, Scott Barber, after Sweeney’s family moved; he and Barber used to tune in to SNICK together, speaking on the phone as it aired. Decades later, Barber is co-directing The Orange Years with him.

“There was also a kind of shared consciousness with kids all across the nation,” Barber adds. “You kept hearing parents all the time [say], ‘Get outside and play! Get off the couch!’ Nickelodeon was actively telling you it was cool to hang out [on the couch] and be part of the Nick family”—a place where kids could own their own orange furniture, bond over Midnight Society stories, and follow the advice of Clarissa’s spunky, stylish lead.

Clockwise from top left: Melissa Joan Hart in Los Angeles, recreating a therapist and patient scene in Rockaway Beach, Long Island, and the orange couch in the woods in Westchester, NY.
Courtesy of Barbara Kanowitz.

After several lineup changes as series cycled in and out of production, SNICK would eventually end in 2004—though it did return nine years later for a “SNICK-iversary” on a Nickelodeon satellite channel, TeenNick. (TeenNick is now set to commemorate the block’s 25th anniversary by showing old SNICK programming throughout August, including a re-airing of SNICK’s first night, on August 15.) The resurfaced excitement around SNICK and its mascot, even more than two decades after it aired, proved the continuing power of the team’s creation. In the early days, says Scanell, “we would hear stories about kids’ SNICK parties, sending us pictures or drawings of the big orange couch.” It was just like the block’s famous intro: “everybody would crowd onto the couch like they’d crowd into a car, the TV would come on, and it would be time for SNICK.”

Twenty-five years later, Saturday Night Nick and its shows live on through those once-young viewers, who’ve held onto their orange-tinted, weekend memories well into adulthood, passing them onto future generations.

“It’s awesome to have people come up to you and go, ‘Man [if] I had a bad week when I was a kid, I would go home and watch Kenan and Kel and I would be so happy. I would look forward to the weekend to see you,’ ” Mitchell says . “Saturday Nickelodeon: there will never be another one.”

Update (Tuesday, August 14, 2018) - Via Polygon:

The history of Saturday Night Nickelodeon

SNICK: a favorite across generations

We may no longer spend hours on end watching Nickelodeon, but we absolutely did throughout our childhoods. And this week on The History of Fun, we fondly recall not only wasting afternoons away with classic cartoons, but also our Saturday nights.

Saturday Night Nickelodeon — or SNICK, as expert Chris Plante reminds us — was a unique introduction to the world of late-night TV for us youths. Maybe you’re an old person like Plante and Russ, and your Nick touchstones include the bizarro variety show Roundhouse; or maybe you grew up loving The Amanda Show, a legitimately great sketch comedy series. (I’ll fight y’all, Plante and Russ.) No matter which generation you belong to, you probably watched SNICK and had your own favorites you think back on fondly.

But seriously: The Amanda Show owns. Listen below for more memories.

Special thanks to everyone who participated in our segment, Reader Only Memories, wherein we share listener stories about the topic at hand. [Click here for] the full thread of responses



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