Wednesday, August 11, 2021

On This Day in 1991: Rugrats Premiered on Nickelodeon

On This Day in 1991: Rugrats Premiered on Nickelodeon

On this day 30 YEARS AGO, we met these lovable Rugrats! 🍼💚

Nicktoons Facts: Rugrats was created by Arlene Klasky, Gabor Csupo and Paul Germain, and debuted August 11, 1991 as one of the original Nicktoons, alongside The Ren & Stimpy Show and Doug. It ran for 172 episodes, and spawned three movies and two spin-off series, All Grown Up! and Pre-School Daze. The series recently made a comeback in a brand new CG-animated series, with the original voice cast reprising their respective iconic roles. The all new Rugrats series is available to stream today on Paramount+!

What’s in a Nicktoon? How Nickelodeon Developed Its Eclectic Animation

Throughout the ’90s, Nick showcased a wide variety of animation styles, yet everyone recognizes the network’s common signatures. Why?

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.

What makes a “Nicktoon”? Which character best embodies the Nickelodeon style? The furious chihuahua with bloodshot eyes? The adorable squirrel in an oxygen suit? The green-skinned greaser loitering in a middle school parking lot? The lovestruck bully with blond pigtails and a stark black unibrow?

The art and animation styles varied, sometimes tremendously, from series to series. Yet we know a Nicktoon when we see one. We know the wacky Klasky Csupo signatures in Rugrats, but we also recognize Jim Jinkins’s softer touch in Doug. Most importantly, we understand the harmony in both approaches. In an interview, Hey Arnold! creator Craig Bartlett tells me there was no style guide. The early Nicktoons were, for the most part, distinguished by the network’s promise to the animators. “They let the shows be defined by the show creators,” he explains, “and that created more detailed and textured worlds.”

Nickelodeon launched its animation studio in rebellion against Warner Bros., Hanna-Barbera, and Disney. “We had a theory,” early Nickelodeon president Geraldine Laybourne told the Los Angeles Times ahead of the launch of the first Nicktoons, “that there were a lot of animators who had private projects they had been working on in their heads for years, but because the networks are so driven by presold characters there was no outlet.” This was a bit of promotional bluster but also a radical pledge to a new generation of cartoonists, not to mention a new generation of kids; it was perhaps the most profound statement on American television animation in the past century. Bartlett says Laybourne was true to her word.

The network launched Doug, Rugrats, and The Ren & Stimpy Show on the same day in August 1991. They were, respectively, a low-key sitcom about a nice preteen boy at a suburban school, a vivid psychedelia about adventurous toddlers, and a loud and crass slapstick comedy about deranged animals. The tone and focus were all over the place, and so, too, was the animation. Doug was smooth and sparse, Rugrats was lumpy and asymmetrical, and Ren & Stimpy was coarse and chaotic. Nickelodeon lacked a house style, and strangely enough, that was the network’s great distinction from the onset. Bartlett credits Laybourne and Matt Groening for the wider commercial turn toward “creator-driven cartoons” following Groening’s breakout success with The Simpsons on Fox in the late 1980s. Earlier in the century, the Looney Tunes could cross over into each other’s stories, as could The Flintstones and The Jetsons of Hanna-Barbera, a prehistoric and futuristic sitcom, respectively. Those house styles enforced certain uniformities in the TV cartoon landscape that dominated for half a century before Nickelodeon. Meanwhile, the original Space Jam, released in November 1996, grossed more than a quarter billion dollars at the box office but could only reinvigorate the Looney Tunes for so long. For millennials, “Nickelodeon” became the new shorthand for “cartoons.”

But the network existed for more than a decade before developing its first original cartoon series. It was always a kids’ channel, but in the most broad and expansive terms; Nick also produced game shows with preteen contestants, live-action sitcoms and dramas, and a flagship variety show (All That). During its bedtime block, Nick at Nite, it syndicated midcentury sitcoms such as I Love Lucy and Bewitched. By the turn of the century, Nickelodeon was a multibillion-dollar business but remained a genuinely strange destination, a grade school oasis unlike any other network, past and present. There seemed to be 1 trillion cable channels, but just one dedicated to taking a 10-year-old seriously for several hours at a time. Nickelodeon was a national playground staging a long contest to see who could be more rough and imaginative in the sandbox: the kids watching the cartoons or the animators producing them.

We can think critically (and even cynically) about “branding” and we can discern the splashy marketing—the bright orange logo, the torrential green slime—as a clever and definitive force in forging so much nostalgia for Nickelodeon. But the animators were geniuses, each bearing a peculiar signature in the network’s collective dissent against symmetry and tidiness, and Nickelodeon did in fact empower the animators like no other television studio ever before. There was a fashion statement etched into the lumps of Tommy Pickles’s head. John Adkins, a contributor to the popular newsletter Animation Obsessive, notes the influence of Russian animator Igor Kovalyov and his early cartoon short, “Hen, His Wife,” produced in the then–Soviet Union; Kovalyov later joined Klasky-Csupo in the U.S. and cocreated Aaahh!!! Real Monsters for Nickelodeon. “Those Klasky-Csupo shows look very similar to the stuff coming out of Russia in the early ’90s and late ’80s,” Adkins says. Bartlett, who worked on the earliest seasons of Rugrats before he created Hey Arnold!, also credits Peter Chung, who directed the pilot for Rugrats.

“He invented that whole perspective,” Bartlett says. “He put the camera on the ground, he did these panning backgrounds and other stuff in the original pilot that was insane.” In its nine seasons on Nickelodeon, Rugrats preserved the Eastern European ruggedness and alt-comics quirks that were eventually muted in The Simpsons, which became smooth, round, and symmetrical after the show’s prime-time breakout from The Tracey Ullman Show on Fox.

In the 1990s, there was “an artist’s market,” Bartlett recalls, beyond just Nickelodeon. Disney developed new characters for the Disney Channel and even bought the rights to Doug from the show’s creator, Jim Jinkins. Cartoon Network revived and remixed the old style and franchises from Hanna-Barbera, and the network’s afternoon block, Toonami, led a larger push to incorporate anime into American cartoon programming. Kids’ WB licensed Pokémon, Fox licensed Digimon, and Toonami introduced wide audiences to Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z. Nickelodeon responded to the trend with Avatar: The Last Airbender, but otherwise stuck to its sitcom instincts.

Adkins refers me to a strange meme, The Cabala of Doug, purporting to trace Doug’s descendants, such as Hey Arnold! (“Football Doug”) on Nickelodeon and even The Proud Family (“Black Girl Doug”) on the Disney Channel. “Nick had a lot more shows with a humanist angle,” Adkins says, drawing a contrast with action cartoons like Thundercats and Transformers, which dominated TV a decade before the original three Nicktoons, but featured more machines and aliens than people. The Nicktoons styles never clashed but rather reinforced one another—potty humor and formative pathos in equal proportion. It was middle school.

The artist’s market expanded, the networks traded talent, and sometimes the distinctions blurred. Cartoon Network’s Cow and Chicken, created by the Ren & Stimpy alumnus David Feiss, could’ve passed for a Nicktoon. The Fairly OddParents and Danny Phantom, created by Dexter’s Laboratory alumnus Butch Hartman, could’ve blended in with The Powerpuff Girls. But Nickelodeon unleashed these animators from the old conventions and constraints. In the ’90s, Bartlett says, “Nicktoons were way out front.” It was a kids’ network that took artists seriously; a revolution in our childhoods. 


From Decider:

‘Nicktoons’ at 30: How This Animated Block Came To Capture The Early ‘90s Adolescent Zeitgeist By Outmaneuvering Disney

By the early ‘90s, what began as a small-time Ohioan provider of cable edu-tainment had been rechristened as Nickelodeon and cannily self-billed as the “First TV Network for Kids,” an anarchic playground on the airwaves in which the only rule was that there were no rules. They’d gotten a foothold in the industry through emulation and opposition, communicating the gist of their programming by positioning it relative to something already known, either as a kid-ification of grown-up cool or a reprieve from the lameness. The young station’s core mission statement, of giving school-aged tube-watchers a refuge that wouldn’t condescend to their intelligence or drown them in sentimental syrup, was summarized alternately as “MTV for kids” (the ubiquitous splat logo was designed by the same guy who did the spaceman for MTV) or “the anti-Disney” for its emphasis on an edgy irreverence over the chipper model behavior that adults would try to spoon-feed their offspring as they vegged out. 

The Canadian import You Can’t Do That On Television gave the fledgling Nick one of their first hits by repackaging the hip rib-elbowing of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In for pre-adolescent millennials and lubricating it all with the green slime that would become the brand’s trademark. Game shows like Double Dare invited the viewership to scramble through kooky obstacle courses that lent an antic, physical dimension to the living-room staples they’d seen Mom and Dad watching. Soon enough, sketch institution-to-be All That would come along and mint a generation of stars while giving Nick its Saturday Night Live or, perhaps more accurately based on the cast and featured performers’ diverse racial makeup, In Living Color. These shows filled a surprisingly wide niche by making kids feel like any and all entertainment could be for them, the furthest thing from baby stuff.

But visionary network president Geraldine Laybourne believed that the key to Nickelodeon building an identity of its own would be original animation; as any parent can attest, the easiest way to get a child to pay attention to something is to put it in a cartoon. She sent development executive Vanessa Coffey to Los Angeles with a simple mission to “go out and find stuff that you like.” The documentary The Orange Years lays out an informative if somewhat adulatory recounting of this era, and in it, Coffey recalls her aspiration to foster some art for art’s sake in a commercial landscape dominated by merchandising concerns. “Basically, it was if you had a toy, then you could get a show,” she says. “Transformers, G.I. Joe, My Little Pony — commercials, basically, for toys. And after a while, I just didn’t want to do that anymore… I wanted them to be creator-driven, original pieces.” After two weeks, she commissioned eight pilots, and Laybourne gave the green light to a series order for three.

When the freshman class of Nicktoons made their grand debut thirty years ago today on August 11, 1991, there was a pleasing incidental logic to the way they comprised a demographical family unit. If the first three series were siblings, that makes the baby Rugrats, which chronicled the imagination-fueled adventures that a gaggle of toddlers had whenever the ‘growed-ups’ weren’t looking. The middle child was Doug, pitched to tweens like its mild-mannered protagonist and alter ego of underwear-clad superhero Quailman, who was also dealing with universal issues of bullying, mood swings, and crushes. And as the burnout eldest brother somewhere between barely graduating high school and dropping out of college, there was the giddily gross The Ren and Stimpy Show, a knowing bid to secure the post-pubescent set featuring a sociopathic chihuahua and an idiot cat. As an early promo touted, “You won’t find them in Never Neverland. They’re not squishy and sweet, and they don’t make you go goo-galoo. They’re the Nicktoons!”

This miniature animation renaissance captured the moment’s zeitgeist to an extent that the polite old hat of Disney or Hanna-Barbera no longer could, each trailblazing show oriented in its own way around the truisms that kids like making a mess and engaging in light hooliganism. This would be expressed as text on some occasions, as in the Rugrats pilot that climaxes with a chain reaction of sloppy, sticky chaos in the home, a frequent occurrence around the Pickles residence. Ren and Stimpy moved through their demented universe as pure forces of untamable destruction, nothing but trouble for the two-legged horse, amphibious stand-up comic, and caricatured Scotsman in their neighborhood. The sloganeering of Chuck E. Cheese comes to mind, as a place where “a kid can be a kid.”

But that spirit of lamp-breaking, slime-pouring rambunctiousness would be articulated more holistically through the off-kilter aesthetics, Laybourne having encouraged each showrunner to cultivate a distinct look instead of adhering to a uniform house style. Though Doug generally worked in a cozy minimalist mode, leaving some backgrounds white and scenery rudimentary, creator Jim Jinkins embraced weirder faces — green or blue skin, stick-figure hair, noses nearly stretching into the forehead — in his character designs. Rugrats took that a step further, in keeping with Hungarian-born animator Gábor Csupó’s belief that infants more often looked like irregular mutants than little cherubs. De facto leader Tommy, neurotic second banana Chuckie, twins Phil and Lil, and three-year-old tyrant Angelica all have oversized potato-shaped heads and off-center mouths, the adults’ features warped twice over by the tot’s-eye vantage point. Ren and Stimpy turned this slight tendency for alienation into something like a competitive sport, distending and distorting in close-up splash shots that went into filthy detail on the caliber of snot, pimples, and bloodshot eyeballs seldom seen outside the Garbage Pail Kids.

The insouciant attitude may have lured kids to channel-flip onto Nickelodeon’s frequency, but it was the high quality of writing across the board that kept them around. Cleverness-to-smartassery enjoyed greater purchase in this universe than most, trafficking at times in an irony that betrayed the Gen X personnel behind the scenes. Beyond the misheard or misunderstood idioms that would launch Rugrats‘ little ones on their weekly escapade, there was a higher wit evident in a quick survey of the cast’s adults: well-meaning yet absentminded inventor Stu makes sense to kids as a kooky screwup doing his best, but his granola-eating wife, her second-wave feminist sister, Stu’s yuppie brother Drew, and his corporate-raider wife all come straight from the pool of stock ‘90s archetypes. Though these characterizations would be lost on the intended audience of grade schoolers, catering to the adults wasn’t so intrusive for a show focused on just how limited a youngster’s perspective on the world around them could be. Ren and Stimpy went as far as they could in the opposite direction, burrowing into its own stupidity until it burst out the ass-end. Loading up the scripts with sexual innuendo and off-color double entendre scandalized parents, delighted the stoners, and most importantly, made kids who may not have grasped all of it nonetheless feel like capable media consumers. Even if they didn’t get why naming a fast food joint “Chokey Chicken” was funny, they knew they were seeing something forbidden, and as such, exciting.

The triple success of this initial slate gave way to a gold rush of beloved programs including Rocko’s Modern Life, Aaahh!!! Real Monsters, and the unimpeachable Hey Arnold!. As is the case with any boom period of creativity flourishing under benevolent corporate negligence, however, the fun had to end eventually. The talking heads interviewed for The Orange Years triangulate this point at the advent of SpongeBob SquarePants in 1999, when the higher-ups got a taste of just how lucrative this enterprise could be and shifted in favor of an assembly-line approach to production. That narrative conveniently omits the fact that Laybourne departed Nick in 1996 for greener pastures at her one-time sworn enemy Disney, the same year that the Mouse House acquired Doug and lost the show’s soul, in the fandom’s consensus estimation. The truth is that the good days were in fact not so good; it came out in 2018 that Ren and Stimpy creator Jon Kricfalusi had abused his authority to sexually prey upon underage women. 

The Nickelodeon empire endured and expanded, now a colossus bearing little resemblance to the laissez-faire madhouse it once was. All the same, the incalculable influence of those three flagship titles is splattered all over the face of modern animation, Doug‘s gentle nature having cleared the way for the wave of emotionally mature fantasies now thriving on Cartoon Network. So revelatory was the Nickelodeon philosophy of TV that any time a show has the bright idea to treat children like they’re not morons here to be sold to, it can’t help following in those orange footsteps.


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More Nick: First Look: Nickelodeon's All-New Animated 'Rugrats' Reunites Members of the Original Voice Cast to Reprise Roles!

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