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  1. #1
    mobo85 is offline This space for rent
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    The Birth of Nicktoons

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    I've been reading a book of essays entitled Nickelodeon Nation: The History, Politics, and Economics of America's Only TV Channel For Kids, and it's quite interesting stuff. Of course, like many scholarly essays, some of them are quite brainy (like commenting on how animation became a serious subject to be studied in the '70s and '80s and not just "kids stuff" and how this "animatophilia" is linked to John K. and his creation of Ren and Stimpy...or something), but many of them are quite interesting. One in particular I was intrigued by was a straight-from-the-horse's-mouth story about how the Nicktoons came to be written by someone who was there, Linda Simensky (with some additional recollections by then-Nick-president Herb Scannell). Since it fits into the sort of thing martianinvader (Peter) often writes about in the "everything else" section of the site, and since 2009 marks Nick's 30th anniversary, I thought the people of Playtpus Comix would like to know about how the Nicktoons came to be. This is, of course, a paraphrase in my own words- I probably can't tell the story as good as Simensky does, but I'll try. If you want to hear the whole story, read the book- it is quite interesting.

    In the late 1980s, films such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit and TV shows such as The Simpsons, as well as Disney's rebirth with The Little Mermaid,created a revolution in animation. At the time, Nickelodeon had not produced an original animated series, mainly because they could not afford to and because they could not find any original ideas that fit with the network's philosophy.

    In 1988, Nickelodeon aired its first original piece of animation: a special directed by Ralph Bashki called Christmas in Tattertown. According to Simensky, this did not fit well with the style of Nickelodeon, mainly due to its depressing plotline and general lack of plot. The following year, a former Marvel Productions staffer named Vanessa Coffey oversaw a special called Nick's Thanksgiving Fest, which featured a number of shorts by different directors. Though the two main shorts did not fare well, the interstitials were bright, funny, and true to the Nick spirit, which gave the Nick execs confidence that original animation may do well for the network.

    Sometime in 1989, at the Montclair, New Jersey house of Nick president Geraldine Laybourne, Laybourne, her husband Kit, Herb Scannell, Fred Seibert, and others had a meeting where they watched TV shows currently running at the time and compared them to classic shorts such as the Looney Tunes. They came to the conclusion that then-current animation from studios such as DIC and Hanna-Barbera was formulaic and had no unique style. Geraldine Laybourne believed that the best characters, such as Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, and Kermit the Frog, were those characters who were linked to their creator. Laybourne and the team decided that the creator should be the one who was the center of the production, just as it was in the old days. Also, having a library of animated shows that they owned would allow them to both prevent having to license other animation and make money for the network- and also eventually make back the high cost of producing original animation, since animation is costly to produce, but has a long shelf life.

    It was an expensive and laborious project- around $12 million in total ($1 to $2 million per pilot) to commission eight pilots, of which they hoped four would be able to air as an animated block with a target date of August 1991. Two pilots were based on bumpers featuring characters already familiar to Nick viewers, two were British, two (besides the two bumper-based ones) were from New York, and two were from LA. These are the pilots in the order Simensky talks about them:

    "Thunder Lizards": The bumpers created by various animators for the network were closely identified with Nickelodeon, so it made sense to develop pilots based on the characters that appeared in them. This pilot was based on the "Doowop-A-Saur" bumper, featuring a trio of singing dinosaurs in tennis shoes. In the pilot, the dinos are a band with a lazy pterodactyl roadie. The design of the pilot was very "Nickelodeon," but kids didn't find it funny. Some of them thought it was too juvenile. Many of the jokes went over the heads of the intended audience. Attempts to retool the pilot never went anywhere.

    "Big Beast Quintet": The other bumper-based pilot, this was inspired by a bumper depicting five creatures walking down the street wearing T-shirts that (eventually) spelt out "Nickelodeon." In the pilot, they worked as news reporters for their temperamental boss, Nero Zero, whose mood changes literally at the flip of a switch. Again, the pilot had the Nick feel, but the main idea of the story- having to deal with an angry boss- wasn't really something a kid could relate to. Attempts to retool the pilot, under the name "Channel Zero," also went nowhere.

    "Ren Hoek and Stimpy in Big House Blues": John K.'s pilot for Ren & Stimpy. No matter how it tested, the Nick execs were so enamored by John K.'s passion that they knew it would make it to series no matter how it tested. Which is good for him, since it only tested fairly.

    "Tommy Pickles and the Great White Thing": Simensky herself says this is the only pilot she personally had involvement with. After seeing an ad for Klasky-Csupo in a film magazine referencing their work on the Simpsons shorts for Tracey Ullman, she decided to give them a call to pitch a show. Simensky and Coffey were pitched a number of ideas, the last of which- "What do babies do when their parents aren't around"- seemed like a winner. The pilot tested well, and went into production as a series. (Another interesting essay in the book talks about the infighting that went on between the Rugrats writers and execs once it became a series: Arlene Klasky hated Angelica and thought the characters acted too much like adults and not like babies. Although the writers enjoyed writing more serious stories for the characters rather than just "the babies go to fill-in-the-blank and wreak havoc" as the series went on, Nick execs thought they were "too Thirtysomething.")

    "The Weasel Patrol": Based on a comic book of the same name, this pilot was about a team of seven crime-fighting weasels whose slogan was "protect, serve, run away." The weasels were incompetent and only ended up saving the day through sheer dumb luck and coincidences. The comic book was rather adult, and a number of stories had to be pieced together from various issues to create a story for the pilot, which caused the result to be rather confusing- Simensky thinks it might have been better to create a new story rather than attempt to adapt an existing one. Also, there were seven heroes, a large number of protaganists which was quite difficult to introduce in a five-minute pilot. One kid in the test audience said he would rather watch a blank screen than this show.

    "Doug Can't Dance": Jim Jinkins's pilot. This one fared the best of all eight pilots, because of its simple, relatable story- and perhaps because of the fact that Jinkins and Doug are very much alike.

    "The Crowville Chroncicles": Due to the success of reruns of the British series Dangermouse and Count Duckula on Nickelodeon, it was decided the studio who produced them, Cosgrove-Hall, would provide a few pilots. This one was about a crow reporter and his koala photographer sidekick. In the pilot, the main gag was that the characters had to find an exciting photo for a cover story of the paper, so they took a photo in front of a picture of a rhino- which then came to life and chased them. Kids found it boring and formulaic.

    "Trash": The other Cosgrove-Hall pilot, this one was stop-motion rather than hand-drawn animation. A superhero named Crash Gordon lives on a planet of garbage. Two aliens come to the trash planet and are attacked by the planet's army. The pilot ends with the two aliens in jail and the caption "To be continued- if they're lucky." Again, kids found it boring and formulaic.

    It seemed that a number of people who provided pilots didn't believe the execs when they said they wanted something new and interesting. Although they had hoped for four shows, they only ended up with three that were quite different not only from what was currently on TV, but also from each other: Ren & Stimpy, Rugrats and Doug- all three of which premiered at the team's targeted date of August 1991. And the rest, as they say, is history.
    "If you take away our cartoons, we'll grow up without a sense of humor and be robots."
    "Really? What kind of robots?"
    -Lisa and Bart Simpson, Itchy and Scratchy and Marge

  2. #2
    Mini Garbonzo's Avatar
    Mini Garbonzo is offline Do you like my eyes?!?!
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    Wow, pretty interesting history lesson, I wonder what would have turned out different in the animated television industry if another one of those pilot's got picked up instead of one of the three we all know now.
    "Life isn’t divided into genres. It’s a horrifying, romantic, tragic, comical, science-fiction cowboy detective novel. You know, with a bit of pornography if you're lucky."
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  3. #3
    Peter Paltridge's Avatar
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    I wish I could see pictures--or better yet, videos--of those rejected pilots. Also the winning pilots if they differ in any way from the final shows (except for Big House Blues which was in an R&S episode with a few edits).

    I've got a mid-90's TV Guide that contains an interview with Herb Scannell where he tells the same story about the creation of Nicktoons, and that their first tweencom "Clarissa Explains It All" was based on the thought that "girls don't get shows."
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    nakak's Avatar
    nakak is offline Don't break a Pinkie Promise.
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    The Doug pilot aired as an episode. Doug referred to his journal as "diary" (in a later ep he gets annoyed when other characters refers to his journal as that) and the animation style was different, but otherwise it was just another episode.

    I believe the Rugrats pilot was released on VHS and DVD sometime back. While Nick never aired it a clip from it was used as a commercial-bumper.

  5. #5
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    Where did you find this book? Sounds absolutely fascinating. If you don't mind, could we hear a little more about the Rugrats essay? I love that Nick thought they were too much like Thirtysomething.

    (btw, that big beast quintet shows sounds incredibly abysmal)...


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    mobo85 is offline This space for rent
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    I recall Jerry Beck mentioning the book on Cartoon Brew years ago. I put in a request at my local library. (Always use your library, kids!)

    The Rugrats essay, by Mimi Swartz, is adapted from a 1998 article she wrote for The New Yorker. Again, a brief synopsis:

    As Simensky mentioned, the birth of Rugrats came from a suggestion about what babies might do when their parents aren't around. Some of the other ideas they pitched that didn't catch on were a boy attempting to escape his life on a dismal gas station on another planet and a city of insects. (K-C eventually made this one under the name Santo Bugito. As Swartz comments, the idea is "prescient in retropsect"- most likely referring to A Bug's Life and Antz, which were current films at the time she first wrote the article.)

    When fleshing out the characters, it was decided a bully was needed. Paul Germain suggested it be a girl, since he was bullied by a girl as a kid. Of course, that was Angelica. The writers had hopes for Rugrats- Craig Bartlett said he wanted it to be "The Simpsons of kids shows." Angelica was quite controversial inside the studio- her personality was described as "The J.R. Ewing of the show"- although she was the breakout star, Arlene Klasky hated her, thinking she wouldn't want her kids watching a character like her. Klasky thought that the babies acted too adult, and wanted them to act more like babies- when the writers would pitch ideas in the characters' voices, she would respond in baby talk. Klasky and Csupo's marriage was collapsing, but Csupo often attempted to mediate between the writers and Klasky.

    By the second season, the writers got tired of doing what they dubbed "wreak havoc" episodes and decided to focus more on what made the characters tick- such as the relationship between Angelica and her parents. Although the writers thought this was the show's "Golden Age," Nick reps thought these shows were "too Thirtysomething."

    When Rugrats was revived in 1997, the new writing team took special care in writing for Angelica: they tried to make sure she wasn't TOO cruel, and tried to make sure she wasn't always motivated by food (one of the running gags on the show was that Angelica was addicted to cookies). In the feature film, Angelica even has moments of sentimentality, crying when she thinks a wolf has killed Tommy. Perhaps this new Angelica even turned Klasky onto the character: the final line in the essay is Klasky's comment to Swartz, "I love Angelica."
    "If you take away our cartoons, we'll grow up without a sense of humor and be robots."
    "Really? What kind of robots?"
    -Lisa and Bart Simpson, Itchy and Scratchy and Marge

  7. #7
    Peter Paltridge's Avatar
    Peter Paltridge is offline Thank God he wore trunks
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    Wow, Klasky wanted the show dumbed down and Angelica neutered? The series would have soured long before it did. Klasky was apparently very dumb.
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    HomeMoviesFan's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by mobo85 View Post
    I recall Jerry Beck mentioning the book on Cartoon Brew years ago. I put in a request at my local library. (Always use your library, kids!)
    I work in a library, and I'm pretty sure we don't have any book as cool as this.

    Anyways, these stories are still incredibly interesting. Thanks for sharing...


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    TimmyFan1967 is offline Member
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    This is very interesting.......,

    many of the Nicktoons are somewhat reminisceint of the Looney Tunes style! I guess that's why they ever appeal to adults like me!

  10. #10
    John Pannozzi's Avatar
    John Pannozzi is offline 30 Years of Turtle Power
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    Quote Originally Posted by nakak View Post
    The Doug pilot aired as an episode. Doug referred to his journal as "diary" (in a later ep he gets annoyed when other characters refers to his journal as that) and the animation style was different, but otherwise it was just another episode.

    I believe the Rugrats pilot was released on VHS and DVD sometime back. While Nick never aired it a clip from it was used as a commercial-bumper.
    Want to own the Rugrats pilot? Well, then go buy the Rugrats: Decade in Diapers DVD, available here. It's worth noting that Brad Bird actually worked on the Rugrats pilot.

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