For 12 years, cable television's only channel expressly for kids, Nickelodeon, has been without the most common staple of all children's television programming: cartoons. Although the channel has shown animated specials and wowed the industry with its colorful station IDs, the high cost of quality animation has discouraged Nickelodeon from developing weekly animated programming.
That's about to change in a big way on Sunday. Nickelodeon has invested top dollar in three distinctly different animated series--"Doug," "The Ren & Stimpy Show" and "Rugrats"--that the channel hopes will provide the same legacy for Nickelodeon that Looney Tunes has for Warner Bros., "Tom & Jerry" for MGM or Mickey Mouse and the gang for Disney.
"We know that kids like animation, and that good quality animation lasts forever," Nickelodeon President Geraldine Laybourne said. "Looney Tunes are 50 years old and they still play today."
Nickelodeon, which is owned by MTV Networks, has built its business on original programs with a short shelf life and nostalgic repeats, but its objective now is to create an evergreen library that will pay for itself over years. To do that, Nickelodeon has created three original animated series cast far outside the Saturday-morning mold.
"Doug" is a painfully average 11-year-old kid who muddles through tough childhood experiences, such as getting a goofy-looking haircut or learning to dance, which he carefully records in a diary each night.
"Ren & Stimpy," who resemble a sort of pop art meltdown, are a depleted asthmatic Chihuahua and his fat feline, hairball-spitting sidekick. Together they careen through a weird world of animated chaos.
"Rugrats," from the producers of "The Simpsons," takes the ground's-eye perspective of life through the eyes of a 1-year-old child, to whom a gleaming toilet bowl becomes a mysterious monolith.
TV networks tend to go to large animation houses with proven track records to develop Saturday-morning series, which are generally patterned after pre-sold characters from movies, toys or comics. Hearkening back to the early days of animation, however, when such free-spirited cartoonists as Bob Clampett, Tex Avery and Chuck Jones oversaw every aspect of their creative vision, Nickelodeon set out to find frustrated cartoonists swallowed up by the current studio system.
"Our way of operating was to cast a wide net to find producers around the country," said Laybourne, who commissioned eight six-minute pilots at a cost of $100,000 each before selecting three. "We had a theory 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 pre-sold characters there was no outlet."
Laybourne's theory turned out to be correct.
"We formed our company with people who ran screaming from the big studios where they had to continually try to fit the script," said John Kricfalusi, 35, whose boutique company Spumco in Hollywood produces "Ren & Stimpy" for Nickelodeon. "Our whole history of working in animation was taking abominable scripts and trying to turn them into something."
Kricfalusi was animation director for Ralph Bakshi's "The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse," which was a miss with Saturday-morning viewers but admired by animators for its cutting-edge style. Ren and Stimpy were created years ago by Kricfalusi as office doodles.
"I tried to sell Ren and Stimpy to CBS, ABC and NBC," he said. "But I just knew at the regular networks there was no way in the world they would buy my stuff undiluted. So I diluted it. I hid the Ren and Stimpy characters, surrounding them by a bunch of kids in a show called 'Your Gang.' And I made up a bogus pitch about it being socially conscious."
The cartoonist also gave that pitch to animation veteran Vanessa Coffey, whom Nickelodeon hired to develop its new animated lineup. But Coffey didn't like the concept: "I hated the kids. I didn't want to do kids. Everybody on Saturday morning does kids. But I said, how about those two characters Ren and Stimpy?"
"I couldn't believe it," Kricfalusi said. "She saw right through it and got rid of the window dressing."
Jim Jinkins created "Doug" one night six years ago while sitting in his New York loft. "It was an incredibly difficult time when every aspect of my life, personal and business, was kind of falling apart," Jinkins, 38, said. "I noticed after a while some of these cartoons were not just about me, but about people in general and the universal issues of self image and the need to be loved."
Jinkins, who has worked with the Children's Television Workshop, tried to sell "Doug" as a greeting-card line and a children's book, but contracts kept falling through. Then Coffey came across the character. She had a hunch kids would be drawn to "Doug," a bumbling everykid who in the pilot dressed as a slug for a school costume dance. In testing later with 800 boys and girls, 98% reported that they liked "Doug" a lot.
"On Saturday mornings, boys get 'G.I. Joe' and girls get 'Barbie.' You know, please," sighed Coffey, who co-produced the Saturday morning series "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" before she got fed up with the violence of network cartoons. "It's sad. There are shows you can give children that are smart, that will appeal to them. Kids like to think. They don't want to be given guns and sugar."
The inspiration for "Rugrats" was the young son of husband-and-wife team Arlene Klasky and Gabor Csupo. "I was wondering what motivates a 1-year-old, from a 1-year-old point of view," said Klasky, who pointed out that "Rugrats" went into production before the movie "Look Who's Talking" came out.
The chief rugrat is Tommy Pickles, who toddles pigeon-toed just as Klasky and Csupo's son Jarrett did at that age. Everything is seen from Tommy's perspective looking up, which requires some unusual animation. "There's a lot of extreme angles, so when a spoonful of baby mush is coming at him, it's really coming at him," Klasky said. In another scene, the camera looks out through the mouth of one of the "rugrats."
Csupo, who has received critical praise for his work on "Simpsons," choreographed a frenzied bathroom scene in which Tommy scales a toilet plunger, almost plunges into the toilet, floods the bathroom and gets wound up hopelessly in toilet paper. Csupo said he is taking more chances with the animation on "Rugrats" because it is his Hollywood company's series. "Simpsons" is guided by cartoonist Matt Groening and Fox.
"When we created those characters for 'Simpsons,' it was a cooperation," Csupo said. "There were a lot of people approving, disapproving. We had to report to too many clients. We had a lot of reluctance when we wanted to make the (characters) yellow, even though the yellow color is pretty much part of the trademark of 'Simpsons' now. It took a fight. With 'Rugrats,' we are pretty much left alone to go wild," he said.
Although the Nickelodeon series are half an hour in length, each episode will consist of two 11-minute segments, another throwback to the old studio cartoon shorts, so that they can be later mixed and matched. Nickelodeon's Laybourne says that she sees a future for the cartoons in international distribution, publishing, original music, feature films and licensing and merchandising. But she insists that they will always be driven by their creators, and not by products.
"What makes us different from the networks is our orientation," Laybourne said. "We're not ratings-driven so we can take time to get this right. We come from a kid's point of view, not from what we feel is a marketplace orientation. We're not doing animation like everybody else does. We're not repeating others' work. We're trying to carve new ground, create new characters and build a future. It's a very long-term view."
* "Doug," "The Ren & Stimpy Show" and "Rugrats" will premiere as a 90-minute block in their regular time slot Sunday morning at 10. The block repeats as a special presentation Sunday night at 8. "Doug" will also repeat Saturdays at 7 p.m. starting Aug. 17, and "Rugrats" will repeat Sundays at 7 p.m. starting Aug. 18.