If a baby could talk, and he happened upon a toilet for the first time in his life, what would he say?
That was the rough premise of the six-minute animated short that the team of Gabor Csupo, Arlene Klasky and Paul Germain brought to Nickelodeon in 1989. At the time, the cable network was looking for original shows to put on its newly created Sunday morning cartoon block, and this one, with the diaper-clad baby that looked strange and even a little sickly, staring up at a toilet as though it were the monolith from "2001: A Space Odyssey," seemed promising enough for Nickelodeon executives to order 13 episodes. They have not regretted the move.
Today, "Rugrats" is what people in the entertainment licensing business call an "evergreen property," meaning the hundreds of millions of dollars in global merchandising rights that the show brings in each year will likely stay as strong as the green leaves of that tree. Mickey Mouse is an evergreen property. So is Winnie the Pooh. By implication, Tommy Pickles and his gang--his friend Chuckie, his neighborhood playmates Phil and Lil, and his bossy, smarty-pants cousin Angelica--will be adorning kids' T-shirts and lunch boxes for generations to come.
"We've treated 'Rugrats' as a lifelong property out of the gate," says Ann Sarnoff, Nickelodeon's executive vice president for consumer products.
And yet, "Rugrats" is more than the story of a kids' cartoon that lodged itself into the collective unconscious of the 2-to-11-year-old set through the canny, patient marketing of adorable characters. With its divided universe of kid pathos and adult humor (parents Stu and Didi Pickles are nothing if not yuppie archetypes, built for satire), "Rugrats" is a show that's closer in spirit to "The Simpsons" than "Barney." Closer, too, in execution, since, by all accounts, Germain, creative producer and story editor on the first 65 episodes, ran "Rugrats" like a sitcom--a script-before-storyboard approach that puts the show in the unlikely company of writerly cartoons such as Comedy Central's "South Park" and Fox's "King of the Hill."
"In animation, there's always a split: Do we let the artists run it, or do we let the writers have it?" says Joe Ansolabehere, a former "Rugrats" writer who, with Germain, went on to create the hit ABC Saturday morning cartoon "Recess."
" 'Rugrats' eventually became more like 'Bullwinkle,' 'The Simpsons' and 'The Flintstones,' in that it was a writer-centric show."
A new season of "Rugrats" now airs Saturdays at 8 p.m., but these days, the franchise is powered by media on multiple fronts.
On TV, the show appears 19 times a week, which has helped Nickelodeon quadruple its audience over the past five years. The average 2 million viewers that each half-hour pulls in (each show contains two 15-minute stories) consistently puts "Rugrats" among the top-rated cable shows, and the reruns that air weeknights at 7:30 p.m. have helped fill an after-dinner programming void for parents.
A daily "Rugrats" comic strip debuted several months ago in nearly 100 newspapers, including The Times.
Meanwhile, a stage show, "Rugrats--A Live Adventure," is chugging around the country with a scheduled stopover Sept. 24-29 at Cox Arena in San Diego (the show's Los Angeles-area dates are tentatively set for March 12-16 at the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim and March 19-28 at the Universal Amphitheatre). With a second touring company slated to hit the road later this year, the production is on track to become the year's highest-grossing live performance for kids, more powerful than "Barney" or "Sesame Street," according to the trade publication Amusement Business.
Finally, "The Rugrats Movie" is coming Nov. 25 from Nick's sister studio Paramount, and a sequel is already in the works for 2000. David Spade and Whoopi Goldberg are among the celebrities lending voices to the film, and the soundtrack will feature rock acts Jakob Dylan of the Wallflowers and the B-52's. In "The Rugrats Movie," the babies will go on a wild adventure through a forest, encountering lizards, monkeys, spooky shadows and a mysterious wizard.
But that's nothing compared to the horrifying realities of life depicted on the show since its inception. Consider: "Rugrats" has tackled death (when Chuckie's pet bug Melville died), irrational kid fears (as when Tommy avoids the tub, afraid he'll be sucked down the drain when he takes a bath) and interfaith marriage (the Passover episode, which revealed that Stu is Gentile and Didi Jewish).
"I've heard parents say, 'I'm not sure about letting my kids watch 'Rugrats,' " says Carol Postal, a consultant for the $100-billion children's entertainment licensing industry. "But, at the end of the day, it's done with good humor and it always has a happy ending. It talks about stuff that's indigenous to kids' lives."
Like "Seinfeld," a sitcom that bloomed late, "Rugrats" didn't take off right away.
Of the three cartoon series Nickelodeon launched in 1991 with its Sunday morning "Nicktoons" block ("The Ren & Stimpy Show," "Doug" and "Rugrats"), it was the edgier "Ren & Stimpy," featuring the scatological antics of a Chihuahua and a cat, that got the most attention from the network and the media.
It wasn't until 1994, when Nickelodeon began airing "Rugrats" in reruns Monday through Friday, that the show's popularity grew exponentially.
"What happened in 1994 is that kids started to own this show," says Albie Hecht, Nickelodeon's president of film and TV entertainment. "Kids have different viewing behaviors. They like to watch the same things three and four times. They got to know the stories, the plots. It's like having that cuddly old blanket, that teddy bear."
But "Rugrats" isn't all cuddles and hugs; in fact, many say its success has as much to do with its departure from the numbingly sweet "I love you, you love me" Barney ethos as anything. Episodes may end happily, but not with the phony, moralizing tone of some omniscient parental voice. In "Rugrats," the yuppie parents are slightly dim and out of it, while the kids experience the world firsthand, transforming into quasi-adult creatures when the parents aren't looking. This has enabled the show to play to young and old in the room--where the parent sees satire, the child sees reality. There's 1-year-old Tommy (the hero), 2-year-old Chuckie (the fearful friend) and 3-year-old Angelica, Tommy and Chuckie's arch-nemesis, whose line, "You dumb babies," makes her a memorable villain.
"Angelica is a female character kids can relate to," says Shari Sanders, senior editor of the magazine Children's Business. "She's headstrong and appealing. She tells it like it is, and you don't find that a lot. She's not Barbie."
That a show aimed at kids would offer an unsympathetic 3-year-old character speaks to the creators' initial goals.
"We knew going in that we didn't want to write this only for kids," says "Rugrats" co-creator Gabor Csupo. "We realized that if you put in sophisticated, smart writing, you open the horizon to adults as well."
Csupo (pronounced Choo-poh) is an animator who left Communist rule in his native Hungary in 1975, going to Stockholm, where he met Klasky, an American graphic designer. As husband and wife, the two formed Klasky Csupo Inc. in 1981. Now divorced, they remain creative partners, and they've benefited hugely from the "Rugrats" wave. They have seen their Hollywood-based animation company grow to a studio of 260, having signed a near-exclusive deal with Viacom, one of the largest media companies in the world. In addition to "Rugrats," Klasky Csupo shows include "Ahhh! Real Monsters," "Duckman," "Santa Bugito" and "The Wild Thornberries," a new prime-time series premiering Sept. 1 on Nickelodeon.
Admirers credit the Klasky Csupo studio with breathing new, eccentric life into the animation world. To be sure, Tommy Pickles--"a spoof on all little balding babies," Csupo says--stands apart from most cartoon babies in that he's not unremittingly cute. The imperfect lines and slightly bleak look of early "Rugrats" episodes are a departure from the slicker, prettier cartoon images American kids are used to from the likes of Disney and Warner Bros.
"There is not much inventiveness going on in certain studios, because they feel they've already tapped into something which people like, and they're just maybe lazy about it now," says Csupo, who as a child growing up in Hungary was influenced by early Disney cartoons and the award-winning work of Yugoslavian animators. "We like to challenge that.'
Klasky and Csupo are co-executive producing "The Rugrats Movie" and have some 30 projects either in production or development, Klasky says. They've formed two independent music labels, and Csupo is co-owner of Lumpy Gravy, a restaurant/art gallery in Los Angeles.
It's a far cry from where the pair were back in 1986, when Paul Germain found them to animate this offbeat little cartoon he was associate producing called "The Simpsons."
In the glut of "Rugrats" media coverage over the past several years, Germain has remained a very minor figure. But his contributions, say many of the writers who worked on the show, can't be understated.
In 1983, Germain, fresh from UCLA Film School, took a job as an assistant to director James Brooks at Gracie Films. He eventually rose to associate producer of "The Tracey Ullman Show," Brooks' sketch comedy series for the then-fledgling Fox network. That show, while winning an Emmy for comedian Ullman, is now better known for having launched cartoonist Matt Groening's Springfield family "The Simpsons" as an animated "bumper" between sketches.
According to Jeffrey Townsend, a fellow associate producer on "Tracey Ullman," he and Germain were given the task of finding a company to animate Groening's initial black-and-white drawings. After looking at a dozen different reels, Townsend says, they chose Klasky Csupo, a small, risk-taking Hollywood animation company looking for its first big break.
"When Paul and I met with them, they were in these dubious little offices," Townsend remembers. "Their reel was uneven and sketchy, but we connected with them as people."
Klasky Csupo not only went on to animate the 20-second segments, it continued to work on "The Simpsons" during the show's first three seasons as a half-hour sitcom and is credited with the distinctive color schemes (blue for Marge Simpson's hair, for instance) that are now the show's staples.
They also got something else out of the bargain: Germain, who left Gracie in 1989 to join Klasky Csupo as a development executive. That collaboration would prove to be fruitful and, ultimately, a source of contention.
Interviewed at the expansive Klasky Csupo headquarters in Hollywood, Klasky explains how "Rugrats" began. It was the night before the company was to pitch ideas to Nickelodeon, and she called Germain with the seed of an idea: Why not a cartoon about babies, from a baby's point of view? Klasky herself was a new mother at the time, so the behavior of infants was on her mind.
"We needed to pitch the next morning, and we really didn't have many ideas," Klasky says. "I came up with the idea--a 1-year-old's perspective, yuppie family, if babies could speak what would they say."
The next day, Germain presented the concept to Vanessa Coffey, then an executive at Nickelodeon.
"Paul, being the writer of the group, was pitching to me directly," says Coffey, now president of Coffey Ballantine, which is leading syndicator King World's push into animation. "People kept telling me, 'Everybody's done babies already.' But we wanted to do a sophisticated show with really strong stories and strong character development."
The rest, as they say, is history--but with a twist. For unlike "Rugrats" episodes, the association of the three creators didn't end happily.
As it happens, the backstage world of "Rugrats" isn't all about cuddles and hugs either. It's also about lawyers and financial settlements and confidentiality agreements stemming from Germain's firing in 1994 after serving as creative producer and story editor for the first 65 episodes.
The settlement prohibits Klasky, Csupo and Germain from speaking about the circumstances of their split. Of "Rugrats," Germain will only say, "Everyone on the show shared the fundamental belief that children are smart, they understand things, and if you talk up to them as opposed to down to them, kids will respond."
But many of the writers who worked under Germain say he and Klasky clashed repeatedly over character direction and Germain's desire to push for sophisticated dialogue--battles that tore holes in their relationship and eventually led to Germain's ouster.
"The differences with Arlene were over what network executives would call 'edge,' " says Jonathan Greenberg, a former "Rugrats" writer. "Angelica's character was always a disputed thing because she was the antagonist, and from Tommy's point of view, she was as villainous as anyone you could think of. So there was always a question of how mean you could make her."
Klasky doesn't dispute that she felt a need to rein in the writing staff. "Many times it would get off the mark, where they were speaking with adult jokes. Once in a while we'd let those jokes through."
In television, it's not unusual to see a battle of creative wills end in divorce. What made this one particularly bittersweet for colleagues on the sidelines, however, is that it happened over a kids show as seemingly harmless as "Rugrats" and that it occurred before "Rugrats" became a phenomenon, leaving Germain out of the limelight.
The sense that, in the flurry of press coverage, Germain's creative role was being written out of the official history of the show prompted eight former "Rugrats" writers to sign a letter to The Times after a story on the show appeared in 1996.
"[Germain] came up with the title, personally pitched the idea to Nickelodeon, wrote, cast, voice-directed and produced the pilot, and was creative producer, voice director and head story editor of every episode," the letter reads. ". . . To ignore the fact that it was essentially Paul Germain's show is an unfortunate distortion of the facts."
Csupo says he drafted a three-page response to The Times but was stopped from sending it by Nickelodeon's lawyers. Two years later, he and Klasky seem eager to respond to the contention that Germain has been shortchanged, but during the interview a Nickelodeon representative repeatedly steers them away from the subject.
Of course Germain contributed mightily to "Rugrats," Klasky says at one point, but how can you pin the success of a show--or, by extension, a studio--on one person?
"There's no way we could sustain this studio if we said our vision stops with the visuals and we had no say in the writing and the music and the voice talent," she says. "It's one broad picture."
Craig Bartlett, creator of the Nick cartoon "Hey Arnold" and among the "Rugrats" writers who signed the letter to The Times, is a bit more circumspect on the issue these days.
" 'Rugrats' is a phenomenon; why is that?" he asks. "We as writers thought it was because of our sly subtext, making fun of yuppie parents. But who's to say that's why kids love it? Maybe they do because of how grotesquely cute Tommy is."
In a sense, the issue of Germain's influence on "Rugrats" shadows a broader vogue in TV animation--the writer-driven cartoon. While feature animation is still an artist's domain, TV animation has for several decades been moving away from the storyboard and onto the written page. It's a trend that's been bolstered in the last 10 years by the success of "The Simpsons," which many now consider the model for top-notch TV comedy writing.
"In the TV animation process, I give a great deal of credit to the writing, because you don't have time to write with a storyboard," says David Silverman, a "Simpsons" producer for six seasons. "In features, you storyboard [scenes] and work from that. . . . The content is more the domain of the story artists."
Germain and Ansolabehere's post-"Rugrats" invention, "Recess," takes place in the self-contained world of a playground, and it too has the clever feel of a show that springs from the writer's wit and not the artist's imagination. In one episode, for instance, the school announces that an old jungle gym is about to be torn down and replaced by a new one; the kids rebel by occupying the rickety old structure, where they hold hands and sing "Kumbaya."
Germain says the writers look at "Recess" as though it were no different from the sitcom "Taxi." "Here are six characters who are very different from each other, but they all meet at work."
The writer-driven cartoon, it should be said, is not a movement that's been fully embraced by the animation community.
"The writer-driven shows tend to have this really fast pace to them, which is unfortunate," says Eddie Fitzgerald, a 20-year animation veteran who works on Fox's "The New Adventures of Woody Woodpecker." "On TV, we consistently leave out any interesting visual treatment to jump ahead to the next plot point. Personality [on television] is hard to find. Most shows don't give actors that room. And most cartoons don't give artists that room. We're just cranking this stuff out."
John Kricfalusi is even more blunt on the matter. The creator of "Ren & Stimpy," a so-called auteur-driven cartoon because the humor and story derived from his drawings, has little use for the writer-driven cartoon wave. Maybe the writers for "Rugrats" were talented, he says, but animation generally tends not to draw the best and the brightest of writers.
"It was Walt Disney who said that when you make animated cartoons, they're not written, they're drawn by artists who have a sense of story," says Kricfalusi, whose work appears on the Internet these days (at www.spumco.com). "The thing about writer-driven cartoons, it's a misnomer, because it plays on the public's credulity that you're using an actual writer to write the cartoons. What it really means is that the artist isn't writing it, a [production assistant] is, or [somebody's] girlfriend. . . . I talk to cartoonists every day who have to work from scripts, and they're all on the verge of suicide."
Despite their own battles with writers, Klasky and Csupo take solace in the feeling that kids can now identify their artistic "look."
"I have heard a few children say to me that they can tell, 'Oh, that's Klasky Csupo,' " Klasky says. "I think it's because our shows look a little different from other shows."
It's a look with which kids will only be getting more familiar. With the movie due in the fall, the stage show circling the country and the characters appearing on everything from Band-Aids to backpacks, "Rugrats" has become a force bigger than any of its creators. After treating the franchise with restraint, waiting for the show to find its audience, Nickelodeon is now full steam ahead with its "Rugrats" product tie-ins. In the fall, to coincide with the movie, there will be more books, more T-shirts, more toys. Mattel is putting out a Super Singing Tommy doll, and there will be one for Angelica fans, too.
But that's not singing that Barney, Elmo and the Power Rangers are hearing over their shoulders. It's a giant sucking sound, and it's coming from the strange-looking kid in the diapers.