Nickelodeon and cartoons may feel synonymous in 2016, but back in 1991, animation was uncharted territory for the budding kids’ brand. Aug. 11 marks the 25th anniversary of Nickelodeon’s game-changing foray into animation, Nicktoons, a three-cartoon block that saw the launch of Doug, Rugrats, and The Ren & Stimpy Show — three children’s shows that today are counted as classics, but were once unhinged experiments.
All three programs, discovered by Nick exec (and de facto Nicktoons inventor) Vanessa Coffey, burst into pop culture on their own individual merits, but together, they unified to make TV history and turn Nickelodeon into the children’s programming superpower we know today.
In celebration of Nicktoons’ 25th anniversary, EW recruited Coffey and the creators of the three original shows to help dive deep into the slime in a brief oral history of the summer of 1991 and beyond.
Vanessa Coffey arrived at Nickelodeon in 1988 as an independent producer, after seven years in art and development at Marvel during its production of shows like Transformers, My Little Pony, and G.I. Joe.
VANESSA COFFEY: I was actually leaving the business because I just didn’t like the concept of doing television as toy commercials for kids. I went to New York, not really knowing what I was going to do, but because I was into animation, I looked up Nickelodeon as the only game in town for kids. I didn’t know anything about them. I basically cold-called them. They said, “We can’t really afford to do animation, but let’s have you do a special and, while you’re producing this special, we’re going to hire you as a consultant to go see if you can find some original programming.” We had many discussions about Nickelodeon wanting to get into animation, but it was expensive, and there was a dialogue about “Should we buy a library? Do something based on toys? Or do original programming?” And my vote obviously was original programming. I didn’t want to do anything based on toys. So that’s how it started. I took the ball and ran with it.
I basically just started hunting. I went to LA for two weeks in late ‘88 and did pitches every hour. I put the word out to animators: “I’m looking for ideas, I’m looking for concepts. The less developed, the better. I want drawings, not a big pitch.” Nickelodeon gave me an hour and a half that we were going to fill as a block. My idea — and Nickelodeon’s consensus — was to go find whatever you want. I didn’t want a consistent look like Disney. I specifically wanted and was desperate to have three projects that looked completely different.
The first Nicktoon which Coffey sent to pilot came recommended from a friend. Doug, a small-town dramedy about an imaginative middle-schooler, was born from a pitch by creator Jim Jinkins.
JIM JINKINS (creator, Doug): It was one of those situations of being at the right place at the right time. I’d worked at Sesame Workshop, at HBO, at MTV. And I had done one little disastrous animation for Nickelodeon. It wasn’t very good, either the experience or the result. But I was working on this math show for tweens, and there was a girl named Linda Schupack who called me one day. She knew — and really, everyone who knew me knew — that on the side, I was drawing these doodles of this character, Doug, who was my alter ego. At nighttime, I drew these single-panel cartoons that were a way for me to lay down what I was thinking. Often, they were dark or troubled or sometimes funny. I’d done other stuff trying to figure out who that was and why I was drawing these things. At one point, I had worked on a book proposal, “Doug Got a New Pair of Shoes” with my friend Joe Aaron. So, one day, Linda called me to say Nickelodeon had just started a new venture, and they were looking for creator-driven original properties to animate and make into series. And she said, “You need to get over there with Doug.” That’s a life-changing phone call. So I met Vanessa in her office and held up my little book proposal. And as I began to tell the story of who Doug is and what he’s about, she looked at the cover of the book and ran out of the room.
COFFEY: I looked at him, then the book, then him, then the book and said, “Oh my God. You’re Doug!” And he was like, “Yeah…” And I immediately knew what the show was going to be.
JINKINS: Doug is an exaggerated version of my memory of being a kid. Doug is me. I had a real crush on a girl named Patti, and my best friend’s name was Tommy, but he’s Skeeter, and Roger was an older guy down the street. When you open up that book proposal pitch, it’s got Doug in the middle, and around him are Porkchop, Skeeter, Mr. Dink, Judy… it had the main characters already in motion.
COFFEY: I literally ran down the hall and went into Debby Beece’s office and said, “I want to make a pilot of this.” And then ran back down the hall, and Jim was just kind of in shock.
JINKINS: She came back to the room to say, “You’re going to go to pilot.” Again, just an impossible story: an executive that didn’t run it through focus groups, didn’t run it through all the people. And Vanessa to this day is like this. She trusts her own gut and has a great vision for things. She had experience in animation, and trusted me on maybe what I didn’t even know I could do. She saw something.
COFFEY: Doug, to me, was a show that was so missing for kids. Really, since Charlie Brown. It was speaking directly to them, to their feelings, their fears, their lives. That really was Nickelodeon. Nickelodeon was, “We’re kids. We’re the kids channel. We’re your channel.” And so I thought Doug fit into that perfectly, because it was their demographic and their story.
NEXT: “We started to draw crazy-looking babies. And the more outrageously funny they looked, the more we liked them.”[pagebreak]
Coffey’s second find, Rugrats, was the least-developed pitch of the bunch. Sold on just a logline, Coffey trusted the vision of its creators — Paul Germain, Arlene Klasky, and Gabor Csupo — who had just come off a run working on the earliest seasons of The Simpsons.
GABOR CSUPO (creator, Rugrats): The timing when Nickelodeon came to us to create a show was perfect. We were doing The Simpsons, and they asked me to fire an innocent producer, and I refused to do it. So [I left the show] and sure enough, the next day, like God was looking out for my good decision, Nickelodeon called us and said, “We love your work, and we would love you to please creative some inventive children’s show for us.” That’s how it happened. It was like magic. [My then-wife] Arlene was home, and I told her the great news, and that we needed to come up with something quick. Everyone was pointing at The Simpsons — “do something like this, but for children. Something different. Something inventive. Something daring. Not your regular Saturday morning cartoons which everybody knew for 30 years.” And Arlene looked at our kids and said, “Let’s do a show about babies.”
ARLENE KLASKY (creator, Rugrats): Gabor had done an animated film based on one of our sons, where a man was holding a baby, and the baby would drop the bottle and say, “Down,” and then the man would put the baby down, and then the baby would say, “Up,” and it went back and forth like that ad nauseam. That film always stuck in my mind, and I continued thinking, Why was the baby doing that? It wasn’t rational. So Rugrats was basically the same theory: If babies could talk, what would they say?
PAUL GERMAIN (creator, Rugrats): Arlene said, “I want to do a show about babies.” But that’s all she had. So that night, I went to bed thinking about babies, and what can we do with babies? And as I was falling asleep, I had this memory of being 8 years old, and my youngest brother had just come home from the hospital. I remember looking at this baby — his eyes aren’t focused, he can’t lift his head, he’s drooling, and I thought, “He can’t be that stupid, right?” And I thought, “I bet he’s faking us out. I bet when the adults leave the room, he suddenly shows his true colors.” I just had this fantasy. It’s what you think when you’re a little kid. You can’t understand how a baby can be like that. And I woke up thinking about that.
So I go into the pitch with Vanessa, and I’m pitching all these ideas that I’d developed over the last three months. Gabor had hired me to be what he called director of development and during the summer of 1989, I had all my ideas lined up. I pitched one that had four pages and five colored boards. Vanessa looks at that and goes, “No.” My next one has one page and one colored board. No. Half a page and a black-and-white board. No. Now I’m down to my single-paragraph pitches. No, no, no. And I get to my list pitch, which is literally a sentence. I say, “Okay, a bunch of incognizant babies seem really dumb, but when the adults leave the room, the babies suddenly get up and talk.” And she goes, “I love it.”
COFFEY: I was actually going to do a segment in my Thanksgiving special that was life from a baby’s point of view during Thanksgiving. They didn’t have anything written, no drawings. But I said, “Good! Let’s develop it together.”
GERMAIN: I had a friend who told me that in the Navy, people referred to little kids as rugrats. Rats on the rug, right? And I thought, what a great title for the show. At first Nickelodeon was a little nervous because they thought people wouldn’t know what it was. They’d think it was literally a show about talking rats.
COFFEY: In development, I said the only thing that I wanted was, I don’t want drawings that look realistic. Because it reminded me too much of ‘80s Hasbro. I said, “The only thing: Please, don’t do realistic drawings. And they said, “That’s easy for us.”
KLASKY: Our aesthetic was offbeat and quirky. I personally didn’t draw the way Disney did. I drew artsy, cartoony, humorous drawings. And Gabor came from traditional animation, but he’s a visionary. We both loved European art and Japanese animation. Some people thought our style was ugly. We thought it was beautiful.
CSUPO: We started to draw crazy-looking babies. And the more outrageously funny they looked, the more we liked them.
The eventual third Nicktoon slot would go to The Ren & Stimpy Show, a slapstick comedy about a rage-fueled dog and a dim-witted cat. The two characters belonged to a different series that creator John Kricfalusi had been shopping around to networks for about a decade.
JOHN KRICFALUSI (creator, The Ren & Stimpy Show): Ren and Stimpy originally included some really distinct and complementary human characters: Donny Chickenchild, George Liquor, Brainchild, Slab ‘N’ Ernie. They are all part of this world as I conceived it. The human characters were integral to the concept and played off each other. After I pitched this concept to the Saturday morning networks, they all thought I was crazy. I then worked with Lynne Naylor to create a few more “normal” stock animation characters to distract from the entertaining ones: The girl who is stronger and smarter than the boys. The black kid who is smarter than the white kids. An obnoxious sister for Donny Chickenchild — along the lines of [Dee Dee] from Dexter’s Lab, although not as clever. I called this conglomerate of actual and phony characters Your Gang and wrote a pitch full of network buzz phrases and went out again to pitch it. It was still too weird for Saturday morning. I couldn’t even sell-out right. When Nickelodeon came along and said they wanted new non-formula “creator-driven” cartoons, I met with Vanessa Coffey and pitched something like 7 shows to her in one meeting.
COFFEY: John came in during my L.A. hotel stay. He had three shows that he was pitching: Atomic Pig, Jimmy the Retarded Boy, and a show called Your Gang. Frankly, I didn’t like any of those shows, but in Your Gang, the main character had a dog and a cat, and that was Ren and Stimpy.
KRICFALUSI: I tried to downplay Ren and Stimpy in the Your Gang pitch, but Vanessa stopped me and looked at a pitch board and said, “Tell me more about these two characters!” She liked the fact that they looked so weird (and they looked much weirder originally before I toned them down for Nicktoons). When I pitched their personalities and storylines she laughed and liked them even more.
COFFEY: I asked him if we could take those two characters and develop a show. And he said yes, and we started developing Ren and Stimpy together and took it to Nickelodeon as Ren & Stimpy.
KRICFALUSI: She flew me to New York to pitch all the shows to their executive team, and a couple days after that she called and told me they wanted to buy two shows from me: Jimmy’s Playhouse and Your Gang. Then she timidly asked me if I could focus the show more on Ren and Stimpy, rather than the kids, which was what I always wanted anyway. I did want to keep some of the other weird characters in the show and had many stories written about them, but she was determined to try to keep it solely a funny animal show.
NEXT: “The next thing you’ve got to do is build your production bible.”[pagebreak]
Nickelodeon ultimately ordered eight pilots and tested them across the country.
COFFEY: Gerry [Laybourne] had relationships with different animation companies and wanted to give them a chance to do a pilot. I oversaw them to a degree, but I didn’t bring them in. My three were the projects that were pitched to me.
JINKINS: Doug tested higher than the rest, it turned out. I would argue it was because it was familiar. It was the story of being a real kid. That was the whole point. But he’s not cool. He’s not a typical Nickelodeon kid who is powerful or cool. He’s not a Charlie Brown loser, but he’s sort of just in the middle. He’s the guy that’s trying to figure out what’s going on. One of the story editors at Nick, Will McRobb, said, “Being 11 and a half, which Doug was, puts you right at the peak of your kid powers.” And that’s so true. You haven’t gotten so self-conscious or cynical or sarcastic. You’re still able to use your imagination or dream. One or two might even believe in Santa Claus. You’re beginning to wonder, but you’re not sure. And all these things I know are ancient stories, because I think kids are vastly more sophisticated today.
GERMAIN: Nick loved [Rugrats]. The thing did so well. It was six-minutes long, and it was very well-directed by Peter Chung. I did the voices, the voices mostly being the adults. What was established right at the pilot was it’s about the intrepid exploration of the world. Everything’s new, everything’s fantastic and gigantic, and even the most mundane things are exciting.
Coffey’s key three performed the highest, resulting in a boost of her animation team and a series order by Nickelodeon.
COFFEY: They greenlit the series for Doug and Rugrats, but Gerry wasn’t really comfortable with Ren & Stimpy. Herb [Scannell] didn’t really like Ren & Stimpy. They were nervous! But I wasn’t. I mean, I was, but I knew it was so special. And so I begged. I’ll be honest, I actually begged. I begged Gerry to give me at least six, and I said, “If it doesn’t work, fire me.” And so she gave me greenlight for Doug, 13, Rugrats, 13, and Ren & Stimpy, 6.
JINKINS: The next thing you’ve got to do is build your production bible. I was just writing and drawing back and forth, drawing maps of Bluffington and Jumbo Street and the Tricounty Area. All those things let it become more and more real for me. I wrote the whole thing like a software book from back in the day. It’s designed to get you going fast, but if you wanted to go deeper, you could keep going. And from what I hear, Nickelodeon used it as a model for how a bible should be for a long time. It was a labor of love. In my mind’s eye, all the characters were already there. I had this page of concentric circles with Doug in the center, and then the ring around him was Patti and Porkchop, and then around them were the parents and the teacher Miss Wingo, and then you have tertiary characters, almost like a color wheel. The only thing that wasn’t used that I can think of was Doug’s crazy uncle, Gerd Fetch, who was the name of a guy my dad knew from Ashland, Virginia which I always thought was a funny name. He had Penny, a pig, and Home Fry, a chicken. The idea was, “Let’s go to the Funny Farm.” You get it? [Laughs.]
KRICFALUSI: The only “rules” for me were: Keep the characters’ personalities and chemistry strong — and let them evolve with each new story. That’s actually very easy for me, because once I create a character, I know them inside out. The harder part was keeping the other story folks focused from veering away from their personalities. I had very funny gag artists to work with, and we had a great chemistry when we would gag up a story once we had an idea that I thought took advantage of the characters. Many cartoon writers (the ones who don’t draw) like to come up with a plot or situation first and then just cram whatever characters are in the show into the contrived situation. Their idea of personality is to give them catch phrases to say over and over again. For me, if I believe in the characters, the stories write themselves. I get inside the characters and let them create the situation or story.
KLASKY: Initially, Paul and Gabor and I sat around the dining room table and talked and drew. The characters in the pilot were Tommy, Phil, Lil, Grandpa, Stu, and Didi. We started there, and then it expanded.
CSUPO: We started to put together this group of drawings and select. If you put together a group, each has to have their own personality and be very different from the other. So we knew that we needed a really sweet one. We needed a little bit of a troublemaker. We needed a little boss, and that’s how we came up with Angelica.
GERMAIN: Once we went to series, we didn’t really have enough characters. I remember Gabor showed me an image of Chuckie that someone had drawn. And he said, “What if this were a bully?” And I said, “He doesn’t look like a bully to me.” I thought, “What if we did a different kind of bully? What if we had a girl bully?” I had been chased around and picked on by this girl in 4th grade when I grew up. So then we came up with Angelica. She’s a little older. She can talk to adults. She’s kittens and flowers to the adults, but she’s a monster to the kids. And she’s the only bridge in the show between the adult world and the kid world, so she controls communication going both ways. And then, if Tommy was all about exploration, I wanted his sidekick to be someone who would always be frightened and want to pull back and say, “I don’t think that’s such a good idea.” That’s how we came up with Chuckie. And I would say Chuckie and Angelica are the heart of the show, but they didn’t come in until after the pilot.
COFFEY: Nickelodeon would ask about Rugrats: “Well, is the animation going to shake? Is it too pre-school looking?” It was my job to convince them that just because Rugrats had babies in it, it doesn’t mean we’re going to write it that way.
GERMAIN: There was a writer named Steve Viksten who just loved Angelica. He loved this powerful, mean little girl and ran with her, and he did some of the funniest episodes with her in the show. There’s one called “Angelica Breaks Her Leg,” which I think is one of the funniest episodes we ever did. And then there was Joe Ansolabehere, who loved Chuckie and would take Chuckie through these really emotional shows, like the first time you go down the slide or get potty-trained. They’re hilarious, but they’ve got this heart, because Chuckie has to overcome his fears to do these things. And this all really resonated with kids. We didn’t patronize them or talk down to kids, which I felt animation did in the days before this. We tried to talk directly to kids and say, “This is what it’s like, right? This is how you feel.”
COFFEY: Each time, I would get a little piece of animatic or something, I would usually run into somebody’s office and go, “What do you think!?” But I was never nervous. I was always excited. Because I didn’t really have anything to lose. For me, I was just so passionate about the opportunity to be creative with such freedom… It was an interesting job at the time. It was hard. A company that had never done a series of animation themselves, let alone three at a time.
JINKINS: Back in those days, every other day was different. One day you’re in heaven — “I can’t believe this is happening, and I love so much this honor and privilege to do this” — and then the next day it’s, “Oh my gosh, we’re going to die! We’re all just going to catch on fire! It’s over!” The making of Doug was very much like the show itself. It was that combination of an almost schizophrenic executive, “We love you, you guys are doing great” and the next day is, “You don’t know what you’re doing!” But I would say that cut both ways, because Nicktoons hadn’t happened yet, so they don’t really know what they were doing, either! But it’s a huge compliment to Vanessa — when she said she wanted it to be creator-driven, she meant it.
COFFEY: My job was to tell them to just go for it. And my job was to pull back. John [Kricfalusi] will say, “Well, God, they edited this and wouldn’t let us do that.” But oh my gosh, the stuff that was thrown at me… I had to walk the line between letting the creators write the stories and [being] responsible for bringing product that the network could air.
NEXT: “I don’t even remember who came up with ‘Nicktoons’… I wasn’t a fan of that.”[pagebreak]
The creators all felt development pains, if only because the nascent brand was uncharted territory that none of them — the network included — had explored. Nickelodeon’s primary programming at the time focused on live-action sitcoms about teens (like Clarissa Explains It All, Welcome Freshmen, and The Adventures of Pete and Pete). Nicktoons was a new frontier.
KRICFALUSI: I was confident that kids would like the show, because I gave them what they wanted, while every other cartoon studio was feeding them blandness and insincere moral lessons. Saturday morning cartoons at the time were about as entertaining as homework.
KLASKY: Nickelodeon’s target audience was 6-to-11-year-olds. I think they gave us some leeway at times, and sometimes they didn’t. But Gabor and I had a very similar outlook to be as adventurous and as creative as they’d let us go — and Nickelodeon, to their credit, let us go pretty darn far. We took a lot of risks, and there was room to take them.
GERMAIN: We made a choice when we were doing Rugrats to appeal to two audiences: kids and adults. What we were hoping, and what turned out to be happen, was kids would watch and their parents would come in and sit down and say, “Hey, this is pretty good.” We were trying to have the parents on the show talk about the difficulties of parenting and how easy it is to screw up, and we even made fun of the kind of parenting techniques people were using at the time.
JINKINS: I told my writers I wanted the show to be able to be played 30 years from now and feel relevant. We got rid of a lot of topical stuff, which is not easy to do. It slips in, and you do forget sometimes. Every now and again, I’ll see something like Doug on a kitchen phone with the little cord coming out of the wall. [Laughs] How did we know?
Though the creators didn’t meet often — Jinkins operated solo in New York, while Kricfalusi and Klasky, Csupo, and Germain worked out of Los Angeles — they stayed familiar with the other projects on the block.
KRICFALUSI: It was an interesting combination. Doug and Ren & Stimpy seemed to represent the extreme range of cartoon types, while Rugrats was sort of in the middle between weirdness and normalcy — probably closer to weirdness, like my stuff.
KLASKY: I remember I was sitting with my friend and our kids watching Ren & Stimpy and then all of a sudden a table [on the show] turned over and there were all these boogers underneath, and I was like, “Oh my God, [John] did that!” He had this creative genius mind, and he knew what kids really liked — [although] to be honest, we discovered it, too. We know what kids like. That kind of gross stuff.
JINKINS: I watched every one of [Kricfalusi’s] original shows and marveled at them, but frankly I didn’t feel like they belonged in a place where kids are. I just didn’t. It was brilliant and let those high school and college kids have a great time watching it, but to me, we were absolute opposites. And I would think Kricfalusi felt the same way. He was not particularly kind about what he thought of our show, but that’s cool! Like I said, we were from different planets.
GERMAIN: I thought it was a little bit odd that they were doing such an edgy adult show on this new kids’ network. I get it and I appreciate it, and I think some of the episodes [of Ren & Stimpy] are amazing, but it felt like they were aimed at adults and not kids, and we were really clear that we wanted to be a kids’ show. Doug was also aimed at adolescent kids, and I appreciated that. That made more sense to me.
COFFEY: I can only describe it as, I let my instincts work for me. I wanted to create a meal. A good-for-you, life-sustaining show, which is Doug. A fun meal that you can live on and not die, spaghetti and meatballs, which is Rugrats. And then Ren & Stimpy, which is just pure sugar. There’s nothing good for you in it. It’s just fun to eat.
Before the promotional campaign could begin in the spring of 1991, a title was borne to tangibly tie everything together: Nicktoons.
COFFEY: We started having think tanks about what we should we call this block. Scott Webb and Fred Seibert were involved, there were consultants, there were all the vice presidents, and I don’t even remember who came up with Nicktoons — I think Fred did. I’m not sure. I wasn’t a fan of that. But that’s okay. It obviously worked.
NEXT: “Doug was always the third, sort of adopted child that was a little ignored. Harry Potter under the staircase, is how it felt.”[pagebreak]
On Aug. 11, 1991, the shows premiered — on a Sunday morning.
JINKINS: Everyone had seen the episode a billion times, but there was something amazingly different about seeing it being broadcast. We rented out a Mexican restaurant down in the village in New York, and everybody — Nickelodeon execs, our whole crew — just filled the place. We had a toast, and we just sat there watching it, watching it as though we’d never seen it before and laughing at the jokes like we’d never heard them before. That day was dreamy.
COFFEY: I knew people at Fox and Disney, and there were rumblings like, “What are they doing?” But we weren’t on Saturday mornings. We decided to launch Sunday morning. It was really an interesting way that Nickelodeon laid out the plan to watch. I thought it was really, really good. The block started, and the ratings improved from a 1.0 to a 2.0 really fast. It was promoted really well on-air by Nickelodeon and Scott Webb. So, it started hitting — but we started having to play Ren & Stimpy over and over, because we only had six episodes. And we broke a record of 4.0 on our third re-run of the first episode. [Laughs.] We all got our bonuses.
GERMAIN: We were very curious about the numbers we got, and they were a whole new world. The numbers really surprised us because we thought they’d be higher, but Nickelodeon was really happy with them. They could sort of see the future in them. But a lot of people were talking about Ren & Stimpy, and we were feeling a little like, “Gosh, we had sort of hoped they’d be talking more about us.” The executives were all leaning towards Ren & Stimpy. They liked the edginess of it because it felt like a show for them. And we were often called “that baby show.” But as time went on and they saw what a hit it was and how it was affecting people, that changed.
KLASKY: I remember my son, who was in sixth grade, once told me, “Oh mom, Rugrats is everybody’s favorite show.” And I was shocked. I go, “Really? They’re 12 years old and they still watch Rugrats?” That was surprising to me. But as these kids grew up, they started finding these Easter egg jokes [for older people]. I didn’t even know what that meant at the time, but now I get it. It had some of that double appeal.
KRICFALUSI: The day of its premiere, Vanessa called me and told me they were getting great reactions. She faxed over a funny letter from a little boy named Anthony. It read: “Dear Ren and Stempy (sic), please come and visit us in our country, the United States of America. Love, Anthony, P.S. and bring your costumes.” I was reading it as the fax was coming through the machine. I tore it out and ran into the story room to read it to everyone. Then I said: “Let’s do it! Let’s have Ren and Stimpy visit Anthony in his country! With their ‘costumes.’” The result of our first fan letter was a cartoon called “Visit to Anthony” starring the actual boy, and a caricature of my father as Anthony’s Dad — who hates Hollywood types like Ren and Stimpy.
JINKINS: The show was pretty much like the character Doug. Or pretty much like me. At a glance, you’ll be like, “So what?” But I’d like to think, at least, if you’ll give me some time, if you give Doug some time, that he’ll grow on you. You’ll get inside his head and you’ll find that he’s funny, or has an interesting idea, or that he’s a cool friend. And that’s how this show’s history was. It was a slow build, and it really took years for people to make it destination viewing. But once people figured out that part, they wanted to be there.
COFFEY: It was all about ratings, and it was a success based off ratings. And it’s interesting, because I remember [Geoffrey Darby] saying, “Okay, we need to do a five-year plan for Nicktoons, because what if these three don’t work? What’s the plan for a replacement?” And I said, “Wait a minute. You don’t need to do that, because they’re going to work.” And he said, “Vanessa, you don’t know that.” And maybe I was probably just young and dumb — like, ignorance is bliss — but I just said, “No, they are. I’ll make sure of it.” And yeah, 25 years later, guess what? I was right!
In subsequent years, all three shows enjoyed runs that made good on their initial $40 million investment, paving the way for programs like Rocko’s Modern Life and Aaahh!!! Real Monsters to join the animation fold in later seasons. Each Nicktoon original faced its share of drama — like the “unairable” episode of Ren & Stimpy that caused Nickelodeon and Kricfalusi to part ways, or the creative clashes over Rugrats as it exploded into pop culture, or the unexpected sale of Doug to Disney before its initial run concluded. The shows’ legacies as we view them now are long and celebrated, but layered.
COFFEY: Ren & Stimpy pushed the envelope and told almost every other network that going a little bit further works. I mean, we probably went too far. When I watch some episodes now, I’m like, “Oh my God, did I really approve that?” And it wasn’t easy. I got in trouble. John thinks he got in trouble, he should have been in my shoes.
JINKINS: I don’t think Doug would have a chance of ever selling these days. That would be a miracle, absolutely. Even in the day, Nickelodeon execs said things about Doug like, “It was the least risk-taking show,” or “It was a show that had stories that most likely kids had already seen.” Those are direct quotes. Doug was always the third, sort of adopted child that was a little ignored. Harry Potter under the staircase, is how it felt. And it only went to 52 instead of the guaranteed 65 [episodes]. All the way through the journey of Doug, it took third position and wasn’t really treated the same. Rugrats took off quicker than Doug, so it was getting great momentum and deserves it. It’s a great show. But we didn’t leave Nickelodeon. Nickelodeon sort of left us.
COFFEY: More than almost anything, when people talk to me about Nicktoons, they almost always say that Doug changed their life. Even grown men, now 30, they say that Doug made them a better man.
CSUPO: Rugrats was our very first creation, which I’m really proud of because it succeeded greatly. It gave me a lot of confidence to build a studio, and we were a lot braver than our wallets allowed in the beginning, but it paid off. It gave me confidence about pursuing other ideas.
KLASKY: I didn’t realize the impact that Rugrats really had until recently, actually, in the last five years. Because all these kids grew up, and they could all express it now. We get letters and phone calls and people ringing the doorbell at the studio. What I hear constantly, and I’m not exaggerating, and I’m not patting myself on the back because there’s so many, many people who are responsible for Rugrats and who should really get all the credit, from the writers to the producers to the actors to the musicians to the background artists to the colorists, but what I hear constantly is, “Thank you for my childhood.” It’s mind-blowing. I’ve heard it all over again, that mantra, and they all say the same thing. “Thank you for my childhood.” I think Nickelodeon really deserves a ton of credit for that.
COFFEY: The circumstances of time played a huge factor, because these shows weren’t committee-driven. They were creator-driven — or, creative-driven. Everyone who touched any of these projects made the shows work. It’s not a one-person job. It literally took a village to make those shows work, and I love all of them. We’re talking 25 years later about these shows for a reason. And it’s not because they were different, but because they were good. They are good. I’d love to see all three of them come back. All I can say is it was the hardest — and best — experience I’ve ever had in my career.