‘This kid magically appears at the house, but where are his parents?!’ Paul Germain says
It’s Nicktoons week on EW.com, and we’re celebrating the 25thanniversary of Nickelodeon’s debut of Doug, Rugrats, and The Ren & Stimpy Show in a big way: With some exclusive intel on that outrageous orange splat of shows that helped define your childhood. (In case you missed it: The creators spoke about the chances of reboots, and Doug’s Jim Jinkins ruined several childhoods by revealing whether Doug and Patti end up together.)
There are a slew of fun facts you might not have known about Rugrats — like how the show was invented the night before co-creator Paul Germain was scheduled to pitch Nickelodeon, or how co-creator Arlene Klasky never liked the idea of the character Angelica (“She thought she was too mean,” says Germain), or the fact that Chuckie was originally conceived in his first drawing as a bully.
You’ll catch a lot of these nuggets in EW’s mega-sized oral history on Nicktoons, but before that drops, we’ve got some extra stories to share from Rugrats co-creator Paul Germain, who was all too eager to revisit memories about the early development of Rugrats.
Germain (who went on to co-create Recess and Lloyd in Space) co-created the world of Rugrats with animation bigwigs Klasky and her then-husband Gabor Csupo, but Germain ran the show during its initial 65 episodes on Nickelodeon while Klasky and Csupo pulled back to develop other shows, only checking in on the run in a production oversight capacity. So it was Germain and his team of assembled writers who are largely responsible for your favorite early episodes of Rugrats — but as Germain tells it, the writing staff didn’t even know the creative hit they had on their hands until season two.
“We found ourselves falling into a pattern in the first season: Tommy goes to a baseball game and wreaks havoc; Tommy is invited to be in a baby commercial and wreaks havoc; Tommy goes to a psychologist’s office and wreaks havoc — every one of them was like that,” says Germain. “We were towards the end of the first season and clearly going to a second season, and my writing staff and I found ourselves looking at each other like, ‘This is getting boring. We’ve got to think of something else.’” Young fans likely wouldn’t perceive the tangible change between seasons, but behind the scenes, Germain’s writers’ room stumbled onto the lightbulb idea of cross-pollinating popular movie genres with (sorry in advance) the baby formula, which saved the show by unlocking a host of stories into season 2 and beyond. “Different writers started to pick up on certain genres and make fun of them,” says Germain, citing the season 2 premiere, “Sand Ho!,” which imagined the Rugrats in a pirate adventure in their own sandbox as the inciting episode that helped the show go on to skewer westerns, film noir, horror, and more.
“The other thing we started doing was mixing up the characters,” Germain points out. “Angelica and Chuckie are opposites, so what we if throw them together? Or, what if Phil and Lil decide they want their own identities — Lil starts acting like Angelica, and Phil starts acting like Chuckie.” The show struck up almost a baby Seinfeld sitcom dynamic, borne from Klasky-Csupo and Germain’s history with The Simpsons. “I had worked for [The Simpsons producer] Jim Brooks for six years before Rugrats, and I didn’t even know I was getting trained, but I was,” says Germain. “I remember thinking, ‘Why can’t there be good programming for children the way there’s good programming for adults? Why are we talking down to kids? Kids aren’t stupid. They know.’ I remember, I knew. So we started writing for us when we were kids.”
But for as much the writing team was allowed free reign “anytime we wanted to do something” under a very trusting Nickelodeon, Germain notes two key frustrations that applied to his tenure in the first 65 episodes.
“The one thing we didn’t do that frustrated me was, we wanted to talk about Chuckie’s mom,” says Germain. “We developed the baby crew, and we developed Chuckie, and then we thought, ‘This kid magically appears at the house, but where are his parents?’ So we thought, let’s do Chuckie’s dad — but we decided not to do a mom. We just didn’t want an extra character there. But why? Why would there not be a mom? By the second or third season, we were saying, ‘What actually happened to Chuckie’s mom?’”
Logically, there were only two possibilities: Divorce, or death. “It was one or the other, so we said, ‘Let’s tell a story about that,’” recalls Germain. “We talked to Arlene, we talked to Nickelodeon, and we said, ‘Let’s do that she’s divorced.’ And they said, ‘No, no, we don’t want to touch divorce. That’s too heavy a subject, we don’t want to go there.’ So we said, ‘Okay…so…you know… that means…Chuckie’s mom…is dead?’ And they go, ‘No! No! No! We definitely don’t want to talk about that, that’s scary! Children don’t want to see that.’ So if we can’t say that she’s divorced, and we can’t say that she’s dead, we can’t talk about her. If you watch the first 65 half-hours of Rugrats, they never mention Chuckie’s mom — or if they do, it’s a tease. We mention that she exists but we don’t tell you what happened to her. We even made a joke out of it in one episode. But we weren’t allowed to go into the subject.”
It was only after Germain and his writers left Rugrats in 1993 that, a few years later, under new leadership, the show moved to primetime on Nickelodeon and did exactly what they didn’t. “They did a whole thing about Chuckie’s mom, and that she died, this whole very maudlin thing,” he says. (The episode, “Mother’s Day,” aired in 1997 featuring Kim Cattrall as Chuckie’s mother, Melinda.) “I just sat there thinking, ‘We weren’t allowed to do this, and now you guys are doing it.’ That’s something I regret.”
In a similar vein, Germain feels the same compunction about one of the show’s holiday episodes.
“We did a Christmas show and it went over really well, and Nickelodeon came to us and said, ‘Let’s do a Hanukkah show!’” says Germain (who adds, by the way, that “people have said Tommy’s grandparents are anti-Semitic characters, but I don’t accept that. I’m Jewish and they’re my own grandparents!”). “Nickelodeon liked that we had made Tommy Jewish on his mother’s side, but one of my writers said to me, ‘Let’s not do Hanukkah. That’s not a very interesting holiday. If we’re going to do the Jewish equivalent of Christmas, we should do the story of Passover.’ So we proposed that to Nickelodeon and they said go for it. And in the story of Passover, you can kind of tell it any way you want. There are some basic elements, but the whole point is you want to communicate this story about freedom and there’s no set way to do it. We had fun with Angelica as Pharaoh, and Tommy is Moses, and ‘Let me babies go,’ you know.”
“But years later, they did the Hanukkah episode!” Germain continues. “And I just shook my head when I saw they did that, because again, it was something we specifically didn’t do that they went ahead and did after we were gone.”
As he mentioned earlier this week in EW’s report on the state of possible reboots, Germain isn’t the most keen on some of the later adventures of the babies. “I think a lot of the direction that they took the show in after I left in 1993 – the second 65 episodes and then the All Grown Up series – I thought those episodes were poor. I thought they lost the spirit of it,” he admits. “I think the way to go [for a reboot] would be to take it back to where it was. I don’t know if we could really do that, but that’s what I would like to see. I think it’s possible.”