I’m sure most you readers have read my trilogy retrospective on the Nickelodeon network (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) but while I paid tribute to some of Nick’s hottest live-action programming, I didn’t really say a whole lot about their animated shows. For a network geared mostly towards children, it’s really hard to imagine a time when Nickelodeon didn’t air any cartoons. Believe it or not, it wasn’t until 1991 when the channel started airing original animations which were dubbed “Nicktoons”.
I remember when the original three Nicktoons premiered. My house was being renovated at the time and my living room was crowded with everything with items from the kitchen and dining room. Despite this, my 5-year-old self was still able to squeeze in and get a nice view of the television set. On that day in Queens, I was about to view programs that I still remember and talk about more than 20 years later.
On August 11, 1991, the very first Nicktoon, “Doug”, aired. Our main character, Doug Funnie, was your average American 12-year-old who moved to the fictional town of Bluffington with his family. Doug would open each episode by recalling an experience in his new home which is then played out for the audience for remainder of the show. He would then wrap up each the story completing his thoughts into his (not a diary!) journal. Among the characters joining Doug were his trusty dog, Porkchop, weird, hipster older sister, Judy, and blue-skinned buddy, Mosquito “Skeeter” Valentine. Every installment would show Doug pining for his longtime crush Patricia “Patty” Mayonnaise and escaping the clutches of arch nemesis, Roger Klotz.
While trying to fit in with his new friends, Doug gained an appreciation for everyone’s favorite rock band, The Beets (an obvious homage to the Beatles). To this day, a lot of fans remember the songs the Beets performed on Doug including “Killer Tofu”, “Shout Your Lungs Out”, and “Mo‘ Allowance”
In the late 90’s, Disney actually bought the rights to Doug and started airing it on the ABC network as part of their “One Saturday Morning” block. The show was tweaked a lot, giving the characters new looks and changing some of the major settings. Doug was also given a new baby sister named Cleopatra Dirtbike.
Doug also had multiple alter-egos where he’d pretend to be anything but ordinary. These characters were caricatures of iconic film heroes such as Superman (Quailman), James Bond (Smash Adams), and Indiana Jones (Race Canyon).
Doug was a cartoon I actually didn’t fully appreciate until I got older. I liked it when I was a kid but didn’t love it. The far inferior Disney version also downgraded my appreciation for the show but in recent years, I’ve caught old episodes of the Nickelodeon edition and I must say, it’s pretty great. Doug was a normal kid like you and me who grew courage when he had to and knew what was right and wrong. What kid growing up couldn’t relate to that and what adult wouldn’t want their child watching that?
Airing immediately after Doug was “Rugrats”, a toddler themed cartoon was as charming as it was smart. The show portrayed a group of infants conquering the adult world from their point of view. This gang of adolescence included the valiant leader, Tommy, scaredy cat Chuckie, and twins Phil and Lil. They would talk amongst themselves and adorably mispronounce certain words but would stay silent whenever adults were around. The parents always had a habit of leaving the kiddos unattended causing them to wander off in their own adventures alone. The absolute worst was when Tommy’s Grandpa, Lou, would watch the kids. He would constantly doze off leaving Tommy and the gang without supervision. While on their pint-sized journeys, the babies were continuously antagonized by Tommy’s cold-hearted cousin, Angelica. A common theme were the babies constantly misunderstanding situations to be a lot worse than they are and taking matters into their own hands to prevent the assumed consequences.
In 1998, “Rugrats” became the first Nicktoon to spawn a feature film which showed the birth of a new character, Tommy’s little brother Dillon (Dill Pickles, get it? Ugh).
In a random tidbit, E.G. Daily, the woman who provided the voice for Tommy Pickles was actually a contestant on “The Voice” in 2013.
The Rugrats were my all time favorite Nicktoon. I loved, LOVED Reptar, the Godzilla rip-off monster that the babies obsessed over. I even dragged my mother to a sold out theater to see the movie opening weekend when I was 12. It was an excellent cartoon that kids and teens can both appreciate.
I won’t write about it but the Rugrats had a spin-off years later where they grew up to be teenagers called “All Grown Up”.
Ren & Stimpy
Ren and Stimpy was the last of the three original Nicktoons. If you recall, I wrote about this one at length in my SNICK article (HERE). When television ratings started becoming more prevalent in the late 90’s, Ren & Stimpy was the first Nicktoon on Nickelodeon to be rated TV-Y7, meaning no young children should be watching it. Crude jokes, gross out humor, sometimes graphic violence, nudity, and references to homosexuality were among the prevalent elements of the show that parents worldwide complained about, even successfully getting parts and even whole episodes pulled from the network. Honestly, as crass as the cartoon was, a lot of the content really flew over me and other kid’s heads at the time.
I will share this though, there was an episode I watched as a little kid that made me so frightened and confused at the time I didn’t know what to make of it until years later. In the season two episode, “A Visit to Anthony” is about the duo visiting a little kid who’s a huge fan of theirs and while entertaining him, the child winds up being KILLED. Yes, they whacked an innocent little boy on a Nickelodeon cartoon. The father finds out and acts in the most bizarre of ways including mentioning God.
Rocko’s Modern Life
After a few years of success with the original three Nicktoons, Nick decided to add another to the fray in 1993. Enter “Rocko’s Modern Life”, another Nickelodeon cartoon that looked like it was the result of an acid trip. Our protagonist is Rocko, an Australian wallaby who lives alone in a big house with his dog, Spunky. His only friends are an overweight steer named Heffer and a worried turtle named Filburt. Rocko could often be seen never catching a break and is constantly annoyed by his freakish toad neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Bighead (yes, those were their names).
Like Ren & Stimpy, Rocko’s Modern Life really wasn’t for children though it was still marketed as such. It contained many adult themes, especially on the sexual side. Believe it or not, there is a scene in an episode where Rocko starts working for a phone sex company after he loses his job.
I really liked “Rocko’s Modern Life”. It was just so weird and lively. It portrayed normal, everyday difficulties with such odd storytelling and for the most part, it worked. Rocko was such a great character too as was Filburt who me and my friends still quote to this day “you turn the page, you wash your hands…”.
Aaahh!!! Real Monsters
We all love “Disney’s Monsters Inc.”, right? Well what if I told you that there was a Nicktoon with a similar concept that pre-dated it?. In 1994, Nickelodeon brought yet another Nicktoon into the game with “Aaahh!!! Real Monsters”. The series followed three creatures: short statured, Ickis, Oblina, Krum. The trio attend a monster academy which is helmed by the Gromble, a grotesque beast with four legs who wears high heels.
Every episode showed Gromble giving the three main characters an assignment to scare a random human or humans in their city in order to get good grades. Christine Cavanaugh. the woman who did the voice for Chucky on Rugrats actually also did the voice for Oblina here.
Aaahh!!! Real Monsters was an excellent example of Nickelodeon showing why they were still geniuses. A delightfully spooky and hilariously funny animated series. The monster trifecta all had such great chemistry amongst each other and the Gromble provided the perfect authority figure.
Taking place in a fictional town resembling New York City, “Hey Arnold!” had a crazy cast of characters. The series starred Arnold, a fourth grader with a football-shaped head, and his misfit friends navigating through problems that every kid faces. One of the program’s best characters was Helga, a seemingly tough chick who constantly picks on Arnold while secretly harboring a romantic crush on him.
Arnold also had a pretty sweet room.
Hey Arnold! was the last Nicktoon that I really got into. I remember seeing the Nickelodeon produced film adaptation of “Harriet The Spy” in theaters and they actually played the pilot of HA during the previews. I was quite intrigued and later that year, the series premiere on the network. I appreciated the more urban feel of the series and the more realistic approach to a kid’s dilemmas that hasn’t been seen since Doug. Plus, New York City man, c’mon!
I was never a fan of this one but its overwhelming popularity and longevity earns a write-up. In 1999 “Spongebob Squarepants” breathed new life into Nickelodeon and is arguably the most popular Nicktoon ever produced. The cartoon followed our eponymous character, a living, breathing sponge while he gets into all kinds of situations with the help of his sidekick, a starfish named Patrick and a whole slew of other creatures. The show did have a few mature themes but were much more subtle as opposed to Ren & Stimpy and Rocko’s Modern Life.
I was already 13, a little too old, at the time Spongebob debuted. It did however have a really catchy theme.
Spongebob’s popularity is still at large today. After 15 years of being on the air, new episodes are still being produced and it doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. While I was never a fan, that is pretty impressive. One thing I always found strange though was how everyone in my high school would rock Spongebob merchandise, often wearing yellow pajamas with his face on them and bookbags with huge patches of Patrick. Very strange. I don’t remember any other Nicktoon having this kind of popularity with teenagers. I guess that’s good marketing?
There were other notable Nicktoons that came around in the late 90’s, which was about the time I was phasing cartoons out of my daily viewing as a whole. They do deserve a mention though so…
The Wild Thornberrys
The Wild Thornberry was about a family of wildlife documentary filmmakers exploring the wilderness seeking their next project. In a tribute to Dr. Dolittle, the youngest daughter of the family, Eliza, possess the power to communicate with the animals. I watched a few episodes of this as a kid but don’t have a lot of recollection of it. It however did two notable things: 1.) The feature film “The Wild Thornberrys Movie” that was released in 2002 became the only Nicktoon to be nominated for an Academy Award. The Paul Simon song, “Father & Daughter”, was up for the Oscar for best song in 2003. 2.) A crossover with the Rugrats in 2003 resulted in the movie “Rugrats Go Wild”.
Pretty self-explanatory. This was a cartoon about the adventures of a half cat-half dog hybrid animal.
The Angry Beavers
Two single beaver brothers, Norbert and Daggert, live their lives in the forest while getting into all kinds of situations. I never watched this one much but one thing me and a lot of fans remember is “Beaver Fever”, a catchy number the beavers performed that would sometimes air between shows on Nickelodeon.