Thirty years ago this week, a rising but not-yet-ubiquitous kids network by the name of Nickelodeon launched its first original animated series. Introduced on August 11, 1991, under the brand of “Nicktoons,” Doug, Rugrats, and The Ren & Stimpy Show would quickly become hits and change the course of animation, television, and popular culture at large. To mark the anniversary, The Ringer is looking back at Nick’s best-ever characters and the legacy of the network as a whole. Throughout the week, we’ll be publishing essays, features, and interviews to get at the heart of what made Nick so dang fun—and now so nostalgic.
Tiffany Pittman mostly remembers the yellow jumpsuit.
In the spring of 1991, the middle-schooler from Northwest Orlando had been selected by a Nickelodeon casting director to appear on the network’s new game show, Get the Picture. Hosted by Mike O’Malley, the program featured two teams competing to answer trivia questions before decoding a series of hidden images from a large, 16-monitor screen. For a teenage theater kid who’d grown up on Nickelodeon, the opportunity to be on television and peek behind the curtain of one of her favorite shows was “eye opening and fascinating for me,” she says.
After arriving at Nickelodeon Studios, inside Universal Studios’ theme park in Orlando, Pittman battled her nerves and slipped into the show’s required lemon-colored outfit—“like we were going onto a construction site,” she says with a laugh. Soon, she was shaking hands with O’Malley and taking in the sights and sounds of the stage, overwhelmed by its distinct shapes and patterns. “There were these colorful tubes and lights everywhere,” Pittman says. “It was very mechanical and had this tech vibe to it. I was just wowed by all of it.”
Indeed, Get the Picture provided a visual feast for those tuning in. Behind Pittman and the other jumpsuited contestants, stadium-style scoreboards overflowed with rainbow-colored wires while computer-like designs surrounded the blue-and-red-lit backdrops. “We really didn’t have a strong idea for that [show] visually,” says Byron Taylor, Nickelodeon’s head production designer. “But I saw a piece of clip art—a photograph of circuit boards in an electronic magazine–[with] all the transistors, diodes, and LED lights, and it looked stunning. We were playing games on these giant, rear-projection televisions. Why not be inside one?” The mazelike imagery even appeared on the interactive portions of the game, which included a makeshift putting green with bright pink golf balls and a primary-colored, numbered keypad for the show’s finale. “We got to use a lot of neon,” Taylor says. “That was a fun set to design.”
Throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, that same kind of colorful anarchy and wacky set design saturated the best of Nickelodeon’s live-action programming. Between the surrealist obstacle courses on Double Dare, the multitiered rock formations on Legends of the Hidden Temple, and the spontaneous slime on Figure It Out, Nickelodeon boasted a fantastical, eye-popping aesthetic that distinguished it from every other network. Despite initially small budgets and limited space, each show leaned into its interactive, tactile environment, epitomizing Nick’s commitment to kid-inspired entertainment and hooking a generation in the process. Identifying with Nickelodeon became so easy because kids could so easily identify a Nickelodeon show. “It felt like we wanted shows to really stand out from what had gone before,” says Scott Webb, Nickelodeon’s creative director from 1983 to 2000. “The more we could hear directly from kids about what they liked, the more directly we could connect with them.”
As a firsthand witness to Nickelodeon’s kinetic iconography, Pittman can attest: “It jumped out at you.”
Before Nickelodeon began its surge of original programming, it needed to build a kid-friendly foundation. In 1984, five years after the cable channel launched, network head Geraldine Laybourne hired consultancy firm Fred/Alan—led by Fred Seibert and Alan Goodman—to resurrect its ratings and reupholster its branding. The pair had played a major role in determining MTV’s logo a few years earlier, and, after a series of meetings and focus groups discussing the company’s ethos, they got to work on Nickelodeon’s new artistic direction. “The big idea was it was tough to be a kid in a grown-up world. That idea has a whole lot of dimension,” Webb says. “The ideas that we were talking about had very little to do with television and had everything to do with the mission that we wanted to have for Nickelodeon in terms of making the world a better place for kids.”
They started with the logo. Nickelodeon’s original trademark was a silver sphere centered behind a rainbow-colored typeface, which Laybourne felt looked condescending. Instead, to accurately reflect the raucous and irreverent nature of kids, Seibert suggested using only the color orange—specifically Pantone 021—which could reliably deface any background it was slapped against. Even further, he and Goodman believed that as long as the color and font stayed the same, the orange backdrop could take any shape—a submarine, a hamburger, or later, after the introduction of slime, a big splat. “Kids are ever-changing, they’re not one thing,” Webb says. “We don’t think the logo should be one thing. Kids are loud and playful and dynamic and our logo should be that way, too.”
At the time, the only successful show Nickelodeon aired was a Canadian-produced sketch comedy called You Can’t Do That on Television. Created by Roger Price and Geoffrey Darby, the show featured preteen and teenage kids taking part in Saturday Night Live–style skits and often looked like “a live-action cartoon,” Darby says, crystallizing the playfully unpredictable direction Laybourne wanted to go. By 1986, as the network pushed for more original content, Laybourne had hired Darby and charged him with creating a game show in the same vein. Soon, he began hatching ideas with a team of creatives. “I’d always wanted to put a kid through a Rube Goldberg machine,” says Darby, who was inspired by similar-minded board games like Mouse Trap. “Wouldn’t it be great if the kid was like the ball that went through this obstacle course?”
That idea would eventually serve as Double Dare’s manic finale, but Darby still needed a structure for his game’s trivia segments. As he went around the room, asking colleagues about their favorite children’s games, Bob Mittenthal, who worked in the promotions department, blurted out, “Truth or Dare!” and Darby ran with it. “You could dare the other person to answer the question and they could double dare you back,” he says. In between segments, the producer added “physical challenges,” messy punishments (like dumping pizza toppings onto someone’s head) for a contestant’s inability to answer a question, which provided random bursts of action throughout the show. “They were looking for something new, novel,” Taylor says, “trying to create something that wasn’t there in the kids’ television market.”
With the conceptual architecture of Double Dare intact, the look and feel of the show—operating inside of Philadelphia’s WHYY studios—became paramount. At the time, Memphis design, an Italian postmodern architecture and design movement that originated in 1980, had become the hottest wave in high-end interior and commercial spaces. But the avant-garde trend, characterized by its abstract patterns, bright colors, and asymmetrical shapes, wasn’t readily visible in the mainstream outside of New York art galleries or glossy fashion magazines. At least, not until Double Dare. Inspired by the movement, the show’s early production designer, Jim Fenhagen, began building a set in line with Memphis-style colors and concepts. Eventually, Taylor took over the show, expanding on Fenhagen’s ideas by accentuating all the unique tones and colors that had been created. “[Jim] had about half of the obstacles designed at that point and I was coming in to finish the last half dozen,” Taylor says. “It was neat to do something that sort of looked different than anything else you could see on television.”
In addition to the pop-art sensibilities on display, Darby had always wanted Double Dare to take on the feeling of a natatorium. The producer liked the large block designs that hovered over contestants, and, perhaps anticipating the gelatinous messes that would soak the floors, “we had drains on the main set so we could squeegee stuff off during the commercial breaks or in between physical challenges,” he says. By the time Marc Summers signed on to host, the studio—filled by clamorous crowds of kids—had been transformed into a stimulating amalgamation of flashing lights and bold colors, disparate shapes and clashing patterns. The blue laminate floors contrasted with the yellow polka-dotted podiums and orange-checkered trimmings, all ready to be defiled with splashes of pudding and whipped cream and other food-based liquids. “You turned on that show every day and you saw a knockoff of this high-end Italian style,” Taylor says. “They revamped the whole look of Nickelodeon, and it went from a staid kind of good-for-you, ‘eat your vegetables’ programming to kid-centric programming.”
“It was iconic for the company because it was the first real, original show, and it did spring directly from the brand identity,” Webb says. “They created a grammar for how to make that Nickelodeon identity come to life and still have a lot of respect and a lot of high production value so that kids didn’t feel like it was a cheap kids’ show. We were making stuff that we wanted to enjoy as well.”
Over the next couple of years, Darby and Taylor extended that identity into several other trivia-based, problem-solving game shows. And while not every program had the same shock-and-awe design as Double Dare, their unique conceptions, energetic pace, and participatory nature remained just as distinct—to both the contestants and those watching at home.
On Finders Keepers, a scavenger hunt show, two teams of contestants used telestrators to circle hidden shapes inside a picture (much like the back pages of Highlights magazine) in front of two larger-than-life windows and a big blue door. But for the prize rounds, the real fun took place on another stage, where Taylor had crafted a two-story, doll-house structure with various bathrooms, kitchens, and bedrooms for kids to tear apart in order to find secret objects. “I was a fan of postmodern architecture [and] I was ripping off a lot of those kinds of ideas. It was a massive piece of construction,” Taylor says.
Much like building an erector set, Taylor used steel frames for the structure’s skeleton and then attached theatrical flat boards to mimic wallpapered interiors. “As it kept growing, we wound up having to do it in a converted movie theater that was adjacent to the sound stage in Philadelphia,” he says. Because the telestrator game ultimately proved too stationary, Darby eventually required contestants to race each other by slapping colored vinyl shapes onto the hidden objects. Shortly after, the winners were ravaging through the drawers, desks, and shelves Taylor had created. “That was a crazy show,” Darby says. “Every room had its own sensibility. We had a modern bathroom, an old bathroom, a bake shop, a charcuterie … the set was driving it.”
The same could be said for Think Fast, once described to Taylor as “cool school,” in which Double Dare-esque obstacles and games took on a more academic sensibility. More spare in its design, the show featured two pairs of teams competing against each other to solve a variety of interactive puzzles and wordplay contests. At times, the stage, surrounded by a space-like backdrop, appeared as a futuristic classroom, and other times it resembled a playground, with basketball hoops and chain-link fencing surrounding the studio audience. At the end of the show, helmeted and goggled contestants played a live-action memory game, in which actors popped out of school lockers and tested each kid’s concentration skills. The lockers “matched the theme of the playground/gymnasium take that we had,” says Taylor, who designed a similar set for Make the Grade, a Jeopardy!-style contest that relied on video graphics. “I thought about The Jetsons when Elroy gets put in his bubble and winds up going to school,” Taylor says. “That literally is what it was. It was a version of the Jetsons’ environment.”
The success of these shows and their growing adolescent appeal proved to Laybourne that the network needed its own, central studio space, and in 1990, she convinced Universal Studios to let Nickelodeon establish residency inside its Orlando-based theme park. The two-floor building would house two large studios and become its own tourist attraction, especially for kids eager to watch and participate in the shows. As an additional resource, the studio’s location, nestled beside amusement rides, gave many producers and artists instant feedback. “You were, quite honestly, in the middle of a theme park every day,” says Richard Barry, a former senior producer and creative director at Nickelodeon. “If you wanted to try an idea, we’d run outside in the theme park, try it and come back in. How good is that?”
Mostly, the studio gave kids another opportunity to physically engage with the network and its cotton-candy aesthetic. That was noticeable even on the building’s exterior. “The facade was literally a collage of colors, patterns, and even shapes that were taken from or inspired by that Memphis style of design and all the Nick shows,” says Taylor, who still remembers the excitement of spotting Nickelodeon’s 80-foot-wide orange logo from his car on Interstate 4.
“It was about being more than a TV network,” Webb says. “It was more about being a mission and a cause for kids.”
Under a more unified roof, shows such as Double Dare underwent bigger makeovers and took on numerous iterations. Soon, entire families and celebrities were slipping and sliding their way through obstacles, which became more screwball as the shows extended their runs. One frequently-used contraption was called the “One-Ton Human Hamster Wheel,” which required getting on all fours to rotate a heavy metal sphere. Another obstacle featured a giant head that contestants climbed through—“and that dictated the fact that you had to have something that looked like earwax, which turned out to be butterscotch pudding,” Taylor says. All of it was sloppy, outrageous fun, and brought even the most popular teenage celebrities competing down to a human level. “There’s that huge fantasy element, which is why everything was sort of bigger than life,” Darby says. “It’s fantasy, but an attainable fantasy. You could see yourself doing that.”
As a result, fans often flooded the studio’s mailroom with suggestions for their own kinds of obstacles, ideas that the pair occasionally utilized. For Taylor, every detail mattered, and the production designer often had to get creative with his space and budget, especially when it came to recycling used material. For example, one obstacle called the “Sundae Slide” forced contestants to barrel into a big bowl of Neapolitan-colored ice cream, a milky mixture whipped extra stiff, molded into a dome shape, and adorned with toppings. “But the minute the kid falls in it, you’ve made a huge mess and you’ve spent a lot of money prop-wise making this material,” Taylor says, “[so] you had to blend it all together and come up with some other kind of way of displaying it because you couldn’t throw it away every time.”
The obstacle course elements bled over into GUTS and Legends of the Hidden Temple, shows that featured more athletically-inclined participants. According to Darby, Hidden Temple, which was produced by an outside company, was a mix of Double Dare and Finders Keepers with an Indiana Jones aesthetic (it featured a “cohost” called Olmec, a talking stone head meant to represent Mesoamerican civilizations) and its trivia centered on history and geography. After a variety of physical challenges between six teams, winners needed to retrieve a historical artifact kept inside a giant, two-story temple, filled with multiple themed rooms, before time ran out. “They could go up and down, [but] it sort of depended on the route they took,” Taylor says. “We had to provide enough passageways—sometimes it turned into a dead end, but sometimes if they hit the right button it would lead them to another route.”
The various sports-based contests on GUTS had a simpler production design—contestants often competed around bike tracks and over swimming pools. But the show’s grand finale, which often determined the winner, took place on a mountain called the Aggro Crag, a neon-lit, artificial rock formation whose peak nearly touched the studio’s roof. Shot in almost mythical fashion (the camera introduced the final round by panning slowly down the mountain’s foggy topography), the Aggro Crag provided breathless entertainment, its amorphous shape and chaotic design cementing it as the most iconic ending to a Nickelodeon show.
But above everything that made the Crag so enticing, it was a mountain that kids everywhere could picture themselves climbing. “A critical thing,” Taylor says, “was that they saw themselves, or could imagine themselves, being there.”
One of the visual rules Darby aimed to keep during his tenure at Nickelodeon was, believe it or not, keeping the color green off the air. “Green was almost banned. I hated green,” Darby says. “If you put a person in front of green, their complexion goes really sallow. [It] looks awful.” The exception to this rule, of course, was filming slime, the bright-green, gelatinous concoction that embodied Nickelodeon’s anarchic and playful identity.
Arguably the most iconic part of the network, slime’s distinct coloration originated from a smelly accident. In the early stages of You Can’t Do That on Television, Price and Darby had written a skit that took place in a dungeon, where a kid pulled a toilet chain and got covered in waste. Because it would make a mess, the creators had planned to make it the last shot of the day, but filming ran long and the producers missed their window. The next week, unknown to them, green crud had grown over the sitting effluent, turning the repeated gag into something that looked radioactive. “It reeked to high heaven when we actually did it,” Darby says, “and it was a big hit.”
He and Price would eventually write an entire episode called “The Green Slime Show,” this time intentionally creating a green concoction—made of quick oats, baby shampoo, apple sauce, and green dye—that was more fluorescent and less … organic-looking. When Darby moved over to Double Dare, he brought the slime with him, inserting it into physical challenges like the Slime Canal and Nick Blimp, where it quickly became a hit. Eventually, the green goo migrated into other facets of the network and at contests like “Nick Takes Over Your School,” where teachers and parents would often get slimed. “We used to go to the store to take over these schools, and we would raid the local supermarket and buy all their oatmeal and baby shampoo and stuff,” says Barry.
In many ways, the sticky substance glued the network together. As Nickelodeon’s original programming expanded into animation and live-action sitcoms, a new show, Slime Time Live, began airing between the commercial breaks of popular shows. Also filmed at Nickelodeon Studios, it acted as a condensed trivia show, virtually sliming kids who video-called into the network, and bridging the visual gap between Nick’s various cartoons and game shows.
“Roger Price understood kids really have a shitty situation in life,” Webb says. “By having water and slime dumped on these kids and having them chained up as prisoners … for a kid watching at home, it had this catharsis. … It was never [meant] to be a punishment, and it was always a celebration.”
When Barry eventually became Chief Slime Officer, he ran with that belief, bringing a newer version of Slime Time Live back to the network in 2000. Though the substance changed—the green stuff became a methyl cellulose mix—it remained a two-hour hub for kids across the country to call in, win prizes, and watch the floors get messy. This time, even the audience winners at Nick Studios received a real dumping of slime in various, zany capacities. “It’s almost an approved mess,” Barry says. “If you go out in the backyard and get mud on your head, your parents would kill you, but if you got slimed, they wanted to take pictures of it.”
Throughout all of these shows—including, most prominently, Figure It Out, which dumped slime over numerous Nickelodeon TV stars—there was always the possibility that unlucky (or lucky!) kids might have their hair and outfit ruined. Much like the containers that held the slime, Nickelodeon programming always delivered spontaneity and unpredictability, which made it impossible to turn away from. “If you were getting slimed, you loved the first 10 seconds and you probably were getting cleaned up for the next 30 minutes,” Barry says with a laugh. “Everybody seemed to be really happy when anybody got slimed—it was always something you wanted to see.”
In the 1970s, the term “couch potato” had become a popular buzzword when describing kids zoning out in front of the TV. According to Daniel Anderson, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the prevailing thought was that kids were turning their minds off and being sucked into “a really effective kaleidoscope.” Over the next decade, however, Anderson pushed back against that general theory, studying the way preschoolers up through preteens watched and interacted with television. “When you get to older kids watching Nickelodeon game shows, if there was another kid in the room, they’d be constantly discussing what was going on,” Anderson says. “In ways that are not unlike adults, they’d be talking about the content and speculating about characters and so on.”
Along the same lines, Nickelodeon’s aesthetic proved to be catnip for children so used to seeing the muted colors of adult programming. As Anderson observed, when kids decided what to watch, Nick’s enhanced realities and brighter colors naturally drew them in. “The very top of the chart as you make your decision on whether I’m going to stay with [a show] is, ‘How does it look?’” says Anderson, who later advised the network on Blue’s Clues and Dora the Explorer.
Long before shows like American Ninja Warrior and Wipeout, Nickelodeon made sure the answer to that question was: unlike anything else. And though “kids’ game shows have dried up” today, Darby acknowledges, the stratified streaming world, with its endless options for children’s content, has only cast Nickelodeon’s nostalgic, neon era into sharper relief. Its decades-long staying power, Anderson suggests, is a credit to the network’s commitment to bold colors and interactive elements, but even more so in the way Nickelodeon highlighted its youthful faces. Whether it was a nervous game show contestant or a dorky sitcom star, Nickelodeon knew the power of showing fun, relatable kids doing fun, relatable things. As Pittman knows best, everyone looked the same type of silly in a bright yellow jumpsuit.
“That’s how I remember all of the kids that appeared on these Nickelodeon shows,” she says. “That’s what really drew me in and kept me watching.”
Jake Kring-Schreifels is a sports and entertainment writer based in New York. His work has also appeared in Esquire.com, GQ.com, and The New York Times.