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What’s in a Nicktoon? How Nickelodeon Developed Its Eclectic Animation

Throughout the ’90s, Nick showcased a wide variety of animation styles, yet everyone recognizes the network’s common signatures. Why?

Adam Villacin

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.

What makes a “Nicktoon”? Which character best embodies the Nickelodeon style? The furious chihuahua with bloodshot eyes? The adorable squirrel in an oxygen suit? The green-skinned greaser loitering in a middle school parking lot? The lovestruck bully with blond pigtails and a stark black unibrow?

The art and animation styles varied, sometimes tremendously, from series to series. Yet we know a Nicktoon when we see one. We know the wacky Klasky Csupo signatures in Rugrats, but we also recognize Jim Jinkins’s softer touch in Doug. Most importantly, we understand the harmony in both approaches. In an interview, Hey Arnold! creator Craig Bartlett tells me there was no style guide. The early Nicktoons were, for the most part, distinguished by the network’s promise to the animators. “They let the shows be defined by the show creators,” he explains, “and that created more detailed and textured worlds.”

Nickelodeon launched its animation studio in rebellion against Warner Bros., Hanna-Barbera, and Disney. “We had a theory,” early Nickelodeon president Geraldine Laybourne told the Los Angeles Times ahead of the launch of the first Nicktoons, “that there were a lot of animators who had private projects they had been working on in their heads for years, but because the networks are so driven by presold characters there was no outlet.” This was a bit of promotional bluster but also a radical pledge to a new generation of cartoonists, not to mention a new generation of kids; it was perhaps the most profound statement on American television animation in the past century. Bartlett says Laybourne was true to her word.

The network launched Doug, Rugrats, and The Ren & Stimpy Show on the same day in August 1991. They were, respectively, a low-key sitcom about a nice preteen boy at a suburban school, a vivid psychedelia about adventurous toddlers, and a loud and crass slapstick comedy about deranged animals. The tone and focus were all over the place, and so, too, was the animation. Doug was smooth and sparse, Rugrats was lumpy and asymmetrical, and Ren & Stimpy was coarse and chaotic. Nickelodeon lacked a house style, and strangely enough, that was the network’s great distinction from the onset. Bartlett credits Laybourne and Matt Groening for the wider commercial turn toward “creator-driven cartoons” following Groening’s breakout success with The Simpsons on Fox in the late 1980s. Earlier in the century, the Looney Tunes could cross over into each other’s stories, as could The Flintstones and The Jetsons of Hanna-Barbera, a prehistoric and futuristic sitcom, respectively. Those house styles enforced certain uniformities in the TV cartoon landscape that dominated for half a century before Nickelodeon. Meanwhile, the original Space Jam, released in November 1996, grossed more than a quarter billion dollars at the box office but could only reinvigorate the Looney Tunes for so long. For millennials, “Nickelodeon” became the new shorthand for “cartoons.”

But the network existed for more than a decade before developing its first original cartoon series. It was always a kids’ channel, but in the most broad and expansive terms; Nick also produced game shows with preteen contestants, live-action sitcoms and dramas, and a flagship variety show (All That). During its bedtime block, Nick at Nite, it syndicated midcentury sitcoms such as I Love Lucy and Bewitched. By the turn of the century, Nickelodeon was a multibillion-dollar business but remained a genuinely strange destination, a grade school oasis unlike any other network, past and present. There seemed to be 1 trillion cable channels, but just one dedicated to taking a 10-year-old seriously for several hours at a time. Nickelodeon was a national playground staging a long contest to see who could be more rough and imaginative in the sandbox: the kids watching the cartoons or the animators producing them.

We can think critically (and even cynically) about “branding” and we can discern the splashy marketing—the bright orange logo, the torrential green slime—as a clever and definitive force in forging so much nostalgia for Nickelodeon. But the animators were geniuses, each bearing a peculiar signature in the network’s collective dissent against symmetry and tidiness, and Nickelodeon did in fact empower the animators like no other television studio ever before. There was a fashion statement etched into the lumps of Tommy Pickles’s head. John Adkins, a contributor to the popular newsletter Animation Obsessive, notes the influence of Russian animator Igor Kovalyov and his early cartoon short, “Hen, His Wife,” produced in the then–Soviet Union; Kovalyov later joined Klasky-Csupo in the U.S. and cocreated Aaahh!!! Real Monsters for Nickelodeon. “Those Klasky-Csupo shows look very similar to the stuff coming out of Russia in the early ’90s and late ’80s,” Adkins says. Bartlett, who worked on the earliest seasons of Rugrats before he created Hey Arnold!, also credits Peter Chung, who directed the pilot for Rugrats.

“He invented that whole perspective,” Bartlett says. “He put the camera on the ground, he did these panning backgrounds and other stuff in the original pilot that was insane.” In its nine seasons on Nickelodeon, Rugrats preserved the Eastern European ruggedness and alt-comics quirks that were eventually muted in The Simpsons, which became smooth, round, and symmetrical after the show’s prime-time breakout from The Tracey Ullman Show on Fox.

In the 1990s, there was “an artist’s market,” Bartlett recalls, beyond just Nickelodeon. Disney developed new characters for the Disney Channel and even bought the rights to Doug from the show’s creator, Jim Jinkins. Cartoon Network revived and remixed the old style and franchises from Hanna-Barbera, and the network’s afternoon block, Toonami, led a larger push to incorporate anime into American cartoon programming. Kids’ WB licensed Pokémon, Fox licensed Digimon, and Toonami introduced wide audiences to Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z. Nickelodeon responded to the trend with Avatar: The Last Airbender, but otherwise stuck to its sitcom instincts.

Adkins refers me to a strange meme, The Cabala of Doug, purporting to trace Doug’s descendants, such as Hey Arnold! (“Football Doug”) on Nickelodeon and even The Proud Family (“Black Girl Doug”) on the Disney Channel. “Nick had a lot more shows with a humanist angle,” Adkins says, drawing a contrast with action cartoons like Thundercats and Transformers, which dominated TV a decade before the original three Nicktoons, but featured more machines and aliens than people. The Nicktoons styles never clashed but rather reinforced one another—potty humor and formative pathos in equal proportion. It was middle school.

The artist’s market expanded, the networks traded talent, and sometimes the distinctions blurred. Cartoon Network’s Cow and Chicken, created by the Ren & Stimpy alumnus David Feiss, could’ve passed for a Nicktoon. The Fairly OddParents and Danny Phantom, created by Dexter’s Laboratory alumnus Butch Hartman, could’ve blended in with The Powerpuff Girls. But Nickelodeon unleashed these animators from the old conventions and constraints. In the ’90s, Bartlett says, “Nicktoons were way out front.” It was a kids’ network that took artists seriously; a revolution in our childhoods.