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 many iconic characters and the legacy of the network as a whole with the Best Nickelodeon Character Bracket. Of course, with so many classic shows, not all of Nick’s characters could make the cut. Below, we present an ode to some of our favorite figures—both cartoon and live action—who were left behind.
Appa & Momo, Avatar: The Last Airbender
Look, there are a lot of Nickelodeon shows. A lot of Nickelodeon characters. A lot of wonderful, memorable figures who’ve animated our minds, expanded our hearts, and helped us soar to new planes of wonder. But how many of those characters have literally helped us soar to those new planes, allowing us to nestle in their fluffy nooks, or showing us how to nimbly leap and glide from perch to perch? I would not dream of advocating against any of the Avatar: The Last Airbender characters who made our top 64. Their selections are unimpeachable. I am instead arguing what seems as clear to me as the air one can reach only when flying on a sky bison’s back: A list that does not leave room for dear Appa and darling Momo is a flawed list, a foul list, as broken and fractured as the land that divides the Four Nations.
The sky bison and winged lemur embody why the most memorable characters and tales linger with us for as long as they do: They are sources of comfort and joy, trust and inspiration; they’re quick with an assist in battle, or an injection of levity amid the morass, or a warming snuggle in the chill. They are companions on our quest, as elemental to the journey as the very air, water, earth, or fire that we might seek to bend. They, like dear Pabu and Naga from The Legend of Korra—who by the way also belong on this list!!—are our friends. We love them. They would not abandon us, and we will not abandon them. Uncle Iroh taught us—and Zuko—that “true humility is the only antidote to shame.” I behoove my cherished colleagues to embrace this wisdom, reseed the bracket, and put Momo and Appa where they belong: ascending to new seed lines, new heights, and new possibilities. —Mallory Rubin
Grandpa Lou, Rugrats
Before Rugrats became a sanitized beacon of corporate IP and the mature edges were sanded off to make room for movies, spinoffs, merchandise, and new babies, there was Grandpa Lou. Ornery, crude, and lovable, Grandpa delivered comedic triple-doubles in every episode he appeared in. Lou was the rare character who spoke to the babies like mini-adults, which mirrors how most real-world seniors interact with toddlers, but it’s arguably in Season 2, Episode 8 when he arrives at his apex. On a night when Lou is supposed to be babysitting Tommy and Chuckie, he decides to inform the children he’s rented a porno called Lonely Space Vixens, puts the kids to sleep early, and tries to hook up with an old flame. These moments worked, because Grandpa Lou felt as inappropriate but well-meaning as most gray-haired patriarchs. The wise old Klasky Csupo sage deserves more credit than this Ringer Nick bracket gave him. —Charles Holmes
Roger Klotz, Doug
There have been many famous pop culture bullies, and Roger Klotz surely stood on their shoulders when he debuted on Doug as the titular character’s constant foe. Still, none of them, in my mind at least, are as iconic as Roger Klotz. The leather jacket, the matching leather boots, the slicked-back tuft of ginger hair—for a generation, Roger stood as the epitome of that guy in school who deflected from his own insecurities by needling yours … not that you had the emotional maturity to understand the root of his meanness at the time.
Doug was a show about embracing your inner self, your passions, and your imagination—Roger was the one pulling the line out from under Doug in nearly every episode and challenging all those things. That also means he was a crucial test of faith to overcome. And as the series went on, Roger’s exterior softened—he is a painter, an actor, and a ballet dancer. He is a shining example of the fact that you can never truly know what’s going on inside a person until they’re comfortable enough to show you. —Andrew Gruttadaro
Stoop Kid, Hey Arnold!
Yo Zeebo the Clown, I’m really happy for you and I’mma let you finish, but Stoop Kid was the greatest character to ever be featured in approximately one episode of a Nickelodeon show. Out of the countless characters that Hey Arnold! focused on, only one refused to leave his stoop AND my heart. After Arnold’s football accidentally lands on the steps of Stoop Kid’s abode, Arnold learns the tale of the scariest teenager to live in his neighborhood. Arnold is determined to show kindness to the grouchy orphan whose fashion style has inspired hipsters in Bushwick to this very day, and he chooses to help Stoop Kid overcome his fear of leaving the only home he has ever known. Newspapers capture the momentous occasion when he does finally leave his steps, but Stoop Kid tells Arnold he still prefers his concrete fortress over anything else. Stoop Kid may not have won this bracket, but he would absolutely win at quarantine. If they were to ever make a live-action film for Hey Arnold!, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Adam Driver would win his first Oscar for stepping into this role. And, if that cannot be arranged, can someone at Paramount+ please green-light my idea for a competitive exterior design show in which contestants decorate stoops? —Bridget Geerlings
Sternum, The Amanda Show
Moody’s Point was the greatest Nickelodeon show that never was. Aired as 10-minute segments on The Amanda Show, Moody’s Point was an over-the-top Dawson’s Creek parody about the trials and tribulations teenagers face, like grieving a mother who went missing on a hot air balloon, or returning a rented movie one minute late. Amanda Bynes’s Moody may be the focal point of such troubles, but it’s clear that the sketch’s true star is the fawned-over coolest guy in school, Sternum.
Sternum (Mathew Botuchis) is a mysterious, brooding bad boy who reads books like Chicken Soup for the Tortured Teenage Soul, paints his locker black, and speaks in existential riddles—well, one riddle. He really just asks everyone the opposite of what they ask him. In his first scene, Moody and her friends watch Sternum punch his locker for reasons we can assume are due to his Tortured Teenage Soul. Still, Moody asks, “Is anything wrong?” to which Sternum replies, “Is anything right?” Damn.
Despite his rebellious reputation, Sternum often shows up for the characters when they’re in a jam, usually accompanied by a smolder and twinkling wind chimes. When Moody can’t open a locket from her aforementioned lost-at-sky mother, there he is with what else but a “locket opener.” How’d he know she needed it? “How didn’t I know?” Swoon.
Despite its undeniably relatable portrayal of high school drama, “Moody’s Point” ran in only seven episodes of The Amanda Show, and its pitched spinoff series never got made. Sternum’s limited airtime may lead you to ask: How could he be the best Nickelodeon character? Well, let me leave you with this: How couldn’t he be? —Julianna Ress
The Aggro Crag, Nickelodeon Guts
Maybe it’s a stretch to call the Aggro Crag a “character,” but the giant pile of plywood figuratively and literally loomed larger in my childhood consciousness than any Nickelodeon personality, living or animated. The grand finale of Nickelodeon Guts was more intimidating than a Temple Guard, an impossibly large-looking obstacle course that spewed smoke and Mylar and was lit like the bowels of hell. Like any self-respecting final boss, this mountainous blasphemy evolved over time into two even more fearsome forms, morphing into the Mega Crag in Season 3 and the Super Aggro Crag in Season 4. A third-place contestant could come back to win the competition with a victory on the Crag, which was appropriate considering how daunting the 30-foot-tall monstrosity seemed. If the roller-ramps didn’t get you, the foam boulders or slippery walls would, and if you somehow survived the precipices and booby traps, you might still struggle to locate the actuators amid the cacophony and confetti cannons. No one is known to have perished on the Aggro Crag, but I’d wager that the brightly costumed skeletons of trapped preteens still lie inside its darkest crevasses. The Crag’s current whereabouts are unverified, but perhaps its scattered pieces will one day reassemble in someone’s backyard to terrify and fascinate a new generation. —Ben Lindbergh
Eliza Thornberry, The Wild Thornberrys
It’s a crying shame the Wild Thornberrys as a family—and a show at large—aren’t better represented in this bracket. The Ringer’s Katie Baker writes about Nickelodeon’s generational divide for Nick Week, and the Thornberrys feels like one of the prime examples of that phenomenon: a show popular enough to even get a theatrically released movie, but ultimately mostly enjoyed by a micro-generation of Nick fans and therefore lost among the larger icons of the network’s expansive catalog.
And though the Thornberrys did manage to send one delegate to the bracket—the delightfully ridiculous Nigel—his daughter and the show’s main character got shut out. Eliza here appears to be suffering from Protagonist Syndrome, the affliction in which the star of a series is ignored for a more entertaining support character. But Eliza isn’t not entertaining if we’re being real—sure, she might not say “SMASHING!” in a British accent so thick it sounds like it’s been coated in marmite, but she can talk to animals. And not just cute and cuddly ones like kittens or, I guess, Darwin—look at her effortlessly roll up to this pack of wolves like a boss:
It’s one thing to be blessed by a random shaman with the mystical ability to speak to other species, but Eliza also stands out for her curiosity and sense of adventure. And for a demographic of kids who grew up with the Thornberrys, Eliza and her family—OK, not Debbie—provided early exposure to wildlife conservation and climate advocacy. Yes, Eliza has a fascinating talent and wildly reckless desire to use it—but she’s also got a great heart and stands up for a good cause. Sorry, Eliza. You deserved better from us. —Aric Jenkins
Tenzin, The Legend of Korra
Where do we even start with Tenzin? The airbending master to Korra. The son of previous protagonists Aang and Katara. An awesome dad to four kids. And a beard I truly wish I could grow. How could he NOT be one of the greatest Nick characters of all time?
I get it, The Legend of Korra is not viewed the same way as Avatar: The Last Airbender. I could go on and on about how that take is completely wrong; Korra is an amazing and beautiful show. But even looking past that, Tenzin is such a badass throughout the whole series. He guides Korra through every arc while also showing off his airbending mastery. Tenzin isn’t just a side character in the show either; he’s in almost every episode. He reconnects with his siblings. He teaches a new generation of airbenders. We even get some backstory on a romance he once shared with Lin Beifong, Toph’s daughter.
J.K. Simmons beautifully brings it together with his voice-acting talent. He gives Tenzin a warm, but stern characterization that simply works for the character. Also: J.K. Simmons is the man. Simply put, you can’t talk about The Legend of Korra, one of the greatest Nickelodeon shows of all time, without Tenzin. It’s a damn shame he’s not on this list. —Arjuna Ramgopal
Pete and Pete cameo characters, The Adventures of Pete & Pete
If I could conjure up one piece of media, it would be a group photograph of everyone who ever had a cameo on Pete & Pete. It would be the 1990s alt-rock version of Art Kane’s A Great Day in Harlem, or one of those shots of MGM’s entire stable of stars surrounding Louis B. Mayer. It being the slouchy ’90s, I doubt few cast members other than LL Cool J would petition to sit in the front row. So I’d gaze at the back row, where Janeane Garofalo would be cracking wise with Ellen Cleghorne, and Debbie Harry would be telling tales to Luscious Jackson and Michael Stipe, and Steve Buscemi would be talking shop with Bebe Neuwirth, and somehow, delightfully, Frank Gifford would be exchanging pleasantries with Patty goddamn Hearst. One of the many miracles that Pete & Pete pulled off was taking all these odd puzzle pieces and making them fit. Not even Iggy Pop’s recurring role was forced or showy—it was just fun. Seeing these luminaries of weirdness pop up on your TV screen created a most pleasing form of dissonance, something that fans of, say, Juliana Hatfield appreciated then and now. —Craig Gaines
“My Leg!” Guy, SpongeBob SquarePants
While most of Bikini Bottom’s residents fade into the background of a typical SpongeBob episode, there’s one special exception. This guy:
His name, technically, is Fred, but he’s simply known as the fish who can always be counted on to shout “MY LEG!” in the middle of chaos. (The official SpongeBob YouTube channel posted a “My Leg” compilation last year; the final tally reached 81, and while not all of them were uttered by Fred, that number is somehow lower than I expected.) Fred might appear infrequently, but he’s nevertheless endured as a meme and one of SpongeBob’s most reliable sources of delightfully one-note humor. To watch Fred consistently be on the receiving end of limb-related punishment—although sometimes it seems like he’s shouting “MY LEG!” for no apparent reason—is like getting a brief window into the life of a non-player character in a video game. As Fred’s leg has kicked its way into my heart, one can only hope he’s got the best health care plan Bikini Bottom can offer. —Miles Surrey
Sokka, Avatar: The Last Airbender
You might think Avatar: The Last Airbender is fairly represented on this bracket, but there is one GLARING omission.
How is the wise-cracking, plan-formulating Sokka of the Water Tribe left off this list? Of all the non-benders in the world of Avatar, Sokka easily makes the most impact. It’s his ingenuity that keeps Team Avatar going throughout the series and his growth from sarcastic older brother to the leader of a nationwide rebellion is one of the series’ most compelling plotlines. Even if he didn’t start off the series as one of your favorite characters, by the end of the show, he was deeply missed.
Pearl Krabs, SpongeBob SquarePants
Bikini Bottom’s not-so-poor, not-so-little rich girl, Pearl is the kind of visual in-joke that makes animation so delightful: a whale who’s the daughter of a crab, a contrast that’s sometimes acknowledged but never explained. (In reality, SpongeBob creator Stephen Hillenburg wanted each main character to be a different species.) Pearl is big, but everyone and everything around her—including her blond ponytail and cheerleader outfit—is very small. That’s basically all you need to know; Pearl’s spoiled, naive personality as the sheltered daughter of the local burger baron just adds to the overgrown-baby effect of her flawless character design. Pearl is just as simple, silly, and sweet as the rest of the SpongeBob cast, and she deserves a spot in the Nickelodeon canon as much as the rest of them. —Alison Herman