What a fucking powerhouse of a debut. This is like getting Brady, Moss, and Marshall Faulk all in the same draft. Nickelodeon technically debuted as a channel in 1977, but they truly arrived as a network on August 11, 1991. Before this their programming was largely made up of live-action variety shows like “Reggie Jackson’s World of Sports” and imported cartoons made by other networks such as “Inspector Gadget”. Then, on August 11th, Nickelodeon transformed into the #1 nostalgia network for ’90s kids everywhere.
It was a perfect storm of Nickelodeon wanting to go in a new direction and the right people becoming available at the right time. Jim Jenkins, the creator of “Doug,” was working at HBO, MTV, and Sesame Street before Nickelodeon called him. He was first to go to pilot between all of these shows after he walked into Nick and essentially pitched a more modernized Charlie Brown. And on August 11th, they debuted with an iconic episode that still gets referenced today: “Doug Bags A Neematoad.”
Next to come was Rugrats, easily the largest of the three properties. Where Doug was the safe show and Ren & Stimpy was made specifically for people who preferred acid in the morning instead of coffee, Rugrats found a middle ground. Gabor Csupo had just left working on the “The Simpsons” after he refused to fire a producer.
From Csupo, in a 25th Anniversary piece by Entertainment Weekly:
Nickelodeon called us and said, “We love your work, and we would love you to please creative some inventive children’s show for us.” That’s how it happened. It was like magic. [My then-wife] Arlene was home, and I told her the great news, and that we needed to come up with something quick. Everyone was pointing at The Simpsons — “do something like this, but for children. Something different. Something inventive. Something daring. Not your regular Saturday morning cartoons which everybody knew for 30 years.” And Arlene looked at our kids and said, “Let’s do a show about babies.”
“Yeah hey you know that Simpsons show you used to work on? Just make another one of those but for kids.” And, you know what, that motherfucker – along with Arlene Klasky – did just that. Rugrats remains the children’s equivalent of The Simpsons for ’90s kids everywhere. I’ve never met a single person my age who had a negative thing to say about Rugrats. It had just enough trippy shit going on to differentiate it from a standard children’s cartoon and it planted in enough adult humor to make it insanely rewatchable as the kids who first watched it continued to grow up.
Here are the commercials that aired during “Tommy’s First Birthday” because they exist on the internet for reasons I cannot comprehend in the slightest.
Nickelodeon didn’t just go out, order three cartoons and have them all become smash successes. There was a process, they searched high and dry for the correct ideas, sent many shows to pilot, tested them around the country, and only three of them went to air. Where Doug and Rugrats found immediate footing in the early, behind the scenes stages, it took some convincing that Ren & Stimpy was the right call for that third spot.
I have no idea how a network could possibly be nervous about the reception of a show like this, but Nickelodeon was so much that they only ordered six episodes for the first season in case they had to pull the cord (Doug and Rugrats both got 13 episodes each for their inaugural seasons). Wildest part is Ren & Stimpy (originally known as “Your Gang”) was the tamest show that creator John Kricfalusi pitched to Nickelodeon.
John came in during my L.A. hotel stay. He had three shows that he was pitching: Atomic Pig, Jimmy the Retarded Boy, and a show called Your Gang. Frankly, I didn’t like any of those shows, but in Your Gang, the main character had a dog and a cat, and that was Ren and Stimpy.
I don’t know what “Jimmy the Retarded Boy” was about, but I can imagine if Nickelodeon had gone with that one I wouldn’t be sitting here writing up their most important anniversary today. Kricfalusi and his production company were fired in the middle of the second season of Ren & Stimpy after the network refused to air “Man’s Best Friend” where Ren beats the everliving shit out of George Liquor with an oar. (The episode didn’t air until R&S was acquired by Spike TV in 2003.)
Doug also had an unceremonious ending with Nickelodeon as it was sold to Disney, who promptly made it a much worse show. Rugrats is still a tentpole program for the network as they’re still attempting to recreate that 1991 magic for newer generations. These three shows held down Nick until “Rocko’s Modern Life” joined the channel in ’93, then “Aaahh!!! Real Monsters” in ’94 before “Hey Arnold!” in ’96. Then, in 1999, “SpongeBob SquarePants” came through and became the biggest original cartoon for the network, but none of it could have been made possible without August 11, 1991.
Now, time to spend like a hundred dollars on iTunes buying these first seasons and spending the rest of my day doing absolutely nothing but watching some of the best cartoons to ever grace television.