Nickelodeon Animation Studio: Pop-Culture Powerhouse Got an Unlikely Start

At the silver anniverary mark, cartoon gamechangers still draw audiences and colorful new hits

Rugrats. Nickeoldeon Animation Studios
Courtesy of Nickelodeon

While it’s hard to imagine a large entertainment entity beginning this way now, back in 1990 it was a Nickelodeon contractor who got Nickelodeon Animation Studio off the ground.

Vanessa Coffey was hired as a creative consultant to develop NickToons, which became the trio of animated series, “Doug,” “Rugrats” and “The Ren & Stimpy Show.”

Prior to NickToons, which debuted 25 years ago, Nickelodeon was home to acquired animated series and original live-action shows. Original animation was a new endeavor.

“They gave me pretty much free rein to look for properties as a consultant,” Coffey says. She put out the word that she was taking pitches and met with John Kricfalusi.

“He never pitched ‘Ren & Stimpy,’” she says. “He pitched me this project called ‘Your Gang’ and there was a dog and cat in ‘Your Gang’ and that was Ren and Stimpy. I asked him if he could create a show called ‘Ren & Stimpy’ and then pitch it to Nickelodeon.”

Nickelodeon president Geraldine Laybourne watched the three pilots and greenlit 13 episodes of “Doug,” created by Jim Jenkins, and “Rugrats,” created Arlene Klasky, Gabor Csupo and Paul Germain.

“She wasn’t going to do ‘Ren & Stimpy.’ It made her very uncomfortable,” Coffey recalls. “I said if it doesn’t work, she can fire me. She said, ‘OK, I’ll give you six episodes.’”

Coffey was then hired as Nickelodeon’s executive producer of animation between the pilots and series production; she brought in Mary Harrington as supervising producer. “We were producers before we were executives,” Harrington says. “We felt we could do a better job making our own shows than subcontracting to the (animation) studios.”

That approach led to the founding of Nickelodeon Animation Studio in 1990, but it operated under the name Games Animation until 1998, the same time a NAS building opened in Burbank. “Nickelodeon had a corporation already set up called Games,” Coffey says. “They didn’t want to spend money to open a new corporation so they put (NAS) under (Games).”

Despite softer ratings numbers at Nickelodeon in the past couple of years, the NAS pipeline continues to yield new series, including “The Loud House,” “Pinky Malinky” and “Welcome to the Wayne.”

“The creative center of what we’re trying to do is to maintain all the integrity it had when it started,” says Cyma Zarghami, Viacom Kids and Family Group president. “We’re looking for innovative ideas and we look for creators who are telling their own stories about their own childhoods.”

With Nickelodeon as a global brand, Zarghami says animation is an important part of the programming mix because it travels well and is more repeatable than live-action programs. And with some of the earliest NickToons still playing on the Splat, a programming block on cable’s Teen Nick channel, there’s interest in reviving the classics.

A two-part “Hey Arnold!” animated TV movie was already announced and executives have been talking with the creators of other NickToons, including Kricfalusi, Klasky Csupo studios and Jhonen Vasquez, creator of “Invader Zim.”

Zarghami says the now-adult fans of the original shows have been asking for the NickToons to return.  “The appetite for their childhood is driving them to ask for Nick stuff, watching it in repeats and asking us to bring it back in different ways,” she says. “And now some of them work here, too.”

Pictured: “Rugrats” was one of the first big original cartoon hits for the young Nickelodeon Animation Studio.