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Nickelodeon Animation: ‘Rugrats,’ ‘Doug’ and ‘Ren & Stimpy’ Carved Studio’s Niche

Creators set fledgling studio on new path

Rugrats Doug Ren and Stimpy Nickelodeon Originals
Courtesy of Nickelodeon

“Milestone” is a word that gets kicked around a lot, but it actually applies to the launch of Nickelodeon Animation Studio 25 years ago. When “Rugrats,” “Doug” and “The Ren & Stimpy Show” made successful debuts in 1991, Nick hit a trifecta that still impresses. Even the creators of those shows couldn’t have predicted that.

“Cable was new at that time,” recalls Paul Germain, co-creator/producer of “Rugrats” with Arlene Klasky and Gabor Csupo. “I had worked on ‘The Simpsons’ for ‘The Tracey Ullman Show,’ and I fell into animation like slipping on a banana peel.” Germain made a one-line “Rugrats” pitch to Nickelodeon executive producer Vanessa Coffey.

“The pitch was about babies who didn’t seem cognizant, but when adults left the room, the babies talked.”

“Rugrats” got a greenlight.

“Doug” creator Jim Jinkins also found ready acceptance at Nick for his show about a middle-schooler. While Jinkins was an experienced animator when he pitched “Doug” to Coffey, he only had a book proposal to present. “Vanessa saw my drawing of Doug and ran from the room, which was disturbing. But she had left to tell her boss that she wanted to take ‘Doug’ to pilot. I still can’t believe that happened.”

“Rugrats” and “Doug” earned success by following a script-based approach, in which the creatives mined their own experiences. Their characters didn’t need superpowers — they were simply kids trying to survive childhood. As Jinkins observes, “Best friends and bullies are issues that never go away.”

The “Rugrats” creatives had their own babies back then, which provided source material. Klasky remembers, “There was lots of psychobabble about raising kids in the 1990s — like when you potty-trained them you could ruin them for life. We poked fun at that. I think that’s why parents watched it with their kids.”

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When “The Ren & Stimpy Show” creator John Kricfalusi had pitched his idea about a dimwitted cat and a testy Chihuahua to Coffey, he explained that they would develop dialogue through the storyboards. “There was no single style,” says Kricfalusi. “I wanted artists to follow their own styles. I ‘cast’ particular animators for different shows.”

One of Kricfalusi’s picks was Bob Camp, who recalls, “The show wasn’t paint-by-numbers. The characters could appear in a Western or a fairytale. We weren’t doing sitcoms. It was more like ‘Three Stooges.’ As kids who watched it grew up, they understood more of the jokes, and that gave the show longevity.”

Kricfalusi thinks the irreverence of “Ren & Stimpy” is a big reason it succeeded. “I put boogers and farts in it because kids love things that adults find gross. I remember what it was like to be a kid — that’s why I’m a cartoonist. I thought that kids would get morals from church and school. So give ’em a break!”