Monday, July 16, 2012

Old School Lane's Nickelodeon Tribute: Rugrats

Now time for the final Nicktoon that started the Nickelodeon golden era. The show that had a combination of creativity seeing a different perspective point of view of toddlers. The show was simply known as Rugrats.

The show was about a group of babies that see the perspective views of adults and explore around their backyard or other various places having adventures with their imaginations. The babies included the following:

Tommy Pickles (voiced by E.G. Daily) was the brave and fearless baby who loves to explore around and have many adventures with his friends.

Chuckie Finster (voiced by Christine Cavanaugh, later replaced by Nancy Cartwright) is Tommy's best friend. He's a very timid, scared, and careful baby who doesn't like Tommy's ideas of sneaking out of the playpen to explore.

Phil and Lil Deville- (both played by Kath Soucie) are identical twin siblings. They're a bit grosser loving to eat bugs and worms. They occasionally argue with one another, but they always stick together.

The show, of course, needed a bully. So, Angelica Pickles, Tommy's 3-year-old cousin (played by Cheryl Chase) would come and boss the babies around, tease them, and would sometimes hurt them. Due to being a spoiled child, she thinks that she could have anything she wants and demands that everyone follows her every demand.

At first, they didn't want Angelica in the show. Arlene Klasky, one of the show's creators, never liked Angelica bullying the babies. But then Paul Germain, the second of the show's creators, convinced the writers to include her in the show because he thought that the character would bring a bit of a realistic edge to Rugrats. Germain and the writers increased Angelica's meanness and the babies' personalities more around the 2nd and 3rd season of the show as oppose to them causing mischief in the 1st season. It became hugely popular, despite Klasky hating the character. Cheryl Chase had difficulty voicing her mean at first, but then Germain described Angelica being kind of like the J.R. Ewing of the show. It made things easier for her.

That was more balance between the toddlers of the show with the introduction of Susie Carmichael (played by Cree Summer), a nicer, kinder 3-year-old toddler who would be the thorn on Angelica's side. They had the classic rivalry on who was the best kid around. While Susie was a very nice edition of the show, for some reason or another, people seemed to like Angelica more. Nonetheless, having Susie in the show was a great decision.

One last thing to mention are the adults in the show. The parents were given as much personality as the babies were.

Stu Pickles (played by Jack Riley) was Tommy's father and a stay-at-home inventor who would be busy inventing toys, baby products, and other things to make a living of.

Didi Pickles (played by Melanie Chartoff) was Tommy's mother and a teacher. She always made sure that the babies were safe and healthy by constantly reading Dr. Lipshitz books for advice on how to raise a baby properly.

Charles "Chaz" Finster (played by Michael Bell) was a timid, scared man who works at an office job raising Chuckie alone since his wife died when Chuckie was a baby.

Howard DeVille (played by Phillip Proctor) was Phil and Lil's father and an accountant. A bit of a pushover, especially if he's around his wife Betty.

Betty DeVille (played by Kath Soucie) was a tough independent stay-at-home mom who has incredible strength.

Charlotte Pickles (played by Tress MacNeille) was Angelica's mother and a busy executive in a high corporate office constantly on her cell phone speaking to her assistant Jonathan.

Drew Pickles (played by Michael Bell) was Angelica's father and Stu's older brother who works at an office. He constantly treats Angelica like a princess, but sometimes scolds her when she's misbehaving.

Grandpa Lou Pickles (played by David Doyle) was Stu and Drew's father and Tommy's paternal grandfather who constantly falls asleep whenever he watches TV or babysitting.

Boris and Minka were Didi's parents and Tommy's Russian-Jewish maternal grandparents who would occasionally babysit.

Rugrats was created by the minds of Arlene Klasky, Gabor Csupo, and Paul Germain. Arlene Klasky and Gabor Csupo, a married couple who had previously animated the shorts and the first 3 seasons of The Simpsons before creating Rugrats. According to a 1999 interview from Sorris e Canzoni TV, an Italian magazine, Arlene Klasky discusses about the inspiration of Rugrats. 

"My babies were my world, they brought lots of fun to my life and I wanted to mix their funny side with my work as an artist. I had the idea of adopting their point of view, how they see the world. Sometime after I asked myself, 'If they could talk, what would they say?' For Tommy, Gabor was inspired by our youngest son Brandon. He had feet obstinately turned on the inside, he was so clumsy when he walked with those tiny, thin legs, a really big head without hair".

The inspiration for Chuckie was mostly by Mark Mothersbaugh, the main composer for Rugrats. "We had thick glasses, we're practically near-sighted, and I had pretty wild hair back then. I didn't have kids yet, so it still had color in it.

The pilot of Rugrats was released in 1990 called "Tommy Pickles and the Great White Thing". The voice actors were all the same, with the exception of Tommy voiced by Tami Holbrook. 

They decided that Tommy's voice didn't seem right and instead hired E.G. Daily, who you might know as Dottie from Pee-wee's Big Adventure. According to E.G. Daily's official website, she describes how she got the part of Tommy.

"My agent called me up one day while I was having my carpets replaced in my apartment. He told me to run off to an audition for this little boy voice. "I can't right now," I said , "I have people working here." "Just go" he said. I reluctantly left. I was the first to go in for the audition. The producers showed me a tiny claymation of Tommy. They asked me to read a page, then another, then another. I wasn't concerned about impressing anyone, I knew the voice felt right the minute I saw Tommy. I was more concerned about getting home! The next day I was told that I had the part and here I am still doing it almost 9 years later!"

Long story short, she had gotten her first voice acting role and the rest is history.

Another thing to mention that distinguished Rugrats from any other animated show at the time was its animation. It was something that had never been seen before. It was something that looked like it came from a European cartoon but with an American touch to it. 

"Well, it's more Eastern--originally it looked more Eastern European in its original design. Well, not even Eastern European, I shouldn't say that, because we did the original characters, some of it, and then Peter Chung did the original design of the pilot, which was really beautiful. We got a little bit off mark, actually, as we went along with it, we didn't have one designer just watching it like we do now. On all of our shows we have one designer who sticks with it all the way through and keeps it on mark", replied Arlene Klasky in a 1996 interview.

There was also a huge amount of diversity in the show. Didi and her parents Boris and Minka are Jewish, similar to Arlene Klasky. In one of the holiday specials, they celebrated Passover, one of the first times a kids' show did that. Also, there was the Hanukkah special that premiered as well. There hasn't been a been a mention of Hanukkah for a holiday special since 1988's Pee-wee's Playhouse Christmas Special, which made Rugrats a very diverse show for its time. There was also one of the first Kwanzaa specials from one of Susie's relatives. It was truly something to behold.

The last thing that made Rugrats unique was the music. Mark Mothersbaugh discusses the wacky, light hearted music that Rugrats had in an interview by Mathew Klickstein at The nuttiness of the music was mostly inspired by Jean-Jacques Perrey and Gershon Kingsley. 

“What Perrey and Kingsley did was very time-consuming,” Mothersbaugh said. “I was using a Fairlight to do a shortcut of that kind of thing. And I was employing that in this piece of music, in the score for Rugrats. Some of that stuff stayed throughout the life of the show. It was even incorporated into the music for the feature once I had a hundred-piece orchestra. I still brought in some of those synth sounds.”

Besides being known as the co-founder and lead singer of Devo, he was known as the main composer and music provider of Pee-wee's Playhouse. 

“It was kind of one of those things that was really magical,” he said. “To me, Pee-wee’s Playhouse was a really great show that changed the way people thought about television for kids. I think Rugrats was very similar. One of the things that always impressed me about it was that it was early on when people other than Disney were trying to figure out how to carry that aesthetic into the marketplace.”

To be a bit off-topic for just a moment, I have to reiterate on something interesting that I noticed when watching Rugrats again. You probably heard me saying this question on the interview that Kevin and I did for Caseen Gaines, the author of Inside Pee-wee's Playhouse. The main character, Tommy Pickles, was voiced by E.G. Daily. She played Dottie in Pee-wee's Big Adventure. The main music composer was Mark Mothersbaugh, who did the main theme and some of the music for Pee-wee's Playhouse. One of the writers of Rugrats was Craig Bartlett (more information about him in another time), who also animated the Penny cartoons in Pee-wee's Playhouse. I'm well aware that Pee-wee's Playhouse had created many opportunities for these people to get other jobs in the world of television, but this is by far a really interesting coincidental mix of people that they were able to get. The thought of that alone astonishes me.

When looking at some more Rugrats stuff, I found out that another person who was involved with Pee-wee's Playhouse was involved with Rugrats at one point. I didn't even realize it until just recently. But we won't get into that until Rugrats in Paris.

The show was an instant success to not only kids, but to adults as well. Kids were able to get into the characters and the developments of each babies' personalities and imaginations. Adults were able to get into it because of the pop culture references that kids wouldn't get like Dr. Lipshitz being a reference to baby expert Dr. Spock, movie quotes, TV quotes, and more. 

"In the U.S., cartoons were only for children. In Hungary, cartoons were directed to everyone. With Rugrats, we look for maintaining 2 levels on the script. We communicate with the children above all using the imagination, but we also introduce pop culture references and jokes for the adults."

-Klasky Csupo 

As sweet and innocent as the show presented itself, inside the studio, there were some disagreements going on. Besides including Angelica in the show, there were some moments in which the writers were making the babies seem like adults. Klasky and Csupo did not like the direction it was going. A good example of this is the episode "The Trial" in which the babies play a game of court to find out who broke Tommy's lamp. 

Around 1993, the show stopped airing due to huge disagreements between Germain and the writers and Klasky and Csupo's vision of how they first presented the show. Many of the writers left including Paul Germain. Germain co-created the show Recess and Lloyd in Space alongside with Rugrats story writer Joe Ansolabehere. You can kind of see the similar style of Rugrats on both of these shows, especially Recess, since it shows us the perspective between a kid's point of view on adults and the world around them. 

New episodes started to come again around 1997 with new writers in the mix lasting for around 7 more years ending its run on June 8, 2004. At the time, it was the longest running show on Nickelodeon beating Pinwheel and You Can't Do That on Television. Today, it's #3 on that list. Overall, looking back at Rugrats, there's still an undeniable charm that makes the show still work after over 20 years later. What is it about the show that makes it so captivating? Is it the perspective point of view from a toddler's mind? Is it the creative imaginations and adventures they would get into? Is it the messages they would discuss about subtly like friendship, love, family, and even death? Is it the memorable characters? Is it the unique, wacky, and upbeat music? It's all the above and so much more. Rugrats was truly a show that unique for its time and so lovable and funny to sit through all over again. It would also make Arlene Klasky and Gabor Csupo a household name in the animation world as a creative couple doing brilliant animated shows for years to come. They were like the Craig McCracken and Lauren Faust of the 90's.

Overall, I highly recommend seeing the show for yourself. It truly brings you into the mind of a child that you will not soon forget.

That's all for now. Hope to see you around Old School Lane soon. Thanks for reading.


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