Tag Archives: nickelodeon

Getting Slimed by the Oral History of Nickelodeon…

Sometimes it’s really hard to find the balance between being a fan of something and being, well, fanatical. I’m not making a judgment call on one being better or worse, it’s more of a perspective thing; how often times I have a hard time knowing where the line is between wading out far enough into the pop culture sea to swim and where it begins to get so deep that I’m constantly worried about drowning in useless knowledge. I’ve been thinking about this idea a lot while reading the recently published book, Slimed!: An Oral History of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age by Mathew Klickstein. When I saw the book on Amazon I immediately put it on my wish list as I’m a huge fan of Nick, particularly the stuff that aired between ’81-’95 or so. I grew up on the fledgling channel’s syndicated content like Pinwheel, Mr. Wizard’s World, Out of Control, Danger Mouse, Count Duckula, Paddington Bear, and You Can’t Do That on Television, and loved the shift into original programming in the mid to late 80s through the 90s with stuff like Double Dare, Nick Arcade, Hey Dude, Welcome Freshman, Salute Your Shorts, The Adventures of Pete & Pete, and Clarissa Explains It All, not to mention their groundbreaking foray into animation with shows like Rugrats, Ren & Stimpy, Doug, and Rocko’s Modern Life. I was lucky to be one of the kids with access to cable in the early 80s and had a chance to watch the network blossom from a very independent-minded kids channel into the juggernaut of a brand that it is today.

Slimed

I was super stoked when my parents sent me the book for Christmas and immediately tore into it looking for the story behind the network and shows I loved so much as a kid. But after only a few pages I noticed something that really started to bug me, specifically with the format the author chose to deliver the history of Nickelodeon, the “oral history”. For those unfamiliar, oral histories utilize firsthand accounts on a subject via interviews with those who were intimately involved. Whether it’s using vintage print or video interviews, or new ones with pointed questions to document a specific period of time or event, the idea is to capture the thoughts and feelings unfiltered by a single person’s perspective (outside of editing of course.) Though information gathered in this manner is still biased from interviewee to interviewee, a balance forms as more and more subjects are brought in to speak on a particular subject. Though the technique is far from new, there have been a bunch of books utilizing this format to tackle sprawling subjects like the birth and rise of punk rock (Legs McNeil & Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me), the Post Punk music landscape (Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life), or the history of Saturday Night Live (Tom Shale’s Live From New York.) These books range from brilliant (Please Kill Me) to brilliant train wrecks (Live From New York), with much of the praise or problems falling squarely on how well organized the information is presented. You see these books are largely if not completely a collection of attributed quotes; page after page of snippets strung together by theme or timeline (or both), with little to no summation by the author/editor. In the case of Please Kill Me, McNeil and McCain exhaustively separate the interview snippets in bite-size four-year chunks, sub-categorized by theme (or band.) Though there is an appendix listing every participating interviewee and how they fit into the story of punk, the way they’re presented you get to know these contributors and the need to flip to the end of the book to figure out who is speaking is rare. On the other end of the spectrum you have Live From New York, which flits from topic to topic with little to no connective tissues between interview blurbs.

Unfortunately Slimed! falls into the category of brilliant train wreck. How many of you recognize the laundry list of shows I mentioned in the opening paragraph? Okay, for all those that raised their hand, how many of you can name the actual actors, voice actors, animators, directors and producers on more than one of those shows? I’m betting a lot of those hands dropped. I hardly consider myself a Nick historian, but after a bunch of conversations with friends I’ve found that I’ve managed to remember way more stuff about the channel than I probably should know. But if my life depended on naming anyone in the cast of Clarissa Explains It All besides Melissa Joan Hart, well, let’s just say I’d be price-shopping for cheap cremations. This is the first place where this book falls down. Though there is a detailed alphabetically ordered list of interviewees at the back of the book, I found myself constantly flipping to the back to figure out who was talking. Though the author goes to pains to defend his formatting choices (specifically in response to any 1-3 star reviews on Amazon that mention the formatting issues) stating that he put a lot of thought into trying to make sure each person’s opening quote mentioned any pertinent shows they were involved in, I think he’s deluded himself into thinking that the readers are as versed in Nickelodeon as he’s become over conducting the numerous interviews and research to put the book together. Klickstein goes on to champion the “oral history” format by mentioning the thematic threads in the seven chapters of the book (target demographics, music & sound design, visual design, diversity in cast & crew, problems at the network, and the end of the pre-corporate era) and how they supposedly help to keep the reader engaged in the “story of Nickelodeon”, any tonal threads he attempts to weave are dashed by the reader consistently having to flip to the back to figure out who is talking, and about which show. The author/editor references McNeil and McCain’s Please Kill Me numerous times (in the acknowledgements and in responses to reviews on Amazon) as the gold standard and what he took inspiration from when formatting his Nick history. Unfortunately he seems to have missed the forest for the trees as he utilizes little to none of the clear organization of that book. PKM goes year by year, band by band, whereas Slimed! constantly jumps around throughout the 80s and 90s, and never stays on a show for more than a quote or two at a time. While he would like to think that the thematical separation addresses this, the first three chapters have a ton of overlap that makes the initial hundred pages annoying to try and follow.

The formatting issue is compounded by Klickstein’s reluctance to insert his presence into the book as the interviewer. With absolutely no summary or synopsis to lead the interviewee responses the reader is left with only the very general themed topics to try and figure out what the conversation is driving at during a good chunk of the book. There are things brought up that aren’t explained, like the failed Clarissa sequel series pilot called Clarissa Now or references to people who weren’t interviewed (and thus not given a bio in the book), which requires some time spent on Wikipedia to fill in the gaps that the book just does not even bother to try addressing. There are also frequent points in which the quotes reference the inferred questions Klickstein asked, which makes it awkward when you’re left guessing exactly what that question is.  I find it hard to believe that the idea of ordering the quotes by year or grouping them show by show (or at least adding a series annotation by each quote instead of just the name of the person speaking) would have hurt the narrative flow of the book that Klickstein is trying to establish.

For all my nit picking about format, I want to stress that this book is a “brilliant” train wreck. Just because it’s super annoying to try and sift through, doesn’t mean that it’s not well worth the time as it’s chock full of interesting facts and observations from the folks that brought Nickelodeon to life. There’s some great background on You Can’t Do That On Television that wasn’t covered in David Dillehunt’s documentary (You Can’t Do That On Film), as well as some amazing behind the scenes stories about that first wave of Nicktoons (particularly Doug which is a show that seems to get lost between the insanity of Ren & Stimpy and the popularity of Rugrats.) I loved reading about the thought put into the Double Dare obstacle course, how ahead of its time Nick Arcade was, finding out about the awkward teenage romance and breakups behind the scenes of shows like Hey Dude, Clarissa Explains It All and Welcome Freshman. Did you know Michael “Donkey Lips” Bower actually broke that fishing reel in the credits sequence of Salute Your Shorts (and ending up ad-libbing the line about it falling apart?) The book is a treasure trove of fun trivia and helps to pull the curtain back on the shows and a network that helped to define our collective childhoods. It’s just unfortunate that getting through it all is a lot like reading stereo instructions.

Though I wish the formatting had kept the reader in mind, and it would have been nice to get more information oon the ’79-’85 Nick lineup of series (it barely mentions stuff like Pinwheel, Out of Control, Mr. Wizard’s World or the slew of other early shows, and completely omits Turkey Television, Belle and Sebastian, The Mysterious Cities of Gold and The Little Prince), I’d have to recommend the book on the trivia alone.  If you’re a fan of the channel and don’t mind risking a case of carpel tunnel after flipping to the back of the book six billion times, check out Slimed!: An Oral History of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age

You Can’t Do That on iTunes!

I have to admit that I’m pretty horribly about embracing modern technology and junk.  Honestly, when it comes to paying attention to nostalgia television and film releases I’m still stuck in the days of DVD, even though they are waning (I’m already getting flashbacks from the dying days of VHS back in the late 90s.)  So it pretty much goes without saying that there’s a wealth of fun shows that have had resurgences that I’ve ignored because they were only released via streaming or for download.  I’m kind of scared to dive into the Amazon and iTunes digital pool for fear that I’ll end up going broke (or die while trying to pump the content directly into my vein via a coaxial cable or something.)

That being said, the wonderfully up-to-date proprietor of the Old School 80s blog tipped me off that the first seven episodes of You Can’t Do That on Television were just released as digital downloads on iTunes, and I couldn’t help myself I had to buy them.  They’re only $8 right now!  Though I would prefer access to all the episodes, this is a pretty big move on Viacom’s part.  In fact it reminds me of a similar situation from a few years ago prior to the release of another favorite series, The State.  In an attempt to test the interest in a possible DVD release of The State, MTV/Viacom released both seasons as digital downloads from iTunes.  This led to the release of the show on DVD, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that You Can’t Do That on Television will follow suit (either though a company like Shout! Factory or through Amazon MOD since they have a deal with Nickelodeon already in place for manufacture on demand titles…)

Regardless, I’m currently obsessively rewatching those first seven episodes, which by the way are from the 1981 season of the show so they’re technically not the first seven.  Still, there’s plenty of Les Lye, Barthy Burgers and Moose to keep me smiling for hours!

You Can’t Do That on a Fan Documentary…

“[There are] …so many shows out there that are pushing or peddling products, you know, hocking something or other.  Pretty much to make a cartoon nowadays you have to have a video game and a plush toy to go with it.  That was the […] beauty of “You Can’t”, we’re not trying to sell anything…” -Adam Reid (You Can’t Do That on Television Cast Member 1984-87, Writer 1989-90)

Though the cast and crew of You Can’t do That on Television may not have been trying to hawk any useless plastic junk, I was buying; buying into the show, the comedy, and more importantly their ethos.  From 1979 to 1990, this little Canadian sketch comedy show helped warp the minds of a generation of children with clever, politically incorrect humor and absurd, trashy jokes.  The show, inspired by Monty Python, Second City and Saturday Night Live, brought an adult style of humor to the young Nickelodeon audience, while never conceding its core integrity or that of the viewers (never feeling “written down to” an adolescent level.)  YCDToTV was the flagship series on a network that evoked the feeling of “for kids, by kids”, featuring a rotating cast of mainly adolescents, one of which, Adam Reid, who would graduate from cast to co-head writer at the astounding age of 16.  There really was nothing else like this on television at the time, and with the exception of the similar Nick series All That!, there really hasn’t been anything as remotely ground-breaking for kids since.

As a fan of the show I feel pretty lucky that the tenure of You Can’t Do That on Television coincides perfectly with the golden years of my childhood; I literally grew up with the show from age three to thirteen.  This was also coincidentally the exact timeframe that my family spent in Florida, so on another level I can’t help but associate so many memories of my childhood wrapped around the series with a very specific sense of space and time.  Granted the show was produced and filmed in Canada, but I always felt a sense of hometown pride for shows on Nickelodeon because I lived just outside of Orlando, mere miles away from the Nick Studios.  Though it’s not logical on any level, growing up I felt like Kevin, “Moose”, Lisa, Adam, Alasdair, Vanessa, Doug, and Matthew were some of my friends.  Heck, in a way Les Lye’s “Dad” (Lance Prevert) and Abby Hagyard’s “Mom” felt like the parents I never had.  In my quest to acquire all of the television material that fuels my nostalgia for the 80s, the largest gaping hole in the collection are the 140 odd episodes of YCDToTV.  Sure, I have a handful of bootleg DVDs, and a nice selection of low-quality digital episodes backed up on a hard drive, but what I’d really love is a nice official DVD collection to sit on my shelf next to my Danger Mouse, Count Duckula, Hey Dude, and the Adventures of Pete & Pete sets.

 

That’s why I was so excited when I found out that Shout Factory just recently partnered with DND Films to release David Dillehunt’s 2004 fan documentary You Can’t Do That on Film in a nice 2-disc collector’s set!

 

Even though this film has been floating around the YCDToTV fan community for a few years, after getting the DVD this Christmas it was the first time I was able to view it.  So what’s on the discs?  In addition to the feature length documentary, there are also a bevy of special features including Dillehunt’s proof-of-concept pilot episode for a possible re-launch of the show, outtakes from the 2002 & 2004 fan conventions, and extended interviews with some of the cast and crew including the late Les Lye.

 

Watching the documentary was sort of bittersweet and a little frustrating in that so much of the footage is restricted to talking-head segments with the dozen or so former cast and crew members Dillehunt was able to interview (including stars Les Lye, Adam Reid, Lisa “Ruddy” Henderson, show creator and head-writer Roger Price, and writer/producer/director Geoffrey Darby.)  These are interspersed with personal on-set photos and VHS quality screen-grabs of the show, as well as some archival footage of an Alanis Morissette interview and some of the Q&A sessions with the cast and crew during the 2002 & 2004 fan conventions.  It’s understandable as to why, but unfortunately Dillehunt was unable to include actual segments or audio from You Can’t Do That on Television (licensing the material would have been beyond cost prohibitive for this fan-produced film.)  The documentary gets a lot of flack for this, which is reasonable, but you have to give Dillehunt credit for tracking down as many of the cast and crew members as he managed.

 

The truly frustrating aspect for me though was Dillehunt’s approach to the material and resources he did have.  First and foremost, this documentary is created by a fan for fans of the series, so it tends towards focusing on the anecdotes and nostalgia of the interviewees, and less on the overall story of the show.  Dillehunt does a really decent job of splicing together the interviews with Darby and cast members from the inaugural season to nail down the origin of the series, but the documentary really doesn’t delve into many of the aspects that made the show so memorable.  Little is mentioned of the format of the sketch comedy, the re-occurring characters, skits, or jokes; it assumes the viewer is so well-versed in the nuances of the show that it almost completely bypasses it.  This is an unfortunate trap of fandom, and how hard it can be to pull your perspective back far enough to see the material with fresh eyes.  Dillehunt himself was born five years after the show began its run in 1979, and thus was probably mainly exposed to the show in reruns in the late 80s and early 90s.  I’d venture to guess that it’s why it was easier to tell the story of the show’s origin, as he was learning about much of it himself during the process of interviewing the cast and crew.

 

Sure, I know that each episode was framed around a theme (for example personal hygiene, rumors, or nutrition), or that each episode would feature knock-knock style jokes with the cast asking questions of each other while in a set of multi-colored school lockers, but the fact these iconic aspects to the show aren’t even brought up is unfortunate.  No real mention of the Opposite sketches, the parody title cards at the start of each show, the fact that the show was itself a show within a show, or even talk about the various re-occurring characters played by Les Lye (bus driver Snake Eyes, Blip the arcade proprietor, the teacher Mr. Schidtler, the dungeon torturer Nasti, the camp counselor, the coach, or even the studio announcer get any mention.)  On top of this Abby Hagyard (who played the “Mom”, Mrs. Prevert, as well as the Librarian) isn’t even brought up at all.  There isn’t even a rundown of the more prominent child actors from the series.

 

Though there is a significant portion of the show ignored on the documentary, I don’t want it to come across as if I didn’t enjoy it.  In fact, it’s just the opposite, I really did love and appreciate all the passion that did find its way onto the screen.  For the record Dillehunt was only 20 when he put this together and I can honestly say that I don’t know of many people his age who would be willing to do the legwork it took get all of the interviews he managed to land.  There is a wealth of interesting anecdotes and observations (including the recipe for the original green slime) from the cast and crew that will add a little insight into the making of the show, which I’m sure fans of YCDToTV will appreciate.  This two disc set would make a great accompaniment to an eventual (fingers crossed) release of the show.  In the meantime I suggest heading on over to sites like YCDToTV.com or Barth’s Burgery to reacquaint yourself with the show, and then pick up You Can’t do That on Film on DVD.

Blame it on the Kraang! Talking Turtles on the Saturday Morning Central Podcast!

I recently had the opportunity to be a guest on the first episode of the Saturday Morning Central podcast with host Tommy Day of Top Hat Sasquatch and Jaime Hood of Shezcrafti.com!  We had a great conversation about the new Nickelodeon Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon, including the awesome toys that have been hitting the shelves as well as some other fun nerdery…

I’m a regular listener to the podcasts on the Bubble Pipe Podcasting Network, so it was really cool to get a chance to participate in the launch of Saturday Morning Central.  To listen in just click on the SMC banner above, or you can download the episode here.  Thanks for listening and I hope to be a guest on some future episodes!

90s era SNICK is coming back, and I hope it brings Pete and Pete with it…

Did you know that Nickelodeon, based on fan outcry, was planning to bring back a chunk of their early 90s original programming back to the network?  Starting Monday night TeenNick will begin airing a block called “The 90s Were All That”, which will feature episodes of Doug, All That, Kenan and Kel, and Clarissa Explains It All.  They’re also launching a new Facebook page that’ll let viewers vote on 90s era programming for possible inclusion in the block (hoping to see Pete & Pete, Rocko’s Modern Life, Nick Arcade, and Double Dare.)  If it wasn’t already evident, I tend to find nostalgia fascinating, and now that we’re breaking into a new decade it seems like the kids who grew up in the 90s are starting to get the same pangs to revisit the wistful days of their childhoods that I was suffering from back in 2001.  I’ve already noticed a bunch of 90s era ephemera and branding popping up on websites and in stores, most notably with the initial crop of DVD sets of cartoons and teen shows from the era.  Through Amazon’s MOD DVD program we’ve already seen a bunch Nickelodeon shows like Doug, Rugrats, and Ahhhhh! Real Monsters, but just recently Shout! Factory announced they were going to start distributing these along with some new to DVD content like my personal favorite Hey Dude.

I was recently interviewed by Jessica Goldstein of The Washington Post about why there’s so much interest in these 20 year old Nickelodeon series, as well as why those shows in particular tend to hold up so well.  You can read the article here, or click on the image below.

Personally, one of the reasons that I think Nickelodeon shows were so cool, especially back in the early 90s when the channel started producing a ton of original content for the first time, is that the network had a very interesting viewpoint dating back to its inception in the late 70s.  First, most likely in an effort to save money when it first launched, Nickelodeon ignored the typical American programming standards and sought to distribute mainly international programming (mainly from Canada, but also from France, Japan, the U.K and other countries) that had a vastly different and less hindered take on children’s programming. Coming off of this broad worldly influence and bolstered by the ideal to provide shows that felt like they were made for kids, by kids, the network concentrated on creating content that felt like nothing was off the table.  The shows catered to the idea that anything was possible, which is a viewpoint that most adults lose along the way, but it’s something that kids never forget.

I’m really curious to see where this fan initiated change in programming will lead, as it’s a step away from the older network standards of relying on outdated ratings structures that don’t represent the audience’s viewing habits like they did 40 years ago.  These days people want their content on their own terms (DVR, DVD, streaming, etc.) and it’s kind of cool to see Nickelodeon going outside the comfort zone to see what their audience really wants to watch…

Sifting through mountains of old magazines pays off…

I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time in my life combing through paper.  Aside from the thousands of hours of flipping through comics that I’ve logged since I was a kid, sorting and folding paper was a large part of my day-job for years.  Every day I’d sift though reams of medical claims, arranging them into piles by insurance company so that I could send out as many in bulk as possible.  But there was always a pile of singles left over, two to three hundred a day that needed to be folded by hand.  Yes, I’m well aware that there are machines built for this task, and believe me our office had one that must have been constructed around the turn of the century.  It was older than sin and only worked about a fourth of the time.  Even then it would eat up and shred claims which was more of a headache than folding them by hand.  Besides, there was no way that company was going to invest in a new folder/stuffer when they were already paying me.  I became so adept at sorting and folding that I was almost as fast as the machine when it was working properly.  At one point I started having nightmares about spending the rest of my life folding paper and stuffing it into envelopes.  It was around this time that I came up with the brilliant idea of securing a second job, working nights at my local Kinko’s.  Yet more paper.  Sorting, folding, and stuffing.

Around five years ago I made the jump into IT, laughing manically as I left the paper behind.  The blurred sorter’s vision, the constant paper-cuts, and the smell of printers ink on my hands were all fading away.  Of course, around five years ago I also started this site, and thus began a second wave of kneeling before the gods of paper as ephemera because an important passion in my life.  I’ve replaced the medical billing clearinghouse drudgery with the never-ending search for amazing forgotten tidbits that are hidden in million comic long-boxes, tucked away in the corner of an antique store cubical, and buried in mountains of 30 year-old stacks of magazines. Articles, postcards, stickers, posters, packaging, calendars, flyers, magazines, books, and of course, advertisements; this is the ephemera that keeps this site running.  Sometimes, in the middle of investigating every page of practically every single issue of Woman’s Day magazine from 1983, I swear that I’m going to go blind (just like Donald Pleasance in The Great Escape.)  But every so often I find something so irrevocably awesome, that it makes the whole process completely worth the struggle.  Below is one of those finds.

Maybe I’ve built this up a bit too much with this long-winded intro, but every time I set eyes on this poster (which will hopefully soon be hanging in my office) I get a bit giddy because it transports me so effortlessly back in time to when I was six and my family was having cable TV installed for the first time.  1983 was my first introduction to the wonder of the classic children’s programming on the first channel devoted to kids, Nickelodeon…

The only thing keeping this poster from being the perfect piece of 80s era Nickelodeon ephemera is that it was released about a year and a half before the network really came into its own with the introduction of all sorts of animated series and game shows.  Even so, 1983 was the year that they really took a step in the right direction with the debut of Mr. Wizard’s World, which cemented the last corner of the triumvirate of series (along with Pinwheel and You Can’t Do That on Television) that more or less defined the look and feel of early Nickelodeon.  And that is what this poster is all about!

Well actually this poster is all about the 1983 Nickelodeon Sweepstakes.  In an effort to get the word out about the network to the millions of new cable subscribers during the boom in the early 80s, Nickelodeon concentrated their efforts on two fronts, non-violence and educational programming.  This Sweepstakes offered one lucky kid a $10,000 dollar college scholarship (though in the fine print you can see that this can be transferred to a cash payout when the winner turns 18, I guess in case attending college just wasn’t in the cards.)  You can tell, from the pages that make up the back of the poster below, that a lot of the original programming on the network was geared more towards education than entertainment.  Of course there was always the Canadian sketch comedy of YCDToTV and the insanity of Wild Ride, the live action series hosted by Matt Dillon focusing on the countries best roller coasters and thrill rides.

    

Anyway, back to the poster.  It was painted by a fella named W.S. “Bill” Purdom, a talented artist who’s worked with huge companies on everything from advertising to movie posters, and is currently specializing in capturing classic moments from baseball on canvas.  The poster features a ton of celebrities and characters including Reggie Jackson, Mr. Wizard, Matt Dillon, Chris Makepeace (from Meatballs and My Bodyguard fame), Leonard Nimory, Bill Bixby, Slim Goodbody, Christine McGlade and Les Lye (from YCDToTV), as well as Jake, Coco, Plus & Minus, Aurelia, Ebeneezer T. Squint, Silas the Snail, Luigi, and Admiral Bird from pinwheel.  Hell, even the Nickelodeon pinball makes an appearance!  Sigh.

Yup, finding a poster like this tucked away in a 28 year-old issue of Woman’s Day is the whole reason that Branded in the 80s exists.  It makes all the work, the hunting, the sorting, the flipping, the scanning & digital enhancement, and all the ailments, the paper-cuts, the old-mildewy-ink-stink on my fingers, completely worth it.  Hope you guys dig seeing stuff like this as much as I do.