Ten Fascinating Facts from Slimed!, the New Oral History of '90s Nickelodeon 

Thursday, Aug 29 2013
click to enlarge Melissa Joan Hart had a stage mom.

Melissa Joan Hart had a stage mom.

After Jimmy Savile, Amanda Bynes, Lindsay Lohan and that Christian puppeteer who wanted to kidnap, kill and eat little boys, it's hard not to think of the children's entertainment industry as a fount of unimaginable filth and degeneracy. But for those who'd prefer to remember their childhoods happily, Mathew Klickstein offers nostalgic millennials a happy place. In Slimed! An Oral History of Nickelodeon's Golden Age, published Sept. 24, Klickstein argues that '90s Nick was a near-edenic model of children's programming, offering, on the one hand, "quirky and edgy and odd" shows like Ren and Stimpy, Clarissa Explains It All and The Adventures of Pete & Pete, and on the other, comforting, chicken-soup programming like Doug and Hey Dude.

Nickelodeon dominated children's entertainment during the Clinton years. "When I left Nick, we had 56 percent of all kids viewing," boasts former president Geraldine Laybourne. Rather than a straightforward history, Klickstein weaves together a well-paced, wide-ranging, sometimes (necessarily) contradictory collage of what it was like to work at a network that had more ideas than cash. Somewhere between a tribute, a belated yearbook and an autopsy, Slimed! attempts to figure out—with the help of nearly 200 performers, writers, producers and execs who worked at the network between 1985 and 2000—how a fledgling channel with virtually no original programming identified, captured and entertained the hell out of its preteen demographic.

Slimed!'s nostalgia feels entirely deserved; the golden age of Nickelodeon was a more innocent time. Larisa Oleynik, the star of The Secret World of Alex Mack, sighs in relief, "I wasn't responsible for selling backpacks. I didn't have a side career as a pop star. These kids now are doing so much." Pitting themselves against Mickey Mouse (while the Magic Kingdom was enjoying its own creative renaissance), Nick execs aimed to be more Yellow Submarine than Snow White, eschewing the "blue-eyed, blond-haired specimens from the perfect world of Disney." According to many of the interviewees, Nick's financial success led to its creative decline, especially when production moved from Orlando to Los Angeles and children's programming as a whole became more aspirational, like Disney's pop-star fantasy of Hannah Montana, than relatable.

click to flip through (2) The ADL went after the Rugrats' Grandpa Boris.
  • The ADL went after the Rugrats' Grandpa Boris.

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With the exception of Bynes, who apparently wasn't interviewed, Klickstein touches on almost every topic you would want him to, including the stress of growing up in front of the cameras, the visual influences of Rugrats, and the thought processes behind the orange-and-green logos and the set design of Clarissa's bedroom.

Double Dare and What Would You Do? host Marc Summers is the book's MVP, his still-dorky enthusiasm now intermixed with bawdy tales of drug use among the crew. The celebrities who still have careers to protect, like Oleynik, Melissa Joan Hart, Kenan Thompson and Janeane Garofalo, are more guarded in their contributions.

By far the most frustrating chapter is the one subtitled "Why were so many of the people on Nickelodeon white?" It's an important question, and one that Nick's roster of writers and producers answer in almost uniformly cringe-inducing ways. Fred Keller, who directed nearly half the episodes of Hey Dude, identifies featuring a "Native-American character … becoming the expert of flora/fauna" as "one of the more important things" his show did. Steve Viksten, a Rugrats writer, explains that the staff created Susie Carmichael when they realized, "We don't have any blacks on the show." Debate still rages on whether Doug's BFF, Skeeter, was black or just blue.

The fact that many of us still care about those issues, though, speaks as much to nostalgia as it does to Nick's halcyon days. Slimed! invites its readers to indulge in as well as challenge that nostalgia by offering an all-you-can-see view behind the curtain. By necessity, the breadth of the book's topics makes some sections duller than others—one Salute Your Shorts producer's union-bashing was less than worthwhile—but Slimed! is the best kind of blast from the past: dishy, unwholesome, and thought-provoking enough to make you question your own memories.

Here are 10 of the best snippets from Slimed!:

10. Ren and Stimpy was the Community of its day.

Nearly an entire chapter is devoted to the ugliest event in Nickelodeon's history: Ren and Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi's firing from his own show. Kricfalusi reportedly was unable to deliver episodes on time and relished provoking his impatient bosses with proposed storylines about dingleberries, blowjobs and butt plugs. "We had sheriffs trying to get our materials from John out of his studio," recalls the vice president of animation at the time. But Kricfalusi still has loyalists in his camp. Says one: "If John was at fault for his so-called ‘perfection,' it reminds me of the Pope telling Michelangelo to hurry up with the painting of the Sistine Chapel. John was creating the future of the animation industry."

9. Parents of child actors were barred from the set.

"Today, [the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists] requires a parent or parental figure for each kid to be on-set," says Marjorie Silcoff, a performer on You Can't Do That on Television. In the Wild West days of Nickelodeon, however, parents were forbidden not just from stepping inside the studio but also from reading their kids' scripts. To enforce the restriction, child actors were banned from taking scripts home. "Kids do not talk to parents much anyway," justified You Can't creator Roger Price. But Price was far from indifferent toward his young cast. Kevin Kubusheskie, another cast member on the show, recalls the time Price "brought a gun to [an impromptu crew meeting], announcing that if anyone tried to give or sell drugs to any of the kids on the show, he would kill them."

8. Melissa Joan Hart had a stage mom.

At least three people affiliated with Clarissa Explains It All describe Hart's mother as a difficult figure. Clarissa creator Mitchell Kriegman even attributes Hart's posing for Maxim as part of her marketing campaign for Drive Me Crazy as "just her mom trying to change her profile." That Hart was cast as Clarissa in the first place speaks to her talent and charm, since Nickelodeon employed a screening system during the audition process to weed out any child actors with troublemaking parents.

7. Nickelodeon was an incubator for behind-the-scenes talent.

Sure, the network never produced enduring stars the way The Mickey Mouse Club did with Justin Timberlake or Ryan Gosling. But Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games, is a veteran of the Clarissa writing staff, while Janie Bryant, Mad Men's revered costume designer, got her start dressing Pete and Pete. Justified creator Graham Yost got his first taste of cowboy country as the showrunner for Hey Dude. Yost was known around the set for his bizarre practical jokes: "Whenever we did any dining scene in Hey Dude, there'd be a thing of lard on the middle of the table. Just for giggles," remembers one cast member.

6. Pete & Pete alumni take credit for creating hipsters.

"Pete & Pete was a really low-budget show—we had to wear a lot of our own clothes," recalls Alison Fanelli, who played Big Pete's best friend, Ellen. "You couldn't wear anything too trendy—a lot of denim and white shirts and things that were really run-of-the-mill. ... We didn't even start wearing makeup until three or four years into the show." Whether it's just the cyclical nature of fashion or costume designer Janie Bryant's "accents of vintage pieces," the clothes on the show now seem like they had a special stylishness, a "Wes Anderson aesthetic" to them. "I live in Silver Lake and it's true," Bryant says. "All hipsters look like characters from Pete & Pete!"

5. The green slime was seriously gross.

Nicknamed "Gak"—after the street name for heroin, infers Marc Summers—Nickelodeon's hate-gift to parentkind was an ever-changing mixture of gelatin, food coloring, oatmeal, baby shampoo, cottage cheese, applesauce, milk powder, vegetable oil and liquid latex. A writer on You Can't Do That describes the texture as "taking a bath in mud," while one slimee remembers it tasting "like nothing, like Cream of Wheat without sugar." Kids in the audience loved the slime but many adults weren't fans. Laybourne recalls, "We did get negative reports from George Gerbner's ‘violence on television' studies. He would give us a violence rating for slime that would count the same as a decapitation."

4. The child performers were paid peanuts.

Many of the You Can't-ers stopped complaining about getting slimed after the network started throwing green at the green: The ones to get gooped got an extra $25 or $50 for their ordeal. Those few dollars must have been worth it, since they got paid a measly $260 per week otherwise, according to Christine "Moose" McGlade. Tim Lagasse, an artist and puppeteer who worked on a number of Nick shows, lays down the truth: "Nickelodeon likes young people who don't have much experience, because they're cheap."

3. Doo-wop was instrumental to the network's early branding efforts.

The scat-heavy stylings of doo-wop were used in both the "Nick-nick-nick-nick-nick-nick-nick-nick, NICKELODEON!" jingle and the Clarissa Explains It All theme song. Given his grandiose explanation of Nick's musical signature, network exec Fred Seibert apparently thought the music on his network had to be more than catchy: "We grew up in the age of civil rights, thinking that black music was exotic but that it was more authentic than the other music that was around at the time. And we really believed in our hearts—even though we used it as a sales pitch—that educating America's youth with the sounds of black music was good for American culture."

2. Rugrats became a target of the Anti-Defamation League.

Multiculti-minded viewers may fondly remember Passover and Hanukkah at the Pickles residence, but some Jewish audiences saw something sinister in the baby cartoon. Michael Bell, who voiced the Pickles men, recalls, "People from the [ADL] started complaining that Grandpa Boris was a caricature that Hitler had designed to create animosity toward Jews." (Never mind that Grandpa Boris was a dead ringer for heroic Tommy.) The accusation made Bell defensive: "I'm Jewish! That's what my grandfather looked like! They came from small communities; they were not beauties. My grandmother was a cute little potato! My grandfather was a potato!"

1. The campfire on Are You Afraid of the Dark? was always pre-lit to keep children from learning how to strike a match.

Viewers at home may have been safe, but the kid actors were left to play with fire and work in an asbestos-lined studio. And the "fairy dust" they used as a transition to the story of the week? "It was Cremora, the nondairy cream[er]," creator D.J. MacHale reveals. "It was petroleum-based, and actually burns. Then we also added some pyrotechnics to the fire itself." That's a perfect summary of '90s Nick: an alchemical conversion of a good story and some budget-conscious effects into magic.

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