Nickelodeon rolled into Comic-Con 2017 with the most effective weapon they could possibly unleash on millennials: nostalgia. The network teased footage from a pair of new TV movies that revive two of its most popular ’90s franchises, Hey Arnold! and Rocko’s Modern Life, and also hosted a panel on the still-airing show SpongeBob SquarePants. As always, Nick isn't just catering to kids — and now it's specifically targeting the generation of now-adult kids who grew up on Nick’s animated programming.
Nick’s proprietary animated offerings, often referred to as Nicktoons, date back almost 26 years to August 1991, when Doug, Rugrats and Ren & Stimpy debuted. All iconic in their own right, they were followed shortly thereafter by a litany of now-classic shows, including The Wild Thornberrys, Rocket Power (which was many non-L.A. kids’ first introduction to Venice Beach), The Fairly OddParents and Invader Zim. These were iconic shows during the late ’90s and early ’00s, often interrupted by commercials for Floom and HitClips. Now that we’re far enough removed from the ’90s that they’re cool again, the executives at Nickelodeon knew the time was right to bring back some of the network’s classic programs.
“Millennials, when they were kids, they were loving those Nickelodeon shows, and now they’re grown-up adults but they still love those Nickelodeon shows,” Chris Viscardi, senior vice president of animation content development for Nick, explains. In 2016, Nick celebrated Nicktoons’ 25th anniversary and revived some nostalgia shows, including Hey Arnold! and Rocko’s Modern Life, so by the time this year’s Comic-Con rolled around, the network had something ready to show audiences.
For their part, the shows’ casts and creative teams have enjoyed reuniting. “It’s like it was yesterday,” Anndi McAfee, the voice of Phoebe on Hey Arnold!, says of returning to the show. “I was really not expecting how amazing it felt to get back in the groove,” Francesca Marie Smith, who voices Helga, adds. The show’s creator, Craig Bartlett, who’s been pitching this TV movie for 15 years, says, “Its time has come, because the super-motivated social media experts [who grew up watching the show] are out there, working in the business now, and they’re saying, ‘Why don’t we make shows like Hey Arnold! again?’” Smith adds, “For me it’s been really interesting watching things in Hey Arnold! become a part of pop culture. ‘Move it, football head!’ or even, ‘Stoop kid’s afraid to leave his stoop’ — things like that are normal, people say these things in normal conversations now.”
And then there's SpongeBob SquarePants, which debuted in 1999 and has been airing ever since. “Funny is funny, and the characters are so solid that you want to keep coming back to see what they’re up to,” Mr. Lawrence, who voices Plankton and is the show’s story editor, says. “And it’s not topical at all,” Tom Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob, adds. “SpongeBob doesn’t seem to have a generation gap.” Still, they find it strange how important the show is to the rest of the world. “We became part of pop culture, we are referenced in movies, War of the Worlds, countless comic strips in the newspapers mention us in there. We are iconic in that part of pop culture,” Lawrence says.
“The ’90s Nicktoon thing is such a thing now; at this Comic-Con, Hey Arnold! came back, Rocko’s Modern Life did — we started out together. The weird thing is, of those NickToons, SpongeBob hasn’t gone away,” Kenny says. “SpongeBob has been ubiquitous for the whole time, and he’s a ’90s Nicktoon, he started in ’99.” Clancy Brown, who voices Mr. Krabs, adds, “You don’t need to reinvent it, you don’t need to update it — it just works.”
The shows might not need updating but Butch Hartman, who created Fairly OddParents and Danny Phantom, takes his other responsibilities seriously. “Being a parent is not an easy job, which is why we try to create cartoons parents know are safe for their kids. They can trust us, because you're really asking people to trust you with their kids, when you’re putting shows on the air,” Hartman says. “Which is why, on Fairly OddParents, we have jokes that kids understand, but then jokes that adults can laugh at as well. I get so many kids coming up to me now, saying, ‘Oh, Mr. Hartman, I love your show, I grew up with it; I understand all the jokes now!’”
That kind of dual-purpose humor was something Nickelodeon encouraged in all its early animated shows, and it's something newer shows try to emulate. “When you can play on those two levels, I think they can be really profound to both [kid and adult audiences],” Viscardi says. “Those shows inspired so many other artists who grew up watching TV as kids, and then they went on and did their own versions of a lot of those early Nick shows.” But ask a millennial — there's nothing like the originals.