From Tattertown to Nicktoons: How Nickelodeon Saved Animation


Christmas in Tattertown started as an outside pitch that found its way to Nickelodeon in 1987/1988. While the cable channel was wary of show creator Ralph Bakshi and his crew due to his X-rated animated past, Bakshi was just coming off the critical success of Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures.

Utilizing a crew of animators too strange for the Big Three networks or Disney, Bakshi wanted to make something unique for Nick. Tattertown would be a one-shot special about where toys go when they’re old and unloved. While the show was a modest success, Nickelodeon was in an odd spot. The channel was a hit, and they wanted original content. After turning down a chance at buying Hanna-Barbera, Nick decided to look at other options.

The road to Nicktoons begins here:

The influence of Ralph Bakshi would be felt all over Nicktoons. John Kricfalusi, aka John K, was one of the lead animators on Mighty Mouse, but he missed out on Tattertown. John K was working as a lead animator on ABC’s The New Adventures of Beany and Cecil during this time, but his irreverent art style was gaining attention.

During this time, Bakshi was getting slammed with criticisms that an episode of Mighty Mouse condoned drug use. While the charges were ludicrous, they killed Nickelodeon’s interest in making a full series out of Christmas in Tattertown. Nick was getting wary about joining the world of original animated content. All the while, their competition was showing animated toy commercials and calling them shows.

The Need for Original Content

Younger readers and casual fans might not understand where animation dwelled in the late ’80s. Warner Brothers had all but dumped Looney Tunes on the channel, as ABC and others didn’t really want them anymore. Repackages of older shorts had lost their appeal after over saturation in the ’60s through early ’80s.

After three years of exposure on Nickelodeon, new fans were loving Looney Tunes again. Merchandise was flying off shelves, and the Looney Tunes gang were getting prominent screen time against their Disney counterparts in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Naturally, Warner Brothers wanted their material back and started cutting off access to key programming that Nick needed. The time for original programming was now.

John Kricfalusi, Klasky/Csupo, and Jim Jinkins were all the heads of the three pilots that made it past the initial chopping block. The line-up was set for what would be Nicktoons. Viacom went along with the idea but had reservations about putting millions behind a cartoon series launch that had zero toy tie-ins. Couple that with the fact that the Nicktoons production chief wanted to cut the shows down from 22-minute outings to 11-minute shorts raised a few eyebrows. The idea of stuffing two shows into one was seen as insane. But, this was more than a decade before the creation of Adult Swim.

Nicktoons Begins

doug characters at a diner

Jim Jinkins created Doug as a semi-autobiographical animated take on his young life. Jinkins was a former Nick employee who had worked on Pinwheel in the past. His Doug character had been kicking around for a few years, most prominently being featured in a Florida agriculture commercial shortly before the series launched. Playing with music as a character and creating a cast of unique voice actors, Jinkins dared to make something different. In hindsight, a coming-of-age cartoon was a rather safe bet to anchor the launch of Nicktoons. Modern parents would kill for such a meaty show now.

rugrats Nickelodeon group

Rugrats was the brainchild of the Klasky/Csupo studio. While the organization would go on to have a string of hits, they introduced an Eastern European animation style that would permeate ’90s cartoons. While the studio had created the early Tracy Ullman Show‘s Simpsons shorts, their new work was mocked by The Simpsons animators. Frequently called ‘The Baby Show,’ many wondered how long it would be until the animators returned to Gracie Films. That’s not to say that they were any better received by their Nicktoons channel mates. Their art style was called wigglemation; other show developers said they lacked momentum and blew a lot of potential. As of this writing, Rugrats is the only original Nicktoon being considered for a modern revival.

Ren & Stimpy Closing Out the Night

ren and stimpy in safari hats creeping Nickelodeon

Ren & Stimpy was the show that closed out Nicktoons. It was also the program that took Nickelodeon to the next level.

Within the space of 13 episodes, Ren & Stimpy became the biggest show on cable. John K frequently talked about Ren & Stimpy being a breakout moment for animation. So many animators who worked on the Saturday morning shows of the ’80s were embarrassed and refused to watch their own output. It was a generation of talent that had no outlet to express and grow until John K kicked down the doors at Nicktoons. John K would later be fired from the series after two seasons. The reasons cited were frequently missed deadlines and constant battles with the censors.

Nicktoons’ Legacy

The early days of animation on cable were a mess. The Big Three networks and later FOX and syndication outlets never tried to push the potential of the format. Theatrical animation for shorts had died, and the old masters were flocking to whatever outlet would have them. Just look at the creative talent that was working on things like The Pink Panther Show and Super Friends. It’s enough to make an animation nerd go crazy! But, those times also explain why Nicktoons was allowed to happen. Disney was floundering, WB Animation was all but abandoned, and we were still years away from the arrival of CG animation. The old masters were keeping upstart companies at bay with licensing fees and it just wasn’t a fair marketplace. The perfect storm was cast for change.

Animation history looks kindly on the advent of Nicktoons. While fans recently celebrated their 25th anniversary, we should also step back and appreciate the chance that Nickelodeon took. While the little channel that slime built was in a financial pinch, they could’ve easily copied the success of shows like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But, they said no and dared to be original. The success of that decision was immediately felt and led to the birth of many other moments of greatness to follow. Everything from Tiny Toon Adventures to Batman: The Animated Series to Duckman to Adult Swim owes their existence to these three little shows that dared to preempt Nick at Nite.

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