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 imagine 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 to return to. In Slimed! An Oral History of Nickelodeon's Golden Age, published September 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 comforting, chicken-soup programming like Doug and Hey Dude on the other.
Nickelodeon dominated children's entertainment during the Clinton years. "When I left Nick, we had 56 percent of all kids viewing," boasts former president Gerry Laybourne. In lieu of 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.
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 ten of the best snippets from Slimed! SEE SOURCE FOR DESCRIPTIONS FROM 10-6:
10. Ren and Stimpy was the Community of its day.
9. Parents of child actors were barred from the set.
8. Melissa Joan Hart had a stage mom.
7. Nickelodeon was an incubator for behind-the-scenes talent.
6. Pete & Pete alumni take credit for creating hipsters.
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,
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]," reveals creator D.J. MacHale. "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.
See source for the descriptions for 10-6.