There is no era of television that inspires such a pure, fervent nostalgia as the Golden Age of Nickelodeon. During the late ’80s and early ’90s, the network aired wonderful and strange series that changed the world of children’s entertainment. This Thursday, New York Super Week will throw a “Nite of Nickelodeon Nostalgic Nonsense!” at Hammerstein Ballroom to celebrate these timeless shows with actor appearances, performances by Polaris (of Pete & Pete fame) and the duo behind Doug’s The Beets (Fred Newman and Dan Sawyer), and more. Mathew Klickstein, the event’s moderator and author of SLIMED! An Oral History of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age, spoke to Flavorwire about the event, our persistent love for this era, and why he believes Nickelodeon’s desire to diversify its programming is “exploitive and predatory.”
Flavorwire: Why did you decide to throw this event?
Mathew Klickstein: New York Comic Con actually approached me, a few months ago, and explained that they were going to be putting together this new festival called The Super Week, which from what I understand, combines SXSW with Manhattan. Which I think is a great idea — it’s about time something like that came into fruition. It’s like 100 different events across the city over a week with New York Comic Con happening concurrently. When they suggested we do a Nickelodeon night, I definitely jumped at the opportunity.
Why is Nickelodeon nostalgia still huge in 2014?
I think “still” is an incorrect qualifier. There wasn’t really a sense of Nickelodeon nostalgia until very recently. People forget Pete & Pete was only on for three seasons. It did horribly. It had really poor ratings. Doug was only on for four seasons, not five, as with the other Nicktoons. Hey Dude may have been five. A lot of those shows were only on for a couple of seasons. They didn’t do that well when they were first on. But much like with what happened with Family Guy, Freaks & Geeks, Spaced or even the original Star Trek, which was only on for three seasons, the people who did watch it cared a lot about it, or were introduced to it later down the road, or shared it with their family or friends. Then it started to pick up the true cult following, which is what we have here. I’d say it’s within the last five years only that Nickelodeon nostalgia became big, when people started revisiting shows like The Adventures of Pete & Pete and when the reunions started happening. Suddenly everyone was talking about it and these shows were able to celebrate their 20th, 25th, or even 30th anniversary.
Simply, our generation — you, me, people who come to these things — we’re all old enough now where we are editing magazines and we are producing these large-scale events. It’s just the touchstone of our generation, as previous generations had Star Trek or Star Wars. Ours is Nickelodeon.
There are so many good Nickelodeon shows, but it seems Pete & Pete and Clarissa get the most attention.
I think the Clarissa connection is because Melissa Joan Hart really blew up because of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, which became really huge. There was a lot of merchandise and marketing for that. I think that has a lot to do with Melissa Joan Hart as an actress, as a brand. You could probably pinpoint her as the first real breakout star of the classic Nickelodeon era…. She just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger. People remember Sabrina and Clarissa. It has a lot to do with her, who she is, and the power that she started wielding.
I would say Pete & Pete and Ren and Stimpy are maybe the shows that still get talked about the most. Ren and Stimpy because it’s also the cartoon world; there’s a lot of anime-philes — people are really into cartoons. People on The Simpsons talk about Ren and Stimpy on the show. Ren and Stimpy’s on a lot of other cartoons and shows. They’re on T-shirts. Miley Cyrus is working with John Kricfalusi, the creator of Ren and Stimpy, on the artwork for her Dangerous tour. I think that says a lot. I think that the reason why, though, that Ren and Stimpy gets talked about a lot — certainly with Pete and Pete, which you and I both agree on — there was a quality to those shows. Some of these other shows, even Clarissa, were good and were fun, but there were certain aspects about them that were a little bit timely, I think — even the fact that they used canned laughter.
Everyone who was involved with the invention of Pete & Pete, and many of the people who were involved with Ren and Stimpy, went on to more or less run television and do a lot more stuff that we still know. [They] became very big people in the world of film and television, I think, because there was just a much larger glut of talent there. They were really trying to do something pretty special, and I think that they did.
You could watch an Adventures of Pete & Pete episode and enjoy it now as much as you enjoyed it then, as much as an 11-year-old as a 40-year-old. You can’t really say that about Clarissa and other classic Nick shows, as good and as fun as they might’ve been. There’s a little bit of a kitsch, a camp, quality to them that we love, too — it makes them great. But with Pete & Pete and Ren and Stimpy, there’s just something ineffable going on there that made them extra special. Even the people that I talked to for the book — everyone brought up Ren and Stimpy and Pete & Pete.
That’s weird, because usually whenever I talk to anyone about classic Nick they always bring up Clarissa.
Again, I think a lot of it has to do with Melissa Joan Hart as an icon. But when you compare Clarissa to Pete and Pete, Ren and Stimpy, even to some of the other shows — it was certainly more conventional. It had a laugh track. Hey Dude was a sitcom but didn’t have a laugh track. Hey Dude was also shot on location and looked like a little short film, like Salute Your Shorts and Adventures of Pete and Pete. Clarissa looked, seemed, and was a sitcom. One of the reasons why I think it was successful and why we do love it, is because it was a sitcom — a much more standard, traditional sitcom — but it subverted the traditional sitcom ethos. It had a young girl as the star. Aside from Blossom, there wasn’t really anything like that before. Even Punky Brewster was a kid. This was a tween. That was maybe one of the first shows ever to do that.
Plus, she was a girl, and many of the people who are writing these blogs and editing these pieces are women — which is fine, it’s just the way that it is, and a lot of the publishing world is women. I think people like yourself, who grew up with these shows, empathized with and connected with Clarissa. She was this young woman who looked cool and acted cool and was cool and, lo and behold, grew up and became Melissa Joan Hart.*
Do you think classic Nickelodeon shows would work today? They’re timeless, like Pete & Pete, but there’s the argument about how inclusive the series are and how they’re focused on white, well-off families. Shows like My Brother And Me, Taina, and My Cousin Skeeter are never going to get the same nostalgic treatment.
I think it’s about quality.
The reason Pete & Pete does so well is it’s the best show from that era. It’s the best show from that network! Hands down: the way it looked, the music, the fact that they got all these really interesting cameos… so the fact that it happens to take place in the suburbs of New Jersey, you know, it’s a whitewashed area! There’s nothing to be said about that. So too with Clarissa.
I think it’s worse when they shove it in there. Sanjay and Craig is a really good example, which funnily enough is written in part by Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi from Pete & Pete. That show is awkward because there’s actually no reason for that character to be Indian — except for the fact that [Nickelodeon President] Cyma Zarghami and the women who run Nickelodeon now are very obsessed with diversity. Which is fine — do what you’re gotta do, and Dora [the Explorer] was certainly something of a success, but there’s no reason for [Sanjay] to be Indian at all. No one working on that show is Indian. They’re all white. It’s all the white people from Bob’s Burgers and Will and Chris.
To just shove it in there because, “Uh-oh, we need diversity,” is silly and a little disgusting. It needs to be the best people working on the best shows. They happen to be white, that’s a shame. They happen to be all guys, that’s a shame. No one says this about sports — they do sometimes, the owners — but sorry, that most basketball, football players happen to be black. That’s just the way that it is. Publishing, too! You might not like this or care, but it’s very hard to be a man in the publishing world. No one talks about that. My agent: woman. My editor: woman. My publicist: woman. The most successful genre is young adult novels — 85% of which are written by women. That discussion doesn’t really come up when it’s the other way around. It is 2014 now. It’s not 1995. Political correctness needs to change.
There are worlds where white guys get shit, too. I’m starting to do stand-up comedy now and it’s hard to go up there and talk about how hard it is to be a guy. People don’t wanna hear it! A girl can go up there and talk all she wants about how hard it is to be a girl, and she gets applauded. These are obviously some of my own personal views and aren’t as important, but I’m bringing up this stuff because it’s all very malleable, it’s very flexible.
What we really need to bring to the fore is: how good is the show? How good is the end product? I don’t really care who worked on it. I don’t really care what sector of society it shows. What I care about is: Is it good or is it bad? Pete & Pete is an amazing show; who cares that it was made by white people and is about white people? That’s not important. What’s important is, how good is it? Some of these other shows — My Brother and Me, Diego, and Legend of Korra — it’s great that they’re bringing diversity into it now. Fantastic. But you know those shows are not nearly as good as Ren and Stimpy, which was made by all white people! Or Pete & Pete, which was all white people! I’m not saying white people are better at it or anything, I’m just saying that part of it doesn’t matter. What matters is how good is it and does it hold the test of time?
It definitely still matters. Sanjay and Craig: Yes, the main character is Indian and it would still be a good show if he were white. But this provides something to relate to; if an Indian kid is watching and sees himself on screen, that’s great.
That’s true, that’s fine, but why can’t he relate to a white guy too? I was talking with the guy who wrote for DC, and he made a really good point: Why does someone who’s making something about a black person need to be black? Why does someone making a show about an Indian person need to be Indian? Why does someone making a show about women need to be a woman? If you’re making something about an alien, you don’t need to be an alien to do it. That’s ultimately what it comes down to: They will connect with the character no matter what. That’s why so many young people, Hispanic or not, connect with Dora. It doesn’t matter. They’re connecting with the character because she’s saying something to them. She’s doing something and she’s making an adventure that they can connect with! It doesn’t matter that she’s Hispanic or not. The people who are watching that might be Asian, or Afro-American, or whatever.
I don’t particularly care for Dora, myself. I don’t care for the animation, I don’t think it’s the quality it could be at, and I don’t particularly care for the scripts, but it’s not for me. It’s for six-year-olds. But even if that character were white or even a boy, I hate to say it, I think it would’ve been just as successful because people were connecting with something that was going on on that show. Sesame Street did a really good job of that. Doug — bringing it back to Nick — did a really good job of that. Is Skeeter black? They kind of joke about it in the show, because he’s the blue one.
I think that it does the culture a disservice. If I were Indian or Jewish, for example, and watched something where the characters are Jewish or supposed to be, and if it’s not specific to that, then I start to wonder, “Why are they doing this?” It becomes blackface.
They’re exploiting this, they’re using this thing, they’re taking advantage of it. They’re doing it just for that reason: “Hey, here is the Jewish character” or “Hey, here’s the Indian character” or “Hey, here’s the token black,” which I think South Park does so amazingly well. For example, I’ve worked very closely with people with disabilities, volunteering, sometimes paid, and I love what South Park does. They show those characters as quote-unquote real people. They fight, they cuss, they take drugs. They do everything all the rest of the kids do. That’s great.
But I don’t like when it’s blackface. It is in Forrest Gump or I Am Sam, which I find incredibly offensive, for two reasons! For one, they’re not doing it right, and two, more important, they’re taking someone else’s job. Why couldn’t someone who actually had Down syndrome play that? I know there’s a reason for that: It’s a risk, and if you put Sean Penn in it, it makes a lot more money. There’s a lot of other issues going on when you’re working with people with disabilities. I understand that. But why do it then? Why do it at all? If you’re going to do it right, people are going to connect with it no matter what. Why put that on screen just to say, “Hey, look, here’s our Indian guy. We’re doing it, too. We’re doing what you want. We’re doing what we’re supposed to do.” I think it makes a farce out of that. I think that that’s sad.
There’s no comparison between Sanjay and Craig and blackface. Sanjay is voiced by an Indian-American actor, Maulik Pancholy.
But the people who are making it are not. Look, I love the Bob’s Burgers people, I just don’t understand why they feel that they need to do that. Why not have it be Indian creators doing it, and have it more about the Indian culture and Indian-American culture? It gets confusing. It’s obviously a personal view, but if you’re going to do it, go all the way, or why do it at all? Especially when that’s a lot of what Nickelodeon’s been doing over the last 15, 20 years. There’s no question. I know the people who are working there now. They will push diversity over quality. I can understand that, certainly, but I think that the quality of it needs to come first. That’s the question — not are you black, Indian, or a woman — it’s, “How good is this show going to be?”
You keep speaking to the quality of television shows, which I understand, because you obviously want to make sure a show is good above all. But if there’s a good show about a white guy and then a good show about an Indian kid, what would be the difference if both are good quality, like —
We’re going back in circles. I feel that it’s exploitative and I feel that it’s predatory.
I think it’s mostly to get kids to —
You’re saying, “If it doesn’t matter, then why not let them be Indian?” I’m saying, “If it doesn’t matter, why make them Indian?” There’s no reason for it. It becomes, “Look, we’ve got an Indian character now on our show, our network, as opposed to not doing that.” I think that that can be predatory. I would be offended if one of the friends on Clifford the Big Red Dog had a friend who was in a wheelchair. I understand the idea of “There’s someone like me,” but … it’s necessary [that the show is] actually saying something, doing something with it. When you just throw it on there — oh, the friend happens to be black, the best friend’s a girl — I feel that it’s being used. I feel like it becomes a pickaninny thing. That’s honestly how I feel about it. Because there’s no reason for it, that makes it more offensive, exploitative, and predatory because then it is just being used.
Well, I think the reason is so the entirety of TV isn’t white, so kids can watch and see themselves. That is the reason. If you’re a black kid growing up watching classic Nickelodeon, you wouldn’t see yourself on Pete & Pete but you would on My Brother and Me. That’s important to have.
I suppose, but there were black people in movies, in music, even on some Nickelodeon shows. When I first started talking to people for the diversity chapter of the book, people kept reminding me of actors [of color] — especially You Can’t Do That On Television was completely multi-diverse.
Telly, for Christ’s sake, on Salute Your Shorts, is a great example. Here’s someone who is black and a cute girl who is a tomboy who is beating all the other kids at sports. That was really important. You had Joe Torres on Hey Dude who was Hispanic and Native American because he was in Arizona, because there’s going to be someone who is that race there. But in those cases, essentially they’re using it. You Can’t Do That On Television not so much because it was just a smattering of different actors. But there, too, they were just going for whomever would be the best. I think that the question needs to be, “Is the show going to be good,” not, “Is the show going to be diverse?” That’s when things can get really difficult, exploitative, and predatory. That’s my opinion of the thing.
This interview was cut and edited for length and clarity.
*Update: A publicist from Nickelodeon reached out to confirm that “yes, Clarissa was a HUGE hit, massive.”
Additionally, it should be noted that the New York Super Week event being moderated by Mathew Klickstein is not sanctioned or sponsored by Nickelodeon.