August 11, 1991, was a momentous day in cartoon history. On that day, cable network Nickelodeon debuted its first three original television cartoons, which they dubbed Nicktoons. They were (in order) Doug, Rugrats, and Ren & Stimpy. Though it was #2 in the airing order, Rugrats was undeniably #1 in fans’ hearts with 172 episodes, three theatrical feature films, a five-season long spin-off, and a reboot currently on the air.
What Was Rugrats About?
Babies! Tommy Pickles, who turned one in the series first episode, is an adventurous and clever lil guy who wanders off and gets into adventures no matter where he goes. He is usually joined in his wanderings by his best friend, two-year-old fraidy cat Chuckie Finster, as well as his rough-and-tumble twin neighbors Phil and Lil DeVille. They’re often bullied by Tommy’s elder cousin Angelica, a bratty three-year-old only child.
That premise may not sound like much, but between the protagonist’s imaginations and obliviousness to things like “employees only areas”, it was a hit. The series ran for nine seasons between 1991 and 2004 and became the first animated Nickelodeon feature in 1998. It was the network’s first flagship show. and remains its third longest running series behind The Fairly Odd Parents and Spongebob Squarepants.
Who Made Rugrats?
The series was the creation of animation studio Klasky Csupo, which had spent the 80s building a reputation for being imaginative and innovative. Their “big break” came in 1987, when The Tracey Ullman Show hired them to animate a series of one-minute shorts. While KC did the animation, the stories and designs came from the underground cartoonist behind Life In Hell. And thus,The Simpsons was born! Klasky Csupo would continue to animate The Simpsons when it graduated to its own series, working on it for four seasons.
This success helped get them in the door at Nickelodeon. Rugrats was their first series for the network, but they moved on to Aaahh!!! Real Monsters in 1994 once Rugrats hit sixty-five episodes. See, that’s the magic number for syndicating a kid’s show in the pre-streaming era. Once you have sixty-five episodes, you can run the series five days a week and only repeat each episode four times per year. Since kids are aging in and aging out of the target audience all the time, four times a year was the magic number to keep kids happy. A lot of children’s television got effectively cancelled at sixty-five episodes as a result.
Except Rugrats made kids VERY happy. While in reruns, it became the most popular show on the network. That prompted Nickelodeon to revive it only eighteen months after it aired its sixty-fifth episode. Klasky Csupo would go on to create The Wild Thornberrys, Rocket Power, As Told by Ginger, and All Grown Up (about the Rugrats 10+ years on) for the network alongside new seasons of Rugrats.
One of the major differences between Rugrats and most kids’ shows is that Tommy Pickles’ family, on his mother’s side, is explicitly Jewish This led to the production of “A Rugrats Passover“ and “A Rugrats Chanukah”, special holiday episodes that gave Jewish families their own equivalent to A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Klasky Csupo shows have a unique look to them, one burned into the memories of millions of millennials. Their look defined Nicktoons in the late 90s and early 00s. Further, they had a willingness to approach big topics like death, first crushes, parent-child arguements, and more in fair minded ways. This allowed their shows to impart life lessons to viewers without being heavy-handed about it, focused on teaching kids that both they and their parents weren’t perfect but trying their best.
A selection of genuine, hand-painted production cels from Rugrats recently came through our doors as part of a truly boffo collection of animation art. It will be available for sale very soon! And if you’ve got a collection like that and are looking to sell it, “the more the merrier” is our motto.
What was your favorite Klasky Csupo show? Let us know in the comments below or on social media @bpcollect!