It’s a name that has become synonymous with children’s programming. From the wacky to the heartfelt, what started as a subsidiary of MTV has slowly become a beast of its own. A beast that was spawned in that now distant memory of a decade known as the nineties.
From 1990-1999, Nickelodeon OWNED the eyeballs of every child between the ages of 3 and 12, and a few beyond that. Arguably the golden age of the network, many classic shows were spawned that, to this day, still hold a place in many people’s hearts.
One of the sub-networks of the station, TeenNick this past week started airing all that classic nineties programming in a block that is being dubbed “Nick 90s Are All That.” The block has become so popular that it’s begun setting ratings records for basic cable late night programming.
This got me thinking, I’m surely not the only one with a soft spot for the classic Nickelodeon programming of the nineties, so I reached out to some of the FSR staff and asked them which show from the era is their favorite and how they feel about it now, check it out:
When I first heard about this “90’s Nick” article, my initial thought was: “This has to do with me; I was balancing a one year-old on my knee in 1990!” and then I remembered. I remembered the miracle that was Ren & Stimpy.
For you young’uns, it is nearly impossible to fathom how bad television animation had become just prior to Ren & Stimpy and yes, I was watching Saturday morning animation in the ‘80s. Before our daughter was born, my wife and I (in our 20s at that point) would get up and watch Galaxy High, Teen Wolf, and The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse regularly. Though we had a fondness for those particular shows, nothing could prepare us with the style and insanity that was Ren & Stimpy.
John Kricfalusi should be given the highest animation honors and a huge gold and marble bust for his (uncut version) of Powdered Toast Man, alone! Contemporary animators should line up and kiss that man’s behind because without his vision, we wouldn’t have The Powerpuff Girls, Dexter’s Laboratory, or any of what I call “thick line” cartoons! John K brought booger and fart humor to mainstream television animation and if that doesn’t impress you, I wonder what you think propels contemporary children’s cartoon humor! Viva, John K!
When I was a teenager, we didn’t have money for cable, and my dad said it would rot our brains anyway. (He was so right.) I never got to watch Nick or SNICK or anything of the sort until I was nearly out of high school, and by that point video games had taken their dreadful hold upon my soul. There was one show, however, that I got to see plenty of: Are You Afraid of the Dark? I had a friend who would invite me over from time to time, and he would tape episodes for me.
I was raised on things like Goosebumps and reruns of Tales From the Darkside and Monsters that the local ABC affiliate ran on Saturday afternoons, so I was naturally enthralled by every episode I watched. One of my favorites was “The Tale of the Curious Camera“– a kid gets a camera that makes bad shit happen, essentially. When I tried to write my own spin on the story in my 7th grade Art class, I got busted for not paying attention. The teacher told me he liked what he read, though, and asked for more. For the rest of the school year, I’d write instead of draw in art class. (I sucked at art anyway.) I went to college for writing, and now I’m trying to make a career out of writing. And a good portion of that is thanks to that Nickelodeon show where kids told stories around a campfire.
Clarissa Darling made it cool to be different, acceptable to be independent, nifty to pair polka dots and stripes. Wicked smart and a bit of an overthinker, Clarissa was about ten times more hip than any other girl her age, with strikingly mature musical tastes and her own faux-news show. She is also the only person, fictional or otherwise, who ever made me think that a monkey would be a cool pet or that a baseball hat embellished with sequined elephants was a wise fashion decision. Clarissa may also be the one to blame for the trend of dorky glasses as hipster calling card, but I’ll forgive her that.
Clarissa Explains It All changed up some of the more expected tropes of the teenage sitcom – from the technical (Miss Darling routinely broke the fourth wall and talked to her viewers) to the plot-centered (Clarissa had a best friend who was a dude that she didn’t end up with, shock of shocks). She was funny and close with her family and good to her friends, and she dealt with all the normal teenage stuff with some serious style. Clarissa was an oddly self-assured young lady who made that brand of self-assurance seem normal, a pretty excellent message for anyone who watched the show. Yeah, it was a kid-aimed show on Nickelodeon, an outlet that isn’t known for its hard-hitting programming, but that doesn’t change the fact that Clarissa Explains It All was wonderfully accessible programming with a fun, frisky way of doing things. I still think it’s good stuff – even if it did inspire me to ruin a lot of perfectly good furniture with hideous painted designs as a kid, just because I thought Clarissa would have done the same.
Since I was 5 years away from being a teenager when SNICK premiered, I was the perfect age to watch the shows with a sort of awe that only comes from a mixture of safe rebellion and an enjoyment that didn’t come from totally getting everything that was happening. Roundhouse felt like a kid’s version of SNL that I was allowed to be awake for (although I definitely stayed up past my bedtime more than a lot to see what was happening Live from New York). Are You Afraid of the Dark? felt like horror that could warp a young mind. I had a crush on Clarissa (and later, Alex Mack).
But out of all of these shows, it was one that came to the party a year after SNICK debuted that really stuck with me – The Adventures of Pete and Pete. There was an incredible connection there (maybe because I was a younger brother (and desperately wanted a tattoo which I could make dance)). Big Pete may have been the calm center of the universe, but Little Pete was the real star of the show as far as I was concerned. He was irreverent, got into trouble like an edgy Theodore Cleaver, and his best friend was a superhero.
Everything about the show (right down to credits which gave a spotlight to the plate in mom’s head) was just nonsensical enough to make me realize that all the rules of storytelling could be thrown out in the name of fun.
I spent a lot of time thinking about which show was my favorites from the 90s Nickelodeon block. And while some absolute classics came to mind like Pete and Pete, Doug, Rugrats and Rocko’s Modern Life, there was one show, that after looking back at an episode or two, I can say definitively is my favorite: Kenan & Kel.
In fact, Kenan & Kel is probably what shaped by sitcom tastes that I run my life by today. Kenan & Kel’s humor always involved two buddies being put into normal situations that end in wacky outcomes, and that seems to be what I’ve been attracted to ever since. For example, replace the word “buddies” with “family” and you have every episode of Modern Family right there.
And beyond the style, the show was just downright funny. Take the classic “The Tainting of the Screw” episode in which Kel accidentally drops a screw in Kenan’s tuna sandwich that eventually builds to an iconic freak out by Kel at the end of the episode in the middle of a court room. Nothing from Nickelodeon has ever come close the the hilarity in that scene ever since, and that’s why the show holds such a warm place in my childhood heart.
It’s clear that the impact of Nickelodeon has been felt far and wide. And even now, the network still continues to be the gold standard for children’s programming with shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender (the spin-off of which drops next year), iCarly, and Power Rangers: Samurai. But no one will ever forget the era that started it all, an era that will live on forever.
The nineties truly are, all that, and more…
To listen to the latest episode of Merrill’s TV Podcast, The Idiot Boxers with Kevin Carr, head over to Fat Guys at the Movies.