Twenty five years ago today, Nickelodeon introduced an original block of cartoon programming they called Nicktoons. The cartoons that they debuted—Doug, Rugrats, and Ren & Stimpy—were a huge departure from how cartoons were presented to kids at the time. For those who remember, many of the cartoons—especially from the '80s era—that we hold dearly were nothing more than commercials for toys. Vanessa Coffey, Nickelodeon's VP of Animation, says that "Everything in the ’80s was toy-driven. The toy companies were paying for the shows." That's ill for those of us who loved toys, but that era almost ruined cartoons. As Bill Wray, who worked on Ren & Stimpy put it, "Everyone wanted to make sure nothing offended a group of mothers someplace." Cartoon creators ended up mentally drained by the restrictive commercial demands, which in turn created a drought for truly unique cartoon properties.
That was the atmosphere that Nickelodeon was in when they started experimenting with more original, creator-driven cartoon series in the late '80s/early '90s. And it might sound crazy, but Nickelodeon not only saved the world of cartoons with their early ''90s Nicktoons block, it helped birth the style for many of the cartoons that keep channels like Cartoon Network afloat.
These "Nicktoons" weren't the first cartoons to air on Nickelodeon, as the growing channel used to license a number of programs, primarily from overseas (real Nick heads will remember the days of Danger Mouse and Count Duckula), but outside of a few one-offs and shorts (Inside-Out Boy being one of them), the three cartoons were the first wave of productions that were based, as Doug creator Jim Jinkins told Decider, "on original ideas. Not spin-offs, not toys being expanded into series. But something that was original and creator-driven."
The series were phenomenal and wildly original in their own ways. Doug was the story of a shy, nerdy kid trying to navigate life in a wild and crazy town, while Rugrats was a wildly imaginative series about a squad of infants who in turn had wild imaginations. Ren & Stimpy was completely different, featuring the tales of an asshole Chihuahua and his dimwitted feline pal; something tells us that this wouldn't be greenlit for Nickelodeon in 2016, but at the time, it felt like the more unique the idea was, the more likely it'd get picked up during that era. That said, the weirdness of the cartoons that followed—from the insanely adult humor and sexual innuendos of Rocko's Modern Life, to a show where the main character is a weird conjoined cat/dog situation, and a walking, talking sponge who's best friends with a dimwitted starfish—can be linked back to the madcap mania that Ren & Stimpy possessed.
It was a bold time: the '90s is defined by truly groundbreaking turns in programming—remember, Nicktoons debuted almost a calendar year before MTV first aired The Real World—and the Nicktoons brand birthed a group of amazing animated series over the following two decades, including Hey Arnold!, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and SpongeBob SquarePants.
The early success of Nicktoons also helped turn Nickelodeon into the media behemoth. The biggest winner from the original Nicktoons block was Rugrats, which released The Rugrats Movie in 1998. That film's $24 million budget turned into almost $141 million at the worldwide box office, spawning two more films, including 2003's Rugrats Go Wild, which was a crossover with another Nicktoon, The Wild Thornberrys. On the flipside, DreamWorks looked at Nickelodeon to turn those penguins from the Madagascar film series into the successful Penguins of Madagascar television series, which debuted to 6.1 million viewers in 2009. (They then did the same for their Kung Fu Panda series, which bridged the gap between the first two Kung Fu Panda films.) SpongeBob SquarePants turned into an $8 billion franchise, and when it came time to bring back the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Viacom bought up the rights and threw it onto Nickelodeon, giving today's kids a profitable reboot that's spawned numerous games and a new round of films.
The turn Nickelodeon made in 1991 to Nicktoons became a blueprint. It proved the commercial appeal of creator-driven animation, that no idea is too weird. The success of the brand influenced creators to look to animated series, and for networks to do the same. Without the antics of Ren & Stimpy, the honesty of Doug Funnie, or the fearlessness of Tommy Pickles, today's kids might not have shows like Regular Show, Steven Universe, or Adventure Time. Without Nicktoons' success, would there have been an arena for shows like SpongeBob SquarePants, Rocko's Modern Life, or Hey Arnold! to flourish. Nicktoons is without a doubt one of the most important moments in the world of modern cartooning, and the truth is, without it, you'd be stuck with a steaming pile of weak sauce shows.