As a child, there were few theme songs that carried as much emotional weight as those of The Adventures of Pete and Pete and Ren & Stimpy. This reaction wasn’t so much based on the groovy melodies or the beat (though both contained a little of each). No–my blissful heartstrings twanging in harmony with those songs came entirely from the fact that they were the opening of the gates to a half hour of humorous insanity. Those were my two favorites. For other kids, it was Clarissa Explains It All or the dulcet tones of Doug, Rugrats, or Salute Your Shorts. Nickelodeon, with its initial “us versus them” attitudes of kids and parents held a very important place for people of my generation.
The belief that Nickelodeon defined us is no hyperbole. It was the first time that an entire television station was dedicated to children’s programming. And the purity and earnestness of those first golden years is perfectly encapsulated in Mathew Klickstein’s labor of love, Slimed! An Oral History of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age. More than just telling the stories as they objectively happened, Mr. Klickstein interviewed the people who made Nickelodeon possible: from actors to writers to animators, directors and producers. The immense amount of history here is impressive in and of itself, but Klickstein’s care and tenderness for the subject makes this collection of reminiscences impossible to put down.
By care and tenderness, I don’t just mean the mere ability to record and transcribe the dozens of interviews and put them together in some way that is comprehensible. That alone isn’t enough for Slimed! Klickstein knows his audience, and has somehow found a way to ask questions of his interviewees that perhaps the reader didn’t even know they wanted to know. A great example includes the droopy gibberish that makes up the lyrics to “Hey Sandy”, the Miracle Legion-penned theme song to The Adventures of Pete and Pete:
“Sandy” being a street name for bubble gum-flavored heroin.
If the lyrics seem incomprehensible to you, it’s probably because frontman Mark Mulcahy hasn’t told anyone:
“I’m pretty sure, like anything, people would be pretty disappointed about the truth…No one knows but me, and that’s a rarity, so I’m hanging on to it. Even the other band members aren’t aware of it. I came close to telling somebody, but I didn’t. So I haven’t told anybody. Don’t feel left out.”
The entire tome of Slimed! is filled with beautiful tidbits like this one. It’d be nice to suggest that it’s nothing but a wistful romp through the orange and green landscape of our childhoods, but as sure as a VH1: Behind The Music has a whiskey-soaked overdose halfway in, greed and infighting rear their ugly heads.
If the surge of show moms, lawsuits, and creative struggles sounds like something that would ruin your reception of Nickelodeon’s history, that’s only because you’re straining to look at it with your prepubescent eyes. As an adult, I found watching the Emperor sans undergarments to be fascinating. The Pollyanna nostalgia bug chewing at my insides and begging to be satisfied with wholesome Willy Wonka-style antics is immediately silenced with the fantastic stories of fear and infighting between parties that genuinely seemed to care about the network.
The ousting of John Kricfalusi from his own creation of Ren & Stimpy is heartbreaking, but morally vague. The decision to side with the perfectionist, dragging-his-feet creator or the money-hungry corporate machine is entirely up to the reader, and no one side is polished to look better than the other. This is made all the more impressive during Klickstein’s Acknowledgements, when it becomes clear that he’s a dyed-in-the-wool John K fanatic. Just like any endeavor taken over by highly creative individuals, there are differences of opinion and feelings get hurt. To hear it told by so many different perspectives is utterly amazing.
The greatest and most unique moments in Slimed! had to come from the young actors who made up the eclectic casts of Nickelodeon’s many live action TV shows. While Salute Your Shorts and Hey Dude inspired the childhoods of people like you or I, this select bunch literally lived out their adolescence on Nickelodeon’s stage. Their various transitions into adulthood are as diverse as the people you went to high school with. Our earliest heroes, crushes, bullies and laughingstocks all make appearances, and their perspective is rich, varied, and ultimately satisfying.
Mathew Klickstein has done us a service with this book, feeding our whimsey-hungry baby birds with nutrient-rich slime. Expertly compiled and blissfully executed, Slimed! will probably take you four times as long to read as a book of a similar size, as you pop from the book to Google and back again. Though rich with childhood abandon, Slimed! still takes the time to remind you to occasionally come back to the ground for air, as Clarissa mom Elizabeth Hess perfectly summarizes:
“Sometimes now my students say, ‘Let’s have a Clarissa party!’ And I’m like, ‘Nooooo! No, no. For you, it’s nostalgia. For me, it’s a really beautiful time in my life I don’t need to revisit.”
And perhaps that’s the greatest lesson Mathew Klickstein and Slimed! teaches you: for every whiff of your childhood, there was a crew member somewhere, mixing green food coloring into cream of wheat.