If a baby could talk, and he happened upon a toilet for the first time in his life, what would he say?
That was the rough premise of the six-minute animated short that the team of Gabor Csupo, Arlene Klasky and Paul Germain brought to Nickelodeon in 1989.
At the time, the cable network was looking for original shows to put on its newly created Sunday morning cartoon block, and this one, with the diaper-clad baby that looked strange and even a little sickly, staring up at a toilet as though it were the monolith from "2001: A Space Odyssey," seemed promising enough for Nickelodeon executives to order 13 episodes. They have not regretted the move.
Today, "Rugrats" is what people in the entertainment licensing business call an "evergreen property," meaning the hundreds of millions of dollars in global merchandising rights that the show brings in each year will likely stay as strong as the green leaves of that tree. Mickey Mouse is an evergreen property. So is Winnie the Pooh. By implication, Tommy Pickles and his gang — his friend Chuckie, his neighborhood playmates Phil and Lil, and his bossy, smarty-pants cousin Angelica — will be adorning kids' T-shirts and lunchboxes for generations to come.
And yet, "Rugrats" is more than the story of a kids' cartoon that lodged itself into the collective unconscious of the 2-to-11-year-old set through the canny, patient marketing of adorable characters. With its divided universe of kid pathos and adult humor (parents Stu and Didi Pickles are nothing if not yuppie archetypes, built for satire), "Rugrats" is a show that's closer in spirit to "The Simpsons" than "Barney."
Closer too in execution, because, by all accounts, Germain, creative producer and story editor on the first 65 episodes, ran "Rugrats" like a sitcom—a script-before-storyboard approach that puts the show in the unlikely company of writerly cartoons such as Comedy Central's "South Park" and Fox's "King of the Hill." Like "Seinfeld," a sitcom that bloomed late, "Rugrats" didn't take off right away.
Of the three cartoon series Nickelodeon launched in 1991 with its Sunday morning "Nicktoons" block ("The Ren & Stimpy Show," "Doug" and "Rugrats"), it was the edgier "Ren & Stimpy," featuring the scatological antics of a Chihuahua and a cat, that got the most attention from the network and the media.
It wasn't until 1994, when Nickelodeon began airing "Rugrats" in reruns Monday through Friday, that the show's popularity grew exponentially.
"What happened in 1994 is that kids started to own this show," said Albie Hecht, Nickelodeon's president of film and TV entertainment. "Kids have different viewing behaviors. They like to watch the same things three and four times. They got to know the stories, the plots. It's like having that cuddly old blanket, that teddy bear."