Go behind the scenes at Nickelodeon with Slimed!
Author Mathew Klickstein chats about his new oral history of Nickelodeon, and why there's more to the channel than you probably thought.
Fri Sep 27 2013
Photograph: Courtesy Plume Books
Using the word revolutionary to describe Nickelodeon—the kid-focused TV channel that debuted in the late ’70s—may seem like hyperbole. After all, this is the network that dumped green slime on its stars, and had kids pick a giant nose on Double Dare. But in his new book, Slimed! An Oral History of Nickelodeon's Golden Age (Plume Original; $20),writer Mathew Klickstein explains why the network wasn't just a boon for kids; it was also, yes, revolutionary. Klickstein interviewed hundreds of behind-the-scenes players to uncover the channel's hidden history—not just the gossip and the gross tidbits (yes, you'll find out what the iconic green slime was made from), but also its lasting legacy and larger cultural impact.
We caught up with the author by phone to pick his brain on the book and what it's like to dig deep into a beloved childhood icon. Here's what he had to say—and for even more stories, head to the 92nd Street Y tonight, where Double Dare host Marc Summers will host a launch party for the book at 7pm. (There will be special surprise guests. And who knows? Maybe someone will get slimed. We can hope, anyway.)
Time Out New York: How did the idea for the book come about?
Mathew Klickstein: With ’80s and ’90s nostalgia really high, we thought this was a good time for this book. I'm from this generation, and I watched these shows when I was younger. These shows had a real resonance on me. And I was having one of those "What are we gonna do?" issues with my agent, and I said, "You know, I've always wanted to do something with Nickelodeon." It was a slap-your-forehead moment; like, Of course! Why hasn't anyone done this yet? So on a personal level, I love these shows, and on a professional level, there was this little space open. Like, if someone's gonna do this, why not me?
Time Out New York: Your book reminded me of the oral history of MTV that came out in 2011; the narrative in both is similar, where there are these creative people doing weird stuff, but eventually it all changes and goes downhill.
Mathew Klickstein: It's the same history of so many other art movements: You start off as this tiny little entity that no one's paying attention to and no one's giving money to, and then suddenly people are starting to pay attention to what you're doing because it's good and different. It gets out of control and it gets co-opted, and the corporation takes over and it becomes something completely different. A lot of people I talked to used the phrase anti-Disney; they were really trying very intentionally to be anti-Disney. And now they are Disney. That's the narrative arc.
Time Out New York: What was the research process like? Aside from interviewing hundreds of people, did you have to go back and watch every single Nickelodeon show?
Mathew Klickstein: Not really. I really retain images and pictures and voices—some people are good at remembering who the third baseman is for some baseball team in 1957, and I've always been really good at knowing who did the music for such-and-such film in 1957. It wasn't really necessary for me to go back and watch a lot of the stuff, because I retained it and knew it already. I did a lot of research with newspaper and magazine articles, and there were two other books that had come out previously that were for a more academic environment. Those books, particularly Nickelodeon Nation [by Heather Hendershot], were very helpful in guiding me, like, Okay, these are some of the questions I need to ask, this is some of the information that's out there and available.
Time Out New York: Between the creators and the producers who worked behind the scenes, and the cast members, was one group more willing than the other to revisit this time and go deep into their experiences?
Mathew Klickstein: Everyone was willing to talk to me. It was very hard to track most of these people down—most of the actors weren't actors, so it's not like I could call up their publicists. But it almost felt like people were waiting by the phone. "What took you so long?" was a theme that ran throughout all the interviews. Everyone was extremely helpful; they got me pictures, they told me great stories, people were extremely forthright, so that was a lot of fun.
The other part of that, though, is that a lot of the shows were only on for a couple of seasons. Some of the cast members had some great memories and really loved what they did, but a lot of them were very young, and it was a bit of a blur, and it kind of came and went and they moved on with their lives. So the actors were great and a lot of fun to talk to, but the creators and writers and producers had the best stories. They were the adults, they were aware of what was going on, and they were the ones making it happen.
Time Out New York: What are some of the more interesting or weird stories you heard?
Mathew Klickstein: A lot of people got hurt, because there was really no union representation. That was part of the whole "Let's just go and have fun and do it" [attitude]. The downside of that is: With no one paying attention, no one is there to help if someone hurts themselves. The big one that always pops in my head is that Kirk Bailey, who was Ug on Salute Your Shorts, had to jump into some water when he sees his girlfriend across the lake on her boat. Kirk, like a lot of people on these shows, did his own stunts; there was no money for stunt doubles, and there was no time. Even some of the kids sometimes had to do stuff that was kind of dangerous. So Kirk jumps into the water, and it was shallow, and he moved his head so he didn't break his neck, and hit it on his ear. And he popped his eardrum. Those things happen, and that's kind of difficult.
I was also surprised to learn about the difficulties on Rugrats. Arlene Klasky, who was one of the creators of the show, along with her husband, Gabor Csupo, did not get along with the writers. Arlene hated the writing staff, and the writing staff hated Arlene. There were things that people told me where they'd call me back and be like, "Can you actually delete that out of the book?" [Laughs]
Time Out New York: As a kid when you're watching these shows, you'd never guess that there are arguments or discord going on behind the scenes.
Mathew Klickstein: The people working on these shows are young, frustrated artists who aren't being paid very much, and they're doing a bunch of things at once. You had these very eclectic minds and personalities, and they're being told on some level that they can't say or do certain things, and that repression's building up. As [former Nickelodeon executive] Gerry Laybourne says in the book: If you think these people are saints, you're wrong. They're just as crazy as any artist or writer or anyone. They get frustrated, they get mad, and they need that creative outlet.
Time Out New York: Did this change your view of these shows, or did it deepen your appreciation for that period?
Mathew Klickstein: It definitely bolstered my love of these shows and the people. There were some shows that I learned to respect a lot more that I might not have been into as much when I was younger. I have that extra cinematic aspect about it, where I know what was going on behind the scenes; that made me appreciate it that much more.
Time Out New York: What was your favorite Nick show at the time, and did that change as you were working on the book?
Mathew Klickstein: Every show had something that was really special about it. But The Adventures of Pete & Pete—just everything about it, from the way it was shot to the music and the sound effects and the tone and the costumes. The quotidian boredom that they were able to play with—I really connected with that aspect of it. Before even Seinfeld, it was a show for kids about nothing. Every episode was about the minutiae of life. And then Ren & Stimpy was just nuts. I had a Ren & Stimpy birthday party when I was a kid.
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