Each Saturday morning, we’ll remind you of the time when it was still cool
to wake up early on weekends. So whenever the hell you wake up these
days, there will be a nostalgic treat waiting for you, reminding you of
those old jammies you used to wear and that old television set. They
make even less sense now, but that’s half the fun. We hope you enjoy.

The Cartoon: Rugrats
Animation Studio: Klasky-Csupo
Original Run: August 11th, 1991 – June 8th, 2004
Episodes: 172
Seasons: 9

The Characters:

  • Tommy
  • Chucky
  • Phil
  • Lil
  • Angelica
  • The Parents

The Setting:

A 90’s Californian Suburb and all of the middle-class houses,  playground, and day-cares contained within. Of course, across the 9 seasons and three movies the children have been all over the world.

The Gist:

The pitch for the Rugrats is simple enough: the adventures of a set of particularly communicative infants with an instinct for adventure and trouble. The show revolves around Tommy Pickle, a bald-headed and diapered little boy who often has big dreams and schemes that lead his group into new places. He’s usually backed by Chucky, a red-haired, bespectacled coward who invariably conquers his fears comes through for the group in their times of need. Rounding out the core group is Phil and Lil, a pair of twins who are always up for whatever trouble Tommy wants to get into, often using their identical appearance to confuse grown-ups.

Rugrats is one of the most popular Nicktoons ever created, and is remains the one with the most episodes (though Spongebob will take that crown literally any day now). This was a show I was watching before I could even speak well, and one that I continued to watch on Saturday mornings till I was in the double digits. I’ve found that is among a handful of shows that seems written into the cultural DNA of people my age, and a namedrop is sure to illicit nostalgia from anybody in their early-mid 20s. The show was incredibly simple, but its charm and quirk meant that even as a viewer grew older, this show about babies never wore out its welcome. The show did continue well past my viewership though, so when I looked back on the series (all available on Instant Watch), I did so by simply rewatching the first episode. Aside from a few minor things here and there, it’s still quite representative of the show as a whole.

The most common set-up for an episode of Rugrats is that the babies set their mind to some unreachable goal or another, and with the help of Tommy’s plastic screwdriver (which he is able to constantly hide in his diaper) they escape their play pen and start an adventure. The parents are always distracted and oblivious for one reason or another, but they are still fully realized characters with sub-plots of their own. Tommy’s parents Didi and Stu, along with his grandfather Lou, are the most frequently present parents, but Chucky’s Father, Tommy’s Uncle, and Phil and Lil’s parents are often in the mix as well. Finally there is Angelica, Tommy’s bratty cousin, who spends most of her time antagonizing the babies, even though they look up to her and believe most of what she says. More characters were added or expanded on later (some added in the movies), but these are the core characters that remain vivid for a fan of the show at any age.

The show is unique for a lot of reason; the animation style, the dry sense of humor, big imagination, and its multiculturalism. The Klasky-Csupo animation aesthetic was still being developed at this point, and had its occasional trouble spots…
…but its wonderfully amorphous and perspective-bending view of the world gave Rugrats a visual energy that matched well with its measured pacing. The style was often applied to interesting settings whenever the kids played pretend, with an episode that explored the children’s imagined journey through the adult work world being particularly great. The show weaved both Christian and Jewish culture into the show, with a number of highly-lauded Hanukkah specials mixed in with the typical Easter and Christmas episodes.
The best of all? The Rugrats even had their own Godzilla stand-in called Reptar. He appeared on TV, as Tommy’s toy, and even had his own musical which you can see a short clip from here. CHUD-partner FroDesign even did a beautiful screenprint poster for the musical (that’s available for sale though him).

The Short History:

The show’s production history is straightforward enough: Nickelodeon decided the create their own line of animations called NickToons, and accepted pitches from animation studio Klasky-Csupo (the history of which I detailed a bit more in my last NickToons entry for Aaaaahhh!! Real Monsters), who put together this pilot episode (which features a different voice-actor for Tommy).

Nickelodeon found that the short tested well with children, and ordered a batch of shows that immediately went into production. The show continued for several seasons before a hiatus between 95 and 96, with the show resuming in 1997. The show continued producing new episodes along with three films (the first of which was very successful), all the way until 2004. Even once the show was canceled the characters returned as middle schoolers in All Grown Up, a show I never watched but was successful in its own right. From the clips I’ve seen, the follow up show seems charming enough and featured the same voice actors.

Ultimately Rugrats is still considered one of the most successful Nickelodeon cartoons ever produced, eclipsed only by the titanic success of Spongebob Squarepants.

The Merchandise:

Rugrats was a pop culture phenomenon in the 90s, and had as much or more merchandise as any hit kids show. The concept didn’t lend itself to crazy toys as much as some more fantastical programs, but that didn’t stop Nick from licensing their images onto every possible product and game.

You Might Have Seen This Commercial:

Did you watch the Rugrats?

Tell us about your memories of the show in the comments of on the message boards.

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Tune in next Saturday morning for another installment.

Previously on Saturday Mornings:
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Shirt Tails
Duck Tales
Thundarr The Barbarian
Wacky Races
Aaaaahhh!! Real Monsters
Garfield & Friends
Muppet Babies
Super Friends
Dynomutt, Dog Wonder
The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes
NOTE: There was some controversy for the show when it aired it’s questionable coprophagia episode, complete with a glass table scene…