What ever happened to Nickelodeon? The obvious answer: you grew up and are no longer their its demographic. Still, even if you abandon your nostalgia and your biases of stuff you liked as a kid vs. stuff that annoys you now, Nick is different than it was 15 or 25 years ago. Simply put, ignoring the arguments over what eras had the “best” shows, Nick doesn’t take as many risks as it used to. The channel plays it safe these days, focusing its schedule around one hit that’s been running for 19 years (SpongeBob SquarePants) and increasingly relying on revivals of shows from a more daring time period to attract interest.
Risk-taking made Nickelodeon stand out among children’s television. The flip-side of risk-taking, however, is controversy, and Nick has courted plenty of that over the years. There’s always a push-pull at the network between what boundaries deserve to be pushed and what goes too far. The following 15 controversies, listed in roughly chronological order, found Nickelodeon’s Nicktoon series in some sort of hot water or another. Some of the controversies were well-deserved, while others were utterly ridiculous. Regardless, these controversies have made an impact on the First Kids Network’s animated programming over the past 27 years.
15. REN AND STIMPY CREATOR FIRED
Ren and Stimpy was the biggest initial hit of the first three Nicktoons (the other two being Rugrats and Doug). Its success also flamed out the fastest. Kids, classic animation geeks and stoners alike fell in love with the eccentric cartoon’s first season. Producing more episodes, however, quickly became a challenge. Creator John Kricfalusi had trouble meeting deadlines, while executives didn’t know what to make of the show’s gross and at times violent content.
The show’s production woes became so infamous even The Simpsons joked about them (in the episode “The Front,” a “clip not finished” screen is presented for Ren and Stimpy at the Emmys). John Kricfalusi ended up fired from his own show midway through the second season. Depending on whose story you believe, this was either due to his deadline issues getting out of hand or the network’s response to the banned episode “Man’s Best Friend.”
14. RUGRATS CO-CREATORS FEUD OVER ANGELICA
For the first generation of Nicktoons, one of the big struggles was finding the right balance between kid-friendliness and a more mature sensibility than the cartoons on Saturday mornings. Rugrats never pushed the envelope as far as Ren and Stimpy did, but the debate over how to handle meaner content shook up the writing staff and led to the show’s initial cancelation in 1994.
Arlene Klasky found Angelica too mean, while Paul Germain found her ideal for addressing heavier childhood emotions. Germain lost the argument and got kicked off the show along with several other writers in 1993. The show ceased production the following year… and then exploded in popularity in syndication! New episodes were produced starting in 1996, but with a more sentimental tone to ease Klasky’s concerns.
13. ROCKO’S BANNED EPISODE
Rocko’s Modern Life was positioned as a “tamer and softer” alternative to Ren and Stimpy when the latter show was in decline. While Rocko was less gross and mean-spirited than its predecessor, however, it went just as far if not further when it came to subversive adult content. Watch Rocko as an adult and you’ll be amazed how many jokes, both of the crudely sexual and cynically political varieties, you completely missed as a kid.
Sometimes, however, it went too far for the tastes of the Nickelodeon censors. Case in point: the segment “Leap Frogs.” In only the second episode of the show, Mrs. Bighead tried to seduce Rocko. The theme of adultery to escape from a loveless marriage was deemed inappropriate for a kids’ show, and reruns were pulled from circulation until 2002.
12. GIVING DOUG TO DISNEY
When people’s favorite shows get canceled, fans often campaign for other networks to come to the rescue to bring them bang from the dead. This almost never happens, given rights issues. Doug was one of the rare cases of a show actually being sold to another company, Disney in this case, and the results weren’t popular.
The move from Nick to Disney happened due to Nick failing to fulfill its five season commitment from creator Jim Jinkins’ initial contract. Disney used Doug to launch the One Saturday Morning programming block on ABC, but there were major creative changeovers, including replacing original voice actor Billy West with Tom McHugh. Jinkins was less hands-on and later said, “I mostly agree with Doug fans who think the original 104 eleven-minute Doug stories made for Nick were the best.”
11. RUGRATS ANTI-SEMITISM CONTROVERSY
Rugrats was popular among Jewish families for its portrayal of the half-Jewish Pickles family as well as its Passover and Hannukah specials. Arlene Klasky, a Jewish woman from a mixed family herself, found the cultural representation important, and that aspect of the show was met with much praise. It was a bit of a shocker, then, when in 1998 the Anti-Defamation League accused a Rugrats newspaper comic strip of anti-Semitism.
The strip in question featured Grandpa Boris reciting the Kadesh prayer at Rosh Hashana services while Tommy Pickles sits in curious confusion at what the adults are doing. There was no intention to mock the prayer, but Abe Foxman of the ADL thought including it in the strip disrespectful and accused Boris’ big-nosed design of resembling Nazi-era depictions of Jews. Nick withdrew the strip from circulation, though Jewish former Nick president Albie Hecht found the complaints absurd.
10. FINAL EPISODE OF ANGRY BEAVERS NEVER AIRED
After four seasons, The Angry Beavers was coming to a close. Co-creator Keith Kaczorek decided to go out in a giant absurd bang, but the network demanded a wimper. The original plan for the final episode, “Bye Bye Beavers,” would have had the beavers Norbert and Daggett realize they were cartoon characters in a show about to be canceled.
This script broke two in-house rules at Nickelodeon at the time: shows weren’t supposed to have conclusive finales and characters weren’t supposed to break the fourth wall. In a way, this cancelled final episode was an attempt to stick it to Nick’s restrictive standards. Voice actor Nick Bakay said the network was “not very artist-friendly,” while writer Micah Wright had his Constant Payne pilot canned due to attempts to unionize the studio’s writers.
9. INVADER ZIM KILLED MIDWAY THROUGH PRODUCTION
Nickelodeon took a risk on giving a show to Jhonen Vasquez, creator of such comics as Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, in an attempt to bring some more edge to the network’s line-up. The channel got exactly what it asked for with Invader ZIM and didn’t know what to make of it. The show got canceled midway through production of its second season, with numerous scripts unproduced. Contrary to popular misconception, it wasn’t the network censors who had the most problems with Invader Zim…
While there were more limits on portraying violence after 9/11, the bigger issues were budgets and demographics. ZIM‘s high quality CG-heavy animation was pricey, while the ratings skewed older than the 6-11 demo advertisers wanted watching. Canceled too soon, ZIM would make Nick millions in Hot Topic merchandising money, and a TV movie revival is imminent.
8. SPONGEBOB HOMOSEXUALITY CONTROVERSY
According to creator Stephen Hillenberg, SpongeBob is essentially asexual. He reproduces by budding like any sea sponge in the wild. Nevertheless, his extremely close friendship with Patrick and flirtacious-sounding interactions with Squidward turned the character into an unintentional gay icon. Without changing his asexual conception of the character, Hillenberg still appreciates the gay fanbase for enjoying the show’s general attitude of acceptance and positivity.
Not so positive about the sponge’s potential homoeroticism was James Dobson of the socially conservative advocacy group Focus on the Family and the officially designated hate group, Family Research Council. In 2005, Dobson claimed a video from the We Are Family Foundation featuring SpongeBob and other cartoon characters with a generalized message of tolerance was “potentially brainwashing kids” into becoming homosexual.
7. CENSORED DVD RELEASES
The DVD sets of Ren and Stimpy say they’re “uncut” right on the box. This is a blatant lie. The DVD sets actually contain the Spike TV edits of the episodes. While jokes that were censored from Nickelodeon reruns are included, other scenes were cut for the sake of commercial breaks and to appease John Kricfalusi’s George Lucas-like revisionist perfectionism.
Rocko’s Modern Life‘s DVD releases were also censored, though at least they didn’t have false advertising of being “uncut.” Three scenes were removed from the DVD sets due to being completely destroyed on the master tapes. The scenes in question are Heffer’s “milking” scene in “The Good, The Bad, and The Wallaby,” the “No Tell Motel” in “Road Rash,” and the “berry-picking” scene in “Hut Sut Raw.”
6. DANNY PHANTOM CREATOR VS. SHIPPERS
Not all Nicktoon creators are as chill about homoerotic fan interpretations as Steven Hillenberg is with SpongeBob. Butch Hartman, the creator of The Fairly OddParents and Danny Phantom among other series, stirred up controversy by banning all posts about Danny Phantom “slash” (same sex) pairings on his personal website’s forum. The forum admin claimed in 2005, after a conversation with Hartman, such posts “could potentially damage Butch’s good reputation.”
Hartman generally doesn’t speak much about politics himself. He claims he’s “not a big fan of people who use children’s entertainment to push a political agenda.” Still, his political and social views have become the renewed subject of controversy since the 2016 election, given a number of times he’s “liked” tweets made by controversial political figures.
5. NICK REJECTS ADVENTURE TIME
In 2007, Nickelodeon’s Random Cartoons short films initiative found the next big thing and lost it. Pendleton Ward’s original pilot for Adventure Time was a burst of pure random creativity. It wasn’t as deep or artistically polished as the series would become, but the sense of humor connected immediately and the pilot went viral, getting over 3 million views on Youtube as of April 2008. You’d think Nick would jump on making the series. They didn’t.
Nick rejected the pitch as “too weird.”
At the Cartoon Hangover panel at New York Comic Con 2012, producer Fred Seibert implied there was also some sexism involved, with Nick reluctant to make a “boys” adventure show that had so many princess characters. Nick’s bad judgment was Cartoon Network’s gain. Adventure Time revitalized CN’s programming while Nick struggled to produce new hits.
4. THE LAST AIRBENDER MOVIE
Avatar: The Last Airbender was one of the last Nicktoons to be a real phenomenon. To this day it remains the high standard for serious storytelling in American animation. The live-action movie The Last Airbender was… not that. There were signs of a fiasco a mile away. M. Night Shyamalan’s career was already on a downturn, and the choice to cast white actors as the Asian and Native American heroes, and darker skinned actors as the villains, inspired a mass boycott.
That boycott succeeded easily. The race-bent casting ended up being just one of the movie’s many problems, a symptom of carelessness and general lack of respect for the source material. Most movies inspire some passionate defenders, but it sure seems as if no one except Shyamalan himself defends this movie. There was no sequel; many fans prefer to believe there was no Airbender movie in the first place.
3. SPONGEBOB AND CLIMATE CHANGE
SpongeBob SquarePants is practically unstoppable at this point. Kids still love it, millennials still quote the old and good episodes, parents at least tolerate it and nothing is ever going to stop it. That didn’t stop the hosts of FOX And Friends from trying in 2011. Not only did they attack Mr. SquarePants, they went after the whole Department of Education.
According to the TV report, the Department of Education showed kids a cartoon at the “Let’s Read! Let’s Move!” event and then gave them copies of the book Spongebob Goes Green! An Earth-Friendly Adventure. The Department of Education did not, in fact, show any cartoons at the event and the SpongeBob book about climate change was just one of many provided by corporate sponsors for kids to select. That a book educating about climate change even inspired such controversy sure says something about how many Americans view science.
2. KORRASAMI BECOMES CANON
The Legend of Korra, the follow-up series to Avatar: The Last Airbender, was the subject of many smaller fandom controversies (just say anything about Mako while the first two seasons were airing and watch the flame wars ignite). When people argue about the show now, however, they’re almost always going to talk about the show’s last 10 seconds, where Korra and Asami walk off into the spirit world together as a couple.
The outrage from homophobes was as predictable as it was boring.
More interesting was the debate among LGBT fans and allies over whether this was satisfying representation or too half-assed to be meaningful. The creators did confirm their intentions after the episode aired, but to many viewers the scene still played Korra and Asami’s relationship as ambiguous, without much clear build-up. Still, it broke new ground, and Nick has since been clearer about LGBT representation on The Loud House.
1. THE LOUD HOUSE SEXUAL HARASSMENT SCANDAL
The Loud House is the most successful Nicktoon in a while, one of the few original series to get the network’s full promotional support in the past decade and one of the only shows to rival SpongeBob‘s ratings. The series was inspired by creator Chris Savino’s own life growing up in a huge family. In fall of 2016, some other details of Chris Savino’s biography were leaked: he has a sexual harassment problem.
Multiple accusations of Savino’s bad behavior go back to at least 2004 when he worked on The Powerpuff Girls at Cartoon Network. As the Weinstein scandal and #MeToo hashtag shined a light on harassment in Hollywood, Nickelodeon finally decided to fire Savino. The hit show continues in his absence, which is good news for the artists now able to express their talents in a safer working environment.
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