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COVER STORY : New Kings of TV's Toon Town : In an era when product tie-ins lead to new series, and not vice versa, Nickelodeon has hit paydirt with a plan some might call Looney Tunes: Hire bright animators and let them do (almost) anything they want

October 17, 1993|DANIEL CERONE | Daniel Cerone is a Times staff writer.

Hanna-Barbera's Seibert is not so sure that Nickelodeon deserves all the credit for the industry's willingness to move away from property-driven cartoons. He pointed out that CBS took some chances years ago with the stylistic "Pee-wee's Playhouse," even though it was not a cartoon. And a couple of years ago Fox gambled and hit with "Bobby's World," inspired by a character comedian Howie Mandell developed in his stand-up act.

"Nickelodeon has been one of the keys in opening up the world of animation to different kinds of programming and different approaches to programming," Seibert said. "It's really true that an open, competitive framework is good for everybody. As to whether they were the ones to bring back creator-driven shows, that's all chicken-and-egg."

And there is a thornier issue. "Nickelodeon is saying they led the whole charge of creator-driven animation, but then they fired their biggest creator," noted an executive at a competing animation studio. "So is 'Ren & Stimpy' a creator-driven cartoon anymore? I don't know."

Joe Murray, tall, dark-haired and slightly eccentric, shut down his small commercial studio in Saratoga, Calif., for the opportunity to work on "Rocko." He's an aggressively independent artist who makes cartoons that do not come from scripts but are developed scene by scene on storyboards in the tradition of the old Warner Bros. artists behind "Looney Tunes."

"Rocko" uses a fruity palette of colors and a warped, twisted design style Murray describes as "wonky." His animal characters--including Rocko's best friend, Heffer, a bumbling steer, and his toad neighbors, Ed and Bev Bighead--squash and stretch in classic cartoon form. There's cool background music and a lot of gross-out laughs.

Sound familiar?

Indeed, Murray's style, humor, execution and inspiration are not far from Kricfalusi's. And there appear to be shades of the same kind of creative hassles Kricfalusi experienced with Nickelodeon--although Murray is more committed to working them out. He described relinquishing the rights to his characters as giving his children up for adoption while still being able to care for them.

"A creator-driven show is not easy. It's not. I don't know the details about what happened with John, but I know it was very difficult for them to jump into bed with another creator," Murray said. "Nickelodeon respects my talent and what I'm trying to do, and I respect them. For the most part, they agree with me and share my vision."

Rocko is a child moving into an adult world, and Murray wanted to create a series entertaining to both adults and children. That has sometimes led to clashes over content--from the simple, such as not showing circus midgets juggling knives because kids might try to duplicate it, to the more sophisticated, such as Rocko applying for a credit card.

"In the world of animation for kids, you must remember that your first audience is always kids," said Nickelodeon's Scannell. "And a situation that comes up time and time again here--people have the impression that we are making 'Rocky and Bullwinkle' and we're not. People think they can make a show for adults and kids will get it. But we're in a kids-first medium."

Critics contend that "Rocko" and "Ren & Stimpy" are being produced in-house so Nickelodeon can keep tight control of them. When Kricfalusi was producing "Ren & Stimpy" through his own independent production company, Spumco, fights routinely erupted over story content, as Kricfalusi tried to sneak bits into his cartoon that Nick executives had rejected.

"We learned a lot from our experience with John Kricfalusi," said Vanessa Coffey, former animation vice president for Nickelodeon, who recently stepped down to pursue her own projects. She was replaced by Mary Harrington, a Nickelodeon producer who moved out from New York to help run the Nicktoons division that was a near-shambles after Kricfalusi was fired.

"We learned that it is best to be supportive of a creator and not have him be a businessman," Coffey continued. "We learned to create a creative environment but a secure environment for our company. That's what we did with Joe Murray. He's working under our roof, where we can handle the business for him. His job is to be creative."

Although Nickelodeon still plans to farm some future cartoons to outside producers, the company hopes Games Animation becomes a major player in the industry. Scannell pointed to other reasons to produce series in-house: Nickelodeon can put more of the budget on screen rather than paying profit margins to an outside producer, and the cable channel is more directly involved in the creative process as a collaborative partner.

"There's a lot of upside in owning your characters and being able to do whatever you want with them," observed Betty Cohen, executive vice president of the Cartoon Network, a rival cable channel.

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