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View From the Rug Up : 'RUGRATS,' NICKELODEON'S ANIMATED HIT, LOOKS AT WORLD THROUGH EYES OF A TODDLER

July 21, 1996|LYNNE HEFFLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

What's the top-rated cable series? Think cartoon. Think family-friendly cartoon. Think weird, family-friendly cartoon: "Rugrats," the Emmy Award-winning animated show that has captivated viewers of all ages with wacky, toddler-point-of-view observations of life.

So what's the appeal? The characters, for one, with faces and forms not to be found in nature. They include perpetually scared, bespectacled Chuckie (even his spiky red hair looks anxious), four-year-old meanie Angelica and the alarmingly sinister-looking but benign toddler twins Phil and Lil.

And at the center of all the shenanigans is Tommy Pickles, the diapered and frequently perplexed peacemaker, whose somewhat amphibious appearance is enhanced by saucer-sized eyes, a bulbous bald pate and a horizontal mouth that stretches ear to ear.

Plots range from the demise of a pet bug to a "Rashomon"-type trial over a broken lamp, from Chuckie's all-consuming potty training fears to Tommy's nightmarish bout with bottle deprivation--brought on by his mother's chronic reliance on so-called child-rearing experts.

Indeed, the well-meaning adults move in and out of their offsprings' sphere of existence like incomprehensible aliens.

In each of the shows--65 so far, with more on the way--writers at the innovative, Hollywood-based animation studio Klasky Csupo Inc. imagine a world shaped by a young child's limited frames of reference.

"Just think about it: Somebody comes into this world where everything is new to them," said Hungarian-born Gabor Csupo, who co-founded the studio with his partner--and former wife--Arlene Klasky. "There are endless possibilities to play with.

"This is a show where parents are comfortable sitting with their children and they don't have to be bored. It's not a silly, one-gag oriented cartoon. [It is] more like storytelling--linear stories. And once you learn the characters, you cannot help falling in love with them and you want to find out what else is going to happen to them."

Astute programming hasn't hurt, either. Cyma Zarghami, general manager of Nickelodeon, noted that after "Rugrats" premiered in a Sunday morning slot in 1991, the added a second play on Saturday evenings, Nickelodeon upped the show's visibility by adding it to the weekday schedule two years ago.

"We put them on Monday through Friday, which, seemingly, is when it became a phenomenon . . . and really kicked up the afternoon ratings to a whole new level," making the show more accessible to a broader age range, Zarghami observed.

"The little kids like it because it's very physical and they love watching other kids do stuff," she says. "The older kids like it because it's a way for them to get back into kiddom, to relate to who they are and what's going on in their world without feeling like babies. The parents [on the show] are really amusing characters as well, so I think parents who watch with their kids can enjoy it on a whole different level."

Some parents are less amused, according to Diana Huss Green, who heads the nonprofit, media-rating Parents' Choice Foundation. The group awarded the show its stamp of approval initially, and although Green still expresses admiration for the series' creativity, she now sees it as less suitable for preschoolers.

"It really has been, from the beginning, a very well-scripted and clever show," Green said, "very hip, very up to date. The music [created by ex-Devo member Mark Mothersbaugh] is terrific and so is the talent."

What concerns Green is the show's portrayal of foolish adults, aggressive behavior and what she perceives as "a touch of cynicism. All I'm talking about is age-appropriateness," she said. "Moral development is never aided by repetitious lack of civility."

Although Csupo and Klasky, who created "Rugrats" with Paul Germain, are no longer involved in the show's writing on a day-to-day basis, they say the scripts are gone over "with a fine-tooth comb" by the studio and the network.

"You can't have a show that's too soft," Klasky responded when asked about the more aggressive elements of the series.

"You try to be completely responsible, but sometimes the story's just bland. . . . Writers want to write what's interesting and they're adults, so regardless of how responsible everybody is, everybody has a little bit different perspective as to what's responsible for children and what's realistic."

"You need an antagonistic character to create a little conflict, but we don't use guns or murder or anything like that," Csupo said. "We believe that action-adventure--violence--is kind of the easy street. It's so easy to make and kids will probably watch it because they like the fast-moving action and the sound of the guns and all that, but we just purposely don't want to do it."

Since animating the three initial seasons of Matt Groening's groundbreaking "The Simpsons" on Fox, the highly regarded 14-year-old studio--three buildings in well-worn area of Hollywood--has come up with some of the weirdest toons in town, including the decidedly adult "Duckman" on USA, Nickelodeon's "Aaahh!!! Real Monsters" and CBS' "Santo Bugito."

Now, in the wake of "Rugrats" success, a feature film is planned for release in 1998 and Nickelodeon has arranged for first dibs on any new Klasky Csupo animation through the studio's recently announced three-year alliance with Viacom, which owns Nickelodeon, MTV and Paramount Pictures.

"Rugrats" airs weekdays at 6:30 p.m., Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 10 a.m. on Nickelodeon.

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