If a baby could talk, and he happened upon a toilet for the first time in his life, what would he say?
That was the rough premise of the six-minute animated short that the team of Gabor Csupo, Arlene Klasky and Paul Germain brought to Nickelodeon in 1989. At the time, the cable network was looking for original shows to put on its newly created Sunday morning cartoon block, and this one, with the diaper-clad baby that looked strange and even a little sickly, staring up at a toilet as though it were the monolith from "2001: A Space Odyssey," seemed promising enough for Nickelodeon executives to order 13 episodes. They have not regretted the move.
Today, "Rugrats" is what people in the entertainment licensing business call an "evergreen property," meaning the hundreds of millions of dollars in global merchandising rights that the show brings in each year will likely stay as strong as the green leaves of that tree. Mickey Mouse is an evergreen property. So is Winnie the Pooh. By implication, Tommy Pickles and his gang--his friend Chuckie, his neighborhood playmates Phil and Lil, and his bossy, smarty-pants cousin Angelica--will be adorning kids' T-shirts and lunch boxes for generations to come.
"We've treated 'Rugrats' as a lifelong property out of the gate," says Ann Sarnoff, Nickelodeon's executive vice president for consumer products.
And yet, "Rugrats" is more than the story of a kids' cartoon that lodged itself into the collective unconscious of the 2-to-11-year-old set through the canny, patient marketing of adorable characters. With its divided universe of kid pathos and adult humor (parents Stu and Didi Pickles are nothing if not yuppie archetypes, built for satire), "Rugrats" is a show that's closer in spirit to "The Simpsons" than "Barney." Closer, too, in execution, since, by all accounts, Germain, creative producer and story editor on the first 65 episodes, ran "Rugrats" like a sitcom--a script-before-storyboard approach that puts the show in the unlikely company of writerly cartoons such as Comedy Central's "South Park" and Fox's "King of the Hill."
"In animation, there's always a split: Do we let the artists run it, or do we let the writers have it?" says Joe Ansolabehere, a former "Rugrats" writer who, with Germain, went on to create the hit ABC Saturday morning cartoon "Recess."
" 'Rugrats' eventually became more like 'Bullwinkle,' 'The Simpsons' and 'The Flintstones,' in that it was a writer-centric show."
A new season of "Rugrats" now airs Saturdays at 8 p.m., but these days, the franchise is powered by media on multiple fronts.
On TV, the show appears 19 times a week, which has helped Nickelodeon quadruple its audience over the past five years. The average 2 million viewers that each half-hour pulls in (each show contains two 15-minute stories) consistently puts "Rugrats" among the top-rated cable shows, and the reruns that air weeknights at 7:30 p.m. have helped fill an after-dinner programming void for parents.
A daily "Rugrats" comic strip debuted several months ago in nearly 100 newspapers, including The Times.
Meanwhile, a stage show, "Rugrats--A Live Adventure," is chugging around the country with a scheduled stopover Sept. 24-29 at Cox Arena in San Diego (the show's Los Angeles-area dates are tentatively set for March 12-16 at the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim and March 19-28 at the Universal Amphitheatre). With a second touring company slated to hit the road later this year, the production is on track to become the year's highest-grossing live performance for kids, more powerful than "Barney" or "Sesame Street," according to the trade publication Amusement Business.
Finally, "The Rugrats Movie" is coming Nov. 25 from Nick's sister studio Paramount, and a sequel is already in the works for 2000. David Spade and Whoopi Goldberg are among the celebrities lending voices to the film, and the soundtrack will feature rock acts Jakob Dylan of the Wallflowers and the B-52's. In "The Rugrats Movie," the babies will go on a wild adventure through a forest, encountering lizards, monkeys, spooky shadows and a mysterious wizard.
But that's nothing compared to the horrifying realities of life depicted on the show since its inception. Consider: "Rugrats" has tackled death (when Chuckie's pet bug Melville died), irrational kid fears (as when Tommy avoids the tub, afraid he'll be sucked down the drain when he takes a bath) and interfaith marriage (the Passover episode, which revealed that Stu is Gentile and Didi Jewish).
"I've heard parents say, 'I'm not sure about letting my kids watch 'Rugrats,' " says Carol Postal, a consultant for the $100-billion children's entertainment licensing industry. "But, at the end of the day, it's done with good humor and it always has a happy ending. It talks about stuff that's indigenous to kids' lives."
Like "Seinfeld," a sitcom that bloomed late, "Rugrats" didn't take off right away.