By: Darren Ranck, Brennan Carley, Charlotte Parish
Williamsburg is not the only place where vintage and throwbacks are in vogue. This summer, Nickelodeon pulled out some of their television gems from the back shelf and dusted off six of their most popular shows from the ’90s. A programming block aired on Teen Nick called ‘The ’90s Are All That’ swept the 12 a.m. to 4 a.m. time slot on July 18, pulling in about 555,000 viewers longing for a fix of their favorite childhood shows.
Not only is this movement for the ’90s children, it is by the ’90s children. A group of Nickelodeon interns – unpaid, nostalgic, and brilliant folks who grew up with the likes of Doug, Clarissa, and Kenan – pitched the idea to bring back all the best of Nick to a later time slot, citing the 9 million Facebook members who were already attached to groups reminiscing about some of the best shows of their childhood. Similar in concept to ‘Nick at Nite,’ the ’90s throwback segment is even simpler to produce because Nick is recycling their own shows, rather than other networks’ sitcoms. There is already talk of adding to the six shows chosen for the pioneer run of ‘The ’90s Are All That.’ Bubbling into that chatter, numerous social media outlets, which drove the initial push for the return of these shows, are campaigning for their favorite shows.
It is a unique marketing campaign for Nickelodeon, trying to draw in viewers who are expressly not in the usual demographic of Nick shows. However, its short-term success is undeniable. All that’s left is one question to survey the longevity of the program: at 3 a.m., would you rather be reading a textbook or have Clarissa explain it all to you?
Are You Afraid of the Dark?
During the golden age of SNICK, the premiere Saturday night programming on Nickelodeon, everyone stayed up late for the thrilling Are You Afraid of the Dark?. For six years, the Midnight Society, a group of teenage storytellers, gathered around a campfire in the middle of a forest to spin tales of fright. The members of the Midnight Society refreshingly had nothing in common except for a love of horror stories and creative fiction.
With the flick of “magic sand,” the weekly story commenced, bringing in a new cast each week to tell the tale. As with any ’90s serial, future stars, such as Ryan Gosling and Neve Campbell, had feature roles in the tales of horror and whimsy. A host of recurring characters also keep it entertaining. Who can forget the mythical Sardo and his shop full of magical yet treacherous gifts? Who isn’t creeped out by the vaguely European and rather mad murmurings of Dr. Vink?
Even with the familiarity, this is a show that will never stop being entertaining. After 10 years off the air, the show still feels just as chilling as before. Clowns drooling green sludge, a headless horseman, girls turning into China dolls, and funhouse creatures haunting your house are staples of fright, and the show delivers. Just when the Midnight Society decides to extinguish the campfire, you’ll want to keep the lights on for just a little longer.
Clarissa Explains It All
The memorable opening strains of this classic’s theme song says it all: “Na na na na-na.” Incessantly wordy but empty of substance – that’s Clarissa! Before Melissa Joan Hart stepped into the legendary role of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, she played the spunky girl next door Clarissa Darling. For young girls, Clarissa helped them navigate the preteen scene. She was the poster child for street smarts with her savvy way of dealing with boys, school, and her annoying little brother (a staple for older sister archetypes). Her fearless breaking of the fourth wall made her an active character in the lives of viewers. She was more than a television show character. She was a friend.
While Clarissa’s exploits are no longer quite relatable (hopefully the perils of teen acne are a thing of the past), the show’s central relationship between Clarissa and her best friend Sam Anders still makes hearts of any age flutter. Their will they/won’t they tension is enough to rival Ross and Rachel from Friends. If you discount the creep factor of the ladder Sam used to climb into her window at night, their relationship was very sweet. They gave one another necessary support but also continued to allow their relationship to flourish into something near romance. While the relationship never came to fruition, the idea that Sam and Clarissa got together their final semester of senior year before becoming an engaged couple at University of Ohio still sounds like a viable option. For the cynical, little brother Ferguson plays a delightfully comic villain and foil to heroine Clarissa.
In 1991, animator Jim Jinkins brought the world of My So-Called Life to a much younger generation in the sitcom Doug. Voiced by Billy West, Doug Funny was one of the most engaging characters on TV at the time because he was so uniquely normal. In a pop culture world filled with oddities (the talking babies of Rugrats) and quirks (Ren and Stimpy), Doug stood out with his average life. Surrounded by others who constantly threatened to steal his diminished spotlight, the green-vested everyman struggled with insecurities faced by all children. He had girl troubles (Patti Mayonnaise), family issues (would his parents love him any less once his baby sister Dirtbike was born?), and of course, he had his bullies.
Roger Klotz was also voiced by Billy West. The two lead characters were more similar than either of the two might have liked to think. Both were victims of bullying in their own right. Before the show transferred homes (Disney’s New Doug failed to fire on the same cylinders as the original), Jinkins and his team of writers adeptly navigated storylines about poverty, absentee parents, and disappointing friends.
Of the batch, Doug is the show that holds up best, because its universally understood themes remain highly relevant. It combines slapstick humor with heartfelt pathos. He doesn’t always come out on top, but when he does, it makes the audience root for him even more.
Nick has already cycled Doug out of its lineup, but it maintains a constant presence on the programming block’s Facebook page, and eager fans will assuredly vote it back onto the network. Download the pilot episode, “Doug Bags a Neematoad,” easily one of the show’s best, and revisit the gang that still brings a remembering smile to faces all across the country some 20 years later.
Rocko’s Modern Life
Before the era of South Park, the edgy cartoon skewed the line between innocence and inappropriateness. For every Care Bears, there was a Beavis and Butthead to stir the animated pot. Nickelodeon added to this mix with the utterly bizarre but highly amusing Rocko’s Modern Life. Premiering in 1993, the show introduced the world to Australian Rocko the wallaby following his immigration to America. Rocko is essentially the Jerry Seinfeld of his home O-Town (not to be confused with the first season product of Making the Band). He finds dilemmas in the most mundane situations alongside his best friends Heffer, a blonde cow (the Kramer character), and Filbert, a turtle with taped glasses (the George Costanza character).
As children, we watched this show thinking it was a goofy, crazy gang of personified animals. The actual situation, though, placed mentally unstable animals together in a city littered with dirty jokes. Yes, in retrospect, Rocko’s Modern Life is filthy. There’s innuendo at every turn in the names of places and characters. In the bold, wild colors of the animation, there are lewd images gracing the streets. There are jokes and storylines that children couldn’t possibly understand (anyone recall the highly unconventional episode about censored nudity?). Rocko’s Modern Life would make the Parents Television Council go red with rage, yet somehow it aired on Nickelodeon for five years. Now that it’s back, you can revisit every disgustingly offensive episode and finally be in on the joke. For instance, there’s more to the name of their favorite restaurant, “The Choking Chicken,” than just poultry.
Kenan and Kel
Above all else, audiences today surely remember Kel Mitchell’s ode to that brightly colored fizzy drink; “Who loves orange soda? Kel loves orange soda. I do, I do, I do!” is just one of those quotes that can still bring a smile to everyone’s face. It’s one of several memorable moments from two young actors who loved to make people laugh
The sitcom followed the title characters’ experiences in high school in Chicago, and the Kenan’s after school job in the corner grocery store. Kel’s signature catchphrase, “Aw, here it goes!” was uttered in nearly every episode. More than that, the show was unique in its exploration of the often-comedic lives of two black teens. It is the rare show that features black actors in the lead roles, especially among programming geared at kids. It carried on the tradition of shows like Sister, Sister and Smart Guy in this regard, but its popularity and staying power far exceeded its predecessors. Today, a hole exists in terms of this type of programming, so it’s encouraging to see Nickelodeon attempting to smooth out this wrinkle, even if it means reairing some old content.
It wasn’t groundbreaking, nor was it always funny, but it still allowed the two inherently talented actors the chance to mature and hone their craft. It’s funny to look back on Thompson’s mannerisms in the show; many of them have accompanied him to his current position on Saturday Night Live. Had he attempted to make the jump directly from All That, it’s doubtful that Lorne Michaels would have even given him the time of day. Kenan and Kel presented the two a platform, a chance to improvise and test their material on an audience that was far less judgmental than that of the primetime world.
Though it’s been said before, All That was a clearly watered down version of Saturday Night Live meant to appease children of all ages, but looking back on it, the show was much more of a launching pad for future talent than a two-bit variety show.
In revisiting the show, it is blatantly obvious that multiple skits fall flat in terms of laugh factor—how many fart, vomit, and poop jokes can kids really take in before it becomes too much? Others, however, retain their humor in subtler ways. The “Good Burger” skits frequently skittered into absurdity, but the chemistry between Kenan Thompson and Kel Mitchell is still noteworthy. Likewise, Amanda Bynes’ appearance in Season 3 brought a much needed freshness to the skits; her youthful exuberance in pieces like “Ask Ashley” demonstrate her comedic timing, even at such an early age.
Adults embraced the show as an introduction to the world of comedy; it was a safe and, more often than not, fairly appropriate starting point for kids to learn about what was funny and what wasn’t. Even SNL cast member Chris Farley appeared on the show, as if Lorne Michaels himself was extending an olive branch of acknowledgment and approval to the show.
A new era of All That began in 2002, after the show took a yearlong hiatus to deal with the loss of many of its most vibrant and popular cast members. Bynes moved on to The Amanda Show, while Mitchell and Thompson jumped ship for their own sitcom on the network, the still quote-worthy Kenan and Kel. Britney Spears’ little sister Jamie Lynn took the helm, but it was obvious that the golden age of the show was complete. Thankfully, Nick is only airing episodes from that very age.