The troubled new Nickelodeon oral history shows the dangers of nostalgia

The troubled new Nickelodeon oral history shows the dangers of nostalgia

Matthew Klickstein’s Slimed!: An Oral History Of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age seems like it should be the most fun book ever. What’s not to like about an oral history of Nickelodeon’s golden age (roughly the late ’80s through the mid-’90s) with insight into the production of shows like The Adventures Of Pete And Pete, Clarissa Explains It All, and All That? Slimed delivers almost exactly what you’d expect with that premise—some intriguing tidbits for the obsessive (Welcome Freshmen’s Dave Rhoden went on a few dates with Melissa Joan Hart), mildly amusing stories about making slime, and a bit of genuinely interesting history (the extent to which Nick’s biggest programming successes relied on a laissez faire attitude from network president Gerry Laybourne). So why did it leave me with such a bad taste?

Slimed is a product of blind, overly nostalgic fandom, and this, in large part, is the problem with the oral history format. Giving tons of old Nick employees an opportunity to talk about their best work doesn’t seem likely to produce much in the way of rigorous examination. In his essay on music-journalism oral histories, Jason Heller bemoaned the format’s lack of context, analysis, or strong authorial voice, likening them to empty calories without a serious critical lens. That diagnosis might be even more apt for television, where oral histories like Top Of The Rock, Warren Littlefield and T.R. Pearson’s history of Must See TV, serve as especially informative pieces of self-congratulation. Slimed might have found the only way to top a book primarily written by an executive looking fondly back on his time at the helm—have a superfan compose one.

Klickstein spends much of his acknowledgments (the only place he directly appears in the book) describing the depths of his love for Nick and his awe at this opportunity to speak to the assembled talent to collect material. While it’s reasonable to be excited by the chance to talk to Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi—most people who write about pop culture are fans—it’s a little off-putting when the author outright describes himself as a “frothing fanboy.” Such a high level of bias makes it tough to fully accept the rest of the book; rather than simply indicating enthusiasm, Klickstein seems to be more interested in signaling that he is the target audience for Slimed, consumed by memories of the perfect Nickelodeon childhood. The book is, then, perfect for our current bout of slightly overdone 1990s nostalgia.

There’s practically an online cottage industry in listicles that do nothing more than remind people that, yes, the 1990s happened. On the other end of the spectrum are pieces like Carl Wilson’s 2011 essay warily eyeing the coming onslaught of ’90s nostalgia. In fact, the nostalgia cycle (no matter how long it technically is) has certainly sped up, to the point where we’ve already started to move into ’00s nostalgia. And with the rise in condensed, prepackaged sepia-toned memories, it seems like cultural perception of nostalgia has rarely been more positive. Where in his essay Wilson claims that, “North Americans my age knew that nostalgia was a sickness,” it now seems almost impossible to complain about the phenomenon without being called a scold. Admittedly, that sensitivity makes a lot of sense—if someone wants to reminisce about how things were better back in the day, who are you to tell them not to? After all, remembering things is mostly harmless, except that this sort of nostalgia just makes it a whole lot easier to forget the bad stuff. The ’90s are great if you love Hey Arnold and Are You Afraid Of The Dark?, but a lot of other stuff about it wasn’t so great. The things we like (and choose to remember) color our perceptions.

In the case of Slimed, nostalgic blinders alter some of the organization and information, as well as the way it’s presented. Several of the biggest Nick conflicts seem at least partially papered over, whether by the interview subjects or by Klickstein himself. Klickstein devotes a sizeable chunk of a chapter to the acrimonious firing of John Kricfalusi. That fiasco doesn’t become much clearer with hindsight, though the involved parties get a pulpit to share their opinions on Kricfalusi’s work ethic and general unpleasantness. Several former Nick employees mention the extremely awkward working relationship between Rugrats creators and ex-spouses Arlene Klasky and Gabor Csupo, without really examining how that relationship affected the Rugrats process. Yet Klasky, who is blamed for most of the problems that led to a divide among the creative team and a letter to the Los Angeles Times in defense of co-creator Paul Germain, is not interviewed. 

There are also bigger issues with the network’s conduct that remain unaddressed; in particular, several labor conflicts (Nick pretty much never employed unions on any of its shows) receive little attention. Again, the oral history format means that former Nick employees can protest that it would have cost too much money to employ unions without delving into any of the reasons that might have been a bad decision. To Klickstein’s credit, Slimed includes a chapter ostensibly focused on Nick’s diversity problem, and executives are candid about the financial motivations for the network’s whitewashing. This sort of honesty is rare, however, and is followed in short succession by horror stories of angry parents upset that the network was marketing an overwhelming white, upper-middle class, suburban version of childhood to everyone. With more focus and a more forceful presence from Klickstein, Slimed has the potential to cross the line from cash-in to worthwhile examination of Nick’s heyday.

I’m as much a victim of premature nostalgia as anyone else—I have a deep and undying love for a lot of beloved ’90s pop culture, including several Nick shows (Doug, Rugrats, All That). I have seen Space Jam at least 30 times, including 10 times in the last two years. But where simple reminiscing (or a few listicles) are harmless sugar highs, the binge represented by Slimed and the like just leaves an inescapable lethargy. I do feel at least a bit guilty for complaining about nostalgia for shows I remember fondly. But I also feel a great discomfort about contributing to the self-congratulatory, self-serving air of the project, as well as the damaging parts of excessive nostalgia, which just seem positioned to sell stuff: Nick is a particularly bad offender in this regard. Wilson even singles out Nick’s capitalization on ’90s nostalgia through its TeenNick channel, and most of the interview subjects spend the end of the book bemoaning the current state of Nickelodeon, which to hear the former Nick players tell it, has removed whatever made it different from Disney as a mass purveyor of children’s entertainment.

Almost by definition, nostalgia involves a loss of perspective, remembering things as better than they were. Events and works of art go from complex, living things requiring examination and thought to easy to summarize in a sentence or two. That way of looking at the world reduces 10 years to 15 words. “It was a simpler time back then,” it seems to say. If that doesn’t sound so bad, consider that it’s the same basic impulse that has made The Goldbergs possible.

In fact Slimed, though effective enough, might actually be worse for anyone interested in nostalgia. In his introduction, Marc Summers (former host of Double Dare) describes the process of reading an oral history as comparable to explaining a joke—and everyone knows explaining a joke is the surest way to make it unfunny. In that respect, at least, the oral history as a format doesn’t have much going for it. Still, even if it does rob the shows of some of their mystery, learning about making “Reptar On Ice” is just plain awesome. There are enough interesting anecdotes to make Slimed reasonably pleasant filler, provided its readers can resist the temptation to let excessive, nostalgic fandom (or the Nick staff themselves) dictate the terms of how they remember the network’s golden age. Let’s take the awesome with a grain of non-slimy salt.

Filed Under: Books, 1993 Week

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