It’s been two decades since Nickelodeon’s Hey Arnold! debuted to tell ’90s kids a tale about a nine-year-old with a football shaped head, who’s shirt is often mistaken for a kilt, living in the city with his eccentric grandparents and friends.
The show’s creator, Craig Bartlett, created the first version of Arnold in 1988, when he and his wife, Lisa Groening, moved from Portland, OR to L.A. to work on Pee-wee’s Playhouse — specifically on the show’s Penny claymation shorts. Arnold was first made out of clay (which, according to Bartlett, accounts for his odd shaped head) and was a kindergartner with an active imagination. In one of the early shorts (of which there are three) Arnold sits in church while visions of dinosaurs, jumping dogs, flowery meadows, and sailboats float through his mind. Early versions of Helga and Harold also made appearances in these shorts, two of which aired on International Tournée of Animation, a feature-length traveling collection found in theaters, with the third airing on Sesame Street.
Once Bartlett started working on one of the earliest Nicktoons, Rugrats, as a story editor and writer, he introduced Nickelodeon producer and head of Nicktoons, Mary Harrington, to the Arnold claymation and comic strips. From there the show was developed with Bartlett’s Rugrat pals Steve Viksten (who died in 2014) and Joseph Ansolabehere, to become the darkly poetic and comedically satisfying show that is Hey Arnold! The show premiered on this day in 1996, with the pilot episode, “Downtown as Fruits,” in which Arnold and his best friend Gerald end up walking around the grimy streets of downtown dressed like a banana and a strawberry.
To celebrate the show’s anniversary, as well as its anticipated return with The Jungle Movie next year, we spoke with Bartlett, Ansolabehere, writer Joseph Purdy and actors Lane Toran (Arnold in seasons one and two, later Wolfgang), Francesca Marie Smith (Helga), Jamil Walker Smith (Gerald), Justin Shenkarow (Harold), Anndi McAfee (Phoebe), and Maurice LaMarche (Big Bob Pataki) about the creation of the show and its return.