TV

An Oral History Of The Creation And Return Of ‘Hey Arnold!’

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.

Beginnings

Once Arnold made his way as character of his own TV show, he went from an imaginative six-year-old to an active 4th grader with a host of friends. For the most part, Arnold was a chill dude surrounded by an unconventional world of characters, his school friends and his many housemates at his Grandparent’s boarding house. A driving force of the show was Helga Pataki’s unrequited love/obsession for the titular character, which she could never express to him. Instead, she acted out in rage while consulting her Arnold shrine, composed of chewing gum and other particles of Arnold’s essence, only in private.

Craig Bartlett, creator: [The writers from Rugrats] pitched [Mary Harrington] all of our ideas and she didn’t want to do any of them and we’re sitting there with nothing left to talk about and someone said, “Hey Craig, show Mary your Penny cartoons.” I had them on a VHS show-reel and at the front were those claymation Arnold shorts. I also happened to have copies of Simpsons Illustrated magazine with me and I showed her the comics. It was one particular drawing of Arnold, kind of an extreme expression on his face, and she laughed and laughed. She’s like, “I love this. Let’s do something like this.”

Joseph Ansolabehere, co-producer: Craig is one of these guys who can do anything. He really can do anything. He can write and do voices, play the guitar, write songs, he can design characters. But I think he appreciated that Steve Viksten and I were just writers. Steve, in particular, was a very funny writer and I was more like the story guy, always thinking of characters and stuff. And he immediately said, “Steve and Joe, would you come and help me take this to the next place? Develop the characters, make it into half and hour.” Figure out the rest of the world, really.

Bartlett: I pitched that he was really urban, he was living in this old boarding house under the freeway overpass with his grandparents and a bunch of eccentric boarders, that was the pitch. [Laughs.]

Ansolabehere: I remember the L.A. riots were happening while we were developing the show. The city was burning and we were just sitting there going, this is so strange. We’re trying to make a show about a city and kids living in a city and trying to say that life is tough but you can get through it and everything is wonderful and friendship’s important, all this kind of stuff, and this city is on fire.

Lane Toran, “Arnold”: Arnold has always been very caring, thoughtful and ambitious. Saving Lockjaw and finding Mr. Hyunh’s daughter are great examples of that. I can’t speak for later seasons but in season one Arnold was pretty oblivious to Helga’s obsession with him but maybe on a subconscious level he was into her. I could definitely see Hey Arnold!: The College Years, where they fall madly in love.

Bartlett: He’s like a little Buddha, he’s very calm and all the characters around him are really eccentric and funny and crazy. And you get this feeling that he sees this urban landscape as a really beautiful place. That beauty-in-ugliness was an aesthetic for me.

Ansolabehere: [Arnold is] kind of weird and Nick didn’t want that word, “weird,” ever used. But to us he was that guy who we all know, we all feel that inside of us. That we’re the outsider, that we’re kind of strange but an embracing of that. So at one point Steve and I were struggling with this, and this was once the show was getting going because Nick was saying, “We don’t know who Arnold is.” And one day we just thought, it’s Craig. That’s who Arnold is, he’s Craig. It’s a guy who uses his inner artistic abilities to get through life and be successful.

Bartlett: [Helga] can speak for Arnold to the audience about how awesome and the audience will learn how much she loves Arnold and they’ll love Arnold too, which totally worked by the way. When I see what the adult fans have to say about it now, they love him because she loves him. The important part was as soon as we got into it we want to make Helga a sympathetic character even though she’s so mean, and how we do that? Then the answer was we’ll make her the forgotten passed over child and her mom and dad are totally caught up in their own thing.

Francesca Marie Smith, “Helga Pataki”: Twenty years later I look back and I think, okay, well how do we navigate that boundary between a sort of funny obsession and something that can be really scary and really problematic and really deeply neurotic? And I don’t know, in some way I think how funny it was and the fact that it was a cartoon allowed us to push into a territory that, in real life, would be really scary. But at the same time, it was a really powerful physical representation of all these feelings that she didn’t know what to do with… I would be careful to say, yeah, of course, we don’t want to encourage obsessive behavior but beyond that it does strike me as a very poignant and honest reflection of how deep and incredibly powerful and, yeah, a little weird those feelings can be.

Growing Pains

Unlike many cartoons before it, Bartlett made the decision to cast the show with actual kids to voice kids (aside from Brainy, who was voiced by Bartlett). It was a first for any Nicktoon and created the authenticity and reality in characters that Bartlett was looking for. The girls of the show maintained their roles throughout the show’s run, as well as Shenkarow and Walker Smith as Harold and Gerald. But Arnold was voiced by several actors due to the vocal changes that come with puberty. Throughout the show’s run Arnold was voiced by Lane Toran, Spencer Klein, Philip Van Dyke, Alex D. Linz, and J.D. Daniels.

Marie Smith: One of the things that was really unique about Hey Arnold!, other than Peanuts it was pretty much the only show that used real kids as voice actors. Part of it was we were all in the right age group to love Nickelodeon and to be right in line with their audience.

Toran: I was aware that mainly women voiced children in cartoons and it makes sense in a lot of ways but obviously kids will bring something authentic and raw to the table. It was fun working with so many kids your own age but we were also very focused and serious about doing the best job we could.

Jamil Walker Smith, “Gerald Johanssen”: They didn’t want us to do a voice like we were on a cartoon. I grew up watching cartoons where guys are like talking lions with swords or a rabbit on deep space missions or talking ducks who ride skateboards. So it was cool and exciting to know that this cartoon was going to be about kids who looked and sounded just like us.

Justin Shenkarow, “Harold Berman”: I just love that energy of kids being together and actually voicing kid characters. I thought it was so cool that Craig was insistent on having that for Hey Arnold! We would have the whole cast be in the room and we would read the script from top to bottom with Craig directing us. And the energy that we would be able to bounce off each other, in terms of reading these characters and playing with them and having fun, hearing from the other actors in the room, was just incredible.

Anndi McAfee, “Phoebe Heyerdahl”: I was the oldest, quote-un-quote, kid and I got my license first so obviously I was the coolest. I was so mature compared to all the other kids. Being the oldest one I felt like I was the boss [Laughs.], so working with a bunch of kids, which felt more like still being the boss, was the best for me. They just went nuts, we just got to play with each other and it was a lot of energy and a lot of stuff in Hey Arnold! came from us working together as kids and just riffing off each other.

Bartlett: The kid actors were a huge influence on [the emotions] because I always felt that when our audience of kids watching it heard those real kid voices, they somehow knew there was an emotional authenticity that you couldn’t do with adults playing kids. Real kids playing kids really help sell those emotions.

Shenkarow: One of the things that I think makes Craig so special is that he allows us as actors to be able to improvise. Even as kids, a lot of times they want you to just read the script verbatim. But Craig allowed us to have freedom when we understood the characters and I came up with the line, “Madame Fortress Mommy,” which was a lot of fun. I don’t know how it happened, it was just in the moment and Craig enjoyed it so he kept it in there.

McAfee: I guess the kids call it shipping now, one of the relationships that they ship is Phoebe and Gerald and there’s this flirtation that has gone on with them. But that wasn’t written into the script. Jamil and I were just messing around and it was the episode where we were at the state fair and they were on the swan ride. He said “Do you feel better now?” or “Are you safe now?” and I was just sort of giggling and was like, “I do now.” We kept that funny little flirtation thing throughout the series.

Walker Smith: We really became friends. It did feel like a family. Two days a week after school for seven years I’d go to Hey Arnold! and I think at one point Gerald might have had a crush on Phoebe. I know Jamil Walker Smith had a crush on the girl that played Phoebe. Toran and I, we were friends. He had a pet pig in real life, Arnold had a pet pig on the show. I’d like to take a little credit for Gerald’s haircut, I know I had a pretty high flat-top. [Laughs.] And if you look closely he’s got some pretty thin legs, and I’ve always been known for having some pretty thin, gazelle like legs.

Toran: I voiced Arnold for all of season one. My voice started changing after that and they tried pitching it up in post but it didn’t sound right. After they recast the role, I ended up playing Wolfgang.

Purdy: It was a little weird and, first of all, a little heartbreaking because you have to tell this kid that he’s not this character anymore. We laughed about the idea that we were going to make each retired Arnold then a bully who bullies the new Arnold. We completely ran with that and, actually, those are some of the scrapped episodes where Arnold gets way too bullied by these ex-Arnolds.

McAfee: Having new Arnolds, it was really tough. As a kid it sort of felt like you were betraying the old one, like your old gang. But I loved every single one of the Arnolds, they’re special in their own way and we all got along well. And hopefully each one felt like they were part of the crew.

Walker Smith: I could probably learn from my younger self, I was very Buddhist, I wasn’t trippin’. If it ended, it ended. The great thing about my voice on the show was the first voice I did, I remember I made a little raspy when I read it. I was a little sassy. I was probably influenced by Diff’rent Strokes, like “What chu talkin’ bout Willis?” So thank God for Diff’rent Strokes. Thank God for Gary Coleman. R.I.P. Gary Coleman.

Bartlett: We did hang on to Jamil as Gerald because I really really felt like Jamil’s Gerald was so definitive. I could’t replace him. When his voice changed and he grew up I tried recasting, we brought in some other kids to try for Gerald and they just weren’t Gerald enough. And so I ended up just going, fine. I did that tonsils episode where Gerald’s voice changes and honestly, I just pitched it up a little bit in post.

Walker Smith: When Arnold started I hadn’t gone through puberty yet, so to keep it funky fresh, I was this little raspy deep soulful young brother black man from San Francisco, or wherever the show [was] — we never talked about taking place. When my voice changed there was a point where it was changing into more of what Gerald’s voice was. So that was hip.

Bartlett: Syd’s voice changes at the very end and I brought in Syd’s little brother but we went through several Eugenes and several Curlys and so on. Harold, Justin, his voice, even on episode one, had already cracked and he turned into a teenager. So somehow Justin got to play Harold to the very end. But with the boys that’s your heartbreaker, they just keep growing up. And especially if you want an innocent kid sound, which Arnold needs to have, I just would re-cast and we ended up having five different Arnolds by the time we got to the end of the run. And now we have a sixth for the movie!

A Kid’s Version Of Reality

In Hey Arnold! we meet a man who has given up on interacting with humans and has succumbed to a life where the pigeons are his only friends; a young boy with agoraphobia, struggling to leave his stoop; an alcoholic mother, unable to connect with her youngest daughter. We also meet an angry ice cream man with an overbearing father, a young girl pressured by her family to be perfect and docile but who dreams of lashing out in violent ways, a Vietnamese man who escaped his war-torn country but had to give up his baby daughter in order to find freedom. Hey Arnold! was a heartbreaking show full of dark times and sadness — its beauty was that it could make you laugh through all of it.

McAfee: In the ’90s, studios felt that kids, their lives were not perfect and that they could relate to things that were a little bit more reflective of challenges they might face in life. And there weren’t always happy endings and there’s a way to handle that as well. I do think, with Arnold, that was very much a part of the show. There were a lot of things that happened that were rough and challenging and sad and dark. But the great thing about the show is that the kids handled it in some way, shape, or form.

Marie Smith: Hey Arnold! didn’t really feel cartoony and looking back on it now I would say the same thing. It was just so genuine and part of that was Craig, the rest of the team, the writers, just absolutely pouring all of themselves into it rather than cranking out something cartoony or silly or formulaic. It was absolutely autobiographical, in some ways probably confessional. It was very real. That, combined with the fact that there were kids who were going through some version of the same emotions and thoughts and everything else, because it was authentic on so many levels from the staff, the writing team to the talent.

Maurice LaMarche, “Big Bob Pataki”: There was always a sad undertone to Arnold, the fact that he lost both of his parents and was living in this rundown building with all these rough-edged characters. And unlike Peanuts cartoons, we’d actually meet these people. They weren’t just going, “Wah wah wah wah wah wah wah,” like the adults in Charlie Brown. And there was a lot of love and support from those characters, especially Dan Castellaneta’s Grandpa character, but there was just a grayish tint to Arnold’s life as well. Then we go over to Helga’s house, and here’s Big Bob, a big old control freak, and his wife Miriam is just always extremely “relaxed” [laughs]. We never actually said she was an alcoholic but it was certainly implied that that was what was going on with Miriam.

Bartlett: Arnold episodes always have humor in them because we had to and we had to make the show work and have kids think it was a funny, entertaining cartoon. But the themes are often about sadness and things not going the way you want because I feel like childhood is like that. If you’re a kid you don’t have the power that adults have and you can’t make things go the way you want, you basically have to deal with whatever your situation is because you’re just a kid. The empowerment was that the kids are in this world that isn’t always happy and is sometimes sad but they have their little tiny victories.

Ansolabehere: Craig lived in a tough area and with tough people. One time he got some sort of part in a school performance. He got up on the stage in front of the whole school and he did whatever it was, a piece of Hamlet. He said he was walking home from school and this car drove by filled with the toughest kids who just looked like they could kill him… and the kids yell, “Hey, Shakespeare! Good job!” In that moment he thought, this is my salvation, they didn’t want to kill me, they connected to me.

Bartlett: Arnold was meant to represent how I felt as a child: a daydreamer, and kind of Zen and calm with a sense of wanting to do something about the injustice of a kid’s world. I liked to put myself in the middle of things, like Arnold, and I liked to be philosophical about things. And the setting of Arnold’s urban world is very much based on the neighborhoods of the oldest parts of Seattle and Portland, and the brownstones of Brooklyn and Tribeca, in New York City. When I was growing up, I used to walk around these places and take pictures, and I wanted those specific details in Arnold’s world.

Purdy: We definitely got too dark. [Laughs.] We were given lots of notes by Nickelodeon about, “Remember, it’s a kid’s show,” as we explored Ernie’s psyche and Big Bob’s, and Miriam seemed to have a little problem. All dark episodes we would balance with some silly story in the same episode. We actually scrapped a lot of really dark stories because they were too dark… There were some Ernie episodes that were made tamer than they were originally pitched, about Ernie’s love life. And I we had scrapped a couple of darker Miriam stories.

McAfee: Like most of the kids who grew up watching it, so much of it went over my head. Even though I thought that I was so mature because I had a car. Still, most of the stuff went over my head. I had no idea that Miriam, Helga’s mother, what her shakes were. I had no idea what that meant.

LaMarche: We’d come into their house and she’d be asleep behind the couch, and let’s face it, that’s what happens with alcoholics… It was stuff that didn’t get approached as story by many, or even any, cartoon shows. Hey Arnold! may have been a bit groundbreaking in that aspect.

Walker Smith: Hey Arnold! was ahead of its time. When I watch it now, the issues and the things that Craig and Steve [Viksten] and Joe [Purdy] and everyone else who was writing on the show, the things that they were able to deal with and confront, when I watch it now I’m like, wow, that’s social commentary, that’s critique, that’s real stuff. But they were able to do it in such a way that they weren’t pushing issues in your face, they were just talking about life and it just so happens that those are things, if you’re honest, that you don’t typically see in cartoons.

Ansolabehere: Steve and Craig and I, we were huge fans of the ’70s and all those sorts of quirky comedies that were made. All those films — Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, and we would talk about Paper Moon when we were making these things. So our shows tended to have a dark realism, a comic darkness too. I think that’s where it came from. We would look at something like Hal Ashby, we’d look at those movies and think that’s what we want to do. We want kid’s versions of that and felt we could make comedy out of that.

Bartlett: My God, the scene in “Helga on the Couch” where she goes to the therapist, we see that flashback where she’s three and going to preschool and she has to walk to preschool by herself and make her own lunch. When I think about it I can’t believe we did that. But the whole point was to make you love Helga.

Walker Smith: It wasn’t a fantastical world that doesn’t exist, it is one that we live in and that’s something that speaks to why it was so popular then and it’s going to be popular again.

The Comeback

Hey Arnold! will make its return with the Hey Arnold!: The Jungle Movie next year, a movie that Bartlett has long had in the works and is at last coming to fruition. Many lingering questions should be answered and, in other heartwarming news, the original voice actors will return, either as their original characters or in some other form.

McAfee: Craig writes from his heart. He writes from a place of human interaction. It has resonated for so long, to the point where Nickelodeon is like, oh, wow, we got something here. Finding out that we were greenlit was just so surreal… Cannot believe it happened. We recorded the movie and still don’t believe it happened.

Bartlett: The Jungle Movie, that was the movie we were developing but never made. “The Journal” was the last episode we made, which was actually meant to be a prequel to The Jungle Movie, where Arnold finds a map in his dad’s journal and he’s going to want to follow the map and find his parents. So it was actually a really easy pitch for the reboot because I had a story already that I wanted to tell. It’s just finally the time has come and the audience is ready, Nickelodeon is ready and I’m ready so we’re finally doing it.

Toran: Hey Arnold! fans have been amazing and I’m very appreciative for the warm response. I got to catch up with Jamil recently which was a trip. Hadn’t seen him in a long time. I’ve stayed in contact with Franny more so than anyone. I got to experience my first Comic-Con with her last year.

Ansolabehere: It’s mixed with sadness for me because it wasn’t a very pleasant experience for me. But I always knew we were doing something special, I just was frustrated that I wasn’t able to survive and still remain friends with my friends… And seriously, Craig and I, we put it back together. He’s one of my closest friends but we both know we can’t work together, we can never work together. When Craig and I were patching up our friendship he gave me a cell of Arnold and Gerald, arm and arm, we’ll get through this at any cost. It was from “Downtown as Fruits.” But really, there were three people standing there, it wasn’t just me and Craig, and it just didn’t work out.

McAfee: When we did the read-through, some of the original cast was there and some of the production team and some of the new production team and some of the execs from Nickelodeon that made this happen, it was very moving. We were almost all kind of in tears because it’s such a beautiful combination of the heart of the show and what we all grew up with and bringing in that same kind of energy but with the new generation of kids who get to feel the same love that we had growing up with it.

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