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.
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.