Slimed! by Mathew Klickstein
As I’ve said to Ana, one of the many reasons that I read is to experience other lives—getting my extra lives in, as it were. Oral histories appeal to that reasoning, since, when done well, they’re one of the most efficient ways to see events from as many perspectives as possible. I love nothing better than contradiction in oral histories as people’s memories compare and contrast against others’. What better way to get an understanding of a moment, an experience, an event, than to see it from several angles? It’s a unique and vivid way to write about history.
But write isn’t the, well, right word to use. The oral historian’s skill set must include the ability to not only interview those involved, but also to structure those interviews into a coherent narrative. Both I Want My MTV and We Killed follow their subjects chronologically. While I haven’t personally seen it done, I’m sure there are other logical structures for an oral history to take. Slimed!’s greatest fault is that it, much like Nickelodeon’s famous logo, it is utterly shapeless.
Now, seeing an oral history of Nickelodeon on NetGalley made me gasp and hit “request” immediately, as you might imagine. Despite being raised in a pop culture-proof bubble, I have fond memories of catching occasional episodes of Rugrats, Hey Arnold, Doug, KaBlam!, and, of course, Power Rangers. (Once, while accompanying my mother to the Fort Travis Base Exchange, the woman checking everyone’s military IDs told me she was the Pink Power Ranger, presumably because I, about six, was gaping at her prosthetic arm. My day immediately improved, because Kimberly was the best, although my mother then had to listen to me extoll the virtues of hot pink versus regular pink for the rest of the shopping trip.) The way children’s and young adult entertainment has exploded since the late seventies and early eighties is a fascinating subject unto itself, and Nickelodeon’s irreverent aesthetic was, once, the only thing like that on the market.
But Slimed! is haphazard and unfocused. The golden age of its subtitle refers to 1981 (when the young channel began showing You Can’t Do That On Television!) to circa 1998 (when The Rugrats Movie was released), but that’s only discernible after a close reading. And even the shows that fall under this jurisdiction aren’t always included; Hey Arnold!, for instance, the show that I would say epitomized Nickelodeon’s golden age, is mentioned exactly twice. Instead of tackling the rise and “fall” of Nickelodeon, Slimed! tackles Nick’s history topically, starting with the experience of acting on a Nickelodeon show as a teenager. A topical organization is a totally valid structure, but Mathew Klickstein doesn’t prologue or offer any background information for his mostly anecdotal interviews. He doesn’t even tag the speakers with their roles on the network when their voices first occur. There’s a cast of characters list provided at the end that does provide this information, but it’s really disorienting to be dropped into an opening chapter where you’re expected to remember every cast member from Salute Your Shorts, which I’ve never seen.
Klickstein appears to be writing for the obsessive fan of eighties and early nineties Nickelodeon—even in the final chapter, ominously titled “The End of an Era,” nobody even mentions Butch Hartman (creator of The Fairly Oddparents, the logical link between Klickstein’s Nick and the Nick of today) or discusses SpongeBob Squarepants except to talk about merchandise and the theft of certain sound techniques. And certainly nothing on Avatar: The Last Airbender, which took kids as seriously as the network wanted to at its inception.
Despite these flaws, there’s plenty of gossip for fans of this very specific era of Nickelodeon. For instance, the acrimonious split between Nickelodeon and John Kricfalusi, the creator of Ren & Stimpy, over the increasing violence and vulgarity in the show is covered in great detail. But what I found more interesting was the motivation behind shows. Much is made of the fact that Nick wanted to be on the side of the kids, to the extent of having a promotional campaign based on the conceit of parents being caught watching Nick and being punished for it. At one point, someone mentions that Mitchell Kriegman, creator of Clarissa Explains It All, specifically admired the character and wanted her to represent an intellectually curious young woman that all genders could relate to. (Of course, Chuck Vinson, a director on Clarissa Explains It All, also makes a crack about having to stay away from Melissa Joan Hart when she achieved menarche during filming of the show, because ladies are crazy when they’re on their periods! I’m eye-rolling so hard my eyelids are flicking like a trading card in a kid’s bike spoke.)
The chapter entitled “Diversity,” subtitled “Why were so many of the people on Nickelodeon white?”, naturally grabbed my attention when I was scanning through the table of contents to orient myself. There is, as you can imagine, much belly-aching over how oppressive being “politically correct” is and some actual cogent points about the lack of diversity in some of their casting pools. But I walked away with greater respect for Jim Jinkins, the creator of Doug, and Paul Germain, one of the gentlemen behind Rugrats. Jinkins’ technicolor cast on Doug allowed him to represent diverse ethnicities in a general way (although, interestingly, Doug himself is as beige as I am). Germain respectfully took criticism about Rugrats’ lack of diversity and gracefully incorporated it into the later seasons of the show—the addition of Susie Carmichael, for instance, as well as Chuckie’s interracial family and the Pickles’ Judaism—even as the show continued its program of diverse, strong ladies. Now that’s how you do it.
Bottom line: As an oral history, Slimed! is haphazard and unfocused, with a narrow (and undisclosed!) idea of what constitutes Nickelodeon’s golden age, no real structure, no background information, and no speaker tags. But if eighties and early nineties Nickelodeon is your thing and you remember everyone who was ever on Hey, Dude and Salute Your Shorts, there’s some gossip here just for you.
I read this book on NetGalley.
Slimed! will be released on the 24th—tomorrow!