My inner child was freaking the eff out when I met Craig Bartlett at the Jim Henson lot. Craig Bartlett is responsible for one of the best Nickelodeon shows of all time, Hey Arnold!. Later, I asked him some questions about Paul McCartney, Hey Arnold!, and the golden age of Nickelodeon.
Craig, thank you for joining me on my weird corner of the internet. Can you please tell my readers your Paul McCartney story?
A lot of old rockers still record at Henson studios because this used to be A&M records, after it was Charlie Chaplin’s movie studio. They think this place has great mojo, and they’re right. Fantastic, classic records were recorded here. Last spring when we were writing on Dinosaur Train, Joe Purdy said “Guess who’s on the lot today? Paul McCartney.”
I thought I’d never actually see him – they’d whisk him from his car to the studio, so I kind of forgot about it (as much as one can forget that a Beatle is within 100 yards). I worked till about 7:30, and it was dusk when I walked out. I was heading to the Kermit bathroom outside the recording studio and I noticed a blue Stingray convertible parked in the middle of the courtyard. I thought, “That’s got to be for Paul.” So I peed as fast as I could (yes, I washed my hands) and went back to sit at the bench right in front of the Stingray.
Sure enough some little kids came running out of the studio, and I heard Paul calling to them in this unmistakable voice. Then he walked right by me. I said, “Oh, hey, Sir Paul,” as casually as I could. He said hi, then stopped at his car and asked me “Who owns this studio now?” I said the Hensons own it, and he said something, and now we were talking. He said he wanted to show the kids the Charlie Chaplin footprints in the cement, so I jumped up and said, “Oh, I can show you!” a little hysterically.
We walked (I ran) over to the footprints and Paul put his feet in them, telling the kids how Chaplin had this funny, characteristic walk, which Paul performed. The kids weren’t paying attention to anything, just running around, so I nodded and said, “Yeah! He did have a funny walk!” I then showed him how A&M built new steps that partially covered Chaplin’s footprints and he said, “That was rather shabby of them, don’t you think?” And I agreed. Then he pointed up to the balcony above us and said, “That’s where Olivia used to work, y’know” (George’s second wife). I said, “Really?” And he nodded, “Oh yeah, she and George met right here,” pointing at the ground. We talked about that for a moment. Then I asked him if he was recording something here, and he said, “Yeah, we’re having a blast.” And then he hopped in his car and zoomed away. And I went, “OMG THAT REALLY HAPPENED.” And started calling people on my cell.
SO FAB. Let’s talk about Nickelodeon. I have a few questions. You were on Nickelodeon in the Golden Age of Nicktoons — Ren & Stimpy, Rugrats, Kablam!, Rocko’s Modern Life, and so many others — what was that like?
It was great to be an animator in the ‘90s. We called it the “go-go ‘90s” because money was flying in all directions. The cable networks were getting millions in ad buys and MTV networks did what everybody else was doing: they built a big animation studio for us. Hot and cold running everything, cappuccino machines and sushi for lunch. There was more demand for new animated shows than there were good artists available, so it was an “artist’s market,” where we all could get paid well and make decent deals. Even crappy artists could draw storyboards for six months and then be all, “I want to direct.”
Do you have any favorites other than Hey, Arnold! from that era?
The first Nickelodeon show I worked on was Rugrats. That began in 1990, right at the start of the decade. Rugrats was one of the three original Nicktoons that started the whole 90s cartoon thing for Nick, though we were a year after The Simpsons, which debuted as a series in 1989 and really, really started everything.
I was story editor and director on Rugrats, and had a lot to do with that first season, so it’s dear to my heart. We took some shit from the “big kids” who also worked at Klasky Csupo and were animating those first seasons of the Simpsons – they called us “the baby show.” But Rugrats did great, like the other early Nicktoons, because baby show or not, there was nothing like it on TV. They were really different, warts and all.
I also am a fan of Ren and Stimpy – I even worked on three episodes in the months before Hey Arnold! was picked up, in the fall of ‘94. I’ll always appreciate that gig, I was broke and they saved my ass. I remember visiting the Ren and Stimpy studio on a Friday when they were drinking beer and watching the finally-completed episode 6, the “happy helmet” episode, y’know, “Happy Happy Joy Joy.” As Ren fumbled through the kitchen drawer and pulled out a hammer and started beating himself in the head, and everyone was laughing hysterically, I remember feeling like I was watching history being made.
I have to ask, what do you think of Nickelodeon now?
I want to reserve judgment on how I think Nickelodeon is doing now. I have a couple things in development with them and I want to see how we do.
Fair enough. What’s your favorite episode of Hey Arnold! and why?
I have a lot of favorites, because I’m like the guy Kurt’s talking about in “All Apologies”: “I wish I was like you, easily amused.” I love watching the old episodes, even though sometimes it’s kind of spooky, like I’m reading old diary pages.
I guess I like “Helga on the Couch” best, because to me it’s about facing the fact that I loved Helga so much, I wanted her to do a therapy session with a wonderful, kind therapist, to explain to kids why she was the way she was: mean, brittle, a jerk to everyone and especially Arnold. The episode is really meta: it’s about why the character is the way she is. It comments on the whole series and makes Helga more human and real than ever. By that time (season 4) I had done more than 150 Hey Arnold! stories and I felt that I knew Helga better than most of my neighbors. And a lot of that is because Francesca Smith (who voiced Helga) was so good, and we had all been working on Helga together for years, and we trusted each other to come up with material like that. Everyone who worked on it was in love with Helga. Also, “Couch” was another opportunity to have Helga confess her love to Arnold in a huge emotional blowout – like the one in “School Play” where she tells Lila, and “Monkey Business” and later, “Married,” where she almost tells Arnold in a dream. The “Couch” confession was so big that when Jim Lang scored it, he finished with that big E major piano chord like the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” The only confession left was for Helga to tell Arnold face to face, and we were saving that for the movie.
What’s something you can tell us about Hey Arnold! that we don’t know?
I love how I worked on that series for so long, it really seeped into my unconscious. Arnold’s attic room in the boarding house was me trying to create a room that any kid would die to have for their bedroom. [Note: achieved. His and Clarissa’s bedroom (Clarissa Explains It All) made me makeover my entire room.] I made up a backstory for it: Grandma and Grandpa put Arnold in that room once his parents disappeared, and to make it more cheerful they helped him decorate it, and installed that cool stereo and the fold-out couch, and all in some ingenious way with odds and ends they found around town. So it was very personal to Arnold and a refuge from sadness and danger, like a kind of tree fort. Also, he could climb out onto his roof and down the fire escape to the street, and so he’s more free to come and go than kids are in real life. Pippi Longstocking lived kind of like that – that’s what I was aspiring to. And I love that Sid wants to borrow Arnold’s room in that one episode – Sid’s like a real kid, he wants to live in Arnold’s room, too.
Anyway, over the years I’ve had some vivid dreams about that room. In one dream, we were making a live-action movie version of Hey Arnold! and I was inspecting the sets, and found myself in a perfect recreation of Arnold’s room. I realized that I wanted to live there myself, and that I had created it for this reason. I dream about architecture a lot – my Dad was an architect. I have a fantasy about buying 100 acres somewhere in Washington or Oregon and building a replica of the boarding house and the block that Arnold lives on. The whole place would be like “ArnoldLand.” People could visit, like Sundance, and we could put on musical versions of favorite episodes. It would be like going to the Shakespeare festival in Ashland or something. Hey, we could put on “School Play,” and then it would be a twisted kind of Shakespeare festival.
DO IT. Speaking of a “live-action” Hey Arnold! film, have you seen this fan-made trailer? What do you think? Would you be open to the idea of a live-action HA! film, and if so, who would you cast?
Yeah, that trailer is pretty damn funny. I liked the Stoop Kid bit, and how they used the secret handshake sound effect in the mix. As far as live-action cast, maybe I should cast the kids who voiced the characters, instead of using stars. I mean, they know their motivations really well!
What advice can you give to someone who wants to do what you do?
Ask yourself, am I easily amused? (See above). Because that is a real gift in this business, to be able to watch your shit over and over and over again, and see it fresh and be able to laugh at it for the 50th time. It works for me, and I guess that’s just the way I was made. Also, you really must be sociable and have a little charm and be able to work with people. I think that’s even more than 50 percent of the deal. It’s even more important than talent. Animation is a really collaborative medium, and we all have to communicate to get it done. Too many artists act like they were raised by ducks. You’re not going to get far if you behave that way, unless you’re so insanely talented that people will put up with you to get your stuff.
What are you working on now?
I’m finishing our third season of Dinosaur Train for PBS. This takes us up to 79 half hours. And we just opened Dinosaur Train Live, a stage show version, which is touring the country. The Henson Creature Shop built the puppets – the biggest one is King Cryolophosaurus, and he’s 16 feet long. It’s really cool to watch, the performers wear black and stand behind the puppets, except for King – he’s so huge the performer stands under him. The play is basically a musical with 15 of my songs in it!
I’m also developing another show for PBS – a space show that I’ve been trying to get going for years. It would teach astronomy and Earth science and the love of space. And I’m developing two projects at Nick – we’ll see where those go. I hope to get back to normal with Nick – setting up offices there and getting my old team back together, so we could finish the Arnold saga finally.
Awesome! I just have one final question: WHAT EXACTLY HAPPENED TO ARNOLD’S PARENTS? THIS HAS BEEN BUGGING ME FOR YEARS. DID THEY GET LOST IN THE JUNGLE?
The story of Arnold’s missing parents just kind of grew: when I first pitched Hey Arnold! to Nickelodeon, I was really glib about them. I just said that his parents were off in Africa or something, making wildlife films, basically being cool, do-gooding documentarians, “and that’s why Arnold lives with his grandparents.”
But as we got further and further in, I realized that I hadn’t dealt with them at all, and now kids were writing in and asking, “What happened to his parents??” So I worked on the idea for “Parents Day” in season 3, 60 half-hours in. And by then, it seemed to me that they must have gone missing, and it wasn’t their fault – in fact they were lost while trying to perform a crucial, humanitarian mission. So they are really good and courageous and kind. And that explains why Arnold is such a little Buddha. I was so deep into Arnold by then I was practically living it in my head. That’s why I played Arnold’s Dad – I kind of am Arnold’s Dad, after all. And Stella, his mom, was played by the co-writer of “Parents Day,” Antoinette Stella. It was all a kind of cool, inside joke with us.
But when we finished it, it was such a heartbreaker. It rips you up! What can I say? I’m sorry that Hey Arnold! is so freaking sad, but that was where we were by then. We’d come up with a show that could do “sad” really well. And the actors were up for it, and we were, too. So we just went down that road, knowing that was our “edge” – we could do emotional realism and that was our way to be different from the other kid shows.
So years of this passed, and when it was time to make the first Arnold movie, Nickelodeon asked me to do the “biggest” idea we could think of. We looked at the series, and the biggest question would be for Arnold to try to follow up on what he learned in “Parents Day” – to try to go to Central America and find his lost parents. I wrote several drafts of the story. When I first got the chance to write that script, I felt differently about the whole Arnold saga than I do now. I thought of more drastic solutions then, but I’ve had a decade to think about it, and now I want to close the loops and answer the questions and pay off the emotions in every way. Because animation is magic, so why not have a cool, magical ending happen? It’s my universe. Ha! Take that, Los Angeles.
Taken! Thanks, Craig.