When I was growing up one of my favourite series was the Nicktoon ‘Hey Arnold!’.
For those who missed it, ‘Hey Arnold!’ was the animated story of a kid with a football-shaped head, who lived in a boarding home with his grandparents and a host of eccentric characters. He and his best friend Gerald would get involved in all kinds of adventures as they explored the fictional city of Hillwood with the rest of their elementary school buddies, including Helga who hates Arnold… but yet she LOVES him.
There’s SO much more to it than that though.
‘Hey Arnold!’ was about as chill as a TV series could be. Filled with beautifully coloured landscapes, warm wisdom and soothing jazz (from composer Jim Lang) – the whole thing was like a living MindSpace session. Chuck in some incredible storytelling, interesting guest characters (“Stoop Kid’s afraid to leave his stoop!”), LOADS of humour, and a voice cast featuring such legends as Dan Castellaneta and Tress MacNeille – you’re dealing with one of the greatest kids TV shows of all time.
Anyone with an interest in writing for kids really must watch the pilot episode of ‘Hey Arnold!’ The two segments (Downtown as Fruits and Eugene’s Bike) are flawless and perfectly establish the voice of the show.
Through the lockdown I found that Instagram became a bit of an escape portal for me. I now turn to it more than ever as I find myself in need of distracting and, I guess, a connection with the world. An unexpected star of the platform in these weird times turned out to be ‘Hey Arnold!’ creator, Craig Bartlett.
Not only has Craig been entertaining his audience with stunning handrawn journal updates from the ‘Hey Arnold!’ characters, continuing their story in the time of Corona but he also used his platform to raise a lot of awareness and money for the Black Lives Matter movement. His recent content on the is an inspiration to all creators and re-energised my love for the show.
As well as ‘Hey Arnold!’, Craig also created ‘Jim Henson’s Dinosaur Train’ and ‘Ready Jet Go!’ He worked on Return to Oz, Pee-wee’s Playhouse, Rugrats, Ren & Stimpy, and Johnny Bravo. He is an absolute legend, so I was thrilled when Craig agreed to be my first Comedy Loser interviewee and share advice from his amazing career.
Let’s do this.
CD: I’ve been writing semi-professionally for TV and radio since 2010 but am only just starting to shake off my self-identity as a “new writer”. I’m not convinced that feeling ever does (or should) go away. Is this something that resonates with you, and can you think of the first time that you thought – “I’ve got this, I deserve to be here!”
CB: I like to remember what the sculptor Doug Cranmer said: “If you think you’re a master, you might as well throw away your tools, because you aren’t going to learn anything more.”
CD: You got the opportunity to pitch Arnold to Nickelodeon whilst working as a Story Editor for Rugrats. What was the experience like working on Rugrats in the early days of Nickelodeon?
CB: It really helped to start on Rugrats. Through that job I met people I would see around the business for the next 30 years, and also the Nick execs who would eventually greenlight ‘Hey Arnold!’
The job was perfect: we worked in a building on Highland in Hollywood, pretty sketchy neighbourhood then and now; a large diverse crew, about 50, who made that first season really from scratch. Hand-drawn and painted, mostly in Korea, shot on 35mm film and cut on a flatbed (this is how long I’ve been in the cartoon business). We knew we were making something different, and I just hoped it wasn’t too weird and homely-looking to even work. Surprised and delighted that funky first season won an Emmy!
CD: There was a lot about ‘Hey Arnold’ that stood out, particularly the unique visual design and the quality of the storytelling, but a big draw for me was the characters. There’s a real diverse cast, all of which are equally developed, believable and robust enough to carry an episode.
Can you explain the process you went through to develop the ensemble of characters, and, in your opinion, what is the mark of a good character?
CB: Character is so important to any story. The writers and artists and I all loved developing those characters. I designed the original gang of around 12, but there was a huge group helping me, working on developing those characters, too many to mention, but especially Tuck Tucker, Joe Ansolabehere, Steve Viksten, Joe Purdy, Rachel Lipman, Brian Mark, Kelly James, Jerry Richardson, and Raymie Muzquiz. Everybody loved the main characters and wrote and drew them with fondness.
CD: I’ve read quite a bit on the art design of the series but less so about the writing process. Can you describe an average experience of writing an episode and how did that change when it came to developing the two movies?
CB: We started the show knowing that it would be script driven, and it was a bit of a struggle in the first year to get the board artists to go along with that idea, since the other Nicktoons were board driven. Many artists wanted to go over to that kind of show, and I don’t blame them. My way the script is written and recorded with the artists in on the process, but then I cut a dialog track and hand it out to the artists and then they board. I would argue that there is plenty of story work and revisions and improvements that come in the board process.
CD: The kids who grew up with Arnold are now creating their own shows and carrying the torch. The show that I feel your influence in the most is Craig of the Creek, which I’m a big fan of. To me, it’s the closest today’s audience has to those really authentic kids shows that I grew up with, such as Arnold, Doug and Recess. How were you and the writing staff were able to bottle that feeling of being a kid?
CB: We just wanted to write about what it’s really like to be a kid. I was influenced by Charles Schulz, who in Peanuts gave his kids plenty of real stuff to say. His writing was really natural, and his characters seemed real to me growing up.
CD: What’s been really inspirational to me is your connection to the world of ‘Hey Arnold!’ Whereas many creators would wait for a commission, you’re keeping the characters alive and continuing the stories through your own social channels. Is this something you’ve always done or is it part of your way of processing everything that’s happening in the world today?
CB: That’s true, and it’s both. From the start it’s been important for me to keep the Arnold characters alive. The original run of that show lasted about 8 years for me, so those characters had time to grow lives of their own. When the pandemic happened, I wondered what Arnold would do about it, and then Helga, and so on.
CD: As well as being a fun show and a dreamy, jazz-filled escape for kids, you and the writers weren’t afraid to tackle mature issues that other series avoided. Refugees, veterans, bullying, class, identity, anxiety – all explored with subtlety and sophistication. You also featured so many different examples of what a home can be. What advice do you have on appropriately handling social issues without preaching or talking down to the audience?
CB: I guess just hope that you get your show on a channel that lets you tell exactly the story that you want to tell. In the 90s and also in the last round I had with Nickelodeon, they were pretty cool with whatever we threw at them, including the fall of Saigon in “Arnold’s Christmas.” And plenty of mayhem in the Jungle Movie.
Thanks a lot to Craig Bartlett for giving up his time to go through this stuff. You’re the best!
‘Hey Arnold! the Music Vol 1’ has just been released on vinyl through Enjoy The Toons and sold out in minutes (I somehow managed to grab one). Keep an eye on their feed for a repress and obviously follow Craig on Instagram.