Nickelodeon has been hunting for ways to revive their hyper-popular old-school series for a while now. With the announcement of the upcoming NickToons movie, which will include appearances by the characters from some of our favorite NickToons of yesteryear, we wanted to revisit what we loved about those shows.
For a lot of us, Nickelodeon was the backdrop of our childhoods. Really, who among us wasn’t dying to get slimed when we were 10 years old? There’s something about watching Nickelodeon cartoons that were popular when you were a kid that takes you right back to that time and place. And the old-school NickToons were great because they were a little weird and just, well, different from other cartoons that were on TV. The Disney toons of the day were much sweeter and more earnest in tone, and the WB tunes, while slightly edgy themselves, were sticking to the general animation style that Warner Bros. had been using since the days of Elmer Fudd hunting wabbits. It was really Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network that decided to do things a bit differently. Nick wasn’t afraid to be a little strange, and it paid off for them big time.
With that in mind, here are our picks for the 13 Best Old-School Nickelodeon Shows.
13 The Ren & Stimpy Show
Sometimes we wonder why our parents ever let us watch this. It was gross and, frankly, a little horrifying at times. But it was so, so awesome. Even though as kids, some of the dark humor and grown-up jokes went over our heads, you really couldn’t beat a show that featured characters like Powdered Toast Man and Muddy Mudskipper. The show aired on Nickelodeon from 1991 to 1995. The network Spike launched an adult spinoff called Ren & Stimpy Adult Party Cartoon in 2003, but it was quickly cancelled. The show has appeared on MTV, as well.
The titular characters were originally created by John Kricfalusi as pets of the children in another show he pitched to Nickelodeon called Your Gang (or potentially Our Gang). While the network didn’t go for the show, it did like everyone’s favorite dog-cat duo (did you even realize that's what they were?) enough to consider giving them their own series – and the rest is history.
Doug was great because it was just so relatable. Doug Funnie was a teen who went through the same angst and drama as all teens – bullying, crushes, trying to fit in with and be accepted by his classmates, figuring out who he was and learning to believe in himself. It was a show with a lot of heart, but it managed to avoid being overly sappy (there was a little sappiness here and there, but that was mostly a good thing). The show was inspired by creator Jim Jinkins’ childhood, and most of the characters were based on real kids he knew.
Jinkins originally pitched it as a children’s book, but thankfully didn’t get any takers, and its original run ran from 1991-1994. In 1996, the show was purchased by Disney and began airing on ABC. It was around this time that Patti Mayonnaise, Doug’s crush, cut her hair and switched to a pixie cut – a dramatic move that still stands out in the memories of Doug fans everywhere. A feature-length movie, Doug’s 1st Movie, was released in 1999.
Along with Ren & Stimpy and Doug, Rugrats was one of the three original Nicktoons. It featured a group of babies and toddlers headed up by Tommy Pickles, going on what were, from their perspective, epic adventures. The characters, with their big bobble heads and skinny necks, sometimes looked a little freaky – but that’s part of what we loved about it.
Over the years, the show has received quite a bit of praise. It won four Daytime Emmy Awards and six Kids’ Choice awards. It also has its own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Around the time of the show’s 10th anniversary, a spinoff called All Grown Up! was launched, following the adventures of the characters who were, at that point, 10 years older. There have been a number of specials and TV movies, as well as three theatrical releases – 1998’s The Rugrats Movie, 2000’s Rugrats in Paris: The Movie, and 2003’s Rugrats Go Wild, a crossover with another Nicktoon, The Wild Thornberrys. Speaking of which…
10 The Wild Thornberrys
There was so much awesomeness packed into this show when it aired from 1998 to 2004. It was educational, but not in a heavy-handed way, teaching a respect for the natural world without being preachy. We think we all wish we could have grown up like Eliza, exploring the wilderness in a tricked out RV – and with a pet chimp to boot!
Tim Curry voiced Nigel, Eliza’s dad, and Flea, of Red Hot Chili Peppers fame, voiced Eliza’s adoptive little brother, Donnie. The best part is that Eliza can talk to animals of course – a pretty sweet superpower if you ask us. In addition to Rugrats Go Wild, the show had another theatrical release in 2002, (aptly) entitled The Wild Thornberrys Movie, which earned an Academy Award nomination.
9 Aaahh!!! Real Monsters
When it comes to sheer weirdness, this show gave Ren & Stimpy a run for its money. It followed the adventures of Ickis, Oblina, and Krumm, three adolescent monsters living in a Hogwarts-style boarding school located under a dump, where they learn to be effectively scary monsters. Hilariously, Ickis, with his long ears, was often mistaken for a bunny – and bunnies, as we know, are not scary at all.
Interestingly, one of the show’s recurring antagonists, Simon the Monster Hunter, was voiced by Jim Belushi. What’s so great about the show is that the characters are all so bizarre, both in the way they look and the way they act (and Krumm in particular is unapologetically gross), but we love them despite – no, because of this. It subtly delivers the message that it’s important to celebrate who you are, and not try to conform just to fit in.
8 Rocko’s Modern Life
Some days, we are all Rocko, right? The pure and noble Rocko, regardless of his intentions, always seemed to get drawn into drama, even when he’s just trying to carry out his normal, day-to-day activities. And that’s something we can all relate to. Plus, how adorable was Spunky?
The title character was originally created by Joe Murray for a comic book series that was never published. Luckily, Nickelodeon was looking for slightly edgier shows, and Murray pitched the idea to them as a cartoon. So it makes sense that, as a comic book creator himself, Murray would have Rocko work in a comic book store called – wait for it – Kind of A Lot O’ Comics. Which brings us to another aspect of the show we loved: the fantastic names for things and places, like the Hollywood-like town Holl-o-Wood, and the giant corporation that basically owned the town, Conglom-O Corporation. The subtle jabs the series took at Tinseltown and big business were appreciated.
7 Hey Arnold!
You'd be hard pressed to find a single person that didn't absolutely adore this show, centered around a football-headed, fourth grade protagonist. The show, which ran from 1996-2004, centered on Arnold’s life at school and at home, where he lived with his grandparents. It was set in a large city, and Arnold was often faced with difficult ethical decisions (and of course, he always made the right call and learned a lesson in the process).
But Arnold wasn’t the only great character on the show. Another favorite was Helga, who’s the opposite of a girlie-girl. Although she had her insecurities, she was smart and knew what she wanted – namely, to date Arnold. The title character was created by Craig Bartlett and based on a minor, claymation character he had created for Pee-wee’s Playhouse. In 2002, Hey Arnold!: The Movie was released in theaters. In it, Arnold, Helga, and Arnold’s best friend Gerald try to prevent their neighborhood from being turned into a mall.
If you grew up in the big city, Hey Arnold! was probably your favorite NickToon of all.
6 Invader Zim
It’s debatable of course, but this might be the funniest of the Nicktoons. And it’s certainly still very quotable. The show was created by Jhonen Vasquez, who is also well known for his comic book series Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, which is decidedly not PG. It focused on Zim, an inept alien invader who was sent to Earth by his superiors basically because they wanted to get him out of their faces. His delusions of grandeur, contrasted with his complete and utter failure to take over the planet, was all pretty hilarious.
And he had a crazy robot minion named GIR, who disguises himself as an adorable dog and loves tacos and sang a pretty swinging toon. There’s also Dib, a kid who’s on to Zim’s game and constantly tries to expose him as an alien.
5 As Told by Ginger
This show was like the Mean Girls of Nicktoons. Its red-headed and aptly-named protagonist tries to make it through middle school without being mortified by a never-ending tsunami of drama and potential embarrassment.
Ginger and her friends, Dodie, Macie, and Darren, worked hard to climb their school’s social ladder and rise up from their position as geeks (although we all now know geeks are actually the coolest). Luckily for Ginger, Courtney, the school’s Regina George, liked her despite her nerdiness and often invited her to social events. The show ran from 2000 to 2006, and there were four TV movies made, although in the US, the final one was released directly to DVD (remember when you actually watched those?).
4 Angry Beavers
Angry Beavers focused on brothers Dagget and Norbert Beaver, who had left their mother to start a new chapter in their lives and were living in the forests of Oregon. They would go through a lot of misadventures and didn’t always handle them very calmly – thus the name of the show.
Angry Beavers received significant praise, but was not without controversy. In the season 2 episode “Alley Oops,” Norbert tells Dagget to “shut up.” Some parents thought the line was too edgy for a kids’ show, so Nickelodeon bleeped out the word “shut” for the reruns. But parents became even more outraged, thinking that the bleep was supposed to imply that Norbert was actually swearing. So the show had to bring back voice actor Nick Bakay to dub over the line, this time having him say “shush up.” And you thought kids today were coddled.
As fun as this show was, there was always something really creepy about CatDog. In fact, there’s a Family Guy episode where a drunk Peter tells Brian that CatDog’s life must be “some kind of living hell.” And he’s not wrong; their physiological existence makes zero sense.
Nonetheless, we loved watching the adventures of the conjoined cat-dog hybrid. A twist on the odd couple trope, the two had very different personalities – Cat was very sophisticated, while Dog was silly and enjoys messing around – and this made it difficult to for them to live their lives, seeing as they were literally joined at the hip. Cat often used his superior intelligence to trick Dog into doing what he wanted, but of course, the plans always backfired (the lesson here is, don’t be manipulative).
2 The Fairly OddParents
What kid wouldn’t want fairy godparents? Especially if they’re like Cosmo and Wanda. Though things for Timmy didn’t always go as planned with these two around, at least life wasn’t boring. This is also, in our opinion, one of the funniest NickToons (right after Invader Zim), with its random, often tongue-in-cheek style of humor. Plus, the show even had its own bifrost – a rainbow bridge that connected Fairy World and Earth.
As with other NickToons, the show saw TV movies and specials (including live-action movies). The script for a theatrical release was written but, due to a management change at Paramount Pictures, it was never produced. The show’s creator, Butch Hartman, has said he’d like to release the movie on DVD, but there are currently no plans to do so.
1 SpongeBob Squarepants
While SpongeBob has so far had a pretty long run (we still consider it old-school since it premiered in 1999) and since the show’s early era, it's arguably the best NickToon ever produced. It was actually created by a real marine biologist (and animator) named Stephen Hillenburg. A worldwide phenomenon from the world go, SpongeBob is easily one of Nickelodeon’s most recognizable characters.
What made the show so great was SpongeBob’s optimism and innocence, and how that plays against the series' somewhat raunchy humor. Its premise is just, well, really strange – but awesomely so. A sea sponge (who looks like a kitchen sponge) living in a pineapple? Weird. But somehow it works. The series has won a number of awards, including two Emmys, and it has had multiple specials, and two feature films. Both Avril Lavigne and the Violent Femmes have covered the show’s theme song, with Lavigne doing a version of it for the soundtrack to the SpongeBob Squarepants Movie, in which Scarlett Johansson (yep, that Scarlett Johansson) played King Neptune’s daughter, Mindy.
What was your favorite NickToon growing up? Sound off in the comments section!