October 7, 2016


'Hey Arnold!' 20th Anniversary Q&A: Craig Bartlett Talks Cartoon's Legacy, Upcoming Movie

Jean-Paul Aussenard/WireImage
Jean-Paul Aussenard/WireImage

Hey Arnold!, which premiered in 1996, celebrates its 20th anniversary today (Oct. 7). The Nickelodeon series was loved by kids and adults alike, thanks to the eclectic characters, realistic storylines and overall fun nature, leaving an undeniable legacy we '90s kids love so much. Next year, a new movie will arrive.

To commemorate Hey Arnold!'s 20th anniversary, Fuse spoke to the show's creator, Craig Bartlett, 59, who has since started the shows Dinosaur Train and this year's new series Ready Jet Go! He also wrote on Rugrats and Sid the Science Kid.

Fuse: I’ve always wanted to know how the idea for Hey Arnold! came about. What inspired you to create this show?
Craig Bartlett: I’d been a clay animator for Will Vinton in Portland, and when I came to L.A. I went to work on Pee-wee’s Playhouse. They had me work on the Penny cartoon, which was also claymation. As soon as that job ended, I’d only been in L.A. for a little while and was like, “I’m unemployed, I should make up a character of my own.” So the first summer that I got here, I made my first Arnold short. I don’t know if you know, but the first three shorts were also claymation in the Penny style. I thought it would be funny to do me as a little kid. In those first shorts, he doesn’t even say anything, he was just a huge daydreamer.

So I had those when I went to work on Rugrats in 1990. I got to know the Nickelodeon executives, so when it came time to do my own show I already had those Arnold shorts. So the series kind of grew out from the fact that I had this Arnold character. In them, you can see Helga and Harold. Some of the other kids in the series already existed by then, and I basically fleshed it out into a more complete world. The thing that I wanted to add was the urban setting, and I was thinking it would be cool to do an ensemble cast like Charlie Brown. I was a big fan of those specials when I was a kid. So I thought I’d make it like that, except I’d make it really urban and make the cast a bit more diverse.

We thought the show was good, but it didn’t seem any more or less remarkable than any of the other shows being made.

Craig Bartlett

Did you name or model any of the characters based on your family or friends?
My brother-in-law Matt Groening [ed note: creator of The Simpsons!] told me to be careful not to name anyone in my family because it gets complicated, so I took that advice to heart. So none of the characters are named after anyone specifically. I used to always say the girl characters, or mostly Helga, was kind of an amalgam of all the girls I had crushes on or had crushes on me. That was definitely my experience when I was a kid. Unrequited love was the theme of my childhood [laughs].

Is there a certain character that you identify with the most?
Well, Arnold, for sure. You know how they just did that thing on Facebook, like which three fictional characters you base yourself off of? So I did that and someone said, “Hey, how come none of those are Arnold?” I thought that would be cheating, but then I did the Hey Arnold! Version. So those are Arnold, Helga and Olga.

Wait, why Olga? I wouldn’t have expected that!
Well Olga is a drama queen, you know? And I’m a little bit of a drama queen too. And Helga and Arnold for obvious reasons, because I think they’re yin and yang. They really do complete each other, they are soul mates.

Do you ever look back at the series and think, “Oh my god, I didn’t think this would make such an impact”?
Oh for sure, it’s really amazing! We thought the show was good, but it didn’t seem any more or less remarkable than any of the other shows being made. So to see it have such great staying power, and to see the fans that were Arnold’s age when the show was new grow up and become artists and animators and write really eloquently about it, is astounding. I didn’t see it coming at all, because we made it for kids who were six to 11. So they had a limited ability to give me feedback on Nick Online in the ‘90s when it was still pretty primitive. So it’s really cool to see the love of the show grow up.

What I love most about the show is how relatable the characters are, because I felt they were kids just like me. Was it your goal to make the cast so diverse?
Yeah, absolutely. I really wanted to make the show reflect when I lived in Los Angeles in the mid ’90s. It was such a gumbo of ethnicities in one amazing city. That same vibe of all these different cultures coming together. So I thought a modern urban classroom would reflect that. It’s idealized of course, because there’s only about 12 kids in the classroom, but that’s just the practicality of making a cartoon show. So I definitely wanted it to be ethnically diverse, and I thought it would be a cool move.

I wanted to dig into some of the fan theories. I saw one where people think the show is actually centered around Helga, and another theory saying Arnold’s grandparents are his real parents.
That’s a weird one! [laughs] The thing that bugs me most about it is when somebody puts up a theory, it gets repeated a few times on the internet, and then people think it’s true. If they really want to find out, all they have to do is ask me. Somebody theorized that when Pigeon Man jumped off the building, that it was a suicide. So I find myself strenuously having to say, “No, that never happened.” I was sitting with Joe Purdy working on the script, and we never intended that. We based his speech on Tom Joad from The Grapes of Wrath. He was gonna fly off and help pigeons everywhere. He wasn’t committing suicide. Some of those internet theories are a little nuts. I’ve been regularly posting art from the show for the past few years as we got closer to the reality of making The Jungle Movie. And somebody wrote on my page, “That’s a suicide show.” Weirdly, the guy persisted that me saying it wasn’t didn’t matter! There’s a kind of strange, stubborn quality to the internet behavior. I kind of wish people would get their facts straight.

We figured Mr. Simmons was a gay character without having to make a big deal of out it, or have it be a special episode or anything like that.

Craig Bartlett

Are there any favorite episodes that you loved working on?
The half-hour specials are all favorites of mine, like “Parents Day” and “Journal.” They were meant to set up the story of Arnold’s missing parents that The Jungle Movie addresses. I also think the Christmas episode is really great, and I love “School Play,” where Helga confesses to Lila that she loves Arnold.

I love “What’s Opera, Arnold?” That’s one of my favorites.
Oh, thank you! Yeah, the opera one was a blast. It was our very most fun episode to record because all the kids got to sing their guts out. I also am a fan of “Helga on the Couch,” because that’s one where we show why Helga is the way she is. And I think that was a fun thing you could do when you have a couple of episodes under your belt, where she tells a therapist how she feels. That was a cool thing to do.

Say the show was set in present day: would there be any current issues you would include in the storyline?
One of the cool things about cartoons is they’re kind of evergreen. So you try not to be too topical. But as we make the show, you always want it to have a contemporary feel. Nothing’s really changed that much in The Jungle Movie, since they’re just a year older.

I was reading an article where you say Mr. Simmons and Eugene are gay characters. Were you afraid of taking that risk, because it was a kids’ show?
Yeah, some of the thing we would just show and wouldn’t say. We figured Mr. Simmons was a gay character without having to make a big deal of out it, or have it be a special episode or anything like that. Dan Butler, who plays Simmons, is gay. But the main thing about him is that he’s a great teacher and really passionate. So it was just part of the show’s fabric. And then you have Eugene. We figured he’s not gay yet because he’s still a kid. But he will be when he grows up!

Were there any episodes or certain scenes that you wish you did differently? Or are you satisfied with your work?
It’s funny, because there would be episodes where I’d go, “Oh, that didn’t come out so hot.” Or I’d think, "I wish I’d written it better or we’d drawn it better." But I always try to remember that every episode, even the one that you think is the worst, is somebody’s favorite. At this point especially—since the show has been out for so long—as far as some people are concerned, all the episodes are great. If they love them, maybe there is something to them that I’m not seeing. I should just relax. 

Are there characters you cut from the show that you wish you’d kept?
As we went along, we brought along characters and they just worked. For example, Sid and Stinky are a couple favorites of mine just because the kids who played them are so funny. As the episodes went along, we got more opportunities for them to do different things in their relationship. Sam Gifaldi, who played Sid, was really hilarious at having a big breakdown and cry. So we just kept writing episodes where Sid falls apart, and it was so fun to work on. Basically in five seasons of 100-plus episodes, I got the opportunity to do whatever I wanted.

Listen to an episode of Fuse's Besterday podcast that celebrates the iconic series for its 20th anniversary: