Nickelodeon's 360-degree nostalgia machine: Making shows that never go out of style

Yes, '90s kids love Nickelodeon shows. And they have kids of their own now, too

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published September 29, 2018 11:00AM (EDT)

"Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" (Nickelodeon Animation Studio)
"Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" (Nickelodeon Animation Studio)

There is something about '90s television that fills many millennials with nostalgia. Much of it has to do with the unique conditions of that halcyon decade — a world seemingly at peace, a booming economy, the innocence of our childhoods — and how they influence our memories of the cultural products that came out at that time.

Yet part of it is also that there are artists who know how to take the most beloved properties from that period and give them a modern day renaissance. The "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" animated series, which premiered in 1987 and is indelibly associated with many a '90s childhood is a perfect example; as is the children's television network Nickelodeon, which makes it appropriate that — although the original series did not air on that station — the most recent reboot is indeed going to appear under the banner of the orange programming behemoth. New episodes will air at 6:30pm ET/PT, with the series aiming to sharply distinguish between the different turtles' personalities and looks, as well as making sure the series maintains a strong sense of humor.

As someone who was raised in the '90s and loved both Nickelodeon programming and the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" during that period, I decided to reach out to the creative team behind both this series and other iconic '90s properties to find out their thoughts about how these treasured franchises relevant today. Among the people who spoke to Salon was Nickelodeon's senior vice president of programming and development, Chris Viscardi (best known as a co-creator of the hit show "The Adventures of Pete & Pete"), who opened up about how the show business bigwigs decide what to bring back and why.

"First of all, it needs to be something that we know kids are going to love," Viscardi explained. "We know that the original audience will certainly love it or be excited about it, and we talk to fans all the time, adult fans, so we're very clear about which ones they're very passionate about. But we really want it to work for today's kids as well. Looking at all these properties that we consider that we have in our library and we're really lucky after 20 some odd years, 25 some odd years to have had so many animated property to be able to look at and see if they could work for a whole new generation of kids."

He added, "With 'Hey Arnold,' Craig Bartlett, the creator wanted to complete the story by having Arnold going into venture to finally find his parents, which was the emotional core of that series. There was a real narrative reason for us to do that. With Rocko [from "Rocko's Modern Life'], at the end of that series, I don't know if you recall that series, but at the very end of that series, the three lead characters are shot into space. Joe Murray, the creator thought it would be really funny: So what would happen if those three characters returned too O-town 25 years later and discovered a whole brand new modern life?

"Then with 'Invader Zim,' [creator] Jhonen Vasquez had this really epic, hilarious saga that he wanted to tell with them and all the characters in that world. It was really exciting for us because when we reached out to those creators to say, 'Hey, would you consider doing a special or movie for those properties?' They all came back with a lot of excitement because they had a real clear, exciting story that they wanted to tell and that's not necessarily the case with all the properties. The last thing I'll mention about that is that it's really important to us when we bring back some of these properties for a special or a show that the original creators are part of it because no one knows those characters in the world and the storytelling better than those people."

Salon also talked with the people specifically behind the new "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" series.

"I think Nickelodeon back in the ‘90s, it was iconically… it was such a staple of the ‘90s kid," Ant Ward, one of the executive producers of the new series, told Salon. "There wasn't a lot of content geared for kids the way Nickelodeon did, putting kids first. Everything about the Nickelodeon brand was kid-focused and kids first."

He added, "I think that generation has now grown up and it's obviously just that nostalgia of being a kid. I think nostalgia is very prevalent in today's society and culture. Even we can see it with movies and the constant revisiting of The Transformers and the Masters of the Universe movie that's going to be coming out. Even Star Wars."

Andy Suriano, another executive producer of the latest reboot, echoed Ward's observations.

"TMNT fans are incredible and passionate. One of the great things about the TMNT franchise is that because there’s been so many iterations of it throughout the years, there’s a version each generation of viewer can identify with as 'their' Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—and still be able to appreciate the franchise as a whole," Suriano told Salon. "We are making this for our own kid’s generation (Ant and I both have two young sons each); and hopefully speak to multi-generational fans as well."

"I think it was a really great time for animation. It really branded what Nickelodeon was and what it represents," Suriano further explained. "I think the ‘90s Nick stuff was very accessible and there’s that accessibility I think that those cartoons and programming had. I think for us, with Ninja Turtles looking at, we are looking at a new generation of fans as well as such, I guess, a deep fanbase as well. Accessibility has always been on the forefront of the kind of cartoons we, Ant and I, want to make."

In a delightful twist, Rob Paulsen — one of the voice acting legends from the era of '90s animation — is both voice directing the series and co-starring as one of its lead villains, foot lieutenant. If you are familiar with Pinky from "Pinky and the Brain," Raphael and Donatello from the original and 2012 "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" series, Yakko Warner and Dr. Otto Scratchansniff from "Animaniacs," Carl Wheezer from "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius" or for that matter dozens of other popular animated fare from the '90s and '00s, the chances are that you've encountered Paulsen's voraciously versatile vocals.

READ MORE: Watching "Atypical" with autism

When speaking to Salon, Paulsen was extremely grateful for the fact that children raised during the '90s have continued to love the material that he helped to create.

"Little did I know that people your age and a bit older had grown up watching these shows on which I've had the good fortune to work," Paulsen told Salon. "And it was their kindness that allowed me to come in and read for these jobs. I said, 'Sure, let's jump in the pool,' and I'll be damned. I got the job and again, it was arguably as popular now and then as it was when you were a boy watching it. It's just a remarkable experience."

He also attributed the ongoing popularity of the material that he worked on in the '90s to a simple variable — its quality.

"I think like 'Ninja Turtles,' 'Animaniacs,' 'Pinky and The Brain,' 'Jimmy Neutron' and other Nickelodeon properties have an exponentially larger audience now simply because they're good stuff, man," Paulsen said. "That's why 'Rocky and Bullwinkle' and 'Looney Tunes' are relevant 60 plus years later. They're just good and they're written purposely on different levels so that you, Matt, as a grownup can enjoy those shows and go, 'Oh, my God, I just saw an episode of 'Pinky and The Brain' or 'Jimmy Neutron' and I totally get this cultural reference that I didn't quite get as a 10-year-old.”

He also insisted that the credit which often accrues to him should be shared by the numerous creative people who made his best-known work possible. This came after I asked whether he still remembers the lyrics to "Nations of the World," a famous song performed by his character Yakko from "Animaniacs."

"I got it down backwards and forwards, and look, I'm good at my job, but you can throw a dart in LA and hit a singer, that could have sung that," Paulsen told Salon. "It really, it's not false modesty. I should be good at my job by now, but the trick is rewriting that stuff and that's where... in the same thing on 'Ninja Turtles.' We've got a great team of writers and man, you ain't got nothing if you ain't got a good script or a good song lyric. I have been the incredibly grateful beneficiary of a lot of that stuff, and certainly with respect to 'Animaniacs,' the songs most of which you folks remember including the 'Yakko’s World' were all written by Randy Rogel. Yeah, I've got it memorized, but I don't write them, and I don't draw them, and that's where an incredibly talented group of people come into the equation."

And that, it really seems, is the bottom line: The people who want to revive '90s shows have to strike a balance between remaining faithful to the qualities that made the original versions so good while adding something new that feels organic and interesting rather than forced. For instance, one of the more intriguing innovations that Nickelodeon has applied to the franchise's premise is that the turtles all have specific species, with each one differing according to their personality traits: Raphael is a jagged-shelled snapping turtle, Leonardo is a red-eared slider turtle, Donatello is a soft-shell turtle and Michelangelo is a box turtle.

"We wanted to look at their personalities. Everything with the personalities outwards, what would naturally fit and the characteristics that we wanted to give to each turtle. They fit really naturally with those species," Suriano explained.

As Ward elaborated, "Leo in our show, he's a little bit of sass, he's a little bit of the lovable scoundrel type. He's incredibly intelligent but he doesn't necessarily want what he might perceive at this time in his life as the burden of responsibility. He's enjoying being a teenager, so just visually the markings of a red-eared slider, the little almost devil horns above his eyes, they are almost like these little cheeky… it helps to sell his cheekiness."

He added, "Donny was really a naturally softshell turtle. It helped him at an earlier age pioneer his fleet of battle shells that he wears. Initially it started off as something to protect his back in a shell because he doesn't have the same physical abilities as his brothers, so he had to use his brain to compensate for that... Mikey being a box shell, box shells are the only turtle species that can fully retract all their limbs. Mikey being the young, the playful, the ambidextrous, the savant ninja of the group, it would be really fun to have that extra level of dexterity with him."

As Ward made it clear, the main priority was maintaining continuity with the "fun" dynamic from the previous versions of the characters while doing something new. "The brothers will be finding their place in the world, and having a blast on each adventure. They rough and tumble, act like siblings and are generally pretty rambunctious. I think fans will love how action packed, funny and dynamic the show is, it’s inherently TMNT with a unique re-imaging of many beloved characters."

Nickelodeon has also made a point of incorporating an important element into the new series, one that has been brought to the forefront of our cultural consciousness by the same millennials who were raised on this material in the '90s — namely, racial diversity.

"I just think that over the years we haven't seen a lot of animated properties with people of color and I think that's an issue that should be rectified and I think the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is doing that as we speak," Brandon Mychal Smith, an African American actor from shows like "Gridiron Gang" and "Phil of the Future," who plays Michelangelo in the new series. After citing how April O'Neill and several other characters on the new "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" show will be people of color, he added that "everyone deserves to have a piece of them and have someone like them represented in TV and film and sports and every market and every profession. I think this show makes a big stand in favor of equal representation and equal opportunity."

Because he was born in 1989, Smith has the added bonus of being someone who grew up as a fan of the turtles' series and now gets to his live the dream of playing a turtle himself.

"As a kid I grew up loving the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," Smith said. "My mother actually sent me a video on VHS of me as Donatello . . . and so now 20 years later to be this character is really a dream come true."

As the conversation with Viscardi helped me realize, it is the ambition of the people who create this content to produce the kind of material that future adults will look back on as being the stuff of their dreams.

"That desire to go back and feel that feeling again and experience that, I think it's still there and I think it's still profound," Viscardi explained. "I'm sure there's some generational reasoning for it all but that's what I mostly attribute to, the passion for adults to see something from when they were a kid because I think they long to feel that feeling again that they felt when they were a kid watching it the first time around."

He later elaborated, "There is no secret to selecting properties to reboot from our library. Ultimately, we want all of our content to ring true for kids, so we look at our potential reboots the same way that we look at original series by asking ourselves how much we feel kids will like it. And very often we talk to kids, too. That said, it’s important for our potential reboots to have a big fan base, and a creator that has the desire to continue to tell stories with the characters that they nurtured and brought to life many years ago. So, if the kid appeal is there, and the fan base is there, and the creator wants to tell news stories, then we seriously consider bringing back an older property from our amazing vault."

Paulsen expressed the same thought, with a dose of necessary realism.

"Look, this is not a charity. It's a capitalistic enterprise," Paulsen pointed out. "They sell a lot of action figures, but if you can do all of that, then you have something. It's the best aspects of if I can be, maybe pontificatory, but it's the best aspects of capitalism. You have something that everybody loves. They share it together. Parents don't roll their eyes when they watch it, they say, 'Yeah, I want to watch this with my kid and I want to go buy new action figures.' It's all good and it ultimately does nothing but bring everybody joy. I can't imagine a better enterprise in which to be involved."

He also looked forward to a long future in terms of his own career in creating indelible children's characters.

"They want me to let my imagination run wild. What more could you ask for?" Paulsen said. "If the upshot is you end up being like a guy like Dick Van Dyke who is 94 or June Foray, who was still working at 90 and recently died at 99, or Stan Lee who's 95 and still goes around and makes appearances in the next Marvel movie. Are you kidding me? That's what I got waiting for me, I'll take it. Yeah, I hope to work until either I die, or people very gently say, 'Rob, you're just not capable of doing this anymore and just go put on your Ninja Turtle Costume and sit down and have a piece of pizza and shut your mouth.'"

I think it is reasonable to reassure Paulsen that no one is going to ask him to shut his mouth anytime soon.

Gun control is just the beginning

How Nick Cannon is parenting on guns

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

MORE FROM Matthew Rozsa