||July 21, 2001
'Rugrats' grow up for special
By John Rogers (Associated Press)
LOS ANGELES - Ten years ago, a baldheaded, bug-eyed baby wearing an ill-fitting diaper squirted milk onto a TV screen - and a new American hero was born.
It was our first introduction to Tommy Pickles, fearless 1-year-old leader of the Emmy-winning animated TV show "Rugrats."
There's no villain he can't conquer. From sandbox bullies to militaristic day-care providers, Tommy Pickles has humbly vanquished them all, often with the simple credo: "A baby's gotta do what a baby's gotta do."
"He's a hero and he's also a gentleman. That's what I like about him - he's a gentle guy," says E.G. Daily, the actress who has provided Tommy's voice from the beginning.
"Rugrats" routinely lands among the 15 most popular cable programs in the Nielsen TV ratings several times each week. The 30-minute show airs at different times throughout the week on the Nickelodeon cable network.
Now Tommy and company, including Chuckie, Angelica and twins Lil and Phil, star in "All Growed Up," a special one-hour anniversary show debuting at 8 tonight on Nickelodeon.
The gang goes 10 years into the future, aging along the way until their return. Tommy's mechanical genius pulls it off. In this case, he fashions a time tunnel out of a hallway closet and a karaoke machine.
Such a feat is implausible, of course, except in the fantasy world of animation. But then pulling off the implausible has become routine on "Rugrats," which was created by a trio of unknown animators, Arlene Klasky, Gabor Csupo and Paul Germain.
Csupo had fled communist-ruled Hungary 15 years before, taking only his prized collection of records by avant-garde rock-music composer Frank Zappa.
They hired another avant-garde rock-music composer, Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, to score it.
"Out of the gate it seemed like it had the look of something special. But who knew?" Nickelodeon President Herb Scannell says.
He now proudly compares "Rugrats" to "Seinfeld," both for its offbeat humor and the undying devotion of its audience.
But talk to those involved with the show when it was getting started, and they'll tell you they never dreamed it would be a huge hit; never even realized, in fact, that it had become one until reminders began popping up everywhere.
"Suddenly when we were on the cover of Kraft macaroni and cheese," Daily laughs. "And Jell-O. And cereal."
Two feature films, 1998's "The Rugrats Movie" and last year's "Rugrats in Paris - the Movie," became box-office hits.
Yet after three Emmys, a CableACE award and a handful of Nickelodeon Kids' Choice awards, the "Rugrats" folks still seem awed by it all.
"You know, between the two of us, we've done maybe 25 or 30 television shows," Mothersbaugh says of himself and his brother, Bob, who also works on the show. "Usually it's the ones that you like that die the quickest deaths, so this was really a pleasant surprise."
Csupo and Klasky say they weren't out to create a hit.
"We just wanted to do a show, first of all, for ourselves. One that we wouldn't mind having to watch if we didn't produce it," Csupo says.
As a result, they never wrote down to their audience, Klasky says, but at the same time, they never took the show out of a child's world either.
So swimming pools are mistaken for giant potties, karaoke machines become tapioca machines, people with names like Mr. Yamagouchi become Mr. Yamasushi, and grumpy folks wake up on "the wrong side of the bread."
Not that all of the humor is designed strictly for children.
In "Rugrats in Paris," for example, a chance viewing of "The Godfather" movie results in mischievous Angelica briefly becoming "The Bobfather" and the twins mysteriously ending up with a hobbyhorse's head in their crib.
"It really is a kids' show that I know a lot of grown-ups like," Daily says of the program's enduring appeal. "I have a girlfriend who . . . doesn't let her kids watch any TV except for 'Rugrats,' because she thinks it's a decent show. It is. And it's sweet and it's funny, too. It's the one show that parents can sit back and watch with their kids and get a laugh out of it, too.