Sunday, December 7, 2014

"Dear Journal": Doug's Thematic Arc (With Fantasy and Reality) From the Beginning

December 7, 2014

WRITER'S NOTE: "Doug" originally ran for four seasons on Nickelodeon from 1991 to 1994, before being picked up by the Disney channel for three new seasons from 1996 to 1999. This blog post, as well as my recent one (which you can read here) and future posts soon to come, focus primarily on the Nickelodeon series. My intention is to get back to what originally made the character (and show) so unique and endearing. The following post focuses primarily on themes from the original season (1991-1992).

"That's me." Trademark introduction to each episode
The success of "Doug"s original run on Nickelodeon was a result of its originality, its quirkiness, and its sincerity. Prior to the early nineties, some cartoons such as "Charlie Brown" and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" were based on comic-book source material. Nickelodeon, however, was seeking out original ideas, and then-executive producer Vanessa Coffey came across a goldmine in the late 80s when she met with "Doug" creator Jim Jinkins, who had originated the character through doodles as well as an unpublished book titled "Doug Got a New Pair of Shoes."

The originality of the show came from each character's distinct personalities (which I'll discuss in my next post), a completely idiosyncratic score (cue Skeeter's quirky mouth sounds and Mr. Dink's wacky theme music), and a clever and creative writing team that wasn't just targeting kids. More importantly, the series wouldn't be what it is if not for Doug's narrative role as a writer (er, journalist) in his day-to-day experiences. This is what makes his journal essential, as it's obviously a tool for him to record and reflect on the lessons and messages he and others learn every day.

In an interview with the Huffington Post this past summer, Jinkins emphasized the importance of having a thematic undertone in each episode. "The priority for me was always the story. If we could play the track and laugh and have a solid message, we knew we had a good episode." Jinkins also mentioned how he addressed each "kid issue" at the top of each episode script during production. "It sounds a little self-righteous, but I always knew there was going to be a moral foundation to the series."

Porkchop (left) and Doug open the door to the "Honker Burger"
for the first time.
From the beginning, as Doug and his family move into a "new town [with a] new school [and] new friends," his personal feelings about this new chapter in his life are clear. The first season encompasses various examples of the fear of embarrassment and feeling like an outsider. Such examples include being duped by the town bully Roger into catching a local mythological "neematoad" to be a town hero, fear of what his sister Judy might do or say about him during a school visit at an assembly, and even what his school pictures could look like on account of self-awareness over his "big nose."

To escape some of these circumstances (or at least try, and occasionally help others from their own), Doug creates alter egos in his daydreams, which sometimes have an effect on the real world (and not just the other way around). In one of the first episodes, for instance, when gossip circulates through school that the science lab blew up, fingers point to Doug due to his volcano project at the science fair, and he considers going on the run as an Errol Flynn-/Zorro-type named "Jack Bandit." Another case involves Doug's ever-popular superhero counterpart Quailman, as he tries to save secret crush Patti from the clutches of "Klotzilla" (a Godzilla manifestation for Roger, as he pesters Patti in school one day to help him with a class report). And then there's a case where Doug accidentally hands in a doodle he made of his teacher, Mrs. Wingo, and imagines what secret agent Smash Adams (a James Bond parody) would do to get it back.

"Wa-na-na! Jack Bandit!"
"Strange visitors from the planet Bob": Quailman (right) and Quaildog
Smash Adams, Secret Agent
As mentioned in my last post, Doug often escapes into these Walter-Mitty-esque daydreams (i.e., imagining himself as the hero or being somebody he isn't) and imagines the best of a possible situation or the alternative worst-case scenario of what said situation could result in or lead to. Some would argue that this habitual daydreaming and perceiving makes Doug a crazy character. (One blog, titled "Doug Funnie is Crazy," devotes itself to criticizing assumed psychological aspects of the show.)

But remember, these characters are kids. (Eleven-year-olds, to be exact.) Kids who experience life and go through the worries and challenges and emotions that come with it. Who didn't worry, as a kid, about whether or not their school pictures would turn out alright, or whether they would embarrass themselves on stage at, say, a talent show? Or whether somebody they had a crush on would like them in return, or whether they would need to say goodbye to a friend soon? And who didn't worry they might be laughed or scoffed at because of the way they dance, or the way they look (e.g, facial features like a nose), or by what they wear (e.g, shoes)?

In spite of these circumstances, Doug does learn from them for better or worse. He often receives encouragement and support from his friends, including what makes him (as Patti puts it) “one-of-a-kind”. Indeed, Doug does journal, "If you're not you, then who are you?" (a great moral in remembering what it means to just be you). Also, Doug and his friends learn together, after a baseball game in another episode, that though we may apparently lose at something or some things sometimes, we can still feeling like winners when we stick it out.

With that in mind, Doug exemplifies many times what it means to be honest and to make the right decisions--difficult, but right--sometimes for others, and not just for himself. A great example occurs during a "Bluff Scout" retreat where Doug makes the wise choice not to embarrass a fellow scout, even though that person embarrassed him many times before. (“He may be a pain, but he’s still a Bluff Scout.”) He makes a similar choice to be there for his sister when she visits for an aforementioned school assembly. And when a best friend, who may potentially move away, decides to prevent himself from doing so by moving in with Doug, Doug assures his friend that he needs to be with his family, yet remembers what's important in life including taking advantage of the time we have with friends. 

"And journal, I'll let you know how it turns out."

Sunday, November 30, 2014

"Dear Journal": Memories of an Early 90s Nickelodeon Friend

November 30, 2014

My earliest memories of growing up were in the 90s and into the first decade of the 2000s. During the former years, I had learned to ride a bike, took swim lessons, eventually and hesitantly went on the swim team, and made my own cartoons or doodles based on personal experiences or what I loved. Near the beginning of the latter years, I even made the decision that I was going to do better in school. (My grades were average throughout elementary and middle school.)

By the end of the latter decade and into the second, as I was finishing college, I had done a lot of research on the teen films of John Hughes from the 80s. From Sixteen Candles to The Breakfast Club to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, these films illustrated a sense of angst, loneliness and understanding in the role of teenagers growing up and experiencing life. They also illustrated an aspect of reality that didn't often get portrayed in films at the time. 

In addition, the technologies and memorabilia of the decade, such as mixed tapes, videocassettes, skateboards, and telephones, offered a less distracting form of communication or escapism compared with the "toys" and tools we have today. For one thing, the 90s got, at times, hip and funky as they went along, what with boy bands and MTV and other forms of “popular culture”.

The beginning of the decade, however, was apparently far different in retrospect. My older brother and I (like so many other kids) would watch cartoons on television in our spare time. The first I ever remember were probably “The Pink Panther” shorts. We were also into “Looney Tunes,” “Tom and Jerry,” and live-action shows like “Full House,” “Family Matters,” and “America’s Funniest Home Videos”.

As the Walt Disney Studio was experiencing a renaissance period in animation, it was around the same time that Nickelodeon (which started in the late-70s and expanded in the 80s) was becoming more popular. After all, it was considered to be “the first kids network” on cable television, meaning that the shows it produced were directed towards children (although not all of them, in truth, really were). Some of the diverse shows on this channel included “Clarissa Explains It All” (about a teenage girl chronicling her adolescent experiences a la Ferris Bueller) “Salute Your Shorts” (about a bunch of kids at summer camp), “The Adventures of Pete and Pete" (about two brothers), and “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” (kids telling scary stories around the campfire).

But the show I resonated with the most was from an illustrator who may have done for the 90s what John Hughes did for the 80s. The illustrator/creator was Jim Jinkins, and the show was “Doug.” One of the three original "Nicktoons" that premiered in August of 1991 (the other two being the cute and tasteful "Rugrats" and the crude and tasteless "Ren and Stimpy"), it was also one of the first to usher in a new era of animation on television. 

Doug Funnie (center) and friends (clockwise left) Porkchop,
Patti Mayonnaise, Skeeter Valentine, and Roger Klotz
Essentially a cartoon, it consisted of quirky and (literally) colorful characters with real emotions and experiences. Think “Peanuts,” but with middle-school-aged kids. The central character is a daydreamer and writer who chronicled his life experiences in a red journal.

Doug Funnie is a typical eleven-year-old boy who moves with his family to a new town. His family consists of his photographer dad; his stay-at-home, recycling-oriented mother; his theatrically-minded sister, Judy; and his anthropomorphic sidekick dog, Porkchop. Like any kid, Doug fears being an outcast, being embarrassed, and not fitting in.

On his first outing in touring the town of Bluffington (which Jinkins based on his hometown of Richmond, Virginia), he meets his neighbors the Dinks (Bud and Tippi), and eventually other characters such as Mayor White (a William Shatner type), new friend Skeeter (the first to make Doug feel welcome in town), the town bully Roger, athlete and secret crush Patti, star athlete Chalky, and spoiled rich kid Beebe.

What sets Doug apart from other cartoons of the time is its originality, its quirkiness, and its sincerity. The literal colors of each character arguably illustrate a theme of diversity not so much on mere color as on personality. (I'll discuss this topic more in a later blog post.)

Another original aspect is the series' sound effects and music, courtesy Dan Sawyer and Fred Newman. Newman (who provided the voice of Skeeter and Mr. Dink, among others) was responsible for creating the many sounds and themes that made the community of Bluffington idiosyncratic and fundamental. (Some of you, by now, may be picturing Skeeter in your head quoting his trademark, "Honk, honk!")

In just about every episode, Doug would have Walter Mitty-like daydreams that would either be the best of a possible situation, or the worst-case scenario of something that could possibly happen. Yet in the end, there are better “real-life” results along with universal life lessons that made the series more than just a slice of cake. Not all are pleasant, to be sure, but they are part of life's great balancing act. In addition, it illustrates the theme of perceptions and perspectives we have of other people and other things, including life. Hence, the daydreams and fantasies, as well as Doug's journal.

In retrospect, "Doug" was the first series that taught me what it's like being a kid and growing up in the world, as well as what makes us unique and, as Patti would say, "one-of-a-kind". 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Children, Legacies, and Triumph Over Tragedy

September 11, 2014

I recently watched the movie “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” (released in the fall of 2011, ten years after the events of 9/11). The story centers on a young boy who loses his father in one of the Twin Towers that tragic day. And while the film is very powerful and emotional, it does illustrate how a father helped his son to communicate with the world, to see the world beyond his fears. The film is ultimately a message of hope beyond tragedy, beyond fear, and beyond loneliness.

Even so, the very thought of children who have been affected by tragedy is often too much to bear. And I can’t imagine how just as (if not more) difficult it is for a child who loses a loved one they have never met or will never get to know personally.

Loved ones, whether family or friends or mentors, inspire us to be more than we think we can be, to reach out and to strive farther than we think we can.

On September 12 of 2011, People Magazine released an article on children who were born to widows who lost their husbands on 9/11. Fathers these children never got to know personally. Fathers they never got to meet. Yet, they and their mothers (through various and continued processes of healing) have become examples of hope and triumph in the face of such aforementioned adversities.

“They were just newborns, and yet they brought comfort to their widowed mothers and became symbols of hope for a nation reeling over the tragedy of [that day]. Now . . . the milestones of their young lives . . . have served as proof that life carries on even in the face of unthinkable loss.”

Lives that carry the spirit and legacy and honor of their fathers, and therefore their families.

As an educator, I believe in the responsibility for us as a generation to be an example of hope and opportunity and accountability and love for this generation of children. 

The following video has nothing to do with 9/11, but it does involve students who (some of which) have experienced tragedy, yet illustrate the power of hope for their families, for their community, and for the world.