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".