In a scene from a new Nickelodeon cartoon, â€œSanjay and Craig,â€ a boy and his talking snake attempt to sneak into a hospital to watch a butt surgery. But theyâ€™re caught and the snake bursts through the boyâ€™s shirt in an attempt to trick the hospitalâ€™s staff into thinking the kid is a patient.
Itâ€™s a funny spectacle for todayâ€™s kidsbut for parents itâ€™s a reference to Ridley Scottâ€™s 1979 classic space movie â€œAlien.â€
For Nickelodeon, â€œSanjay and Craigâ€ marks a return to the kind of irreverent early 1990s cartoons that appeal to children and adults on different levels. In the age of Cartoon Networkâ€™s â€œAdult Swim,â€ thereâ€™s been a split between edgy cartoons for adults and more benign fare for youngsters. Nickelodeonâ€™s trying to remerge those worlds â€“ only without all the â€œRen & Stimpyâ€-like puke, violence and manic insanity that helped put the network on the cable map two decades ago.
â€œSome of the best shows have both elements for children and adults,â€ said Jim Dirschberger, one of the creators of â€œSanjay and Craig.â€
The new show is an attempt â€œto get back to our roots,â€ Nickelodeon Senior Vice President Rich Magallanes said, noting that â€œSanjay and Craigâ€ creators Dirschberger, Andreas Trolf, and Jay Howell grew up watching the the channelâ€™s early 1990s cartoons.
â€œItâ€™s really surreal to go from a Nick fan to creating something for them,â€ Dirschberger said.
In todayâ€™s cartoon industry, the norm has become to separate entertainment for adults, with shows like â€œSouth Parkâ€ and â€œFamily Guy,â€ from cartoon shows for children, like â€œThe Mighty B!â€ But animation that blends the two worlds together use to be a treasured art. Tex Avery cartoons from the early Warner Brother years began a tradition that gained and lost practitioners throughout the decades. Bugs Bunny became an archetype for dangerously fun cartoon characters with cross-generational appeal.
And while â€œSanjay and Craigâ€ is touted by Nickelodeon as bringing back the early glory days, Magallanes conceded that the stink and bile of â€œRen & Stimpyâ€ doesnâ€™t fly anymore.
â€œItâ€™s hard to put that into todayâ€™s time period,â€ he said.
Still, creator Dirschberger believes that some scenes in â€œSanjay and Craig,â€ will â€œget some letters about,â€ he said. â€œVisually, the show can be pretty gross.â€
Joe Murray, creator of early Nickelodeon cult favorite â€œRockoâ€™s Modern Life,â€ believes that TV networks today canâ€™t be as daring as they once were during family viewing hours. During the early 1990s, the network was operating below the radar, able to get away with graphic content â€“ sexual innuednoes and violence as the 6-to-10 set watched.
â€œNobody was really watching them that much. They were so small that no one really cared what they played,â€ Murray said. â€œThey told me to â€˜do whatever you want.â€™â€
According to Murray and others in the animation industry, cable networks today avoid pushing boundaries because they want parents to buy toys based on the cartoons, a huge source of income for networks.
â€œThe more corporate executives piled on, the more it falls apart,â€ said Linda Simensky, who was an animation producer at the time and helped bring â€œRen & Stimpyâ€ to Nickelodeon. â€œNick began to make demands that they didnâ€™t want anything too crazy.â€
Simensky, along with the rest of the industry, took on the same challenge Tex Avery had taken on more than 70 years ago, bringing risk back to the cartoon industry. They also subscribed to Averyâ€™s beliefs that good cartoons come from as little oversight as possible, to better allow the creators of cartoons play out the show.
â€œShe knew Ren & Stimpy was irreverent and she didnâ€™t want corporate to put a lid on it,â€ Murray said. Often times, he remembers, Simensky took the episodes he created and quickly put them on air before a corporate board could review the material and remove the more risquÃ© aspects.
UCLA Professor Doug Ward noted â€œRen & Stimpyâ€ creator John Kricfalusi, â€œwas taking the work of Tex Avery â€“ and I didnâ€™t even know anyone could do this â€“ and made it even more insane.â€
Simensky said the fluctuation between risquÃ© shows to tame shows is a normal tide in the cartoon industry.
â€œItâ€™s pretty typical to go in cycles,â€ Simensky said. â€œThe creatorâ€™s of shows nowadays, they grew up on the early cartoons of the 90s. It will go back to that sensibility.â€
Which is exactly Magallanesâ€™ claim for â€œSanjay and Craig.â€
â€œWe have all the kids of those days coming to create shows for us,â€ he said. â€œWeâ€™re getting back to our basics.â€