Ever wonder what Polaris was singing about in The Adventures of Pete & Pete theme song, “Hey Sandy?” Well…you won’t find out. But as Marc Mulcahy, who wrote the song and performed it with his “fictional” band, reveals in Slimed!: An Oral History of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age, he’s the only one who knows who “Sandy” is. “I haven’t told anybody. Don’t feel left out,” he says.
But what you will discover in Slimed! is that there’s an impressive back story behind Nickelodeon. The author, Mathew Klickstein, a fan of the early Nickelodeon shows, admits that he thought the project might turn out to be a “nice little book…I’ll talk to maybe 30 or 50 people and get some colorful stories about Clarissa Explains It All or what have you.” Wrong. While this is a book you can fit in your purse, and while the cover is a happy mixture of the classic Nickelodeon lime green and bright orange, it’s filled with a lot more than nostalgia.
In fact, Klickstein describes the project as becoming a sort of detective novel. The information kept building up; people he interviewed would direct him to a handful of others to talk to. In the end, he spoke to more than 250 people. “It was an incredible amount of material. I turned in almost 300,000 words.” The book was cut down, though, to make it more accessible. And while Slimed! is certainly fun, especially for readers who grew up watching these shows, it also provides a serious lesson on the birth of cable television. As Klickstein notes, this story goes all the way back to the early ’70s, involving “everything from marketing to art to set design…to religious issues and diversity.”
Surprisingly, a history of Nickelodeon hasn’t been written before. Klickstein found two texts about Nickelodeon, one being Nickelodeon Nation, which helped him during the beginning stages of the project, but they were scholarly works mostly meant for media classes. “There wasn’t really a book for a mainstream audience about Nickelodeon; there certainly wasn’t an oral history or one that was told from the point of view of the people who really made it happen,” Klickstein says. He mentions the collective forehead slap that occurred when he and his agent were pitching the book to publishers. No one could believe it hadn’t been done before. But there was also the question from publishers of whether there was enough story for a full book. Klickstein makes the point that you don’t necessarily know how much information is out there until you take the time to look. “That’s what books are supposed to do; they’re supposed to bring that out and say ‘Hey, guess what, there’s a lot more to Nickelodeon than just children’s television.’”
If you’re familiar with the early Nickelodeon shows—Doug, Pete & Pete, Rugrats, Double Dare, etc.—reading Slimed! will be a little like reliving childhood for a few hours, learning how the sets of the game shows were put together, how the theme songs were created, even what ingredients make up the iconic green slime. You’ll also come away with the realization that Nickelodeon was a groundbreaking network. “These people were the Johnny Appleseeds of cable television,” Klickstein says of those who formed the channel and worked to produce these beloved shows. “It was the second or third cable channel ever.”What made Nickelodeon unique was that it was a “pioneering force” in narrowcasting, which Klickstein explains is setting out to “specifically target and market for one niche….That idea was extremely revolutionary, very risky.”
The book portrays the creators of Nickelodeon as a group of young, creative types with a vision. Many of these show creators were in their 20s at the time: “These were people’s first tastes of professionalism, and then they would go on to do these huge things,” Klickstein says. Peter Chung, who did the opening sequence and the pilot for Rugrats, went on to create Aeon Flux. Gerry Laybourne, president of Nickelodeon from 1984-1996, went on to found the Oxygen Network. And we all know that Suzanne Collins, who was a writer for Clarissa Explains It All, went on to pen the Hunger Games series.
The Golden Age of Nickelodeon was, in Klickstein’s opinion, “a mystical alchemy of the right principals who came together and a president who let people do what they wanted to do.” Gerry Laybourne’s mentality was, in essence: “Let’s find out what kids want so we can give them what they want! Not ‘let’s find out what kids like so we can exploit it,’” he says. And that is the meat and potatoes of the Golden Age. It was television made for kids, and by kids. Klickstein remembers the public service announcements Nickelodeon used to include after shows, telling children to go outside and play. “What TV channel would tell kids to go read a book now? These were great people who really cared,” he says. But all golden ages must come to an end. Slimed!, while telling the story of this special time at Nickelodeon, also highlights that this time has passed. As Dana Calderwood, who was a director on Double Dare, aptly notes, “[t]hey’ve become a company now.” Nickelodeon was no longer a low-budget, start-up cable channel.
The fact that this book was written—the fact that there’s a generation of kids who grew up on these shows and who are now adults—is a hopeful, important reminder that children’s programming like this existed. “This is our generation’s collective pop-culture connector,” says Klickstein. So, cheers to this reminder of a golden time in children’s programming that helped not only to entertain children, but to teach them “about life, about art and comedy.”
Chelsea Langford is the editorial assistant at Kirkus Reviews.