Rugrats in Retrospect: A Response to Saberspark's Video 'What RUINED Rugrats - The Untold Drama' and Why Paul Germain was Spot on about Good Storytelling
In the 1990's, animation was starting to evolve from toy commercial centric cartoons like Care Bears and My Little Pony to creator driven content as seen with Nickelodeon's hit shows of the time like Doug, Rocko's Modern Life and Nick's then pop cultural phenomenon, Rugrats. At the start of the decade, media and technology entrepreneur, Geraldine Laybourne served as Nickelodeon's first president from 1984 to 1996. She and the rest of the team set out to make Nickelodeon the first network for kids with their unique line-up of shows that were original creator content in order to differentiate themselves from other networks during those years. At the beginning, Doug, The Ren and Stimpy Show and Rugrats were the first three animated shows to be greenlit into production. Of the three, Rugrats would go on to be Nickelodeon's biggest hit, paving the way for the network's upcoming animated shows like Rocko's Modern Life, Angry Beavers and Hey Arnold!. More to the point, Rugrats became the face of Nickelodeon throughout most of the '90's, but then in the latter part of the decade and the start of the 2000's, its popularity gradually began to die down, eventually being eclipsed by Sponge Bob Square Pants.
There is a very specific reason as to why that happened. However, contrary to popular belief, the decline in popularity for Rugrats wasn't so much for the addition of new characters, though, there is some merit to that assumption. The real problem that caused this series to lose its momentum, as seen in Saberspark's video, What RUINED Rugrats? - The Untold Drama, had everything to do with the show creators failing to see eye to eye. The show was created by then married couple, Arlene Klasky and Gabor Cspuo along with fellow co-worker, Paul Germain. In this blog post, I'm not going to delve too much into the notorious drama that went on amongst the writers. I'm just going to pin point the main source of it. Rather, I'm going to discuss my thoughts on the situation from the perspective of an aspiring writer and early childhood teacher. Using my animation and illustration background as well as my experience so far working with children, I will explain with an in-depth analysis on why I favor Mr. Germain's side of the story.
For starters, before Rugrats made its debut, the trio worked on a few episodes of The Simpsons shorts for The Tracey Ullman Show from 1987 to 1989 before it made its debut as a television series itself on December 17th, 1989. The Klasky-Csupo team worked on this series during the first three seasons. The Simpsons, which was created by Matt Groening, has been a pop cultural icon for nearly three decades now, and is still going strong to this day, making it the longest running American animated sitcom in history. As we know, the show deals with the titular dysfunctional family and their interactions and responses toward American culture. As simple a concept that may be, what contributes a great deal to the success of The Simpsons is character development and stories that explore the human condition by going into the characters' minds and challenges. Having previously worked on the show, Paul Germain knew that the key to making a top tier animated series was quality storytelling, so his level of expertise would bode well for him in the long run. (I know The Simpsons did suffer a bit in quality over the years, but that's another topic for another day).
When pitching a show for Nickelodeon, Arlene Klasky created the concept for Rugrats with one basic idea in mind that made it truly memorable: "if babies could talk, what would they say?" Having been pregnant during the show's conception, making this a very personal show that was important to her, she had Paul Germain help her elaborate on the idea. Inevitably, Nickelodeon greenlighted production on the series and a total of sixty-five episodes would be in the contract. Rugrats debuted in the summer of 1991. Due to solid promotion, its success and viewership increased immensely. From films, to merchandise, and even a giant parade balloon making its debut in the 1997 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, there was no denying Rugrats became the crown jewel for Nickelodeon. Unfortunately, as Saberspark pointed out, the events building up towards the show's success was ultimately what lead the show to crumble. There were several feuds between Klasky and Germain that would often put Csupo in the middle as the swing voter between the two.
Long story short, Arlene Klasky favored the idea of the baby characters acting more like their age rather than see them acting on adult-like behaviors as seen in the 1992 episode, The Trial in which the babies have a courtroom setup after one of the children destroys Tommy's favorite lamp. Paul Germain was all for writing plot driven narratives with solid character development like that of The Simpsons, but for kids. To make this disconnect between the show creators worse, it was the introduction of Angelica that increased conflict between Klasky and Germain. Germain created Angelica, feeling that the show having an antagonist would tip the scales in its favor. Klasky, having not created the character, strongly disliked Angelica and often complained about her portrayal being too cruel towards the younger children. Inspired by a childhood bully, Germain wanted to explore Angelica's character and craft character driven plots examining why some kids who bully other kids behave the way they do. After Paul Germain's departure in the mid-1990's along with other members of the writing staff, the quality of the writing began to shift. Although that was the time Rugrats skyrocketed in success, a few years later, it began to fizzle and eventually the show ended in 2004. Given all that was happening behind the scenes with this show and in regards to good writing and how children learn and develop through cooperative and explorative play, Paul Germain was definitely on-point when it came to what would have been best for this kind of series.
First of all, since Rugrats is a cartoon about children from ages one to three and a half years old, it should delve into topics that focus on the inner workings of early childhood development. The key ingredient that goes into good writing is having a deep understanding of your subject matter and drawing even more inspiration from the real world. It could be from personal experience, people you know or some new insights you've garnered working with others. All of those elements are vital to good storytelling, if not an important foundation for it. Arlene Klasky was right about one thing. When coming up with an idea for a story, it's a good idea to write something that is personal to you, but her unwillingness to listen to her peers left almost no room for personal growth. Good ideas become stronger when you garner deeper understandings of what you're writing about. If Klasky wanted to make a show that was about babies exploring the world around them, she'd be wiser to take those concepts into account. With Paul Germain's approach to writing, he was willing to add and explore those aspects of early childhood development blended with personal experiences and incorporate them into the plots. For example, when the children mimic adult behaviors, that's a prime example in early childhood development with children letting themselves think freely in a risk-free environment. What contributes to children's growth is their freedom to explore certain attributes of adult behaviors and thus, begin to learn about themselves and how the world works. As is the case with The Trial episode, the babies have a courtroom setting in the living room because they have already seen and know that adults attend jury duty. They are somewhat familiar with how that process works. Certainly they may not understand every little detail that there is to know, but at an early age, children observe adults on one side of a testimony and others representing the other perspective in order to determine who might be guilty and who might be innocent.
To add to this, from my experience so far working with preschoolers and what I've been studying, I've seen how children play certain games like house, kitchen, or store. Social referencing is something that occurs in infants between six to nine months, which is when babies observe how their caregivers react to certain situations and use that as a model for the appropriate response. Preschoolers already know this social cue from their infancy and build up from it. In terms of childhood development theories, Lev Vygotsky theorized that social interaction among other children is what adds to the child making meaning and gaining new knowledge. He also believed that, unlike Jean Piaget, who categorized childhood development in four stages, children's development is continuous and occurs through cooperative learning. Children, thus learn from each other. Jerome Bruner's Three Modes of Representation observes that children continuously and actively learn by adding on previous knowledge. Enactive, which is based inaction occurs during the early years. Iconic, which is image based, occurs during the mid-childhood years. Symbolic, which is rooted in language, takes place during adolescence. Applying this to The Trail, we see these examples playing out in the episode. We see that the children in the cartoon already understand why adults resolve disputes in a courtroom, so there is a bit of social referencing displayed as the babies are seen referencing adult behaviors to respond to their situation. The way that the Lev Vygotsky theory is depicted, the children are interacting with one another and thus, through this type of play, they are learning through cooperation and making meaning in order to find out who broke the lamp. The way that Bruner's theory plays a role is that at the age that the Rugrats characters are, they are learning through action or Enactive imagery and that is knowledge that gets built on with new knowledge over time.
That being said, drawing from real-life examples and knowledge of how children develop are important elements that contribute to good writing. The topic or subject matter you are writing about may be personal to you, but if you don't take the time to build up a deeper understanding from other perspectives and real-life observations, your concept may still be good on paper, but stale in representation. This also leads me to another reason why Germain's approach to storytelling excels over Klasky's, one that should always be at the forefront when crafting a story: who is your target audience? This question may already be a matter of common sense, but its one that seems to get a bit lost as new writers join a team on a show or other type of creative project. As mentioned earlier, Paul Germain envisioned Rugrats being The Simpsons of children's television. What he meant was that the target demographic for Rugrats could appeal to not only children, but adults as well. Just because of the age of the main characters, it shouldn't imply that there can't be stories written in a way that would resonate with older audiences as well. From the sound of the debates between Arlene Klasky and Paul Germain, it was obvious that Klasky failed to understand her audience, much less ever listen to why Germain's writing team was on point. Klasky felt that if they were to make a show about babies, it automatically meant that the main characters should consistently do what babies do. However, there is a major flaw in this thought process: aside from it leaving very little room for character development, it leaves very little room certain topics to be covered, rendering the show's content too stale.
The main problem I see with Klasky's approach as to what she thought was right for Rugrats is that she wanted to play the show too safe. Audiences eventually get bored of that. They can easily tell when writers are taking creative risks and when they are selling themselves short. By having the main characters constantly act their ages, not only are there limitations on story and character growth, but it fails to resonate with audiences. If Rugrats was intended to be a show both kids and adults could relate to, this approach was absolutely not the ideal choice for that demographic. You can't just have one foot in the door for a certain age group and the other one stepping out for another. A good kids show written for both kids and adults in mind should always be an open space for writers to be adventurous and explorative when it comes to dealing with new ideas. Plus this is the type of audience that wants to see something beyond the comfort level. There have been episodes of Rugrats, like the PBS Kids edutainment show, Arthur, where difficult topics were covered, such as neglect, loss of a pet or family member, jealousy, generational differences and of course, child growth and developmental milestones. There have even been episodes that deal with fears adults struggle with and new experiences that come with each stage in life. Even most impressive was that there have been holiday specials that focus on Hanukah and Passover and their religious significance, something that not very many shows at the time were covering. Being open to topics like these make room for both kids and adults to have a dialogue with one another. Because early childhood development is the seed that shapes how we grow up as our earliest experiences shape us, our perception of others and the world around us, it makes more sense that character driven plots were the best way to construct an episode of a show like Rugrats. Playing it safe with very little for the characters to do eventually alienates viewers and thus, that is why Paul Germain had the right idea all along. Even so, when it came to Angelica, her role wasn't solely to be a one-dimensional bully as mentioned earlier, but rather to represent a figure of the type of kid everyone has to deal with at times. As children grow up, they will always encounter a bully. Contrary to some of the stereotypes portraying bully characters over the years prior to Rugrats and other shows afterwards, there are underlying reasons why some children lash out the way they do. Over simplifying or dodging the subject altogether is not only playing storytelling safely, but it's also denying the reality of the world we live in. (I would like to delve into the topic of bully/brat characters in kids shows in a separate blog post sometime because I think it's a topic deserving of its own post).
With all that has been said and done and how well Rugrats aged as a pop cultural icon, in the end, it was Paul Germain's values as a storyteller that made it stand the test of time. With all due respect to Arlene Klasky, who undeniably had a brilliant idea for a television show, her concepts sounded good on paper, but Germain had ideas to help take her concept up another step further. It was unfortunate that Klasky and Germain failed to find common ground, but one can't deny that it's one thing to have a good idea on your hands. It's a whole world of difference to build up on it. Going off of Klasky's approach, there would have left very little room for character development and growth due to limitations on plotlines as was the case with the later seasons. Germain had all the right pieces in mind that fit into crafting good stories that would resonate with the show's respective audience. With an understanding of real world examples, such as studies related to the subject matter that the series centers around and personal experiences along with comprehending who the show is for, those are all important factors that contributes to both a show's quality and increased level of success in the long run. Stories can teach us about our struggles and shed them in a different light when delved into correctly, inspiring viewers to ask themselves the right questions and reflect on their own situations. By playing it safe and shunning other suggestions to further improve your concept as well as knowing less about who your target audience is, you not only put limitations on the potential of your ideas, but also on yourself as a writer. The more explorative you become with your concept and how it relates to the real world along with knowing what kind of stories your audiences are hoping to see, the better rounded you become as a creator. Your concept will grow and flourish, reaching its full potential. As with any creative medium, it will always be a continuing process that no one ever stops learning from because our experiences never stop shaping us and endless knowledge is always being spread around. You yourself will never stop learning. It's either you're open to it or you just stick to what is already familiar to you. By the latter, you will have many missed opportunities. By the former, you will constantly be exposed to them and those new opportunities and insights are what you give your audiences in return.
At the time of writing this post, I'm studying for an exam as part of a portfolio requirement to get my Master's degree in Early Childhood Education. I have a study guide book, covering everything that's going to be on the test, such as child development theories, math, science, reading and so on. One of the study tips the book offers is to put on background music that contains no lyrics and that music specifically is the great works of Mozart or any type of classical music. This is really great advice, especially for anyone who is preparing for a major test and it works quite well for me. Of course, it's not only Classical music that can be helpful for study time, but anything that is pleasant and without lyrics. (I also listen to modern Jazz as I study). However, I can't actually say that listening to Classical music has made me any smarter. Rather, it makes me a little more relaxed and focused before and as I study. In fact, there have been studies that disprove the 'Mozart effect', demonstrating that it doesn't actually make students smarter. Although there is some truth to the 'Mozart effect' being effective as a bit of a brain booster (as long as you're not just passively listening to a piece by Mozart and instead actually practicing it), the widely popular assumption that it will make you smarter is over simplified.
First, let's start with where the concept originated from. In 1993, a study by Rauscher, Shaw and Ky was conducted on 36 college students and published in the Nature journal. According to Kimberly Sena Moore in her 2010 Psychology Today article, The Mozart Effect Doesn't Work...but here are some things that do, the students were tasked to "take one of three tests of spatial-temporal reasoning". This involved the following:
"These tests, subsets of the standard Stanford-Binet IQ test, asked the students to visualize spatial patterns and, over time, to manipulate them.
Additionally, there were three pre-test listening conditions: a Mozart piano sonata, repetitive relaxation music, and silence. When the students listened to the Mozart, they performed better on the spatial reasoning test. But it was a temporary improvement--the effect wore off after 15 minutes".
Aside from the effects wearing off after 15 minutes, the researchers themselves never insinuated that listening to Mozart automatically makes students smarter. All that the study demonstrated was that listening to Mozart can easily calm the mind as one prepares to take a test. Even so, studies conducted in the years afterwards made no solid conclusions that it's a 100% given that listening to Mozart intensifies cognition.
So, if the 'Mozart Effect' is not effective as popularly assumed, then what is beneficial? Just because there is no easy answer to boosting intellect via the 'Mozart Effect' doesn't mean students can't benefit from learning classical music or any type of music for that matter. There has been evidence that students develop their math and reading skills as well as their abilities for self-expression through music that simple words alone could not express. Among the recommendations Moore recommends instead of relying on the 'Mozart Effect' are "[p]urchas[ing] child friendly musical instruments", "[e]nrolling in an early childhood music class" and "[e]ncourag[ing] participation in band, orchestra, or choir". Children learn about themselves and the world around them through play. By picking up a tangible object, they let unleash their imaginations and desire for exploration as they play with toys, in this case, instruments. Early childhood music classes are also a great way for young children to learn about music as well as taking on the opportunity to learn how to play an instrument. Through social interaction with others in the classroom and collaboration, children will be more engaged with the art form. As a result, they are actively learning the basic craft of music, which requires a deliberate practice.
What might not be a wise idea to encourage students to get involved in music is to solely focus on Classical music and using the 'force-feed' approach. Often when teachers choose to focus solely on classical music, it's usually out of bias for the genre and thus, children are more likely to have a hard time garnering an appreciation for it. Therefore, it does a major disservice to both the student's musical and cognitive development as pin pointed by Rachael Dwyer in her article, Force-feeding kids classical music isn't the answer. "Forcing classical music, indeed forcing any music on unwilling students", Dwyer writes, "is unlikely to achieve the sorts of positive benefits - musical or cognitive - that an engaging and varied curriculum will". The less music teachers encourage variety in music exploration in the classroom, the less likely their students are going to make a sincere effort to be adventurous in learning about music, the craftsmanship behind it or practice it themselves.
Another thing to bear in mind is that because music is an expressive art form, it takes genuine passion and love for the art form to practice the craft and hone the skills. This occurs when students go beyond passive listening and garner a natural desire for wanting to learn how to play an instrument. By doing so, students have not only gained an appreciation for music, but are boosting their brain function and cognition. In her article, 4 Interesting Myths and Facts about the Mozart Effect, Sheena White lists a few example of how music enhances the brain, including '[i]mproving memory', 'superior multi sensory processing skills', '[o]rchestrates neuroplasticity in the brain', etc. In addition to the listed benefits, "it can help kids learn emotional control". When children actively commit to learning an instrument, not only are they honing reading and writing skills, but they learn to take control over their anxieties and cope with stress. Even so, because music is art and art is self-expression, students can express their ideas and feelings through music more powerfully than what simple words can express.
All and all, the 'Mozart Effect' can easily be debunked as it does not necessarily make students smarter. However, exposing students to Classical music and other types of music through enjoyable and engaging means and activities will inspire them to improve their musical and cognitive abilities, leading to more effective results. Without the 'like it or not' approach and instead, exposing children at an early age to music through toy instruments, then building up to an enrollment in music classes and meeting other students as they get older, children will more likely find music pleasing. Their desire to practice more increases and thus, they start to develop their musical skills, cognitive abilities and self-expression. All the while, it's very true that listening to Mozart or any type of classical music of the Old Masters is a great way to relax the mind before studying for or taking a major test, but it's important to put into context how these effects actually work. After all, as an innovator of his time, Mozart was a master at his craft through deliberate practice and therefore, innovative musicians of tomorrow will truly be following in his footsteps by genuine desire and putting in the work.
Toys 'R' Us May Be a Thing of the Past, but the Toy Industry and Play Will Always Be Relevant, Especially for the Creative Minds of Tomorrow
After 70 years of being known as the ultimate go to toy store for decades, Toys 'R' Us has finally closed its doors permanently in the United States. Years of fierce competition from Wal*Mart, Target and (not surprisingly), Amazon, leading up to a Chapter 11 bankruptcy in September of 2017 and then Chapter 7 bankruptcy in March early this year, the company hit too many hard times to stay afloat. As of June 29th, all Toys 'R' Us locations are completely vacant, leaving a behind a few traces of what once was.
Aside from the failed business plans that lead to the chain's demise, some people often fault smartphones, iPads and other such gadgets for the downfall. When asking your friends what was the main reason Toys 'R' Us liquidated, the common assumption is that kids don't play with toys anymore. All they want for Christmas and for their birthdays these days are just technological devices. While there is some truth to that assumption, it's not entirely true! Childhood is indeed, very different in the 2010's than it was in decades prior and with the rise of smartphones dominating the market, it's no surprise today's kids are so tech savvy. However, this was not precisely the reason Toy 'R' Us went the route it did. In his video, Welcome to Rotting Acres Mall!| Episode 12: Talking about Toys R Us & Catastrophe! (mild profanity warning), Retail Archaeology briefly discusses what really sank Toys 'R' Us, debunking the 'kids don't play with toys' assumption. Between 24:21 to 26:09, he highlights that the company "was bought with a leverage buyout" where "somebody takes out a huge loan to buy Toys 'R' Us and then uses Toys 'R' Us, the company, as the collateral for the loan". Because of the $5 billion debt, Toys 'R' Us could't afford to payback and recover. Retail Archaeology also pin points that had Toys 'R' Us been in better shape when the minor drop in sales happened, "they would have survived that dip". For more information about Toys 'R' Us' financial issues, I highly recommend checking out Jake Williams' (Bright Sun Films), Abandoned - Toys R Us.
With the 'kids don't play with toys anymore' myth debunked by Toys 'R' Us' financial history, it's safe to say that there is still a market for toys, especially with the K B Toys revival taking place this Christmas and holiday season and that Party City is planning to open their own toy store, both of which will be pop up stores. Even so, small and/or independent toy stores are still thriving. But even if it's true that there is a growing trend in smartphone and iPad use among children, that also doesn't mean play is not important anymore. If anything, play has always been and always will be a major part of children's growth.
On Fisher-Price's official website, Child Development and Play Specialist, Kathleen Alfano, Ph.D. lists 10 tips about the importance of play. Examples of such consists of how children learn about themselves and the world around them, develop social skills, and practice different roles as they play. In terms of how play impacts creativity, Alfano also pinpoints that "[p]lay, simulates and enhances creativity and imagination" as well as that it encourages children's curiosity and attention to flourish. It also "is the integration of language, social, cognitive, imaginative and physical skills". But above all, play "fosters self-esteem, self-direction and values". When children play, they are able to create a story and scenario with a tangible object. As they interact with the toy, they input a personality and characteristic on it. Children act out a scenario based on everyday life and what is interesting to them. In the process, they are able to problem solve because they are encouraged to think critically. This gives them the desire to learn more outside of their comfort level. It's that type of attitude that inspires artists as artists are always expanding their knowledge and creative skills. In fact, children who play become more immersed in the arts. Even so, just as artists have a set of values and self-awareness that they showcase through their works, when children play, they learn that the most important thing to live by are a good strong set of values. It is important for them to develop self-confidence and with that mindset, they start to understand what defines good solid principles.
European scientist, Jean Piaget (1896-1980) once said how play is significant to a child's growth as highlighted by University of Amsterdam graduate, Alexander Burgemeester in his essay, Jean Piaget's Theory of Play. The selected quote by Piaget goes as follows:
"Our real problem is ̶ what is the goal of education? Are we forming children that are only capable of learning what is already known? Or should we try developing creative and innovative minds, capable of discovery from the preschool age on, throughout life."
The four developmental stages of intellectual development named by Piaget were sensory-motor, pre-operational, concrete operations, and formal operations. Throughout the child's early years before adolescence, which is the formal operations stage, the first three are the building blocks, leading up to the stage when the child is a teen, capable of critical thinking. The sensory-motor stage, which is during the infant to toddler years, is when a child is aware of his/her senses. During the years prior and going into the early elementary years (pre-operations), children begin to grasp the concept of symbols. They learn that symbols, words, objects, etc. have a meaning behind them. Due to the limits of their knowledge and imaginations, they start to ask more questions based less in the 'what' and more in the 'why'. In the concrete operations stage, which lasts throughout much of the remainder of elementary school, children build on what they had learned in the previous years, learn how to take items and work with them in a logical manner. Upon reevaluating Piaget's theory, in order for children to develop and exercise their knowledge and imaginations, play needs to be encouraged. As Burgemeester concludes his essay, he indicates that "because assimilation and accommodation take time, the period a child remains in each stage is controlled by their own cognitive development, not that of a teacher or parent". That means that as children age, parents and teachers can benefit from Piaget's theories as an important guideline. Children need to receive the 'most appropriate 'play'...at each stage or sub-stage to help them progress to the next', otherwise they will fall behind in their growth.
Finally, another point that Alfano emphasized on Fisher Price is one that relates to a child's use of a physical object and how it helps their coordination skills. What happens as children play, their "perceptual-motor skills (fine and gross, such as eye-hand coordination and balance)" advances and so does their "strength and coordination". When children work with tangible objects, they are learning how to properly interact with them and strengthen the grip of their hands and their abilities to observe how things function. Thus they learn how to effectively work with items they pick up.
While the mega toy chain may be gone, the toy industry and the importance of play will always be relevant. With modern business models making an attempt to adapt to today's rapidly evolving market in this retail apocalypse era, there's still a demand for the toy industry. Independent local toy stores are still thriving in today's world and major retailers and business people continue to find new ways to reinvent the business model. In addition, even if kids today are immersed in today's technologies, an iPad or smartphone app is not necessarily a good substitute over something tangible. Psychology demonstrates this point time and time again that children do benefit a great deal from play. As children play a made-up game together that involves team work or a child is building a tower with legos, they are letting their capabilities to think critically flourish and restructure and apply their knowledge to everyday life. When they play, they are developing their social skills, learning about the world around them, extending their curiosity and nurturing their imagination. From playing, they benefit from it physically, grow in self-esteem and develop a sense of values. The theories conducted by Jean Piaget also demonstrate how such interactions with tangible objects are advantageous in the long run and therefore, significant to children's growth and well-being. As today's technologies continue to advance, drawing more attention from its users with the abundance of apps, children shouldn't be limited to their screens only. They should be offered more options to expand their horizons and explore possibilities they might not have thought of before. By encouraging play and reinventing the toy industry to suit those values and knowledge, we are encouraging the creative minds of tomorrow's thinkers to flourish and reach full potential. Although the doors have closed for the iconic retailer, one could peer into an empty Toys 'R' Us building and see either of two things: An empty shell that signifies demise of childhood as we know it or a new door will open with endless options and new opportunities to innovate.
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