If we are what we consume — not just gastronomically, but mentally, too — then early Nickelodeon shows might help to explain why ‘90s kids crave the twee, the vibrant, the nostalgic, the anti-machismo.
The cartoons we grew up on — shows like “The Ren & Stimpy Show,” “Rugrats,” and “Rocko’s Modern Life” — are plumb with pastiche, cultural references, and strange, inventive characters. Shows like “Doug” don’t star superheroes saving the world. Instead, they riff on the concept of heroism, all within the confines of an introverted character’s imagination (Remember Quailman?).
“Doug” plays with other cartoon tropes, too. Even its intro sequence pokes fun at the idea that its characters ― Doug, his sporty crush Patti Mayonnaise, his best friend Skeeter, and his frenemy Roger ― wear the same outfits each day, thumbing through closets full of identical getups. It is, in many ways, a cartoon about the silly conventions of cartoons. But it’s also a touching story of a quiet kid navigating school, crushes, friendships, and bullies.
“It was really a gentle, funny story,” Alan Silberberg, a former writer on the show, told The Huffington Post. He recalls being impressed with the originality of “Doug,” which first aired in 1991 alongside “Rugrats” and “Ren & Stimpy,” a then-new slate of Nickelodeon cartoons aimed at young viewers.
“Those three cartoons were amazingly, divergently different from anything that was happening,” he said. “A lot of [other] cartoons then didn’t really have a personal voice that spoke to kids.”
Silberberg ― who interned after college with future “Doug” creator Jim Jinkins before going on to work as the head writer for Nickelodeon’s “Double Dare” ― said he fell in love with the show’s pilot episode and reached out to his former boss to try to land a job.
“I made a reference probably not many people saw,” Silberberg said. “There’s one little scene, there’s a Halloween party and there’s a dancing ham. And I said, ‘I love the To Kill a Mockingbird reference,’ and he was like, ‘Cool, you saw it!’”
Silberberg ended up writing several full episodes of “Doug,” including the storyline that first introduced The Beets, the fictional band that Doug and Skeeter fawned over. In “Doug Takes a Hike/Doug Rocks,” he and Skeeter win tickets to see the group ― a British foursome, so, yes, the pun is intended ― but miss the show because Skeeter’s on parent-enforced house arrest.
For the episode, Silberberg wrote the lyrics to a hit by The Beets called “Killer Tofu,” contributing to their several-song discography, which consisted of gems “Shout Your Lungs Out” and “I Need More Allowance.”
“Who actually made the music for The Beets from Doug?” a Redditor asked in 2011, inspiring a lively thread that never reached a satisfying conclusion. Silberberg put the question to bed, confirming that Dan Sawyer and Fred Newman ― who also did the voice of Skeeter and Doug’s dog Porkchop, as well as the beat-boxing bit that kicked off each episode ― were the musicians behind the fictional band. On-screen, The Beets resembled a ‘90s take on British rock, with a Lennon-like frontman, a mustached drummer, a platform-wearing keyboardist, and a bassist with a purple chili bowl ‘do. But behind the scenes, they were the creation of a team of writers, sound designers and voice actors.
Silberberg describes The Beets’ lyrics as “definitely goofy.” “Fast food feels fuzzy / ‘Cause it’s made from stuff that’s scuzzy,” a nasally frontman sings. “I used to feel like such a nerd / ‘Cause I refused to eat that strange bean curd.”
For “Killer Tofu,” Silberberg said he borrowed the title and premise from his time put in at “Double Dare,” where, he explained, tofu was among the many “food-like substances” used as goopy obstacles and punishments on the show.
“There was a lot of criticism that a lot of food was wasted on that show, and the producer always said, ‘We throw tofu! Tofu’s not real food.’ So I kind of held onto the idea that tofu was a funny word. A funny idea. It sounds funny,” he said. “I wanted goofy, and I wanted a little subversive, you know, for 7-year-olds,” he said.
Although the humor of The Beets could certainly appeal to adults, Silberberg says the jokes imbedded in the song ― and in the episodes he helped write ― aren’t aimed at parents, but younger “Doug” viewers.
“I wanted to be smart, and sincere, and funny. And sometimes when those three things come together, you do create something that is appreciated on separate levels,” he said.
The sincerity of the show stuck with Silberberg, who went on to write his own first-person children’s books, told from the perspective of earnest young boys. The book he’s most proud of, Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze, is about a 13-year-old who copes with the death of his mother with humor. Just as “Doug” creator Jinkins imagined a heartfelt character by channeling his own childhood experiences, Silberberg drew from his personal life with Milo.
There’s a certain lack, Silberberg says, of such affecting stories for young boys today.
“Sometimes, it’s hard for certain books to get into the right hands,” he said. “And although the books may exist, it’s hard for a boy to necessarily grab that book. I think the world is much more suited now to teachers and librarians and media specialists not paying attention to the norms and just trying to get the right books to the right kids.”
But for a generation of young creatives, there was “Doug,” an 11-year-old who holed away in his room, playing his banjo, listening to music, and telling stories in his journal.