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My Long Journey Back to “The Orange Years”

Coming back to Nickelodeon in my 30s

Nickelodeon pop-up at Replay Lincoln Park, 2021

I was a sensitive Gen Y kid to begin with. (We didn’t have the word “Millennial” back in the early ‘90s.) You could say I was “melodramatic” or “impressionable.” These were some of the stories I was told about myself: I needed to start preschool early because I kept trying to hug other kids at the mall. I was “gifted.” When I opted to get baptized at 10 years old, I showed an understanding of salvation that was beyond my years. I wanted to see this PG-13 movie and that show with “viewer discretion advised” and whined about it. It’s just a show. Just a movie. The TV gave me night terrors. I was obsessed with TV.

Who decides when a child is ready to talk about hard things?

Eventually, I was grieving. I lost my paternal grandmother to lung cancer at 12 years old, and this loss doesn’t have much of a story around it because we didn’t really talk about her after the funeral. I went to her grave once or twice when it was fresh and haven’t been back since. I haven’t had the guts to ask where her plot is, or if I could borrow the truck to run to the cemetery while I’m in town. What does any of this have to do with Nickelodeon?

My grandma’s house was the only place where I had access to cable TV. She lived on one of the busier streets in my hometown, with city water and sirens squealing close by. She lived alone, except for the months here and there when my uncle Donny was staying in the upstairs apartment. But for the entirety of the glorious 1990s, my brother and I visited Grandma Carol on Friday nights while my parents went out. She spent most of the night at the table in her brown-carpeted dining room, chain-smoking in her perfectly curled wig, playing solitaire or reading the paper. Grandma Carol was one of the only adults in my life who didn’t make me feel like I always had to be on my “best behavior.” She wasn’t always nitpicking over the language I used or what topics were kid-appropriate. I felt safe being not just a kid, but myself, around her.

But for select 30-minute blocks when last week’s Snick shows were airing, I planted myself on Grandma’s ‘70s-fabulous floral couch and watched Rugrats, The Angry Beavers, CatDog, Rocko’s Modern Life and more. Only a couple of shows were off-limits, and while I had a raging curiosity for the horrors of Are You Afraid of the Dark?, I was ultimately too chicken to stick around past the opening credits most of the time. I fell in love with the weird and wonderful characters, the grotesque and adorable animation styles of the day. Clarissa Darling showed me the value of originality and set a standard for effortless, authentic cool that I would chase for the next twenty years. The sketch comedy of Kenan & Kel, Amanda Bynes and the All That cast cemented my sense of humor, both snarky and ridiculous at turns. Unfortunately, Helga G. Pataki and Doug Funnie showed me how to have a hopeless crush. This was me “getting ideas,” a hobby of mine that my parents stoked with each piece of media they banned from our Christian household.

In my happy place, 2018

I don’t have great examples of the things I was willing to die on a hill for at that age because, in truth, they were all pretty trivial. I painted my nails a shade too dark and had to remove it immediately. I wanted a Spice Girls CD because after all, I had already learned the choreography from my friends at recess. But the Devil is in the details. Just as God is omnipresent, the off-limits was also ubiquitous. Everything I did was monitored and quality controlled for wholesomeness, so I had to have really good reasons to do (watch, listen to) these trivial things. While these tiny wounds were still fresh, I got the message that I cared too much about the wrong things, and I couldn’t be different in the ways that I wanted to be. The unwritten rule of rules was that I do things their way until some magical day when I moved out and became an adult. I was always fighting against something I couldn’t name: I had to discover trauma, patriarchy, sexism, mostly the hard way, and then learn how to process my emotions without shame in my late 20s. Because kids don’t get to dissent.

And some things are just hard to explain, like why Stoop Kid is so terrified of stepping out into the world. And Arnold’s irrational reaction to losing his little blue hat: in that episode, he refuses to leave his room without it and reflects on memories of his dead parents, represented by this hat they had placed on his head as a newborn. These are the stories I chase after, ones that explode nuance, both confirming that “yes, your feelings in this crazy situation are valid,” and opening up other possibilities I never would have considered otherwise. There are plenty of other perfectly good stoops in the world. You don’t need the hat, but just as soon as you get over it, it might find its way back to you.

My favorite stories offer perspective and emotional grounding. They open up answers that can’t be summed up in just a few words, “because I said so.” And of course, they are where we get dangerous and subversive ideas. As a writer, I’ve struggled to create this empathetic effect in a way that isn’t “too sentimental.” The challenge is to make the emotion felt without saying it outright, which ironically goes against all the work I’ve done to heal — how I’ve learned to love talking about feelings. I wrote in one of my journals that I need to start collecting good memories from my childhood, holy relics that prove it wasn’t always hard and lonely.

And so we return to Nickelodeon. I’m 31 years old, and “The Orange Years” documentary is streaming on Hulu. Most of my memories of Rugrats and “All That” are a blur in my early memory by now. I know this is going to be an emotional trip into my childhood, and I hit PLAY, feeling ready to get in there and feel some feels. I am almost giddy to see what’s behind this big orange door, or perhaps, between the cushions of this big orange couch.

First of all, I find that Geri Laybourne is one of my top people, living or dead, that I would want to sit down and have dinner with. According to biography.com, “Her innovative programming approach, which made a point of talking to children as equals, built the tiny cable network, which had only five employees in 1980, into an $8 billion business.” I learn about Nickelodeon’s beginnings in the late 80s during the “Green Vegetable” era. Cable TV was a wild west where You Can’t Do That on Television quite literally pushed the limits of censorship.

There are scenes I remember and scenes I don’t; they celebrate the rare moments when there’s freedom and dignity in being a kid. Giving the wrong answer doesn’t earn you a slap on the wrist, but the transcendent joy of being doused in gallons of green slime. We never get to see Doug kiss Patti Mayonnaise, because that would’ve ruined it somehow. The intro to Are You Afraid of the Dark? still shakes me to my core, and I am tickled to find out they had to base it on literary works to thwart the censors. The “shoulds” of the adult world are suspended, and our emotions, along with our innate sense of right and wrong, are honored. I watch clip after clip of programming on the edge of leaving childhood — exploring the mysterious and magical terrain of individuation, “finding oneself.”

Through a montage of stop-motion nonsense punctuated with orange, I feel viscerally transported back to the years when I myself was becoming self-aware and forming my personality. Lying awake in bed listening to my parents fight, and on Fridays, falling asleep to the black-and-whites of Nick at Nite.

And then I find out how they did it. Geri Laybourne and her team actually went into a school and asked kids what it was like to be them — and then created programming to speak to that experience. She recites their mission to “connect with kids and connect kids with each other through television,” and as a writer and a human being, I am floored. I’ve spent the past 3 years building a copywriting business, and I live by the creed of writing that “listens first.” My own About section states, “I am passionate about creating empathy through storytelling in everything I do.” Just like Nick, I want to bring more real authenticity into the mainstream, because marketing has all but killed it.

What I didn’t know when I turned to the “one-eyed monster” (my mother’s term) for emotional solace was that this actually was groundbreakingly empathetic programming designed to connect with children and help us feel better about ourselves. Those stories were crafted through an innovative process to speak to my exact situation. Nickelodeon was designed to be a balm for lonely, scared, powerless kids with no self-esteem. In the experimental new medium of highly targeted cable TV, camera tricks and new animation styles made for visually unprecedented — dare I say — art.

Through a strange twist of fate and early-2000s technology, my Nickelodeon childhood all but disappeared. (Except for a little bit of slime pulsing through my orange heart.) It wasn’t available to stream or download. I switched schools and had to make new friends who lived “west of the I,” beyond the physical reach of cable. I had never considered how these big shifts may have worked in tandem with the loss of my grandmother to unravel my sense of self and self-confidence.

And truly, it was just TV. Would watching Nickelodeon after age 12 have solved all my problems? Definitely not. But maybe having that escape would have helped me keep some of my extraordinary faith for myself. It might have taken me fewer years to define, cultivate, justify and live out the values I have that are different from my parents’.

I’ve been waiting for this wave of 90s nostalgia pretty much since New Year’s Eve 2000, so I could get back to this mode of connecting with the world. Watching the Snick lineup a week late and playing double solitaire with my grandma in a cloud of cigarette smoke during the reruns. Or high on edibles, crying over a documentary about cartoons, pen and journal in hand. As myself, with my own raw sensibility — no filter of “shoulds.”

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Kelsey Hoff

Kelsey Hoff

Poet, freelance writer and blogging enabler in Chicago. Sharing my experiences with mental illness along with some thoughts on how we can be better.

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