Before SpongeBob SquarePants and The Fairly OddParents, there was Rugrats.
Alongside fellow “Nicktoons” Doug and The Ren & Stimpy Show, Rugrats premiered Aug. 11, 1991 on Nickelodeon and helped establish an animated storytelling dynasty on the cable network. Created by Arlene Klasky, Gábor Csupó, and Paul Germain, the show was by far the most successful of Nickelodeon’s early offerings and helped set the stage for the Patrick Stars and Timmy Turners to come.
The cartoon followed the daily lives of toddlers Tommy Pickles, Chuckie Finster, and twins Phil and Lil DeVille as they attempted to make sense of the adult world while also indulging in their imaginations for some larger-than-life adventures. Though the children’s parents also featured as secondary characters, Tommy and friends could only communicate with one another in their own unique baby language.
For an audience of a certain age (a.k.a. the geezer writing this), Rugrats came to be synonymous with Nickelodeon, cartoons for kids, and the ’90s themselves. Even though the aforementioned SpongeBob and Fairy OddParents have since surpassed Rugrats in both episode count and cultural influence, it’s hard to shake the perception that the show’s nine season run and 2021 reboot was of monumental importance for TV.
With that in mind, we’ve decided to take a second look at Rugrats all these years later and reflect upon what we learned – whether the show intended us to teach that lesson or not.
Devo Belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Rugrats boasts one of the best opening intros of its era – thanks in no small part to the Mark Mothersbaugh-composed theme song that scores it. The Rugrats theme is equal parts appealing and offbeat as Mothersbaugh cues up his synthesizer to sound like child’s toy and clacks away at it to make the most rudimentary rhythm. Then the babylike babble “ba bas” come in.
In fact, all compositions for this show from Mothersbaugh and his collaborators Denis M. Hannigan, Rusty Andrews, and Bob Mothersbaugh (Mark’s brother) are great and help capture the perfect tone. It’s a shame there’s no “TV Theme Music Hall of Fame” for them to apply to. There is, however, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and that’s something both Mothersbaugh brothers really do belong in. ’80s new wave band Devo, consisting of the Mothersbaugh brothers (Mark and Bob) and the Casales brothers (Gerald and Bob), has been nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018, 2021, 2022 but has yet to be inducted.
The Exquisite Misery of Adulthood
Watching Rugrats as a kid, you naturally identify more with the series’ pre-preschool leads. Even if you aren’t a toddler per se, those years are far closer to the seemingly unthinkable adult era of your life. Rewatching the show when you’re older, however, reveals that Rugrats understood adulthood is every bit as surreal as childhood.
The most famous (and widely memed) example of Rugrats‘ approach to adulthood comes in the season 3 episode “Angela Breaks Her Leg.” With three-year-old Angelica Pickles rendered inert by her (fake) broken leg, her aunt and uncle Didi and Stu tend to her every need. By just day 2, Stu is a broken shell of a man, driving out to the convenience store to buy chocolate pudding and preparing it on the stovetop at 4 a.m. because he’s “lost control of (his) life.” All of Rugrats‘ parent characters are richly realized and at times exquisitely miserable.
Moms Can Be Breadwinners Too
Don’t get me wrong: the ’90s weren’t that long ago. This show doesn’t come from the Mad Men era where all men are Don Drapers and all women are secretaries. Still, even in the relatively socially progressive decade, you didn’t often see mothers go to work in children’s television. That’s not the case in Rugrats where Angelica’s mother Charlotte Pickles isn’t just a boss but the boss.
Rugrats‘ most successful running joke is Charlotte Pickles constant deal-making. At any given moment, she is attached to her brick of a cellphone, coordinating complicated corporate takeovers by yelling at her beleaguered assistant Jonathan. Meanwhile Angelica’s father Drew is a technically an accountant but still spends far more time at home. It’s to Rugrats‘ credit that it never points to Charlotte’s aloof parenting style as a reason for Angelica’s antagonistic traits. She’s just innately a little jerk and we love her for it.
Television Can Make You Weep
The first time you realize that art can provoke a physical reaction in the form of tears is certainly a big moment in anyone’s life. That moment for me came in the Rugrats season 4 episode “Mother’s Day.” (Either that or the movie My Dog Skip but we’ll give Rugrats the edge as it came out three years earlier and I don’t know if I caught it as a rerun or not). This heartbreakingly bittersweet episode is nothing if not a tearjerker.
Set on Mother’s Day, all of the babies celebrate their moms in their own way but Chuckie can’t help but realize that he doesn’t have one. When exploring a box of old belongings his father Chas was getting out of the house, Chuckie finds a picture of a beautiful woman who just happens to match the appearance of a woman from Chuckie’s dreams. That leads to the heart-rending moment above in which father and son learn to miss mom together. Aaaaaand crying.
Basically Everything About Judaism
Rugrats is one of the most unexpectedly and joyously Jewish TV shows of all time. Two of the show’s three creators are of Jewish descent (Klasky and Germain) and imbue the backstory of the series with their families’ respective histories. The Pickles family, consisting of father Stu, mother Didi, sons Tommy and Dill are all Jewish.
In addition to using some of its lead characters’ religious and ethnic identities for world-building purposes, Rugrats also features two classic specials that detail the history of Jews – “A Rugrats Passover” and “A Rugrats Chanukah.” Both episodes are frame stories in which Didi’s parents Minka and Boris (who are from “The Old Country”) regale the babies with parables straight from the Torah. Naturally, the babies act these stories out in their imagination, leading to sublime imagery like a baby Moses parting the Red Sea.
It all might seem quaint now in our modern era rightfully more concerned with representation in media, but being introduced to other people’s traditions felt revelatory even as a child in the ’90s. When it first aired in 1996, “A Rugrats Chanukah” was even considered the first-ever Chanukah episode of a children’s series.
All nine seasons of the original Rugrats series are available to stream on Paramount+ in the U.S. and U.K. Select seasons are also available to stream on Netflix and Hulu in the U.S. Both seasons of the 2021 reboot are on Paramount+ in the U.S. and U.K.