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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Rugrats producer visits campus, proves his exciting spirit still lives

Published: April 4, 2014
Section: Arts, Etc.

In a display of both hilarity and nostalgia, Paul Germain, the creator and writer behind celebrated childhood TV shows “Rugrats” and “Recess,” visited Levin Ballroom on Monday evening to share his story. As part of the successful launch of Bronstein Week, he illuminated the story behind these two shows.

At first glance, Germain seems a wholly ordinary guy, and he barely acknowledged the earnest applause from the audience that filled the room as he was first announced. His story to eventual success was a rollercoaster of ups and downs, and at one point before “Rugrats,” he had even made up his mind to leave the industry and teach high school. Germain insisted his introduction to animation was accidental.

“I’m here to tell how I slipped on a banana peel in the 1980s and ended up in animation,” Germain said.

However, as soon as he started speaking about his first project (which, in another astonishing example of his influence, later became “The Simpsons”) it became clear that his bounding enthusiasm for his work has been the driving force behind his success. Germain showed several clips from the previously mentioned initial version of “The Simpsons,” a never before broadcasted pilot of “Rugrats,” and one of his favorite episodes of “Recess.” During each scene, he was captivated by the screen and repeatedly delighted by the audience’s reactions to the old shows.

Indeed, Germain’s first break toward the eventual direction in animation that would define his career came when sitting in on an ideas session for a new comedy TV show, “The Tracy Ullman Show,” in 1985. He jumped at the opportunity when the director mentioned putting animation skits between the comedy sketches.

“I love it, that’s a great idea!” Germain exclaimed, and although he was the youngest and least experienced in the room, the director, the famous James L. Brooks, put him in charge of finding animation. Germain had studied live action direction in school and had no idea how to go about animating, but his eye for creativity and his excitement led to the project’s burgeoning success.

Germain discovered Klasky Csupo, a then tiny animation company run out of an apartment by the two owners, Arlene Klasky and Gàbor Csupó, and although they were small he recognized their innovative work in animation. Klasky Csupo was hired by Brooks to animate the clips that appeared on “The Tracy Ullman Show,” and these cartoons would later become Matt Groening’s “The Simpsons.” After the project was finished, Germain stayed on for Klasky-Csupo, coming up with ideas for animated television shows because they rightly believed animated shows were about to take off. Indeed, Nickelodeon, having heard what the company had done with “The Simpsons,” approached Klasky Csupo about ideas for a new show. Germain pitched seven concepts to Nickelodeon’s people, and his last pitch, the one they liked best, became “Rugrats.”

The most anticipated part of the event was the screening of the never-broadcasted pilot episode of “Rugrats.” Germain said the audience grew up watching only a rudimentary version of the “Rugrats.” The main characters, Chuckie and Angelica, were still only ideas, and the only adult that was developed in any way was Grandpa, but the story and dialogue were true to the eventual show.

“The show would have failed if it was too cute,” Germain said. He believed this at the time when “Rugrats” took off.

Something he stressed that was rather heartening to an audience of college students was that “Rugrats” was such a success because initially, he and his team had no idea what they were doing.

“When you don’t know what you’re doing, you make stuff up, and that’s when you’re really in the zone,” Germain said.

Make stuff up they did, and as the creator, Germain had some interesting tidbits to share with the audience about the background of the beginnings of “Rugrats.” His idea of intelligent babies came from one of his earliest childhood memories. His younger brother had just been born, and was sitting in a baby chair, and Germain vividly remembers his vacant expression as he sat there drooling.

“He can’t be this stupid. No way,” Germain said to himself, and although it was to come many years later, the idea of babies displaying their intelligence when the adults left the room was born.

Tommy was named after his at-the-time six-month-old son, and a girl bully who had picked on him in elementary school inspired Angelica’s character. A friend in the Navy told him “rugrats” was the word sailors in the Navy used for toddlers, because of how they crawled around on the floor. Voila, the show had a title.

Germain believes good television should be a means to convey a story from a point of view. In “Rugrats,” that was particularly difficult because the story was from the point of view of a baby, and all of the creative forces behind the show were of course adults. For babies, he said, everything in the world seems grand, and to make this idea usable for a show, Germain focused the story around the theme, “exploring the world you don’t know.”

For “Recess,” they interviewed children who had just graduated from elementary school, so they were fresh off the playground. Germain and co-creator Joe Ansolabehere wanted to create a more realistic portrayal of elementary children’s lives, and they went off the premise that the most important moments and relationships happen during recess. Germain believes the most important element of cartoons should be the story, and the episodes were edited like a radio show; the animation was a later step.

“If you could listen to it without pictures and it was still funny, they weren’t going to screw it up,” he said, speaking about the animators.

Animation was not under his control as much as the story was. Germain said he didn’t finish with a script until every part of it made sense. For successful stories, Germain said conflict is key, and he believes conflict that comes from characters is most engaging. A testament to how seriously he takes his work is that, in every episode, Germain said he tried to create emotional significance to connect the audience with the show.

“Kids are smart. They deserve smart television,” Germain said, explaining the philosophy behind “Rugrats” and “Recess.” Indeed, when he took questions at the end, he expressed his disappointment with most of today’s cartoons.

In addition to the “Rugrats” pilot and another episode, “The Chair,” the audience was treated to one of Germain’s favorite Recess episodes “The Box” and several one-minute clips of animation from “The Tracy Ullman Show” that would later become “The Simpsons.” Members of the audience said the event was educational, including Jordan Zides ’14, who even described it as a meaningful experience.

“These shows were a huge part of my childhood. Hearing Paul Germain speak today, I felt like a kid again,” Zides said.

Afterward, questions carried on for a long time, and judging by the number and variety of questions that were asked and just how happy Germain was to answer them, the magic that “Rugrats” once evoked is still alive and well.