This month, the box set of Hey Arnold! : The Complete Series came out thanks to Shout! Factory and it is literally the best thing you could buy. Of course, it’s great if you grew up with the show and you want a nostalgic look back at your childhood. But it’s also a great buy if you love poignant storytelling and fun animation.
I’m a big fan of Hey Arnold! for it’s animation, it’s characters, and the show’s writing, which elevates the show from being thought of as just a “children’s cartoon.” The complex themes of family, self-acceptance, compassion, and the messiness that is life (and how to rise above some of that messiness) are analyzed in such a charmingly quaint way that some “adult” shows haven’t even learned how to master.
Way back when I had Moniqueblog.net (around 2010), I had the fantastic opportunity to interview both Hey Arnold! creator Craig Bartlett and the show’s composer, Jim Lang. This was when I’d just started my website, so I honestly didn’t expect to get such a chance. However, through emailing them directly, they were happy to write to me, answering all of my questions. Below is my interview with Bartlett. My original introduction for the interview reads like this:
[T]he creator of Hey Arnold!, Craig Bartlett, has been gracious enough to provide insight into his creative style, the vision behind his new PBS show, “Dinosaur Train”, and how Seattle and the grunge movement influenced Arnold and co.’s sensibilities.
With that intro, have fun reading the interview!
What do you think about Hey Arnold! and its new release on DVD? What questions would you like to ask Bartlett? Give your opinions in the comments section below!
More Hey Arnold goodness is here at moniqueblog! You might recall that I recently interviewed Hey Arnold!‘s music man Jim Lang. Now,
Moniqueblog-How did you become interested in drawing?
Craig Bartlett-It was something I was always pretty good at, as long as I could remember. My parents encouraged me, my grandmother always gave me pencils and drawing tablets for christmas, so I felt that it was my “thing” from the very start.
Before you worked on Hey Arnold, you worked on Rugrats, Jim Henson projects, Ren and Stimpy,and wrote Arnold comic strips for Simpsons Illustrated. What was it like working on these projects?
All those jobs were fun to do in their own way — they were all an introduction to Hollywood and TV production, and each place had a different approach. I got a lot out of comparing their styles, and when I got the chance to do Hey Arnold! I tried to take the best production styles from each job I had done.
While doing research for the interview, I read that you worked on Mystery Lodge at Knott’s Berry Farm. What was working on that project like, especially since it included so many multi-media elements?
All the jobs I did for Bob Rogers were like that – he works in formats and venues that are different from regular film and TV. His jobs usually involved travel to exotic locations – Mystery Lodge meant doing research flying up to the north end of Vancouver Island in Canada, which is a really beautiful place, like where I grew up in Washington, but even more pristine and remote. I grew up on the Swinomish Indian Reservation, and the Kwakwalla-speaking Indians of Canada had similar but way deeper traditions, more connected to their past. And Bob’s jobs usually involve an installation part, where I would stay at the site every day and put the media into the show space, which in the case of Mystery Lodge was going to Knott’s every day, and that was weird and fun, a very Southern California setting.
How did you come up with the story for Party Wagon?
I really like history in general, and the history of the settling of the American West in particular — I was always fascinated with the Oregon Trail, how people often ran away from their past lives and reinvented themselves out West. Party Wagon was my first movie after Hey Arnold! and I wanted to get all that crammed into a coming-of-age story… the main character Randy starts out in Maine, and ends up in the Pacific Northwest, which is what my ancestors did. Only in Party Wagon, it’s way goofier, and meant to be a comedy. I really hoped that Cartoon Network would let me make a series of it, but they weren’t into it at all after Linda Simensky left, it was kind of an orphaned project.
What is the idea behind Dinosaur Train?
I’ve wanted to make Dinosaur Train since my son Matt was 3 or 4, and playing with tons of dinosaurs and piles of trains simultaneously. I’d see him putting his dinosaurs onto his trains and making up little adventures for them, so I told my wife, “If I made a show that put dinosaurs on a train, I’d have all 4-year-olds at hello!” And all these years later, I finally did, and it’s working like nuts. I’m just glad I got it made before someone else thought of it!
Most children’s shows that feature animals doing unrealistic or human things do not explain to children that animals don’t actually behave this way. Do you feel that Dinosaur Train-due to the inclusion of Mr. Disclaimer, Dr. Scott Sampson, and realistic dinosaur drawings-makes your children’s show unique among others?
I know that when we set out to make it, we knew that we’d be trying to give real information about what paleontologists know or hypothesize about dinosaurs — like their size, the way they moved, and their behavior, but we’d also have them riding trains and speaking English and singing and dancing and lots of other crazy non-scientific behavior, so we decided to have “Mr. Disclaimer” say the bad news (like dinosaurs did not play Dinoball) and Dr. Scott concentrate on the enthusiastic, fun parts, after every episode.
I read that you were born in Seattle, Washington. It might be stereotypical of me to ask this, but since Seattle is seen by many as a mecca for alternative culture (and Arnold’s flannel-looking plaid shirt), did the alternative mindset influence you at any point during the inception and development of Hey Arnold? Or, I guess a better question would be: how did Seattle influence you as you created Hey Arnold! ?
Oh, I’m very much a son of Seattle. I’m used to the gloomy weather and the fresh air that smells like the sea and wearing layers of flannel and digging the funky old buildings. I can certainly relate to poor Kurt Cobain and his growing up a punk in Aberdeen, Washington. I went to high school in another little grungy town called Anacortes, and it was a town where you got your ass kicked for dressing weird and acting arty, so I found the whole grunge movement very easy to relate to. So I wanted “Hey Arnold!” to have a little bit of that vibe.
When designing the characters, what prompted you to give some of them head shapes based on objects?
Matt Groening [creator of The Simpsons] told me early on that you should design your characters to be easily recognized from far away or in silhouette. So I’ve kept that in mind, especially on Hey Arnold! I tried to base their heads on simple geometric shapes.
The stories featured on Hey Arnold always have some level of maturity not seen in children’s animation often. There are many episodes I could cite to back up my opinion, but the Christmas special is one that stands out the most in mind at the present. I think for me, HA! left a void in Nickelodeon’s programming for shows with well-crafted storytelling; lately, the only show that was on Nick to have mature storytelling was Avatar: The Last Airbender. How do you go about constructing your stories?
Thanks, I love the Christmas special, too. We really wanted to tell true stories about how it feels to be a kid — not necessarily true in the factual sense but true to our feelings, our emotions. And we used real kids for the voices because that felt more emotionally authentic. We (the writers) all felt like childhood is tough, that we all grow up feeling alienated, that almost no one understands us, that even the “cool” kids feel that way inside. Arnold is really wise, though, and a really good kid. So it’s kind of romantic and idealized. I guess we just wanted to make the stories as entertaining as we could. Also, I never wanted to make really “cartoony” shows – our storytelling was more realistic than the stuff Nick is making now.
A few of the most intriguing characters on HA! is Helga and her family. What prompted you to create Helga, her family, and their various hiccups (Bob’s parental neglect, Miriam’s inferred alcoholism, Olga’s incessant perfection)?
The more the Pataki family is over-the-top bad, the more the audience will sympathize with Helga. Since she is so mean, so hard on Arnold, we really wanted to make her home life horrible, so the audience could forgive her, and get on her side. I think that Helga gets a lot of “instant karma” payback for her actions – she will hatch and evil plan, and it backfires, for our amusement. She gets her bad habits from Big Bob, I think.
Just as interesting are Arnold’s grandparents and the tenants in the Sunset Arms. What were the inspirations behind those characters?
We wanted Arnold to be the calm center of his universe, with these wacky characters all around him. He has no parents, he’s an only kid in a boarding house of adults, so we made all the adults ridiculous, like little children emotionally, so Arnold would seem like the wisest and “together” character in the whole place. I really like the grandparents – they were such a gas to write for. Dan Castellaneta was like a secret weapon – he was my favorite actor of all, maybe after Franny Smith. They were like super-granparents, with all kinds of special talents, huge back stories… they pretend to be goofy but deep down are very wise and smart and have Arnold’s back… they are my dream grandparents.
Curly is the one character that both made me laugh and scared me simultaneously, and I mean that as a compliment What was the inspiration behind him?
I knew a couple kids like Curly, who sat silently in the back and then, under pressure, revealed that they were completely nuts. Paranoid, crazy, conspiracy-theorists. Once we wrote a couple Curly episodes, he was a great kid to have around. He’s a lot of kids’ favorite. Like Helga says, “Watch out for the quiet ones.”
There are still legions of HA! fans who regularly re-watch the show and still wish they could’ve seen your proposed Jungle Movie and The Patakis. What have your experiences with your fans been like? Also, if everything worked out just right and the planets were in alignment, would you ever consider relaunching Hey Arnold! and/or try relaunching The Jungle Movie and The Patakis?
The fans are great, but I’m sorry to say that their hopes of a revived series and a Jungle Movie and The Patakis are pretty much impossible dreams. Nick doesn’t really have anything to do with me – I’ve been out on my own, making a living on whatever else I can come up with, for lo these nearly 10 years now. I’ve also tried going in to meet with Nick execs, and pitched other ideas, and none have gone anywhere. So I’m pretty much over it, y’know? But I’m really glad that Hey Arnold! has fans, and I’m moved that it really mattered to so many people. I know that people really love Helga and Arnold and the rest of the gang, and it’s very gratifying.
Any final thoughts?
I feel very lucky that I found this career here in L.A. I grew up training to be an artist, but I segued over to animation, and especially writing for animation, and this role of storyteller has suited me very well. I have the right constitution for this kind of work: I get along well with others, I can collaborate with large groups (essential for TV-making) and I can watch my stuff over and over and still laugh at all the right spots, which some people cannot. Because, like Kurt Cobain says, I am “easily amused.” I really like my job.▪