Move it, football head!

Hey Arnold! was one of the most popular cartoons of the 1990s. Airing on Nickelodeon from 1996 to 2004, Hey Arnold! was a hit among fans and critics alike and renowned for its clever mix of zany humor and serious subjects, including thought-provoking episode plots and characters that have substantial, realistic, and ongoing personal problems. Secret obsessions? Check. Missing parents? Check, check. Agoraphobia? You know it.

Craig Bartlett created Hey Arnold! in the early ’90s while working on another Nickelodeon staple: Rugrats. Despite being an animated series, Bartlett always intended for Hey Arnold! to appeal to older viewers and intentionally infused the show with emotionally mature themes and characters who grapple with issues such as poverty, neglect, mental illness, romantic obsession, and more.

Yet, despite its realistic look at dysfunctional relationships and psychological hardships, Hey Arnold! provided non-stop humor and entertainment for millennial kids. Bartlett managed to hit upon the perfect recipe for success between the plots and characters in Hey Arnold!, and the show became a massive success in both the U.S. and abroad.

Today, the series is a cult-classic that still enjoys airtime via reruns, despite its finale airing nearly two decades ago. Its popularity with a new generation of viewers even prompted Bartlett and Nickelodeon to release an all-new TV movie, Hey Arnold!: The Jungle Movie, last November.

Bartlett discussed the massive success of Hey Arnold! and the future of the series with the Pop Insider via an exclusive interview.

The Pop Insider (PI): How did you first come up with the concept for Hey Arnold! and how did you manage to successfully pitch it to Nickelodeon?
Craig Bartlett (CB):When I first moved to LA to find work as an animator, there were some quiet stretches, which made it a good time to come up with my own character. I bet most animators feel this way—what if I had my own show? What would I say? I pitched Hey Arnold! as a Charlie Brown for the ’90s, a show about smart kids with big feelings. Ironically Arnold comes off as pretty zen, so it’s hard to convey big feelings through him. That’s why it’s an ensemble show, lots of other characters with big feelings. And the show has big feelings. Anyway, it wasn’t much of a pitch, just a bunch of crazy characters surrounding a football-headed kid.

PI: Why the football? What was the inspiration there?
CB: I first designed Arnold during my claymation days, when I made my living animating clay for Will Vinton, and later, Pee Wee’s Playhouse, where I did the Penny cartoons. I used to pour out a sheet of liquid clay, let it cool, and then cut out clay head shapes. It was very geometric. I just remember cutting out a wide head, pointed on the ends like a football, and putting the big eyes way out on the sides—an odd face, but I instantly liked him.

PI: When you first saw the show air on TV, what was that experience like?
CB: I remember the day I brought the finished first half hour, “Downtown as Fruits” / “Eugene’s Bike,” to Nickelodeon’s Times Square offices. We all gathered, there must have been 60 to 70 staffers watching it on a big TV in the corner of the building, on the 48th floor. Everybody seemed to really get it and like it, and I felt this big wave of support for what I was doing. And the stories we told with those two episodes covered a lot of bases for me, demonstrating what the show was going to be about. The funny, sad/happy endings of both of those episodes, especially “Eugene’s Bike,” when Eugene has that horrible day montage. And then he’s barfing off the bridge while Arnold watches, cringing. And Eugene ends up thanking Arnold for that disastrous day because no one else has ever tried before, and then tenderly goes to shake Arnold’s hand and the bus doors close on his cast and his little fingers wiggle and the bus drives off and Arnold just kind of shrugs and walks off into the urban night. I’ll always love that episode and remember what a great day that was, to show it to the whole network and have it go so well.

PI:When you initially created Hey Arnold!, did you ever think it would become such a hit?
CB: Hahah, no. When we made it in the ’90s, we were just another show on Nick, being made alongside many others. They all were good shows, as far as we were concerned. We did try to go our own way, and try to be about things that other cartoons didn’t cover. We liked storytelling and old movies and sitcoms from our own childhoods. Mostly we tried to write from events in our own fairly normal childhoods, always elaborating. “It’s a cartoon!” we would always say, when we went over the top.

PI: Hey Arnold! was famous for tackling some very adult themes in cartoon form. Did you always intend for the show to have a somber background inlay with zany humor and how much—if at all—do you think that attributed to its popularity?
CB: I definitely did! I think a main theme of the series is that to a kid, the world can sometimes not make any sense, and things can be sad, or ugly, and Arnold (and everyone else, in their own way) tries to make something better out of it. And another theme is disappointment—you may try and try, but you can barely make a tiny improvement. But you try anyway. That was our aesthetic. And yes, I do think it’s one of the reasons that our audience liked it, because it reminded them of real life in a way that other kid shows didn’t.

 PI: Were there any episodes and/or characters that you felt were especially deep, meaningful, and memorable? If so, which ones and why?
CB: I think Helga is my most meaningful character, because she’s got so many layers. I love the specials about Arnold’s missing parents, “Parents Day” and “The Journal,” because they really get me. They’re gut-wrenching. When Arnold is born, and he silences all of nature? Jeez, I can’t believe we did that. What a crazy episode. When I finished “Parents Day” and showed it to my kids (my son Mathias was probably 9 then), he said, “Why did you DO that?” at the end, because everyone was crying. Those shows are hardcore. I also love “Helga on the Couch” for the same reason.

PI: Some of the songs from the series are so iconic (and still stuck in our heads!). Was music intended to be a big part of the show?
CB: No, adding songs to the show was never a discussion at the beginning. And yet there are lots of songs sprinkled through the series, and once in a great while I’d convince Nick to let me make an entire musical— “What’s Opera, Arnold?” and “Eugene, Eugene.” Since “Hey Arnold!” I’ve made two shows for PBS that are full of songs, but I think that’s because they are for a younger audience, and songs are really effective for teaching a curriculum. So, I’ve gotten the chance to “go pro” on these later series, where I write and play and sometimes sing them. I’ve co-written more than 50 songs each for Dinosaur Train and Ready Jet Go! I was always a little shy about my music-making abilities on Hey Arnold! But I co-wrote all of the songs, and I love a stupid rhyme as much as the next guy. So does Jim Lang, my secret weapon, who has been a huge music mentor for me.

PI: Nickelodeon is now reviving some of its popular shows from the ’90s for a new generation. So far, have you seen the younger generation take to Hey Arnold! just as well as the ’90s kids?
CB: I hope so. I can’t really tell. I’m not around very many 6- to 11-year-olds. The ones who reach out to me to tell me that they love the show range in age from teen to adult. It was always that way, though—when Hey Arnold! first came out, my audience was too young to post their thoughts about it online. Also, Nick Online was in its infancy then.

PI: Do you think the original episodes still hold their own, or might you create some new episodes or content? If so, what topics might you approach in a new series?
CB: I’ve made it clear to Nickelodeon that I’d love to make more episodes. The Jungle Movie was intended to reboot the series by aging everyone up a year or so, and redesigning everything for a refreshed look that also wasn’t too jarringly different. So, now they’re entering sixth grade, and Arnold has his parents back, and he’s told Helga that he loves her. I would tell stories about the challenge of having his slightly-addled Mom and Dad added to the mix at the boarding house, so that he’s got kooky grandparents AND kooky parents. And I think it would be fun to do stories about Arnold and Helga trying to have a relationship where she’s still prickly and shoots her mouth off, so it’s on-again-off-again, and besides they are still kids anyway, too young for a real “relationship.” And there’s that huge ensemble cast, with many other stories I’d like to tell.

PI: If you could do a crossover with any animated series airing now, what would that be?
CB: Crossovers kind of give me the willies. But it would be fun for Rick and Morty to appear in a rip in the fabric of space-time, cause some havoc, and then disappear again.

Keep up with Craig Bartlett on Instagram for more Hey Arnold! nostalgia and more.