Last week on “Nick of Time,” we revealed the secret identity of Quail Man (aka “Super Clod”), who turned out not to be animated every-man Doug Funnie, but show creator Jim Jinkins. Oh, and there really was a Patti Mayonnaise (amongst other characters) in Jim’s life growing up, Doug Funnie originally bloomed out of a grapefruit commercial voiced by Garfield the Cat, and Jinkins is one of the people we have to thank for Nickelodeon.
20 years after the show’s debut, Jinkins says he still marvels at the way fans of Doug notice all of the “little details” of his show, which he can see being discussed and debated on blogs, websites and fan pages throughout the Internet. Especially satisfying for Jinkins is the fact that his writers and he spent a great deal of time “burying” such “hidden” treasures in the episodes of their series.
“We thought that all that back story would make [Doug’s town] Bluffington more interesting and believable; it really did, but the detailed work of all that — ‘Who were the founding fathers of Bluffington?’ — took a lot of thought. The show bible for Doug is huge.”
Indeed, Jinkins said that the bible — which every writer had to read cover to cover to keep the series consistent — included everything from floor plans of all the imaginary community’s houses to maps of each street.
“Even if you weren’t closely paying attention,” Jinkins added, “there’d be a certain logic to the universe. I don’t think I’ve ever worked on a show that has had so much detail as Doug’s world.”
It’s these labor-intensive details, Jinkins said, that allow fans to “apply their own thoughts about life to the show. For instance, there’s tons of discussions of why [the characters] are different colors. It’s pretty much common thinking that Skeeter was African-American, and I love that because I did not consciously set out for that to be the case; I just thought he looked good blue.”
What Would Jim Do?
“We had a family of deep faith,” Jinkins illuminated. “And we were always going to church. It was just a very important part of our lives.” Jinkins would eventually end up going to a church-backed college that is a part of the same network as Pepperdine University.
“At the time, I thought I was going to be a youth minister,” Jinkins surprisingly revealed. “I had a lot of training that way. When I graduated college, I actually worked in a church as an apprentice minister. I pretty quickly realized that that was not for me. And I was very grateful. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it was not my path.”
Doug’s family did go to church, Jinkins noted, despite the fact that there was never any direct reference to religion in the show (aside from a few Christmas episodes, traditional to any selfsame series).
“You wouldn’t pick up on it unless you were looking for it. If it was Sunday afternoon, Doug’s dad had on a long-sleeved white shirt and was waiting for lunch to happen. That was a carry-over from memories of coming home from church, and everyone being half-dressed in their Sunday finest but having taken off of their coats and ties.”
It was nevertheless important to Jinkins that outright “preaching” never enter into the show. This seems to be Jinkins’ overall philosophy about inserting messages into shows, which he feels has been done masterfully by the likes of King of the Hill and The Simpsons over the years. Even though both shows directly place their characters in church settings, according to Jinkins, “all the jokes are still about human nature stuff. All the silly things human beings do. Whether they’re at church… or at a PTA meeting or whatever.”
Still, it was essential to Jinkins that each and every installment of Doug ran with a specific moral. Writers were instructed to annotate their scripts with what lesson Doug (and, by proxy, his viewers) would learn from each episode.
“When you look at Doug,” Jinkins said, “I wanted each story to mean something. For it to have a purpose. Not just to be random jokes. The messages were there, I hope, but meanwhile you didn’t get caught doing any preaching.”
“I would venture to say that as with the life cycle of any network or group, when Nickelodeon was fairly new, it was always sold as the underdog, was always being trumped by Disney in particular and others, and so feeling like the Little Engine that Could sometimes gives you more odds and you take chances,” Jinkins said about a sense of palpable camaraderie amongst the other shows at Nickelodeon in the “early days.”
“I give a lot of credit to Gerry Laybourne, Herb Scannell, Vanessa Coffey, Linda Simensky and Marry Harrington,” Jinkins said. “No one was doing what [these creative executives at Nick] were asking for at that time. Back then, it was all about Where’s Waldo? and Ninja Turtles.”
“The notion of original programming with no book sales or anything? That was unheard of, and I think that was brilliant: Letting independents like myself make our own shows.” Jinkins went on to lament that in contemporary times, “That’s gone. Nick is now a big corporation and has got its own animation studio and is driven by other motivations, in my opinion, than back in the day.”
In the beginning, Jinkins went on to report, “You’re talking about Nick in a very formative, young stage, and execs like Vanessa were willing to take chances and were looking for something a little different, instead of just a hit, just copying. They were trying to actually be original. “That way of thinking is not very corporate. I certainly haven’t seen it very much since.”
Speaking about a kind of “cross-pollination” that went on between those initial shows, Jinkins mentioned that Doug was assigned a story editor by the network itself. At first it was Mitchell Kriegman [with whom Splitsider will be talking next week about his show Clarissa Explains It All]. Next, it would be Will McRobb of Nick’s own The Adventures of Pete & Pete [oh, never you worry, folks: We have some fun stuff ahead on that show, too!].
“There was definitely camaraderie and a quirkiness about who they were hiring,” Jinkins said. “Sometimes it didn’t work quite so well, but working with McRobb was awesome!”
“I think there was something real special about being a part of Nickelodeon, figuring out what it would be. Now it’s all grown-up and systematized, and I don’t find it quite as interesting, actually.”
Doug goes Disney
Regardless of Jinkins’ criticism of the corporate mentality, he found his sale of Doug to Disney to be “a little complicated but fun to talk about, because it’s just one of those things that’s amazing the way I look back and see how — again — it all worked out; it’s just a miracle.”
When Jinkins first signed on with Nickelodeon to produce the show, there was a long contract development stage (that took almost a year to complete). Part of that contract covered Jinkins’ team being guaranteed 65 half-hour episodes.
In order to ensure that “no one could kill off Doug,” Jinkins explained, he made a codicil in his contract that if his 65 episodes were not allowed to be completed by Nick, he would be given the freedom to take Doug elsewhere five years after cancellation.
And that’s exactly what happened when Nickelodeon ended up having Jinkins produce only 52 episodes, 13 (a season) shy of his guaranteed 65. “Much to our dismay,” Jinkins confessed.
Five years later, Jinkins found himself in his now accustomed “right time/right place” scenario, as Disney at that same time acquired ABC and suddenly needed to fill up their Saturday Morning block.
Nickelodeon had meanwhile moved on, with Ren & Stimpy becoming a hit and the addition of toons Rocko’s Modern Life and Hey Arnold! Jinkins didn’t feel he should move on, however. “I didn’t feel done,” he said. “We had more Doug stories to tell.”
“Linda Steiner [an ABC executive at the time] knew what Doug was and wanted it to go to Disney,” Jinkins said. “She really introduced Doug to them, and after this meteoric back-and-forth, we decided Disney was serious about taking Doug to many new levels. So we sold our business lock stock and barrel to Disney, and that just doesn’t happen.”
With 65 more episodes, a feature film (Doug’s 1st Movie), theme park shows, books, and plenty more Doug-related memorabilia out there, Jinkins is now able to revel in the fact that, as he put it: “Doug had the full run through Disney. And I will be forever grateful for that.”
It was unfortunate, Jinkins admitted, that due to the time gap between Nick’s Doug and Disney’s Brand Spanking New! Doug, some of the original members of his group had moved on. Notably, Billy West (the voice of Doug) could no longer work for what Jinkins’ Disney team could afford due to the voice actor’s rocketing to fame in shows as varied as Ren & Stimpy and Futurama.
Referring to West as “one of the best voice-over actors I’ve ever met,” Jinkins was nevertheless “thrilled to find Tom McHugh” to voice the new Doug incarnation, noting somewhat tongue-and-cheek that, for the persnickety fanatic, the voice difference could be accounted for by Doug’s now being a year older.
“Everything was gonna change a little bit,” Jinkins said of this second Doug run. “You could still recognize the world and we were true to all that back story stuff. We just flipped a few things. Roger’s being rich, for example. It was a way to create a whole new set of jokes and a new approach to the storytelling that I enjoyed doing.”
That’s all, folks
Saying he would never want to come off as “the cranky old guy who remembers how it used to be,” Jinkins does feel strongly that, well, it used to be better back when Doug and its TV compatriots were on the air.
“There’s obviously been a golden age of animation lately,” Jinkins admitted. “Just think about all the zillions of animated shows that have been made since 1991. An amazing amount. All along the way, there’s some really outstanding pieces and a lot of stuff that’s sort of mediocre and things that should be taken out and bulk-erased.”
“There are some exceptions of where I’m going — SpongeBob is just about as fun as life gets — but a lot of what I see getting made seems pointless. I don’t really find the design of it very interesting. I don’t find the humor funny. There’s almost zero plot. It seems like they’re going for gags and maybe style. I don’t know. It hits me as a little vacuous and empty. I’m not sure why. I don’t know if it’s a trend. I can’t make any heavy philosophical connections about it. I just think it was a different approach.”
“We were basically doing animated sitcoms and what they’re doing now is a whole other approach, I guess. I don’t find it as interesting. I want to hear a really good story. A really good, funny story.”
Today, Jinkins and his business partner David Campbell are looking to start a new studio where the animator lives in Georgia. While looking into the sustainability of such ventures, Campbell and Jinkins have put together a slate of work in development that is “ready to go.”
In the meantime, Jinkins spends his time with his family and his own personal projects, such as a recent one-man outdoor art exhibit called “Cartoons at the Marsh.” Mixing Photoshopped nature photography with his cartooning, the show, held last fall, combined Jinkins’ love of environmental issues with his art, along with “scouting and stuff” to converge into a characteristically unique project in which Jinkins’ art was literally displayed in a forest environment upon weather-proof vinyl.
“And that’s sort of what I’m doing right now,” Jinkins said. “It’s all super cool.”
Mathew Klickstein is the author of SLIMED! An Oral History of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age, which is in stores everywhere and will tell you more about Nickelodeon than you probably should know.