Well, that just goes to show how these characters continue to stay with people and how well you and the writing team did to make them stand out, especially in an ensemble cast. And I’d just like to give my condolences for the passing of the talented Mr. Viksten. I know it’s been four years, but he was one of the greats. He contributed to several of my favorite shows including Recess and obviously Hey Arnold!.
Yeah, if you get a chance, you could always see who wrote the episodes in the credits. And he, as you know, wrote some great Rugrats stories too.
Yeah, that’s right, he did Rugrats as well.
He had a huge influence on the humor of Rugrats and on the humor of Hey Arnold! And Steve could do poignant as well as anybody too. Some of Steve’s stories were the saddest ones. We all really liked to write sad stories [laughs]. But, you know, some better than others. And Steve was a great, great writer.
For sure, he and the writer’s room deserve huge props.
We were really lucky too. It was cool. It was kind of unusual what we were doing in the mid-90s. For most of the cartoons, people wanted to write them in storyboard. However, we wanted to write scripts, record them, make radio plays, and then hand out the radio play to the board team to draw. Therefore, it was more tight and restricted than when the board artists could write their own stuff, but it was just the way that we set it up. We were doing something a little different; we weren’t doing what everyone else was doing.
Oh, so the voice artists influenced the storyboarding and animation?
Super true. Often, I would have the storyboard team come to the recording sessions because of that. Like sometimes you can literally draw something and show it to cast and say “see, this is what we were thinking.” And the kids loved it, the actors who cracked the artists up, to be able to see the process. You know, people always love watching an artist sit there and draw a picture in a minute; it’s always amazing.
And yeah, the actors very much participated in it. When I think about it, the show’s characters developed into who they were partly because of the people who played them. Dan Castellaneta brought so much to Grandpa, Tress MacNeille to Grandma. And for Big Bob and Miriam Pataki, Maurice LaMarche and Kath Soucie turned them into who they were. And Francesca Smith, who played Helga, was just amazing. She would come in and record and I would realize what she could do and then I’d go “man, I’ve got to write a scene like that.” And it actually influenced the writing of Helga knowing that we were writing it for Frannie: that she was going to come in and crush it [laughs].
So yeah, the actors brought a ton to their characters and it was really fun to see them. We recorded once a week for, I don’t know, a part of the year, and the other half they were off doing something else. But I worked steadily for about six years on Hey Arnold! and we saw a lot of those actors over the years. People truly got to know each other and what they could do and it was a fun way to go. Making that many episodes with that many people, what a blast! I’m so glad I got to create so many. It’s amazing to look at them all now and go “wow, that is a lot.”
No for sure. And speaking of that, I was surprised to see that you actually cast kids to play the characters in Hey Arnold! Usually adult voice actors and actresses take on that responsibility, as you have experienced with Ready Jet Go!. What’s the difference between working with younger people to develop these characters compared to working with adults?
Kids really do bring a kid mentality to their work, because that’s who they are. Some of them are like little grownups, like Francesca and Anndi McAfee, who played Phoebe, they were little adults [laughs]. But the truth is a nine-year old kid has a different sound. The thing that happens is, when they grow older, they can still approximate that sound, but they don’t have that little unformed valve that a nine-year old has where they are literally growing their teeth in. It’s so funny how, by using a child voice actor, it made an authentic sound that I think our audience responded to; they believed they were looking at a kid character and you could tell.
And that’s what I liked about it. The actors were little and they turned into teenagers and basically all those kids got to grow up together. They were friends, the kids who were in the cast of Hey Arnold! They loved hanging out, it was a great bunch.
I’m glad to hear that they had that connection and that that the chemistry came out in the show. And speaking of children, when we’re talking about cartoons that are geared towards kids, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on current shows that try to depict tougher issues. Censors are laxer these days- I mean yes, you can’t show blood anymore, but you can be more open about societal topics, and so writers are being more direct in their scripts. But I’m wondering, do you think it’s more effective to be restrained and quieter when using a children’s series as medium for these discussions?
Yeah, I mean I kind of…we always were really about the story. And also, I would say that we were very free in that time at Nickelodeon to just do whatever stories we wanted to do. The difference between doing that and a curriculum show like Dinosaur Train where you’re going to teach science is that we literally didn’t have to teach anything: it was more about entertainment. So that meant that our messaging was more subtle because we were just concentrating on telling a story.
That’s definitely true. Themes can come naturally when you have a well thought-out story. Now Mr. Bartlett, I know that you are often asked about a potential season six for Hey Arnold! and that you want to do it. For fans of the series, could there be a connection between the sales of the Ultimate Collection and Nick being convinced to green-light season 6?
[laughs] That’s great, yeah, let’s make that connection!
We can tell people “if you only buy the Ultimate Collection, then we we will get a season 6!” [laughs]
It has happened in the past where DVD sales have resulted in a show coming back, like Family Guy.
Yeah no, absolutely. For sure. I’m really thrilled that it’s out there. It’s a perfect Christmas present, and if everybody gets it maybe that will move the series forward.
That’s right, it is coming out in time for Christmas in terms of a potential present for…really everyone. This is a show that has aged so well that you could introduce it to newer generations.
But Mr. Bartlett, once again thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to speak with me. I never thought I would get the chance to talk to the creator of one of my favorite shows!
No, thank you very much. It was great. It was nice talking to you!
Flickering Myth would like to thank Mr. Bartlett for sitting down with us. Hey Arnold!: The Ultimate Collection will be available for purchase November 20th in North America.
Special thanks to Ellie LoBello of The Karpel Group for making this interview possible!