Presenting history is no easy task.
Besides everything else that comes with it, how do you go about actually writing it?
I fear solid entertainment histories with an actual narrative may be fading into the ether as new writers step in and tackle subjects by taking the “oral history” book.
I’m of course speaking of John Ortved’s The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History (2009) and the just-published Slimed! An Oral History of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age by Mathew Klickstein, both subjects entirely worthy of a book length analysis.
As it stands, Jeff Kisseloff’s The Box: An Oral History of Television, 1929-1961 is the only book in recent memory that justifies the format, as it covers exceptionally larger ground than either, and quite rivetingly.
While Ortved’s Simpsons is not a very good book, it at least attempts to give some historical context to its figures, precisely what I found stunningly lacking in Klickstein’s Slimed!
Reading the Nickelodeon book is akin to turning on that channel at a random moment any time between 1989 and 1995: you never know what you’re going to get, but it’s guaranteed to be like nothing else out there.
But even with the best of television, an overdosage can spoil it, and the author clearly aimed a little too high with the scope of his book.
Klickstein talked to more than enough people to make his book a credible historic work without examining the literary merit, but the organization is not so much weak as it is nonexistent. Lots of people whom you’re expected to know but don’t are hurled at you (their roles aren’t explained until the very end of the book), and the topic and show being discussed can change arbitrarily.
Perhaps it was an attempt at a Ren & Stimpy or Pete & Pete-type effect, but I somehow doubt it.
What the book does in its best sections, however, is very accurately capture how the Nickelodeon era had been a long time coming after some three decades of absolute junk on children’s television, how most realized how lucky they were to have the opportunity and took advantage of it, and how everyone who worked at that place was more or less a little nuts.
I’ll admit I was slightly disconcerted by the fact that passages on Ren & Stimpy with quotes from John Kricfalusi and others who either refused to be involved or I considered unnecessary to speak with for Sick Little Monkeys would be included in the book. I needn’t have worried. Although Klickstein’s section on what executive Vanessa Coffey described to me as “the nuclear fallout” has a few lively quotes I’d have liked to have included in my own book for their frank objectivity, it retains more or less the same atmosphere of when it all went down in the fall of 1992: lots of screaming with little context.
I felt vindicated that nothing directly contradicted my book, that there are quotes near verbatim to what is in my own interviews with the same people (how’s that for consistency?), and that the losers are still losers (the same ones who live in an L. Ron Hubbard fantasyland where John K. is the equivalent of Michelangelo, John Lennon, and Abe Lincoln; where Dante has the lowest level of Hell reserved for Bob Camp and Billy West).
Nostalgia for the early ’90s is at its peak with everyone who grew up in that era now yearning to return to it by any means possible.
The launch party at 92nd St. Y in New York, literally a sellout, is a testament to that fact, with hundreds in attendance craving to hear their childhood heroes speak about that one shining moment in television history where just about every show on Nick walked the thin line between children’s entertainment and deranged perversity. Nostalgia doesn’t lend itself to academia nor serious criticism, especially when you’re talking about what amounts to what cartoonist Jim Gomez called “throwing green shit at each other.” In light of that, Klickstein’s assemblage of scores of wacky anecdotes may be the best way to enjoy those shows.
You could also do a lot worse than reading about what Nickelodeon was like in 1993 – like actually watching Nickelodeon in 2013.