LOS ANGELES — Ten years ago, a baldheaded, bug-eyed baby wearing an ill-fitting diaper squirted milk onto a TV screen — and a new American hero was born.
It was our introduction to Tommy Pickles, fearless 1-year-old leader of the Emmy-winning animated TV show “Rugrats.”
There’s no villain he can’t conquer.
From sandbox bullies to militaristic day care providers, Tommy Pickles has humbly vanquished them all, often with a simple credo: “A baby’s gotta do what a baby’s gotta do.”
“He’s a hero, and he’s also a gentleman. That’s what I like about him; he’s a gentle guy,” says E.G. Daily, the actress who has provided Tommy’s voice from the beginning.
“Rugrats” routinely lands among the 15 most popular cable programs in the Nielsen TV ratings several times each week. The 30-minute show airs at different times throughout the week on the Nickelodeon cable network.
Tommy and company, including Chuckie, Angelica and twins Lil and Phil, starred in “All Growed Up,” a special one-hour anniversary show that debuted Saturday on Nickelodeon.
Pulling off the implausible has become routine on “Rugrats,” which was created by a trio of unknown animators, Arlene Klasky, Gabor Csupo and Paul Germain.
Mr. Csupo had fled communist-ruled Hungary 15 years before, taking only his prized collection of records by avant-garde rock composer Frank Zappa.
The three hired another avant-garde rock composer, Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, to score it.
“Out of the gate, it seemed like it had the look of something special but who knew?” says Nickelodeon President Herb Scannell.
He proudly compares “Rugrats” to “Seinfeld,” for both its offbeat humor and the undying devotion of its audience.
Talk to those involved with the show when it was getting started, however, and they’ll tell you they never dreamed it would be a huge hit never realized it had become one, in fact, until signs began popping up everywhere.
“Suddenly when we were on the cover of Kraft macaroni and cheese,” Mrs. Daily says with a laugh. “And Jell-O. And cereal.”
Two feature films, 1998’s “The Rugrats Movie” and last year’s “Rugrats in Paris — the Movie,” became box-office hits.
Yet after three Emmys, a CableACE award and a handful of Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards, the “Rugrats” folks still seem awed by it all.
“You know, between the two of us, we’ve done maybe 25 or 30 television shows,” Mr. Mothersbaugh says of himself and his brother Bob, who also works on the show. “Usually it’s the ones that you like that die the quickest deaths, so this was really a pleasant surprise.”
Mr. Csupo and Mrs. Klasky say they weren’t out to create a hit. “We just wanted to do a show, first of all, for ourselves. One that we wouldn’t mind having to watch if we didn’t produce it,” Mr. Csupo says.
As a result, they never wrote down to their audience, Mrs. Klasky says, but at the same time, they never took the show out of a child’s world, either.
So swimming pools are mistaken for giant potties, karaoke machines become tapioca machines, people with names such as Mr. Yamagouchi become Mr. Yamasushi, and grumpy folks wake up on “the wrong side of the bread.”
Not that all of the humor is designed strictly for children. In “Rugrats in Paris,” for example, a chance viewing of “The Godfather” movie results in mischievous Angelica’s briefly becoming “The Bobfather” and the twins mysteriously ending up with a hobbyhorse’s head in their crib.
Also, in a poignant Mother’s Day episode that has become a favorite with adults, fraidy-cat Chuckie learns that the beautiful woman who protects him in his dreams is really the mommy he always longed for, the one he learns died shortly after he was born but still looks out for him from heaven.
“It really is a kids’ show that I know a lot of grown-ups like,” Mrs.Daily says of the program’s enduring appeal. “I have a girlfriend who doesn’t let her kids watch any TV except for ‘Rugrats’ because she thinks it’s a decent show. It is. And it’s sweet, and it’s funny, too. It’s the one show that parents can sit back and watch with their kids and get a laugh out of it, too.
“How great is that?”
Meanwhile, Mrs. Daily’s 2 1/2-year-old daughter has taken to calling her “Mommy Pickles.”
“You’re a parent, and you can sit back and watch a show with your kids and not be bored out of your mind,” Mrs. Daily says.