4 Strange Beginnings of Iconic TV Characters

Coming up with ideas is like sex in which you are perpetually a virgin. First, you’ve got the spark. Then you’ve got that awkward tension that becomes awkward foreplay. This results in slightly smelly, fumbling, lightning-fast intercourse that feels kinda cool but mostly stressful. Then it’s over and you get a little bit down on yourself, because let’s face, you coulda done better.

But after that first time, if you’re lucky, that idea will return your phone calls. Together, you find the things that work, the things that don’t, and the things that get you in trouble. You keep at it. Take notes. Make a science of it so you can be ready when biology takes over. If you stay committed to that idea for days, months, years, DECADES and continue to add elements to the mix, you notice how much it changes. Not to mention the other ideas that sprung out on a count of all this idea-sex.

So, without further tortured metaphor, here are a handful of Characters and the Creators that nailed them (that’s it, I promise).

The Simpsons

In 1977, the year of punk rock, Matt Groening was a 23 year old LA-transplant who worked crummy jobs and wrote comic strips. In ’78, that comic, Life In Hell, was featured in a magazine noted for its graphic content (That magazine? The wonderfully named Wet). It was his first professional sale and set the scene for a career filled with edgy, but oddly endearing cartoons. 10 years later, Simpsons shorts started popping up all over the Tracey Ullman Show.

It began as something raw and imperfect and crude, but over that run, we saw the characters take shape. The family’s features rounded out and softened up. Marge’s hair became less bee-hive and more phallic topiary. Key catch phrases were introduced (ie. “Don’t have a cow man”, “Why you little–“). Bart revealed himself as a scheming, wise-cracking exhibitionist, while Homer became the well-intended dimwit who occasionally strangles his children. And Maggie, of course, became a pantomime princess, eternally cooler than her future infant counterpart. Matt Groening also threw us hints that The Simpsons universe was expanding by introducing a handful of side characters (including Krusty the Clown and Grandpa).

Who would have thought that a former LA punk on the fringe of society could so deeply saturate pop culture?

Peter & Brian Griffin from Family Guy

Taking straight from the pages of the Hanna-Barbera and Groening handbooks, Family Guy was a surefire hit. Whereas those earlier creative forces blueprinted the “Successful Animated Sitcom” formula, MacFarlane took those tropes and squeezed out every last bit of comedic potential into a cacophony of flash-cuts and culture references. Everything, down to the family dynamic, was a parody of series’ past. And, especially in its first Fox run from 1999-2000, it worked phenomenally.


But before Peter and Brian, there was Larry and Steve. A middle-aged imbecile and his anthropomorphic dog. Introduced as MacFarlane’s 1995 RISD thesis, The Life of Larry not only clearly defined the future icons’ personalities, it also contained material that would be later re-used in Family Guy’s early episodes.

Elmo (Baby Monster)

For all the flack he’s been getting in recent years, there’s no denying that Kevin Clash had a huge impact on Sesame Street and the Muppet legacy. Especially when you take into account that THIS was the early Elmo model.

Originally known as Baby Monster, the trucker-voiced misfit (portrayed here by Jerry Nelson) was passed around for years before finally getting a proper name in 1981, when Puppeteer Brian Muehl took the reigns. He then departed in 1984, leaving the character in the reluctant hands of Richard Hunt. What the hell is this? He asked. What do y’all expect – blood from a stone? A frog from a coat?! Indignant as he was, Hunt’s squeaky protestations did not go unheard by the Mighty Muppet Gods. When up-and-comer Kevin Clash eagerly adapted the fiery little furball, Hunt tossed it over like a hot potato. At the time, no one quite grasped that Hunt’s throwaway was Kevin’s ticket to notoriety. Here it was: his opportunity to live up to the promise of his admired predecessors. ‘Cuz needless to say, when your boss is Jim Henson, you step it the hell up.

Clash did that. He projected his excitement and fear and anxieties into a childlike persona, and in doing so, concocted one of Sesame Street’s most charming, sweet and commercially viable characters. Some would even argue he’s one of the biggest reasons the series continued to influence pop culture in the new millennium. Lucky for Clash, no amount of bad press can change that.

Arnold *No Last Name Given* from Hey Arnold! 

Allow me to lament the fact that there’s no surviving moral compass for children as influential as Arnold. This show was a fantastic lead-in to adulthood, especially for the inner city kids. Why? First off, it celebrated kid-lore. All those stories and fantasies that helped shape our view of the world. Second, the cast of characters were applicable to anyone. Who didn’t know a Helga, a Eugene, a Phoebe, a Rhonda, or a Gerald? From the odd-balls to the plastics, the show covered every kind of kid. Yes, even the ones on stoops.

But before all that, Arnold was just a kernel of an idea. A simple block of clay that spent an almost unhealthy amount of time daydreaming. Creator Craig Bartlett developed him in his time working on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. You may remember some of the earliest TV spots from 1988-1991. The last in that series, Arnold Rides A Chair, even aired on Sesame Street. I was a nose-picking five year old at the time and remember thinking it was the greatest thing to have ever graced God’s green earth – right alongside starburst candies and my beloved pair of ruby red slippers (I was Dorothy). Here’s the first short in that series, aptly titled Arnold Escapes From Church.

Note the mute children, the headless chauffeur, and Arnold’s early signs of paranoid schizophrenia. He may not have yet been his generation’s Malcolm Gladwell, but then again, all good things to those who wait. The LSD-free Arnold we know and love today made his premiere theatrically in an 8 minute short preceding the 1996 Nickelodeon cult favorite Harriet the Spy. The rest, as they say, is history.

Enjoy the Weekend, folks!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s