The Nickelodeon Documentary Was a Journey for Best Friends

The Nickelodeon Documentary Was a Journey for Best Friends
Nickelodeon, including its stores, are the subject of an excellent new documentary. (Photo: Gravitas Ventures)

Two friends who grew up watching Nickelodeon together have made what might be the definitive documentary on the legendary channel’s creation. The movie is called The Orange Years, those friends are directors are Scott Barber and Adam Sweeney, and the film is being released November 17. It documents the creation of the unforgettable kid TV network with interviews from the people who made it and those who starred on the shows that defined it.

“We wanted to tell the story of Nickelodeon. Everything had to serve that purpose,” Barber told Gizmodo. “So if we told a B story about one of the shows, we knew it had to serve the purpose of telling the overall Nickelodeon story…So any time they would do a new type of show, we would kind of focus on that show. Anything that changed the game got its moment in the sun.”

As such, the documentary spends time on shows like You Can’t Do That on Television, Double Dare, Clarissa Explains It All, The Adventures of Pete and Pete, Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Rugrats, Ren and Stimpy, and so many others. Shows that, if you grew up in the 1980s or 1990s, were your everything.

An archive image of Nickelodeon Studios at Universal Studios Florida. It plays a huge role in the film. (Photo: Gravitas Ventures) An archive image of Nickelodeon Studios at Universal Studios Florida. It plays a huge role in the film. (Photo: Gravitas Ventures)

That’s how both Barber and Sweeney felt too. The two met in fifth grade at a small school outside of Houston, Texas, and instantly became best friends. Family circumstances forced Sweeney to move away, though, so the two kept up their friendship through a love of Nickelodeon.

“[At that time], if you moved away, you really had very few resources to be able to connect,” Sweeney said. “So one of the ways we stayed friends is that we would call each other on the phone and watch Snick and Are You Afraid Of the Dark and The Adventures of Pete and Pete, all of these wonderful shows.”

Decades later, the friends starting making films together and were trying to come up with ideas for a new one. One idea they kept coming back to was that TV channel that helped them stay friends all those years ago. Then they had a revelation. “Once we decided that we wanted to focus on Nickelodeon, we did some research and we were kind of dumbfounded that nobody had done a documentary about it yet,” Sweeney said.

Producer Shawn Cauthen and directors Scott Barber and Adam Sweeney with current SNL cast member, and former Nick star, Kenan Thompson. (Photo: Gravitas Ventures) Producer Shawn Cauthen and directors Scott Barber and Adam Sweeney with current SNL cast member, and former Nick star, Kenan Thompson. (Photo: Gravitas Ventures)

So in 2016 they started crowdfunding on Indiegogo, raised over $US16,000 ($21,854), and got to work on making what they hoped would be a documentary worthy of its subject. “We did a ton of research because we knew from the very beginning that for us to do this was a huge responsibility, because this meant a lot to people,” Barber said. From their research, the filmmakers had a good idea of the story they wanted to tell and began reaching out to the people would could tell it. Surprisingly enough, they found that process easier than they anticipated.

“A lot of times people want to be viewed as an adult actor, not as as a kid actor, They don’t want to get typecast. They don’t want to live in the past,” Barber said. “And we were actually shocked at the fact that we never ran into that. Like everybody was excited to talk about Nickelodeon.”

The Orange Years has basically everyone you can think of that you’d want to hear from: stars like Kenan Thompson, Christine Taylor, Melissa Joan Hart, Larisa Oleynik, and Danny Cooksey, as well as hosts and creators like Marc Summers, Tom Kenny, and Graham Yost, just to name a few. (Because you’re wondering, as everyone does, Barber and Sweeney did reach out to Alanis Morissette’s people because she was on You Can’t Do That On Television but never heard back.) During all those interviews, something very important came to the forefront that changed the nature of the film.

“When we found the story of Geraldine Laybourne and her amazing crew, that’s when we knew we had something really special. Something that wasn’t just empty calories,” Sweeney said.

Executive Geraldine Laybourne is given all the credit for turning Nick into what it became. (Photo: Gravitas Ventures) Executive Geraldine Laybourne is given all the credit for turning Nick into what it became. (Photo: Gravitas Ventures)

Laybourne is one of the people considered primarily responsible from turning Nickelodeon from a station without an identity, into the landmark creative place it eventually became. Through interviews with her, as well as her colleagues, the filmmakers uncovered incredible stories of how Laybourne and fellow executives went into schools to talk to kids. How seamlessly, especially for the time, diversity became a part of all the shows, and how the talented, creative people she hired went on to run companies like Disney, PBS, and more.

Framing the movie as both the story of Nickelodeon and Laybourne’s genius gave the movie its drive. It also meant lots of fan-favourite shows like Guts, Roundhouse, Finders Keepers, and others don’t get much time in the spotlight. However, if there was a show that didn’t get its own little segment, the filmmakers were sure to feature it in the mountains of footage needed to put the film together.

“We got footage from anywhere and everywhere,” Barber said. They bought tapes off eBay, went to old video stores, contacted random people online, and asked everyone they interviewed if they had any old footage. One person, in particular, Scott Webb, was a huge help. Webb made all of the old-school Nickelodeon bumpers and provided the filmmakers with a huge collection of stuff that had largely been forgotten in time.

There's no Nick doc without this guy. (Photo: Gravitas Ventures) There's no Nick doc without this guy. (Photo: Gravitas Ventures)

Though most of the history of Nickelodeon is positive, a piece of that story that surfaced during production was not. As Barber and Sweeney were completing editing on The Orange Years, news broke of sexual misconduct allegations against Ren and Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi. As one would expect, Ren and Stimpy plays a large part in the film as the show played a crucial part of Nick’s development. Tough choices had to be made.

“We were very mindful of how we approached [Ren and Stimpy],” Sweeney said. “We spoke to people that were involved to make sure that we had their blessing in order to move forward with that piece.”

“We just shifted,” Barber added. “We said we can’t just skip over it and pretend like it didn’t happen because there was all these other amazing people. So the way we handled it is we chose to mention all of the other amazing people that came from that show”

Almost everyone was game to talk about their time on Nickelodeon. (Photo: Gravitas Ventures) Almost everyone was game to talk about their time on Nickelodeon. (Photo: Gravitas Ventures)

Watching The Orange Years you’ll realise a lot of amazing people came from Nickelodeon. Seeing all the old footage, hearing all the old stories, learning about how it all came together, the film is a delightful trip down memory lane. It’ll have you singing the Salute Your Shorts theme song, laughing at the absurdity that was Hey Dude, and freaking out when you’re reminded of things you haven’t seen or heard in years.

“This is the perfect timing for a movie about community, positivity, hope and empathy for other people to be released,” Sweeney said. “And so [releasing it now] became a happy accident. But I think in some ways that’s kind of reflective of the origins of Nickelodeon. If everyone can just come together and listen and respect and value other people, which was really the message of Nickelodeon as a whole, then I think that gives us the north star to look forward to.”

Your north star is watching The Orange Years, which is available digitally and on Blu-ray on November 17.