RoboSplaat! — Arlene Klasky Discusses the Legacy of Klasky-Csupo, and Her Latest Creation
Rare is the iconic character from a company logo that’s retooled to lead a new series. Behold Splaat, the freaky — well, splat (of tricked-out ink) — beloved of fans of Klasky-Csupo’s animated shows (Rugrats, et al.), featured front and center in RoboSplaat: his all-new series of webisodes. It’s a treat to discuss him, and the studio’s evolution, with Arlene Klasky herself.
“About nine years ago, I went online,” divulges Ms. Klasky. “I don’t really do social media personally, but I thought: ‘Let me take a look, and see what’s online with my name on it.’ What popped up was ‘Klasky-Csupo Robot Logo’ — on YouTube — it was our first logo on Rugrats, with this very ugly face. (laughs) At the very end he said: ‘Klasky-Csupo!’”
She vocally adds the requisite sound effects, then recalls the logo’s origin:
“Sergei Shramkovsky and Laslo Nosek — one was from Hungary [Laslo], and one was from Russia [Sergei] — and then my partner, Gábor Csupó, developed it, and it was crazy-as-heck looking. (laughs) But you know, for Gábor and I, crazy and not-particularly-beautiful was something that we liked. We knew we couldn’t compete with Disney, so we didn’t try!”
Ms. Klasky continues regarding Splaat’s evolution:
“Kids took that logo, and there was a program online from MIT, which taught kids how to code. Who knew kids loved logos? What an odd thing to love. They mashed it up with all these visual effects, and it just exploded. I found hundreds of videos, with millions of views. I thought, ‘Okay, this has to be some sort of sign from the universe. I have to do something.’ So I put arms and legs on him, with designer Sergei, who used to work on Rugrats and some of our other shows, and just started to build a character around this funny face.”
Voicing Splaat is voice-over veteran, Greg Cipes.
“I met Greg a long time ago, it seems. He worked on a pilot for me, cast by Barbara Wright. Gábor and I were given 14 pilots from Nickelodeon. He’s so enormously talented, and he just got it. He sounds like a teenager, that’s kind of what we wanted. He’s very creative, he has his own animation studio, he’s very entrepreneurial, and he does a lot of charity work. He’s a wonderful guy, he’s fun to work with, and he adds so much to the RoboSplaat character.”
Thus was born the new web series, with many webisodes scripted by Ms. Klasky herself, and writers Alex Mesrobian and Jesse Elias. Megan Pearson acted as Animation Producer on the series.
“I started writing. I had turned my studio into a development studio after we left Nickelodeon. It took us years to complete 134 webisodes, because we were doing a lot of other things, including developing a number of projects. We no longer have 550 employees like we had years ago. Once everybody went home due to the pandemic, I thought: ‘We’ve got these webisodes, we’ve got this time, let’s just do this remotely.’”
Expanding from their Instagram to their new YouTube channel, every Saturday and Wednesday they’ll drop a new RoboSplaat! Ms. Klasky also raves up Mr. Cipes’ Instagram show (which launched with one of my own early interviews: Sean Astin), Talk Cereal:
“All the voice-over actors are amazing. Elizabeth Daily, Charlie Adler came on — he’s a voice-over director, but he was also Ickis in Aaahh!!! Real Monsters — Cooper Barnes, and more… It’s so raw, and just kind of out there (laughs). For anybody who’s interested in what happens in animation behind the scenes, it’s really fascinating listening to these voice-over actors talk about their careers.”
Speaking of careers: I note that then-married Ms. Klasky and Mr. Csupó started humbly (in a spare bedroom), and then grew into that building in Hollywood with their wild characters painted on it. She reflects:
“I had been working in special-effects animation, and he was a character animator, so we decided to just do it ourselves. The first week we went out, we got eight projects! We started with commercials, and on-air promotional graphics. We just kept at it, we were both driven. The Simpsons came knocking, and that’s what really put us on the map.”
Klasky-Csupo helped shape the original Simpsons shorts on The Tracey Ullman Show, continuing through the animated series’ first three seasons, then left of their own choice. They’d rented a space in the building of Bob Clampett of Looney Tunes fame when Nickelodeon burst onto the scene. “I didn’t think lightning could strike twice,” admits Arlene.
“I was staying home with my two young kids. I wanted to leave animation and just raise them. But I was still working a little bit at home, and I came up with the idea: ‘If babies could talk, what would they say?’ Gábor drew ‘Tommy Pickles’ based on our son Brandon, who was pigeon-toed. Both Brandon and Jarrett were truly our original inspiration. Rugrats took off, with Paul Germain as showrunner. Also, Peter Chung expanded on character design in the pilot that was greenlit. We were lucky.”
I ask about comparing and contrasting their humble beginnings with the pared-down approach of production on RoboSplaat.
“It’s different because what we’re doing is on social media, which didn’t really exist when we started in the industry. I was trying to produce things that were inexpensive, that’s why RoboSplaat is a lot of monologues. Then we threw in everything and the kitchen sink for design. It’s not full-blown animation, but I like it because it’s weird-looking. And something about Splaat speaking directly to the audience: it’s not like a cartoon you’re watching; he’s really engaging the audience, so it’s different from anything that we’d done before.”
And yet, as with their prior series, there’s appeal for both children and their parents.
“When we started Rugrats, we learned a lot from The Simpsons. What Gábor and I learned was how important writing was to animation. They had a crew of amazing writers for The Simpsons, and they continue to write remarkable scripts. That inspired us, so when we started the Rugrats series, it was clear that we wanted to write it on two levels.
“What’s odd, and what we weren’t expecting,” Ms. Klasky elaborates, explicitly crediting her co-creators, Messrs. Csupó and Germain, “was the impact it had on the audiences. When I would go to Comic-Con, or speak at a university, with other creators from Nickelodeon, the fans would say: ‘Thank you for our childhood.’ Rugrats created such nostalgia for their childhood, and had been a safe haven for them. We had no idea that it would resonate around the world, in 74 countries. There was something universal about it.”
And apparently Rugrats is set for a revival. Any sneak peeks?
“I can tell you that Gábor Csupó, myself, and Paul Germain are executive producers on it. They have a whole new crew of writers, but Eryk Casemiro and Kate Boutiler, who were our showrunners for very many years, are running Rugrats. It’s going to be mindblowing. There have been a lot of smart ideas, making it resonate in this era, bringing it into the present and the future. I think everybody’s going to be really happy with what they see.”
I’m tempted to ask if the RoboSplaat team will be working with French composer Alexandre DeSplaat. But instead we briefly reminisce about The Wild Thornberrys:
“Gábor was set on Flea [to voice “Donnie”], so he brought Flea in. We were lucky to have him. When I met Gábor, he had 400 albums that he brought over from Sweden to my apartment! He was a big fan of American music. At that time, he had escaped Hungary, and he had gone up to live in Sweden, where we met.”
Arlene leans tantalizingly close to a tangential Frank Zappa anecdote, but equally pleasingly swings to “Sir Nigel” himself:
“Tim Curry! We were so blessed to have him, as the father in Wild Thornberrys. It was remarkable. Charlie Adler was the voice director, and he also brought so much to the Rugrats series. I don’t even know how to go into how blessed we were with that cast.”
Back to the present, forthcoming in its final stages of development is a new app developed by Chris Lam — “Splaativerse” — about which Ms. Klasky enthuses:
“Basically it’s a game. It’s Splaat telling a story, and within the story, there are three things that a player [or two] can do: Choose a sound effect; Take a photograph; Record your voice. We have 30 prerecorded stories that we’ve designed so players can drop in whatever we’ve asked them to do — and there are endless choices that fit within the story. The player is able to participate in storytelling with Splaat! It’s really fun.”
Meanwhile, newly launched, check out Splaat on YouTube and Instagram, with his new webisodes dropping every Saturday and Wednesday, into 2021. RoboSplaat is where it’s Splaat, in a Splaategory all his own, and he’ll command your Splaatention with his audacious Splaatitude.
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
Images courtesy of Klasky-Csupo.