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This Essay Is Nothing Special: A Fascinatingly Ordinary Portrait of the Author as a Hopelessly Average Young Man

"Irreverence implies a word or act that strips a person or thing of its dignity, but a subversive word or act that is irreverent on the surface may be an attempt to restore a dignity or autonomy that has been lost to those in the margins." – Mary Ruefle

What, are you kidding?

I was never supposed to have a book released under the auspices of a major publisher. Certainly not one chronicling such a significant cultural bellwether as the First Kids' Network, Nickelodeon.

Me? I was the loud-mouthed roustabout whose only true talent as a boy was the inexplicable ability to roundly piss off both teachers and classmates alike.

I never did anything special, except perhaps when it came to the terrible decisions I would make, particularly during social events.

I recall thinking it would be totally cool to wear my extra-large, black Ren and Stimpy shirt to a junior high school dance.I recall thinking it would be totally cool to wear my extra-large, black Ren and Stimpy shirt to a junior high school dance.

I was mistaken.

(As mistaken as I was about dousing myself with half a bottle of particularly pungent cologne.)

You're not supposed to do those kinds of things. Certainly not if you're trying to win the affections of a young girl. Something that was even more difficult for me in my preteen years after I learned — courtesy of that one extra-helpful clerk at that one clothing store — that I was at that time considered "husky."

I may have grown out of that over the last two decades, but I'm not now — and I've never been — employed by Nickelodeon. Nor am I the son or daughter of some higher-up at Nick's offices.

I'm not exactly the arts and culture editor of a super-cool alternative weekly (shit, those places won't even return my calls). I don't have a modest online presence born of clever news feeds, blogs, or slick pod casts.

Frankly, the Internet scares me. To me, "disruptive" technology sounds like a really, really bad thing. I only just got a smartphone six months ago and I don't even know why.

Whether as a child or now, I've always had just enough money not to be interesting but never enough to afford the things and singular experiences that would make me so.

Even as an 11-year-old Nick kid, I was saddled right in the limbo zone of just about everything.

For the few other "fellow" Jews in my Southern California suburban hamlet, I was too preternaturally conservative and cynical (Alex P. Keaton being my #1 hero); and yet, for the Protestant/born agains who represented everyone else around me, I was far too preternaturally liberal and weird (Marty McFly being my #2 hero).

It wasn't enough that I sucked at sports. I also found watching them as dull as (and suspiciously similar to) soap operas.

I spent most of my summers wandering around the thick, lush forest-world of my quaint condominium complex's limitless backyard, wishing Lord of the Flies was real so that I could have some friends and something to do.

Christ, I wasn't even a loser. My pants were never tight enough and I hadn't started smoking yet.

I could never quite infiltrate my local, disparate tribes of nerds, either. They didn't seem fun. They didn't like breaking things for no reason. Not to mention, most of them were way more "husky" than I ever was at age 12 (apparently, Star Wars is fattening).

And now they've all grown up to engender a formidable network of conventions I still can't get into, even if I did care that much about Game of Thrones, Firefly, or repurposed superheroes.

I didn't just like broccoli. I loved it. That left me as an isolato as a boy. Even today, the only thing I love more than a piping cold vegan meal is a good, bloody steak or hearty cheeseburger.

I didn't play the guitar as a kid. I still don't, almost staunchly, which — years after those lonely, cologne-drenched junior high dances — continues to make it particularly challenging for someone not quite six feet tall to land that chimerical "nice girl."

Which reminds me: since I read books and occasionally write them too, I'm of course pro-choice... and yet any time a lovely young thing starts in on feminism, I know she'll soon enough prove just how independent of a woman she is by breaking my heart.

So I couldn't tell you in which camp I would pitch my tent on the women's lib subject either.

With my untrendy baggy green sweatpants and perennial Ren and Stimpy shirts (I had more than one, depending on the attendant weather, which — again in Southern California — makes no real sense), I more or less faded into the background in my younger days... when not talking with a precociously resonant voice that oftentimes landed me in the exile cubby area where I'd spend the rest of the school day learning ever-more creative means of torturing my interchangeable babysitters, courtesy of life lessons glommed from Calvin and Hobbes.

And yet there again, I wasn't even "special" enough to be a member of the ever-growing scads of those diagnosed with ADHD as external cause of my occasional cries for attention.

The so-called "hyperactive" kids were always way more interesting than me. (They also got away with way more things than I ever could, which left me with a deep-seated sense of confusion, frustration, and injustice that haunts me to this day... But that's for another essay.)

I was not then, nor am I now as a (technically) full-grown adult, on television. I was never in the movies. I left L.A. too soon and came to New York City too late. I never wear the right shoes that can get me into the right clubs (at least not on the right nights).

And my parents — oy! — they are not now, nor were they ever, any help. They're not on TV or in the movies. They're not from New York City or L.A. My pasty-white dad's too busy playing World of Warcraft in his boxers and with his shirt off in his home office to get into those clubs, while my longhaired mom normally doesn't wear shoes at all.

Yes, unhealthy or not, I had one place where I felt welcomed as a kid growing up as a misfit among the misfits.

When I wasn't tumbling down The Twilight Zone's black-and-white rabbit hole, drifting off into the elegiac tumult of The Wonder Years' late-'60s suburban sprawl, or stopping in at the sex-scandaled apartment on Three's Company (whose reruns no one else was allowed to watch because their moms did wear shoes, and very uncomfortable ones, at that), Nickelodeon was my ultimate reprieve from judgment, or worse: lack thereof.

Nickelodeon was a real community for me, a place I could go, a place that had folks who — finally — seemed eerily like me.Nickelodeon was a real community for me, a place I could go, a place that had folks who — finally — seemed eerily like me. It was comfortable. And, yes, I even had a sense that I was at last being noticed there, that they were listening to me, that I had a say, that my thoughts and feelings were being expressed or, dare I venture, reciprocated.

I never seemed to notice that I was on one side of the glass teat, and they were on the other. ("They" being an intriguing way to refer to a television channel, but we're not analyzing semiotics right now. That's also for another essay.)

I suppose that was the allure of classic Nickelodeon: you were able to lose yourself in it. It was waiting for you when you got home from a hard day of being totally misunderstood by adults and other kids alike at school.

It was television, sure, but this was a different time for children's entertainment. This was that magically naïve era before the merchandising machine really got going. This was the first channel that was on for us 24/7. This was no longer broadcasting but, rather, what would become known as "narrowcasting."

It was for us.

It even sported the occasional, "Okay, kids, stop watching us now and go play outside" public-service announcements that many of you may indeed remember.

I was merely a watcher, just a fan, just a truly regular kid watching The Adventures of Pete and Pete, Salute Your Shorts, and You Can't Do That on Television.

But, of course, that's just it: that's something I did figure out — and implicitly knew even before I started on this ridiculous, quixotic literary quest. Nick itself was special because it was custom made for the "every kid," the average, regular young person: a little bit wily, a little bit bad, a little bit sensitive, a little bit bookish, and a lot bit irreverent, contrarian, and — most importantly — wide-eyed.

So maybe a regular nobody banished to the cubby area and hiding nose-deep behind his stolen, mammoth-sized copy of The Way Things Work was indeed just the person to write the Nickelodeon history.

Perhaps that's why, when I came to find that nobody had yet written such a book for the masses, I realized all at once: hey, that's me!

÷ ÷ ÷

Mathew Klickstein is the former editor in chief of Entertainment Today and has written for numerous online and print magazines. He also worked in Hollywood, where he wrote Sony Pictures' Against the Dark for Steven Seagal. Slimed!: An Oral History of Nickelodeon's Golden Age is his latest book. He currently lives in New York City.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Slimed!: An Oral History of... Used Hardcover $8.95
  2. Lord of the Flies
    Used Mass Market $3.95
  3. The way things work Used Hardcover $11.95

Mathew Klickstein is the author of Slimed!: An Oral History of Nickelodeon's Golden Age

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