INVADER ZIM Fact #2

SHUT IT DOWN! SHUT IT DOWN FOREVER!

One of the big rumors going around, and one of the most insidiously resilient, is the many headed hydra of a rumor revolving around why the show was cancelled.  I compare the thing to a hydra for the obvious reason that no matter which variant of the cancellation rumor you try to dispel, another, more preposterous one pops up and is passed around by people with such utter conviction of its truth that it reaches enough similarly lifeless types to grow roots in the ever-firm foundation of ignorance of ones’ own ignorance.

I don’t know how many times I’ve read or heard someone ask why the show was cancelled, opening the portal from the great cosmic inter-ass allowing THE EXPERT entry into our world, this being a person I never saw around the studio, whose name was never on any of the memos, whose voice was never on any of the conference calls, whose only involvement with the show was watching it on their teevee and writing themselves into hideously creepy adventures with the characters, but who has no doubt that they know the facts about a show that was cancelled a hundred years ago.  This person is a walking fact-dispensing machine and lords their knowledge on whatever message board or forum they are king tick on.  So when they talk about people and events from the production, they speak with such absolute certainty as to be experts, leaving no room for the doubt that should be in their heads considering their only source of information is entries on the internet from similar masters of their field.

How often have you seen this one while perusing the inter-beast?:

People talk about INVADER ZIM, some like it, some don’t, someone inevitably wishes the show had not been cancelled, and then THE EXPERT APPEARS to expound upon the great and ugly truths of it all – JHONEN CANCELLED THE SHOW BECAUSE HE WAS A FUCKING PRIMADONNA PUSSY AND IF HE COULDN’T HAVE EVERYTHING HIS WAY HE DIDN’T WANT TO DO IT ANYMORE.

That one’s pretty awesome, because it implies I was not only making the show, but was also in charge of programming at Nickelodeon and had the power to simply cancel the show!  If that was the case I think there’d be a lot less retro, Dexter’s Lab looking stuff on the channel, unless it was actually Genndy’s stuff I was watching.

I could go on and on with variations of the most fantastic reasons for why the show was cancelled, but in the end, even I couldn’t give you the whole and accurate truth for why the show got pulled.  The most likely culprits are simply ratings and the sheer expense of the show, which was monstrously expensive at the time, especially when compared to more modern, flash-based savings fests.

The only thing I can think of that might have been some extraordinarily damning mark on the show and cause cancellation for reasons other than the more mundane ones I mentioned above happened maybe midway through the show’s production life.

FACT:

Just another day at work at the Nick torture labs.

The studio where our offices were served as a kind of showroom for Nickelodeon, not unlike when you go to a natural history museum and you can watch the archeologists and volunteers brush away dirt from fossils from behind a pane of glass or some such similar setup.  Remember the section of Hammond’s tour in Jurassic Park, where the tour group is shown the genetic labs where the baby dinos are created, the busy scientists on display for all the visitors to point at or gawk at?  That’s what certain days at the studio were like, with the guides walking groups of kids around to watch CARTOONS BEING MADE!  Now I dunno if you’ve ever seen animation professionals at their trade, but the last people I’d wanna bring kids to see is some guy trying ever so hard to well up the strength to smile at some tiny strangers through his coffee sweat slickened face, sandwich bits clinging to the beard that wasn’t there yesterday when he got to work but is there now because he hasn’t been home, hasn’t, hasn’t showered or shaved, but is now trying to explain what he does to make the magic happen.  Often I’d see such a person dig his fingers into a child’s shoulders and scream at them about how it’s all a sham, how it’s all so horrible and then collapse to the ground, already snoring as the smell from the excrement exploding from their slackened sphincters punches into the tour group’s faces.

Anyhow, about halfway through the show’s  production life, one such tour group pretty much decided the fate of the show.  The show performed better than cartoons on rival networks in similar timeslots, but it wasn’t breaking records by Nickelodeon’s standards.  At around the time of this particular scene, our future was pretty much still undecided, but not looking so shiny.

Now, a common thing for the tour groups to do when visiting the “ZIM SIDE” of the building was to sit down in the staff lounge area and be presented with unaired episodes while the staff did their best not to curse or make hideous dick-jokes around the wee ones, and some of our staff was borderline Tourette’s stricken, so it was pretty hard for them.

This day it was special, not that most of the staff knew it, but I was more aware of it than I wanted to be thanks to who one of the little kids was.

One of the execs on the show, I don’t recall her name entirely, Gorgo or something, was on one of her occasional visits to the studio from the head office in Nebraska.  I can remember the woman’s name about as much as I can recall her function in the network, but I recall her being in on several of these sit-downs where I was told why the show wasn’t appealing to kids in the way it should, and here’s where she’d always bring up her two young daughters as evidence of how the show simply didn’t connect with your average kid.  Now I don’t know about you, but I sure as hell wasn’t your average kid with their average smells and average number of fingers and toes, and to be truthful, couldn’t be bothered to tear myself from riding dogs like horses at a good ol’ gladiatorial dog-off to watch cartoons on the ol’ telly, so having this woman constantly wield her children and her connection to the youthful pulse of America just rubbed me the wrong way.  To repeatedly find yourself in a room full of blond androids who watch cartoons as WORK and not because they have an imaginative bone in their bodies wears on you after a while, and I felt bad for that lady’s kids being at the mercy of their Stepford exec mother.

Well, on this visit, the woman had brought one of her legendary daughters to the studio, and sent her off with one of the tour groups.  Sure enough, the tour got to our part of the building, not that it meant anything to the rest of the crew besides the usual inconvenience of having strangers occupy the space you’d normally take breaks to show people some awful Argento or talk about the guy in the cubicle still asleep and still shitting in his sleep.  I figured it best not to make the guys nervous with any awareness of who was part of the tour group currently judging our performance in the lounge.

It wasn’t uncommon to hear crying during these little screenings of our show, soft, low sobbing or outright screeching coming form the direction of lobby over to wherever we’d try to hide out until the wee ones had passed through, so when the crying started this time we thought nothing of it, absorbing our usual amount of energy from the sorrow of weeping children.  There’s always some sensitive one who would be shocked or appalled by whatever atrocity we pulled off in a particular episode, so one grew accustomed to the sounds of such things.  This was different, however..more severe, growing in intensity like an air raid siren and then hard shifting into terrified shrieking.  At the time I was in a meeting with storyboard artist Ray Angrum about storyboarding most likely, and we immediately stopped talking and just looked at one another, or rather sensed at one another as Ray had lost both eyes in an accident while working at his previous storyboarding job.  I could feel the dead stare from Ray’s eyepits through the two eyepatches he wore, and we both knew something unusual was happening.

And then the crashing started.

Sure enough, it was the executive’s kid throwing a fit, having been driven to madness by the episode they were watching.  The other children had the usual glassy eyes and damp chins symptomatic of having watched my show, but this kid…this kid had fucking lost it.  Other crew-members were now peeking out from their offices or cubicles and I realized the situation was quickly escalating into something embarrassing and very possibly dangerous.  It was bad enough that she’d  use her kids as litmus tests for what was good or bad in the world of animation, but to have one of her kids driven mad by my show in particular could spell very bad news for the show, so I had to act quickly.

“THE BIRDS ARE CHIRPING”, I said to Ray, who stood beside me, and he knew what it meant immediately – I could see it in the way his stance changed, the tilt of his head and the way his eyepatches throbbed.  I had only a moment, so I did my best to distract everyone by pointing out the presence of Richard Horvitz, voice actor for ZIM, who had just stumbled drunkenly into the lounge area.  It wasn’t a voice-record day, but Horvitz, one of the loneliest men ever to walk the earth, would often just come in to be with “the only friends I have on this god-forsaken shitpile of a planet”.  The crew quickly learned to drown out the wheezing sob sounds Richard would usually make after slumping in a random cubicle and rolling around in hopes that somebody would tell him he wasn’t alone (which someone actually did try to do once before recoiling from the awful smell voice-actor vomit).

Not impressed that I'm ZIM? I will cut cut your throat from ear to ear, kid! Just fucking TRY me!

“Hey, kids!” I called out, a little too loud, really, “It’s Richard Horvitz, voice of Invader ZIM himself!”  ”Ewwwwww!” came the familiar and immediate response from the kids who begged the tour guide to take them to see Spongebob or something.  Executive’s Daughter, however, only screamed louder and thrashed, putting a foot through the television and then falling to the floor, her foot still snagged by the glass and metal of the set, bending her leg at a terrible angle.  While the children recoiled from Horvitz who was now screaming at the children in his Angry Beavers Dagget voice, the atmosphere around his mouth visibly distorted from the sheer alcohol content in his breath, Ray swooped in and grabbed the screaming daughter, covering her mouth to stifle the sounds.  He dragged her to the safe-room where we’d keep the kids that just made too much of a fuss to be tolerated.

Satisfied with having diffused the situation, for the moment anyhow, I left the lounge to return to my office where Ray sat alone, looking down at his feet.

“Ray?” I asked, waiting for him to look up at me, to let me know everything was okay.  ”Where’s the girl?  Everything cool?

“SHE’S DEAD, BOSS.”

“You mean dead as in perfectly fine?”

“I mean dead as in I killed her.  I killed her and she’s dead and unless dead is fine it’s not fine.”  At this ray held his hands up before his eyepits and simply stared at them in wonder, horror and disbelief, like the Rock Biter in Neverending Story when he’s bummed about having lost the little racing snail and the pedophile-looking goblin that rode him.

That’s when I noticed the little red flecks on ray’s hands, and on his shirt.

“What’ve you done, Ray?”

“I did what I had to.  What you woulda done for ME if the roles were reversed.  She was gonna bring us down, I could see it in your face, man.  I knew that kid was special and if I didn’t take her down she’d have Charlie on us like wet on a rice paddy.”

“Ray, you weren’t in Nam, man.  What are you, like thirty years old or something?  Oh shit, Ray.”

The first few weeks were terrible, what with the investigation and the devastated executive who was determined to find her daughter.  You try producing an animated television show while hiding all and any evidence of your part in the disappearance of a child.  Let me tell you, it’s nerve-wracking and downright terrible, but, as with most crimes on the show, it died down and we started getting back into the rhythm of things.

You know how when you look at season one of The Simpsons, it looks crude, ill-formed and nothing at all like what The Simpsons looks like today?  That’s the entirety of INVADER ZIM for me, a thing that bears no real resemblance to the show I had in my head, but given time, could have that well-oiled, smoothed out machine that felt “right” to me.  That was part of the fun and the challenge, the part that made putting up with the horrors of children’s television animation bearable, that satisfaction that something is getting better and better.

By season 2, things were falling into place, people who didn’t fit the style of the show were being removed or trained properly, Brian K was in charge of making the show look right and consistent from episode to episode, garlic had been hung all around our side of the building which, for some reason, kept Horvitz away, though we could hear him crying from the streets outside, the screech of tires as he’d meander through traffic daring someone to just “end this fucking joke”.

Brian was just starting the process of reworking the style-guide for the show, undoing all of the bizarre influences that made the show look so awkward and wrong to me, and we were just getting to write more epic storylines, finally getting the show off earth and into more adventurous space places!

That’s when they found the body.

Apparently Ray, who never told me where he’d hid it, saying only “It’s taken care of” and leaving it at that, so I was as horrified and shocked as anyone.

It was Horvitz that broke it all, and only because somebody finally took him up on his dare.

I was feeling great that day, having just written up a list of people whose firing would improve the show’s quality tenfold and was walking it over to Brian’s office to get his opinion on it when I heard the screech of tires that, this time, ended in a nasty crunch and the gasping of pedestrians just outside the building.

Richard had been hit, the bottle of rubbing alcohol he had been chugging still rolling around in the street when I got out there.  I knew right away that something was beyond wrong with what I was seeing.

Richard had always been a grotesquely malformed thing, barely human to the eye, but still not quite the sort of thing you wouldn’t believe upon spotting.  You’d cover your eyes and mouth, sure, but you wouldn’t wonder what the fuck you were looking at as it was clear what you were looking at: AN ABOMINATION OF HUMANITY.

But the abomination we all observed now made no sense…there was simply too much to it.  Confusion ruled the scene until one person, just a random guy who had been walking past the studio to eat at Fuddruckers or something, pointed out “He’s got a withered child-corpse strapped to his body”.

Ray had hidden the body in the one place nobody would dare get close enough to examine, on Richard Horvitz’s body.  The body, its rigor mortis creating a natural sturdiness to snap around Horvitz’s shoulders and waist, clung to him like a ghoulish, un-living Yoda, a thing repellent in its unbreakable embrace.  Over the course of the year it had been dead, the thing had fused to Richard’s skin, appearing like a decaying symbiote on his already repulsive frame.

Corpse Yoda is my band's name.

Obviously, Richard recovered, and doctors removed as much of the corpse as they could from his skin through a series of agonizing operations that continue to this day, actually.  The thing is, one has to wonder if the Yoda comparison isn’t too far off the mark as people began talking about how much more erratic Richard’s behavior had gotten over the past year, no doubt amplified by having a corpse-child grafted onto his back.  Did his already compromised connection to reality break further, did he imagine it really was a Yoda of sorts, giving him advice and possibly even training him up in the ways of the Force?  Did it make him walk out into traffic in the belief that he could stop the car with his mind?  These are the questions that might never be answered, not because Richard is dead, but because nobody wants to get near enough to ask.

Well, sure enough, we got cancelled shortly after it all came out into the open.

Do I regret it?  Maybe.  But like Ray said, it had to be done.

Charlie, ya know?

—ZIM FACTS.  Here’s why—