There’s no doubt that R.L. Stine is best known—and will long be known—for his work as the creator and author behind young-adult horror series Goosebumps and Fear Street. Stine’s had a long and varied career, though. As Jovial Bob Stine, he penned a number of children’s books for Scholastic, including Miami Mice, 101 Wacky Kid Jokes, and the novelizations of movies like Ghostbusters II and Big Top Pee-Wee. He also created the teen humor magazine Bananas, which published 72 issues between 1975 and 1984, and wrote three novels targeted toward adults.
What even Stine superfans might not know though, is that the horror writer both co-created and acted as the head writer for Eureeka’s Castle, a children’s show that aired on Nickelodeon from 1989 to 1995. (In 1993, the show aired from 9 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday.) Over six seasons and 134 episodes, Stine helped wrangle a team of writers who created ideas the puppeteers made Magellan, Eureeka, Batly, and the entire motley crew act out. All this happened while Stine was in the process of launching the Goosebumps series. So how did he do it all? The A.V. Club talked to Stine about Nickelodeon in the ’90s, as well as his show’s inception, success, and ultimate demise.
The A.V. Club: How did you get involved with Eureeka’s Castle?
R.L. Stine: Well, someone asked me. I was doing all kinds of things and just started the Fear Street thing and was killing off teenagers. And I got a call from Kit Laybourne who was the producer of Eureeka’s Castle and we had done a project together previously called Color Forms. Do you remember color forms? They were these colored things that stuck to things. Anyway, we had done an animated thing for a series of tapes about color formsand he was the producer of that. He called me because we’d had a lot of fun doing that and asked, “Would you like to be head writer of Eureeka’s Castle?” and I’d never done any TV at all, and I said sure.
AVC: How much of the show existed before you came in?
RLS: They had the title and the basic idea of what it would look like. I came in time to develop the characters. They knew they wanted a dragon, they wanted a bat, maybe, and they had swamp creatures. They hadn’t really figured out what the personalities would be or any of that, so I got to do that stuff.
AVC: It seems like a steep learning curve—having never worked in TV and then coming into something like a puppet show where you have to work in visuals.
RLS: Yeah, it was. But I’d always liked puppets, and I do a lot with puppets and dolls and things in Goosebumps. It was mainly writing, and I’d been funny for years. I never wanted to be scary. I always wanted to be funny. At this point, I’d written about 100 joke books for kids and I’d written a humor magazine for kids for 10 years called Bananas. I was used to writing funny stuff, so it was just a matter of writing these seven- to 10-minute funny puppet scripts. That part was easy. The hard part was getting used to collaborating with people.
AVC: As head writer, you were supervising something like 10 other writers, right?
RLS: Yeah, but we had producers and Nickelodeon people, the network people, and all the puppeteers too. When you write a book, you sit in a room by yourself and then you write. The way Eureeka would work is—and this was the hardest thing to get used to for me—is that I would write a script; I’d bring it to this script meeting at this long table with all the puppeteers, producers, directors, and all these people; and they would rip my script apart, and I’d go home and write another one. And I wasn’t used to that at all; television is very collaborative.
AVC: Probably even more collaborative when you’re working on a show for kids.
RLS: Well, luckily, Eureeka was just like Sesame Street except we didn’t teach kids anything. It made it a lot easier.
AVC: In an old Entertainment Weekly interview, Kit Laybourne said you were teaching kids how to deal with bullies and regular life.
RLS: I had dinner with Kit and his wife the other night. We’re still really good friends. I was telling him I was doing an interview about Eureeka and he was surprised.
It was values; it was those kinds of things. That’s what it was really about. But we didn’t really teach them anything. I always thought kids lost IQ points when they watched.
AVC: Oh, that can’t be true.
RLS: That’s what I thought. That was my intention with everything.
RLS: Because it was supposed to be fun. The bat would come flying in and slam into the wall and say, “I meant to do that.” Just funny stuff; it was my idea that the dragon would be sneezing all the time. He’d be sneezing all the time and he’d sneeze on everything. I like that kind of thing.
AVC: Kids identify with that kind of physical comedy.
RLS: Well, it was based on my son. My son was a real little guy at the time and I just stole that from him. Matty would come running into the room and he’d deliberately just fall on to the floor, get up, and say, “I meant to do that.” I just stole the whole thing from him.
AVC: What’s the actual process like for developing something like Eureeka’s? Did you have to say, “Batly should have glasses,” for instance?
RLS: Well, first we developed the character. We decided Magellan would sneeze, but he’d be very sweet for a dragon. And there’d be these two wild swamp creatures and we’d have this guy who had a peddling cart; I don’t remember what he was called.
It was my job to come up with the concepts, because there’d be at least three or four puppet things per show. They would sort of teach little moral lessons, but also be funny and introduce a song and there was music. So that was my job.
The thing is, these were very talented puppeteers. They were all Jim Henson-trained. I wrote about half the scripts. I’d write the script, the script would be ripped apart at the meeting, then I’d go back and rewrite it, it’d be ripped apart again, and I’d do another version, right? Finally we’d get a script that everyone liked. Then we’d go down to set and the puppeteers would go and tape it and they’d say whatever they wanted and I’d hardly recognize anything I did. Luckily, they were talented and funny so I could just take credit for it.
AVC: Were you working in New York or at Nickelodeon Studios in Orlando?
RLS: The first year we were in New York on 57th Street. Maybe the first two years, we shot in New York. Then Nickelodeon opened their studios in Orlando and we shot in Orlando for the next couple of years, which was fun, because we got to see Universal [Studios] and walk around when we were done.
I was the first editor of Nickelodeon Magazine, so that was fun.
AVC: How did you get involved with Nickelodeon Magazine? Was it through Eureeka’s Castle or was it because of Bananas?
RLS: It was probably from Bananas. I don’t quite remember how that happened. I’d met all the Nickelodeon people because I was writing Eureeka and I think that’s how all of that came about. I only did a few issues then someone else took over.
AVC: Nickelodeon seems to have a very specific idea of its brand and message. Was that something you were aware of?
RLS: Oh, they talked about it constantly. This was Geri Laybourne, Kit’s wife. She was the head of the network and they’d have endless meetings about what the Nickelodeon “mission” was, and I wasn’t used to being in meetings at all, because I never go to meetings. I’d just sit in these meetings and they’d be like, “What’s the mission of this show? What’s its purpose?” and they’d boil it down to this one word. They had to have a one-word mission for the show. Sounds bizarre, right? But they were very serious about it and Nickelodeon was very different in those days. They had this whole idea of “kids against the world” and supporting kids and the way kids “related” to the channel. It was a little bit outrageous.
AVC: That idea shouldn’t have been foreign to you, though. You’d been producing material for kids for years.
RLS: I’d been writing for kids for a while. I’d written this funny magazine for kids for 10 years and I’d been writing jokes for kids for a long time, but right before Eureeka, I dealt with scary.
AVC: Kids can be into both things.
RLS: I try to be funny in the scary books. Now I have to be scary all the time.
AVC: Let’s talk about some questions fans might have. How did you envision the show? Were they trapped in the music box or did they happen to live there?
RLS: I didn’t pay attention to any of that. There were people on the show like Kit who had these intricate minds and they loved doing all sorts of structure. But I hate that; I don’t think like that. I like everything to be really simple. So Kit’s partner, Eli Noyes, who is this brilliant animator and he did—what were those little things that used to move around?
RLS: Yeah, slurms! I haven’t thought about these things in ages. The characters on the show would go and look for the slurms and then there’d be a slurm animation.
They loved complicated things, but since I loved simple things I sort of ignored all that complicated structure. I just had them in the castle and all these funny things happened.
AVC: When you’re dealing with big puppets and a show for little kids, it probably helps that you kept it simple.
RLS: That’s what I always thought. You can’t do too many references. It should be simple.
And, of course, what happened was we had this wonderful show and had this amazing two-level puppet set that was just fabulous and these incredible puppets. The Magellan puppet took two people to operate. Noel [MacNeal] was inside and he had a fan and a TV monitor inside so he could see what he was doing, and there was someone else to work the tail. It was so complicated and they were just so lavish with their imagination when working things out.
Then Barney came along. This simple, stupid puppet, this purple, blobby thing and everyone loved it. We had this amazing masterpiece, this incredible set and these fabulous puppets and all these Henson-trained puppeteers and then there was this blobby purple thing bouncing around.
AVC: It appealed to the lowest common denominator.
RLS: Ugh—the awful songs. And kids loved it. They loved it.
AVC: Did you help write the songs on Eureeka’s Castle?
RLS: No, but I would write things to lead into it. There was this guy named Peter Lurye—I wonder whatever happened to him—and he was brilliant. He would just knock them out. He wrote all the songs on the show. He was just an amazing guy.
AVC: Your show ages well in part because of those high production values. Good puppet shows shouldn’t age.
RLS: Yeah, they shouldn’t date. The Henson stuff doesn’t date; Fraggle Rock doesn’t date.
AVC: On old Sesame Street episodes their clothes look weird, but everything else is fine.
RLS: There are so few places for puppeteers to work. It’s a bit of a shame. It’s hard for these people to find jobs. There’s very few TV shows because they all use animation now.
AVC: And it’s animation that’s done because it’s cheaper.
RLS: Right, cheap-o stuff. And you look at Nickelodeon, they used to have such a variety. Now it’s Spongebob all day.
AVC: Well, Spongebob is all right.
RLS: Oh, I love Spongebob, but still.
AVC: Do you have a sense of why Eureeka’s Castle went off the air?
AVC: No? They just said, one day, “Okay, that’s it”?
RLS: No one would talk to me about that. It wasn’t any of my business. They probably just decided, “Oh, we have 100 episodes.” They didn’t need anymore. Those can run for 10 years.
AVC: Because so little information exists about the show online, there’s a lot of speculation. For instance, one person said the show was canceled because it wasn’t marketable enough. Is that true? There was relatively little licensing for Eureeka’s Castle. There were some puppets and a Batly Halloween costume.
RLS: They did some videotapes at one point. I think part of it was that it was too complicated.
AVC: The show was too complicated?
RLS: Yeah; everything about it.
AVC: How so?
RLS: I tried to make it simple, but there were so many different characters and so much else going on. It may have been too sophisticated.
AVC: Have you seen it since? It’s not on DVD.
RLS: I know. It’s a shame.
AVC: Do you have tapes of the show?
RLS: Yeah, in a closet somewhere. You know what else I have?
RLS: A blooper reel. Of these puppets making mistakes and then yelling, “Oh, shit! Oh, shit!” And they all stay in character.
AVC: That’s really funny.
RLS: It is. And they mess up. So I have a 20-minute blooper reel of all these characters.
AVC: Some people would consider that tape the Holy Grail of Eureeka’s Castle fandom.
RLS: Well, here’s a horrible story. We got a letter from this mother whose family was going to visit New York and their 9-year-old daughter was this huge Eureeka’s Castle fan. She asked if they could come to the studio and watch us tape a show. And the producer was like, “Yes, you can.” So the family comes to New York with their 9-year-old daughter, they walk into the studio—this is a true story—the puppets are all rehearsing and the puppeteers are all walking around and the 9-year-old daughter bursts into hysterical tears. They couldn’t get her to stop for 10 minutes. She was crying her eyes out.
AVC: Because she was afraid of the puppets?
RLS: No, because she thought they were real. She didn’t know they were puppets. Can you imagine? And they couldn’t get her to stop crying. Horrible, just horrible.
AVC: Years later, it seems like there’s still this air of mystique around Nickelodeon. Like, oh, you guys were just wild and crazy, and you could do anything, and there was Gak. But then you hear the stories of people working there and they’re like, “We had to have all these meetings.” More than anything, Nick was still a product.
RLS: They were very meeting heavy and very research heavy. And they did great things and, at the time, it was this great kid’s network.
I remember my 9-year-old nephew just loved every show. I won the Nickelodeon Kid’s Choice Award for “Author Of The Year”—this was later after I was at Nickelodeon—and so I got to go to L.A. and be on the Nickelodeon Kid’s Choice show. So I called my nephew Sam up, because he loved it and he wanted to meet Kenan [Thompson] and Kel [Mitchell] and all these people. So I said, “Sam, how would you like to go to L.A. with me and go the Nickelodeon Awards?” Something like 52 million kids voted and it was really nice. So I asked him if he’d like to go to L.A. with me to the awards and he was like, “Oh, no! If I had known you were going, I’d have voted for you.”
AVC: He didn’t vote for you?
RLS: He voted for Shel Silverstein. But I took him out there and he spent all his time talking to Kenan and Kel. He had like no fear. He’d go up and talk to all these people that had shows and he had a wonderful time.
AVC: Was he like, “Yeah, that’s my uncle”?
RLS: He didn’t care about me! Obviously, if he didn’t vote for me. He just liked being there.
AVC: Well, it turned out okay for you.
RLS: Yeah, it worked out. I have three blimps. I won three years in a row and they said if I won a fourth blimp, I get a platinum one. And then the next year, Harry Potter came out. That was it for me.
AVC: How did Goosebumps figure into this whole timeline?
RLS: After the show was canceled, no one called me. Then, in ’92 we started Goosebumps. I was doing Goosebumps and Fear Street,so I was writing two novels a month.
AVC: What’s going to come out of this interview is people saying, “Why isn’t Eureeka’s Castle on DVD? Let’s get it on DVD, Nickelodeon.” They have so much back catalog they’ve never released.
RLS: Or on Netflix.
AVC: Good point. Or Hulu.
RLS: When I announced that they were putting the four seasons of the Goosebumps show on Netflix, I got the biggest reaction on Twitter. People kept tweeting about it for three straight days. It was amazing.
AVC: How has Twitter changed the way you work?
RLS: I love it. There are no kids on Twitter, but it’s all twentysomethings or thirtysomethings that grew up on Goosebumps. It’s such a great way to keep in touch with my original audience and I hear from them every day. I get, “I wouldn’t be a librarian today if it weren’t for you” or “I wouldn’t be a writer” or “Thank you for getting me through my childhood.” It’s just very good for my ego.