In 2001, Nickelodeon's slapstick cartoon series The__Angry Beavers was facing cancellation after four seasons on the air. "We were significantly over budget, behind schedule, and had generally worn out our welcome [with the network]," series co-creator Keith Kaczorek says over e-mail.
In light of this certain demise, Kaczorek threw caution to the wind and flipped the series on its metaphysical head with a mind-fuck of a final episode, "Bye Bye Beavers," in which the semi-titular wood-chewers Daggett and Norbert find out not only that they are cartoons, but that their existence as they know it is about to come to a screeching halt due to the show's cancellation.
"Bye Bye Beavers" begins with Norbert receiving a letter notifying him of the show's cancellation and trying, and failing, to explain to Daggett that the show's being cancelled. There are a few what-could-have-been visual cues embedded in the dialogue—references to secret rooms, missing limbs, and end-of-the-cartoon-world chaos—but mostly the episode is a long, lively back-and-forth between the two characters as they wrestle with the end of existence as they know it. There's some clever wordplay ("Starting to get the picture? We're pictures!"), biting criticism towards Nickelodeon's alleged practice of choosing to air endless reruns rather than pay for new episodes, and a few dogmatic utterances that verge as close to supposed sacrilege as you can get on a children's-focused network: "There is no dog. THERE IS NO DOG!"
The notion of a purposefully silly children's program acknowledging such purposefully un-silly topics such as finality, facing one's (in this case, literal) maker, and the thorny politics of the cable TV business is as intriguing as it is potentially confusing for the children who were the show's intended audience. It's somewhat ironically fitting, then, that an episode about how two cartoon characters explore the nature of existence technically doesn't exist itself: "Bye Bye Beavers" was never fully finished, existing in current form as recorded audio between Angry Beavers voice actors Richard Steven Horvitz ("Daggett") and Nick Bakay ("Norbert") that was set for production but didn't quite make it to the finish line.
The audio first emerged in 2006 as part of Horvitz's appearance on the now-defunct podcast from voice actor Avi Melman, Avi Melman's Voice-Over Podcast. (You can listen to the entire series here; Horvitz is featured on the show's second episode.) The recording is incredibly silly and loaded with self-referential humor, from Horvitz and Bakay periodically dropping each other's real names into dialogue to the former occasionally referring to the latter as "Salem," referencing Bakay's voice work as the talking cat on Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Adding to the din and confusion is the fact that, while playing the clip, Melman and Horvitz laugh and make brief commentary throughout, so a few listens are necessary to make sense of the episode overall.
"I vaguely remember giving the audio to [Horvitz] a decade ago," Angry Beavers writer Micah Wright recalls on how the recording came into public view. Leaked storyboards further point to how close the raucous, extremely meta "Bye Bye Beavers" was to making it to airtime. "We got approval to do the episode, and every step of the way, [Nickelodeon] approved moving to the next stage," Wright claims. "Then they saw it all put together and said, 'Wait, this makes us look bad,' so they killed it."
And it's understandable, purely from a business standpoint, why the network would choose to opt out of greenlighting "Bye Bye Beavers" as the final episode of The Angry Beavers. For one, series finales in the traditional sense didn't make much sense for Nickelodeon cartoons, which provided profits for the company based off of endless reruns—acknowledging a sense of finality would stand to potentially confuse younger viewers catching random episodes as they aired on later dates. Similar to fruitlessly hoping for a baseball game telecast where the commentators mercilessly rip into Bud Selig for nine innings, the entire conceit of "Bye Bye Beavers" is very amusing to consider, as well as absolutely improbable in the stricter confines of children's-focused television, where the most granular of content was (and still is) policed by the networks' watchful eyes.
The Angry Beavers' most notorious brush with network censors took place with the 1998 episode "Alley Oops," in which Daggett comes into possession of a magical bowling ball, and featured Norbert telling Daggett to "Shut up"—that is, the network had the utterance bleeped and eventually replaced with new ADR recorded by the voice actors, the exclamation "Hush up" used instead. The script for "Bye Bye Beavers" makes reference to this incident in its final moments, with Daggett saying to Norbert, "Now that it's over, I've got one thing I always wanted to say...SHUT UP!"
The prudish approach allegedly came from the tip-top of the organization—specifically, then-Nickelodeon President Herb Scannell. "He would make these sweeping pronouncements about the way the world worked, and the way that kids thought, and what he wanted the world to look like," says Wright.
"He said, 'I don't like it when children say "Shut up," so if we never say it on our show, children will never say it in the real world,'" Wright claims. "That's not how the world works." Wright also claims that Scannell imposed a "no drag" policy on the show, in an attempt to avoid the risk of children becoming "sexually confused" by seeing beavers gussied up in non-gender-conforming clothing. (Nickelodeon didn't respond to VICE's request for comment by press time.)
"They're not very artist-friendly," Bakay, who went on to co-write the two Paul Blart films, says of Nickelodeon's chilly creative approach—a reflection of their financial cheapness towards creative types as well. "I remember walking into [co-creator Mitch Schauer's] office and seeing Norbert and Daggett stuffed animals. I said to him, 'Wow, those are really cool, where did you get those?' And he replied, with no irony, 'Toys-R-Us.' He had to go buy his own toys, and he created the whole fucking thing."
Those creatively involved with The Angry Beavers feel like the show—and its never-to-be-seen final episode—was ahead of its time, especially taking into account the meta, no rules approach of recent cartoons such as Adventure Time and Steven Universe. Animation has, in a way, caught up—but not necessarily Nickelodeon. "I think Spongebob Squarepants broke that network," Wright says on Nickelodeon's mega-hit cartoon, arguably the only colossal success the channel's had in animation in the last 15 years. "They wouldn't know a good show with relatable personalities from a bad show where people just spout catchphrases and scream at one another at the top of their lungs."
As it turns out, though, Dag and Norb might be on the road to hooting and hollering yet again: VH1 recently reported that a massive, Avengers-style crossover film starring the Beavers and other characters from the Nicktoons universe (yes, including the Hey Arnold! kids) is in the works. (Those interviewed for this article, including the voice actors themselves, had not yet been informed of the film's existence.) So maybe it's for the better that "Bye Bye Beavers" has stayed "lost": sure, the episode sounded like a trip, but it also would've provided a finality to the Beavers' story that may not have been necessary in the long run.
Follow Larry on Twitter.