Pop CultureOctober 27, 2016

Remembering Squirt, the worst-named show of the ’90s


Was Squirt a weird collective cheese dream or did it actually happen? River Lin revisits a favourite childhood show, and takes a walk down memory lane with the key players. 

As a kid, I devoted most of my Saturday mornings to watching Squirt. It had the best cartoons. The penguin, Spike, was the height of comedic gold. Hamish, the toxic purple fish, was the moral centre to Spike’s weekly antics. Presenter Matt Gibb could do no wrong. For the better half of four years, I sat transfixed in the nostalgic haze that was reruns of Batman of the Future, Angry Beavers and CatDog.

Katie Brockie, the puppeteer and voice behind Spike the penguin, remembers her time on the show a little differently. “We’d interview all sorts of people like S Club 7. That was pretty funny, me kind of kneeling there, talking in Spike voice, asking them questions. That was always pretty hilarious, ’cause I’d just go into this Spike character, but they didn’t really know who he was ’cause they were from overseas or something so I’d quite often found myself kneeling around the groins of famous people.”

While my G-rated Saturday mornings were filled with lurid colours and animated talking animals, there was also a sense of fun and warmth that no other children’s show could live up to. It was sincere and unapologetic in its humour that only Squirt could be.

“Squirt was very random, and that was actually one of its selling points,” explains Simon McKinney, the puppeteer and voice behind Hamish the fish. “There were a lot of kids shows that were trying to be cool and sometimes cool can be very boring. It would be like a party where everyone is trying too hard to be cool but nobody does anything […] But we did random things and silly things and didn’t mind not being cool and the weird thing was, that sort of made us cool.”

Squirt was filled with incredibly entertaining and heart-warming moments, but the blurry haze of time and nostalgia leaves me only a sense of lingering attachment. The former cast’s memories are clearer than my own as they look back fondly.

“There are some things that you could put in your CV that marks real benchmarks in your life, you know? I’m able to put in my CV that I have officially been a Burger King toy – three, actually,” says Simon. “The day that we got told that we were Burger King toys, Matt and I were really excited and we left work and we sort of looked at each other and said, ‘Well, we know what we’re having for lunch today.’ We took off along to Burger King and had the pleasure of buying ourselves. You could say that we sat and played with ourselves but that doesn’t read so well.”

Personally, it was the biggest shock to me when my childhood hero Matt Gibb left, taking with him the humble charm of the show. On a scale from What Now?’s introduction of yet another presenter (Who?) to Blue’s Clues’ Steve leaving for college (absolutely devastating), Matt’s departure from the show was undoubtedly heartbreaking. No amount of Silly Putty could fix the Matt-shaped hole in my heart.

Why did he have to leave? Was he replaced with a newer model? Weren’t we friends? Who was this new host, this man who barely resembled a man named Matt?

It was only in the years since Matt’s departure that I realised I didn’t know him at all. That’s the funny thing about television – that feeling you get when you feel like you know someone even though they have no idea who you are or that you’re stalking their social media at 2am. “We had a really, really loyal audience. It was on TV for 10 years, so quite a long time. And we loved it, and we loved that the kids would write in and email us and stuff. It was a great time,” Katie Brockie, the puppeteer, remembers fondly.

But what of the playful and genuine Matt Gibb? Where had he been? What had he been up to all these years? I had to find out.

How did you land the role?

Matt: While I was [working at Family Planning], an agent got in touch with me one day and said, “Hey, there’s this show called Squirt and the presenter’s leaving. I reckon you should send an audition video down.” I didn’t really know what to wear, so the drama teacher suggested that I wear these sort of slinky – this is a really long story, you can totally cut this out – weird kind of neutral, grey, slinky, almost kind of lycra outfit that we’d worn for this one production that we’d done recently.

So I wore that and I had this strange kind of sandalwood necklace because it was cool at the time, and I had an eyebrow ring with a UV spike on the top and a UV ball on the bottom. I was in the rave scene in Christchurch, so it would glow up all glow in the dark at all the raves and stuff. Also, I had a shaved head as well because I’d just had a birthday and some friends had decided it was a good time to shave my head, so I would have looked like the most bizarre dude, and I sent this little video down. In it, I said, “Oh yeah, so, you know, if you think talking to an imaginary penguin is hard, then try going to high schools and singing songs about sex.” And, basically, they went, “Huh, maybe we should give this guy another look,” and that was it, I was down in Dunedin the next week doing screen tests and then moved down the week after to, you know, have this weird career in TV. So it was all kind of random.

What was it like working on the show with the cast and crew?

Matt: They were the best. They were absolutely the best things in the world, like you couldn’t ask for a better cast and crew. Everyone that worked on that show was just so great to work with, like, when I first moved down, I was only 19 and I’d never lived away from home. I’d never even been flatting at that point. It was a pretty big shock to change cities and all of a sudden go flatting, but I had multiple mums that worked on the show. They were awesome. The cast was just perfect, like, Katie and Simon just became best mates. We enjoyed hanging out so much during the day, the records were just full of laughs, everyone in the studio got along really well and it was just a dream job, like it was just walking into this absolute perfect start. I had no idea it was going to be the start to a career, but it was amazing.

An old, bad image of Matt Gibb on Squirt
An old, bad image of Matt Gibb on Squirt

What was it like during filming?

Matt: I remember the first day that I went in and met everyone, I kind of put my foot in it in such a huge way. They took a break in between filming and I stayed in the studio and was kind of just chatting to each other and they were kind of gossiping about something that was going on. I had no idea what it was, but I wanted to make a good impression, so I was like, “Oh, I’ll tell them my gossip!” So I’d somehow heard some horrible, probably untrue rumour about something so I piped up and was like, “Oh, have you guys heard about this?” The whole room just goes completely silent and it gets real awkward, they’re looking at the ground and then someone breaks the tension and changes the topic. I’m left there going,”Do they just hate me, or is this a really kind of clique-y team and I’m walking into a horrible environment?”

I found out later that day that the rumour I had spread was actually about one of Dom’s best mates. If it was true, it was the first time Dom had heard it. If it was false, it was just like, ‘What a dick, spreading this rumour about someone that they’re really good mates with.’ It was just so horrible, I was so paranoid that Dom hated me for the first couple of days. Me and Dom are pretty good mates these days so he must have gotten over it. [But] maybe he does have [a secret grudge] and it’ll come back to haunt me, sabotage my career in some horrendous way, could still happen.

Do you have any interesting or weird stories from your time on Squirt?

Matt: Oh yeah, I’d forgotten about that. That was, at the time, easily my greatest achievement. There was a couple of those moments where I was like, “This is the weirdest and best thing in the world,” like, first, before the Burger King toys, we were made into stickers. When I got the job they put up new postcards and I’d never done a photoshoot before so I had no idea how to stand. In that first photoshoot, I was still kind of the victim of my rave days, so I still had quite short, shaved hair. I think I had the eyebrow ring in the photo and I’m wearing what I used to call my “phat pants”, basically what everyone in the late 90s in Christchurch that used to go to raves would wear. They were about a foot wide at the bottom, like, flared out and had reflective tape on them. Such a strange time.

On top of the photoshoot, they made stickers, so they drew me as a cartoon character like, “Oh my gosh, this is awesome! All these kids around the country sticking me on their books and stuff!” So that was a real “whoa” moment, and then, walking into Burger King and seeing – I didn’t actually get a toy, that was my biggest bone of contention – Hamish was an actual toy, Spike had a toy but I didn’t get my own toy so I was gutted.

Hamish the fish, Squirt the penguin, and Dominic Bowden
Hamish the fish, Spike the penguin, and Dominic Bowden

I heard that you and Simon used to be flatmates.

Matt: Yeah, we were! What did he say about that because maybe I have a different exper- No, he was a great flatmate. He’s the most creative dude, like, at the time, when we were flatting together, he wasn’t just doing the fish hand puppet thing for Squirt, he was also doing lots of creative stuff for the animation of the show as well. So he’d literally leave things to the last minute every single week and be in at the studios at like 5 o’ clock in the morning, 6 o’ clock in the morning, pulling all-nighters to complete this last little piece of animation for the show and then the next day, he’d still have to go and record the Hamish the Fish voice. He’d be so exhausted, but yeah, we were really good mates at the time, playing together and working together was so much fun. He was a pretty choice flatmate.”

What does it feel like to be a huge part of a lot of Kiwi kids’ childhoods?  

Matt: For 3 and a half of those [four years I was on the show], I was still getting letters from kids addressed to “Dear Mr Spike, Hamish and Dom” every week. It’s kind of haunted me my whole life. But there’s a strong feeling of nostalgia, even for me.

I was 19 when I started. I was basically still a kid myself. I guess it was getting weirder the longer I was in kids TV ’cause kids were kinda growing up as I was growing up, you know? So a kid who was maybe 5 when I started out on Squirt all of a sudden, 10 years later, I was still doing Studio 2, and they were 15, so you’d see them and they were saying how they grew up with me and I was like, “It’s so bizarre! I’m only growing up myself! Am I old?” Like, that would keep on happening and then it’s even weirder and weirder the older you get because all of a sudden you’re out in bars and stuff. Someone was five and now they’re 20 drinking in a bar next to you and they’re like, “Oh, you were my childhood!” and you’re like, “This is freaking me out.”

When you’re beaming into people’s living rooms and into their lounges and stuff, you don’t consider the effect it has on people until they come up to you in a bar and, 15 years later, tell you that you were an awesome part of their childhood, which is awesome. Every time you hear someone say something like that, it’s still an incredible feeling and it’s a real honour, I suppose. New Zealand’s kind of a strange place in that it’s such a small country that people do kind of feel that they know you really well if you’ve been on TV.

What has life been like for you since your time on Squirt?

Matt: This is really funny but I’m constantly getting confused for Sam from Sticky TV. Not that people think we look alike, but I filled in for him every now and then it’s like, ‘Oh, are you the weatherman?’ No, that was Sam. Whenever people walk past on the street and recognise me, the first thing they yell at me is “Sticky TV?” Every. Single. Time. For 12 years, people have been mistakenly yelling “Sticky TV?” at me.

A handy guide
A handy guide

Oh, do you know they changed Spike the Penguin? They completely redesigned him for the last season so he kind of ended up like he had pants on. It was almost like that episode of The Simpsons where Homer becomes a dog, Poochie, you know the one? Like, “Hey, cool dudes!” So that was something that always stuck with me. I wish they’d never tarnished the memory of Spike the Penguin ’cause he should’ve lived on as Spike the Penguin, just sailed off to Antarctica on an iceberg, little chocolate fish in hand.

Keep going!