This 1989 experiment tried to marry the light and dark sides of Jim Henson’s work into one weekly television event. It didn’t really take.
Henson himself hosted the weekly hourlong anthology series, setting up the episode’s lineup and theme. The first thirty minutes were called “MuppeTelevision”, hosted by Kermit and structured like a modern-day Muppet Show. A muppet named Digit served the Scooter role in coordinating the production, and the tradition of a weekly special guest was still intact.
The second half hour was, for the most part, a more serious offering. This segment was typically one story told over thirty minutes exploring the more poignant, emotional, story-led side of puppetry. The short film Lighthouse Island aired here, as did several episodes of The Storyteller, starring John Hurt.
The series was a ratings flop, and only 9 of the 12 episodes produced ever made it to air before NBC cancelled the show. A shame, as there’s something special here. Here’s the first episode.
Cathy Ads for McDonald’s Salads
It was an odd-yet-very-eighties move for McDonalds to offer a line of salads as a standard menu item. I’ll ignore the fact that they chose to put them into cups so that you could shake them to toss and mix the dressing, which added the frustrating experience of eating a salad from a cup. Ok, I guess I won’t ignore it. Still, an even odder decision was to use comic strip character Cathy to sell the McDonalds Salad idea. Here are a few commercials with her as the pitch-person.
It’s 1981! Candy can be cereal! Anything can be cereal! Everyone’s making cereal!
ALF (SEGA Master System)
It’s no surprise, given the TV show ALF‘s wide success, that a video game would release featuring the Melmac-ian jester. It should also be no surprise that it was awful.
It’s a pretty simple premise: ALF’s scouring the town looking for tools to repair his spaceship, evading men-in-black and other, more pedestrian perils. These men-in-black are pretty awful at disguise, their characters eternally hunched over with comically ‘grabby’ hands.
Still, the music’s charming and although the premise sounds A LOT like E.T., at least this game adaptation isn’t total garbage. Here’s a playthrough.
Baby Ruth Ad
And a beautiful, beautiful early-20th-century ad for Baby Ruth. The original driving stimulant. Except for, you know, drugs.
Leonard Nimoy lends his credibility to this alarmist video produced to aid those concerned with the potential societal collapse caused by the world’s computers’ refusal to acknowledge the year 2000.
This video is one of several attempts to cash in on the hysteria around the Y2K phenomenon. 1999 was the perfect breeding ground for such a scam – nobody could say for sure that the Y2K alarmists were wrong, and nobody wanted to look like a fool. The President even appointed a Y2K Czar! And the Y2K Czar appeared in this video! What an honor!
While the content of the video is assuredly alarmist, and we’re reminded throughout that many people are probably going to die, the tone never rises above a typical infomercial level. It’s not a frantic or panicked video, which makes it play pretty creepily.
It’s sort of an impressive effort that this video is an hour long – it’s really about 4 minutes of information repeated over and over again in different ways. When the video feels like it needs a break from that, there are instances of what seems to be free-form musing on specific catastrophes that could occur.
There’s a lot of specific advice, too. Helpful nuggets, like “Don’t buy a machine gun and run to the woods.” We’re also encouraged to “enjoy the family time” when our systems fail us. I can only imagine the satisfaction that those who paid actual money for this VHS tape must feel. The video takes on a very nuclear-scare-era tone when advising preparedness: store fresh water all over your house, in any dark place, toilet safety in a world without plumbing, stock up on baby wipes to bathe with. From here, it’s essentially a survivalist video – which makes for a good thirty minutes more content. While the video stresses the importance of community, there’s an underlying addition of “but make sure you get yours first”, which is pretty ugly once you notice it.
Here it is. Alarmist and cheesy, and a little bit alarming that so much time was spent on this. And that it probably made money.
French Mega Man 2 Commercial
There’s so much to love about this commercial for Mega Man 2 – from the newscaster Mario to the overacting live-action Mega Man to the shrouded, overacting Dr. Wily. Perfection.
McDonaldland gets some flak for its suspicious similarities to the world of H.R. Pufinstuf, and alot of that flak is deserved, but at least there’s some charm and originality to McDonaldland that redeems the effort. Burger King’s 1976 attempt to rip off McDonaldland, on the other hand… there’s no redemption here.
We’ve talked about the original Burger King mascot here before, that man who performs basic magic tricks for children in the lobbies of the fast food restaurants that bore his name. He’s the leader of the “Burger King Kingdom”, a realm that involves an underwhelming roster of supporting characters and also takes place in our world and also is barely magical.
Sir Shake-a-Lot is a knight wearing milkshake armor. He’s a human who shakes a lot, that’s his whole thing. It’s supposedly because he’s cold because he likes milkshakes so much, but it comes off like he’s mocking an actual condition. His catch phrase is “Great Shakes!”
The Duke of Doubt is the main villain of the Burger King Kingdom. His power is…doubt. He doesn’t seem to cause any real trouble, doesn’t steal hamburgers or thwart plans or anything. He just doubts that things that are true are actually true, and is typically proven wrong by the end of the commercial. His catch phrase is “I doubt it!” Clever!
The Burger Thing bears the worst name of the gang and has the appearance to back it up. He’s a giant Hamburger puppet with a disturbing human face and the voice of Frank Welker. Total nightmare.
Lastly, the Wizard of Fries is….actually pretty cool. He’s a robot who can take one french fry and duplicate it endlessly.
I will admit a certain bias toward McDonaldland; I was a McDonalds kid growing up, and I have a head full of fond memories of the McDonaldland gang in all of their various toy/cookie/playground-ride forms. I like to think that I can rise above this bias, however, look at the two realms objectively, and still say that the Burger King Kingdom is garbage. If you need specific evidence, look no further than the leaders of each realm. Ronald McDonald is a magical man, a clown being who can manipulate the world around him and travel seamlessly between his dimension and ours whenever the children of our world need him. The Burger King is merely a man who knows magic, a man who lives in our world, apparently in our very country, yet declares himself king and attempts to impress us all with parlor tricks. One is a pale, pale version of the other.
Here’s a string of Burger King Kingdom commercials. That robot’s pretty cool.
This 1970s predecessor to Peanut Butter M&M’s was one of Wonka’s few chocolate efforts, few compared to what you might expect given the man’s, you know, chocolate factory. Oompas were half peanut butter, half chocolate, wrapped in a thin candy shell. The packaging was fantastic.
They’d later experiment with fruit flavors instead of the chocolate and peanut butter, but the whole idea ended up being a bust.
Ski or Die
A spiritual sequel to the arcade and console megahit Skate or Die, this game tries to apply the grit and style of 1980s skateboarding to the less-popular-but-still-popular-but-not-really-gritty world of skiing.
You basically did what you did in Skate or Die, just replace anywhere you would “skate” with the word “ski”. There was limited open-world interaction, mainly getting to and from events which were the real meat of the game.
I dunno, it’s not awful. There are definitely worse games. Here’s a playthrough:
1980 Radio Shack Christmas Commercial
Radio Shack’s your place if you’re looking to pick up the latest Kingman, Zackman, or Alien Chase video games!
This recipe/ad for a Seven-Up punch is breathtaking.
I’ve never been as simultaneously captivated and out of my league as I was when I played Robot Odyssey as a child in the 1980s.
Robot Odyssey, created in 1984 by educational game company The Learning Company, had a unique sort of difficulty to it. Other games by The Learning Company of the same era, like Gertrude’s Puzzles or Rocky’s Boots, were filled with logic puzzles that were difficult but generously so; Robot Odyssey basically asked you to learn engineering in order to succeed.
The premise of the game is that you’re in a dream and you’ve been transported to Robotropolis. In the sewers of the city you find three robots, and those robots must be programmed to solve puzzles so that you can escape Robotropolis. You start out with pretty basic programming, but the levels get more and more difficult and require more and more advanced programs to solve. I’m not ashamed to admit that I was pretty quickly outclassed by this game, but that didn’t stop me from playing. I was a kid, I loved robots and video games, it was the ’80s, and they let me use the computer at school.
Everything about this game, from the Adventure-like design to the maddening complexity to the really beautiful artwork/character model/item design, tells me that this was a labor of love. The intense difficulty would usually be a fault of the game design, but in this case it’s our fault for not being as smart as we should be. This game expected better of us, and we failed to deliver.
Here’s a playthrough:
Pizza Hut got fancy in 1985 with their take on the Italian pie, the Priazzo. Didn’t work out so well for them, but here’s their campaign in which they tried to position themselves as an Italian restaurant.
This 19th century kidney/liver tonic ad is amazing. I pity that skeleton!
This mellow 1970s commercial for the Romper Room Inchworm toy goes to show you just how sedated people were back then.
Have It Your Way
Slightly more upbeat here, with the novel idea that you could get a hamburger exactly the way you want it at Burger King. The “Have It Your Way” campaign came to define Burger King in the 1970s and 1980s, and was actually a pretty effective way for them to identify as a cut above the other burger franchises of the time. Still, though, they’re a little too excited about giving you a burger your way.
Last time we took a look at a 1984 video brochure for EPCOT Center. This one, called “Follow Us”, came out at the same time but has an expanded scope to the entire Disney World area. At the time this included the Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Discovery Island, and the resorts. The video starts off with a pretty sassy dance number.
Interestingly, the video is completely hosted by cast members – Disney’s term for in-costume park employees. Different cast members take the viewer through the various areas of each park, speaking to what is presumably their area of expertise. Snow White even pops in to talk up Fantasyland.
The EPCOT focus is mostly a shortened version of what we saw last week. The mime and that Mexican pavilion pair of diners who are in all EPCOT promo media show up here, too.
The last third or so of the video is about the resorts – a pretty large amount of time to dedicate to that sort of thing. It’s easy to forget that at this time the hospitality aspect of Disney World was still pretty new territory for them – everything else was (mostly) old hat.
The video wraps up in a cheesy inspirational singalong, complete with sign language. I feel the same way about this that I did with the EPCOT video – it captures a moment in time of WDW’s history that doesn’t exist anymore, and it’s worth watching just for that. Throw in an ’80s sensibility about how to sell this sort of idealistic experience and it’s a pretty satisfying watch.
The Magical Burger King
The creepily-smiling masked Burger King of the 2000s is iconic enough in his own right, but he’s actually a reboot of an earlier fully-human magician mascot called The Magical Burger King. Here he is in all of his glory, performing basic magic tricks to a crowd of tolerant children.
Jim Henson – Robot
In the early 1960s, Jim Henson was hired to make a short film for Bell Labs exploring the relationship between man and machine. I’d say he nailed it.
Coors Light Ad
Does it get more eighties?
New Jell-O Flavors
I’m in! This vintage Jell-O Ad gives Jell-O the class it deserves.
Court shows are the connective tissue of the daytime TV schedule. They seem to be necessary components for local TV stations to function. They’re everywhere and have been everywhere for decades. Perhaps I have rose-colored nostalgia glasses on (I have several pairs), but I feel like the court shows of the 1980s were a little more level-headed and not the dramatic scream-fests that they are today. Wapner wouldn’t tolerate that sort of behavior. Nickelodeon’s kid-centric version of The People’s Court was a good show – not necessarily in the sense that it was fun to watch so much as that it did a great job of taking that dispute drama and putting it into a forum that worked for children audiences. Also, it was pretty fun to watch.
Kid’s Court featured comedian Paul Provenza as the host but not the judge. Every episode’s case was taken from a kid’s letter sent to the show, and the plaintiff and defendant were kids acting out whatever beef was in the letter.
It is unknown whether these kids were given clothes to wear or whether this kid picked this outfit out on his own:
The majority of the show is Provenza going around the room getting the jury’s (the audience’s) take on the situation, and as more details of the case are revealed the kids in the room can see how their opinions change. At the end of the episode two audience members are chosen to make their final cases for the plaintiff and the defendent, and as with actual legal cases the result is determined by who more people in the courtroom clapped for. Enter the judge, whose only role is to measure the applause.
Kid’s Court ran from 1988 to 1994, ending two years before Judge Judy came along and set a new bar for how loud court shows needed to be. Here’s an episode.
Here’s some ads for Rax restaurants. This one features their spokesman in the 1980s, musician Big Al Anderson. Big Guy likes fast food. Trust Big Guy.
Prepare your OWN sandwiches from a salad bar? I’ll stay at home, thanks!
Then there’s Pasta Man. You know, Pasta Man. Big Al’s in there, too!
You want to turn my Rax into an Olive Garden? I’ll stay at home, thanks!
Shel Silverstein on the Johnny Cash Show
A magical segment from the Johnny Cash show where Shel Silverstein shows up to play “A Boy Named Sue” with Cash, followed by a solo “Daddy What If” that yanks my heart out.
How do you one-up those creepy Kewpie dolls? Make them slightly smaller and harder and shinier and sell them to young girls as charms to be worn around the neck. Large charms. Oodles!
Finally, an ad for the only skateboard you’ll ever need.
1. Man in Space – Futurist Disney is, without a doubt, my favorite kind of Disney. Here’s a documentary from the early side of the futurist Disney era, featured on the Wonderful World of Disney.
Man in Space is a pretty earnest effort to educate (presumably) children about the mechanics involved in getting a man into space and keeping him alive there for an extended period of time. It combines live action clips and scenes animated just for this film, and both aspects are remarkable.
Walt sets us up for what we’re about to see, explaining that in just the next few years the impossible will become possible. He then turns it over to Ward Kimball, one of the Nine Old Men, to take us through it. Ward also holds a rocket.
The first segment of Man in Space gives us the history of rocket technology, complete with beautiful-yet-occasionally-offensive-these-days animation. Newton makes an appearance, too, and the idea of action and reaction is introduced which will play significantly through the film.
The next section focuses on then-current efforts to get a rocket into space and keep it there. Willy Ley takes over, giving a rundown of what they expect to achieve over the next few years with rocket-stage technology.
Heinz Haber takes the reins for the third segment of the film, discussing the complexities of keeping a man alive and mentally stable in “the incomprehensible nothingness of space”. There are some pretty great animations in this segment featuring the average Joe in space, dealing with things like weightlessness, cosmic rays, and meteorites. Spoiler: the meteorite kills him and then his body boils on one side and freezes on the other. Seriously. This happens in the film.
Werner Von Braun brings it home in the final segment to discuss the future of the American space program, detailing a ‘what-if’ scenario for the next few years that hits surprisingly close to the mark. That’s the thing about this film – for something produced and released in 1955 there’s a lot of dreaming and stuff that never materialized, but also a lot of practical thinking and stuff that did. I think you can say that about a lot of Disney’s futurist thinking, and whenever I read about guys like Elon Musk and their enthusiasm and ideas for the future I get a whiff of the same scent. It’s encouraging, and I wish there were more of it.
Here’s the film.
2. Grill Skill – We’ve recently learned that Chili Can Be Served With Cheese, but here’s a training video from Wendy’s in 1989 that goes into just how that huge grill should be managed. As expected, it’s song-based.
The video follows Bill, a young up-and-comer at Wendy’s, who’s getting promoted to grill duty that day. His manager sits him in front of a television mounted in what I assume to be a corner of the restaurant and gives him a VHS to place into the television. He does so and the TV goes haywire….revealing a rapper!
Bill gets sucked into the TV and ends up in some sort of strange nether region with the rapper and a grill and a supply of fresh ground beef and NOTHING ELSE.
The rapper takes Bill through a five minute song that goes into great detail on how to properly cook a Wendy’s burger. There’s a neat segment where the ground beef itself has cartoon faces and sings about its various cycles of life on the grill.
Did I say neat? I meant horrifying.
Once the rap is done, Bill recites the rap back to the rapper without the benefit of the music. The rapper gently corrects him on a few missteps.
Then (and this was a reveal for me on the level of the ending of Soylent Green or Se7en), the rapper casually mentions that botched/over/undercooked burgers end up IN THE CHILI. Seriously?! Why does that gross me out so much?
Upon proving his mastery of Grill Skills to the unnamed rapper, Bill is sent back out into the real world where he has to prove his mastery to his unnamed manager. There’s a weird sequence of them forming what appears to be a love connection over the grill.
The video then becomes a music video of a bunch of Wendy’s employees singing about Grill Skills. There’s no real value or message or instruction to take away from this video; it seems to be there just to pad the length. Also, a guy plays air guitar on a spatula.
Where “Chili Can Be Served With Cheese” exhausted viewers at 4 minutes, “Grill Skill” runs fifteen! Yet it must be viewed. Do so now.
Don’t miss Dave Thomas there at the end, sitting down to a table with a bowl full of REJECTED MEAT CHILI.
3. Fairfield – Gorgeous ad here from Curtis Mathes for the Fairfield, an elegant combination television, AM/FM Radio, and Stereo.
That Curtis Mathes logo is no slouch, either!
4. Major Matt Mason – Speaking of Man in Space, here’s Mattel’s Major Matt Mason. That’s a pretty nifty spider crawler he’s sporting there on the moon.
5. Meat for Babies – This one makes me shudder. It can’t be real, right? An appalling yet beautifully laid out ad.
Don’t miss those “New! Ready to serve egg yolks!” either!
1. Disneyland Haunted Mansion Special – In typical Disney fashion, here’s a special produced to celebrate the 1970 debut of the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland. This one’s a little more sedate than some of the other specials I’ve featured in Five Things; it seems a little more natural than the overblown specials of the 1980s and 1990s.
This one features the Osmond Brothers, E.J. Peaker, and a very young Kurt Russell. The Osmonds and Peaker arrive to perform at the park and Donny and Jay quickly run off to ride some rides and check out the new Haunted Mansion ride. The bulk of the special consists of the rest of them scouring the park to find Donny and Jay. The odd thing about this show is that it assumes that you already know all about Disneyland; the cast travels around to the different attractions but no effort is made to point them out and explain what they are. Like I said, sedate – something they’d quickly remedy in later specials.
There are about five musical numbers in the special plus a really cool featurette at the end about the construction and design behind the Haunted Mansion ride. Then the Osmonds and E.J. go through the ride.
All in all, pretty fun. A beautiful look at the park in 1970, if nothing else.
1. Hardees Mascots – It made sense that Hardees would want to get into some cartoon mascots to dial up their kids’ business; after all, McDonalds was practically printing money with their Mcdonaldland characters and their Happy Meals. These characters came out in the early 1970s, and it feels like they maybe could have spent a little more time in the kitchen before they did. Get it? Kitchen. It’s a restaurant. Forget it.
Speedy McGreedy was the bad guy of the bunch, dressed in nefarious purple. His schemes were usually thwarted by Gilbert Giddyup, an old-timey sheriff, and the thwarting usually involved a hamburger.
Neither character is particularly iconic, definitely nothing approaching the Ronald McDoald level. There were several other characters, most of whom were variations on the idea of a large grotesque walking mouth.
My first thought was that the Mouths were like the Gremlins in Gremlins 2, but really they’re more like the Whammys from Press Your Luck – they don’t, as a species, gravitate toward good or bad; there are good ones and bad ones.
Then there’s the Fun Machine. This thing is the real deal.
The Fun Machine actually existed in Hardees lobbies. When you got a burger and fries you received a token for one prize out of the Fun Machine. This thing looks amazing:
So maybe the characters aren’t icons and maybe some of them are a little bit creepy and maybe (Fun Machine excluded) the whole thing is a little half baked all around. It’s still fun. They’re not around anymore, and that’s a little sad. The Fun Machine isn’t either, and that just stinks.
Here’s some of the commercials featuring the ‘gang’.
1. 1979 Sears Junior Fashions – Retrospace has the hottest Juniors fashions from Sears in 1979. It almost looks like a parody of a Sears catalog. Almost. First, from the “is it a robe or is it a fancy dress” category:
Anyone who was hoping to make a splash in the lunchroom or the hallways knew to take their fashion cues from Mork & Mindy:
Except for those who were a little more…career-minded. At 13.