I’ve Got Pals Over Here – Popeye & Pals (1970s-80s)

I don’t know about you but from my end nothing enhances the enjoyment of a good block of cartoons like a bunch of kids crammed into a bleacher and loaded up with fried chicken and soda. Popeye’s Fried Chicken did this for, like, a really long time with “Popeye and Pals”, a kid’s block on WWL-TV in New Orleans.

“Popeye and Pals” started airing in 1957, a really amazing lifespan for a kids’ show, but I’m going to focus on the ’70s and ’80s execution of this block as the color TV footage really makes the chicken grease pop.

On paper the concept’s pretty simple: you’ve got an adult host, a set full of kids, and you introduce and come back from cartoon segments. This was fairly common with local TV stations, a low-cost way for them to repackage old cartoons and still have something unique on their channel. “Popeye and Pals” had the advantage of the fast food franchise’s tie-in, which meant food for the kids, cartoon branding for the set, and lots of free advertising for the restaurant.

More Pappyland than Bozo, the in-studio pieces stitching the cartoons together come off pretty dry and unimaginative. The lion’s share of segments are basically the host asking kids their names and their schools. THEIR FULL NAMES AND THE SCHOOLS THAT THEY ATTEND. ON LOCAL TELEVISION. How times have changed.

Of the 80% of segments that are the host asking the kids’ names, about 80% of the kids are Cub Scouts or Brownies, signaling that this was a frequent outing for Scouts. There were segments that focused on things that weren’t introducing kids, featuring things like local law enforcement giving safety tips and other common kids’ show fodder. Unfortunately, the safety tips do not include NOT SAYING YOUR FULL NAME AND THE SCHOOL YOU ATTEND ON A TELEVISION BROADCAST.

“Popeye and Pals” ran through the ’80s , eventually becoming eclipsed by cable television and networks that catered to kids exclusively, all the time. This weird mish-mash of local television production, using kids as audience members, blatant product placement and a celebration of all things fast food are all bespoke aspects of a really specific moment in American history. Here’s an episode, featuring a commercial with a young Peyton Manning.

The Secret’s Out- Storyphone (1990s)

I know that the 900-number industry isn’t exactly known for their respectability, but this one seems particularly shady.

Who doesn’t like to have fun, am I right? And what better way than to spend three dollars for the first minute and thirty-five cents for each additional minute to call a phone number to hear someone read fairy tales featuring public domain characters?

It’s less the service that creeps me out than the commercial advertising the service. This little girl reporter is, where, at a party?

Where a bunch of fairy tale characters are, what, dancing?

And what’s this troll guy doing?

And where are the grown-ups?

There doesn’t seem to be any real order to the location that she’s reporting from, and I guess the association that you’re supposed to make is that you’ll have as much unstructured fun as these children jumping in the background if you call this number to hear the daily story.

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Thinkabout (1979)

The Agency for Instructional Technology may sound like some actually-nefarious organization in the Fallout universe, but here in the real world they had a big role in creating and distributing educational programs and other tools to broadcast outlets and schools in the US and Canada. The ’70s saw a nation still rich with optimism about the television’s role in educational development, and it’s clear in the amount of educational programming that rolled out across the decade and into the ’80s. There are the big PBS names, of course, but for every “Sesame Street” there are five to ten “Thinkabout”s that ended up being smaller blips on the radar.

Cited in the title sequence as “a cooperative project for acquiring skills essential to learning,” Thinkabout was a series of sixty 10-to-15 minute episodes, mostly standalone, aimed at teaching a variety of skills from language arts to math to critical thinking.

There were no main characters to the series, each episode featured kids unique to that episode in either scripted or unscripted form. And these kids are so, so 1979-1980.

Some episodes had a narrative arc, like the bizarre episode “Why Bother” in which the main character Kelly meets a dream George Washington Carver who encourages her to seek out more sources for her research even though she thinks she’s got her bases covered. There’s also a subplot about the librarian dating Clark Kent.

Other episodes are a little more straightforward. “Plan a City of the Future” features real kids spitballing about future technologies. I know I bring it up a lot, but the enthusiasm here for the promise of technology’s ability to solve our problems combined with the unspoken assumption that those solutions were just around the corner is a remarkable feature of kids TV from the ’70s. It’s a constant presence in educational shows from this era, and it’s a really important and powerful idea.

Thinkabout ran for 60 episodes, finding its way into PBS schedules and classrooms well into the ’80s. My local PBS station in Florida didn’t carry Thinkabout, but when we vacationed in Georgia in the summers I’d see episodes run as fillers on GPTV between the bigger shows. It’s a special series with a special mission, and it has the best intro of any PBS show. The images, animation, and “Boards of Canada”-esque synth is the perfect expression of this optimism for the future.

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Popeye Sells Out – Popeye Commercials (1980s)

I get it, nothing in entertainment is sacred, cartoon characters least of all. If there’s a buck to be made by putting a character on a product, that buck will likely be made. That’s just the way it is. I’m not even a big Popeye guy. Are there big Popeye guys? If there are, I’m not one of them. With all of that in mind, though, these product tie-ins feel way out of step for Popeye.

We’ve found the invisible wall of 900-number subjects, the pay-per-minute experience of calling Popeye to get his thoughts on his adventures. Who is this thirsty for Popeye content? What was a call to this hotline even like?

Even more offensive, to me, is this ad for an energy drink. That Popeye would admit that he’d been lying to the world all this time about spinach and that this new energy drink was actually the iron supplement that we all needed… it’s a massive betrayal. No ad gimmick is worth this level of damage to the Popeye brand. I have to assume this shrunk the pool of people who wanted to call into his hotline.

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Push Witch – King’s Quest (Sega Master System) (1989)

While it was probably an easy decision to make – take Sierra’s insanely popular King’s Quest game and port it to your console to make $$$$ – it couldn’t have been easy to execute. Microsmiths and Parker Brothers were up to the task, and the end product is surprisingly better than I expected it to be.

The glaring difference between this port and the other Sierra offerings of that era is the lack of text input. This was a cornerstone of early Sierra games; you had the ability to type in whatever you thought you needed to in order to proceed or solve a puzzle, and the games recognized an impressive range of words. Home consoles didn’t support any text entry, of course, so Microsmiths had their work cut out for them. The solution was to Lucasarts it up a bit, giving contextual terms that players could use to make short phrases. Takes a lot bit of the guesswork out of playing the game and forces the player into easy mode, but it’s a pretty slick interface.

The graphics are very impressive, but that’s to be expected; this port came out five years after its original release on a system known for its graphics.

The sound didn’t pace as well as the graphics – it’s pretty rough to listen to. The animations are good with a few weird exceptions; there are points where King Graham doesn’t properly interact with the environment, and when he walks vertically it looks like he is power-walking in a pantsuit.

With the exception of the text-based entry, the rest of the gameplay’s mostly intact. Your quest to retrieve three magical items is non-linear and can be approached in any order and the majority of the map is on par with the PC offering although many individual screen layouts were modified.

On the whole this is a pretty impressive effort: the port could have gotten away with being much less of a playable title than it was. While it’s still inferior to just about every other version out there, you can see the desire to make this title not just playable on the Sega Master System but actually good.

The most flagrant difference is the blunt, clumsy way that the port handles the game’s ending:

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