Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Camp Nowhere

Were you forced to attend summer camp against your will? Have access to your parents' designated camp fees? Know a burned-out ex-hippie drama teacher known for evading his financial obligations? Enjoy reckless scheming?

Well, have I got the movie for you.

Camp Nowhere was every preteen's dream in the 90s. It was like Home Alone, except...well, it was a lot like Home Alone. It seems they even used the same freelance movie-title selection company as each title follows a simple formula; (Location) (Word Describing Isolated Situation). Regardless of the obvious comparison, Camp Nowhere had a slightly different, older appeal. Sure, it had an equal amount of screen time devoted to showcasing frenzied adult-free debauchery, but the kids of Camp Nowhere had multifaceted teen-style relationships and were fond of fooling their next-of-kin in lieu anonymously evil robbers.

As evidenced in the DVD cover pictured above, it got some pretty detailed rave reviews. Everyone loves a good one-word summary. When I'm at the video store, I usually only have one-tenth of a second to make a decision, so I appreciate them helping me out with the telling "Funny!" review on the front. In actuality, the reviewer could have hidden "Not Funny!" somewhere in their 500+ word review and the quote could have been clipped in the same way. Intrigued by the seemingly intentional vagueness of the pulled quote, I felt I had to do it justice and look up the original NY times review (found here). The word "Funny!" does indeed appear, but minus the exclamatory punctuation and 112 words into the cleverly titled "Suppose We Rent Some Cabins and Run Our Own Camp?" review. But hey, it's in there.

The movie begins with our winsome protagonist, Morris "Mud" Himmel. See, can't you already tell the movie is going to be hilarious? I mean, they call him Mud. Mud! Like dirt, but with water. Pure comedy gold. So anyway, Mud's parents are some class of evil villain and want to send him to the dreaded computer-learning summer destination Camp Micro-chippewa. Get it? Micro-chippewa. Microchip? Computers? I hope you're still following, this is pretty complicated stuff we're dealing with here. Lucky for our friend Mud, all of his convenient movie-character-cliché friends are in the exact same situation. Each of them is inauspiciously fated for some random, unlikely summer camp and can't stand the thought of it. What's a gang of improbable pals to do?

It's pretty clear that there is only one answer to this question, and no, it is not the real-life just-suck-it-up-and-deal-with-it solution. What these kids really need is to start their own camp! Infuriated at their parents' propensity to send them to such loathsome summer getaways as Fat Camp, Drama Camp, and Military Camp, the kids forge ahead to found a summer camp of their own. But, wait, you ask. What of the location? The food? The financial backing?

Totally taken care of. These are smart kids here; after all, the Himmels wouldn't be sending Mud to computer camp if he weren't destined for academic greatness. Enter Dennis Van Welker, high school drama teacher extraordinaire and adult co-conspirator in Operation Camp Nowhere. The Camp was indeed somewhere, so maybe the name was just to throw off suspicious onlookers. Finding a handily available abandoned summer camp site, the kids get to work on the aforementioned reckless scheming. They realize that if they brought in other kids and somehow sold the concept to parents as a real camp, they could get those sweet, sweet camp entry fees and let some pretty wild high-jinks ensue.

Like any good 90s movie, this film is ripe with cheesy montages. Watch the kids throw pies at one another and propel themselves off the cabin roof onto a pile of mattresses to a background beat of rockin', fun-loving music! Despite the abundance of semi-standard 90s montage sequences, the film is actually relatively witty, if a bit tired in its premise. Not to mention that with dreamboats like Jonathan Jackson and Andrew Keegan at the helm, there was certainly no shortage of tween eye candy. It also debuted a young Jessica Alba, for those of you who are into that kind of thing. All in all, the film really covered its BOP! magazine fan base.

To attest to the funniness of this film, here is the theatrical trailer. I apologize for the atrocious quality of the clip, but the preview sums up the film neatly and hilariously:

Of course, no kid movie would be complete without some sort of ridiculous come-to-a-head situation and eventual unraveling of the master plan. If you're not one for spoilers, you may want to scroll down now. The kids' plan appears to miraculously be working; the campers are happy, the lied-to parents are satisfied with their thin explanations, and Dennis is acting as a loosely-defined adult. That is, until the parents insist that they have a visiting day. As you saw in the clip above, the kids and Dennis go to great lengths to continuously reform and rearrange their camp on a single day to satiate the different parents coming expecting to see a military base, a diet haven, a theater forum, or a computer class. Rather than explaining it in great detail, let me illustrate with a clip from the movie complete with amazing redecorating montage:

As expected, this euphoric sense of accomplishment and getting-away-with-it style glee can't last. These kids can't keep up the facade forever, and cracks begin to show on parents' day. As things eventually crash and burn, many lessons are learned and tough decisions are made, but as in all of these movies things turn out okay for everyone in the end and both the kids and Dennis are all the wiser for the experience. Sure, the movie conventions can be a little trite, but this film defined an emergent independent generation of 90s kids and gave them the power to dream of a world where they ran the show. Although the premise was exaggerated, we could all relate to their innocent-intentioned acts of rebellion in favor of standing up for being themselves.

If all of that isn't enough for you, the movie repositions Christopher Lloyd and Tom Wilson (Biff from the Back to the Future trilogy) as hippie vs. cop nemeses. If pitting them head to head once again fails to tickle your 90s fancy, then I don't know what will.

So next time someone tries to bring you down by saying you're going Nowhere, think of your beloved childhood camp based there and smile. Happy camping, children of the 90s.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Eureeka's Castle

I'm going to be straight with you on this one and let you in on a little secret: kids love puppets. The muppetier, the better. It's a tried-and-true formula, and it works. The best thing about puppets is that they can do things that make absolutely no sense and have no groundings in real behavior of human beings, but we accept it as puppet doctrine due to their hypnotizingly vacant googly eyes. The puppets in Eureeka's castle were particularly adept at allowing children to be "in" on their jokes, hence allowing children to bask in their perceived percipience at preemptively predicting the punchline.

Our cast of characters was small but lively. Unlike other puppet shows like the Muppets, Eureeka's Castle was a distinctly enclosed environment with little to no contact to outside puppets. The show was based in a wind-up music box maintained by a genial giant and featured an unlikely gang of magical and mythical pals.

Eureeka's Castle's quirky characters each possessed some oddity or foible that was both completely insane and instantly recognizable by child viewers. The show was smart enough to present its characters in single dimensions, giving each puppet an apparent schtick from which to extrapolate wacky plot lines. Let's take a closer look at our castle players:

Eureeka, our show's beloved heroine and namesake. Notice the adorable My Little Pony-hued hair. Don't you just want to brush it with a tiny pearlescent pony mane brush? Also, she seems to have pastel croissants sprouting from either side of her head. I like to imagine that she got into some sort of a scuffle with an angry pâtissier. Anyway, Eureeka is a student sorceress with hilarious incantations-gone-awry a la Elizabeth Stevens. Despite her notably amateurish attempts at sorcery, she has a certain charm only found in someone who grows up in a wind-up music box.

Magellan, our lovably clueless dragon friend. It only makes sense that he was named after a Portugese maritime navigator, because it has absolutely nothing to do with who he is as a character. Magellan (again, the dragon, not nautical explorer) tends to get overexcited and lose control of his unwieldy tail, as one is wont to do with highly dangerous appendages. His single-toothed smile is undeniably lovable, if a bit unfortunate. Magellan seems to have some sort of music box allergy, causing him to sneeze with such fervor that their entire encapsulated wind-up world shakes violently.

Batly, our near-blind bespectacled bat friend, known for his hilarious and unsuccessful flying attempts. As children, we could endlessly annoy our parents by jumping from high, precarious pieces of furniture and recovering with Batly's witty catchphrase, "I meant to do that!" Oh, how we loved that catchphrase! Obviously, he had not meant to do that, yet he had done it regardless. Batly, you jokester. We forgive your klutziness, if only for your good humor and quotability.

Bog and Quagmire, our Moat Twins, who in the above photos had to be tragically and sloppily cropped from a VHS cover group photo as they seem not to exist on the internet. They look sort of like uglier, messier, hyper-colored Elmos. They live in some unexplained banished habitat beneath the castle. Most of their time is spent ravenously consuming peanut butter sandwiches and playing rousing games of tag.

Mr. Knack, who has met a similar internet fate of virtual (forgive the pun) anonymity. Mr. Knack was some undisclosed class of foreigner and ran (as foreigners tend to do) a pushcart selling assorted goods.

For all you non-visual learners out there (read: the length of search for these images exceeds my allotted blogging timeslot) we also have Magellan's pets: Cooey, who was possibly some form of wild undomesticated Furby, and the Slurms, who were claymation dots. As a child terrified of all things claymated, even I could sit through the blobbish Slurms' mesmerizing recombinations of interesting colorful shapes and representations.

The aspect of the show that I remember most was the singing stone fish on the facade of the castle. I tirelessly searched for a visual of these gilled serenaders because I am determined to jog your memory, no matter to what lengths the internet goes to thwart my well-intentioned efforts. It appears that these fish have been since expunged from our collective memory as 90s children, so I wish to refresh it with the following image. I apologize for their Christmas hats--those aren't a standard singing fish feature, but is likely the only known Eureeka's Castle Fish photo on the entire interweb.

So there you have it: Eureeka's Castle. Sure, it was arguably a rip-off of the immediately preceding Nickelodeon show Pinwheel, but we loved it with equal and abundant vehemence nonetheless. Eureeka's Castle executive producer Kit Laybourne summed it up best when he explained their three hypothesized ingredients to effective humorous children's programming: wordplay, sight gags and/or physical comedy, and running jokes. With these simple elements, Eureeka's Castle created kid's programming that kids could not only understand but could simultaneously feel "in the loop" on the character's private jokes. Though Laybourne never directly addressed the question of his intentions, we as children in the 90s can easily speculate his answer.

He meant to do that.

Listen to the theme song to revive Eureeka's Castle memories

Friday, March 27, 2009

Fruit Gushers

The entire concept that there is a suspicious liquid-filled fruit snack vacuum-sealed for posterity (expiration date: January 3012) called "Gushers" concerns me as someone now old enough to read ingredient labels with a critical eye. Despite the inclusion of such delicious additives as Maltodextrin and Distilled Monoglycerides, Gushers continues to be a bestselling snackfood. Did you know that these seemingly innocent fruit snacks contain a squirt of an unknown mystery substance? Of course you did, you sicko, you're probably gushing on one right now. Remember the good old days, when the verb "gush" referred to something, I don't know, completely disgusting?

Good Example: "Did you see Joel's leg after he got it stuck in the wood-chipper, Fargo-style? It was gushing blood, man."

Current Example: "Did you try these fruit snacks? Dude, they are, like, gushing with flavor."

I'm not sure anyone can even begin to comprehend how disgusting that is, because so many children of the 90s continue to purchase this tragically bodily-fluid referencing named snack. The worst part is, it's not even a misnomer. You bite into one of those babies, and they literally gush in a way conducive with the Good Example. As if their naming department's creative juices hadn't already been fully drained into these fruit snacks, they actually had the audacity and unoriginality to name of of their flavors "Gushing Grape". What exactly is with the use of flesh-wound originating adjectives to describe the bursting flavor of sugary. nutritionally unsound junk food? If that wasn't enough, there was actually a movement to save the now-retired "Gushing Grape" variety. And they say our generation doesn't take up any worthwhile political causes.

Gushers were the epitome of the anti-natural foods movement espoused by so many children of the 90s. We had learned a trick from food processing companies, and were determined not to pass along this information to our parents for fear of revocation of sweet delicious valueless snacks. During the 90s, food producers were famous for adding the word "fruit" before all of their gel-based snacks to give them the illusion of having some nutritional components in some way related to the fruit family. Never mind that not a single one of these supposed fruit relatives came in a color even remotely reminiscent of one that occurs in nature. There was Fruit by the Foot, Fruit Roll-Ups, Fruit Gushers, Fruit Snacks. Even though they all tasted exactly like one thing and one thing only (read: pure sugar), they claimed to come in a variety of fruit-based flavors.

As children, of course, we could taste the difference between blue and green gushers. If they were billed as blue raspberry (note: this fruit doesn't exist) or green apple (additional note: this fruit is in no way sweet), then we assumed them to be as such. Gushers appealed to our sense of adventure and fun in a manner that still allowed us to be passive snacking coach potatoes; they had outrageously extreme names that in some way implied a sort of accompanying physical activity. However, like the alleged fruit flavor, the mere suggestion of their extremeness was a major component of their marketing campaign.

Really, General Mills? Obviously, someone over at their corporate offices had the X-games announcer on speed dial. Were we really to believe that sitting quietly and eating a liquid-filled fruit snack would be an unforgettably X-TREME experience? It seems that they did, based on the rather questionable names of their flavors; there was Screamin' Green Apple, Triple Berry Shock, G Force Berry Radical, Roboberry Ultra Blast, Fruitomic Punch, and so many other naming atrocities that I prefer to protect the reader from exposure to such out of control fruit snack titles. G Force? What, are they in their food development labs, measuring their Berry Radical flavor with a accelerometer? We can only assume that Fruitomic Punch was developed at their Los Alamos lab. As for Roboberry, are we to believe that this Ultra-Blasting hexagonal treat has some sort of artificial intelligent robotic function? And let's not omit the fact that Triple Berry Shock sounds like a form of cardiac arrest for those with multiple fruit allergies.

Gushers' nonsensical approach to advertising appealed to our desire to enjoy things that were concurrently despised by our parents. However, it's possible that Gushers took it a tad too far in another 90s campaign with their deliberate depiction of a painful and uncomfortable snacking experience:

While bearing in mind that this was in the era of Warheads and Tearjerkers, this commercial in no way represents the product in an appealing manner. If nothing else, it emphasizes the disgust of the children upon consumption.

Gushers were that food that your mother wouldn't buy for you as you begged and threw yourself on the floor of the grocery store, claiming that Susie's mom always lets her have Gushers. The fact that many 90s health-conscious parents deigned to purchase such non-nutritional snacks made them immensely appealing in a want-what-you-can't-have sort of way. Sure, they were by nature repulsive and filled with a mysterious wetness, but they represented so much more. We could care less what our parents had to say about these; we valued them for their out-of-control sweetness quotient and candy-like appeal.

That is, until we went into Triple Berry Shock.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Nickelodeon Slime

As a (sort of) adult, I have to wonder what on earth our parents were thinking as they watched our inexplicable outpouring of glee and good cheer at the sight of one of our contemporaries being doused in a sticky green semi-viscous compound on national television. To us, it made perfect sense. Speak out of turn? Get slimed! Perform poorly on a game show challenge? Get slimed! Fail to Figure it Out? Get slimed! Happen to be standing outside Nickelodeon Studios in Orlando, Florida during the filming of a filler intermission commercial segment?

You get the idea.

As children, we had no questions about the nature, existence, or purpose of slime. The act of sliming was, plain and simple, probably the image we were most frequently exposed to from ages 5-12, and we saw nothing wrong with that. We consumed Nickelodeon like water--only we preferred it greener and oozier. Slime was a fact of our reality and was to be taken at absolute face value as a legitimate icon of our favorite (though at the time, only) children's television network.

The notion of slime originated with the late 80s children's sketch comedy classic, You Can't Do That on Television! Every time an actor on the show uttered the otherwise inocuous phrase, "I don't know," suddenly and unaccountably a significant amount of sticky green goo would rain down from the heavens onto the unsuspecting victim. YCDToT cast members lovingly recalled that the original formulation of slime was deemed highly toxic and that it may have been a poor idea to risk lives for the sake of children's sketch comedy, even if it did star a young Alanis Morisette.

The proposal of the mysterious green glop was apparently so well-received by show producers and executives that it was soon redeveloped to be at best minimally non-lethal. Concocted from an original secret formula of flour and lime-green Jello, slime burst onto the scene, nontoxic and slimy as initially envisioned. God forbid the slime hypothesizer compromise his holy green vision. It should also be noted that it is a well-known fact that everyone thinks green Jello is disgusting, so the blame for its continued and persistent existence on grocery store shelves can be laid squarely on the shoulders of the slime theorists.

As we can deduce from the following clip that we can only assume to be completely serious, it seems that at the time of its inception in the mid-80s slime was highly controversial topic amongst children. As you watch the following Nick Special Report, please take notice that the proportion of feathered hair to head is inversely related to one's support for slime action.

What started as a one-shot gag soon spread (as slimes tend to do) to an ongoing element of the show. After the show's cancellation, Nickelodeon was determined not to let this otherwise non-sequitor lame-excuse-for-a-lack-of-punchline die out quietly. Plus, they had already bought all of that lime Jello. Thankfully they had the foresight to add both oatmeal and shampoo to the slime, apparently adhering to the 1990s Sassy magazine school of food-as-hair-product recipes in their quest to make the slime more wash-outable. The ominpresence of slime tied in nicely to the inherent messiness of pretty much every game show Nick churned out in the mid-90s. Shows like Double Dare, What Would You Do?, and Super Sloppy Double Dare capitalized on the audience's existing emotional ties with slime to capture their hearts and soil their smocks. Did I say yet that the aforementioned mess-based game shows were hosted by a germ-phobic obsessive compulsive? Obviously the slime people weren't the only ones at Nickelodeon with a sadistic sense of humor.

At some point, the demand for slime grew so high that Nick Studios actually erected a green-spewing slime geyser outside their Orlando-based studios. While of course we can only imagine that as a non-naturally occurring substance this geyser was simply for show, what it stood for made up for its lack of purpose.

Imagine for a moment that there were indeed dozens of people employed by the slime industry in the mid-90s; there were scientists and formula-testers, the guys that hung the roof buckets, engineers to build the pouring mechanisms, someone to flip the slime-dumping switch. This had obviously gotten out of hand. Instead of reigning it in, however, Nickelodeon just kept on milking it. Slime was featured heavily in the late-90s Nickelodeon game show Figure It Out, was used liberally and continuously at the Kid's Choice Awards, and squelched into the 2000s with a commercial break feature aptly titled "Slime Time Live." Yes, slime was here to stay, and there was nothing we could have or would possible have wanted to do about it.

See, we all embraced slime (well, as much as is physically executable with a mucilaginous goo) as emblematic of all that we knew and loved of our magical Nickelodeon network. It was idiosyncratic and spoke to us in a way that separated us from our parents; we understood it, they did not. For a magical moment in time, slime represented us, our collective childhood tied together by the universal experience of growing up watching the realization of this running green gag. To our parents it was simply a mess to clean up, but we knew it was our mess and hence deemed it worthy. Nickelodeon slime, if nothing else, stood for a turning point in children's entertainment when kids were (in our eyes) in control to run wild in their self-created world and revel in its distinct non-adultness. Kids had formed a secret club, and the repeated viewing Nickelodeon slimings made you a card-carrying member. Nickelodeon created a world where it was both fun and safe to be a kid, and we welcomed that wholeheartedly. It was the most kid-friendly neon-hued sludge we had ever seen, and we adored it. Well, that is until Gak flatulated onto the scene.

But that, my friends, is a story for another time.

*thanks to Aly S for the topic idea

Check it out:
Nick's Slime Across America

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

"I've Fallen and I Can't Get Up!"

Looking for a surefire way to guarantee that no one will respect the precarious health of the elderly and to diminish the legitimacy of their tenuous medical state? Well, you're in luck! The Life Call corporation has already done it for you and has made it available in convenient late 80s/early 90s daytime television commercial slots. As the Life Call people sat around musing what was the possibly the way to least seriously depict the grave dangers associated with solo-dwelling senior citizens, they stumbled upon a foolproof formula for endless mockery and derision. How could we make light of such a tragic and serious risk? Well, I'll tell you how.

Yes, the Life Call people decided against working the "this is a serious life-saving product and should be presented as such" angle and instead opted to hire the campiest, chintziest elderly actors to produce embarrassingly low-budget dramatizations for their television advertisement. At least at the beginning, the fine print in the lower right-hand corner reads "dramatization". Whew, that was a close one. I was concerned that that woman had actually fallen and couldn't get up, and we were all just sitting around casually observing her in her dire state. At best, it was as if Life Call had raided a retirement home community theater troupe. Obviously, they had already blown their whole legitimate actor budget to hire concerned-looking family members and friends of the injured party. Thankfully, those characters had no lines or maybe we would have taken this thing less lightly.

Here is the ad, in all its glory:

Less widely mocked was the first guy, Mr. Miller, who acts his heart out (possibly, literally, considering his supposed ailment) describing his chest pains. However, our real heroine was Mrs. Fletcher, oh great utterer of redundant and unintentionally humorous phrases. The fictional Mrs. Fletcher croaked out a line that exceeds nearly any quote out of Bartlett's in immediate recognizability.

"I've fallen...and I can't get up!"

It was probably that second part that did in poor Mrs. Fletcher. Laying on the floor of her questionably empty room, walker askew, we could all clearly deduce that she had indeed fallen. Her apparent need for the Life Call system suggested to us that she was also likely unable to get up. Otherwise, she probably would have called up and said, "I've fallen! ...Oh, no, I'm fine, I'll get myself up in a jiffy. I just wanted someone to talk to because I'm lonely and live alone and can only communicate with my children, neighbors, and doctors through third party Life Call employees." But no, Mrs. Fletcher knew better than that. She had to do more than just explain that she had fallen, that part was clearly evident to any impartial observer. She needed to fully elucidate her situation by pointing out that not only had she fallen, but that she was at the same time unable to get up. Well, bless her heart, she certainly sold that line. Unfortunately, to children growing up in the 90s, it was probably the funniest thing that they had ever seen and/or heard.

We had all been told dozens of time to respect our elders. Parents and teaches explained to us that most senior citizens are viable and capable and deserve to be treated as human beings. We all bought that for about ten minutes, or at least the time elapsed between receiving that explanation and our initial viewing of the Life Call commercial. Though the commercial was marketed toward seniors as a tool to encourage their independence, to us it only cemented their status in our eyes as highly dramatic, accident-prone victims.

As if Life Call hadn't hammered the point home enough already with their melodramatic dramatizations, they also relied on the cheery host of the commercial to explain to us what we had just seen. "See?" She prompted condescendingly. "Protect yourself with Life Call and you're never alone!" For those of us unable to understand the complex plot twists and the nuanced acting of her preceding ad castmates, we could always rely on our Life Call pendant-sporting pal to restate the thesis of the commercial. And wasn't she recently "deathly ill"? Why, she looks great! We can only imagine that if it hadn't been for been those dashing pseudo-cop outfitted Life Call operators, her deathly illness would have led to, well, death.

Obviously at some point, Life Call realized their gaffe and sought a new direction with their advertising campaigns. No longer were they going to be victims of endless mockery. They were going to take a hard line with customers and depict true stories of Life Alert's life-saving capabilities:

Wait a minute. Didn't she just say she wasn't an actress? Well, then why is she being played by one in the dramatization? We thought you had seen the error of your ways, Life Call, but this dramatization of supposedly real-life events featured the same catchphrase as the original. Are we really to believe that this real live woman had seen the Life Call commercial so many times that she instinctively uttered their trademarked line to operators? Also, are to we to buy that someone with the foresight to purchase a Life Call Emergency Alert System was engaging in such irresponsible fall-prone behavior as reading a book and walking? At the same time? And another thing! Aren't those the doctor and telephone operator from the first commercial? Are you telling me we're using stock footage because we couldn't even afford to hire some new actors? You can even hear the choppy way they cut off the "Mrs. Fletcher" part of the operator's line to accomodate this allegedly new true story. Way to go, Life Call. You really caught yourself with that one.

Then again, their intention was not to catch themselves; it was to catch poor clumsy Mrs. Fletcher, or this new supposedly real-life non-actress knockoff of Mrs. Fletcher.

After all, they were the ones who had fallen.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Legends of the Hidden Temple

They just don't make Maya and Aztec-based semi-historical adventure children's trivia game shows like they used to. I know what you're thinking, "I could name dozens!" Well, I admire your commitment to progress, but unfortunately none of them hold a temple torch to the original. And when I say original, I mean original. Well, except for that whole Indiana Jones thing, but hey, this show had a big talking stone head. Totally different.

These days, so many forms of children's entertainment are all too grounded in some realm of reality. Children's television network executives just aren't going out on a limb any more for completely nonsensical show premises. This show was not only immensely complex in its structure and execution, but was also featured incredible details in is design. Sure, its educational value was convoluted at best, but where else where we supposed to learn about such pertinent artifacts as The Mysterious Manuscript of Mary Shelley or The Jewel-Encrusted Egg of Catherine the Great?

Legends of the Hidden Temple featured six boy-girl teams with names that are instantly recognizable to any former enthusiast: Red Jaguars, Orange Iguanas, Purple Parrots, Green Monkeys, Blue Barracudas, and Silver Snakes. Sure, the animals and the colors didn't necessarily match up, but we needed to identify these kids at a distance by colored t-shirt alone. Looking enviably cool in their bright yellow helmets and mouthguards, the teams began their challenge by crossing the mighty Moat. Alright, so it was a long narrow swimming pool with lane dividers, but they used cool things like rafts and swinging ropes. Plus, they got to bang a big gong at the end. We were mixing cultures a bit, but that's nothing in comparison to the legends that were to come.

The four teams who were first to finish the Moat challenge went on to the Steps of Knowledge. Finally, they get to hang with Olmec! Olmec was...well, an Olmec, but as kids we didn't know too much about the cultures of Precolumbian Mesoamerica, so it was all good. Our revered Olmec was a giant animatronic talking stone head who shared with us the wisdom of legends that we can only assume were somehow associated with this Hidden Temple we kept hearing about. The legends were generally historically based, but almost never were tied to the general Aztec/Mayan theme the show had going. For years I thought The Golden Pepperoni of Catherine de' Medici and The Levitating Dog Leash of Nostradamus were in some way associated with preclassical Central American cultures.

Olmec would share the legend, always with a catchy all-caps title generally verging on the ridiculous and irrelevant. His stone-faced (sorry, I had to) seriousness made us all believe in the power of The Golden Cricket Cage of Khan or The Very Tall Turban of Ahmed Baba. Following the brief storytelling, Olmec would ask questions from the preceding tale and teams would buzz in to respond and subsequently progress down the Steps of Knowledge with each correct answer. The first two teams to the bottom were the winners! Hooray! Onto the Temple Games!

The Temple Games were played for the coveted Pendants of Life. Obviously whoever was on the LoHT naming committee deserves several gold stars for both creativity and liberal use of capitalization. The Temple Games were sort of like GUTS physical challenges, only temple-themed. The team with the most Pendants of Life advanced to the ultimate and indubitably coolest round, the Temple Run.

Distinctly less cool for the contestants who did not reach the final round was the truly deplorable state of the consolation prizes. If you thought the Carmen Sandiego parting gifts were mildly questionable, you would be begging for a basketball globe once you realized the best thing a non-final round LoHT contestant could take home was a pair of Skechers sneakers, a Looney Tunes Watch (valued at $9.99!), or a VHS copy of a made-for-television movie. Yes, really.

Only slightly less lamentable were the prizes available for those who actually made it to the Temple. For those who made it through the first Temple round, they could win something in the range of a tennis racket or skateboard. There was usually some form of decently desirable electronic prize for second-rounders; we're talking something like a Casio My Magic Secret Diary here. For those who made it out of the temple unscathed, artifact in hand, they could win a trip to New York City or NASA Space Camp. However, it should be noted that kids who willingly participate in this type of thing would probably love NASA Space Camp, so it's probably not a bad deal.

The Temple Run was by far the most impressive and tension-filled portion of the show. Would they encounter a flamboyantly dressed sentinel temple guard? Those guys always scared the bejeezus out of me. What sort of desperate out-of-work actor brings his headshots to a casting call with the description, "Tall, dark, frightening; experience with child-grabbing preferred"? If you were lucky enough to still have some Pendants of Life, you could buy them off and escape unharmed; there's nothing like teaching children the values of bribery to get their way.

The Temple was a fairly complicated labyrinth composed of a dozen or so rooms, some locked, many of which included some task for the contestant to complete to continue on. The contestants would dodge temple guards, whiz through The Shrine of the Silver Monkey, haphazardly assemble the monkey statue to open the Temple doors, grab the artifact from Olmec's legend and find their way to freedom/space camp.

The show was immensely popular in its heyday and continues to maintain a 90s cult following. We appreciated the show in its quirkiness; where as children we accepted at face value that this was just the way the show worked, as adults we have the perspective to see that this show was outlandishly complicated in design and creativity.

So for those of us still yearning for our run at Space Camp or at least a Skechers-sponsored savings bond, strap on those helmets, bite down on those mouthguards, cue up the youtube, and let yourself be swept up in the mystery of why locating The Walking Stick of Harriet Tubman is your ticket to the NASA non-gravity simulator.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?

I spent 5 good years of my life wondering in fact where in the world was Carmen Sandiego. She certainly was a tricky one. To think that there existed a jewel thief manager who could outwit three red-vested 10-to-14-year-old contestants with limited geographic knowledge is absolutely staggering. Even though Carmen and her cohorts were non-threateningly cartoon-animated, we knew of her malevolent misdoings and were eager to locate her and her dim-witted agents. Plus, the victor won an all-expenses paid trip to anywhere in the 48 contiguous United States. I mean, imagine! A chance to fly Delta Airlines coach and stay in a Holiday Inn down in downtown Boise or inner Salt Lake City? Sign me up!

If you grew up in the 1990s and had a head, the Carmen Sandiego game show theme song was likely stuck in it and playing on repeat. Performed by Rockapella, the leading Folger's coffee commercial-starring a capella quartet of the era, the song was possibly the most captivating and recognizable game-show theme of the decade. Just hearing the opening, "do it, Rockapella!" is enough to mobilize me to doo-wop uncontrollably. In case you've ever managed to expunge this catchy chorus from your brain, here is a handy sing-along video of the song:

The show itself was developed as a response to the alarmingly low level of geographic knowledge amongst America's television-polluted youth. They were already watching TV, so why not throw in some desperately-needed geography lessons? Oldest trick in the PBS play book, presented by Viewers Like You. After all, we couldn't have the Soviets out-knowledging us in the field of maps and atlases--especially considering that when the show first aired, a disturbing number of American-educated children could not even locate the as-of-yet-undefunct Soviet Union on a map.

Once they'd hooked you with the rockin' theme song, they capitalized on your love for Rockapella by featuring them as the "house vocal band and comedy troupe". Really, that's how they were billed. Admittedly, this is probably the highest level to which a moderately humorous a capella group could aspire, but its music scene street credibility is definitely questionable. Rockapella's zany madcap skits paired with Carmen and the gang's animated hijinks were enough to make all of us yearn to be game show gumshoes.

Most episodes began a little something like this, minus the special celebrity teammates:

All hail the late great Lynn Thigpen, chief of the ACME detective agency and our hearts. Along with co-host Greg Lee ("The ACME Special Agent in charge of training new recruits,") they somehow made these off-the-wall tasks and missions seem appreciably plausible. Why shouldn't we believe that all great detectives are given detailed briefings chock-full of historically and geographically relevant educational information with little to no information on the case or suspects themselves? Who were we to question the notion that gumshoes typically solve their crimes in three well-defined rounds culminating in a light-speed map identification quest? We could only assume that all failed detectives usually walk away from their task at hand dejected but sporting a t-shirt with the head crook's name and face plastered across the front. You know, in case they run into them somewhere and need the pictorial evidence to make a legitimate citizen's arrest.

Makes sense to me.

Of course we all knew the premise was thin and the musical comedy sketches unnecessary, but we loved this show with undying fervor nonetheless. At the time, the prizes seemed outstandingly desirable, but in retrospect it becomes pretty clear we were working with a public broadcasting budget. Sure, the winner got to keep their Crime Bucks (conveniently converted to legal tender cash!) but the other consolatory prizes seemed a little "let's clean out the ol' PBS donation closet." Though the nature and value of the consolation prizes remained relatively stagnant, the show did a spectacular job of repackaging the prize pack with a new name each season. Originally the ACME Crimenet Travel Kit, it also went by the aliases of the Travel Pack and ACME Gumshoe Gear. Clearly, it was not only our jewel thieves who were duplicitous.

No matter what you called it, if you failed to win the coveted round-trip ticket to a Holiday Inn anywhere in the lower 48 states you were still going home with...well, something. Just think, you too could win a Rand McNally World Atlas, Official Carmen Sandiego t-shirt, watch, sweatshirt, backpack, a one year full-paid subscription to National Geographic, a BASKETBALL GLOBE (!), ACME crime net cap, ACME stealth pen recorder, and even maybe the ACME Voice Identification Badge and Leave-a-Message Wallet! That's a lot of loot right there. To think we thought the jewel-heisters were thieves!

Carmen Sandiego was a phenomenon in a way that few children's shows are today. We all knew that it was educational; the secret was out. Yet somehow, we got so caught up in the catchy Rockapella-ness of it all and were willing to accept this opportunity to actively learn something about world geography. Exceptionally timely in an era of ever-changing geo-political boundaries, we could always count on Carmen Sandiego to go to somewhere particularly relevant to present conflict and shifts.

At the end of the day, whether or not our postcard records of that episode's loots and locations were chosen for the at-home viewer T-shirt winner, at least the show had given us the attention span necessary to follow Carmen from Chicago to Czechoslovakia and back*.

(*All geographical data is current as of the date this program was recorded)

Friday, March 20, 2009

Lamb Chop's Play Along

For children of the 90s, a lamb chop was more than just a tasty cut of meat. It (well, she) was also a fluffy little sheep puppet who, along with an afro-ed Shari Lewis and her delightful puppet barnyard peers, entertained us through the magic of once-worthwhile public television.

A brief (read: lazy) investigation into Lamb Chop's history reveals a frightening amount of spare time amongst pop-culture Wikipedia updaters. The "Lamb Chop's Play-Along" entry actually links to a categorical page entitled "fictional sheep". Yes, really. Fictional sheep. Our esteemed lamb puppet pal was obviously in good company. In case you were wondering (which no doubt you were!), the Wikipedia entry opens with the compelling phrase,"this is a list of fictional sheep". It then goes on to list more than thirty fictional sheep.

You may be saying to yourself, what is a person who diligently maintains a blog devoted to frivolous 90s novelties doing mocking a harmless list composed by loving devotees? Certainly even she recognizes her hypocrisy.

You would be wrong.

Other fictional sheep aside, the true star was Lamb Chop. The pure cuteness of her very being was almost overwhelming. She was adorable incarnate. She was sassy and fun. She was an innocent little sock puppet we could all look up to. And her name was Lamb Chop. Come on. What sort of stone-hearted scrooge could deny the inherent cuteness?

Lamb Chop's Play-Along featured a puppet-packed roster of barnyard friends, all voiced by Shari Lewis. I present to you our painfully adorable cast of characters:

1. Charlie Horse--sometime trouble-maker, full time horse. Stirs stuff up a lot. Goofy bucktoothed expression. Pictured above wearing unecessary puppet visor.

2. Hush Puppy--all-around good guy. Floppy ears. Pictured above in superhero style t-shirt handy for moments when he forgets his initials.

3. Lambchop--feisty, adventurous, child-like. Pictured above in trendsetting Blossom-style hat.

So there you have it. There was, however, one more aspect of Lamb Chop's Play-Along that really spoke to me as a child.

Let me set up a moment for you here: as a child, I had no puppets to look up to, or at least not as religious role models. I know what you're thinking, "but all children deserve religious puppet role models!" I wholeheartedly agree. It's essentially a basic human right. The television puppets I knew and loved were always putting on low-budget remakes of "A Christmas Carol" and reveling in their non-inclusive brand of seasonal cheer. Sure, the Muppets were nice, but where was I in their puppet Christmas merrymaking? My house had no wreaths, no tree, no mistletoe. No one ever seemed to ventriloquilize anything for children like me.

Enter Shari Lewis, oh great Semitic puppetmistress. For God's sake, her father was a founding member of Yeshiva University. Did I mention he was a magician? Shari's magical Jewish upbringing set the stage for high-quality yid-centric children's entertainment. Finally, a sock-puppet horse playing Dreidel! A fuzzy-dummy dog throwing a surprise Passover Seder for the whole gang! A lamb-likeness waxing poetic on the virtues of crispy potato latkes! If nothing else, Shari Lewis and Co made me feel, if only for a few episodes, as if I belonged. No longer was I an outsider to puppet holiday celebrations! A great children's television show injustice had been overturned, or at least in the eyes of me and my Jewish day school peers.

Jewish Holiday specials or not, Lamb Chop was beloved by children worldwide. Her sweet innocence and fluffy exterior captured our hearts and planted us firmly in front of our television sets for 3 enchanting seasons. Even after Lewis's untimely and tragic death, her impact on children of the 90s lives on. After all, she taught us how to endlessly (really, endlessly) irritate our parents with a catchy little ditty entitled "This is the Song that Never Ends."

It goes a little something like this:

This is the song that never ends,
it just goes on and on my friends
Some people started singing it, not knowing what it was,
and they'll continue singing it forever just because...

This is the song that never ends...

Oh, how parents hated this song! It was right up there with "I Know a Song that Gets on Everybody's Nerves". To Lewis's credit, however, the song was quite memorable and played at the end of every episode. She even made a big show about trying to get them to stop, prescient of our parent's subsequent woeful attempts to end our insistent singing.

Even once we had outwitted the lyrics and could start singing it once we actually knew what it was, we would always continue singing it forever.

You know, just because.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Bop It

Bop it!

Twist it!

Pull it!

Bop it!

Twist it!

Pull it!

Bop it!
Twist it!
Pull it!


Bop it was endless hours of fun. Well, endless hours of preoccupation. Okay, maybe just endless hours sacrificed to almighty commander, Bop it.

In the 1990s, parents, teachers, and toy-makers must have sat down and had a meeting. "Kids just aren't obedient enough," the adults probably lamented. "They're always going outside to play and they refuse to sit still and obey our persistent two-word-followed-by-exclamation-point commands."

How could we solve this conundrum of noncompliance?

Bop it.

The notion that the original toy, featuring only three functions, could hold the attention span of an eight-year old is a somewhat baffling one. The toy was essentially the at-home version of the doctor's office knee-jerk reflex test. A small audio system embedded within an oblong piece of plastic would issue forceful, pleasantry-free commands instructing the player on which function to manipulate.

"Bop it!" the machine would urge. And we would comply, locating the bop-centric button and bopping accordingly.

"Twist it!" the contraption would prompt. And so we diligently twisted, maneuvering the crank.

"Pull it!" the device would insist. And so we pulled, slightly dislocating the handle on the opposite side.

That was it. I mean, that was it. The entire toy. Sure, it started slow and gradually built speed in its commands, but that was the whole shebang. If nothing else, Bop it taught the wrenching pains of stress and mounting pressure to perform onto young, unsuspecting children. Our hearts would beat quickly, our blood pressure would soar; to examine our physiological response you would think that we were experiencing extreme anxiety over a big boardroom presentation or an impending job promotion.

Like its similarly (though slightly more enthusiastically) titled 90s toy cousin, the Skip it!, the main objective that kept us sadistically coming back for more was the personal best scoring function. On an aside, it seems that at this time, Hasbro's marketing team was padded with semi-literate foreigners with a limited vocabulary and a penchant for profuse punctuation. Let us briefly envision a marketing meeting at Hasbro in the 1990s:

Marketing Director: Alright people, we've got two new toys to name.
Team Member: What do they do?"
MD: Well, one you have to bop and the other you have to skip.
TM: Great, we've got our first words. Could we possibly identify them by definitive, meaningful pronouns?
MD: No, no, I think we should go with "it". Gender neutral, flexible meaning. The feminists will go wild for it.
TM: Okay, so can we leave it at that? Bop it and Skip it?
MD: It seems to lack a certain pizazz...it needs some punctuation to punch it up a bit.
TM 1: Question Mark?
TM 2: Semi Colon?
TM 3: Ellipse?
MD: We're not quite there...
TM 4: Exclamation Mark? But only for the Skip it, let's not push our luck.
MD: Bingo! Team member 4, you've been promoted to head of the Hasbro toy naming department. Ingenious!

But again, I digress. Bop it may have been simple and exclamation-point-free, but it did have a certain charm. It was endlessly frustrating in an encouraging, self-improving way. Bop it (at least the early, non-sellout model) was refreshingly simple and required a great deal of concentration. This was Simon for the colorblind, whack-a-mole for the vegetarians. For every 10 points a player earned, Bop it would give you a congratulatory burst of audio and bragging rights to lightning-quick albeit unnecessary reflexes. The Bop it knew better than to let us become big-headed from our victories, though. For every mistake, the Bop it would cackle maniacally at your general ineptness. It was certainly humbling, if a little cruel.

Of course, as our generation evolved into miniature multi-taskers, so too did the Bop it evolve and betray its original design and develop into a more mature "extreme" version of itself.

Though not completely true to tradition, the Bop it Extreme had its high points. Just imagine, now you could also spin it! And flick it! How did they ever achieve this brilliant feat of engineering?

In a crazy twist of toy-naming fate, Hasbro's latest rendering of the Bop it toy (scheduled for a 2009 release) is a throwback to the Hasbro of the 90s and their distinct brand of earnestness and zeal that so defined their work. The new 2009 version of the Bop it will be called...

Wait for it...

Wait for it...


With an exclamation point.

Sorry Marketing Team Member 4.

You're fired.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Goosebumps Books

If you thought some of these other delightful 90's commodities were franchising machines, you've yet to meet the monster of all monopolies. That's right, I used "monster" as a shockingly low-grade horror book pun. Just deal with it.

Children growing up in the 90s had a fascination with all things spooky. Shows like Are you Afraid of the Dark? and all sorts of novelized ghost stories cast a spell over young consumers and instilled in them an unquenchable hunger for all varieties of horror media. The king cresting this horror wave was R.L. Stine, a virtual book-miller churning out book after book laced with a satisfying mix of satire, humor, ripped-off story lines, suprise endings, and fright.

R.L. Stine wrote innumerable pieces of young adult fiction, but most memorable and exhaustive were those in his Goosebumps series. In an age where book series dominated the youth literature marketplace, Stine was among the few series creators who actually authored all of his own books without the use of ghostwriters. I guess you could call R.L. Stine the leading ghostwriter. Okay, even I can't handle that one. Moving on.

Goosebumps books were a gratifying balance of things of that our parents did and did not approve. On one hand, we were reading chapter books and unquestionably though unintentionally gaining some sort of literary adroitness. On the other, we were scaring ourselves silly with undiluted, unwholesome trash that was prime fodder to give us bad dreams and night terrors. It was like tricking your parents into thinking you were learning something, while deep down you knew you were up to no good.

R.L. Stine openly acknowledged that many of his Goosebumps plot lines were lifted from old-school horror exploits such as the Twilight Zone. Thankfully, as children in the mid-90s had limited or no knowledge of the existence of 1960s sci-fi television series , they eagerly absorbed
these plot lines as fresh and new. Regardless of the story origins, the books were fairly un-put-downable. Stine was the master of plot twists, particularly at the end of a story. Even once we had read enough books in the series to recognize when we were being tricked or misled, we always took the bait and were outraged to find all of our supposedly sacrosanct suppositions had been for naught.

The best (and let's be honest, worst) example of this is Goosebumps #26: My Hairiest Adventure:

While of course the major underlying premise of these books are their absurdity, this one ostensibly reigns supreme and unleashes some fairly ridiculous plot meandering (if you haven't read the book or simply can't yet recall, that "unleash" is another marvelous pun. Really, I swear.) In short, a group of kids find an expired bottle of self-tanner and naturally decide to engage in a group lather session. Soon thereafter, they discover that they are sprouting hair all over their bodies and (mistakenly) believe the tanning solvent is to blame.

Suddenly, he starts seeing dogs all over town sporting the same hair/fur and eye colors as his previously human companions. Not only is this a bit spooky, it certainly explains why we had to read page-long description of Lily's clear green eyes and sandy hair. To think I'd erroneously speculated that Stine had developed a crush on his charming 7th grade female character.

Long(ish) story short, our lovable and assumably human protagonists aren't really kids at all...they're (wait for it!)...dogs! Yep, dogs. The details are so ridulous I don't think I'll extrapolate any further and rather just pause that with that Stine-esque chapter-end cliffhanger and leave you to your own book-finishing devices. Suffice it to say, we were surprised, if not a little confused.

Such was the way of Goosebumps. Just when we believed we had it all figured out, Stine would throw in an alien friend or a giant blobular monster to throw us off the trail. The real beauty of these books were their window to escapism; they did not need to be grounded in reality or even make sense. We loved them unconditionally, and were even willing to accept dozens of unwarranted sequels.

Of course, like any profitable 90s franchise, books were never enough. Some of our favorite stories were adapted for TV by the now defunct Fox Kids network:

That's right, because what's more ominous in a series intro than manuscript pages flying dramatically out of an author's briefcase? We all understood that it was based on the book series, but thankfully producers chose to drive the point home with outlandish literality. Not to mention that the dog's glowing eyes look suspiciously like they were sloppily drawn in Microsoft paint. This baby's got Fox written all over it.

Despite the low-budget TV series, board games, and video game adaptations, the tried and true Goosebumps formula was in the books. While as adults we can certainly recognize the chintzy stories and plot twists, we can still appreciate our childhood worship of these books as sacred. Their adeptness at simultaneously entertaining us and scaring us out of our minds always kept us hungry for more.

So lay back, grab your tattered old copy of Night of the Living Dummy III, and take yourself back to a simpler time. A time when you were able to suspend your disbelief at the implausibility of not one, not two, but three families falling for the same dummy-comes-alive trick all over again. So long as each chapter formulaicly ends with someone letting out a bloodcurdling scream for no reason other than to set up a cliffhanger for the following chapter, all is right in the world.

Amazingly comprehensive reviews of Goosebumps books:
Blogger Beware

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Where's Waldo?

Oh, Waldo, how you continue to thwart our valiant search efforts. Despite your obvious penchant for flamboyantly candy cane striped red and white sweater/hat combos and your tendency to take along every possible piece of travel equipment on your obscenely crowded vacations, you still manage to boggle our minds with your mysterious whereabouts. In the original book, Waldo lugs along a walking stick, sleeping bag, mallet, drinking cup, binoculars, kettle, backpack, camera, snorkel, belt, another bag, and a shovel. Clearly, if he's going get lost in a crowd, he's got every imaginable amenity to walk, sleep, pound, drink, see, boil, carry, document photographically, dive, remain in pants, store more items, or dig his way out. That's right, it makes perfect sense.

Where's Waldo? originated as a British franchise under the name "Where's Wally?" Apparently, "Wally" is some sort of a British slang term that publishers feared would drive away eager young American Waldo-searchers with its distinctively red-coat recalling familiarity, so the only logical leap was to change the title to an equally unknown and unpopular name that in no way resonated with American youth. In our typical domineering American fashion, we pulled the rug from under the British Wally and U.S. Waldo sales quickly and consistently outstripped sales of the original. If that's not a legitimate way to assert our undeserved sense of national superiority, I don't know what is.

With "Waldo-mania" sweeping the country throughout the 1990s, there seemed to be no one without vested stake or interest in finding this bespectacled excursionist. There was something oddly if inexplicably satisfying about curling up with a big hardcover picture book and focusing on crowded, chaotic scenes until your eyes crossed. It wasn't just Waldo we were after, either; he brought with him a gang of of absurd cronies and/or nemeses. There was Wanda, Waldo's pal. Woof, his faithful canine companion. After that is where things got a bit weird.

There was Wizard Whitebeard, some sort of life coach/guru who was occasionally responsible for sending Waldo on his wacky expeditions. Then of course we had Odlaw, Waldo's bizarrely evil nemesis formulated from an inverted anagram of Waldo's name. He was nearly identical to the original Waldo only his clothing and glasses were of different colors, and he has a mustache. Even as children, we were aware that mustaches signified pure, unfettered evil (there was Hitler, Stalin, and Odlaw, and we were onto their mustachioed madness). We the readers were forced to infer that Odlaw was evil by his distinctive un-Waldoness, despite the fact that we never actually caught him doing anything more than lurking in the background.

And of course, there were the Waldo Watchers, because what bumbling vacationer would travel anywhere without their 25-member posse of lookalike devotees? That's right, Waldo had an entourage. These are clearly a cheap attempt by the authors to divert our eyes with Waldo-esque color patterns and hat-stylings, but were we really to believe that by the mid-90s Waldo had 100 faithful followers who joined him on every venture?

Silly characters aside, there were reasons that Waldo books held the top spot on the New York Times' bestseller list for a composite nearly-100 weeks. If nothing else, the books placated our parents with their hypnotizing ability to keep us unmovingly focused in a single spot for an extended period of time. Waldo had it all: books, comic books, cereal boxes, a short-lived magazine (with an impressive 2 issue run!), video games, and even a TV show. However, the plot-rich TV shows with only brief frozen-screen finding games interludes were never quite enough to hold our attention in the same way.

Despite the dozens of poorly-conceived franchising paths, the Where's Waldo? books were nothing less than a phenomenon. So long as we could continue our relentless searches for our beloved hero, all was right in the world. Like most 90s trends for children, the allure was not in the flashy effects or superfluous characters, but rather in the simplicity and forthrightness of the task at hand. There was no recapturing the magic of the moment of actually locating Waldo himself amidst a sea of impostors and villains.

So whether you grew up searching for Wally (UK) or Waldo (US), Valli (Iceland) or Walter (Germany), Effie (Israel) or Charlie (France), we were united in our common goal. No matter what you called him or where you lived in the world, we all knew Waldo as the greatest hidden holidayer of them all.

Monday, March 16, 2009

JNCO Jeans

What could possibly be more flattering than looking like you were standing in two giant logo-emblazoned, hem-dragging overturned denim buckets? No one seemed to bat an eye over the fact that each pant leg could easily house a family of four. JNCO jeans epitomized the rise of the pseudo-"street" poseur movement so beloved by 1990s middle class white kids. Their idea of the mean streets may have been a lemonade stand that refused to accept credit cards, but they could rock a mean pair of ultra wide-leg jeans.

With charming style names like "Mammoth" and "Fatboy," who could resist these grotesquely wide dungarees? The most offending specimens featured a whopping 50'' leg opening measurement, compared to the average 20-some inch leg openings on men's pants today. JNCO jeans also featured mutantly large back pockets that engulfed nearly the entire length of the pants:

JNCO jeans were a prime example of middle-aged marketing teams capitalizing on the 1990s-era growth of youth consumer buying power. With (oversized) pocket money to spare, kids of the 90s were a rapidly growing demographic over whose newfound purchasing power hungry marketers fought viciously. Ad executives spent a great deal of money convincing young people that JNCO jeans were emblematic of their unique sense of youth countercultural rebellion. In the mid-to-late 1990s, the JNCO brand claimed to "deliver[...] the hippest denim jeans and phat styles to satisfy the demands of even the most hardcore hip-hop, skater and music oriented sub-cultures." What, are you trying to telling me this wasn't written by real, live 1990s youths? But they spelled phat with a p-h! And they know of our desire to be "hardcore!" How did the JNCO ad team ever crack our cryptic youth slang code?

The brand epitomized the rising awareness amongst marketers of poseur skater culture. Suddenly, all it took was a pair of obscenely wide-leg jeans to brand oneself to a supposed teen subculture. Parents hated the tacky embroidered logos and the inevitable ratty,ragged hems resultant of the pant legs constantly dragging on the ground; their insistent disapproval encouraged young people that these pants were indeed an affront to the Man, despite the fact that He was the one producing them. The JNCO brand struck a chord with young clothing consumers, particularly with the company's comic-book magazine ad spreads featuring real-life JNCO jeans-wearing models in cartoon settings. Though the brand was originally formulated as a men's and boy's line, JNCO later added a women's line featuring similarly unfortunate wide-legged styles. These were equal opportunity jeans: determined to unflatter any and every type of figure, male or female.

The immense popularity of JNCOs proves that the 1990s were less about looking good and more about fitting in. Never before had an alleged subculture been so carefully calculated by the Man. No longer were our counter-culture trends originating from idealistic hippies or bitter Generation-X musicians. Rather, children of the 1990s unknowingly began to increasingly rely on grown-ups to dictate their trends. The definition of "cool" was more and more frequently prescribed by a group of adult business professionals sitting around a boardroom table. Young people seemed oblivious to the fact that badges of counterculture by definition should not cost $60 a pop. The tide of trend-setting was changing, and the Man was at the helm.

Nevertheless, JNCO jeans represented a paradigmatic shift in the way young people defined themselves. Suddenly, you did not have to believe in or even particularly care about anything particular to associate yourself with alternative youth culture. You could actually buy your way into tween-age rebellion in a way that was antithetical to all past counter-cultural norms. All it took was a willingness to be engulfed by enormous pants.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Super Soakers

Kids today have it too easy. Forget the value of dedication and hard work that so defined our generation. Their need for instant gratification continuously pushes aside their pioneering spirit of industry and diligence.

That's right, I'm talking about water guns. In our day, we knew the meaning of painstaking commitment to getting the job done. There was none of this "press the trigger and water sprays" nonsense. We would pump those Super Soaker air-pressure chambers until our fingers blistered, but it would all be worth it to spray our friends standing fifty yards away.

Originally christened the "PowerDrencher", Super Soakers burst onto the scene at the tail end of the 1980s. Approaching the 90s, toy water gun producers had fallen upon hard times, garnering flack from all sides on their regrettably realistic renderings of actual weaponry:

(image of Larami Uzi via iSoaker.com)

With parents and lawmakers increasingly conscious of how violent toys and media impacted the impressionable youth of America, these troublingly accurate imposters were on the way out. Water guns needed a new, updated image to distance themselves from their connotations of violence and war. What they needed was a light-hearted, neon-colored remastered water gun prototype with a distinctly non-military name.

At the prime meeting of timing and technology, inventor Lonnie Johnson and toy-maker Larami teamed up to produce a new water gun that fully diverted from the warlike water weapons of the past:

Super Soakers had a distinctly different tone from preceding water guns, and the ad conveys the odd sense of whimsy associated with their product. Though the commercial prominently features the theme of revenge, we can only assume that stereotypical 90's rich girl Buffy really had it coming. Also, who could resist the throwback to the Blues Brothers in their execution of their masterminded pool party-ruining scheme? This is 90s advertising as its finest.

Revolutionary in design, Super Soakers required their wielders to pump pressurized air into a separate chamber on the water gun that would build up the power to shoot water at great distances. While updated models abandoned this arm-exhausting mechanism, a great deal of the fun was contingent on that re-arming period. You felt that you had really earned that shot. You worked hard for it, and the results were spetacular. Plus, there was that awesome water bottle chamber with super-accesible fillability.

Unfortunately, while Super Soakers of today may possess greater power and precision, their R&D department's insistence on churning out novel products have led them to...well, new lows. In an effort to keep this blog in the PG range, I am not going to comment on the following video. Rather, I leave it to you to deduce from it what you will. Let's just say it stirred up quite a bit of controversy among children's advocate groups for its...provacative implications. I'm going to leave it at that.

Check it out:
Super Soaker Evolutionary Family Tree
AV Club Spoof of Hasboro Oozinator Marketing Meeting

Thursday, March 12, 2009


Ah, the joys of good, clean multicultural middle-school student supernatural detective work. The television series Ghostwriter, which ran 3 seasons from 1992-1995, was a thinly veiled effort by public television to encourage the development of basic reading , writing, and problem-solving skills among elementary school children. We may have had no idea at the time, but watch an episode now and you will find the educational components are blindingly obvious. The show was remarkably good at tricking us into learning, as well as providing all sorts of feel-good moral lessons along the way.

The show's characters were the live-action equivalent of the names and pictures textbook publishers use to vociferously and repeatedly tout their commitment to racial and ethnic diversity. Though I can recognize this show aired during the blooming of the age of political correctness, they laid it on pretty thick. We couldn't just have a group of relatable middle-class white kids running around solving mysteries. Instead, it was necessary to produce some variation of "We are the World," the children's television series:

That intro shines so brightly with quintessentially nineties special effects, it makes you want to reach for the Vanilla Ice Gautier shades. The cast all seem remarkably surprised to see their names, though I assume they were told by the crew that they were filming the intro.

The premise of the show involves a mysterious unseen "ghost" (represented by a jumpy glowing light) who communicates with the Ghostwriter team by manipulating words and letters in the kids' everyday settings. The team quickly learns that a mysterious spirit has opted to communicate with them through the handily educational use of their reading and writing skills. While this ghost could likely have chosen all sorts of qualified, highly educated people to do his bidding, he insists on using elementary and middle-school aged children to solve his inoffensive and conveniently child-friendly brand of mysteries.

The "team" members, united by their common ability to communicate with the mysterious Ghostwriter, denoted their membership by wearing a special pen on a cord around their necks. That's right, as if they could not shove the educational component down viewer's throats any further, the team's all-powerful ability lay in their ability to write. I wouldn't call it a subtle metaphor, but hey, it worked.

Of course, just like real-life children, they had freakishly neat typewriter-grade penmanship and wrote at the slowest possible pace to ensure that their young viewers could actually grasp what was happening. Fortunately for those with limited literary prowess, each story arc took a remarkable four or five half-hour episodes to solve. Especially in a time before rampant over-prescribing of attention-deficit medications, it's nearly inconceivable children actually mustered the attention spans to follow a single mystery storyline over a weeks-long run. Ghostwriter clearly had some form of hypnotic power over its viewers, as the show was spectacularly popular throughout it three seasons.

Ghostwriter was not merely a television series; it was an educational franchising powerhouse boasting CD-ROMs, books, VHS releases, classroom curricula, and of course, replica Ghostwriter pens so viewers at home could "play along". I never had any luck solving the mysteries, but I do have a mini Lisa Frank notebook somewhere full of all of the clues tirelessly scribbled in admittedly poorer-than-Ghostwriter-team penmanship.

There are hundreds of Ghostwriter episodes floating around on the internet today, but I leave you with the original. As if you were not already convinced that Samuel L. Jackson is in every piece of motion-picture media every produced, he also plays Jamal's father in Ghostwriter. I present to you the first episode of Ghost writer, "Ghost Story:"

Link to exhausting log of Ghostwriter episode synopses:
TV.com guide

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Creepy Crawlers

Although Creepy Crawlers were originally produced by Mattel in the 60s by way of the ambiguously named "Thingmaker" toy oven, the product was revived by the Toymax company in the 90s with a (theoretically) less lethal light-bulb powered heater called the Magic Maker. These kits were a kid's dream; like so many of our other beloved 90s toys, they held no underlying value over pure fun and amusement. With the new safety features in place, ToyMax unleashed the retro phenomenon of plasticized bug-making to a new generation.

In reality, the child's role in creating a tray of Creepy Crawlers from a selection of insect molds was relatively limited. The only real decision-making lay in with which colors of Plasti-Goop you would choose to fill the tray. Yes, that's right, Plasti-Goop. The ToyMax 1990s remake retained the 60s terminology for this unknown chemical compound, continuing to cloak the toxicity of these substances in vagueness.

This was the toy for the little boy who desperately yearned to own an easy-bake oven, but was less keen on the public shaming it would bring from his male peers. It possessed similar light-bulb heating technology and yielded tangible goods without forcing boys to don an apron and frost heart-shaped cupcakes. These bug trays were about as macho as it got for the age 6-10 demographic. The aptly named Creepy Crawlers contained die-cast molds in the shape of millipedes, spiders, beetles, horseflies, worms, and all sorts of other creeping insects with that distinctly male appeal.

The major problem with this male-centric toy marketing was that it left us right back where we started. Little girls were no longer satisfied to be banished to their paltry pastry-packing easy-bake ovens. What ToyMax needed was something with some more feminine appeal that required no new technology and a coat of pink and purple paint on the plastic Magic Maker.

I admit as an unauthentic Creepy Crawler enthusiast, this was actually the model I owned. Yes, that's right. The rubberized Plasti-Goop charms on the blond girl's Blossom-esque hat were far more my speed than the decidedly more icky insect version. No longer did I have to stare wistfully at the television every time a creepy crawlers commercial came on, wishing I too could create useless items out of light-bulb cooked Plasti-Goop. They started making Plasti-Goop in all sorts of colors in the pastel family, and all was well in the world again.

Despite these variations, the real seller was the original (well, second generation original) Creepy Crawlers. It even spawned a television cartoon series under the same name, which ran two seasons from 1994-1996. The cartoon was not just based on insects themselves; rather the plot was premised on the actual features of the toy itself. In the Creepy Crawlers television series, a young boy working in a magic shop creates a version of the ToyMax Magic Maker with unfortunate results: mutant "Goopmondo" bug monsters named Hocus Locust, Volt Jolt and T-3. I know, it makes perfect sense. The best part of the show was despite the fact that it was created through a partnership with the ToyMax corporation and used their trademarked devices and terminology, the show rarely used the toy in a fashion anywhere near consistent with the procedures of its real-life counterpart. For example, characters often poured Plasti-Goop directly into the Magic Maker, which may not have caused any significant cartoon damage but certainly would have tragic light-bulb-burn-related consequences in real life. For a toy relaunched on the foundation of its new and improved safety features, ToyMax certainly gave children of the 90s a lot of ideas of how to circumvent the safety precautions.

Thankfully, kids today are not without their own rubbery oven-cooked insect toys. The Jakks Pacific toy company recently took over production of creepy crawlers, which look to be exactly the same as the 1990s version except they slapped a plastic bug on top of the Magic Maker. Very original. However, we can appreciate the suggested uses for Creepy Crawlers as a means of terrorzing your family and making them regretting ever purchasing this overpriced piece of plastic in the first place. Because isn't that truly what it's all about?

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