Friday, May 15, 2009
The 90s saw an explosion in cheesy formulaic family sitcoms. Audiences couldn't seem to get enough of allegedly normal people interacting with their loved ones; it was certainly a lot easier than being forced to interact with our own. One after another, these shows appeared, featuring a basic nuclear family and following them through their (again, allegedly) humorous daily interactions. Step by Step, Full House, Family Matters; these shows all followed a pretty standard set of story lines. Even the purportedly edgy Married with Children relied to some extent on sturdy stereotypes of a blue collar family.
It took a magical mind like Jim Henson's (which I imagine to have been full of abandoned ET design prototypes and colorful Fraggle Rock wardrobe changes) to conceive of a more original model for such a tired premise.
Why not make them dinosaurs?
Wait, wait? As in carnivorous prehistoric creatures with a penchant for carnage and general non-camaraderie? What could they possibly have in common with the white bread families of typical 90s sitcom fame?
Nothing. This was the whole point. Why not create a show that follows the family sitcom formula to a T, but with characters who inherently have nothing in common with this type of familial situation? It was a fairly innovative approach, though it did borrow heavily from Flintstones and Simpsons conventions. The situation and the characters were inherently out of sync, infusing some freshness into the stale model of a home-based situation comedy. And though the idea came to fruition a year after Henson's death, the seed he had planted grew into the Dinosaurs in 1991:
The character molds were all recognizable, but with a delightful prehistoric twist. Let's meet the Dinosaurs:
Earl Sinclair: Our hero, the mighty megalosaurus. Who knew dinosaurs looked so great in flannel? Considering this was the 90s, I'm fairly certain I owned that shirt. He could be a tad on the Al Bundy oafish side, but was determined to keep his family happy and fed. In the first episode we find that he opted to take this purportedly new family route rather than killing and eating his mate and young, which apparently was a pretty novel idea. He worked at WESAYSO as a tree-pusher, which likely explained the lumberjack getup.
Fran Sinclair: Dinosaur housewife extraordinaire. Her skills included chasing furry future dinners around the kitchen, nagging, and wearing aprons. She inexplicably birthed offspring of varying dinosaur species. Fran initially roped Earl by means of her natural feminine scent, in her case, New Car Smell.
Charlene Sinclair: 13-year old daughter, fashion-driven and materialistic a la Quinn Mordgendorfer. We do, however, find that she exhibited some signs of intelligence by managing to prove the world is round and thus changing the course of historical geographic discovery. Other than that, she was pretty vapid.
Robbie Sinclair: 15-year old son, wise beyond his years. We knew he was semi-rebellious because his best friend sports a leather jacket. In 90s sitcom conventions, a leather jacket is the only known symbol anti-authority.
Baby Sinclair: You gotta love him. Or so he says. His catchphrase, "I'm the baby, gotta love me!" was everywhere during the show's tenure. And really, I mean everywhere. It was so famous, in fact, that DTV (the fictional dinosaur TV network) allowed him to star in the following 100% ridiculous music video (please be warned that if you watch this, there is no chance of extricating this song from your brain. Attempts at detaching it from your cerebral cortex are futile. I'm still humming it 15 years later):
Baby (yes, this was his real name) also had a penchant for hitting his father on the head with a frying pan and referring to him affectionately as "Not the mama!" Cute, right?
The show premiered in the ABC TGIF lineup, appropriately sandwiched between between fellow family sitcom hits Full House and Family Matters and was fairly popular throughout the course of its 3-year run.
Beneath the surface (this would be a good place to make some sort of fossil joke that I don't have) lurked countless vaguely recognizable voices. Allow me to share with you some of the prehistoric celebrities who lent their voices to this program of puppetry:
Jessica Walter as Fran--You know, Lucille Bluth? I suppose she's also in that new 90210, but really, she is just playing Lucille Bluth all over again. You almost expect to hear the ice cubes clinking in the glass any time you hear her voice.
Sally Struthers as Charlene--Sure, she was in All in the Family, but most of us 90s kids remember her as that blonde lady constantly imploring us to get our degrees through the magically convenient means of by-mail correspondence (I was particularly partial to the veterinary technician course, if forced to choose).
Sherman Helmsley as tyrannical (insert "-asaurus Rex joke here) WESAYSO exec BP Richfield--What is this, an All in the Family reunion? Of course, he was best known from his starring role on the Jeffersons, so you could probably say in this case he was movin' on down (and yes, I recognize that was an extremely cheap attempt at humor. Just roll with it. I think Sherman would have.). For those of you that were into that kind of thing, you may also recall him as Tia and Tamara's grandfather on Sister, Sister.
Christopher Meloni as the aforementioned badass teenage friend, Spike--Most of you probably know this guy from Law and Order:SVU, but the less fear-mongering among us may recollect his performances in Oz, Harold and Kumar, or my personal favorite, Wet Hot American Summer. Also, he once played a gym teacher on Pete & Pete. What more could you want from a man?
Kevin Clash as Baby Dinosaur--You might not recognize him by face, but Kevin here voiced some of your favorite childhood characters (allow me to assume these are your favorites. Thank you for your cooperation.) Most notably, Elmo, but also Clifford the big red dog, and everyone's favorite animated rat, Splinter from TMNT. Oh, and he also played that lovable sax-playing Sesame Street owl who sang "Put Down the Ducky". Great song.
Admittedly these are not the biggest names in the biz, but they reflect the nature of the show itself. It wasn't the flashiest or the most original, but deep down it was good fun. While the show addressed a surprising number of political issues for a puppet-centric program, it was generally lighthearted and didn't take itself too seriously. At the end of the day, isn't all you want just to watch a giant puppet dinosaur get smacked on the head with a frying pan by his less-giant puppet dinosaur son? I think so.