Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Our Favorite 80s and 90s TV Puppet Pals

If there's one thing we've learned from TV, it's that everything is cuter when a puppet does it. It's a fail-safe formula. A person performs a hackneyed visual gag and we all groan in agony, but an adorable puppet does it and we fall for it hook, line, and stinker.*

It's no mystery that children love puppets, but TV in the 80s and 90s proved that adults have a pretty solid puppet-loving capacity all their own. Puppets often make the best punchlines, giving them an automatic boost in likability in both kids' and grown-up television programming. Plus, they never need a stunt double or act like a diva when it comes to contract renewal. Talk about cutting expenses.

Puppet-studded programs may not be the most highbrow fare on TV, but they have a unique style of entertaining us. They allow us to suspend our disbelief to a point where if we can believe this talking toy exists somewhere in real life, maybe all of the magical features that come along with it are possible, too. These 80s and 90s shows didn't need to be realistic or to feature deeply developed characters; we were perfectly content with our cartoonish, overdrawn cliches. So long as they kept feeding us hilarious puppet gag antics, we were more than happy to partake in spoonful after heaping spoonful.

Eureeka's Castle

Eureeka's Castle was a Nick Jr. gem, giving us a quirky, offbeat world of wizardry and goofy characters. The show revolved around sorceress trainee Eureeka, thickheaded dragon Magellan, peanut butter sandwich-gobbling twins Bogge and Quagmire, the visually impaired Batley, and the vaguely ethnic pushcart proprietor Mr. Knack. The characters were creative and imaginative in a way that bodes well for children's programming. It may not have been highly educational, but it did teach me to fear claymation Slurms. Those things were weird.

Lambchop's Play-Along

If there's one thing kids love more than puppets, it's baby puppets. Have you ever seen a more adorable little sheeplet? When I grew up, I was horrified to find that "Lambchop" referred to a cut of meat. Slicing into it for the first time was pretty traumatic, though luckily there was no stuffing inside. That might have scarred me for life. As a device to distract myself from the lambchop chopping task at knife, I just hummed a few bars of "This is the Song that Never Ends." That seemed to do the trick.

Mystery Science Theater 3000

I think our buddy Joel at MST3K had the right idea. If you're stuck orbiting the earth sequestered on a spacecraft forced by the powers that be to watch n endless stream of B-movies, you should definitely use the spare theater equipment to build yourself some sentient robot pals. You should, of course, name them Gypsy, Cambot, Crow T. Robot, and Tom Servo. There are pretty much no other options.

Sesame Street

For many of us, this was our first major exposure to puppetry. Or, equally likely, our first exposure to platonic male puppet roommates who share a cookie crumb-ridden bed and know an awful lot about each other's bathtime habits and carrier pigeon preferences. Either way, most of us fell for the cuddly Sesame Street characters, and hard. I mean, a monster who lives in a garbage can? Where do they come up with this stuff?


Alf Sings "Old Time Rock and Roll" - Click here for the most popular videos

Just when you thought noses couldn't get any more phallic looking than Joe Camel's, you met Alf. And then, you knew. This was the be-all-end-all of vaguely suggestive schnozes. ALF stood for "Alien Life Form", which is how we kindly earth-folk classify floppy-looking brown masses who grew up on the Lower East Side of the planet Melmac. ALF definitely had his moments, but his appearance is just a little unsettling. It just feels inappropriate.


If after watching this show you cried out endlessly, "I'm the baby! Gotta love me!" I'm sure your parents were less than pleased with their decision to grant viewership privileges. The show wasn't really directed at kids; it was more of a family sitcom that happened to feature full-size puppet characters. By the time we'd realized this, though, we'd already moved on to gleefully smacking our fathers on their heads with a frying pan while screaming, "Not the mama! Not the mama!"

Muppets Tonight

There have been so many incarnations of The Muppets over the years it's become difficult to differentiate between one series and another, but for the sake of 90s nostalgia we'll single out Muppets Tonight for brief examination. The show hinged pretty heavily on celebrity guest appearances and wasn't especially a standout in the long line of Muppet shows. I must say, though, the Baywatch parodies were worth a chuckle or two.

Fraggle Rock

That is some seriously rockin' theme music. I probably haven't seen this intro since 1992, yet somehow I find myself singing along with a surprisingly adept command of the lyrics. It's catchy, right? It's got that sparkly puppet charm sprinkled liberally throughout. Well done, Jim Henson studios. Well done, indeed.

Fraggle Rock managed to slip in a bunch of heavy issues while we were busy enjoying the musical numbers and highly colorful wardrobe selection. Some of us also spent a fair amount of time giggling over the fact that there was a Fraggle named Boober. I mean, Boober! Can you beat that?

Cousin Skeeter

Who knew a marionette could be such a bad-ass? It probably speaks volumes about my level of maturity that the theme song's phrase, "Skeeter's what I want" amuses me in a slangy double-entendre kind of way. I don't think I've advanced much in behavioral age since the days this show originally aired.

Unhappily Ever After

This show gave many of us an unquenchable desire to own a crass, wise-cracking stuffed rabbit. Mr. Floppy was just so adorable. His looks were, anyway. His personality could probably have used a bit of a tune-up to align with his cherubic appearance, but it all just contributed to his puppety charm.


If you had to pick the most terrifying mode of puppet, I'd say human-head-on-tiny-puppet-body would fall pretty darn close to the top of the list. Weinerville was a Nickelodeon cartoon/live-action variety show based on the comedic stylings of Marc Weiner. The characters were undeniably creative, but they still seem a little creepy to me. Add cross-dressing to the giant head/tiny puppet body mix and be prepared for the wrath of Weinerville.

Whatever the reason, puppets had a hold on us. Maybe we just don't watch enough Nick Jr. anymore, but the proportion of puppets in prime-time programming seems to have persistently plummeted. It's too bad, really. A lot of today's shows could probably use a good puppet boost. Just think: if this weekend's Oscars had used puppet presenters, we'd have been far more likely to push through to the bitter end. Just a thought.

*This is not a typo, it's just a terrible, terrible play on words. Had I been a puppet, you would have been all over that one


Rory L. Aronsky said...

The characters were creative and imaginative in a way that bodes well for children's programming.

R.L. Stine was the head writer of "Eureka's Castle." Man, that guy could really market himself well to kids. ;)

Cee said...

Most of those shows scared the crap out of me...I hate puppets.

Except for Mystery Science Theater 3000...which is still one of my favorite shows ever.

Melanie's Randomness said...

I was addicted to Fraggle Rock!!! I never realized how many puppet stuff there was!! I agree everything is cuter when a puppet does it. Eureka's Castle was da bomb!! I liked the bat guy. I had no idea R.L. Stine had a hand with Eureka's castle!! That explains why I liked it so much!!

At first I was like I really don't remember Weinerville but Omg I totally do!! I think it freaked me out just a lil bit way back when! hehe. =P

They are supposedly making a Fragle Rock movie now, hopefully they won't $*%@* it up.

Tara said...

I loved Dinosaurs! I always went around saying "Not the mama! Not the mama!"

I had totally forgotten about some of these, like Unhappily Ever After, Weinerville, and Eurekas Castle.

Shannon said...

Just think: if this weekend's Oscars had used puppet presenters, we'd have been far more likely to push through to the bitter end. Just a thought.

OMG, this is so true. I've always loved shows with puppets. They make me happy.

Anonymous said...

Oh my gosh Cousin Skeeter was a staple in our house! My sisters and I were obsessed. Now the kid that played Bobby (who I used to have a major crush on) plays some lame, over-acted role on Meet the Browns. I also remember the first time I saw Meagan Good playing some sexed up role in a movie or music video or something. So traumatizing.

Beth said...

I am not ashamed to admit that I have a stuffed Lamb Chop that I sleep with every night. And I'm nineteen. >_> But she was my favorite as a kid! Awww.

As for Eureeka's Castle, all I can remember is "I meant to do that..."

And whenever my dad watched MST3K, Crow scared me out of my 3-year-old mind. When I started watching MST again last year, I had to get used to his creepy visage. Haha.

LOVEDthis post

Meghan said...

I love Fraggle Rock and begged my mom to buy me all of the books!

ali said...

Seeing this Weinerville stuff reminds me of the time I saw Marc Weiner do stand-up, complete with puppets. Yes, really. That was odd.

Fun post, especially the ALF bit. I have a special love for ALF.

Ali said...

I'm about to spring another one on you, so get ready.

Guess who kind of knows ALF? As in, you know, the guy who created/voiced him, not the puppet. Although in my opinion, ALF IS REAL.

This is in absolutely no way meant to brag. I just love exciting you with these things!

Happy Tuesday. :)

Literary Crap said...

I still LOVE Seasame Street! I love watching clips of the show with musical guests. My favorite is when Feist guest starred and sang 1234.

I think it'd be amazing to be one of the human actors on the show...except that I'd probably cry if I met the puppeteers. I'd no longer be able to pretend that Elmo and Co. are real!

coulrophobic agnostic said...

I love all of these shows! Well, I never got into Cousin Skeeter. I watched a couple of episodes, but was really too old for it. Muppets Tonight was majorly underappreciated, though.

Lil' Woman said...

I loved all of these..esp. Fraggle Rock and Lambchop!!!

Cory said...

Seriously, how is it that I remember every word from the Fraggle Rock theme song as well as the basic premise of the introduction? I haven't watched this show since it's original run, so it must have made an impression. I don't really think I watched as frequently as my friends because I remember that I found it vaguely frightening, especially whenever those giant people were on screen. Those still sort of scare me.

Cory said...

Now that I'm thinking about it, most of these shows scared me at least a little bit, chief among them Fraggle Rock, Eureeka's Castle, and Alf (especially Alf). I used to really like Alf, but then one night when I was sleeping this talking Alf doll that I had just randomly started speaking...and it was turned off at the time. After that, I used to check my closet at night (the doll's new home) to make sure Alf was still in there and not lurking around my house, plotting ways to kill my family. I think this might be where my irrational fear of puppets stems from.

Chef Z said...

Speaking of puppets, anyone remember Under the Umbrella Tree? A bit on the early side, but it ran into the 90's...

dazzledandtorn said...

what about PUZZLE PLACE?? i was addicted to that show growing up!

Josh said...

Do you remember the name of a puppet movie that had animals trying to get scare off bandits by making them think the place was haunted? The entire cast was puppets and it came on Nickolodean back in the 90's.

Garner said...

I remember watching the lovable and witty ALF. It was one of the few shows that I watched from the 90s sitcom list. Later I watched some of the recorded episodes from the late 80s.

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