Friday, October 30, 2009

90s Fitness: Exercise Fads and Ridiculous Infomercials

Riding the crest of 80s aerobic fitness trends, many entrepreneurial-minded exercise gurus took to the airwaves with the goal of convincing us to buy their complicated contraptions. Through the use of TV ads, particularly informercials, these buff business-minded bodybuilders managed to persuade us into believing that we could not live without these exercise appliances. Watching the near-immediate transformations of the testimonial hawkers on our screens, our resistance weakened and we felt increasingly compelled to rush to the nearest phone with the toll-free number and a valid credit card. In short, we were all looking for a quick fix and television ads had a unique way of making the process of getting fit seem simple and instantaneous.

Of course, getting fit is not simple or instantaneous, but we didn't know that yet. Watching these skilled salespeople describe the results possible with their product made us believe that this was indeed the fitness panacea we had been looking for. It rarely occurred to any of us that we might actually have to use the item in question. Based on the infomercials, it seemed enough to simply shell out the bills for it. It was almost as if we believed our act of exercise goodwill would immediately transform us from crumb-laden couch potatoes into tan, oiled, muscular wonders. That is to say, we were completely deluded.

So many of us fell under the spell of the fitness trends, it's no wonder many of these products made their endorsers a nice chunk of cash. Everyone's looking for that magic bullet (no infomercial pun intended*) to transform us from flab to fab, and somehow watching these 30 minute ads at 2 in the morning made these machines and videos seem like the wisest solution. As many of us were wee children during the rise and fall of these trends, we had the unique perspective of watching the infomercials, coveting the products, and having no means whatsoever to obtain them.

I don't know about you, but when I got a television in my own room it certainly didn't have cable on it. There are only so many programming options late at night, and most of them involve show-length commercials brimming with overzealous enthusiasm. Even as a kid, I was blown away by the seemingly incredible results these programs offered. If I had been 18 or older to order, I certainly would have done so. Until then, though, I'd have to settle for sitting back and enjoying the informercials.

Tony Little's Gazelle

Just when I was here thinking Richard Simmons was the king of excessive exercisical energy, Tony Little burst onto the infomercial scene gave Richard a run for his aerobics-earned money. To his credit, Little did have an adequately inspirational backstory to give him some credibility in pushing others to their physical limits. Little was a former bodybuilder who suffered a serious car crash, leaving him injured and subsequently overweight. Tired of wallowing in cheeto-tinted misery, he petitioned a small television to let him create his own personal trainer style fitness program. Not long after, he struck a deal with the Home Shopping Network and all seemed pretty peachy.

As his personal website objectively and not-at-all-awkwardly informs us, "Life couldn't have been better for the blond haired, lean, mean, energized, personal training machine." That is, until he suffered yet another car accident. Little did the whole overcoming adversity thing a second time around and came out with his signature Gazelle fitness equipment:

See? Even at 11 seconds, that clip manages to draw you in. Like a train wreck. Or car crash. Too soon? Sorry, Tony. I admire your work, I really do.

Tae Bo

Developed by Tae kwan do instructor Billy Blanks, Tae Bo combined martial arts and kickboxing to create an infomercial-driven phenomenon. In the 90s, you could catch one of Blanks's infomercials airing pretty much anytime. In 1999, they were airing 2000 times a day on cable. Now that's good exposure. And I'm not just talking about those spandex pants.

The infomercial gave us many compelling testimonials from regular people and celebrities alike, all of whom praised its "spirit" and "Truth". Selling at 60 bucks a pop, Blanks made a pretty penny of his kickboxing hybrid routine. People flooded local gyms to partake in new Tae Bo-inspired cardio kickboxing classes, and seemingly overnight a fitness fad was born. It makes sense, really. We get to punch and kick and let out aggression in the comfort of our own homes. What's not to like?

If you want to try it for yourself, here's a little 8 minute taste:

8 Minute Video series

Speaking of 8 minutes, the "8 minute" video series was a serious money-maker in the 90s, particularly its "8 Minute Abs" routine. The idea was that in just 8 minutes a day, you too could be as ripped and skimpy-pantsed as the instructor. Any rational person can tell you this is pretty much impossible if you're overweight in any way; sure, you may have rock-hard abs, but thousands of crunches won't do a thing about that beer belly.

The videos feature a cheery host, bland meandering music, and two seemingly mute demonstrators who smile with such conviction you've almost got to question their sobriety. The host constantly refers to his audience as, "gang", which I suppose is supposed to be encouraging and not indicative of any east side/west side distinction. Just to clarify.

The videos caught a bit of free publicity in There's Something About Mary, in a scene in which a lone hitchhiker details his plans to create a "7 Minute Abs" program and crush his overlong competition:


There are so many reasons to love this commercial. For one, that struggling sitter-upper in the No Pain, No Gain t shirt. Usually when I work out, I like to wear clothing emblazoned with slogans that represent my current fitness mindset. I've got to change at the gym every time I hop on a new machine.

Also, I find that doing concurrent ab exercises with a partner in tandem synchronized motion without speaking or looking at one another is usually the most effective method. And of course, we've got our requisite doctor testimonial claiming this thing is pelvically tilted in some miraculous way. That's it, I'm sold.

Buns of Steel

On the edge of the 80s aerobics craze, "Buns of Steel" gave us a means of filling out leotards or bike shorts respectively by gender. In the late 80s and early 90s, workout videos were becoming all the rage. Just think, you could get fit all from the comfort of your own home. Of course, many people overlooked the fact that you actually had to do the workout, but if you did it no doubt led to the betterment of your overall physique. At least that's what Cher told me in Clueless.

Suzanne Somers for Thighmaster

Ah, here we've got both our doctor testimonial and celebrity endorsement. Talk about your classic infomercial one-two punch. There is definitely a little something...inappropriate about it. Didn't your mother ever tell you to keep your legs closed? It's just a tad obscene. I can see why the infomercial was so popular, though.

The 90s fitness scene may have been slightly toned down from the over-the-top marketing of the 80s, but it had its own unique charm and appeal. There's a reason these items sold thousands of units worldwide. Rather than the effectiveness of the product, though, that reason was probably more about how easily swayed the public was by infomercials. Alright, I'm off to go cut up some shoes with my Ginsu knives. What? They're good knives.

*Okay, okay, a little infomercial pun intended

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Jurassic Park

There are certain movies that have the unique ability to both terrify and entertain us at the same time. Especially as impressionable young children, special effects can have a marvelously resonant impact on our easily rattled imaginations. The images that frighten us as children have the power to stay with us for life. I mean, I'm still afraid of being eaten by dinosaurs while innocently settling a velociraptor in its isolated caged environment during a promising career stint as a genetic engineer on a Costa Rican Island. Still.

While we may be unfazed by dazzling computer generated visual effects today, we were incredibly impressed when it was still a fledgling enterprise. Before computer animation, visual effects in movies were less than convincing to say the least. Yes, the movie industry had had years to come up with all sorts of perspective and angle-based trickery, but it just wasn't as thrilling to see a spacecraft careening through the galaxy with little strings attached to its sides.

Jurassic Park was incredibly pioneering in the field of visual effects, unleashing upon audience such a series of incredibly realistic-looking prehistoric creatures that they had never seen before. In previous films with dinosaurs in the plot, the beasts themselves had been laughably unconvincing. In Jurassic Park, however, the close interaction of the computer animated dinosaurs and the human actors was enough to have all of us trembling in our movie seats. While it may not be up to snuff by today's standards, in the early 90s it was terrifyingly realistic and unlike anything any of us had ever seen.

Based on the late Michael Crichton's science fiction novel of the same name, Jurassic Park explores the dangerous outcomes of tampering with prehistorical science. Crichton actually began work on the project as a screenplay, but it later grew into a book which would later grow back into a movie under the guidance of Steven Spielberg. Despite its twisted path to production, it was an interesting and chilling story that ultimately drew millions of moviegoers to the theater.

While the plot is certainly farfetched, it's also an interesting and well-conceived premise. The short version of the way-too-complicated-for-me-to-understand-as-a-child set up is that a genetic engineering firm is in the midst of creating a theme park featuring real dinosaurs. Why anyone ever, ever thought this might be a good idea is completely beyond me, but I'm just going to go with it. I mean, me: five foot five. T-Rex: 20 feet. I'm no mathlete, but I'm pretty sure the odds are stacked against me.

The scientists working on the project used prehistoric mosquitoes preserved in amber and extracted from them the years-old dinosaur blood that constituted their last supper. They craftily combined the genetic material with some leftover frog DNA they had laying around and presto change-o, we've got ourselves some dinosaurs. Again, this seems like a totally marvelous and harmless idea that will in no way erupt in the faces of all invested in the project.

Following some complications in getting things off the ground, a team of inspectors arrives to give the park the go-ahead. The CEO of the whole operation invites some prominent and relevant scientists with titles I'm not going to even attempt to spell out for you here. Oh, and he's got his grandkids with him, you know, just in case the dinosaurs have a hankering for a light snack.

A tropical storm and some mild inconveniences later, computer geek Dennis Nedry (You know, Newman from Seinfeld) is left to tend to the park. Unluckily for the park, Nedry has accepted a substantial bribe from the firm's competitors to provide them with embryos. In order to do so and get away with it, he needs to shut down the park's security system. Yes, the one that controls all the electric fences that keep the dinosaurs in. I think we can all see where this is headed.

It's about at this point in the movie that everyone either starts dying vicious and gory deaths or running for their lives. Obviously Nedry's got to bite it, after all he started it, so it's really only fair that he gets eaten alive by dinosaurs. Our lawyer pal doesn't fare too well, either. To be fair, I guess that's probably what you get for voluntarily isolating yourselves with ferocious prehistoric beasts.

As if things weren't bad enough, the survivors come across a nest of freshly hatched eggs, which was totally not in the plan. All of the dinosaurs were supposed to be females, but conveniently for the twisting plot these frogs they used have some sort of gender mutation. That can't be good. Thanks a lot B.D. Wong, you played the scientist who was supposed to have taken care of that. To think I trusted you as Franc's assistant in Father of the Bride.

A park engineer (Samuel L Jackson, because it just wouldn't be a movie without him) attempts to break into the now-deceased Nedry's computer, but to no avail. Of course the only way to get into the files is to shut everything down, which seems like a pretty ominous sign when we've already got man-eating dinosaurs abounding. There's a fair amount of bloodshed during this part, and by fair I mean more than enough fodder to give a kid nightmares for months. Believe me, I know.

Finally they get connected with their crappy modem and manage to call for help, requesting a helicopter to retrieve them from the mounting wreckage they've unleashed on the island. I don't want to give too many spoilers (i.e. the memories are still to traumatic to recount) but suffice it to say the survivors make a narrow escape and leave us with a vague enough ending to warrant not just a sequel but a legitimate franchise.

In case that synopsis just didn't do it for you memory-wise, here's a handy condensed version:

When the movie was released, it soon became the highest-grossing film of all-time. Sure, it got knocked off its top spot by Titanic, but it's still definitely up there. Even watching the movie today after all I know about advances in animatronic modeling and computer imaging, it's still pretty terrifying. I suppose that's testament to its staying power. If you'll excuse me now, I'm going to go hide under the bed.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Gender Specific Version of 90s Toys: Stereotyping at its Finest

From infancy, we learn that blue is boys and pink is for girls. Even idealistic parents who seek to give their child a more open-minded experience usually succumb to the plethora of gender-specific paraphernalia in the marketplace. When it comes down to it, your kid is most likely either going to beg you for a dolly or a monster truck, and you're just going to have to deal with it and shell out the cash for different toys for different gendered siblings.

Toy companies are savvy to the fact that creating gender specific toy options gives them double the revenue avenues. They pretty much only have to think up one idea and then tint it either blue or pink accordingly. Figuratively speaking, that is. I don't imagine they actually have an idea dyeing process.

Some of the ideas translated well to dual versions, while others may have been best left to appeal to a single gender. I mean, let's be real here. Everyone knows it's cool for Transformers to turn from a car into a robot. It's fully functional, and now endorsed by Megan Fox. But for a doll to turn into a cupcake? What exactly is the functionality on that one? At least as a robot you can wreak general havoc and destruction. What new power do you gain by disguising yourself as a tasty baked good?

Narrow minded toy producers gave us a clear-cut stance on gender stereotyping, advertising the toys exclusively to the designated gender and thus alienating any kid who may like to play with a toy aimed at the opposite sex. They weren't out trying to destroy individuality, they just wanted to make truckloads of money and figured that appealing to their main audience would probably do that trick. Here are just a few of the stereotypical girl version/boy version dichotomies of toys available to children in the 90s:

Girl Version: Treasure Trolls
Boy Version: Battle Trolls

Let's play a game. It's called good idea/bad idea. It goes a little something like this: troll figurines with rhinestone belly button embellishment? Good. Reinterpretation of that same cuddly figurine to wield an axe and nun chucks? Bad. Don't get me wrong, I understand that trolls are by nature supposed to be gruff and aggressive, but the troll toys available on the market place were generally pretty friendly. The regular ol' trolls were fairly gender neutral until Ace decided to baby dollify them to attract an offshoot group of fawning young girls:

Of course that girl in the commercial would wish for curly hair. She couldn't possibly want a better understanding of precalculus or biomedical science. Nope, its pretty much all about looks. Thanks, Ace!

Hasbro took a slightly different approach in marketing to juvenile male consumers:

Geez, these things are threatening. And we wonder why boys grow up to be so aggressive?

Girl Version: Treasures n' Trinkets Jewelry Making Kit

Boy Version: Creepy Crawlers

Creepy Crawlers have been around for decades, entertaining children with marginally hazardous ovens with the power to nuke gooey bugs. Boys got to do this:

While girls got to do this:

Why exactly young girls would want to make earrings and necklaces out of a disturbingly gummy goo is beyond me, but apparently ToyMax thought they had a real winner here. To be fair, I did own this toy, and I did wear the clip-on earrings. They were sort of cute, in a why-the-hell-am-I-wearing-pink-slime-on-my-earlobes kind of way.

Girl Version: Cupcake Dolls
Boy Version Transformers

I know I've already began a partially-completed rant up top there, so I should just let these commercials speak for themselves.

Boys had this:

Whereas girls had this:

I'm sorry, "she cooks sweet and looks sweet and smells sweet, too"? Boys get killer robots and we get a junior housewife in training? Boy, I just can't wait to rush home so I can practice baking and looking pretty. Who needs global robot takeover when you've got domestic skills?

Girl Version: Barbie Lamborghini Power Wheels
Boy Version: Jeep Protector Team

Yes, you heard that right. We're going to shop, shop, shop, till we drop, drop, drop. Now there's a positive message to send young girls. Let's just hope our young male suitors packed a credit card in their kawasaki ninjamobiles.

Well, isn't that nice? Boys get to be heroes and girls get to go shopping. How enlightened. Thanks, Mattel!

Girl Version: Happy Meal Barbie Toys
Boy Version: Happy Meal Hot Wheels Toys

McDonald's Commercial (1998) - The best free videos are right here

I admit this one is sort of a cop-out. Barbie and Hot Wheels are not really related in any way other than that they are both children's toys and obviously have some sort of lucrative relationship with McDonald's. They're certainly not alternative versions of the same toy. Rather than selecting a universally appealing consolatory toy to offer children as kudos for finishing their McNuggets, McDonald's went the route of giving all boys one model toy and all girls another. The message here was clear: girls should like dolls, boys should like cars, and McDonald's counter employees will scorn and berate you for requesting otherwise.

I'm not all that up on current toys so I really couldn't tell you if today's offerings are any more enlightened. It's pretty safe to say that as long as there exists a marketable demographic of toy buyers, toy companies will employ utterly shameless tricks with little regard to sensitivity or diplomacy. That is to say, corporations will continue to shill pink crap for girls and blue crap (with lasers!) for boys until it stops being profitable. If you can't beat the system, you might as well join on in. Now where's that cupcake doll?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen Empire

It may be difficult now to think of Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen as anything other than socialite bag ladies, but back in the 90s they were amongst the most successful young entrepreneurial stars on the scene. Don't let their current air of homelessness fool you: these girls have been building their multimillion dollar empire brick by straight-to-video brick since they were old enough to legally appear onscreen. Love them or hate them, they built themselves as an incredibly successful brand. Yes, they've stamped their name on everything from shampoo to training bras, but something's got to keep these girls in poorly fitting oversized sweaters.

When the girls debuted in TGIF's Full House as infants, a crafty lawyer saw great potential in capturing and packaging their essence. Their manager Robert Thorne created Dualstar Entertainment and in a then-shocking move named the girls (at seven years apiece) as executive producers. Moguls don't come much mini-er than that. While most of their peers were mastering the monkey bars at recess, the Olsens were already overseeing a fast-growing empire. Not too shabby.

Tween programming was still mostly an untapped well in the early 90s, with most media producers focusing on capturing the attention of either children or teens with no middle ground. The twins' manager saw an opportunity for some serious tween-tapped revenue and capitalized it by building the girls into a tightly managed, well-defined product that sold well with young girls and parents alike. While they may have shaken their once-wholesome all-American image, their fame is hinged on the fact that they turned selling out into a legitimate business prospect:

Full House

The twins got their start on Full House when they were only 9 months old, making them celebrities practically since birth. The girls were hired to play a single character, Michelle Tanner, to comply with time limitations of child labor laws. Initially, producers tried to hide the fact that Michelle was played by two different actresses. When Mary Kate and Ashley soon began developing a fan base, however, they quickly changed their tune. These girls had star quality from a young age, as you can see from the following interview with them. Warning: if you're sensitive to adorableness, you may want to skip this one.

To Grandmother's House We Go/Double, Double, Toil and Trouble/How the West was Fun

During their time on Full House, Mary Kate and Ashley expanded their young fan base by starring in a slew of children's made-for-TV movies. This cheesy fare went over well with young audiences and their overprotective parents, further skyrocketing the twins to atmospheric fame.

Our First Video

In 1993, the twin's manager saw great potential in the straight-to-video market, expanding the twins' brand to include children's videos with tie-in musical numbers. I watched this VHS so many times that the tape began to unravel, leaving me inconsolable. I just wanted to watch "I am the Cute One" and "Nobody Tells the President What to Do" on repeat approximately twenty thousand times. Is that so much to ask?

I'm not sure if the music industry would technically classify any of these songs as singles, but I do remember hearing "Brother for Sale" on the radio. Granted, it was a kid's station, but I was pretty convinced that these girls had a hit record on their hands.

The Adventures of Mary Kate and Ashley

Sometime around this era I distinctly remember receiving my Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen Fan Club Starter Kit in the mail, which was essentially a brochure for all of the overpriced things I could ever imagine begging for. Following Full House's cancellation, Dualstar expanded their straight-to-video enterprise with a series of MK&A adventure movies.

In these videos, the girls played kid detectives fully decked out in 40s-style detective gear. Everyone knows that's how real detectives go undetected: by dressing the part. By this point, the girls were pretty much unstoppable. The plots and acting were almost entirely inconsequential. It was shameless brand-building and we ate up every minute of it.

You're Invited....

The idea that Ashley and Mary Kate would even consider inviting me (me!) to their costume/dance/sleepover party was almost too exciting to bear. Okay, so everyone who could convince their parents to shell out the twenty bucks for the video was on the guest list too as far as Dualstar was concerned, but still.

It Takes Two

The Olsens made the leap to the big screen with 1995's It Takes Two. It was sort of a Parent Trap rip-off with a less substantiated premise, but it was a huge hit with kids. This was a simpler time, when Kirstie Alley was still of Hollywood proportions to play the female romantic lead and Steve Guttenberg was a household name. I was, per usual, surprised to learn that the movie holds a remarkably putrid 9% fresh rating on For those of you slow on the math front that's 91% rotten. Yikes. As a kid, I was pretty certain this film was a masterpiece and was thus shocked at the Academy's blatant omission of the movie in its nominations. For shame.

Two of a Kind

You know what's a really good idea? Naming the main characters in the show after the actors but mysteriously changing their last name. Now that's good writing. The short-lived Two of a Kind premiered on TGIF in 1998, featuring Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen as Mary Kate and Ashley Burke. See? Brilliant. The show's ratings were a serious disappointment, leading to its cancellation after one season. Remarkably, though, during that time they managed to release 39 (!) book adaptations of the show. That's just impressive.

Billboard Dad/Switching Goals/Passport to Paris/Our List are Sealed/There Aren't Enough Front Slashes in the World to Complete this Insanely Extensive List of Straight-to-Video Movies

Ashley and Mary Kate cemented their status as tween icons with their incredibly successful straight-to-video offerings. They always played a different set of twins, but each set seemed to suffer from Wakefield syndrome: that is to say, one was a Jessica and the other an Elizabeth. I guess it's pretty much inevitable. I mean, how could there be any twins out there with something in common? No, polar opposites are really the only available permutation.

While Mary Kate and Ashley have moved on to pursue separate and more grown-up ventures, their empire remains intact. Dualstar even represented those twins from The Suite Life of Zack and Cody for awhile, proving that the company has some strangely sustainable twin business out there. The Olsens may not be the squeaky-clean tween idols of days past, but many of their fans remain fiercely loyal. These girls were workhorses from ages 0-18, so it's pretty fair to let them off the hook now with full-time gigs as essentially mannequins for enormous sunglasses and tattered scarves. They've earned it.

Monday, October 26, 2009

90s Swing Music Revival

It's truly a sight to behold when the mainstream kids manage to wrangle something cool and underground from those pesky elitist hipsters. Those young people associated with esoteric trends and super-secret clandestine interests are always up there on their high horses, explaining that yes, they knew about it before it was cool. Those of us in general mainstream society don't have to apologize when we succeed in wrestling something fun from the white-fingered death grip of our too-cool neighbors. If anything, we should classify it as a rousing victory.

Such was the case with the swing revival of the late 90s. Swing enthusiasts abounded in hipster culture long before it made its way into the conventional current and they'll never let us forget it. We all know it's the job of the dominant popular culture to take whatever is up and coming on the cool front, toss it around a room of middle-aged white guys in suits for a few hours, and present us a repackaged profit-driven consumer-hungry version of it. For the non-hipsters among us, we were more than happy to jump on the bandwagon. If we could manage to Lindy Hop on, well, then all the better.

There were many forces at play pushing the swing revival to the forefront of pop culture, but luckily for you I'm neither motivated nor educated enough to care to describe them in accurate detail. Instead, please enjoy this watered-down version of the events complete with video accompaniment.

The mainstream revitalization of swing tied in with period movies showcasing upbeat and fast-paced swing numbers. I guess plain ol' non-hipster America wasn't quite ready for an onslaught of modernized swing-dancing lifestyle cues, so we settled for seeing some peppy song-and-dance numbers in films set in the past where swing belonged. In A League of their Own, the girls go out for a night on the town and show off their incredibly well-choreographed and dubiously spontaneous moves.

A League of their Own (1992)

A year later, Swing Kids unleashed the goods on the underground swing music and dance way of life. Okay, so the film was set in World War II-era Germany, but we still were able to translate their off-the-beaten path experience to our own lives. At the very least it's nearly impossible to watch this movie without having some flicker of desire to learn the Lindy Hop. It's pretty much inevitable.

Swing Kids (1993)

Swing in mainstream media quickly progressed from showcasing the dance moves of the past to incorporating them into movies set in the present day. Admittedly some of these movies featured Jim Carrey with a pliable green face and a yellow zoot suit and were thus perhaps not particularly grounded in reality, but they did feature some fun swing scenes.

Royal Crown Revue in The Mask (1994)

Subtlety waning, Miramax released the aptly titled Swingers in 1996. I haven't seen Couples Retreat but based on hearsay I'm going to go out on a limb and say Vince Vaughn and John Favreau have downslid pretty damn far since their Swingers days. In Vaughn's case, it appears he may have slid directly into a vat of cheeseburgers and milkshakes. Regardless, my love for these too was generally unshakable since Vince Vaughn coined "Vegas, Baby!" In a particularly memorable scene, Favreau and Heather Graham swing dance their way through a hole-in-the-wall club. Maxim named this one of the ten most uncomfortable movie dance scenes ever, but I beg to differ.

The Cherry-Poppin' Daddies in Swingers (1996):

Many of these musicians' records hit the top of the charts by the late 90s, with audiences feeling the revival of the big band vibe. The Brian Setzer Orchestra enjoyed a heyday of popularity at this time with their cover of Louis Prima's "Jump, Jive, and Wail", giving us a music video that made us all want to sign up for swing dance classes. The combination of the retro feel and more modern arrangement lent a unique sense of timelessness to the track. It really is an incredibly catchy tune.

The Brian Setzer Orchestra

It didn't hurt that the then-current Gap khaki campaign chose "Jump, Jive, and Wail" to feature in their "Khaki Swings" ad. If we didn't think something was mainstream already, we had the Gap to come and shove it in our faces. Watching these attractive multicultural young people was among the straws that broke the proverbial camel's back in the transformation of swing from an underground movement to widely accessible phenomenon. If you could swing in khakis, it's safe to say it wasn't really all that hipster anymore.

Gap Commercial "Jump, Jive, and Wail"

For the full post on 90s Gap commercials, click here

In 1999, swing made yet another appearance in the movies in Blast from the Past. Fraser's character had grown up virtually suspended in time in a fallout shelter, so obviously he's incredibly adept at swing dancing. That's what we do in fallout shelters, people. Study the art of dance. Everyone knows that.

Big Bad Voodoo Daddy in Blast from the Past (1999):

Shall We Dance? - Funny home videos are a click away

Though the trend sustained itself a couple of years into the new millennium, it then faded away just as quickly as it had arrived. Unfortunately for the rest of us, that means we've got to move onto the next hipster genre to steal. What do you think? Should we go with ironic mustaches or inserting the word "postmodern" casually into everyday conversation? It's your call.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Married With Children

Sitting around today watching the entire cannon of Modern Family available to date on Hulu, I got to thinking about Ed O'Neill playing the patriarch of a dysfunctional family. I know, I know, it's sort of a stretch, but I'm almost certain I've seen this before. The patriarch part, that is.*

It just goes to show that Ed O'Neill was wasting his time playing all those hard-nosed detectives and policemen in the interim period. He was pretty much meant to be play this cliche of a former football-playing clueless bumbling dad. It's not typecasting, it's just logical selection.

Married with Children was one of those quintessential 90s shows that effectively captured the cynical sense of humor of a coming-of-age Generation X. The show focused on the Bundy family, a sort of white-trash take on the family situation comedies that flooded the airwaves in the 80s. Indeed, the show's working title while in production was Not the Cosbys. The Bundys truly were a form of anti-Cosby, a screwball comedy with a husband and wife team cut in the classic disparaging style of The Honeymooners.

While there was the occasional moment of heartwarming awwness, generally the show had a sort of hard cynical shell with which it reflected the negative side of family life. In a time when all family shows were happy family shows, Married with Children
stood in stark contrast for its controversial humor. Because, you know, anything that doesn't reflect alleged good family values is immediately deemed subversive by middle America. Conservative family values-spouting critics with too much spare time needed to spout something, so a TV show featuring a humorously misanthropic title family seemed as good a target as any.

The tasteless humor and vulgar subject matter divided audiences, with some crying out against the lack of TV-grade perfection in the Bundy family and others laughing at the show's non-glossy take on the grittier side of family living. Like Al Bundy says,
"When one of us is embarrassed, the others feel better about ourselves." As long as the Bundys were out there week after week humiliating themselves and bringing shame to their family names, the rest of us could seek comfort in the fact that at least our own families weren't that bad. It may not have been an outright victory, but instead a sort of consolation prize. Married with Children gave us the emotional equivalent of a lifetime's supply of Campbell's tomato soup. We may not win family of the year, but at least we've got something.

Even the intro gave us a tongue-in-cheek approach to the family sitcom, contrasting the sunny Sinatra tune "Love and Marriage" against the mundane images of our tasteless starring family:

Al Bundy (O'Neill), our (sort of) hero, was the family's mediocre breadwinner. Now awashed-up middle aged guy, Al had once been a talented high school football player with a bright future until he knocked up his then-girlfriend, now-wife Peggy. With dreams of college athletic scholarships dashed, Al settles for marrying Peggy and taking an unexceptional job as a shoe salesman at the mall. Al is nothing if not the picture of mediocrity, driving a crappy car, working a thankless and mindless job, and taking joy in bowling and watching TV in lieu of spending quality time with his family.

Al's wife Peggy (Katey Sagal) is an indifferent and inattentive woman who delights in outspending her husband's meager earnings and refusing to cook, claiming a fire allergy. Her daily quota of bonbons could support a chocolate-hungry small Caribbean nation, though she somehow manages to maintain her svelte figure. She's a vision in painted-on spandex pants, a fire engine-red bouffant hairstyle, and sky-high heels.

With parents like these, it's easy to see how these kids didn't grow up to be personified beacons of moral light. Their blonde bimbo daughter Kelly (Christina Applegate) is a dim-witted and ignorant teenager known for her promiscuity and complete lack of understanding of everything. Her brother, Bud, is slightly better off intellectually though he is not known for his luck with the ladies. He's something of a leader for a band of merry misfits.

Their neighbors weren't much better. In early seasons, the lived beside Marcy (Amanda Bearse) and Steve Rhoades (David Harrisson), a somewhat more upwardly mobile couple who both work as bankers. Marcy and Al became rivals, with the former delighting in the latter's misery at every turn. Unsurprisingly, she was Peggy's best pal. Harrison left the show to pursue his stage career was replaced with Marcy's second husband, Jefferson D'arcy (Ted McGinley) a slacker bartender whom she married unknowingly while drunk. See, it's just one big happy family after another.

The show was extremely popular, though it was often plagued by public controversy. A few episodes in particular fell under attack by angry viewers:

A Period Piece (AKA The Camping Trip):

Conveniently available in condensed minisode format for your viewing pleasure, here is the short version of the episode:

The Bundys go camping with their neighbors the Rhoades during which all of the females have their periods simultaneously. The references to menstruation were more than enough to push some critics over the edge, complaining over the show's lack of taste and non family friendly content. Hey, no one said your kids needed to watch it. Anyway, I watched it, and I turned out okay. Well, anyway, I watched it.

Her Cups Runneth Over

This episode also caught a lot of flack for questionable taste and subject matter. The episode centered on Peggy's disappointment that her favorite bra has been discontinued on her birthday. Al sets out to an obscure and risque lingerie shop to retrieve a new one and encounters a number of inappropriate intimate items.

Terry Rakolta, a suburban Detroit mother who caught her children enjoying (gasp!) this particular episode, made a major to-do over the show's theme and content. She took to national TV, imposing her whiny prudish schoolmarm views on the rest of us. Rakolta explained, "
"I picked on Married...With Children because they are so consistently offensive. They exploit women, they stereotype poor people, they're anti-family. And every week that I've watched them, they're worse and worse. I think this is really outrageous. It's sending the wrong messages to the American family." Well, obviously. That's what makes a satire. It takes the messages and skews them. Someone get this woman a sense of humor.

I'll See You in Court

This episode never aired on Fox, proving too contentious for network TV. It was eventually released in the Season Three DVDs, but it's commonly known by fans as the "lost episode". Following the Rakolta crusade, Fox was especially cautious in its proceedings with Married with Children. "I'll See You in Court" followed Al and Peg as they escaped to an inn to reinvigorate their love life, only to find their neighbor's and their own sexual escapades being recorded on video by the sleazy motel. It sounds pretty tame right now, but in the wake of Terry Rakolta's tirade, it seemed better to be safe than sorry.

Despite our fair nation's uptight segment's penchant for engaging in the rectal conveyance of steel rods the show ran for an impressive 11 seasons, proving at least some of us still had a sense of humor. They told people it wasn't the Cosbys and people were angry that it wasn't the Cosbys. Go figure.

*Let it be known that Modern Family is totally new and awesome and not a rehashing of Married with Children. That is all.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Saturday Night Live 90s Commercial Parodies

The 90s may not have been the golden age of Saturday Night Live but it was certainly a consistently funny time for the show, featuring a versatile and talented cast willing to do almost anything for a laugh. True to SNL tradition, the era featured an abundance of parody commercials, spoofs featuring the cast actors that closely resembled and not-so-subtly mocked real television ad spots. So many of these fake commercials were so spot-on that they became indistinguishable from actual commercials. Save for the content matter, that is. I highly doubt "Oops I Crapped My Pants" would sell well on real store shelves, but SNL does an impressive job of making it seem almost plausible.

There were countless fake commercials throughout the years, but the 90s gave us many of our most memorable. If nothing else, this trip down SNL memory line is enough to make you miss Phil Hartman's unique skill at incredibly effective deadpan. Here are just a few of the satirical gems that entertained us between sketches:

Old Glory Insurance

Robot Attack Insurance

Chris | MySpace Video

In a time when many celebrities (Alex Trebek, Wilford Brimley) were out there hawking insurance, it was tough not to poke fun at the incredibly somber and humorless tone of their paid spokesperson delivery. This Old Glory bit definitely did the trick, spotlighting the dead-on deadpan intonation of Law & Order's Sam Waterston. He really had me going for awhile. I was almost certain this was a real ad, until they brought on the robots. Waterston, completely straight-faced, announced that killer robots were among the leading causes of death among the elderly. Without his pitch-perfect delivery, this could have been a dud, but Waterston definitely brought it. I was practically at my phone frantically dialing Old Glory for robot protection, and I was only ten. The robots weren't even after me yet.

First Citywide Change Bank

The voice-over confidently proclaims, "When you only do one thing, you do it better." It seems almost like a legitimate tagline for a bank. That one thing, however, was making change. As in changing monetary denominations. The proud and suave bank manager (Jim Downey) asserts, "We have been in this business a long time. With our experience, we're gonna have ideas for change combinations that probably haven't occurred to you. If you have a fifty-dollar bill, we can give you fifty singles. We can give you forty-nine singles and ten dimes. We can give you twenty-five twos. Come talk to us." And so it went, with helpful examples endless recombinations of change. Every aspect from the camera angles to the lighting to the booming voice-over was so similar to the real thing, you'd almost wish they would give you twenty singles, two tens, one five, eight quarters, forty nickels, and a hundred pennies. Wait, is that fifty? You shouldn't count on my skills, I couldn't even get through 8th grade Number Munchers the other day.


In a time when some pest control agencies were focusing on humane treatment, Bug-Off would definitely have stood out in its approach. As an alternative to the paralyzing poison used by its real-life competitors, Bug-Off tears off the roaches legs, scorches its reproductive organs, beats it to unconsciousness with its own limbs, stuffs cotton in every opening, and torments it with out-of-reach morsels of food. All through a clear viewing window to boot! Now that's a show. It admits that it won't kill the roach, but it will "give him plenty to think about". After all, isn't that what we want from our roach-killers? A thought-provoking experience for our victims. Sold.

Crystal Gravy

During the ongoing cola wars, Pepsi released Crystal Pepsi, a ridiculous attempt to fool people into thinking that clear beverages were purer and less tainted. Never mind that the new product had pretty much the exact same makeup as the original, save for the dark syrupy color. Using the same "Right Now" background music as the original, SNL gave us Crystal Gravy. I know, I know. Ew. It did effectively showcase the stupidity of Crystal Pepsi's premise. Still, though. Gross.

The Love Toilet

Some of these ads weren't necessarily based on real-life products, but were just ridiculous tangential ideas likely thought up by their writers at three in the morning. I imagine the Love Toilet fell into this category. The voice-over asked sexily, "Why not share the most intimate moment of them all?" Again, ew. The Love Toilet was a side-by-side toilet, made for couples to share this, um, special time. It was certainly a novel idea, I'll give you that.

Super Colon Blow

With a rise in health-consciousness, many commercials played to our sense of nutritional superiority. Super Colon Blow did a fine job of mocking cereals like Total, with the voice-over imploring Phil Hartman to guesstimate just how many bowls of his regular cereal he'd need to equal the fiber content of Colon Blow. Correct answer? 30,000 bowls. Yikes. Sorry I'd asked. As for Super Colon Blow? A whopping 2.5 million in fiber exchange rate. Hartman was catapulted skyward on the aforementioned bowls, giving us the visual fright of colon-blasting fiber. Ouch.

Bathroom Monkey

Really, who is more prototypically 90s than Janeane Garofalo? Her stint on SNL may have been brief, but she did give us this memorable commercial. Yes, it's silly, but that's the whole point. It looks like an average cleaning product testimonial ad spot but with one twist: the product in question is actually a monkey. Janeane muses, "Idon't know where monkeys come from.. I don't know how they reproduce.. I don't know how they eat. But I do know one thing: they were born to clean bathrooms." With a smile, she continues, "And when it's cleaning power is all used up.. (throws away used monkey)..simply pick up another in any of three decorative colors: Red..(cut to monkey in red diaper)..Blue..(cut to monkey in blue diaper) ..or Orangutan". The voice-over helpfully intones, "Orangutan will not wear diaper". Sure, it makes no sense, but you've got to admit it's funny. Disturbing, yes, but funny.

Bad Idea Jeans

90s Dockers commercials were enough to drive anyone crazy after a few viewings, so the Bad Idea Jeans parodies absolutely came at an opportune comedic time. Like the Dockers ad, this featured casual conversation between regular men. The difference? I don't think any Dockers ad star would utter, "Now that I have kids, I feel much better having a gun in the house". At least, I'm pretty sure he wouldn't.

Happy Fun Ball

To avoid lawsuits, more and more ads in the 90s were tacking on every imaginable disclaimer. It wasn't quite at today's levels (today an Ambien commercial told me I might experience sleep eating/ driving and more outgoing and aggressive behavior with memory loss and hallucinations) but it was a growing trend. The Happy Fun Ball commercial aptly pokes fun at these ever-increasing warnings. It could cause everything from itching to temporary blindness, and of course if it begins to smoke, you shouldget away immediately, seek shelter and cover your head. Sounds harmless enough, right?

Oops I Crapped My Pants

I do realize these ads are abundant in bathroom humor, but that's probably why we got such a kick out of them as kids. In this spoof of a Depends ad, we see a kindly old couple with their granddaughter. The young girl asks her grandmother to play tennis, but the old woman looks pained and says she needs to "sit this one out". Up until this point, this could be an actual ad. I was pretty convinced until they revealed the product in question to be "Oops I Crapped My Pants". Other than the name, every other element of the ad is pretty much right on point with a real Depends commercial. How can you not laugh at old people saying "Oops, I Crapped My Pants"? That's like saying you didn't laugh when that LifeAlert lady fell and couldn't get up. For shame.

Yes, many of these ads employed shameless tricks and ploys to get us to laugh, but more often than not it seemed to work. In many cases, the parodies were so on target that it became tough to tell whether we were watching the show or the commercial break. No target was too big or small to be the subject of mocking in these short fake ad spots. Whether our interest was in ruthlessly maiming bugs and leaving them to die while watching through a viewing window or safeguarding ourselves from the inevitable onslaught of giant killer robots, Saturday Night Live was there with a laugh.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Saved by the Bell

If we've learned anything from being raised by TV, it should be that continuity errors are a basic part of life. Whenever a location, plot point, or character gets tiresome, simply replace them without explanation or any nod to their past existence. Whether or not these things actually happened is unimportant. The important thing is to never mention them. Ever.

Saved by the Bell was famous for its arrant disregard for continuity, changing settings and weaving in new characters whenever convenient. They simply made them disappear, never to be mentioned again. Bored with your show's bland suburban Indianapolis backdrop? Move to Palisades! Tired of your show's major characters? Replace them with newer, more attractive actors! Two cast members want to leave the show before it runs its course? Replace them and later reintegrate them, never mentioning either their absence or the new best friend you briefly had during their leave. It's pretty much a perfect system.

While other shows may have prided themselves on meticulous attention to detail, Saved by the Bell got away with changing the rules over and over again. It didn't seem to matter much to its frenetic young fan base. For one, the show was marketed toward children, allowing producers to operate under the assumption that kids don't notice when their beloved favorite character is mysteriously sliced out of the picture. More importantly, though, the show was a fantasy. It wasn't meant to be reality. It was meant to entertain and allegedly educate on the importance of partaking in good clean fun, and those aims took precedence over any semblance of sense.

The original incarnation Good Morning Miss Bliss premiered in 1988. Watching this horribly cheesy introduction, it's amazing this even got picked up for one season. The opening is seemingly more focused on the adult characters than our lovable middle school miscreants, and that music is truly terrible in a late 80s slow melodic jams sort of way. It had potential, sure, but it didn't exactly seem poised for great success.

It's also entirely possible there were just too many quirky curly-haired players in the original; we wanted to see some beautiful people, dammit.

So what's a network to do? If your response is to completely change the premise, back stories, location, and characters, then congratulations. You're on your way up on the ruthless cheap-ploy television executive track. Kudos to you. You'll receive your certificate of achievement in 3-5 business days.

NBC repackaged the original show into a new Saturday morning series they called Saved by the Bell. They brought in Tiffani Amber Theissen, Elizabeth Berkley, and Mario Lopez to round out their all-American crew, switched the setting to Palisades, California, and pretended that most of them had been friends since birth.

The show became wildly popular, quickly developing a substantial young following. It didn't seem to matter that critics tore the show apart. Entertainment Weekly described it as "featur[ing] stiff acting, cheap sets, and plots that seem lifted from Happy Days reruns." It didn't seem to help that the show was both morally conscious and outstandingly superficial at the same time. Despite the poor critical receptions, kids ate this up. They adored it. They couldn't get enough.

The show also frequently broke the Fourth Wall, with Zach talking directly into the camera and occasionally and inexplicably relying on the power to freeze the surrounding action. It was cheesy, sure, but Zach was admittedly charming. It's tough to find a girl who grew up in the 90s that never had a flicker of a Zach Morris crush. It was pretty much inevitable.

Our show featured an assortment of two-dimensional characters:

Zach Morris (Mark Paul Gosselaar) is an endearing slacker, a twinkling-eyed schemer always seeking to cheat the system. He's a good kid overall, following the TV trope of lovable mischief maker. He gets himself into his fair share of jams, sure, but he never stretches his rule-breaking so far so as to constitute actual trouble-making. Plus, he had that hair. Have you seen that hair? Sigh.

Lisa Turtle (Lark Voorhies) is a gossip queen and shopping addict extraordinaire. She comes from a wealthy family (both her parents are doctors) and is constantly getting herself into shopping related jams in between dodging unwanted advances from Screech.

Jessie Spano (Elizabeth Berkley) is a feminist overachiever who is borderline obsessive about her grades. She's somewhat of a do-gooder, but more often she's a prima donna perfectionist with a penchant for caffeine pills. Okay, so that only happened in one episode, but I still see it as major character development. I mean, she was so excited. She was so excited. She was so scared.

Kelly Kapowski (Tiffani-Amber Theissen) Kelly was the All-American good girl, a cheerleader whose good looks win her an outpouring of male attention. She wasn't the smartest girl in the bunch, but she was sweet and we were supposed to feel sorry for her because she was sort of poor.

Albert Clifford "AC" Slater (Mario Lopez) is a tough-talking jock who disparagingly refers to Zach as "Preppy". The two are often rivals but eventually form a solid friendship. Slater is a wrestler and a pretty impressive dancer, though I wouldn't comment on it while he's looking all bad-ass in that bomber jacket. Though Mario Lopez is obviously Mexican, his family is mysteriously not and it's left pretty much unexplained until we get to the college years and they give us some halfhearted explanation for it. Thanks, guys.

Samuel "Screech" Powers (Dustin Diamond) is our well-meaning nerd, a geek who somehow managed to kick it with the cool kids. He has an intense unrequited love for Lisa, feelings that are for obvious reasons not reciprocated. He's generally smart but quirky. It's tough to watch him now and separate Diamond from the tool he's become, but back in the day he used to be pretty endearing.

Mr. Belding (Dennis Haskins) was an oddly meddling principal who played a major role in the daily lives of our main characters. He never seemed to interact with any other students because they were all pretty much part of the scenery, so I'll assume he took a special interest in our heroes and focused his entire career on dealing with their antics and encouraging their potential.

The show played stereotypes way over the top, with dumb rocks-for-brains jocks and pocket-protector sporting nerds at every turn. They also threw in a "message" or two for good measure, reminding us that it's not good to drink and drive or that setting up a secret video-dating service using the school's virtual yearbook equipment is wrong. I know I learned a valuable lesson from that last one. I started all my video dating services out in the open, thank you very much.

Chuck Klosterman describes the last season's odd character swap best when he examines what he calls the "Tori Paradox". All of a sudden Kelly and Jessie have disappeared and no one says a word about their absence. Instead, we get the tomboy, leather jacket-wearing Tori character who mysteriously swoops in and immediately becomes a part of the gang. Just as quickly as she'd appeared, she was gone without a trace and Jessie and Kelly were back as if nothing had happened. No one said anything about it, so we were just supposed to assume everything was fine and we shouldn't question it.

There were later more continuity errors to be had when we rejoined part of the gang for Saved by the Bell: The College Years, but that's a post for another time. NBC further milked the franchise by creating a spin-off Saved by the Bell: The New Class. There was no integrity to it, just pure money making. I mean, honestly, I owned Saved by the Bell Zackberry scented shampoo. Zackberry! You try to tell me that's not squeezing the franchise for all it's worth.

Of course, the big news today is of the purported SBtB reunion, reported in People magazine.

Over the summer, Zach--er, excuse me, Mark Paul, appeared in full Zach Morris garb and gave an in-character interview with Jimmy Fallon, complete with giant cell phone and fourth wall breakage:

Of course, don't expect to see Dustin Diamond in any reunion hype. He recently released a tell-all book alleging the gang was not quite as squeaky-clean as their on-air image. I resent that, of course. I'm almost certain they scrubbed diligently with Zackberry-scented toiletry products.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Don't Tell Them It's Educational....

With the rapid rise in household personal computer ownership throughout the 80s and 90s, children faced an entirely new arena of play to conquer. While kids may have viewed computers as a new uncharted frontier of free play, our parents and teachers were somewhat the wiser in regulating our zeal. Computers, they realized, were a perfect tool for tricking kids into learning material that would only otherwise be absorbed against their will. This backhanded approach to learning may not have been a perfect system, but dammit we would learn our multiplication tables and enjoy it.

Computer game manufacturers released heaps of educational titles cleverly disguised as amusing games. Bright colors and flashy animations effectively distracted children from the realization that they were indeed learning, and in their spare time to boot. Sure, we had an inkling deep down that these games were more substantial than our usual trivial fare, but throw enough Troggles or buffalo hunting into the mix and we were putty in your education-molding hands.

Whether in old-school Macintosh computer labs at school or on our crappy primitive homebound PCs, we collectively spent countless hours playing educational computer games. Parents and educators were usually pretty adept at remaining tight-lipped over the educational nature of the game, leaving us to our delusions of frivolous game play. As far as adults were concerned, what we didn't know couldn't hurt us...and it may just help us pass a geography test along the way.

Oregon Trail

Oregon Trail was the classic 80s and 90s educational computer game. It was a pioneer (this pun may be too horrible even for me) in its field, teaching children everywhere about the Westward bound wagon trains during our love affair with manifest destiny. The game was chock full of kid-friendly elements that easily outweighed our distaste for all things educational. For one, we got to name the characters after ourselves, meaning when our friends died of dysentery along the way we could write mean things on their editable tombstones. We got to pick our professions, make little computer-based lives for ourselves, the whole shebang.

The real appeal though was in the hunting portion of the game. If you weren't naturally sadistic in your youth, Oregon Trail was enough to bring out your inner puppy kicker. Whether you were into the challenge of shooting down a skittering squirrel or you preferred the Native American-decimating cultural significance of killing the snail-paced, monolithic buffalo, the hunting segment had something for everyone. Yes, our wagon could only hold 100 measly pounds of meat and we'd killed a whopping 1430, but we could always hope for one of our wagon-mates to get the measles and clear the space for more sweet, sweet buffalo.

To read the full Oregon Trail post, click here

Math Blaster

The game's producers had actually the audacity to put the word "math" in the title. The jig was up, we knew this was arithmetical. They did, at least, have the minor courtesy to include a video game word like "blaster". Do I get to kill math? Explode times tables in a fiery haze of unbridled and highly potent explosives? I guess I'd just have to play and find out.

It didn't turn out exactly as I hoped, but I did get to be a Blastronaut, which at least won major points in creative wordsmithery. The game itself was a essentially a school math worksheet cleverly disguised as a fast-paced game. Solving math problems earned you valuable ammo in your space blasting quests, which certainly came in handy when firing the lasers.

Storybook Weaver

I should have seen through this one, but I was totally fooled by its veneer of fun and whimsy. Storybook Weaver was not really a game at all, but a means of encouraging children to write and illustrate their own stories on the computer. In short, was an imaginative kid's dream. The possibilities were endless--well, almost endless, as we were limited by the available illustration graphics to augment our woven stories.

The best means of circumventing the educational aspect, of course, was to focus mainly on the illustrating process. With scores of backgrounds, characters, and design elements to choose from, it was like the world's most exciting and interactive sticker book. Even just reminiscing about it makes me yearn to drag and drop some princess images.

Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?

Broderbund released the first Carmen Sandiego games in the mid-80s, launching a vast and imposing educational game franchise. The creators' original aim was to get kids pumped about using the almanac; the first version was even released with a companion almanac included in the sale. How this premise managed to grab the attention of young people is a true testament to the entertaining nature of the game because let's be real here. Almanacs? Really?

The game featured elusive jewel thief Carmen Sandiego, who we were meant to capture and arrest in her globetrotting travels. We could interview bystanders and call CrimeNet, collecting clues and traveling from Kiev to Carolina in hot pursuit of our scarlet-hatted target while avoiding her VILE henchmen. The mystery element was more than enough to make us forget that this was essentially a map study session.

Reader Rabbit

Again, the titular focus on reading was enough to make us suspicious of this one, but it was admittedly pretty fun. The initial version was very simple, focusing on simple letter recognition and sounds, but they quickly released more advanced versions for a wider range of ages. We played some little games to form words, we got to watch some cute little animations with a little song and dance thrown in, everyone won. Unless you couldn't spell. Then you were pretty much screwed.

The Incredible Machine

Puzzle and strategy games were also pretty effective educational tools, particularly if they came in such a kick-ass cool form as The Incredible Machine. Each phase of the game gave us a delightfully eclectic assortment of random objects and charged us with completing a simple task using the implements at hand. I'm telling you, I could spend hours figuring out how to light a candle using a bowling ball and a medium-sized pulley. This game could seriously pull you in, especially when it teased you with the many near-miss solutions where you almost get the water in the bucket but then it spills all over the floor and ignites your electrical cord. Damn.

Living Books

Exactly what it sounds like. These would probably not hold the attention of today's technology-hungry overstimulated children, but they were quite a revelation to those of us who knew books only as a collection of paper pages bound with a spine. I am pretty sure that watching the Living Book version of Stellaluna would still amuse me equally as much as back in my third grade computer lab days.

Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing

Believe it or not, once upon a time typing was not an innate inborn skill we possessed from the tender age of three. While today's kids' fingers may fly over a keyboard, we needed a little guidance in the right direction. I'm not sure who Mavis Beacon is, but she has truly had a profound impact on my life. Are you out there, Mavis? I want to thank you.

Mavis Beacon was not all fun and games, though it was part of it. We had to complete a series of tasks and tedious drills before we got to move on to any of the fun stuff. By fun stuff I mean typing sentences to make a car race or typing number values to represent a grocery store checkout. Come to think of it, that doesn't sound that fun at all. Regardless, it seemed like a pretty worthy endeavor at the time. I even printed out the certificate displayed onscreen when I reached 30 WPM. Now that would be a great display piece for my office.

Number Munchers

Mmmm, numbers. Delicious. Well, at least they were to our Muncher pals, who greedily gobbled them up just as quickly as our nimble little fingers could identify multiples of nine. We did have to contend with those pesky Troggles, the imaginatively designed monsters who stalked the board in hopes of digesting our little green arithmetic-solving agent. If you aptly outsmarted the Troggles and managed to maneuver your way to the next level, you got to watch a little animation depicting your inevitable triumph over the evil Troggle. Good times.

To read the full Number Munchers post, click here

Some people criticize the "make it fun" approach, dismissing it as an ineffective means of teaching. I resent that assertion, though. Sure, while researching Number Munchers for this post I briefly played the free version online and found I don't know what a prime number is, but that's not the point. The point is that I played these games day in and day out without parental intervention. I actually wanted to learn. These games were no substitute for actual classroom-style education, but they were a nice change of pace from drill-and-test. At the end of the day, if we were motivated to begin some supplemental learning unprovoked, everyone was pretty happy.

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