“Welcome to the altered state of Druggachusettes!”: 25 notably trippy kids’ shows
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1-2. H.R. Pufnstuf and Lidsville
The Canadian producing team of Sid and Marty Krofft practically invented the concept of children’s programming that plays just as well to chemically addled adults. Though the Kroffts have insisted that their breakthrough 1969 series H.R. Pufnstuf was never meant to be pro-pot or pro-psychedelics per se (in spite of the title’s seeming nod to “puffin’ stuff”), it’s hard not to perceive a lysergic tinge to the show’s ongoing saga of a kid lured by a talking flute to a land of witches and rampant anthropomorphism. Two years later, the Kroffts repeated the Pufnstuf formula with Lidsville, about another lost boy—a teenager this time—trapped in a realm populated by giant talking hats. That’s the way it goes with drugs: Start with some light daydreaming, and soon you’re a few years older and living in a nightmare. Or as the Pufnstuf theme song puts it, “You can’t do a little ‘cause you can’t do enough.”
3. The Electric Company
No show better embodies the psychedelic elements of the ’70s than The Electric Company. The PBS series, which aired from 1971 to 1977, not only featured an extremely hip cast (the first season famously included Morgan Freeman, Rita Moreno, and Bill Cosby), but an early analog computer-animation system that allowed people to, say, walk out of hand-drawn doors, dance with animated consonant clusters, or sing with two differently costumed versions of themselves. The Children’s Television Workshop’s previous show, Sesame Street, was pretty out-there itself, with its rainbow-hued pinball machines and monstrous Muppets, but The Electric Company was conceived for the post-Sesame set, and so imbued with a slightly more mature humor and a greater awareness of its times. (Consider Freeman’s cool-as-a-cucumber “Easy Reader,” or segments dedicated to words like “crank” and “nutty.”) Green clouds and exploding stars set to raw, wah-wah funk were a staple, as were cameos by Spider-Man (who communicated via speech bubbles) in the later seasons.
4. Pee-wee’s Playhouse
The weirdest thing about Pee-wee’s Playhouse now—more than 20 years after the show revolutionized Saturday-morning television—is how not-weird it seems. Paul Reuben’s pop-junk aesthetic has infiltrated kiddie media to the point where a show about a man-child who talks to his furniture and screams about magic words now seems fairly conventional. But back in the mid-’80s, when the edgiest children’s entertainment were old, über-violent Looney Tunes cartoons, Playhouse blew a lot of impressionable minds with its day-glo, hyper-idealized, ’50s-inspired fantasia of playful inanimate objects and childlike grown-ups.
5. The Gumby Show
Art Clokey’s claymation Gumby shorts were actively designed to toy with viewers’ perceptions, via a philosophy of cinema called “kinesthetic film principles,” intended to “massage the eye cells.” Anchored by a walking green polygon and his elastic orange horse, Pokey, the Gumby series began in the early ’50s when Clokey was a student at USC, then went national when it became a regular feature on The Howdy Doody Show. The Gumby character has continued in one form or another—including comic books, videogames, and a memorable Saturday Night Live parody—off and on for the last five decades, though few Gumby-licensers have been able to match the specific tone of Clokey’s original shorts, with their Alice In Wonderland plot-logic and awkward attempts to touch on whatever pieces of pop spiritualism Clokey happened across that week.
6. Roger Ramjet
Kids’ cartoons containing jokes aimed at adults have been around for a very long time, but Roger Ramjet—which first aired in the mid-’60s—was the first to master the art of containing jokes that seemed to be aimed at stoned adults. The show’s choppy, almost incompetent animation masked some truly sophisticated deranged jokes, puns, pop-culture references, and comic surrealism. The show involved the alleged crime-busting adventures of the title hero and his indifferent child aides, as they battled commies, gangsters, Wild West outlaws, and whatever other baddies popped into the writers’ minds. Ramjet was voiced—in an echo of the similarly subversive Space Ghost Coast To Coast decades later—by Gary Owens. Oh, and he got his powers from popping pills. Watching a dozen or so episodes of this show in a row is the equivalent of giving your mind a high colonic.
7. Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp
A cast full of chimps “speaking” English, playing golf, and chasing each other in speedboats is trippy enough, but throw in a ’70s spy theme and musical interludes from a primate-powered psych-pop band, and Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp might deserve to be labeled a controlled substance. It was certainly an expensive enough habit. Two head writers from The Carol Burnett Show quit their jobs to create this short-lived (1970-72) ABC Saturday-morning series, which cost the network a hefty sum in chimp-training fees alone. But why be thrifty when so much is on the line? Lancelot Link and his female sidekick Mata Hairi were secret agents for APE (Agency To Prevent Evil), working around the clock to undo the dastardly deeds committed by baddies like Baron Von Butcher. Among the show’s enduring highlights are its bizarro voiceover adlibs, egregious Asian accents, and The Evolution Revolution, Link’s undercover flower-power four-piece, which featured SweetWater Gibbons on Farfisa.
8. Baby Einstein
Although it’s now a Disney-owned multimedia behemoth, Baby Einstein began modestly, when a Georgia woman had the idea to make a series of videos of weird shit for babies—and, inadvertently, stoners. Featuring an endless parade of seemingly random images and sounds, the Baby Einstein videos are surprisingly mesmerizing. The series has since splintered into a dozen incarnations, such as “Baby Beethoven,” where simplified selections from classical symphonies play over images of a hamster in a wheel, toy owls marching, a toy train on a loopy course, et cetera. It would be perplexing if it weren’t all so oddly soothing; YouTube hosts numerous videos of babies and small children staring blankly at Baby Einstein-enabled TV screens, entranced. Unsurprisingly, detractors have sensed something sinister afoot, and studies have yet to prove that Baby Einstein or similar products aid cognitive development. But parents looking for a few minutes of peace and quiet probably don’t care.
Never mind the controversy over whether Tinky Winky pushed a gay-rights agenda on unsuspecting toddlers; the real question surrounding the popular British kids’ show Teletubbies is whether its creators were totally baked. Set in a seemingly idyllic, technologically advanced happy-land, Teletubbies eschews niceties like story and character in favor of twinkly music and endless shots of fuzzy child-beasts romping and muttering in some kind of giggly moon-language. And just when the haziness seems about to clear, the little freaklets coo “Again!” and start the trip all over.
10. The Herculoids
“Somewhere out in space live The Herculoids: Zok, a laser-ray dragon; Igoo, the giant rock-ape; Tundro the tremendous; Gloop and Gleep, the formless fearless wonders; with Zandor their leader, and his wife Tarra and son Dorno.” Hanna-Barbera produced its share of bizarre science-fiction/fantasy/superhero fare in the late ’60s, much of it masterminded by genius cartoonist Alex Toth. None of those shows was as far out as The Herculoids, which crammed Jack Kirby’s cosmic adventure comics into a blender with Japanese monster movies, Frank Frazetta paintings, and Al Capp’s “Schmoo” cartoons. If there was a geeky obsession a-borning in 1967, Toth’s team was right on it, working to turn it into fantastically designed, fundamentally nonsensical Saturday-morning fodder.
In 1966, Filmation Associates began producing The New Adventures Of Superman, a limited-animation Saturday-morning cartoon that became an instant hit. A year later, the studio looked to expand the show, but with the next logical choice—Batman—tied up with his own live-action series, Filmation had to read down a little further down the Justice League roll call. The result: 1967’s The Superman/Aquaman Hour Of Adventure, which in 1968 spun off into Aquaman. Though other DC heroes were reasonably well-represented on the various late-’60s permutations of these shows, Aquaman’s adventures were flat-out nuts, concerned more with inexplicable insert shots of Tusky The Walrus (along with Aquaman and Aqualad’s Larry-headed sea ponies) than with any hardcore crime-fighting. Not that Aquaman has ever had much to do anyway. Whenever trouble starts, he just signals the nearest convenient sea turtle or swordfish to do his work for him. It’s a slacker’s dream.
12. Gospel Bill
While Christian children’s programming has been around as long as television itself, it was only in the late ’70s and early ’80s that networks like TBN attempted to construct an entire alternate Saturday-morning lineup. The centerpiece of the schedule was Gospel Bill, a series about a genial sheriff with the superpower of prayer. Literally everything Bill prayed for was granted to him, while the other citizens of Dry Gulch—like reformed drunk and town deputy Nicodemus—were less blessed. Like most Christian kids’ shows of the era, Gospel Bill took all the wrong lessons from the works of Sid and Marty Krofft. The show’s creators surrounded its human characters with puppets and people in animal suits, most notably Barkamaeus (a giant talking dog in a cowboy hat, whom everyone in town interacted with as though he were a normal, model citizen) and the featureless puppet Oogene (fond of talking about how much he looked forward to Christ’s return, when he’ll be able to play with no-longer-evil grizzly bears). Gospel Bill—like the Christian kids’ series Joy Junction, The New Zoo Revue, and the weirdly psychedelic Bibleman—seems to take place in a universe where God is ever-present, but has beset us with freakish hybrids, each tormented by constant reminders of how unworthy they are of His salvation. (For more odd Christian kids’ clips, check out the YouTube channel of <a href="http://www.youtube.com/user/cringevision">Cringevision</a>.)</p>
A decade’s worth of fundamentalist children were haunted by a limited-animation dot who sprouted arms and legs whenever he stood still, and locomoted by bouncing. Jot was invented in the ’60s—obviously—by the Radio and Television Commission, the media wing of the Southern Baptist Convention, and starred in 30 shorts about Christian morality. He learned not to lie, not to steal, not to cheat, and how to get out of singing in the choir. Just imagine the altered states of consciousness that could be produced by sneaking down to the den early Sunday morning before anybody else was awake, sitting on the day-glo patterned carpet, and watching this talking circle being terrorized by his conscience. Today’s Jot is the computer-animated official mascot of FamilyNet television, and while he no longer has the innocent geometry of childhood, the three-dimensional Jot is even creepier. Getting to take a look around Jot’s body is like suddenly finding out that Mickey’s ears are spherical. (Follow Jot on Twitter (jot_the_dot), and watch classic shorts at the FamilyNet site.)
When Alf went off the air in 1990, co-creator Paul Fusco scraped the deepest recesses of his creativity and came up with Spacecats, a show about feline aliens played by puppets. The show lasted only one season, but it took viewers on intergalactic romps that featured crappy-looking fuzz-balls and Animaniacs-style cartoon versions of the same characters. And the scripts were clearly from the mind behind Alf: The show’s groan-inducing intro states that one of the heroes’ objectives is to discover a “better-quality cat food without the fishy aftertaste.” The cherry atop this non-sequitur sundae are the “morals” slapped onto the end of every episode, like why people will like you better if you smile only with your bottom teeth.
15. Mio Mao
Cultural values being what they are, the list of foreign kids’ shows that seem utterly bizarre to American eyes is endless, but sometimes the familiar can seem particularly strange. Witness Mio Mao, an utterly goofy Italian claymation series first aired in the 1970s. In addition to its incredibly catchy theme song, almost every single episode of Mio Mao featured the jibberish-spouting title cats Mio and Mao, who change into geometric shapes for no discernable reason, then hang around in their garden until they get freaked out by some mysterious creature or another. They run off in terror, only to learn later that the creature is naught but a harmless and friendly animal. Mio Mao was like the Three’s Company of Italian animated kids’ shows.
Originating as a series of videogames that turned the collector mentality into a colorful RPG, the Pokémon franchise expanded into anime, then migrated onto American TV and movie screens in the late ’90s. In narrative form—and crossed with epilepsy-inducing light-flicker and a roster of bizarre beasties—Pokémon becomes downright avant-garde, making adolescent obsession and the concept of constant “evolution” into the stuff of fever dreams.
17. Hirake Ponkikki
Gachapin doesn’t have his own show—he’s part of Japan’s Hirake Ponkikki—but the human-sized dinosaur has outgrown his roots by far. On the show, Gachapin (a dude dressed in a green suit) does extreme sports like biking, ski-jumping, and karate, while his yeti friend Mukku looks on worriedly. Couple that surrealism with the fact that all of the play-by-play is in Japanese, and the show becomes a mind-blowing experience for children and adults alike. Gachapin is almost Hello Kitty-like in his Japanese ubiquity, appearing on Converse All-Stars and even a limited-edition netbook. Gachapin made it over to America via the video for The Killers’ “Read My Mind,” but he hasn’t gotten much further here. Yet.
18. The Adventures Of Teddy Ruxpin
Do yourself a favor: Don’t try to understand what the hell is going on at any given moment in a Teddy Ruxpin cartoon. It’s impossible. The show gathers an anthropomorphic teddy bear, an enormous talking caterpillar, a British prince who can turn into a monster, and a bald, stuttering inventor as they quest for crystals together in an airship traveling through the land of Grundo. (Though some episodes are less epic, like when they decide to pick strawberries instead.) The bright, bright colors don’t twist the mind nearly as much as the show’s random names for nearly every character or plot point. Better just to go with the flow—like the weird, fuzzy purple gorilla-looking thing bathing in a sparkling rainbow waterfall in the show’s intro.
19. The New Scooby Doo Movies
Whatever the permutation, Hanna Barbera’s Scooby-Doo has always been pretty crappy, with its crude animation, weak jokes, and moronic mysteries. The series came closest to being good in 1972, when it was re-dubbed The New Scooby-Doo Movies, and the Mystery Machine gang joined forces with the likes of Don Knotts and Cass Elliot. Always stupefying, Scooby-Doo became downright surreal, as the ghost towns, rogue bankers, and superfluous laugh tracks intersected with the Three Stooges—not the real Three Stooges, mind you, but the versions from the Three Stooges cartoon. Talk about meta!
20. Today’s Special
Much like clowns, attics, and long-haired Japanese girls, mannequins are inherently freaky. (Maybe it has something to do with “the uncanny valley,” that mythical place where human-like avatars get too close to reality for comfort.) And if a mannequin is freaky, a mannequin wandering around a department store after closing time is freaky as hell. So why not base a children’s show around the concept? Running from 1981 to 1987, the Canadian show Today’s Special followed the adventures of Jeff, a mannequin who came to life every night after closing with the aid of a magic cap; his display-designer friend Jodie; and puppet buddies Sam Crenshaw (the store security guard) and Muffy (a mouse who speaks only in rhyme). Each episode taught a lesson: about hats, friendship, and even alcoholism. But for impressionable young ones, the real education came from learning the strict rules that kept Jeff breathing. Losing the hat paralyzes him, and one step outside the store makes him a mannequin for good. He essentially exists at the whim of a nice woman who spends her nights with a talking rodent and an ex-marine made of felt. What’s so odd about that?
Few sights are more unsettling than watching animals do what humans do—unless it’s watching them do what humans do in a fantasy realm. Wishbone, which aired on PBS in the mid-’90s, was about a talking Jack Russell terrier who daydreamed about great works of literature, with himself as the costumed main character. Only the audience and those in the daydreams could hear him speak, so most of the show involved Wishbone narrating the mundane family dramas of his owners, then returning to whatever book mirrored what was happening in real life. Wishbone stayed surprisingly true to the stories it told, so the average channel-surfer might well stumble upon a haggard Don Quixote attempting to fight a windmill before being coaxed down by the beady, empty stare of a medieval-garbed Sancho-dog. It’s freaky and it makes ya think.
22. Read All About It
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes the ’80s Canadian educational series Read All About It so unnerving. Is it the droning, eerie intro music? The weirdly claustrophobic sets? Or the fact that the handful of kids on the show are apparently our only defense against a full-scale alien invasion? Like a lot of the series on this list, Read achieves its trippy effect seemingly by accident, via a combination of low-budget sets, amateur acting, and creative freedom—all creating a kind of bizarre, faux-Lynchian funhouse over the span of each 15-minute episode. A boy named Chris inherits a coach house from his long-missing, presumed-dead uncle, and he and his friends start up a newspaper at the house, with the help of a pair of reading-obsessed robot assistants. The uncle also left behind a transporter that lets the kids travel into books, or visit the Trialviron galaxy, whose King Duneedon wants to take over the Earth. Read All About It should be ridiculous—and it sort of is—but there’s a deadly seriousness to the whole affair that makes its absurdities hard to shake. It’s a hallucinatory experience that also gives viewers a good foundation in basic grammar.
23. The Doodlebops
In the wake of The Wiggles’ international success, television-production companies worldwide scrambled to come up with another kids’ show about brightly attired musicians who love to sing about preschool-friendly topics like friendship, nutrition, and sharing. Easily the weirdest of the bunch was The Doodlebops, a Canadian show featuring a trio of rockers with plastic hair, foam hands, pastel skin, and a relentlessly chipper attitude. Picture the kids from Up With People after an encounter with an exploding Paas factory: C’est le Doodlebops.
The words “Icelandic kids’ show” should be enough of a tip-off that LazyTown is a little unusual, originating as it does from the same island that birthed Björk and Sigur Rós. Now factor in the live-action show’s eye-singeing colors and CGI effects, as well as the fact that it was conceived by (and stars!) an Icelandic gymnastics champion, alongside a cadre of singing, dancing plastic-faced puppets and a frequently high-kicking preteen girl in a giant hot-pink wig. LazyTown ostensibly encourages kids to get outside and be active, but it’s just as likely to inspire Cheeto-munching stoners to stare into its Technicolor depths and wonder, “Wait, dude, like… why’s her hair like that, man?” At least one of those grown-up fans stopped tweaking long enough to go to the computer and create one of the best/weirdest mash-up videos of all time, which finds an expletive-hurling Lil Jon interrupting the LazyTowners as they try to bake a cake.
25. Yo Gabba Gabba!
If Yo Gabba Gabba! isn’t the modern stoned college student’s wake-up juice of choice, there’s something wrong with the state of higher education. Apparently aiming to replicate what it must be like to be stuck in the brain of an overstimulated toddler, this Nickelodeon staple goes out of its way to assault the senses of anyone over 5. The series features all the hallmarks of a show that works much better under the influence: freaky oversized costumes, bright primary colors, throbbing techno music, and a strangely smiling black puppetmaster in a drum major’s uniform, like someone out of a latter-day Stephen King novel, but using his powers for good. Designed to get kids up and dancing, Yo Gabba Gabba! has featured guest appearances by everyone from Elijah Wood to Jack Black, along with music by a who’s-who of hip indie-rock acts, so it probably baffles most non-initiated adults who stumble across it, unless they’re high enough to reach its wavelength.
Bonus item: The folks at Mr. Show really know their Sid and Marty Krofft, and they apparently aren’t buying the “not inspired by drug use” claims: