In the dark days before the Internet, it wasn’t uncommon to catch strange weirdly produced television specials full of insane imagery or unusual guest stars. Even with the advent of YouTube and post-ironic pop cultural online writing, there are many such specials that fell through the cracks of our collective consciousness. For that, Popdose’s Mike Duquette presents Uncle Duque’s Crazytime TV Hour, which rescues such televised detritus for your amusement.
Before Americans were unified by semi-important causes on Facebook, Making a Difference was kind of a big deal. You actually had to make an effort to do so – you know, actually put on real pants instead of pajama bottoms and write your name on a petition with real ink. It was a tough business, but ultimately a high-reward game – and it was not lost on young people, either. Can you imagine how kids would cry today if they got gardening tools and bike accessories in their Happy Meals, instead of Green Lantern and Squinkies? Kids, man.
So what changed us from well-meaning, proactive citizens into lunatics who appointed this guy as a deputy for physical education? You can debate the causes until you’re out of breath, but one thing is certain: by the 1990s, the lines between activism and entertainment were already starting to blur. And by the spring of 1990, when ABC aired The Earth Day Special to what I’m sure was a somewhat rapt audience, they were likely melted together.
The Earth Day Special, recorded to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the holiday, is sort of a bizarre, live-action, environmentally-conscious spin on the cult classic Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue, only the message is to conserve and recycle. And, likely because of the live-action star talent on display, the pop-cultural lunacy is even denser.
It’s always a noble intention to enlist the hottest movie and television stars of the day to urge the public to make a difference. But the damaging effects are twofold: first, in the present day, you run the risk of obscuring the message with the medium. When Michaelangelo, everyone’s favorite Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, warned against drug use in Cartoon All-Stars, what six-year-old cared what he had to say, unless it was about getting some pizza and using Shredder as a can opener? This detracting effect is only multiplied with the passage of time, as compulsive, possibly stoned YouTubers (who obviously weren’t listening to Michaelangelo) find mugging footage of future talents or current unknowns who once were white-hot and think, “Whoa, can you believe how much the cast of The Cosby Show wants me to consider saving energy during everyday activities at home?”
Unfortunately for our ecosystem, The Earth Day Special, not-at-all creepily sponsored by megacorporation Time Warner, is nearly two hours of wall-to-wall, batshit insane film and television crossovers, with a loosely-bound plot about…not throwing cans in the ocean, or something. (See what I mean?) I’m almost afraid to bullet-point the best parts of this star-studded disasterpiece, lest I spoil the entire thing for you. So here are just 10 to consider as you watch the special, piece by piece.
1. Danny DeVito and Rita Perlman. The real-life couple play a fictitious couple (note: almost every celebrity plays someone else, rather than just appear in their more famous incarnations) whose viewing of the special seems to bookend the proceedings. Can you remember when we, as a society considered those two your typical everyday couple? And did that fleeting thought coincide with DeVito’s distracting leftover ponytail from Twins or the haunting implications of Perlman’s walnut cracking?
2. Robin Williams, or: what people were willing to accept as entertainment. Williams has always been a moderately funny actor who’s somehow managed to stretch his career past its sell-by date. (Be honest: if Williams’ rubbery gags and voices still get him gigs, why haven’t Michael Winslow’s?) The Dead Poets Society star pontificates on man’s dominance over the planet for literally eight minutes, to a stunningly rapt audience that even laughs at sentences that are only sort of jokes.
3. A most disturbing of main plots. What nightmare writers’ retreat yielded the notion of Mother Earth (Bette Midler) needing our attention on earth at the hospital where Doogie Howser works? And why is Murphy Brown breathlessly reporting on the issues? And why the hell is Carl Sagan stopping the picture cold to explain the ozone layer?!
4. Misguided nostalgia. ’80s buffs will certainly geek out over the sight of a still-thin Harold Ramis in a Ghostbusters – sorry, Wastebusters - jumpsuit, berating Martin Short for his wasteful habits in what has to be the worst appropriation of the “Who’s on First” routine. Or Doc Brown passionately jumping out of his DeLorean and explaining the need to change the planet to a rapt audience of Doogie Howser, Dana Delany and a spectacularly-bearded James Brolin.
5. Misguided nostalgia, part II. Of course I’m going to point out the insanity, at about 13:20 into the above segment, of E.T. turning a bunch of newspaper clippings into a book on fixing environmental issues and handing it to a group of kids that includes child actors Mayim “Blossom” Bialik, Jonathan “SeaQuest DSV“ Brandeis and Dante “Rufio” Basco. I do it because I enjoy torturing Popdose editor Jason Hare (who probably just scrolled to the bottom of the page to post a solemn “you son of a bitch”), and also because you might notice our extra-terrestrial lurking in an alleyway amid a pile of disused cardboard boxes, which is not helping the environment at all. Goddammit, E.T.!
6. The rap sequence at the beginning of the above clip. YESSSSSSSSSSS.
7. The importance of a laugh track. The pre-recorded bits from the casts of The Golden Girls, The Cosby Show, Married…with Children and Cheers don’t have the laughs you hear on standard episodes, which is jarring. These were some of the highest-rated programs of the day, and the attempts to wring laughs from environmental issues is so dire that during the Cheers segment later in the broadcast, you can actually hear crew members cackling at the jokes from offscreen.
8. Chevy Chase, still an asshole. Chase’s ongoing spat with Community creator Dan Harmon led to a renewed discussion of what a major jerk the Saturday Night Live funnyman has been in the past. Allow us to add another log to the fire (bad metaphor, considering the subject of the special): in a dream sequence, DeVito is tortured by Chase, Dan Aykroyd and Rick Moranis, who play a trio of jackass drinking buddies with no concern for the environment. Pierce Hawthorne looks positively cuddly after this scene!
9. Blinding star power. By the time this above clip ends, an improbable amount of Oscar nominees and winners, including Dustin Hoffman and Morgan Freeman, have donated their time to make sure you don’t keep the refrigerator open for 10 minutes, you inconsiderate ass. The trend reaches its improbable zenith when a distressed townsperson (Meryl Streep) seeks recycling solace in the words of a reassuring bartender (Kevin Costner, the second male star in the special to sport a ponytail).
10. “Resolution.” Let’s face it: we were already heading for the exits (or the 11:00 news, whichever came first) by the time Mother Earth made her full recovery and issued a treacly speech. Did a musical performance by Barbra Streisand have to hasten the retreat?
It’s pretty telling that there’s more to giggle about over The Earth Day Special than what you can take away from it. The only recycling I really feel we’ve done here is dredging up past entertainment for future enjoyment. But as ponytailed Kevin Costner helpfully reminds us, maybe that’s the whole point.