Harold Ramis’ recent passing prompted me to go back to my introduction to the Ghostbusters franchise. I was born in 1981, so I was too young to see the 1984 live-action Ghostbusters movie. I had to wait two more years until the debut of the animated show, The Real Ghostbusters. This show definitely belongs in the pantheon of great television cartoons…at least the first season does.
The cartoon picked up largely where the first movie left off. Peter Venkman, Ray Stantz, Egon Spengler, and Winston Zeddemore have resumed their ghostbusting gig after taking down Gozer, with their dry-and-wry secretary Janine Melnitz answering the phone “Ghostbusters” in her Brooklyn accent. Each episode saw the Ghostbusters encounter different spooks, specters and phantoms, like the ghost of Casey Jones, gremlins, trolls, Greek goddesses, the Bogeyman, Babylonian gods, a sandman, pirate ghosts, the ghosts of Doc Holliday and the Earps, Lovecraftian magic and gods, and various demons.
But no discussion of the characters would be complete without mentioning Slimer. The producers thought the show needed a mascot that kids would like, and the green ghost that slimed Peter in the first movie seemed like a good choice. The movie’s producers dubbed him “Onionhead” for the movie, but he was rechristened “Slimer” for the show. He was also lightened up from a mean ravenous glutton (the f/x puppets gave him a cross look) to a happy overeager puppy…and also a ravenous glutton. Egon decides that having a ghost to experiment on would be pretty neat, so the guys decide to keep Slimer around the firehouse, although Peter has problems warming up to the floating spud.
The Ghostbusters film is often cited as a great comedy, and it is, but it’s largely due to the banter between the main characters and the occasional irreverence toward the supernatural happenings around them. The ghosts themselves are typically done seriously and scary, and even with the laughs, the movie manages to maintain gravity. The first seventy-eight episodes - 13 episodes for ABC Saturday morning and 65 for first-run syndication - are done in a similar style. A pre-Babylon 5 J. Michael Straczynski served as story editor and kept the show funny and serious in all the right places.
The first season was just a blast. I could probably count on one hand the episodes that didn’t work. Unfortunately, the first season would also be the series’ high point. As the first season came to an end, ABC hired consultants to examine the show and come up with ways to “fix” the series. And they did. Oh they did.
First, kid characters called the junior Ghostbusters were to be brought in, because supposedly, kids want to watch kids on cartoon shows. Slimer was brought more to the foreground, given more intelligible speech, and went from being like a pet to like the Ghostbusters’ adopted son. The four Ghostbusters were given clearly defined roles: Egon the “brain,” Ray the “hands,” Peter the “mouth,” and Winston was…the driver. If the stupidity could not get worse, they demanded Janine be changed to a more demure lady, remove her sarcastic wit, drop her Brooklyn accent, dress her up in longer skirts, and make her glasses round because they claimed “sharp objects frighten children.” And how many cartoons at the time featured characters with long pointy swords?
They took a series that played brilliantly to both adults and kids and lobotomized it with the same cartoon formula you could find on many other shows. Since the show was such a huge hit, the property had to be protected, and by protected, I mean have all the edges sanded off and turned into something as inoffensive as possible so the gravy train doesn’t stop. Straczynski refused to be a party to it and quit.
The second season was also marked by Lorenzo Music’s departure from the role of Peter. Apparently, Bill Murray was puzzled why they didn’t just use someone that sounded like him and not like Garfield, so Dave Coulier came on board and did basically a jocular Bill Murray impersonation for the rest of the series. Unfortunately, it also took away the cynical edge Music gave the character. The antagonism between Peter and Slimer also evaporated, as Peter began calling Slimer “spud” and acted just like an older pal to him.
This is where the show mostly died for many fans. It became more of a typical Saturday morning cartoon, for good or ill. That means kid characters get to help save the day, as the Junior Ghostbusters did in “Halloween II 1/2” and “The Bogeyman is Back.” We even get stories featuring babies, as in the aforementioned “Baby Spookums” and “Three Men and an Egon.” (Cartoons sometimes do “baby” shows, don’t ask me why) The show’s producers also tried introducing a big bad overlord for the guys to fight called the Ghostmaster, but he was written out after two showings. “Jailbusters” has the guys put on trial by ghosts, but a great premise is undone by too much silliness. Even bringing back our favorite environmental bureaucrat Walter Peck was a flop, as the episode “Big Trouble With Little Slimer” ended up focusing on his efforts to capture Slimer, with an ending that had the Ghostbusters mourning over a possibly destroyed Slimer (He gets better). A sentimental ending over Slimer is definitely not what I look for when I want to watch Ghostbusters.
Still, the later episodes weren’t all bad. One of my favorites was the third season “Flip Side,” where Peter, Ray and Egon get sucked into an alternate dimension inhabited by ghosts, and it’s the living who get busted! In “Standing Room Only,” the gang has to confront a giant ghost-eating entity named Mee-Krah that is headed for New York City. There were also funny spoofs of the Simpsons in “Guess What's Coming to Dinner” and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in “Mean Green Teen Machine.” “The Halloween Door” has Peter get some humorous revenge on Slimer for all the slimings he’s endured. The shows’ producers also convinced Straczynski to contribute a few scripts, which he did provided he could write the show again on his own terms. He even explained Janine’s abrupt change in character as the doings of a ghost disguising itself as a fairy godmother who altered Janine’s appearance in “Janine, You’ve Changed.”
The Real Ghostbusters was one of my earliest regular appointment viewings on weekday afternoons. It was funny, adventurous, scary, and sometimes even touching. I could not recommend the first season more wholeheartedly. It’s ironic that the series got crippled by bureaucracy, the same nemesis that plagued the Ghostbusters in the first movie.