Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Toon-arama: The Real Ghostbusters (1986-1991)

by Jason

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.
Starting out, the show managed to preserve much of the spirit of the first movie and the personality of the characters. Maurice LaMarche, the voice of Egon, basically does a Harold Ramis impression. Frank Welker makes Ray sound a bit more childlike but preserves the enthusiasm of the character very well. Arsenio Hall still keeps Winston as the everyman of the group, but he’s acclimated to the others and doesn’t sound as confused by the technical jargon. Lorenzo Music, however, made Peter more laidback and dry, a change from Bill Murray’s portrayal. It still works well, and many fans liked Music’s portrayal. Other supporting characters made sporadic or no appearances at all: Walter Peck just showed up for one episode, Louis Tully came on board around the time Ghostbusters II premiered, and Dana Barrett never appeared at all.

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.
It’s hard to pick just one great episode from the first season. One of my favorites, “The Devil to Pay,” featured a devil (“a minor demon” Ray corrects) placing the Ghostbusters in a demonic game show. In “Take Two,” the guys head to California to consult on a movie made about their lives. Peter thinks he’ll get Robert Redford to play him, but Winston takes a look at the cast list: “Murray, Aykroyd and Ramis? What's that, a law firm?” In “Night Game,” Winston participates in a baseball game played by specters who regularly duel between good and evil sides. “Who're You Calling Two-Dimensional?” puts the Ghostbusters in a world populated by Looney Tunes-esque cartoon characters. When paranormal activity hits a dry spell, the Ghostbusters turn to busting crime in pre-Giuliani New York in “Ghost Busted.” Another one of my favorites, “Doctor Doctor,” sees the Ghostbusters stuck in the hospital with brownish slime that clings to them and starts to manifest big body parts like an eye, an ear, a nose, etc. Finally, in the dramatic and pretty dark “Ragnarok and Roll,” a man saddened by his recent breakup finds a flute that when played will bring about the end of the world. At one point, the Ghostbusters consider igniting their proton packs to destroy the demon that’s about to end the world – and themselves along with it.

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 opener, “Baby Spookums” showed the problems right off the bat. A “baby” ghost wanders into the living world and the Ghostbusters decide to keep it around for a while. Then the parents show up from the same alternate dimension, but will the Ghostbusters recognize they’re just looking for their baby and not bust them? Will Slimer get along with baby Spookums? Will they find baby Spookums when he runs away from the firehouse? Having seen this plot so many times before, do I even care?

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.


Anthony said...

Yeah, the first season of The Real Ghostbusters was good stuff that I really enjoyed as a kid. The episode that most sticks in my mind involves a ghost (or demon or god or something) that wanted to make Halloween last forever.

One interesting touch I was kind of surprised to see absent from the film was the classification of ghosts in terms of power (there was a scale of 1-10 though some were off the scale). I was also kind of surprised that animated Peter didn't look at all like Bill Murray.

I don't even remember subsequent seasons so I must have quickly stopped watching after the revision.

I'm surprised you didn't spare any words for the awful fake Ghostbusters that hit in the same window.

Anonymous said...

I used to watch this religiously as a kid but I must confess: I don't remember any of it. However, I don't recall noticing any major changes from one season to he next.

And by the time Extreme Ghostbusters aired in the 90s, I was more or less done with Saturday morning cartoons. :-)

(As a 31-year old, I could probably get back into all this - we seem to be a major demographic for cartoons nowadays!)

Jason said...

Anthony, yeah that episode was called “When Halloween Was Forever,” and the baddie in question was Samhain, a ghost who had a pumpkin for a head.

The producers didn’t want to pay for the rights to the actors’ likenesses, so they intentionally redesigned the characters from the movie. For example, that’s why Egon is blond in the cartoon.

I think the “fake” Ghostbusters you’re referring to is the cartoon with the gorilla and the talking car. As it turned out, Filmation (the folks behind He-Man) had done a live-action show in 1975 called The Ghost Busters, which was about two bumbling detectives who chase ghosts…and their gorilla sidekick. When Ivan Reitman and company started making the film, Filmation objected to them using the title, so for a while they actually filmed different scenes where they were the “Ghostbreakers” and not “Ghostbusters,” in case they couldn’t use “Ghostbusters.” Eventually, the producers just went ahead and bought the rights to use the title.

Filmation decided to cash in on the Ghostbusters craze by making their own cartoon version of their old live action show and just calling it Ghostbusters. So the producers of the RGB cartoon, to poke Filmation, called their cartoon The REAL Ghostbusters. There’s a couple of episodes where they try to work that title in. I thought about mentioning it, but I didn’t want the review to go on too long.

I only saw a couple of episodes anyway, so I didn’t have much to say about it. It’s just weird and pretty typical for what Filmation did.

PikeBishop said...

As a kid, I was never in the "kids want to see other kids" on shows faction. I HATED seeing kid characters in adventure type shows. Why? Because THEY were having adventures and my suburban, white bread life was BORING!

tryanmax said...

I must've dropped off after the first season, b/c I don't remember any of the second season stuff you describe, and I certainly don't remember Dave Coulier as Peter.

In one of those ironic twists (or maybe it was by design) Bill Murry, who objected to the voice of Garfield, Lorenzo Music, also voicing one of his characters, went on to voice Garfield in the CGI/live-action films.

The Original Ghost Busters wasn't the worst thing to come out of Filmation. That honor would go to their made-for-TV special, A Snow White Christmas.

AndrewPrice said...

Jason, Thanks for the review! :)

I haven't seen this one, but your review makes it sound interesting.

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, I was that way too. I hated it whenever they added a kid to some cast of cartoon character because they never fit. And they always made the kid into some sort of little monster because they thought that would attract kids, even though it just ruined the chemistry.

Tennessee Jed said...

Tryanmax - the fact you are roughly the same age as my youngest son (Andrew the same as my oldest) makes me feel pretty old, even though it is April Fool's Day. I didn't even realize this one existed! :)

Jason said...

ScottDS, I’m 32. I think the shows of the 80s did a lot to build an older fanbase for cartoons. They keep bringing back old properties like TMNT, My Little Pony, Transformers, and G. I. Joe for new incarnations. The whole series is out on DVD, and it’s a pretty sweet set. Lots of behind the scenes stuff.

Andrew, thanks for posting the review!

Re: about the comments not noticing the season two changes. The initial syndicated run probably had the best timeslot. For me, it was about 4 in the afternoon. They probably moved the show into a different timeslot later, like the weekday mornings, by then they may have started rerunning the episodes with the changes. Sometimes you drop some of the audience when that happens. Also, if you didn’t stick with the ABC Saturday morning run, or check out the reruns on USA Network or Fox Family, you probably would have missed them. I think a lot of people might be surprised that RGB lasted as long as it did.

Jason said...

Also, thankfully the Junior Ghostbusters idea didn’t last long at all. They popped in for just a few episodes. The changes to Janine were the most annoying.

Tennessee Jed said...

sorry Jason - I didn't notice that this one was yours :)

Rustbelt said...

Finally, one of my hands-down favorite cartoons gets the Commentarama treatment! Thanks, Jason!

(Andrew, I'll just assume you moonlighted as an astronaut 'cause you must've been on the moon to miss this! I consider it required viewing for fans of 80's cartoons. BTW, how did you miss this and catch "Centurions" instead?!)

That being said, there's not much I can add. This show featured top-notch sci-fi, mystery, and fantasy writers. I went on Youtube and found some good examples:

Boo-dunit: Clever send-up of mystery novels, mainly Agatha Christie. Really fun episode. (On a creepy note- in a 'Ghostbusters' cartoon? Nah!- there's a shot near the end where Winston looks frighteningly similar to a certain failed president.)

Chicken He Clucked: Nice comedy episode. Guy makes a deal with a demon in order to rid the world of chickens. Yeah, that's right. J. Michael Straczynski said the crew thought he was nuts when he turned in the script. Also, am I crazy or does Cubby's incantation sound like a postcard from the big island?

The Collect Call of Cathulu: Shoggoths, Cthulu (the title bought a vowel), and the Necronomicon, oh my! Who would've thought H.P. Lovecraft's work would be turned into a kid's cartoon? Not only is he mentioned, but all the characters are named after HPL's friends and contemporaries, the fictional Arkham, Mass. makes an appearance, and they even get the blasphemous incantations correct.

The Grundel: One more, and this one's real horror. Basically, a demon haunts a young boy and makes a pact that gradually causes the boy to turn into one as well. This episode earned the ire of many parents since the villain was far too close to a real-life child predator/pedophile for most to handle. (His incredibly suggestive dialogue is often seen as plenty of evidence.) Now, as a former newsman and having learned just how often lurings and attempted lurings occur, I can truly understand how terrifying this episode can be.

Rustbelt said...

And just a little more trivia...

Maurice LaMarche has stated that at his audition, he was actaully told NOT to imitate Harold Ramis. He did anyway and won the part.

At the end of "Take Two," (which Jason mentioned), the GB's watch their movie (implied to be the actual film). Animated Peter says, "he doesn't look a thing like me."

And in "Devil to Pay," Dib Devlin (the "minor demon" of the title and voiced by Mark Hamill, who's clearly showing off his dark side), has a great intro when he forces the Ghostbusters to be on his show:
"It's time to play 'Race the Devil,' or as we like to call it, "You Bet Your Afterlife! Our contestants...
"Winston Zeddemore is an evil spirit control worker from New York. His hobbies include music and Biblical studies.
"And Dr. Ray Stantz, a noted parapsychologist with multiple degrees. Ray hopes one day to win a Nobel Prize.
"And these are none other than our two contestants' best friends. In fact, it was Dr. Peter Venkman's desire for a tropical vacation that put his friends in this cruel predicament!"

One thing I have to contest, Jason. The idea of Egon as 'the Brains,' Ray as 'the Heart,' and Peter as 'the Mouth' was- according to Ramis in the movie's DVD commentary- the writing plan for the original movie's screenplay. So, I can't call it a change made for kiddie appeal. (Winston doesn't seem to have a description other than being the Everyman or just down-to-earth.)

Jason said...

Actually I said Ray was “the hands,” not “the heart.” :)

Peter being the mouth and Egon the brains did fit them pretty well, so it doesn’t surprise me that Ramis and company looked at them that way. JMS didn’t have a problem when the consultants defined them that way, either, but when they said Winston’s primary role was the driver, he wasn’t a happy camper. JMS talks about that issue near the end of this clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sSZBoyY_tCQ

The funny thing about the Necronomicon. JMS brought back Lovecraftian mythos in a later season episode “Russian About,” but ABC brass were terrified that the Necronomicon was a real occult book and wouldn’t let the reference pass, so JMS has to call it “The Book That Cannot Be Named,” because they literally couldn’t name it.

I loved “The Devil to Pay.” So many great moments. I find it hilarious that Peter actually physically threatens Dib into giving them their vacation. You don’t see too many demons get manhandled like that!

Rustbelt said...

"Hands." My mistake!

That's interesting about "the Book." I remember "Russian About," and would easily have accepted that as part of the Cthulu mythos- a book of forbidden knowledge so old that its name had been forgotten. Sounds Lovecraftian to me. It's interesting how the Necronomicon has been misidentified as a real book by both the gothic/occult subculture and even the general public, isn't it? It's name doesn't even mean anything in Greek (its supposed language)- HPL got the name from a nightmare. (The closest translation would be "Book of the Laws of the Dead," among others.) However, the cult's cheering during the episode left a little to be desired. ("Old Ones! Old Ones! Ra ra ra!"

Peter manhandling Dib is great! Then again, commenters on the 'Net have often noted how Peter seems to be the group's unofficial leader since he always seems to be the one to act quickly or think outside the box. (Too bad the 2009 video game didn't add much background to him like it did the others.)

And speaking of "The Devil to Pay," one moment that stands out has to be when they're stuck to the roulette wheel and have to admit something bad they did, but didn't want to mention to the others.
Peter: "All right, all right, You got me. Last week, Janine was upstairs taking a shower and I..."
Egon: "You peeked?!"
Peter: "No! But I did send Slimer up through the pipe and told him that she had a doughnut in her shower cap."
Dib: "Sorry. Not it!"

You would NEVER get away with a line like that in a cartoon today!

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, I'm not sure how I missed this one. I must have just been on at a bad time. I was doing things like playing football at the time and then I went to college without a TV for a couple years. So it's possible that it just slipped between the scheduling cracks.

Jason said...

“You would NEVER get away with a line like that in a cartoon today!”

Certainly not on the Saturday morning network slots. First-run syndicated cartoons, sadly, have been dead for years.

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