One of the most interesting — and sometimes bizarre — spin-offs from successful TV shows and movies is the idea of an animated series that takes the concept and characters and expands them. In fact, as a part of making them more palatable for the younger audience, what frequently happens is that the original concept — whether you’re talking The Brady Bunch, I Dream of Jeannie, Rambo, or RoboCop, among numerous others — is given an unusual, high-concept twist that seems so odd considering where they’ve come from.
Michael Ashley, co-author with Joe Garner of the recently published It’s Saturday Morning!: Celebrating the Golden Era of Cartoons 1960s-1990s, offers, “If you consider a show like Punky Brewster, it speaks to the idea we espouse in our book that cartoons are weird entities. Cartoons foster absurdity, both in concept and execution. Returning to Punky, here was a fairly popular live-action show that kids generally responded to. Somehow, the NBC execs got it in their heads that they would expand the world of Punky into a cartoon format with the help of Ruby-Spears Enterprises. So far this appears to be fairly reasonable: transform a beloved live-action show into a cartoon. But then somebody got the wild idea to throw a wrench into the original formula by adding a new magical character named Glomer.
“Voiced by the incomparable Frank Welker, Glomer was a kind of leprechaun gopher that came from Chaundoon, naturally a city at the end of the rainbow,” he adds. “Rightly or wrongly — more rightly for me as a kid growing up in the ’80s — Glomer added a touch of magic realism to the original Punky premise by creating a sub-world of magic.
“In fact,” Michael reflects, “as a kid I related much more to the Punky cartoon because of Glomer’s shenanigans (like transforming Punky’s foster dad, Henry, into a statue of Julius Caesar). Bottom line: cartoons very much lend themselves to spin-offs of TV show premises, because of their ability to expand original premises to more novel concepts and iterations. And besides, cartoons are inherently weird anyway. Therefore, the results of such television alchemy are bound to be strange (and sometimes awesome).”
“My immediate thought is that all of these shows intended to capitalize on the fun of their live-action antecedents in less than commercially successful ways,” Michael observes. “If I were the exec at a studio with a hit on my hands like The Brady Bunch, I, too, might try to parlay that success into a cartoon version to benefit from the existing fan base. The unfortunate thing is, these cartoon spin-offs paled in comparison to their live-action forebears and didn’t tend to last long. The Brady Kids was on two seasons. So was The Fonz & The Happy Days Gang. God bless Laverne & Shirley. They only made it one season.
“I happened to watch the animated Star Trek cartoon as a kid, and didn’t think it was anywhere in the ballpark of the original live-action series starring William Shatner,” he notes. “I also wasn’t a huge fan of Lieutenant Arex, the weird multi-limbed creature that stood in for Pavel Chekov.”
Duane Poole, who wrote a large number of episodes of both The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang and Laverne & Shirley in the Army, explains that Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley were two of the biggest shows that were on ABC at the time. “The network came to us and said, ‘Let’s make animated versions of these, because we can make them much more kid friendly and expand the franchises.’ We actually created the series approaches and dealt with the way the characters were transitioned to animation. You obviously had to keep the same characters from the TV series, but find ways to put them in things you could draw so that they weren’t just characters standing around talking.
“So we had two jobs,” he continues. “We had to keep the characters consistent with their prime time versions, so we had to have enough of the talky scenes and punchy dialogue for them, but then we also had to deal with the visual side of animation and find ways to make all the gags bigger and, again, more visual. That was a balancing act, trying to get the dialogue and action right.
There’s also the flip-side of the adaptation coin, with violent characters like Rambo, Conan the Barbarian or RoboCop battling watered down bad guys on Saturday mornings.
“Again,” laughs Michael, “you’ve got to hand it to the creative execs who tried to stretch their franchises into other realms. The ’80s was an awesome time for movies. It seemed like parents just accepted the fact their kids would be watching machine-gun-riddled, blood-soaked action fare, like Tango and Cash, RoboCop, Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, and Big Trouble in Little China. Or at least mine did.
“If you accept that premise, it isn’t too crazy to imagine turning Rambo, a hard-bitten tale of a PTSD-suffering Vietnam Vet coming to terms with a country who has lost its penchant for military excursions, into a kids program starring him and cuddly forest creatures. Or maybe it kind of is. On a related note, I will say that I did enjoy Ghostbusters the cartoon and so did most of my friends growing up. It wasn’t an R movie, but it did feature a lot of adult humor as well as great adult lines like: ‘Yes, it’s true. This man has no dick.’ Not exactly children’s fare, right? But it was awesome.”
For more of the awesomeness, scroll down for a look a dozen cartoons that were born from successful live-action TV shows and films.