TV Special Showdown: NBC’s Laugh Busters
On this TV Special Showdown, we’ll be looking back at a product of a bygone era. Saturday morning cartoons on the broadcast networks are rare enough these days, but today, we’ll be revisiting something even harder to find these days: the Saturday morning preview special.
This will (hopefully) be the first of several SatAM preview specials that we’ll be covering here. It’s Friday night. You’re all hopped upon Pop Rocks and you’re both bummed that school has started up again but at the same time, you’re stoked because the usual broadcast network prime time drivel is being preempted so that the network can give you a small taste of the animated kid-vid brain rot that you’ll be indulging in the following morning. Then one night, specifically on September 8, 1984 at 8:30 PM, you discover this:
Before we dig in, I feel a little background information is needed in order for all the Millenial types who weren’t alive during this period to understand what the Idiot Box was like during this time. You see, back then, there were only 3 networks (this was B.C., Before Cable, and even before FOX), and each of them had their own unique approach to the Saturday Morning Preview Special:
ABC typically put the most into their specials, usually framing them as a glitzy variety show with tons of musical numbers and special guest stars (“Wow. Kristy and Jimmy MacNichol again!!“) or setting them at Kings Dominion.
CBS was often the most laid back about theirs, not advertising them and keeping the production values and effects to a minimum. “Tune in and watch…you know, if you feel like it.”
NBC’s specials, more often than not, told a story. Nothing along the lines of Wuthering Heights, mind you, some thinly and clumsily put-together plot involving one of more of the “stars” that were working on the network at the time. Their guest star roster usually never went beyond whoever was on the NBC lot who they could convince to stick around for an extra day of shooting, and the specials would usually be built around a then-hot TV show or movie genre. Laugh Busters was no exception: its’ title was (no prizes for guessing) a takeoff on Ghostbusters, which was a huge hit the summer of that same year, but the that’s where the similarities between Columbia Pictures blockbuster and this special end, so if you were expecting to see Mr. T, Simon the Chipmunk and Hefty Smurf laser blasting specters with proton packs, you’re in for a disappointment. Now, on to the “story”:
Laugh Busters starts with the making of the actual special itself (whoa, meta!), featuring all of NBC new cartoon characters as well as the Smurfs, Spider-Man, Mr. T, Alvin & the Chipmunks, and the cast of Going Bananas, a Hanna-Barbera produced live-action show about an orangutan named Roxana Banana who gets superpowers after being zapped by a UFO (we are not making this up).
Incidentally, we wanted to cover Going Bananas in the Retro Bin, but we weren’t able to find enough information on it. there are no clips or footage to be found anywhere, and the show doesn’t even have an entry on Wikipedia. Just process that for a second: Going Bananas was so bad that the internet rejected it. Anyways, the director in charge of the special, D.W. (not Arthur’s sister!) is suddenly confronted by an evil wizard played by the same actor, named Gargelmore.
Garglemore’s Evil Plan (TM) is to destroy NBC and put an end to laughter once and for all, because it seems he’s allergic to laughter (write this down, because its a plot point). And I though my allergy to dust mites was embarrassing.
- STEP 1: Ruin an NBC SatAM preview special.
- STEP 2: Eliminate all laughter from the world.
- STEP 3: Profit???
If Garglemore really didn’t want to laugh, he could’ve just sat through a Small Wonder marathon.
To put his scheme into motion, Gargelmore enlists the aid of the Gritz Brothers, Hank and Hubie. Since we know none of you saw Going Bananas, the Gritz Brothers were the Bulk & Skull-esque baddies from that show. They were 2 sloppily dressed con artists sharing a single brain, and Hank had most of it.
Idly, one wonders exactly why the Gritz Brothers agreed to assist Gargelmore. What did Hank & Hubie stand to gain from eliminating laughter from the world? Did Gargelmore promise them free hot dogs for life? A shiny new Volkswagen Beetle? Backstage passes to any Nitty Gritty Dirt Band concert? The mind boggles.
To further show us all how eeeeeeeeeeeeevil he is, Gargelmore kidnaps the Smurfs, one of NBC’s biggest draws (not just on Saturday morning, but on the network as a whole; seriously it was them, Mr. T, Gary Coleman and Johnny Carson, that was it). The kidnapping happens off-screen of course. You know how much action scenes cost?
The Gritzes are instructed to keep the rest of NBC’s “stars” from getting to the special, which is being taped in Beautiful Downtown Burbank. Hank and Hubie spend the rest of the special devising Wile E. Coyote style traps for the other characters.
Thankfully, actor Thom Bray (aka Murray “Boz” Bozinski from NBC’s then hit action show Riptide, aka the only actor from Riptide who was willing to show up to do this thing) and his sidekick the Roboz (as we understand it, the robot only showed up due to a clause in his contract that stated that he had to go everywhere Boz goes) arrive on the scene to set things right. They end up helping to track down the missing stars and cartoon characters starting with Spider-Man, then starring in Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends.
Animated Spidey gushes to himself (courtesy of episode footage from Amazing Friends with new dialogue inserted over it) about how thrilled he is to be on NBC’s Saturday morning lineup as he web-slings from his home in New York City all the way to Burbank, California (no, really, that’s what he does) to the tune of Huey Lewis and the News’ “The Heart of Rock and Roll” What??
However, the Gritz Brothers are waiting for him, and trap the Wall Crawler on a giant piece of ACME Fly Paper. (No we’re not kidding.) When Spider-Man goes splat, he magically changes from a cartoon to live-action. This is going to happen a lot in this special; apparently it takes place in the same weird toon-to-live-action space warp that was present in Hanna-Barbera’s All-Star Comedy Ice Review.
Boz and Roboz somehow detect this (that must have been one heck of a GPS Boz installed in him) and calls some honky-tonk bar in the middle of One Horse, USA where then Diff’rent Strokes child actor Danny Cooksey (who’d go on to be the voice of Montana Max, Milo Kamalani and Jack Spicer and play Bobby Budnick on Nickelodeon’s Salute Your Shorts) is performing “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys” (we don’t know why either). Also in attendance are the cast of another NBC SatAM show, Kidd Video and Alfonso Ribero, still riding high off of the popularity of his memorable Pepsi cola commercial in which he co-starred with the too-famous-to-appear-in-this-special Michael Jackson. This was prior to The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, by the way, so we won’t be making any Carlton jokes here.
OK, maybe one.
Danny answers Boz’s distress call and agrees to help, though being just a kid, he needs a ride. Boz enlists KITT from Knight Rider to lend a hand. They couldn’t get the Hoff to appear in this special ’cause he’d want money, but William Daniels does voice KITT here, though he goes uncredited. Evidently Mr. Daniels is OK with voicing a talking car in an action show, but voicing a talking car in a SatAM preview special might damage his credibility as an actor. KITT and Danny rescue Spider-Man (who’s still a live-action guy in a costume, by the way) and the Gritzes turn their attention to their next targets, Kidd Video. Kidd Video was a short-lived Saturday morning live-action/animation hybrid about a faux teen rock band who get sucked into a cartoon world, that’s all you need to know about it, aside from the fact that the band’s fairy friend Glitter was voiced by a young Cathy Cavadini, who’d go on to provide the voice of Blossom on The Powerpuff Girls.
The Gritzes literally send a rolling rock (rock & roll, get it?) hurtling towards the band, knocking the Kiddmobile from Animation Land to the real world (what the heck was that rock made of, anyway?). With their van wrecked, the only logical thing for the band to do is what else? Perform a musical number! Specifically, the show’s theme, “Video to Radio”. Somehow Roxana Banana, the orangutan from Going Bananas is listening to this performance on the radio, despite there being no transmitters or microphones around where Kidd Video are stranded, and the GB gang ride to the band’s rescue in their RV. Did we mention the main characters on Going Bananas lived in an RV?
Here’s where things start to get weird. (Yeah, this is where it starts to get weird.) The Gritz Bros. board a train carrying Dave Seville and the singing chipmunks (actually a clip from one of that season’s Alvin and the Chipmunks episodes with original dialogue inserted to fit the “plot” of the story. At least NBC was able to get Ross Bagdasarian Jr. to read the lines). Hank & Hubie steal the Chipmunks’ tickets, somehow (we don’t get to see them do it) so they’ll get kicked off the train. Sure enough, when the train’s conductor (who’s played by a live actor), wants to see Alvin and company’s tickets, they can’t produce them, and so the animated Alvin, Simon and Theodore magically transform into over sized costumed mascots when they’re thrown off of the train. There’s that weird dimensional warp again! Thankfully, they aren’t marooned for very long. Boz flies over in the Riptide helicopter (named the “Sreaming Mimi”) to rescue the Chipmunks before they have to resort to eating each other.
Next up, the animated Mr. T and his band of gymnasts from their cartoon series arrive a meet only to discover
Yes, a trap by the Gritz Brothers, who are attempting to steal their van. Curiously, Mr T. only appears in animated form in this special. Why couldn’t NBC get the real Mr. T to show up here? Mr. T was on everything on NBC at that time! Did he have something better to do? Was somebody making a sequel to D.C. Cab?
Of course, you don’t dare cross Mr. T, and naturally once he catches on to what they’re trying to do he gives chase. Though, again since Mr. T is only in cartoon form here and the producers couldn’t afford rotoscope, we’re treated to an amazing scene featuring the animated T chasing down the live-action Gritz Brothers, relying on Mr. T’s incredible jump-cutting powers.
Next up is Pink Panther and Sons.
To stop them, the Gritz Brothers paint a tunnel onto a huge boulder as Pinky and Panky’s cartoon selves ride towards them on a bicycle. Anyone who’s ever seen a Road Runner cartoon in their lives knows what happens next: The weird space dimension thing kicks in again, changing Pinky to a live-action guy in a costume, Panky mysteriously disappears and Pinky rides harmlessly through the fake tunnel as if it were real. When the Gritzes try to give chase, they smack headlong into the boulder. Cue the Waw-waws.
The next to last show to be targeted is Snorks. This time Hank and Hubie learn that the Snorks entire undersea civilization runs on steam (don’t ask how they found this out; Wikipedia wouldn’t come into existence for another couple of decades), so they take control of one of NASA’s inter-continental ballistic missiles (sure, why not?) with a remote control and crash it into the sea sealing off an underwater volcano. We then switch to animation, where the Snorks remove the missle from the volcano, foiling yet another Gritz plan.
Finally, the special saves the network’s biggest hit, Smurfs, for last. Papa Smurf, the only Smurf who wasn’t captured by Gargelmore, arrives on the scene, as Generic Smurf assures his fellows, “Papa Smurf is gonna save us!” Papa confronts Gargelmore in his lair and notices the guy’s trying hard not to laugh. (He’s allergic to laughter, remember?) Papa Smurf tosses a magic formula he’s concocted at Gargelmore, causing him to evaporate into thin air. So that’s how this conflict is finally resolved: in the bluntest terms, Papa Smurf kills Gargelmore. Yes, this is something that happened.
With the “threat” gone, the entire cast, save for Thom Bray and the guy in the Pinky costume (they must’ve just figured enough was enough) get together on a stage and boogie down to a sound-alike of Ray Parker Jr,’s Top 20 hit “Ghostbusters”.
OK, Laugh Busters was a little bit hokey (OK, a LOT hokey) and the budget for this special could be used to fill a thimble, but still there’s a certain campy charm to it, like most Saturday morning preview specials. If nothing else, it’s a fun romp to riff on, MST3K style. If you can manage to find it on VHS somewhere (sadly, little to none of these specials exist on DVD), give it a watch. One thing’s for sure, in the fall of 1984, NBC’s pride (not to mention their age) was showing.