Children’s television programming isn’t exactly known for being, well, sane. Purple dinosaurs who don’t understand personal boundaries, Teletubbies, skinless exhibitionists, and even the slow, systematic Shang Tsung-ing of the Olsen Twins’ souls are all fair game if it’ll shut your kid up for an hour. And, y’know, teach them about manners or slowly suffocating in refrigerators or whatever.

And yet, even with all of those alarming precedents, Zoobilee Zoo was still as weird as feral clown droppings.

Ostensibly an educational half-hour aimed at preschoolers, the show can’t be faulted for not swinging big. The cast was relatively diverse for the time and tackled subjects like not being a dick to disabled people. Characters regularly went deep on art and creativity, with sentient Mardi Gras float Talkatoo Cockatoo referred to in a press kit as an actual philosopher – on, again, a show for kids who’d barely stopped crapping themselves on the regular.

What Zoobilee Zoo can be faulted for is literally everything else. The performers are dressed somewhere between Cirque de Soleil acrobats and your mom’s homemade rainy-day animal costumes. The acting vacillates between speed freaks reciting Shakespeare and the energy of the most uncommitted improv you’ve ever seen. The sets look like they were made by elementary schoolers on a deadline. 

Zoobilee Zoo, Hallmark Properties

If you look carefully, you can see the warehouse they’re filming in. Not pictured? This man's dignity.

Despite the title, there’s no zoo. The seven members of the main cast live in some sort of vaguely town-shaped void, stuck in a slightly more festive version of Sartre’s No Exit. The producers tried to counter this creeping claustrophobia by making the bear an explorer, despite his never leaving his hometown and bears being notoriously unconscious for half the year.

“Zooble” is shoved into random words like the script was written by Pushy Smurf, then polished by Ned Flanders. One episode reassured all the impressionable young viewers that witches weren’t real – and then showed them how to summon a witch, and had said witch torment all the animals by turning them into, uh, other animals? The theme song includes the oh-so evocative phrase “as bright as the brightest blue,” which, while being technically accurate, I guess, kind of cements the effort levels here.

Only about 60 episodes were filmed in the mid-80s, but it ran for two decades, furthering the sense of being trapped in an endless acid trip. Even worse, the episodes were all filmed at once, over the course of a couple of months. The actors were sequestered for the entire production, which might explain the big “oh God, shoot me” energy that radiates off some scenes.

Zoobilee Zoo, Hallmark Properties

When even Ben Vereen looks like he’s coked out of his mind trying to get through it, you know you’re in trouble.

Despite its lofty goals, Zoobilee Zoo is a mostly forgotten program, a footnote in the annals of children’s television history – an exclusion attributed in large part, and even larger irony, to the show’s lack of merchandise and action figures. Not that the show doesn’t still have some fans.

So, if, like me, you can’t help but feel a little nostalgic, never fear: somewhere, at some state fair or in some random parking lot, there’s a hungover theater troupe just barely fulfilling their community service requirements, waiting for you to sort-of pay attention to the morality play Josh wrote in his car in the ten minutes before they started. And if that doesn’t fill the Zoobilee Zoo-shaped hole in your heart, I don’t know what will.

Eirik Gumeny is the author of the Exponential Apocalypse series, a five-book saga of slacker superheroes, fart jokes, and assorted B-movie monsters, and he recently added werewolves and assassins to The Great Gatsby. He’s also on Twitter a bunch.

Top Image: SFM Entertainment

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