Crack Cocaine, Kermit the Frog and Slimer: An Oral History of the 1990s Craziest Anti-Drug PSA
You might think that there are no cartoons that feature both the Muppet Babies and crack cocaine, but you’d be wrong. Back in 1990, a veritable supergroup of Saturday morning cartoon characters teamed up to help out/narc on a suburban teen in Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue. Things get weird. Fast.
If you’ve never seen it, this was a special where Simon the Chipmunk explained the concept of marijuana to Alvin and Theodore (“an unlawful substance used to experience artificial highs”), ALF calls weed a “one-way ticket to Nowheresville” (the town where ALF now currently resides) and the Muppet Babies take a psychedelic trip through a drug-addled human brain. Also along for the ride were The Smurfs, Slimer, Michelangelo the Ninja Turtle and Winnie the Pooh.
The show also featured an original character — a villainous cloud of anthropomorphic ganja smoke played by Oscar-winner George C. Scott, in one of his final roles. The special got surprisingly scary at times, ultimately ending with Daffy Duck and baby Miss Piggy showing the troubled teen, Michael, a vision of his own gaunt, lifeless body as it suffers from what appears to be a heroin-induced coma.
While these types of scare tactics were common to anti-drug messaging of the era, they were subsequently found to be a) ineffective and b) pretty damn funny. Nevertheless, there is a lot about the cartoon that was arguably ahead of its time, anticipating the franchise-spanning team-ups and overlapping fictional universes that have dominated mainstream entertainment in the past decade.
It’s also hard to overstate how big a deal this special was back in 1990. Today it’s just another repressed pop-culture fever dream, but it was a widely hyped television event at the time. The PSA was simultaneously broadcast on all the major networks (without commercials), introduced by President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush (because they just loooved the war on drugs), and heavily promoted by McDonald’s, who also bankrolled the production (presumably not realizing that stoners accounted for much of their clientele). Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue was even the subject of a government hearing between both the Senate and the House Judiciary Committees chaired by some guy named Joe Biden. So yes, the future President of the United States once held a meeting where he extolled the merits of a cartoon co-starring Garfield, whose crippling lasagna addiction and implied dependence on downers was somehow never addressed.
“Today, we will see unveiled here the newest weapon in our so-called war against drugs,” Biden (over)stated at the time. “This new weapon is not a naval carrier group or a new prison. It isn’t a $1 billion research program for cocaine-eating caterpillars. It is something far more powerful than any of those things. It is a cartoon.”
“Any of us who hold public office understand full well the most powerful weapon that we know in politics is a cartoon,” he elaborated further. “Anyone who doubts the power of cartoons, I don’t think knows much about our children and their habits. … In my opinion ‘Cartoon All-Stars’ is the single most ambitious and important drug education program ever attempted anywhere.”
So to better understand this wacky moment in TV history, we spoke to some of the folks who brought Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue to life…
Duane Poole, co-writer: At the time, I had a partner. His name is Tom Swale. We had been working as a team at Hanna-Barbera for several years. The various networks wanted to get together and do a big drug project. There was all the talk of Nancy Reagan’s “Don’t Say No,” and all that — drug prevention was in the air. So they wanted to do something special. Roy Disney was the main contact behind all this. They needed someone to do the animation and to do the script. I guess our names were still on the lips of enough people that they asked if we would do it. We thought it was a wonderful, prestigious project, so we said yes.
Roy Allen Smith, associate producer: I had taken over (producing) Muppet Babies. That was my show, but Jim Henson had just died; it was a tough time. Around that same time, (Cartoon All-Stars producers) “Buzz” Potamkin and Roy Disney were coming around to different studios. After the success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, they were putting all these different characters together; they thought they could do a public service announcement with all the TV characters that were available or airing at that time.
Poole: Everyone wanted to be a part of it, but everyone wanted to be in charge. They wanted to make sure that their characters, from their studios and their animated series, got preferential treatment. They wanted to make sure that they each had a chance to star.
Oddly enough, the studios, at first, weren’t giving up their main stars. They were trying to give us the second tier. But as other studios chipped in with their bigger names, we got some pretty good characters, including the Disney characters and Warner Bros. characters. Roy Disney made it much easier for us, because if we had a real problem, he could call and use the power of the Disney name to smooth things out.
I love math and puzzles. So the chance to take all these characters and find a story that would work them all in was more of a wonderful puzzle than actually just writing a standard script.
Roy Disney, producer, speaking in 1990: We had a few arguments about the relative size of ALF and the Smurfs, for instance, but the main thing was everybody wanted their characters to be their characters and not for us to manipulate them.
Smith: Some of it was just pure guesswork. You’re putting Kermit next to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; it’s a little hard to get a side relationship and make it work, you know what I mean? So it was a little difficult.
Townsend Coleman, voice of Michelangelo/Dad: Michelangelo is perfectly comfortable acting with anybody.
Poole: I’m sure we wanted to use Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. And even though those were Disney names, there were certain things that they just couldn’t do. So we got Huey, Dewey and Louie, and so on. We probably wanted to use Scooby characters because we had both been writing and producing Scooby when we were back in animation. But that was off the table. I guess it would seem a little hypocritical coming from Shaggy, especially.
Coleman: Michelangelo loved to party, too. (in the voice of Michelangelo) “Yeah, dude, don’t do drugs. Not like me. You see what happened to me, and you definitely don’t want that to happen to you, dude.”
The funny thing about that was when we were first auditioning for the Turtles show in 1986, the prototype for Michelangelo was Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Yeah, you would think that Michelangelo is kind of a burnout, so he might not be the one to represent this “don’t do drugs” thing, but there he was.
Jim Cummings, voice of Winnie the Pooh/Tigger: They originally had Winnie the Pooh saying to one of the kids, “Well, if ever you’re on the street or a playground and someone offers you a joint, just tell them no. Just say no.”
But I told them, “He can’t say that. Winnie the Pooh cannot say, ‘If someone offers you a joint.’ He could say, ‘If somebody offers you a smackerel of honey and you don’t know them, tell them no.’ You know, that type of thing.” I said, “Give that line to a Ninja Turtle. They could probably get away with it.” It was just an odd dynamic because I’m very, very, very protective. These are my guys, and I’m very proprietary over them. I watch over them like the special characters they are.
Poole: Surprisingly, we didn’t get much pushback on the scarier elements of the show. In fact, they applauded the way we were approaching it — that it didn’t seem like a Saturday morning cartoon. It seemed like there was something more to it. It seemed like we were talking up to the kids, trusting that they could handle whatever. And a big part of the whole drug message (was) those scary parts. I don’t think we wanted to go any harder than we went, but I don’t think we wanted to go any softer than we went. I’m sure we had a psychologist that was on board for advice. So some of the comments or directions the story took certainly came from them.
Dan Nachtigal, parent interviewed by the Washington Post in 1990: Kids like to be scared; they like scary things. So I wonder how effective the cartoon was.
Coleman: It was, I think, the first scripted show to ever be simulcast on NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox.
Cummings: Yeah, it was something. To this day, I think that’s the only time that’s happened.
Poole: We got a 32 rating and a 63 share, which is unheard of these days. Pretty much 63 percent of the TVs that were on were watching this show, which is outrageous.
Smith: We were all kind of wondering how it was going to come out — whether it was going to be a piece of shit, or if it was going to be something that was going to be a classic. It probably fell somewhere in-between, to be honest with you. It wasn’t the best animation in the world, and it wasn’t the worst.
Coleman: I can tell you from my experience that whenever I do a Comic-Con, invariably at every single one, there will be at least several people who will ask me about this show. And a number of times, people have told me that it was thanks to that PSA, thanks to that cartoon, that they never did drugs. Or why they got off of drugs. Of course, attitudes about everything in our world have changed. So I don’t think we’d go about trying to solve some of these problems in as simple or straightforward way (today) as we did back in 1990.
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