How MTV and Johnny Carson Inadvertently Saved ‘Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead’

We may not have gotten the new remake without a last-minute change
How MTV and Johnny Carson Inadvertently Saved ‘Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead’

Either because time is a flat circle, or Hollywood is just fresh out of new ideas, we keep getting remakes and reboots of ‘90s movies — from Point Break, to Total Recall, to all those Disney movies that replaced adorable cartoon animals with unnervingly realistic CGI monstrosities. 

Now there’s Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, a new spin on the 1991 flick that somehow turned the story of an elderly caretaker’s unexpected death into a beloved teen comedy starring Christina Applegate. In this version, the babysitter is a gun-toting racist bothering a Black family, so we can at least be thankful that she kicks the bucket after like 20 minutes. 

The original movie, of course, found a group of minors being left with a random old woman that they’ve never met before while their mom goes on vacation. When the babysitter passes away, the kids ditch the body and spend the summer guardian-free, which, unfortunately, necessitates getting crappy jobs. Thanks for nothing, capitalism. 

While it’s not all that surprising that blockbuster franchises like Star WarsGhostbusters and Jurassic Park stubbornly refuse to die, Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead wasn’t exactly a huge hit at the time. It made just $25 million at the box office, far less than other 1991 comedies like City SlickersFather of the Bride and even King Ralph. (Side note: Maybe someone should reboot King Ralph?)

Plus, Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead was ripped apart by most critics. Variety said it was “incredibly dumb,” Entertainment Weekly called it “witless” and Siskel and Ebert gave it “Two Thumbs Down” — although Roger Ebert perceptively noted that the film was a “very powerful fantasy, particularly for adolescent girls.”

So why did this movie become a cult hit worthy of a 21st century remake instead of falling into the abyss of ‘90s obscurity like so many Pauly Shore vehicles? Well, you can thank MTV. The script for Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, by Neil Landau and Tara Ison, was written in 1987 with the original title The Real World. But by the time the project finally got off the ground years later, MTV was about to air a reality show with the same name.

So the studio “hired several marketing companies” to come up with a new title and eventually came up with the unwieldy, yet highly descriptive, Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead. As Landau told BuzzFeed in 2015, he and Ison weren’t exactly pleased. “We hated it! We were so embarrassed,” he confessed, adding that it felt like the movie “was doomed because of the title” that felt like it had been concocted by “13-year-old boys.”

Landau realized that he was wrong about the new title after tuning into late-night TV. “One night I was watching The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” Landau recalled, “and he made a joke where the punchline was Dont Tell Mom Something-Something Is Dead. He did a riff on our movie title.” According to Landau, it was the conversation around the movie’s unusual title that directly led to its longevity: “I can promise you — I can almost guarantee you — without that title, nobody would remember the movie. I really think it’s part of what elevated it into cult status.”

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