4 Lighthearted Characters With Hidden Tragic Backstories
Writing kid-friendly characters seems super easy. They can be human, animal, vegetable, mineral, or all of the above, as long as they're over the top and have at least one catchphrase. Really, the only thing they shouldn't be is secretly depressing, because nobody wants to laugh at a silly cartoon dog or whatever, only to find out later that the dog did time for a fatal DUI. And yet, if you look into the official backstories of some of the goofiest characters out there, you will find that ...
Miss Piggy Was A Neglected Child With A Dead Father
The Muppets have gone through a lot of changes over the years. Cookie Monster used to work for IBM. Kermit used to straight up murder dudes. Gonzo used to NOT fuck chickens. But the point is that even before the Muppets were Muppets, they were still over-the-top and whimsical. Then there's Miss Piggy.
According to Piggy's creator, Frank Oz, he originally imagined the famous, anger-prone pig prima donna as, in his words, "a truck driver who wanted to be a woman." But after apparently deciding that the world wasn't ready for that, he came up with a different biography that would remind children that life is a series of gut-wrenching tragedies. He decided that Miss Piggy's father had tragically died, and that her mother had neglected her.
This never made it into any official Muppet media, but was apparently something Oz had in the back of his mind while portraying Miss Piggy. Meaning that whenever she was singing on stage, Oz was channeling the pain of her father dying in a tractor accident. When she was abusive to Kermit, Oz kept thinking about how her mother was mean to her because she had too many kids and was barely coping with her family situation, and how this caused Piggy to develop severe insecurities that in later life manifested as uncontrollable rage.
Oh, and according to a 1993 Larry King interview (with Miss Piggy), she and her mother still aren't on speaking terms. (In other news, Larry King once interviewed a Muppet, probably while seriously rethinking all of his life choices.) More importantly, though, Oz also revealed something much darker about Miss Piggy. Namely, that when she was young, she ran away from home and moved to New York, where she had to do "some things she wasn't proud of." He clarified that she appeared in a bacon commercial, as if something so existentially horrifying is better than what we were all picturing before.
Silicon Valley's Jared Has A Long, Horrific Backstory
The biggest joke about Zach Woods' Jared Dunn on HBO's Silicon Valley was when a crazy billionaire pointed at him and said, with total confidence, "This guy fucks," and then it turned out that he did. The reason it was so funny is that Jared is always so meek, proper, and awkward. When his previous boss called him "Jared," he didn't have the conviction to correct him, and just went by that name from then on. His real name is Donald. Or at least, he thinks so.
But that humorous personality hides something much darker. Throughout the show, we get hints of Jared's rough childhood, conveyed in a dark series of running jokes and horrifyingly vague references. ("Look, I know what it's like to only be able to rescue half your family.") But it's only when you read the character's official blog, created as a tie-in for the show, that you get the full picture of what he's been through.
When writing about how his company recently went through some problems, Jared wrote: "Sometimes a great legal mind fallen on hard times is willing to waive their fee! Sometimes California Child Protective Services makes an unannounced visit at precisely the right time!" In a later post, he said: "Erlich is still not charging me rent, which could not be said of ... the attics and semi-enclosed porches of my childhood, which I paid for with endless, backbreaking chores and things no child should see. But I digress!" He even writes that for a long time in his life, he went by the name "Child #61728."
That's pretty dark, even for a show that featured T.J. Miller beating the shit out some drug-dealing children.
All Of Bionicle Is A Metaphor For Battling Cancer
Even if you aren't a fan of Lego's Bionicle line, you might remember how big these construction toys featuring magic alien robot skeleton warriors (?) were for a while in the '00s. These toys were so popular that they're credited with helping to save Lego from going bankrupt.
What you may not know is that the story behind Bionicle is surprisingly complex. It's separated into two generations, spanning about 12 richly constructed sagas which feature more complex terminology than a Tolkien compendium. Still, the original story can basically be summed up as "Brave biomechanical warriors with a cyber-Polynesian twist fight a great evil that has taken over their world." Pretty standard fantasy stuff. Until you look into how the line came about.
Bionicle was originally developed by Lego and a company called Advance, and really kicked off when Advance art director Christian Faber sketched an idea for a bunch of heroes entering a giant robot via pill-shaped canisters to fight some kind of evil inside it. He was inspired by the pills he was taking for his brain tumor. The idea later evolved to make room for expanding the story down the line, but the core of that "tumor" idea kind of stuck.
In the Bionicle universe, the world (which is represented by a Great Spirit that is currently in a kind of coma) is being corrupted by an evil force that changes the planet's fauna into dangerous monsters. The great evil is quite literally using parts of the world to destroy it, much in the same way that cancer uses a body's own cells against it. And into this world arrive brave medicine-esque warriors aiming to fix everything and bring back peace -- pretty much what Faber hoped his pills were doing for his tumor. Hell, the guy may have assumed his medication did in fact contain an army of tiny super-advanced cyborgs, based on the price.
Chuck E. Cheese Was Almost Murdered By A Pizza Shop Owner
Not many people know that the "E" in "Chuck E. Cheese," which is both the name of the popular restaurant / child casino and its spokes-mouse, stands for "Entertainment." That might be because nobody gives one second of thought to the fictional origin of a corporate mascot. You don't go to Chuck E. Cheese's to be immersed in a fantastic world of whimsy and make-believe; you go when you want to fistfight other adults, but also need a place to stash your kid after the babysitter selfishly refused to be paid in old empties. Ignoring that, though, the company actually went far beyond merely giving their mascot a stupid middle name. They also gave him a super depressing history.
According to the official online biography of Charles Entertainment Cheese (which doesn't have an author, for reasons which will soon become obvious), he grew up in the St. Marinara Orphanage. He didn't know his real birthday, so he never got to celebrate it, instead choosing to live vicariously through the parties of all his fellow orphans. And then a loving family adopted him and left him a pizza empire? Nah, Chuck aged out of the orphanage, then moved in above a pizza place, where one day the owner caught him and tried to beat him to death with a rolling pin. That's when Chuck, "cornered, his knees knocking from nerves," started to sing.
Immediately the man got dollar signs in his eyes and decided to make Chuck his star attraction. But when people showed up (to a pizza place to hear a mouse sing, because why not), Chuck froze up and everyone started to leave. So if you're keeping score, the official Chuck E. Cheese biography has already ripped off Stewart Little, Ratatouille, and that Looney Tunes short with the singing frog. In the end, though, Chuck saw a young boy with a birthday crown on and started singing "Happy Birthday" (his favorite song) to him. The restaurant became a huge success, changed its name to "Chuck E. Cheese's," and eventually had to train staff to spot pedophiles to keep them away from the kids.
Cezary is a freelance writer and editor. You should follow him on Twitter.
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