Saturday Mornings: Live Action Shows

I grew up on cartoons and educational programming. PBS was on all the time in my house, and some of those shows were integral components to my early education. These live shows were engaging in a new way, were we could see real people engaging in imaginative play, or who would look through the screen at me and talk to me as I tried to learn along with them.


There weren't really prime-time sitcoms for kids yet Networks were trying to invent a working concept by adding talking animals, or wildly outlandish concepts for their shows, but it was a simpler time and the audience was aimed at all ages.


Saturday mornings is where the explosion of live action shows for kids really took form. Shows about video games, shows about magical adventures, shows about talking furniture! It was a glorious age.


Pee Wee's Playhouse - This show came out in 1986, following Paul Reubens' popular live stage show and TV special The Pee-wee Herman Show in 1980, and his team-up with director Tim Burton in the 1985 film Pee-wee's Big Adventure. The show was designed as an educational yet entertaining and artistic show for children, and it was greatly influenced by 1950's shows Reuben's loved as a child, like The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show and Howdy Doody. Most of the show was live action, interspersed with green screen segments, claymation, and old stock animation give the whole episode a dynamic feel. I knew it was silly, but I also knew it was funny to a larger audience because I noticed that adults were liking it to.


Out of this World - During its first season in 1987, Out of this World was originally part of NBC's Prime Time Begins at 7:30 campaign, in which the network's owned-and-operated stations would run first-run sitcoms in the 7:30-8 pm time slot to counter-program competing stations' game shows, sitcom reruns and other offerings. After ratings plummeted, this show was dropped to Saturday morning for the next three seasons. The series revolves around a young girl who discovers on her thirteenth birthday that her father is an alien. Her half-alien heritage gives her superhuman abilities which she misuses causing some trouble, which she spends the rest of the episode fixing. Think Sabrina the Teenage Witch, but with outdated special effects. Out of the World is a show that I only vaguely remember. Well, I remember the the theme song best of all.


Saved by the Bell - In 1988, one year prior to this show taking the airwaves by storm, The Disney Channel premiered Good Morning, Miss Bliss. This predecessor series served as a starring vehicle for Hayley Mills, who did not return for the retooled series; and featured four cast members who would return once the show relaunched. Due to poor ratings, the show was dropped and picked back up by NBC with some changes. They droped Miss Bliss from the show altogether and focused entirely on the teens. NBC had been losing the high end of their animated audience, kids from ten to twelve, so the idea was to create a live action comedy to air on Saturday mornings, a new idea at the time. I remember that this was one of the only shows that actually confronted more serious social issues; like body image, drug use, cheating in school, and even homelessness. Of course, it took as many steps backwards at it ever tried to take forwards, but I appreciated the effort.


Hey Vern, It's Ernest! - Running for only one thirteen-episode season in 1988, this show was one of my favorites. Jim Varney was the Jim Carey of the 1980's; a human cartoon character and a master impressionist, whose rubber-faced slapstick style made him funny, but also strangely endearing. The show was about Jim's famous character, Ernest P. Worrell, his unseen friend Vern, and various others. Jim also played other characters such as Auntie Nelda, Dr. Otto, and Sergeant Glory. This was a very entertaining and imaginative sketch-comedy style show, suitable for a Saturday Morning.


The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! - This was the original Super Mario Show, based off of the first two games in the series. The show sandwiched the Super Mario Bros cartoon between two live segments, which showed Mario (professional wrestler and manager Captain Lou Albano) and Luigi (Danny Wells), two Italian-American plumbers living in Brooklyn, where they would often be visited by celebrity guest stars like Vanna White, Magic Johnson, and Elvira. Allegedly, Albano and Wells would learn the central plot and mostly improvise the dialogue as they went along. I think it shows in the final product which is kinetic and unpolished, adding to the campy-ness of the whole show. After the original animated series had ended, the Albano/Wells live-action sequences were replaced. The show was retooled again, and again, but they lost the magic and the show was never the same.


Land of the Lost - This version of the show debuted on ABC in the fall of 1991 with re-runs later picked up by Nickelodeon from 1995 to 1997. After the success of the show that aired in the 1970's, the new Land of the Lost had advanced special effects and a lighter, less survivalist-oriented tone. Following the Porter family - father Tom, son Kevin and daughter Annie - they becamed trapped in a parallel universe after their Jeep Cherokee fell through a time portal. The show was equal parts prehistoric adventure and science fiction mystery, as there were always dinosaurs, aliens, magic crystals, and sorcerers. Another awesome theme song and a good tribute to the original classic, but with a 90's fresh look.



WMAC Masters - Hot on the tails of Mortal Kombat, and smack in the middle of the Monday Night Wars (WWF vs WCW), this martial arts inspired combat show was true mix of action and camp. WMAC stands for the fictional World Martial Arts Council, where the best martial artists compete for the ultimate prize, the Dragon Star. The competitors each represented various fighting styles, and they performed demonstrations of their craft and fought on elaborate sets and in a battle dome. The show a feel of both a cinematic live-action video game, and a martial arts competition. What made the show work so well is that it had legitimate martial artists such as Hakim Alston, Chris Casamassa (Scorpion), and Sophia Crawford. The show only lasted for two seasons, from 1995 to 1997, but it felt to me like a show that started in the earlier and ran longer, but that may have been due to syndication and summer reruns.


Do you remember any live action kids shows from your childhood? Which ones were your favorites and which ones do you remember distantly that you would like to revisit one day?

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