On April 26, 1991, Earl Sinclair and his family of animatronic puppet dinosaurs (wife Fran, sons Robbie and Baby, and daughter Charlene) debuted on ABC’s TGIF programming block. It was the product of a seed of an idea from the Muppet master himself, Jim Henson, who wanted to do a show about the last days of the dinosaurs. When he died of pneumonia in May 1990, his son Brian Henson brought the fledgling concept to writer-producer Michael Jacobs, who thought it would be interesting to have the dinosaurs mirror traditional human life. They’d get married, be monogamous, have children, and that’s what makes them go extinct. “We all laughed and thought we had something there,” Jacobs says. “We went in that direction, and from the outset, we realized that we had a magnificent environmental satire.”
But the show inevitably took its allegorical teachings beyond saving the planet, providing social commentary about feminism, religion, politics, and even television itself. This approach allowed for plenty of situational comedy, but it also made the series stand out alongside more tame TGIF offerings, like Full House and Family Matters. Where Stephanie Tanner toiled over the morality of being at a make-out party, Charlene complained that she never hears about female astronomers. And where Steve Urkel was channeling Stefan Urquelle to win over his teenage heartthrob Laura, Robbie questioned whether traditional definitions of masculinity were perhaps outdated.
For the show’s 25th anniversary, we asked the team that dreamed up these ahead-of-its-time storylines — writers, co-creators, and network staff — to revisit Dinosaurs. In the following oral history, we dig into how they made such progressive commentary in the guise of a family show, how the issues explored back then still linger in 2016, and how they pulled off one of the most disturbing finales in TV history.
Our conversations with the writers and co-creators starts out shaky. It’s been over two-and-a-half decades, and we’re revisiting moments they haven’t thought about in quite some time. But before long, they laugh as the memories of the show become sharper — the kind of laugh that suggests you got away with something against all odds. And, as we learn, it was Jim Henson’s legacy and the distraction of puppets that allowed them to tackle subjects other family shows couldn’t touch.
Bob Young, co-creator: "The only thing we had from Henson was 'the last days of the dinosaurs,' so we started with the premise that we were going to be telling a story with a very definite ending. We were going to — in however many episodes we got — wind down the entire history of the dinosaurs and terminate them. They screwed it up. They were their own undoing. [Henson] was an environmentalist, and the idea obviously was to write the story of human beings spoiling their environment, but tell it using the dinosaurs as a cautionary tale. We took that balloon and blew it right up. We loved that. Then we just proceeded down the pike, and we got to religion, health care, lawsuits, everything else. But inherent in it was they just didn’t care what they did to the world around them. They were completely arrogant and unmindful."
Michael Jacobs, co-creator: "Everything about the series was about a species marching voluntarily toward their own extinction. And this enabled us to make the human metaphor complete. We touched on all kinds of stories. We were never censored. The network allowed us to take on any topic we wanted, and we took on all of them."
Everything about the series was about a species marching voluntarily toward their own extinction.
Looking back, that was pretty risky stuff we were doing on what was ostensibly a kids show.
In addressing the downfall of humanity, the writers felt compelled to tackle gender bias. They wrote episodes in which both the male and female dinosaurs challenge archaic rules prescribed for them. (Male dinosaurs aren’t considered men until they howl at the full moon! Female dinosaurs shouldn’t work!) One major way the Dinosaurs accomplished this was with the introduction of Monica DeVertebrae, a brontosaurus who moves in next door to the Sinclairs. She’s a single, independent female who prompts Fran and Charlene with ideas that maybe their thoughts and needs are more important than society dictates. Feminism became a critical topic requiring our attention — right up there with destroying the planet.
Jacobs: "We would go to a board and make a list of subjects we were interested in tackling. Feminism was one of them, and there were offshoots of it: abortion, females in the workplace, gender bias. If you start with The Honeymooners — a large, dumb male and the much more intelligent wife with her arms crossed, and the male at the end finally saying, "Baby, you’re the greatest" — this was a formula that duplicated and duplicated [on TV], be it The Flintstones or Roseanne, just go on down the line. It’s a formula that comes from reality, and lots of television that succeeds has to come from reality. What Dinosaurs showed was how foolish any gender bias is. But what it balanced with was coupling that with an environmental issue. We’re completely corrupting and polluting the environment. Within this environment is false gender bias as well as political issues that are coming apart."
Caplan: "We needed a Maude-type character [i.e. the strong, independent woman Bea Arthur played on TV from 1971 -78] to counteract the male stupidity on the show and talk a little common sense into these people. Looking back, that was pretty risky stuff we were doing on what was ostensibly a kids show. We thought it was important to comment on some of this stuff under the umbrella of being the first society, and mistakes they made, and that parenthetically we were still making sometimes. Ironically, too, we’re still battling some of the same stuff when it comes to the equal treatment of women that we were battling back then, too. The gender roles started with Fran and Earl, who are kind of a prototypical '50s couple, not too far off from The Honeymooners. Then down to Robbie, who was questioning what it meant to be a male dinosaur. Even the vegetarian episode [in which Robbie experiments with being a vegetarian, despite society’s insistence that he be a carnivore]. It was a metaphor for him maybe thinking he was gay and his father’s reaction to it. Down to what Charlene thought was available to her in that society. That’s something we always sunk our teeth into because it was all very thinly veiled reflections on what we were still battling, even though theoretically we’re 60 million years later."
There aren’t many contemporary reviews of Dinosaurs from the early '90s — perhaps because it was considered a children’s show. There’s a preview in The New York Times in which a reporter focuses on Brian Henson and the weight of carrying on his father’s legacy through a show about Muppet dinosaurs. Explaining the show's premise, he says, “We go around as if we’re kings of the earth, but who knows how much time we have left?” But in November 1991, the same paper of record acknowledged Dinosaurs as part of a slew of television shows that were addressing the Anita Hill hearings, when she accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. The episode, titled “What Sexual Harris Meant,” centers around a male dinosaur who works with Earl called Sexual Harris. He makes inappropriate jokes and advances to Monica, who unexpectedly gets a job as a tree pusher with Earl and the other male dinosaurs. In the Times write up, Jacobs tells the reporter that it would be fairly clear to viewers that the show sides with Hill. “There will be a realization that perhaps the female is equal to the male,” he told the Times. (In our interviews, every writer brought up this episode without prompt as one of their proudest moments.)
And finally, in February 1992, Dinosaurs received a rave review from acclaimed TV critic Howard Rosenberg of the Los Angeles Times. Rosenberg reviewed the episode in which vegetarianism serves as a metaphor for homosexuality, he wrote that the show “finds its metier,” and was “genius in lizardom.”
Young: "That was the landmark, that Howard Rosenberg story. We got nice reviews at the beginning — everybody loved the Hensons. They liked the look of it. They didn’t think it was necessarily that great a show, the critics, but they were okay. They were kind enough. We were kind of regarded as a kids show until Rosenberg wrote that piece. And then everyone realized, similar to The Simpsons, I guess, there was something else going on. Like, they’re actually being seditious here and telling stories within stories. There’s something for the adults, stuff aimed over the head of the kids."
We started to realize we could get away with basically anything.
Young: "It didn’t matter what storyline we told. It was these wonderful, funny looking, colorful dinosaurs and the kids were going to watch it no matter what. So the network kind of had this benign attitude that you go ahead and write your little seditious stories. That’s okay. As long as the viewership doesn’t decline, we’re okay. They gave us little notes, like could we see what Fran thinks about this or could you do something funny with the baby here. But their attitude was generally — until the last episode — nothing you can do can stop the kids from watching this. They’re watching. As long as they keep watching, you do what you do, just don’t say anything really dirty and don’t scare anybody too badly."
After four seasons, ABC decided to end Dinosaurs. The Muppets were incredibly expensive to maintain, and ratings never really went through the roof, despite growing critical attention. With the end in sight, the writers set out to do what they had always planned: kill off the dinosaurs and hopefully effect some change within our own society.
Young: "The last episode, I felt very strongly that we had to end it the way we always intended, which is that they mess up things so badly, they cause the extinction of all species of dinosaurs. We wrote the script and there was a [network] reaction to that. They thought it would be too upsetting and they wanted us to pull that punch. I was running the show at that point, but Michael [Jacobs] stepped back in to defend and said, 'No, you’ve got to let Bob and the writers do what they want to do. That’s what this series has always been leading to. Come on.' So they asked if we could cut a couple lines at the end so that it didn’t seem so gruesome and we don’t see them actually dead, things like that. We don’t want people to think the baby is going to die. And I said, 'No, no. You’re diluting the entire message. The point of it is, if you’re arrogant and destructive, it will lead to your own undoing. That’s got to be the point.' Eventually, they were okay with it. They figured, oh well; people will watch, and that’s the point of it."
Caplan: "The last episode was one of the battle lines that was drawn. I remember really wanting them all to die at the end, having brought an ecological disaster upon themselves, and that was not popular with a lot of people, including the network and the studio. They said, 'What do you mean you’re going to kill them all off? We don’t do that. They live happily ever after in syndication.' But I thought that was vitally important, that in the spirit of Jim Henson wanting us to do something about the planet, I thought after all their carelessness, having brought the ice age on themselves was just the right message for that time. It is eerie."
Caplan: "There’s still this stuff about ecology, politics, relationships between men and women and the fight for equality, and have any of those things really gone away? I think they get marginally better as we go, but it’s always a fight. It was a parody then, but maybe it’s not parody if the problems are still with us."
Doyle: "It’s appalling how little progress there’s been. Nothing has changed. 25 years later, and it’s all the same junk. It’s kind of amazing, the level of amnesia the American public has, and it’s a little disheartening Dinosaurs wasn’t able to turn that around. Despite our best efforts, we weren’t able to fix the world."