How A ‘90s Kids Show Predicted The Downfall Of Humanity

Photo: ABC Photo Archives/ Getty Images.
Children of the '90s likely don’t remember specifics of the era's biggest news stories. Here are a few: The Persian Gulf War came to an end; Judge Clarence Thomas, now a Supreme Court Justice, was accused of sexual harassment by Anita Hill; and our destruction of the planet was coming into sharper focus. But even if your younger self wasn't paying close attention to headlines, you probably watched TGIF — and might have gotten the gist of these grown-up topics by tuning into Dinosaurs on Friday nights. 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to win over his teenage heartthrob Laura, Robbie questioned whether traditional definitions of masculinity were perhaps outdated.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.
Photo: ABC Photo Archives/ Getty Images.
Robbie, Charlene, Fran, and Earl watch Fran's egg hatch, awaiting Baby's foray into the world.
How It All Began 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.

Michael Jacobs
Dave Caplan, writer: "It really evolved in a much more social commentary direction as we went along. The particular staff we had really enjoyed that — we really wanted to make societal comments. And then some of us also really had the bent to explore the ecological importance of the thing. There was a moment when Fran says to Earl, 'Take out the trash,' and he dutifully grabs the trash, opens the window, and just chucks it outside. In that moment I think me and some of the other writers went, 'Oh, that’s going to be a really interesting component of the series. That they have no sense of their relationship to the planet and are literally going to trash it.' That was a really important thing to us."
Tim Doyle, writer: "At that point, the writers — we were envious of The Simpsons, which was such a good show and was really busting out at that point. We kept trying to push our show out of the children’s category and into some sort of crossover category. Not that The Simpsons was inherently political, but for some reason we were a remarkably political group of guys who had strong opinions. And there was a lot to react to. This was the end of the Reagan era, and Clinton was on his way in. So I remember it became clear to us at a certain point that we could tell these little allegories using the dinosaurs to take on anything interesting that was going on in the world. We were part of TGIF, and as writers, we were all kind of bristling at the idea that we were getting categorized that way. So we pushed back at that by trying to do something that might have some adult appeal."
Jeff Bader, then scheduling/programming exec for ABC: "We had a very successful TGIF lineup. We were sort of the family network. The whole thing about [Dinosaurs] was unique. I remember the scripts were fantastic. I actually save very few scripts from my many years in the industry, and that’s one series where I did save the scripts. It was a kids show, but it worked on so many different levels. It felt like the type of thing that would have tremendous appeal to the audience. If I remember correctly, when it premiered...72% of the kids watching TV at the time watched that show. So three out of every four kids watched that show. And I remember saying, 'We will never see this again.'"

Looking back, that was pretty risky stuff we were doing on what was ostensibly a kids show.

Dave Caplan
Gender & Feminism

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.

: "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."

: "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."
Young: "Fran was, from the beginning, envisioned as Jean Stapleton in All in the Family in that she is stuck in the existing power structure, and having a very hard time pulling herself out of it. She’s aware it’s not working, but she’s spending so much energy holding the family together that she doesn’t have much time to be a crusader for anything better or to push it. So we didn’t want to raise her consciousness too quickly. It shouldn’t happen on its own. The idea is to bring in an outside character, so Monica poking her head through the window and having a completely different idea and bringing all these ideas right into the house could open Fran’s eyes to the fact that her own inner thoughts might, in fact, have value. And that Monica could be such a plainspoken and open and honest character without any embarrassment — that could just take Fran’s breath away and allow her to think, Oh my; all these private thoughts I’ve had, they’re perfectly reasonable. Monica was great. And the fact that Earl couldn’t stand her is even better. You wanna take shots at Earl. That’s the fun, knocking him down. Because you can’t kill him. He’s always wrong. Just take your shots. He’s essentially everybody’s father." Critical Reception 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."
Bader: "The show did have more of an impact because it did so well with kids. I was hiking in Peru and in the middle of nowhere, we’re at a marketplace, and there were tents and tables with local people selling their wares, and I see in one of the tents, a kid. There’s an extension cord, a TV on its side, and a little kid laying down watching Dinosaurs in Spanish. In the middle of nowhere in Peru."
Jacobs: "All of a sudden, we were getting requests from the Army, the Navy, the Marines, police departments all over the country for copies of the episodes because they wanted to show them to police forces and military bases as instructional. [Ed. note: Neither the Army nor the Navy could confirm this, but it's possible they simply didn't keep track of requests like this at the time.] We got great satisfaction in that, but we always thought that the rationale there was primarily because these were not humans telling the stories, that these were animatronic creatures and dinosaurs. People live better with a metaphor than they do when someone is standing on a soapbox, so we started to realize we could get away with basically anything."

We started to realize we could get away with basically anything.

Michael Jacobs
Caplan: "We were very careful about always writing the show on at least a couple of different levels. One would be for kids and families, where the baby was having a story that the kids would stay interested in. And another layer down, we were doing the social commentary stories. So when the network would say we’re not so sure about that, we’d say, 'Oh, there’s this really wonderful story about the baby in there that everybody’s going to be looking at, while on the other hand, we say for those of you who want to look deeper, look over here.' We always tried to not be crazily obvious and make sure everything stayed broad and funny." 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."
The Finale 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.
Doyle: "ABC was very happy when we would do, like, the potty training episode. Those episodes were the ones I think the network was most happy with, the creative direction they would have preferred. But writers are ornery and big-headed and hard to corral. So we kind of went our own way and they gave us 65 episodes, which is a minimal package for syndication. And once we got 65 episodes, they pulled the plug. We knew we were going down, so we thought, Let’s not go out with a whimper." 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."
Photo: ABC Photo Archives/ Getty Images.
Earl Sinclair with Marla Maples and Donald Trump, 1992.
Jacobs: "The audience knew that we were leading towards extinction. I remember the network calling, saying, 'Over our dead bodies will you kill this baby dinosaur,' and my thing was, it’s historical. It’s not an invention. So what we were hopeful of was that the broad-based audience, male and female, would look at the piece and understand that what we were commenting on. We need to look at ourselves. And so for that reason, we were always proud of the show; it was our mandate to be funny and entertaining because that’s how you stay on the air, but we also tried so hard to be a program of some merit, and I think the choice of these topics we explored helped us become that." 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."

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