In the 1980s, television shows aimed at kids became more prevalent, particularly with the introduction of kid-centered cable network Nickelodeon. This was especially evident on Saturday mornings, when cartoons like “The Smurfs” and “Thundercats” ruled the airwaves. In addition to the animated shows of the time, these five kids TV shows featured actors and puppets.
5.) Pee-Wee’s Playhouse
In 1985, fledgling director Tim Burton teamed up with Paul Reubens to make the movie Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. Much to the chagrin of parents, this soon led to a Saturday morning time slot on CBS with “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse,” which originally aired from 1986 until 1990. Aside from Reuben’s main character the show also featured a cast of regular guests, most notably Laurence Fishburne as Cowboy Curtis. (Who could forget that jheri curl mullet?)
Kids loved the show and parents hated it; the episodes were pointless and the characters were obnoxious. A brief run on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim in 2006 left many now-grown children of the 80s begrudgingly admitting that their parents were right and completely questioning their elementary-age entertainment choices. Despite this, the series showed an originality rarely seen on the small screen.
4.) Today’s Special
Filmed in Canada from 1982-87, “Today’s Special” aired in the United States on Nickelodeon, the Faith and Values Channel (now the Hallmark Channel), and some PBS stations. The show’s cast was made up of a combination of puppets and actors.
Set in a department store, the action of the show took place after business hours. One of the statues in the store had a magic hat, and when he’s wearing the hat and someone said the magic words (“hocus pocus alimagocus”), he came to life. Other characters included the store’s display designer, a security guard, and a mouse. The show had an educational element, learning about various topics and skills. Its original, imaginative premise, captivating characters and educational-yet-fun spirit earn it a spot as one of the best kids shows of the 80s.
3.) You Can’t Do That on Television
This Canadian preteen sketch comedy show, a sort of “Saturday Night Live” for kids, originated in 1979 and began airing internationally in 1981. In the United States the show aired on the Nickelodeon Network. Production ended in 1990, but Nickelodeon kept reruns of the show in their regular lineup until 1994. Among the members of the show’s cast was Alanis Morissette, whose 1995 album Jagged Little Pill broke sales records for debut albums in the United States and worldwide.
The show was made memorable through one particularly quirky gimmick: Dumping green slime over the heads of unsuspecting people. Perhaps this show planted the seed for some modern entertainment; the success of shows like “Fear Factor” and “Jackass” show that we still have a fascination with people covered in slimy substances.
2.) Punky Brewster
The NBC sitcom “Punky Brewster” aired from 1984 to 1986. It featured Penelope “Punky” Brewster, a girl abandoned by her parents. The show took a unique look at the social issues, as in early episodes figurative red tape kept Punky in the care of the local orphanage. The show followed Punky into foster care, where she was lucky to be taken in by a loving man named Henry.
Despite the serious issues dealt with in the show, it remained funny. This is mainly because of Punky’s bright, Pollyanna-like outlook on life. The show’s second season finale centered around the real-life tragedy of the Challenger Space Shuttle explosion, including a cameo by astronaut Buzz Aldron. “Punky Brewster” was adored by kids in the 80s, but despite high ratings, NBC ultimately decided not to continue the series.
1.) Fraggle Rock
With Muppet-like creatures created by Jim Henson (who also voiced some secondary characters), “Fraggle Rock” became a worldwide phenomenon. (The theme song for the show even made it to the no. 33 spot on the UK Billboard charts.) The show originally aired from 1983 to 1987. Interest in the classic 80s kids show continues nearly 30 years later, with a Fraggle Rock movie slated for 2012 release.
The show was as much children’s entertainment as it was social commentary. Different “races” of puppet creatures interacted in relationships symbolic of human relationships. “Fraggle Rock” used the allegory created by the puppets to explore complex issues such as prejudice, social conflict, and spirituality. Telling a morality tale within lighthearted, family programming is a difficult balance to master, and no other show has ever done it quite as well.
Crazy About TV; 80s TV Shows
Project 80s; Top TV Shows of the 1980