Dinosaurs turns 25: A brief history of TGIF's prehistoric hit

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Apr 27, 2016, 4:51:14 AM4/27/16
'What if a baby hatched right out of the egg and started talking?'

by Marc Snetiker

Somewhere between Modern Family and a modern Stone Age family, there
were the Sinclairs — a vibrant clan of dinosaurs and the nuclear unit
of ABC’s prehistoric hit, Dinosaurs.

The live-action puppet show, which premiered 25 years ago on April 26,
1991, as part of ABC’s TGIF comedy block, began as a pitch from Brian
Henson, the son of the late visionary puppeteer, Jim Henson. When
Henson took over the reins of his father’s company, he also took over a
pitch Jim had prior to his passing: one about the domestication of

As Dinosaurs executive producer and co-creator Michael Jacobs tells it,
“Brian was pitching Jim’s idea that dinosaurs had started families, and
because of the immense popularity of dinosaurs with children and
because of TGIF being a safe place for families, what if we combined
the two? ABC and Disney responded to it immediately.”

The network brought in Jacobs — an alum of Charles in Charge and My Two
Dads — to offer his take on the idea. “I looked at Brian and I said
there was one more element we should consider: What if we take his
dad’s idea and postulate that the dinosaurs domesticated, got married,
fell in love, and had children — and what if that was the reason they
went extinct? Brian started laughing, the ABC and Disney executives
started laughing, and they knew we had a show because all of a sudden
we had great conflict and great associability from an audience who
would realize that we could put some edge in this.”

During early design tests with Henson, co-creator Bob Young, and a
designer named Kirk Thatcher, Jacobs realized there was still something
absent from the formula: A breakout character, someone who would be the
audience’s conduit into the dinosaur world and elevate the show from a
familiar family to an unforgettable one… the Baby.

Jacobs recalls: “I remember flying to Great Britain, looking at
sketches on the plane, and I told Bob that something was troubling me
about the show. We were missing a character in the show. Mommy, daddy,
sister, and brother is not enough in this case, because I don’t think
we have an audience surrogate. I don’t think we have anybody that’s
bringing the viewer into this fantastic world. I think we’re missing a
narrator. So Bob said, ‘How would we do it?’ and I said, ‘What if a
baby hatched right out of the egg and started talking?’ And Bob
immediately said, ‘Not the mama.’ I said, ‘What does that mean?’ He
said, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if the baby didn’t recognize the father as
having any part at all?’ And then I said, ‘What if we threw the puppet
against the wall and the baby said, ‘Again!’’ All of a sudden we knew
that the series had been enhanced because we stopped talking about the
rest of the characters for a 12-hour ride across the ocean. What was
really interesting was that knew we had made the show better, but
everybody back in Los Angeles at Disney was plotting a show about these
four characters, and we knew that wasn’t the show at all anymore.”

The series tapped a handful of now-famous names to voice the core
Sinclair family, including Jessica Walter as mother Fran, Sally
Struthers as teen daughter Charlene, and the voice of Elmo himself,
Kevin Clash as Baby Sinclair. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Sherman Hemsley,
Christopher Meloni, Tim Curry, Jason Alexander, Jeffrey Tambor, and
Richard Simmons also appeared (or their voices did, rather) during the
show’s run.

In its four seasons on air, Dinosaurs did manage to become something of
a cultural spoof, a jurassic juxtaposition of an old-world family with
new-world problems. “We wanted Dinosaurs to be a little more biting in
its satire,” says Jacobs. “We went after the oil companies. We went
after corporate America. I don’t think [the network] knew it’s what we
were doing in the beginning. I think you’re allowed to do anything on
television as long as they don’t understand what you’re doing until it

Critics were mixed, but the show premiered with a huge percent share of
its core family demographic and hyperbolic praise came in. “It was
called the next big thing, and every other possible thing that could
kill a television show,” Jacobs muses. “Telling the audience how good
it was in advance certainly hurt us. The show did well on Friday night,
and when it was moved to Wednesday, we ran solidly if not spectacularly
for another [few] seasons. But I would say, if we were kept on Friday
nights, the show might still be running.”

Instead, the Dinosaurs are extinct, exiting televisions in a blaze of
glory in the show’s explosive series finale in July 1994. When ABC
suits read Jacobs’ pitch for the series finale, the producer fielded a
rare direct call from the network president. “Ted [Harbert] called me
and said, ‘Over my dead body are you killing that baby dinosaur,’”
Jacobs recalls with a laugh. “I said, ‘Ted, they went extinct! I didn’t
do it. If you’re going to cancel the show, I’m going to cancel the
dinosaurs.’ He laughed, and we put together certainly one of the more
memorable finales on television.”


CBS' 60 Minutes ran an expose on non-stop fundraising by D.C.
politicians but didn't mention Obama.

Whew. That was a close one.

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