During the mid-1980’s Soliel Moon Fry starred in a popular sitcom entitled Punky Brewster. It mostly dealt with a little girl (Punky) and the shenanigans she and her friends got into while being raised by her foster parent.
But in October of 1985, the producers decided to try a different formula that potentially traumatized its young audience. If you want to watch it, the episodes are linked below:
If you’d prefer to sleep tonight, however, here is a quick recap—which is exactly as crazy as it sounds:
- Punky and her friends go on a camping trip.
- Punky and her friends get lost and take refuge in a cave.
- Punky and her friends are confronted by a group of offensive Indian stereotypes.
- Punky is chosen by the Indians as The One who can slay the demon haunting the caves.
- Punky accepts the challenge (!).
- Punky and her friends find a man whose body has been dismembered and fused into various parts of the cave. He’s also still alive somehow.
- Punky and her friends are attacked by a giant spider.
- Punky kills the spider with a magical tomahawk, causing it to explode into flames.
- The demon finally shows up and kills all of Punky’s friends. It also skins her dog alive.
- The demon uses the corpses of Punky’s friends to taunt and enrage her.
- An Indian version of Punky named Princess Moon shows up and tells Punky she can defeat the demon by showing it compassion.
- Punky tells the demon she isn’t mad at him for killing her friends, causing it to explode into flames.
- Punky’s friends (and the dismembered man from before) return to life.
- The entire episode is revealed to be a sick and twisted ghost story Punky was telling her friends while they waited to be rescued…or was it?
Today, Nick Nafpliotis and Mark Pelligrini take a closer look at the two-part episode every 80s child wishes they could forget, The Perils of Punky.
Mark: Did you watch Punky Brewster regularly as a kid?
Nick: I think I did, although this is honestly the only episode I remember. What about you?
Mark: Punky was a bit before my time (this episode aired in October of 85, and I was born in July of 85). In fact, most of my life I didn’t even know there was a live action Punky sitcom; I always thought it was just a cartoon since I only ever saw the animated Punky tape at Blockbuster.
That said, I assume this sitcom was generally less, er, “fantastic” with its plots. Like, giant man-eating spiders and evil spirits weren’t the norm for Punky Brewster.
Nick: Yeah, the ‘scary’ episode most people remember is the one where she gets trapped in an old refrigerator or something. The show was mostly about how she bonded with her foster father and friends.
Mark: One of those Diff’rent Strokes type shows, by the looks of it.
Nick: Exactly…although this one obviously went off the rails a bit.
Mark: Even though I didn’t watch Punky when I was a kid, I did watch a lot of kid’s sitcoms on networks like Nickelodeon. When it comes to memories of TV shows that scared me as a kid, the most vivid ones are from the shows that weren’t supposed to be scary.
I loved shows like Are You Afraid of the Dark? and Tales from the Crypt, but those shows I knew were supposed to be frightening going in. When a sitcom did a scary episode, it always came as a surprise. The fact that it took you off guard was part of its strength.
Nick: What made this episode even harder to process was the extreme tonal shift between Parts 1 and 2.
Mark: Yeah, as a two-parter, it definitely shifts gears big-time at the halfway point.
Nick: Until the Native Americans showed up, the only weird aspect was the outdoor setting.
Mark: And even after they exposit the plot, nothing too terrifying happens. Then out of nowhere…GIANT FREAKIN SPIDER and a To Be Continued…
From a horror standpoint, too, there are lots of awesome little nuances in the episode that even as a first time viewer 31 years later I could appreciate. Like the laugh track in the second part—all the canned voices are distorted with some sinister reverb effect.
Nick: Did you notice in the second part how little dialogue there was sometimes? Pretty weird for a kid’s sitcom. Minutes would go by with them silently wandering around the cave and that terrible music in the background.
Mark: Yeah, and the stuff they stumbled upon was darkly comedic at best, but still pretty gruesome—like Mr. Pieces. Silly whistle gags aside, he’s still a guy whose body parts are strewn all over the room.
Nick: That bedazzled tomahawk, though…
Mark: Yeah, Malibu Barbie’s Hatchet accessory.
Though it is kind of funny about the tomahawk and the “lesson” at the end of the episode. Punky goes apeshit and chops the spider to death with an axe. She basically went full-on barbarian. But the Evil Spirit tells her that her hatred only makes him stronger and he can only be defeated with love.
The axe seemed to work just fine the first time. Maybe it was because of Punky’s love for a good woodcutting tool.
Nick: That spider confrontation messed with my head. I don’t know about you, but if I see a giant spider web in a cave, I’m going the other way.
That being said, it was pretty cool watching Brandon the Wonder dog kick that thing’s ass.
I also like how the music turned kind of metal right before Punky began hacking into the spider’s thorax.
But as ridiculous as the demon she faced at the end looked, he was also terrifying…and an asshole. It clearly had the power to kill her immediately, but decided to torture her a bit with the corpses of her friends.
Mark: Now those were the best effects, particularly the faces in the walls. They’re rubbery and fake, but they didn’t need to be realistic, at least not in a kid’s show.
Nick: The dog skeleton still creeps me out.
Mark: Yeah, or Margeaux’s rotting head on a skeletal body.
The show definitely didn’t pull any punches. And the canned laugh track I was talking about—the way they distorted it so the laughter sounded evil and supernatural—made it sound like the studio audience was laughing AT Punky’s misfortunes, not at any of the comedy being drawn from it.
Nick: I just figured the studio audience was high.
Mark: Well, SOMEONE was.
Of course, the ending was sort of a copout. It was all part of Punky’s ghost story so none of it really happened (or DID it?), that sorta thing. Though it does explain why the Evil Spirit was making pop culture references and why Punky, a little girl, would be The Chosen One to defeat evil. It’s something a little girl would imagine.
Nick: Yeah, but it’s not like they could keep Punky as an undead spirit hunter.
Mark: I might’ve watched the show if they had. Punky the Vampire Slayer.
Nick: One other thing to consider was the scene where the evil spirit made Punky see her foster father talking about how life was better without her. Talk about a trigger moment. Can you imagine being an adopted kid and hearing that?
Mark: Yeah, that was pretty brutal. If that was all a part of Punky’s story, then she was basically laying out her worst fears to her friends in a thin allegory. Of course, none of them seemed to care.
Nick: To be fair, her story involved all of them dying, too. She didn’t really deserve their sympathy.
Mark: Yeah, she essentially rendered all of her friends as useless fodder in her story and made herself the lone hero. I wouldn’t have been so happy with it if I were one of them, either.
Nick: I read an interview with Art Dielhenn, the director of the episode, where he said that he didn’t think there was anything weird about the episode while they were filming.
He does now, obviously.
Mark: Yeah, he probably had mostly the technical side of things on his mind; deadlines and wrangling and all that sort of stuff. Traumatizing children was probably the least of his worries.
Nick: I also guarantee that was the first and last time the prop department needed a giant spider.
Mark: Yeah, not one of the most reusable assets. Maybe it wound up in a Roseanne Halloween episode or something.
Reiterating my opening statements, I knew nothing of Punky Brewster going into this Halloween special, and that included any of the supporting characters. I forgot how older sitcoms weren’t so concerned with nuance, particularly in characterization. Within five minutes I knew the shtick of every cast member.
Nick: I’d love it if the actors involved in this did a short film revisiting it.
Mark: Jeez, I dunno what any of those people are up to, these days.
Last time I saw Soleil Moon Frye in anything was a Punky Brewster parody on Robot Chicken, and that was probably 10 years ago. It could work for one of those Funny Or Die videos, though. FoD did a Pete & Pete reunion sketch and it was hilarious. I’m sure they could dig up the surviving cast of Punky Brewster for something just as self-depreciating.
Nick: I missed all those Nickelodeon shows growing up. My parents were shielding me from the evils of cable. I watched this type of nightmare fuel instead.
Mark: Well Nick, since you missed those Golden Years of Nickelodeon sitcoms, maybe I can help you catch up with my recommendation for the next article. Sticking with the theme of ‘scary episodes of not-scary’ shows, I’ve got a Pete & Pete episode you might want to check out…