There are lots of things I really love: horror movies, comic books, cartoons, Ninja Turtles and Ghostbusters, just to name a few. In regards to those last two citations, they hold a certain special fixation with me as they were tremendous parts of my early childhood.
The first toys I ever played with and obsessed over were Real Ghostbusters toys and I carried a similar obsession with the cartoons and movies. However, I was born in 1985, so by the time I was cognizant of anything, the Ghostbusters franchise had already begun its decline, with the cartoon series ending in 1991 (though reruns and VHS releases kept me fed for a while afterward). Ninja Turtles was sort of the successor to The Real Ghostbusters for myself and many other kids, swooping in and filling the void left by their departure (though in reality, the TMNT cartoon was only a year younger than The Real Ghostbusters). Eventually, Ninja Turtles was dethroned in my fickle elementary school heart by the X-Men cartoon on Fox Kids, but I’m not here to talk about that.
What I want to talk about is a rather vicious and ill-executed parody of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon that aired in the fifth season of The Real Ghostbusters, the episode titled “Mean Green Teen Machine”.
Though DiC’s The Real Ghostbusters was critically acclaimed when it began in 1986, praised for its intelligent writing, witty humor, innovative action-staging and rather dark core concept, like every other cartoon from the late 80s and early 90s, it could not stand up to the unstoppable merchandising juggernaut that was Fred Wolf’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. If you know me, you know that I love the Ninja Turtles and I write about them quite a bit (at my blog, TMNT Entity), but objectively speaking, their cartoon was pretty awful. The animation beyond the first season was heinously incompetent, the story editor and head writer David Wise was one of the most notorious hacks in the animation industry, and the worst seasons of the show (typically the ones with the most episodes) reek of quantity over quality.
Don’t get me wrong; I think if you boiled the Fred Wolf TMNT cartoon down to a third of its episodes, you’d have a pretty solid (if badly, badly animated) cartoon series, but when taken altogether, it is an absolute mess. How many times can David Wise recycle the same script just by changing all the proper nouns in it? You’ll find out by watching the Fred Wolf TMNT series (the answer is “his entire career”).
“Wait, I can take this He-Man script, cross out “Skeletor”, scribble in “Shredder” and I’ll get ANOTHER paycheck? That’s not writing hard, that’s writing SMART!”
But in 1990, kids didn’t exactly give a s--t. I should know; I was a kid in 1990. Though while we were eating up whatever slop syndicated after school programming fed us, writers for competing animated shows were noticing how such a terrible cartoon was pushing their productions (which they actually put effort into) off the schedule. The guys at Warner Bros were pretty vocal critics of the Ninja Turtles, for example. In Tiny Toon Adventures, Buster Bunny would sling the phrase “ninja turtle” as a ferocious insult. Likewise, an episode of Animaniacs where the Warners visited Michelangelo began with a rather nasty condemning of the Turtles’ effect on youth culture’s awareness of Renaissance painters.
The Real Ghostbusters, a series already in its death-throws, attempted to give the biggest finger to the Ninja Turtles, dedicating an entire episode to showcasing how stupid and one-note their competition’s characters really were. That episode was “Mean Green Teen Machine”, written by Jules Dennis.
Our story opens with three reptilian monsters surfing a wave of ectoplasm into New York harbor. Talking in stereotypical surfer dude voices, they announce their intentions to eat pizza. They also want to scarf pizza, munch pizza, ingest pizza and otherwise take pizza and place it within the confines of their digestive system. These radical green teenage dudes love pizza, is what I’m getting at.
Meanwhile, at the firehouse, Egon unveils his latest invention: the alpha wave generator. Basically, it’s a lucid dreaming machine. While flipping the setting to “observer mode”, it also allows them to watch other people’s dreams. Invading the sanctity of the slumbering Peter’s thoughts, Egon, Ray and Winston voyeuristically watch as he gets his freak on with Kim Basinger while wearing a Batman costume (their description of the scene, not mine).
Anyway, the Ghostbusters get a call to go deal with a trio of gnarly teen monsters terrorizing a pizza parlor, so they ditch Peter’s wet fantasy and check it out. They follow a trail of badly Korean-animated people running around screaming and meet up with their foes. The Teen Machines promptly throw pizzas in their faces and escape to order more pizza at a payphone. Actually, they’re ordering delivery from every pizza joint in New York (that’s a lot, by the way), causing an epic case of badly Korean-animated gridlock. The Ghostbusters show up and the Teen Machines escape, leaving our animated has-beens to announce how much they really, really hate those upstart punks.
So using their budget rather frivolously, the Ghostbusters set an elaborate trap for the Teen Machines, disguising the Ecto-1 as a food truck, cloaking themselves in ridiculous costumes and even purchasing a humongous pizza-shaped balloon outfitted with a PKE radar device.
Naturally, the Teen Machines show up and the Ghostbusters spring their expensive trap.
The Teen Machines get away. Again. And now we’re eight minutes in and this episode The Real Ghostbusters has become about as repetitive and irritating as any given episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, whether that was intended or not.
The leader of the Teens, Guggenheim, decides that the Ghostbusters have interfered with their pizza-related shenanigans for the last time and orders his homies to follow the Ecto-1 back to the firehouse, where they’ll enact their revenge or something.
Back at the firehouse, the Ghostbusters hit the sack, each strapping on an alpha brain wave helmet so they can test out Egon’s lucid dreaming device. After they fall asleep, the Teen Machines sneak into the machine, intent on giving the Ghostbusters nightmares.
Now all-powerful for some unexplained reason, the Teen Machines proceed to subject the Ghostbusters to all manner of pizza-related torment because god they’re annoying. Peter gets stuck spinning on a wheel of pizza, Ray is sent hurtling over a waterfall of pizza sauce, Winston gets trapped on a spaceship crashing toward a pepperoni planet and Egon gets trapped in a bloodstream full of pizza corpuscles. In the waking world, Slimer attempts to roust the Ghostbusters by messing with the controls on the machines, which inadvertently allows the Ghostbusters to enter each other’s dreams. Basically, the plot of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors only not as funny.
Menacing the Ghostbusters, Guggenheim blurts out the threat, “You are totally outclassed. We’re younger than you, we’re faster than you and anything you can think of, we can turn into pizza!” Subtle.
Of course, that just gives Egon the solution to their problems. Feigning surrender, he offers them a giant pizza as a peace offering. As the Teens devour the pie, it turns into a trap and sucks them in. Egon then offers this counterpoint, “They may be younger and faster, but we’re smarter.”
Waking up, the Ghostbusters realize they’ve slept in until noon and they’re starving. So they order a…cheeseburger. Ha Ha Ha. The End.
Whew. Yeah. That last season of The Real Ghostbusters can be pretty much agony to sit through; certainly on par with the agony inflicted by the worst seasons of Ninja Turtles. In that regard, I find it amusing that Ghostbusters chose to dedicate an entire episode to lambasting the TMNT, citing the superiority of its own intelligence.
By 1990, The Real Ghostbusters wasn’t the cartoon it used to be. Executive meddling had scared off most of the best writers and the series had been severely watered-down to remove any “unsavory” elements. Darker storytelling was a thing of the past and the series had even been rebranded “Slimer and the Real Ghostbusters” to maximize kid-appeal. Even worse, the animation budget had been as castrated as the writing quality; these episodes looked like S--T.
If Real Ghostbusters had done an episode satirizing the shallow rise of the TMNT merchandising machine in, say 1987 or even 1988, when the series still had some steam left in it, I’d be more inclined to listen to what they had to say. But with writing and animation this colossally bad, “Mean Green Teen Machine” had no right to be taking potshots at anyone.
Episode writer Jules Dennis’s heart was certainly in the right place and you can clearly see what he was getting at. The nonstop string pizza jokes were definitely an exaggerated in their depiction of the TMNT cartoon, but come on; you know as well as I that pizza was all they ever freakin’ talked about in that show. Unfortunately, by trying to show how one-note the TMNT cartoon was by filling his parody up with one-note characters, all Dennis succeeds in doing is “sinking to their level”. What we end up with is a brain-dead, obnoxious episode that even a six year-old would find repetitive and irritating.
And when it comes to criticizing other animation writers for uninspired ideas, I wouldn’t say Jules Dennis has a very strong leg to stand on. His other contributions to The Real Ghostbusters include, “Guess What’s Coming to Dinner?” (a parody of The Simpsons), “The Treasure of Sierra Tamale” (a dual parody of The Treasure of Sierra Madre and Raiders of the Lost Ark), “Attack of the B Movie Monsters” (a Godzilla parody) and “20,000 Leagues Under the Street” (giant bugs underground). At least that last one wasn’t a completely shallow parody of some other multimedia property, but all the rest were. And they weren’t very good episodes, either.
“Mean Green Teen Machine” gets at least one shred of cred to its name and it involves the absolutely brilliant casting of the lead Teen, Guggenheim. He’s voiced by none other than Cam Clarke, better known for voicing Leonardo, the lead Turtle in the very cartoon this episode was trying to call out for being garbage. I’m certain Clarke was in on the joke, and for TMNT fans, his performance should be of particular interest.
In the interviews recorded for Lions Gate’s DVD season sets of TMNT, Cam Clarke revealed that he was originally cast as Michaelangelo, while Townsend Coleman was originally cast as Leonardo. After recording several episodes, the decision was made to switch their roles; Clarke became Leo and Coleman became Mikey. What’s interesting about Clarke’s performance as Guggenheim is that he’s basically doing a Michaelangelo “impression”, or rather, the Michaelangelo voice he was originally cast to use.
It’s a neat little oddity and about the only thing of worth in this whole fiasco.
Anyway, what this episode of The Real Ghostbusters boils down to is a failing cartoon on its last legs taking a wispy, floppy swing at the barrel-chested newcomer that it blames for dethroning it. Egon claims that The Real Ghostbusters may be older, but it’s smarter, yet this was a horribly unfunny, witless episode that does nothing to back the main character’s claims. If anything, “Mean Green Teen Machine” is evidence than Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles did The Real Ghostbusters a favor; they put the show out of its own misery.
And that’s coming from a Ninja Turtles and Ghostbusters fan.