Its 64-episode run of award-winning, audience-pleasing shows now over, it’s easy for the various creators of the groundbreaking sitcom “Dinosaurs” to speak sanguinely about the show’s launch back in 1991. But four-and-a-half years ago, the expensive and technically ambitious series that sprung from Jim Henson’s vision of “a blue-collar family of dinosaurs” could have hardly been more fraught with pressure and distractions.
On April 29,1991, along with a review of the Henson company’s then-debuting primetime ABC sitcom, both Variety and Daily Variety carried reports about Jim Henson Prods, legal wrangling with the Walt Disney Co. over a Muppets licensing agreement, and the “tens of millions of dollars” that ABC was betting on the series. ABC Entertainment chief Robert Iger was quoted as hoping the show’s launch “doesn’t turn out to be our ‘Heaven’s Gate.'”
With Disney both a production partner in “Dinosaurs” and a sparring partner in the courtroom, the show’s cost approaching $1.5 million per episode – about twice the normal sitcom – and an estimated $25 million in promotion costs, which Variety’s J. Max Robins described as “an astounding amount of publicity dollars,” and with the entire Henson organization still reeling from its founder’s death the previous year, “Dinosaurs'” birth was fraught with peril.
But it was blessed with what the show’s co-exec producer and puppeteer Brian Henson calls “an opportunity to say everything we ever wanted to say.”
When comedy vet Michael Jacobs was brought in as the third member of the “Dinosaurs” producing troika, he recalls that Henson’s was the first project pitched to him. “Jim had just died,” recalls Jacobs, “and I saw this as a chance to work with Jim’s organization.” Referring to “Sesame Street,” Jacobs says “Jim taught my children to count to five, so I immediately felt a debt of gratitude.”
Jacobs’ awareness of the Henson Prods, oeuvre had a payoff beyond the obvious admiration he felt for his new producing partners. Both the Henson tech team and the Jacobs creative team were “in sync,” as Brian Henson notes, because “After years of watching “The Muppets” and “Sesame Street,” we understood their sense of humor,” says Jacobs.
What Jacobs was trying to do in chronicling the lives of the Sinclair Family of dinosaurs, along with his writing and producing partner Bob Young, was nothing less than cash what Jacobs calls “a political blank check. The show took on every political and social issue, from Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill to drugs, environmental destruction and religious persecution. “The central premise of the show that everyone agreed upon from the beginning was simple,” says Jacobs. “What is the one thing we know about dinosaurs from the moment we learn about them in school? It’s that no one knows why they became extinct. So our show would explain why. They became extinct because they became domesticated and went into family units, and this destroyed them. The tone of the show was decided at the pilot stage. We would have to take a look at ourselves and propose that what led the dinosaurs to extinction would lead us to extinction.”
Working from characters designed by Henson artist Kirk Thatcher, “Dinosaurs” stayed true to this premise all the way to the final episode, in which, believe or not, all of the characters are killed off because, says Jacobs, “corporate greed destroyed their environment.” Not surprisingly, ABC was more than a little reticent about the payoff.
Jacobs remembers that “Ted Harbert (then-ABC primetime exec VP) called me and said, ‘Are you sure you really want to show this? No kid wants The Baby to go bye-bye.'”
David Barrington Holt, creative supervisor of the Los Angeles wing of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, recalls that it took “67 hours a week to get 23 minutes of film,” but in his view, the show’s importance goes far beyond the life of the series.
“The most important thing about “Dinosaurs” is that the show was entirely animatronic,” says Barrington Holt. Which means there were no opportunities to cut away from the technically complex puppet. The Sinclair Family and their neighbors, co-workers, etc., were all creations of the Creature Shop.
A walk through the L.A. Creature Shop with Barrington Holt makes clear the wild creative range of the Henson tech team. Fresh from success with creating the pig puppets for the hit movie “Babe,” and with creature credits ranging from “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” to “The Flintstones,” the Creature Shop brings filmmakers’ dreams to life every day. Barrington Holt credits “Dinosaurs” with “helping us develop new ways of looking at the things we do.”
Brian Henson recalls that the show was “the most expensive half-hour comedy ever launched. It was like doing a huge movie shoot every week.”
Barrington Holt notes one statistic that he’s particularly proud of. “We did 65 shows without a technical breakdown. For a wholly mechanical show, that’s pretty amazing.”
“We were a critical success, successful creatively, and we ran a nice long time,” says Jacobs, “but we still could not overcome the resistance of the adults to a show with puppets representing dinosaurs. The kids we had immediately, and even though the dinosaurs were absolutely state-of-the-art and I think the words were pretty good, we never could bring in the number of adults needed to make it a huge hit.”
Brian Henson reports that today the show is “doing great in syndication,” and “getting stronger and stronger slots. People are asking for it.
“It’s great to watch it moving. We loved the Sinclair Family and the tone, and we’d love to make a spinoff series or movie.”
Perhaps “Dinosaurs” isn’t extinct after all.