“Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue” (1990)

When it became apparent that teenagers weren’t taking the message of D.A.R.E. seriously, the program was retooled to target a younger, less adept at detecting bullshit audience. With a younger audience came additional challenges–how do you encourage children to view “drugs” (the catchall for everything from alcohol to pills to pot to cocaine) as a real-life boogeyman, scaring them into avoiding anyone and anything that would allow even the most remote contact with them?

If parents, teachers, cops, and other hypocritical adults weren’t able to get through to the teens, then maybe it would take something a little different to work for the kids. This was how we ended up with 1990′s Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue, a primetime special that used beloved animated characters to warn children about the dangers of drugs. This wasn’t just a special event, this was a Very Special Event, a collaborative effort between NBC, ABC, and CBS airing on multiple channels, sponsored by McDonald’s, featuring music by Academy Award winning composers Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, and, in the VHS version at least, introduced by President George H.W. Bush. As expected, it manages to be both endearingly earnest, and maddeningly wrongheaded.

The show opens with someone stealing a little girl’s piggy bank from her bedroom in the middle of the night. The theft triggers some voodoo magic that brings various 80s cartoon characters to life, including the Smurfs, who climb out of a comic book, Garfield, Baby Kermit, Alvin and the Chipmunks, ALF (who emerges from a framed sweetheart photograph on the little girl’s dresser), and many, many, many, many more. Even Slimer from The Real Ghostbusters is there, coming out of the wall like he’s in a G-rated version of The Amityville Horror.

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It’s unclear if all household disturbances call them forth (“Somebody drank straight out of the milk carton, Papa Smurf, we gotta find out who it is!”), but at any rate the little girl, Corey, doesn’t seem particularly disturbed or even surprised by their appearance. Most of the characters do little more than stand around for a few minutes before disappearing back into the unsettling netherworld where apparently they can see everything we’re doing.

Garfield, of course, makes three jokes about lasagna.

The piggy bank thief turns out to be Corey’s teenage brother, Michael, who needs the money to support his drug habit (and evidently knows a dealer who will take payment in quarters). Simon of Alvin and the Chipmunks, having a stack of High Times taller than Theodore is wide hidden under his mattress, correctly identifies Michael’s drug of choice as marijuana. For someone who smokes a lot of weed, Michael has no chill, slamming doors around the house, yelling at his little sister, and ignoring his parents. He’s under the influence not so much of weed, but a purple ghost-demon thing called Smoke (voiced by George C. Scott). One can assume that the concept of “addiction” was deemed too abstract for young viewers, so it was depicted as a sentient monster, taking control of its victim’s lives with empty promises of popularity and acceptance. Which is fine, except that Smoke comes off more like a supernatural child molester, talking kids into doing whatever he tells them in a seductive “You can trust me, I won’t hurt you” tone of voice.

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Michael’s junkie friends (you know they’re bad kids because one wears a rat tail and squibbledy do guitar music plays whenever they appear on screen) almost talk him into trying crack, but they’re chased off by a police officer, who turns out to be Bugs Bunny. Like his sister, Michael seems only mildly puzzled by this. Bugs takes Michael on Wile E. Coyote’s time machine (Wile E., who must have asked for too much money, doesn’t appear in this) and they go on a journey back to the long forgotten past of two years earlier. “Recognize that kid?” Bugs says, pointing at only a slightly smaller, but more innocent version of Michael, who is helpfully wearing a t-shirt with the letter M on it.

Bugs reminds Michael how he got involved in drugs, which, of course, like everyone in shows like this (and like no one in real life), happened when he encountered a random bunch of older kids toking up, and they all but bullied him into trying it. Michael is only temporarily swayed by this, as Smoke maintains his infernal hold over him. When that doesn’t work, the cartoons get together to try more nightmarish tactics.

While chasing after a girl who’s stolen his wallet to buy crack, Michael falls into a manhole, and encounters Michelangelo of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, whose voice is reminiscent of no one if not America’s favorite stoner Jeff Spicoli, and is thus an odd choice of character to warn kids against the dangers of wacky tobaccy. Baby Kermit and Baby Miss Piggy then take over, taking Michael on a bad trip of a rollercoaster ride through what’s supposed to be his brain, showing him how drugs are destroying his ability to think and imagine (but not, evidently, to hallucinate going on a rollercoaster ride with a talking frog and pig dressed like toddlers).

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After that, the whole gang, led by Huey, Dewey, and Louie, appears to sing a song about all the different ways you can say no to drugs, because evidently “no,” “nah,” and “uh uh” won’t work. The message in the song is clear: a kid’s life in late 20th century America is a veritable minefield of “first hit’s for free” sleazeballs and scumbags, to the point where you should have a rehearsed response on hand at all times. It’s a miracle they don’t suggest that kids just pass out pre-printed “no, thank you” cards.

Things only get increasingly shrill and hysterical from there, as Michael is chased through a funhouse, avoiding buzzsaws, demonic carnival rides, and being sucked up in a straw by Baby Miss Piggy, all while various cartoon characters shout t-shirt ready anti-drug rhetoric like “There’s nothing cool about a fool on drugs!” at him. Eventually, Daffy Duck, dressed as a fortune teller, shows Michael his future as a withered, convulsing husk of a boy with what appears to be a needle sticking out of his arm, a future that is all but certain if he doesn’t stop smoking marijuana right now!

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This is, of course, the biggest lie the “just say no” agenda pushed, that of the “gateway drug,” where smoking even a single joint means it will only be a matter of time before you’re swapping BJs for crumbs of heroin behind the local Ponderosa. Michael looking like the Michael Jackson zombie in “Thriller” as he ODs alone on a table isn’t offered as a possible outcome, but the only outcome, for a kid who, up to this point, has only flirted at best with the idea of trying harder drugs. If these shows told the truth, that smoking pot was more likely to make you eat too many pepperoni pizza Combos and enjoy the music of Yes, they might have actually made an impact.

Scared straight at last, Michael returns home just in time to find Smoke trying to entice little Corey (who is all of about seven, it should be noted) into trying drugs herself. Michael isn’t having it, though, and tosses Smoke out a window. Given how powerful his hold on Michael is supposed to be, Smoke gives up pretty easily, yelling one unconvincing “I’ll be back!” before being driven away in a garbage truck. Mission accomplished, ALF and the gang return to Toon Town, or wherever it is they’re supposed to be from, leaving behind a “thumbs up” group poster on Michael’s wall, suggesting that this 14 year-old boy will find strength in recovery through the Muppet Babies.

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This show packs a lot into a half hour, all of it hilarious, none of it useful in keeping kids off drugs. It exhibits a breathtaking ignorance of how addiction works, depicting it not as a slow decline and erosion of will power, but like Pazuzu forcing Regan McNeil to shove a crucifix into her vajingle. Positing that all it takes is the right combination of pep talks and platitudes to not just keep people from trying drugs, but to cure someone of an addiction, is absurd and irresponsible. Just as telling someone who suffers from depression to cheer up doesn’t help, neither does telling someone who’s struggling with addiction that they’re too cool for drugs, dude.

Like most other anti-drug propaganda, it also suggests that there is no free will involved in using drugs. It always starts when some gullible, naive kid, a passive lump of clay in sneakers who would have never entertained the thought of trying drugs on his own, is enticed into it by a malevolently sly older kid, because “It’ll make you feel good, maaaaaaaan” (for a spot-on parody of this, watch Walk Hard: the Dewey Cox Story). It doesn’t suggest for an instant that Michael, or any other kid, made the conscious decision to get high, or drink a beer, or whatever, it’s always the fault of some villainous third party, for reasons that are never explained.

I attended public school in the 80s, and never once did I encounter a bunch of kids sparking a doobie in the bathroom, under the bleachers, or in the back of the wood shop. Never once did someone tell me I should try a drug because it’ll make me popular. While I was bullied on occasion, it was to knock the books out of my arms, not to force me to smoke a joint. Were there kids at my school who used drugs? Certainly. Would they have shared their drugs with me if I had asked? Possibly, though drugs are expensive, so maybe not. Were they going around recruiting people to use drugs with them, like Amway salesmen? Absolutely not.

I have, however, known a fair amount of people who have struggled with addiction, both to alcohol and other drugs. 0% of them started using at the behest of a teenager just hanging out in front of the local 7-11. 100% of them started using to mask or numb some sort of psychic pain caused by an abusive childhood, loneliness, depression, insecurity, and everything else in between. What the “Just Say No” campaign frustratingly refused to acknowledge was that drug use is a symptom of a bigger issue at hand, rather than the core issue itself. But that, of course, would have required parents and teachers to look inward, and try to figure out what kind of help young people really need to avoid the pitfalls of drug abuse. Who had time to do more than tsk and wave a chiding finger? It was easier to just print a couple thousand t-shirts and claim it was someone else’s fault.

Original airdate: April 21, 1990 (watch it here)

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