Bustin' Dustin, his limbs tied in knots, lies face down in a battered heap, blood running from his nose. Basket Casey dribbles his own severed head across the gymnasium floor. Screaming Mimi is being chased and stung by a swarm of bees, Travellin' Travis has been crushed under the wheels of a car, and Well Done Sheldon, shot full of arrows, is being burned at the stake.
These are some of the "Garbage Pail Kids" pictured on a popular strain of bubble gum trading cards that have sold in the millions to American children since they first appeared in 1985. Now CBS has announced that it will introduce a new, animated version of "Garbage Pail Kids" in its Saturday morning kiddy cartoon lineup starting this fall. The series -- produced, like many TV cartoon shows, in Taiwan -- will air immediately following "Pee-wee's Playhouse," when very young children are the target audience.
While CBS insists that the TV series will not feature the mutilations, torture and disfigurement that have made the cards a strange, sick-humor sensation among American youngsters, the network does promise in publicity that the series will be "unorthodox, wild and wacky" and offer "short comedy blackouts straight from the offbeat humor of the cards" -- such gags as "Fried Franklin's discovery of electricity."
Children may find this good news. Parents may not. That a major network has decided to produce a cartoon series derived from drawings of mangled and deformed children dramatizes the violent and grotesque lengths to which children's television can now go.The FCC holds networks and stations to virtually no standards with regard to children's programming.
And so, "Garbage Pail Kids" goes on the air in September.
"This is particularly insensitive of CBS," charges Thomas Radecki, research director of the National Coalition on Television Violence (NCTV). "I think it's a real mistake. The cards are extremely sadistic. They take the most intensive, sadistic fantasies from war and horror movies and turn them into entertainment for young children."
Peggy Charren, president of Action for Children's Television (ACT), says the cards ridicule children who are physically impaired. "The idea that you take handicapping conditions and make them funny, and have to go to that kind of humor on children's television, I find outrageous," Charren says.
"Nothing about the content that's targeted to children surprises me any more," adds Charren, but she chides the networks for "looking at the creepiest toys children play with and turning those into programs." She says the humor of "Garbage Pail Kids" might be all right on "Saturday Night Live" but that "it is not appropriate for Saturday morning."
At CBS, Judy Price, vice president for children's programming, concedes that plans for the "Garbage Pail Kids" TV show have elicited angry mail from parents and concern from worried CBS affiliates. But she insists the program will not deal in the kind of gross-out humor common on the cards, which are manufactured by Topps Chewing Gum Inc.
"We don't go to some of the extremes of the cards," Price says. "There are some of those cards that make my stomach turn. On the cards you see acne, mucus, throw-up, children hurt. You're not going to see that on our show."
"I'm sure they could not possibly make the cartoon the way the cards are," says Radecki. "The cards have things like a little boy chopping off people's heads, a little girl trapped inside a blender, a baby with a huge safety pin through its chest and abdomen. These images are really more brutal than the stuff you see in the worst of the horror movies."
Price says five major characters will star each week. None sounds as grisly or gory as the worst characters on the cards. But, as described by Price, they don't sound particularly innocuous, either. Of heroine Terry Cloth, Price says, "Her face is on her hand," and as for Eliot Mess, "He's a little messed up. Let's just say his body parts are not in the right order."
Children will not be chopped up, decapitated, squished, stretched or otherwise mangled, as they are on the cards, Price promises. "Of course not. We're not going to do anything that is violent. That would be outrageous and gross and irresponsible."
But Radecki thinks the show sounds outrageous and gross and irresponsible anyway. "I can't imagine it being nonviolent," he says. "The whole purpose of the cards is to assault the viewer. By their very conception, they're violent.
"I'm sure CBS will have to tone it down for Saturday morning television, but in a very powerful way, it's giving major social sanction to the cards and their extreme and brutal sadism for young children," Radecki says. "It gives out the message that the cards are appropriate for children, and that leads to even further desensitization to violence."
Price claims the program will remain "within wholesome entertainment boundaries" and says that while "it delivers on certain expectations of youngsters" who've seen and bought the cards, it is nevertheless "not in poor taste."
Does the program break taboos in children's TV? "It does in some ways, yes," Price says. "But not bad-taste taboos. Things that are on the edge of slight irreverence. It's not antisocial, but neither have we turned the characters into Care Bears. If we do, then we are not going to have an audience."
Price dismisses the argument that her supposedly nonviolent program nevertheless promotes, and will help sell, the clearly violent cards. "I don't find that an issue I'm concerned about," she says, "because they've already sold a billion copies. This is very much a part of our popular culture."
Topps had to be talked into licensing the characters for a TV show, Price says. CBS, unlike the other two networks, does not enter into coproduction deals with toy and novelty manufacturers to base TV shows on their products as a way of promoting them; CBS is paying Topps a license fee (undisclosed) for the TV rights to the characters.
"In fact, it was very difficult to convince Topps to do the show," Price says. "I had to chase them and chase them."
"I don't think that's quite accurate," says Topps spokesman Norman Liss from the company's Brooklyn headquarters. "We're delighted that they're doing it. It's just one of our licensing things." A movie is also in the works, but CBS is not involved in that.
Liss won't confirm Price's claim that a billion cards have been sold but says, in answer to criticism of the cards from parents' and antiviolence groups, "Millions and millions of people have been buying this product. Certainly those people were expressing their opinion and their approval. If we thought anything was too gross, we wouldn't put it out."
And so the marketplace speaks again, this time in favor of bubble gum cards (five to a pack, plus gum, for 25 cents) that feature such cartoon characters as Rutherford B. Hay, a pudgy child scarecrow whose left eye has been plucked out by a bird, and Unzipped Zack, a little boy who unzips his face to reveal a demonic skull underneath.
These characters may not appear on the CBS show, but the sensibility behind them is clearly what CBS has bought for its young audience -- or rather, for the advertisers (mostly of sugary cereals, fast food and candy) who want to reach them.
Radecki says children's television has become increasingly violent again, after a few years of seeming reform, and both he and Charren blame, in part, former FCC chairman Mark Fowler and his laissez-faire attitude toward children's programming. During Fowler's reign, TV cartoon shows built around, and promoting, current toys, including violent ones, proliferated. Charren calls these shows "program-length commercials" that are disguised as entertainment but relentlessly pitch products to kids.
The District Court of Appeals is expected to rule soon on a suit ACT filed against the FCC for its failure to protect young viewers from such sustained commercial assaults. Radecki is pushing for legislation that would, among other things, ban commercials for violent war toys and require networks and stations to air antiviolence public service announcements aimed at kids.
Radecki says that while one may laugh off a phenomenon like "Garbage Pail Kids," it contributes to increased desensitization to violence in American society and thus to an even more violent culture. "It's a gradual process," he says. "We get desensitized to one step and then take the next step before we realize it. You find increasing acceptance of brutality and sadism as socially appropriate forms of entertainment.
"We all need to take this issue more seriously," Radecki says.
What CBS takes seriously is the proven child-luring power, and revenue-earning potential, of the cards. CBS finished the 1986-87 TV season in second place in the Saturday morning ratings, behind NBC, and would love to move up. Will "Garbage Pail Kids" help bring that about? "I think," says Price gleefully, "we have a very strong chance of having a hit."