Painfully wholesome, G-rated American children’s television of our current kid-tested, mother-approved era not doing it for you? Yeah, we’re not feeling it, either. As the fall TV season kicks off, we assume most adults are concentrating on all of those highly anticipated season and series premieres — but we think it’s time to devote some attention to the deliciously dark and downright bizarre children’s entertainment from around the world. Our roundup of creepy kids’ TV shows, past and present, is after the jump.
Whose idea was is to let Tim Burton create a kids’ show based on his bizarre 1988 comedy-horror flick? Like the movie, the show featured monsters, ghosts, zombies, and a vaguely raunchy protagonist who was a little bit of all three. All that morbid stuff came together in the town of Neitherworld, where Beetlejuice and his emaciated, goth friend Lydia chilled out in something like a nightmarish purgatory. Those of us who actually enjoyed this bizarre character can rejoice, because a second Beetlejuice film is currently in the works.
The Singing Ringing Tree
Leave it to ’50s East Germany to create the most terrifying children’s television programming ever. The BBC bought the rights to The Singing Ringing Tree, originally a fairy-tale film, and released it as three dubbed episodes of their own kids’ series, Tales From Europe. The narrative is pure pre-Disney Grimm’s fairy tale: male protagonist gets turned into an angry bear, hot female protagonist gets turned into ugly female protagonist due to her lack of virtue, and a giant, evil-looking fish turns out to be an okay guy. As one Amazon reviewer describes it, “Imagine a fairy tale conceived by Wagner and directed by Fritz Lang, with nods in the direction of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and German Expressionism, and you’d be close.”
Aired by Hamas’s Al-Aqsa TV beginning in 2007, Tomorrow’s Pioneers is an abomination to modern cinematic technology; it’s shot as one long, static, droning cut, filmed almost entirely within a corner studio whose only décor is makeshift wallpaper of pastel foam alphabet floor mat blocks, and stars the worst Mickey Mouse knockoff ever. What it lacks visually, though, it makes up for in exciting content, regularly featuring such punchy lines as “How will you sacrifice your soul for the sake of Al-Aqsa?” Yikes.
Boohbah looks like a tripped out, psychedelic ancestor of Teletubbies, but it actually began airing six years later, in 2003. It stars “five magical atoms of power,” falsely suggesting that the show has something to do with science; Boohbah’s cast would more accurately be described as five screen actors dressed up like rainbow-colored ghost fetuses, floating ecstatically over, on, and around rainbows suspended in mid-air. If Teletubbies evokes an odd yet tolerable hallucination, Boohbah is the bad acid trip that makes you toss every last bit of your stash down the incinerator. The two shows were pulled off the air simultaneously in 2005, leaving only two years’ worth of Boohbah’s three-to-five-year-old target audiences scarred for life.
If you hate clowns, you’ll abhor Jigsaw. The BBC children’s TV series that aired from 1979 to 1984 could have passed as a normal, entertaining puzzle-solving show had it only gone with another host. But unfortunately, Mr. Noseybonk, an actor donning a full suit and freaky, big-nosed mask is just little too Phantom of the Opera meets Open Your Eyes not to induce nightmares. What’s scariest, perhaps, is that you can see the seams of the mask resting on the hidden man helping these kids solve puzzles.
Speaking of the creepiest men ever to grace children’s television, Paul Reubens’ man-child alter ego did extremely well for himself, rising and re-rising to phenomenal popularity over the course of some 30 years. Fond of eyebrow-raising double entendre and characters that was more campy than kid-friendly, Reubens began his TV reign in 1980 with The Pee-wee Herman Show before moving on to Pee-wee’s Playhouse in 1986. The implicit sexual deviance finally became explicit in 1991, when Reubens was arrested for public masturbation. Whatever you think of the actor, though, he clearly came out on top — last year, the character re-emerged in Broadway’s wildly successful The Pee-wee Herman Stage Show, which was also filmed for HBO.
This Icelandic TV show raises all sorts of ontological questions by sticking a couple of humans into an all-puppet world with no explanation of what they’re doing there. Wide-eyed human health nut Stephanie is a crusader who has come to LazyTown to inspire puppets to be active and not eat junk food. But who sent her? And why is her uncle a puppet? A great LazyTown-Lil’ Jon mashup that went viral in 2008 answers none of these questions but does feature an entertaining song from the show.
Rocko’s Modern Life
One of the edgier children’s television shows of the ‘90s, Rocko’s Modern Life offered kids social commentary they probably didn’t know they were getting and parents innuendos that made watching TV with their kids bearable. But we can’t help but wonder what moms and dads must have thought about those moments when the show really crossed the line — like that one episode (clip above) in which Rocko works for a sex hotline. Ren and Stimpy may have gone down in history as the weirdest Nicktoon, but we always thought Rocko was far creepier.