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7 totally rad and ridiculous live-action kids shows from the 1980s

What do Benji, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Richard Pryor have in common? This list.

Image: The Everett Collection

Growing up in the 1980s was a pretty surreal experience. You had cartoons about cars transforming into robots, a yellow circle chomping ghosts, turtles performing martial arts for pizza, little blue gnomes living in mushrooms, a detective with a helicopter that came out of his hat…. Those were just the massive hits. And people say the Sixties were psychedelic.

The live-action children's shows of the Reagan era were just as weird as the animated ones. Of course, we all remember Pee-Wee's Playhouse. Let's take a trip through the wormhole for seven more truly kooky and forgotten series from the '80s.


Inside Story


John Burstein slipped into a unitard decorated with anatomically correct human organs to become "Mr. Goodbody." In the late 1970s, the character became a fixture on Captain Kangaroo, and at the dawn of the new decade, PBS gave him his own series. He was sort of like Richard Simmons with an exposed colon.

Image: The Everett Collection


Benji, Zax & The Alien Prince


"The Alien Prince" had nothing to do with the guy who made Purple Rain, but you are forgiven for thinking that this show might have something to do with Prince, because stuff like that happened in the 1980s. No, the Prince here was Yubi, the kid in the photo, who escaped an uprising on his home planet Antars with his droid pal, Zax. Zax was a bit like a mix of Jinx from Space Camp and Orko from He-Man, for those who know their '80s references. Of course, Benji was the same ol' lovable dog. Well, not the same dog. The original Benji actor, Higgins, the pooch seen in Petticoat Junction was dead by then, after a long, wonderful life of 17 years. His daughter, Benjean starred as Benji in this, the only Benji television series. It lasted 13 episodes.

Image: The Everett Collection


Going Bananas


Hanna-Barbera is best known for its iconic cartoon characters, but the animation studio occasionally dabbled in live-action, typically to little fanfare. Well, for example, Hanna-Barbera also produced Benji, Zax & The Alien Prince. This wacky series about a superpowered ape only made it to a dozen episodes. An orangutan named Roxana Banana is granted her heroic gifts when a spaceship zaps her with a lightning bolt. Confusingly, this show had nothing to do with the 1987 Dom Deluise film Going Bananas. It did, however, feature a segment called "Jungle Jukebox," in which apes parodied popular music videos of the era.

Image: The Everett Collection


Pryor's Place


After their 1970s heyday, Sid and Marty Krofft continued to make surreal shows, though they were projects that failed to match the cultural impact of their earlier one-season wonders, shows like H.R. Pufnstuf and The Banana Splits. First, there was the inexplicable primetime variety show Pink Lady in 1980. Four years later, the brothers partnered with comedian Richard Pryor for this 13-episode flop. As for the theme song? Who else you gonna call? Ray Parker, Jr., hot off Ghostbusters, crooned the smooth tune.

Image: The Everett Collection


Hey Vern, It's Ernest!


"Hey Vern!" remains one of the lastest kitchy catchphrases of the 1980s. Comedian Jim Varney made buckets of cash with his redneck character Ernest P. Worrell, in ten (yes, ten) feature films, novelty songs, Coke commercials, etc. Surprisingly, his TV show, Hey Vern, It's Ernest!, a production of DIC Entertainment, the folks behind Inspector Gadget, flopped. Only a baker's dozen were made. He hardly lost sleep. Ernest Saves Christmas came out during its run, becoming his biggest box-office smash.

Image: The Everett Collection




The esteemed Ben Vereen has won a Tony award and earned Emmy and Golden Globe nominations. He has also worn a leopard nose to govern the Zoobles as "Mayor Ben" on Zoobilee Zoo.

Image: The Everett Collection


2 Hip 4 TV


Raspy comedian Colin Quinn and Ahmet Zappa, son of Frank, hosted this sketch comedy showcase. Think "Saturday Morning Live," but for kids. In a bowling alley. Oh, did we not mention it was set inside a bowling alley? The brief flop remains best known for its music bookings. A shockingly young Red Hot Chili Peppers performed on 2 Hip 4 TV, in the very brief span that D. H. Peligro played drums. Peligro was only in the band for a matter of months, but is forever remembered now thanks to this hyperactive interview clip. Edie Brickell, Sparks and Robyn Hitchcock also performed on the show.

Image: The Everett Collection


Dig deeper into the past for unrealized TV shows like The Beach Girls and The Blackstones. READ MORE

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