Tuesday, November 28, 2023

The Coneheads

Thanksgiving leftovers (specifically, your xenophobic uncle's fantasies)

What's it about?

Tonight's nostalgic pic is "The Coneheads" (Rankin/Bass, 1983). The planet Remulak is the seat of a vast intergalactic empire, headed by Cauldra, the "High Master of Eight Galaxies."

Cauldra. I didn't forget to credit the actor: The actor is not credited.

In an effort to expand the empire, Cauldra assigns two of his loyal subjects, Beldar (voiced by Dan Aykroyd) and Prymaat (voiced by Jane Curtain) to travel to a new planet, Earth, and conquer it.
Aykroyd's cartoon characters are always depicted as fat, but he was quite svelte when this was made...

Along the way to the United Nations building in New York City the two get lost (mostly due to Beldar's incompetence) and crash their ship into the ocean. Escaping the crash, the two find themselves stranded on the alien world, and quickly chased by a pack of stray dogs. Making their escape they take refuge in a trailer park, hiding in a television repair shop owned by Louie Boucher (Bob McFadden).
Hm... doesn't look like Sinbad...

Louie is down on his luck, unable to repair the newer, more advanced Japanese televisions. Beldar demonstrates that he can fix them quickly and easily and is hired by Louie "under the table" to repair them, because they are in America and everyone deserves a fair deal, recalling when his grandfather immigrated there from France. The two cone-headed aliens tell Louie that they too came from France, establishing their cover in America. Forced to live among the humans while trying to build a communication device to contact Remulak, the two find themselves becoming parents, buying a home, living in the suburbs, and trying to blend in with suburban society while awaiting rescue.
Meeting the neighbors.

Some background

If you don't know, this was a failed pilot for a television show based on the popular "The Coneheads" sketch on the "Saturday Night Live" variety show of the 1970s. The core cast are all original members of the cast of SNL, including Aykroyd, Curtain, and Laraine Newman reprising her role as the daughter, Connie.

Young Connie can't cope.

It was written by Tom Davis (a famed SNL writer for DECADES) and developed for television by Davis and fellow SNL alum Al Franken (who would go on to be a United States senator for a while).

The character and production models were developed by legendary artist and illustrator Jack Davis, mostly known today as one of the main artists of classic "Mad Magazine." His influence shows, but the edges of his art are softened, and the lighting is quite a bit brighter than what he is typically known for.

If you don't know, Davis was quite old when this came out, so this is what he thought "cool" kids wore.

The animation was provided by Rankin/Bass affiliates in Japan, headed by Masaki Izuka, who seems to have worked for the Topcraft studio, although I cannot confirm whether Topcraft was the studio responsible for this, although they are direct collaborators in other Rankin/Bass classics like "The Hobbit," "The Return of the King," and "The Last Unicorn" (Masaki Izuka worked on all three). I only bring it up to remind readers that Topcraft would eventually disband and reunite under the name, "Studio Ghibli," a name that has some weight in the animation industry. Needless to say, the animation in this project is top-notch, much better than it has any right to be given the low-budget source material.

Another "fever dream" from my youth

On a personal note, I saw this when I was a kid, and I don't think that I quite knew what I was watching. Mostly I was shocked to learn that this was a short half-hour pilot, as in my mind I recall it being a longer mini movie. So long, in fact, that my eight-year-old self got bored watching it, having already seen the Coneheads on reruns of SNL.

Not good, but not bad, either

This is a weird show; not exactly terrible, but also not great. The ideas are rushed through with the end goal of setting it up for a sitcom style program (that obviously never materialized), and it seems to reprise most of the punchlines from the television show like it's checking them off a list. Unfortunately, if you're familiar with the sketches, this leaves very little left to explore.

This scene screams, "Hey everyone, remember when we did this? Eh? Eh?"

If you're completely unfamiliar with the Conehead property it might seem interesting, but I have to assume that they were banking on the sketch's popularity and the recognizability of Aykroyd, Curtain, and Newman, and this really doesn't add anything new to experience outside of the animation (which I cannot stress enough is better than it should be). Making matters worse, the producers added a really, really bad laugh track like this was filmed before a live studio audience. The absurdity of the laugh track is actually one of the funniest parts of the pilot.
It would have been funnier if the producers just had someone screaming "LAUGH TRACK! LAUGH TRACK!" in the background every time a joke is dropped.

If at first you don't succeed

Eventually, parts of this story would be adapted into a feature-length film which (thankfully) adds more jokes and situations for the characters to explore.

Safe for kids... but why bother?

There's no swearing (well, not in any earth language, anyway), but there are several adult situations, although they are explored through the lens of weird alien beings which really reduces the offensive nature to zero (this was 1980s television, after all). Oddly, if it had been picked up it would have been more "adult" than most other cartoons at the time, beating "The Simpsons" by at least five years. There is one on-screen birth, but it's obscured from the viewer and is also produced via weird alien anatomy.

Yes, they birth through their cone heads.

Honestly the most disturbing thing in the entire episode is Beldar's weird wire-trimmed porn mustache (which the character had in the original SNL episodes, but which has been scrapped in every iteration since).

Where can you see it?

You won't find this pilot commercially available anywhere, but you can usually find it on YouTube and also for free at Archive.org if you're interested:

Check it out here

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