30 Years Ago: Rewatching Time Warner’s Super-Weird 1990 Earth Day Special
It’s Earth Day, that day when we think about the planet, how much danger it’s in, and what we can do to help. Celebrities, more often than not, are part of the equation, for good or ill.
And that’s not exactly a new phenomenon. On Earth Day 30 years ago – which happened to have been the holiday’s 20th anniversary – there was a star-studded prime time special known as The Earth Day Special. It was presented by Time Warner, which had just been formed a couple of months earlier when Time, Inc. merged with Warner Communications. I distinctly remember watching the special in my sixth grade class.
Some of the Earth Day Special was pure cringe (and not just because Bill Cosby was involved), while other parts were eerily prescient, especially the ones that warned of pending calamity. It’s indisputable that we’d be in a better spot right now if we’d listened to the advice of Bette Midler and company three decades ago.
The home video version is on YouTube, so now, a running diary:
The special begins with real-life bickering couple Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman as a bickering couple, Vic and Paula, as Paula badgers Vic into watching an Earth Day Special-within-the-Earth-Day-Special.
The camera then hurtles through space, as we hear singing, and camera dissolves towards a picture of Earth itself. As the opening credits roll, we see a parade in a town square with cheerleaders, dancers and jugglers.
Noted humanitarian Bugs Bunny appears, as he, Tweety Bird and Porky Pig bring out the heavy-duty Time Warner intellectual property right at the outset. “This was a great place to live before man set foot it,” Bugs says as he plunges into a rabbit hole.
And here comes Robin Williams, Robin-ing it up into the parade, in a televangelist-like stand-up routine in which he extolls the virtues of man, and repeatedly teases ribald punchlines, some of them lifted straight from his much-watched earlier specials. The routine drags on for an uncomfortably long time, into a joke run about Mother Earth, until it’s interrupted by what looks like a thunderstorm, and Mother Earth herself (Bette Midler) appears in a vintage-1990 CGI cloud.
Bette-as-Mother Earth denounces “you arrogant little homo sapiens,” before declaring “I’m sick- and it’s all your fault!” Then she starts crying and fades away, before crashing to the ground at Robin’s feet.
Now we’re at the hospital to which Mother Earth has been rushed- in which Neil Patrick Harris’ kid physician Doogie Howser is the doctor and Murphy Brown the outside reporter, as stats flash on screen about overloaded landfills and water pollution. And here’s Carl Saga, looking surprisingly youthful for 1990 (when he was in his mid-50s), giving a lecture about Co2, the ozone layer, and the “possibility” of “significant warming.”
Now we’re back to Vic and Paula, and DeVito asks for the remote so he can switch the channel to Jeopardy, which back then was still firmly in the era of CRT TVs and Alex Trebek having a mustache. The categories, though, are all things like “Toxics,” “Global Warming” and “Ozone Depletion.” All of the clues are factoids about those things. Paula correctly guesses all of the answers from the couch, while Vic gets them wrong.
It’s then-MTV News figure “Downtown” Julie Brown, who brings on for an interview Harold Ramis as “Dr. Elon Spengler,” the “brother” of Ramis’ Ghostbusters character Egon. Elon is part of “Wastebusters,” who appear to be a vigilante squad aimed at hunting down suited industrial polluters. Kind of a rebuke to all that talk that Ghostbusters is conservative and that the liberal bureaucrats were the villains. The polluter is “Nathan Thurm” (Martin Short, in Ed Grimley mode) who gets defensive about his company’s evil acts.
Next, a group of kids bring plants up to a school, where a security guard taunts them and essentially tells them to get a life. He tosses the plants off the side, at which point he seems to be struck by lightning… and there’s the DeLorean from Back to the Future, and out steps Doc (Christopher Lloyd). He runs up to the scene, yells “Great Scott!,” and warns that “the future” is “not good.”
We’re back to DeVito and Pearlman. as he complains that “the Earth is screwed up and there’s nothing we can do about it.” She hands him a newspaper.
It’s back to the hospital, where Murphy Brown lets us know that Doc Brown arrived and rushed into the hospital to assist Mother Earth. Doc enters the operating room and rigs the flux capacitor to show Doogie and other doctors “the world of your children,” which looks scarily dystopian, with dirty rivers and a barren Earth. “That’s the present. I’ve been to the future, and it’s not that good.”
It’s the Golden Girls, watching the same special-within-the-special in their living room. They talk about wanting to go out at a burger place, before Dorothy points out the restaurant uses polystyrene containers- remember those? The Golden Girls, ahead of their time as usual. Dorothy also calls for recycling; Blanche’s retort: “I’ve been recycling for years – I’ve used Mel Bushman many, many times.” (Mel Bushman really was a Golden Girls character- played by the great comedian Alan King- though we don’t see him here).
We’re back to Sagan, talking about acid rain. No one said “industrial pollutants” quite like Carl Sagan.
DeVito grabs the remote, and switches over to “Weekend Update,” then hosted by a pre-right wing Dennis Miller! Say what you will about Miller, but he was way better at this than Colin Jost or Michael Che.
We’re back in the hospital, as Doc Brown returns to the present, and gives a long monologue about a trip back to 1900. He then produces a bunch of newspaper clippings. “What’s wrong with us?,” he asks, “have we gone mad?”