30 Years Ago: Rewatching Time Warner’s Super-Weird 1990 Earth Day Special
And now it’s the Muppets. Kermit and Robin Frog talk about how things are even worse for the animals than for people. “I’d hate to be extinct- even for a few minutes!,” Robin says. Adding poignancy to this part is that Jim Henson died about three weeks after the Earth Day Special aired, and this may have been Henson’s final public performance as Kermit.
We’re in a restaurant as Robin Williams sits at a table with Dustin Hoffman (they are “Every Man” and “Every Lawyer,” respectively). The two men appeared in Hook together, the following year. It’s a “Who’s-on-First”-like patter routine, as Hoffman warns that if the oceans are too polluted, we’ll have to resort to imitations of every kind of fish. It segues into a rather heavy-handed description of how powerful interests get away with horrible acts. “I can always argue the other side,” Hoffman’s lawyer concludes.
At the hospital, Doogie Howser gets into an argument with the mustached detective character, who uses a bunch of arguments-the science isn’t clear, maybe she’ll get better all by herself – that still sound pretty familiar today, especially from certain politicians. Honestly, Doogie’s loud pink shirt and Hawaiian tie are a lot more distracting than the part about him being a 16-year-old doctor.
Mother Earth, awake, knocks some documents out the window of the hospital, where they’re picked up by… E.T., who has apparently phoned home again eight years after his movie. He overhears some kids (one of them played by a very young Mayim Bialik!) talking about how scared they are about the environmental future. Then E.T., as a knockoff John Williams score plays, summons the children over, and presents them with a glowing book about saving the planet.
Now it’s time for a rap number, led by Will Smith (still credited then as “Fresh Prince”), Tone Loc, Queen Latifah, Heavy D, Kid ‘n’ Play and other circa-1990 rappers. Ice T is there too, two years before “Cop Killer.”
Bialik and the other kids come on stage and read from the book, along with their “coach”, Jack Lemmon!, to give a speech about setting appliances properly.
And… there’s The Cosby Show set, as the Huxtables are watching the special-within-the-special. What’s shocking, aside from the obvious, is how unbelievably young Lisa Bonet and Raven-Symone are. This is the first time in quite a few years that Bill Cosby’s visage has crossed my television, in any context other than a criminal trial or perp walk.
Melanie Mayeron, from thirtysomething, gives a speech about clean water. Then there’s Morgan Freeman, the owner of the local newspaper, who talks about how many trees are being cut down. Lucky for him, the newspaper industry is now using far fewer of them.
Now it’s time for a Dating Game parody, in which the bachelorette is then-movie star Geena Davis. The bachelors? Coach Pat Riley, then-soap opera actor Dan Gauthier, and… Rodney Dangerfield. Rodney may not win any respect, but he does win the game, by proposing dates that don’t pollute, unlike the sorts of private plane rides proposed by the other two men.
Next up is an intense dramatic turn from Michael Keaton. He’s playing the owner of a chemical plant who gives a confessional speech to the town square about how he saved some money by dumping out chemicals behind his plant, causing birth defects among area children. Unlike most in his position, he admits his shame.
Now it’s a Lakers game, presumably at the Great Western Forum. Magic Johnson, who is injured and in street clothes, turns to Michael Douglas, who’s seated at courtside, carrying a comically large cell phone. Michael and Magic then encourage Douglas’ friends (Dom Irrera and Robert Wuhl) to recycle the plastic cups that they’re drinking from.
Back to Perlman and DeVito, though Danny is asleep. He has a dream, in which his poker buddies – Chevy Chase, Rick Moranis, and Dan Aykroyd – mock the idea of environmentalism, doing all but accusing him of “virtue signaling.” Moranis calls caring about the earth “just one big yuppie craze.” Then, in the moment I’ve always remembered most in the special, Mother Earth (in the dream) dies, and Doogie Howser puts a sheet over her, before pointing a finger and snarling, “Vic, this is all your fault!”
Mayim Bialik and friends enter the hospital to present Mother Earth with their holy book, which came to them from Doc Brown via E.T. She gives a speech about remembering to care, even after Earth Day is over. It’s Bialik reunited with Midler, whose younger self she played in Beaches two years earlier.
Now we’re on the set of that great progressive bastion Married… With Children, as the Bundy family is also watching the special. The Bundys gather on the couch, with Kelly smoking, Peg aggressively spraying her hair with an aerosol can, and garbage and litter everywhere. The Bundy family turns towards the light, however, upon learning they can get money in exchange for their recycling.
We’re back at the outdoor rally, where the kids are speaking and we spot Meryl Streep in the crowd. Dejected, she leaves the rally and ducks into an empty local bar, where the bartender is Kevin Costner, for some reason sporting a tiny ponytail. Costner tells her he’s decided to make a difference by using reduced water pressure to serve drinks, and also recycling. Their chemistry is really something, but somehow Costner and Streep never starred in a movie together. The scene ends with Meryl hitting a bank shot into the recycling can.
Jane Fonda appears in the town square, giving a monologue about how her character’s daughter nearly died of a rare cancer, but was saved, “because of a flower,” that used to grow in the Madagascar rain forest.
Doogie Howser comes to the stage to declare that Mother Earth “isn’t going to get any better unless we start to change.”
Now we’re on the set of Cheers. Sam: “I guess the earth is in trouble, and it’s up to us.” Norm: “It’s up to us? The earth IS in trouble.” Norm says he’ll start recycling his beer cans at home – Norm drinks at home? I figured drinking all day every day at the bar would be enough for him. Rhea Perlman’s Carla isn’t in this part, probably because it would be too narratively complex for her to also be home on her couch with her husband.
At the outdoor rally, everyone present, including some who were skeptical earlier, share the different things they’ll be doing to help the planet going forward. “I think everyone who holds public office should care about the earth,” one little girl says. If only they’d listened…”
Out of the hospital emerges… Mother Earth, in a wheelchair, pushed by Robin Williams. She gets up and walks to the podium, to thunderous applause. She then takes off the crown and breaks character. “I’m Bette Midler, I live here on this planet, I share it with you.” Williams says “I’m Robin Williams and I’m wearing Wayne Newton’s clothes.”
“You have to get off your cans and recycle,” Bette says.
We’re back to DeVito and Perlman, where “Vic” shares his epiphany about what’ll happen to the world when he has grandchildren.
And here’s Barbra Streisand, singing, through a rainy window, a song called “One Day.” The song, it turns out, was an album leftover recorded more than a decade earlier but apparently stayed on the shelf until the Earth Day Special.
Now we see participants sharing brief conversation tips. Chevy Chase: “Remember – shower with a friend!” (Ewww). Then he says it two more times! Maybe my sixth-grade teacher shouldn’t have showed us this part. And that’s the end.
So yes, the Earth Day Special is dated and silly and weird, but unquestionably well-intentioned and in many ways prescient. It talked about a lot of the environmental causes of 30 years ago, like water pollution and the rainforest, that are still relevant today, even if we don’t hear about them as much as the catch-all of climate change.
If nothing else the special shows, then as now, that just because smug celebrities are involved with a cause, doesn’t make it wrong.