Looking Back at The Real Ghostbusters

News Pete Dillon-Trenchard 30 Jul 2009 - 14:23
The Real Ghostbusters

One of the most popular kids' films of the eighties led to one of the most popular cartoon series...

Like many children growing up in the 1980s, I experienced a torrid love affair with those paranormal investigators from New York, the Ghostbusters. I was, however, a mere six months old when the film hit UK screens, so the antics of Messrs Murray, Aykroyd, Reitman and Hudson were lost on me for a good few years. But my Ghostbusters? They were the Real Ghostbusters, in more ways than one.

Towards the end of 1985, Columbia Pictures and DiC Entertainment, keen to capitalise on the film’s success at the box office, produced a four-minute pilot animation for a Ghostbusters cartoon. The name was changed to The Real Ghostbusters as a two-fingered salute to Filmation, who were developing a Ghostbusters cartoon based on their 1975 live-action TV series of the same name. The animation on this pilot was a little rough, but the characters of Ray, Peter, Egon and Winston were all recognisably present and accounted for.

Well, sort of. It was decided that straight adaptations of the actors’ likenesses would look too similar to one another on screen, so changes were made to the characters’ appearances. Peter was made taller and thinner, Ray was made ginger and fatter, and Egon… Well, for some reason, Egon was given a huge quiff of blond hair (It was later explained in the comics that this was due to his having eaten a strange fungus – Stay off the mushrooms, kids!).

And yet to me, and millions of others, it worked perfectly. This has to be thanks, in part at least, to the tremendous standard of voice talent on the show. Maurice LaMarche (of Futurama and Pinky and the Brain fame) played Egon, Lorenzo “Garfield” Music played Peter, and Frank Welker voiced both Ray and Slimer, the Ghostbusters’ paranormal pet. Ernie Hudson auditioned to reprise his role from the film as Winston Zeddemore, but the role went to former talk show host Arsenio Hall. All four voice actors managed to capture the essence of their filmic counterparts, without straying too far down the impersonation route. The characters were in the safest possible hands.

With a talented voice cast in place, the show’s producers needed to find a writing talent to match. Step forward future BAFTA nominee, comics writer and creator of Babylon 5, J Michael Straczynski. Fresh from stints on She-Ra and Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors, JMS was a perfect choice for the show’s first script editor, bringing to the table his unique blend of the scientific and the humorous, and perfectly capturing the tone of the film in a way which was suitable for all ages.

Needless to say, the show was an overnight success. The faces of the animated Ghostbusters ended up on mugs, T-shirts, video games, toothbrushes, and the inevitable range of action figures, as well as a giant fire station playset which certainly made this young writer very happy during the Christmas of 1989. The show garnered a primetime Halloween special, and even an Emmy nomination.

The first couple of seasons of the cartoon produced a great many memorable episodes, including X-Mas Marks the Spot, in which the team accidentally bust the ghosts from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Lovecraftian tribute The Collect Call of Cthulu, and Citizen Ghost, which explained many of the discrepancies between the film and the series, including the change in costumes and the presence of Slimer among the team. It was a good time to be a Ghostbusters fan.

Unfortunately, it was the popularity of Slimer that led to the start of the show’s downfall. With studio execs realising that the younger audience had gravitated towards the child-like ghost, he was given his own spinoff, and the new hour-long timeslot was renamed Slimer and the Real Ghostbusters, with the show taking on a much lighter, tone. An example of this was the introduction of the Junior Ghostbusters, who would pop up on several occasions, both in The Real Ghostbusters and the Slimer spinoff, to ‘assist’ the adult team in their misadventures.

Straczynski, dissatisfied with the changes being imposed upon the show by the studio, decided to resign as the show’s story editor at the end of the third season. Also out of the door were Arsenio Hall, and Lorenzo Music, whose casting had been objected to by Bill Murray, who complained that Venkman sounded like Garfield (A role Murray himself would later go on to play in the 2004 live-action movie).

The introduction of accountant Louis Tully after the release of the second movie did little to slow the rot, and episodes such as ‘Afterlife in the Fast Lane’, in which the Ghostbusters competed in a race against Slimer for charity, and ‘Busters in Toyland’, in which possessed ghosts kidnap Louis’ nephew and take him to Toyland, showed just how far the programme had fallen since its inception. While the show never plummeted to quite the level of some of its contemporaries, it was clear that the team’s glory days were over. Even a couple of cracking tales by JMS couldn’t save the show, and the 147th and final episode was aired in 1991, to a diminished audience that was long past caring.

You can’t keep a good Ghostbuster down, however, and Egon Spengler returned in 1997 with an all-new ponytail and an all-new team of Ghostbusters… The Extreme Ghostbusters. Unfortunately, the series was criticised for its derivative plots, and its core cast of characters – a paraplegic, a goth girl, a Puerto Rican and an African American nerd – were deemed little more than an extreme attempt at political correctness. After forty episodes and a last hurrah with the original Ghostbusters, the animated franchise was laid to rest for good.

Or was it? The original series left behind a legacy of die-hard fans, and recent DVD releases of the series, both here and in the US, have proven popular with audiences wanting to re-live the magic of those early shows during the film’s 25th anniversary year. With the game proving a surprise success in the console charts, and with a third film finally entering pre-production, could it be a case of down but not out for the Real Ghostbusters? Probably not. But this is one inner 7-year-old who’ll have his fingers firmly crossed…

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