The 1980s was a golden era for animation on TV. It was the decade of Thundercats, Inspector Gadget, Transformers, Ducktales, The Smurfs, He-Man and The Masters of the Universe, Care Bears, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Yet arguably the era’s greatest cartoon came in the form of The Real Ghostbusters.
The show arrived at a time when animated spin-offs based on popular blockbuster movie properties were everywhere in the world of television with companies eager to translate box office gold into something palatable to younger audiences. It didn’t always quite go to plan, of course, as short-lived and ill-advised animated incarnations of everything from Rambo to The Karate Kid can attest.
But The Real Ghostbusters was different, running for 140 episodes across seven seasons.
It was a little different from the film. For one thing, the title had to be tweaked due to a dispute with Filmation who were making an animated version of the 1970s series The Ghost Busters at the same time.
The Ghostbusters themselves looked a little different too: Egon Spengler inexplicably sported a blonde pompadour, Ray Stantz was a little tubbier (and ginger), Winston Zeddemore seemed younger, while Peter Venkman suddenly became very chiseled. They sounded slightly different too with Ernie Hudson the only member of the original cast to try out for a voice role on the show. The fact he ended up losing out to Arsenio Hall for the role is, well, awkward to say the least.
The only other noticeable departures came in making Slimer, the glutinous green ghost from the first movie, a sidekick character and the presence of a synth-laden soundtrack by Tonya Townsend and Tyren Perry performing under the stage name Tahiti.
Cosmetic changes aside, however, this DIC Entertainment and Columbia Pictures television production retained much of what made the original movie so special with episodes blending intelligent and occasional slapstick comedy with effective supernatural scares and strikingly surreal imagery.
A lot of that had to do with executive producers Joe Medjuck and Michael C. Gross. Both had served as executive producers on the original film (Gross is even credited with creating the iconic Ghostbusters logo), and both appeared eager to carry the ethos of the movie through to the cartoon.
“The most brilliant thing they did was to not change a thing from the movie,” The Real Ghostbusters writer Dennys McCoy tells Den of Geek. “When you mess with that formula, you inevitably fail. Ghostbusters has a very tight structure of four friends or five if you count Janine. You have to base everything out of their relationship, no matter what you do. To me, that’s what happened when they did Extreme Ghostbusters [the short-lived late 90s reboot of the series.] The Real Ghostbusters stuck to the tenets of the movie, and continued to tell that story”
McCoy’s writing partner and wife, Pamela Hickey, also recalls how much importance was placed on authenticity right down to the series bible – a set of notes commonplace in writing of this kind which was established to ensure continuity.
“When you wrote for someone like Venkman, for example, he had to say things in a certain way. That was the focus when we were working on it,” she says. “The rule with Slimer was to imagine him as a seven year old boy. That was how you wrote for him. They made him their pet and he’s domesticated now like a feral cat….You had to really track those characters. That faithfulness was crucial to its success.”
McCoy and Hickey recall the biggest compliment ever paid them by Medjuck and Gross was when they said they could pick up one of their scripts, remove all of the character names and still know exactly which Ghostbuster was saying what line.
“That was the challenge,” Hickey says. “But that was also how much we all loved these characters. They got stuck in your head.”
Hickey and McCoy have enjoyed a prolific writing partnership that includes over 50 different credits. It was their agent who first floated the idea of them writing for animation. As jobbing creatives at the time, the idea appealed because as Hickey puts it they “needed some money for an air conditioner and changing table for a baby.”
Their first script was for the 1980s series Heathcliff, a cartoon based on the comic strip of the same name which featured the legendary voice of Mel Blanc. McCoy recalls submitting a script that was “sight gag after sight gag.” It went over well and the pair quickly warmed to the idea of writing for animation.
“The thing we found we loved about it was that we could direct the episodes in the script,” McCoy explains. “It gave us so much control. We could call the backgrounds, the sound effects, the camera angles, we could do all of that.”
Fast forward a couple of years and, after seeing Ghostbusters at the movie theater, McCoy learned that an old acquaintance, J. Michael Straczynski, had just been hired as story editor for a cartoon series based on the film.
Straczynski would go on to create Babylon 5, wrote comics for Marvel and DC and penned scripts for Thor, Changeling, and World War Z and many more. He had been hired to join original writers Len Janson and Chuck Menville after ABC’s initial order of 13 episodes was suddenly bolstered by a further 65 which would be used for broadcast syndication.
The huge jump in demand for episodes ultimately required multiple writers on The Real Ghostbusters. While Straczynski, Janson, and Menville wrote many, they were joined by a host of talented writers from the world of sci-fi and animation past and present.
There was Michael Reaves, who would go on to earn acclaim for his work on Disney’s Gargoyles and Batman: The Animated Series and future Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine scribe Marc Scott Zicree. John Shirley, a fantasy and horror writer who penned the 1994 movie The Crow, contributed episodes as did David Gerrold, a writer on the original Star Trek series.
Mark Edward Edens, who would go on to develop the iconic X-Men animated series, worked on the show, as did Richard Mueller, Kathryn Drennan, Steve Perry, and Linda Wolverton to name but a few. Wolverton would later make history as the first woman to write an animated feature with 1991’s Beauty and the Beast.
McCoy was working at Saban Productions as supervising producer on a series called Kidd Video when he learned Straczynski, who he had previously helped get a job writing for a magazine over at Time-Life publications, was doing The Real Ghostbusters.
Calling Straczynski up, he asked if he and Hickey could pitch for the show. Looking back, McCoy says he later realized Straczynski was “doing me a favor” by saying yes and didn’t necessarily think anything would come of it. That was until he read the resulting script, which was one of the first to make Winston the main focus.
“We looked at the thing and realised the way we’re going to get a story out of this is to make it about Winston,” McCoy explains.
“Nobody was going to pitch a Winston story. They were all going to pitch stuff around Venkman,” Hickey adds.”But we remembered that amazing scene in the film where Ernie Hudson and Dan Aykroyd are driving across the Brooklyn Bridge.”
The scene, in which Winston talks about the Bible and theorizes that the recent spate of spiritual activity could be linked to the potential onset of Judgement Day, proved to be a major inspiration.
“Winston cracks the case right there,” Hickey says. “We saw that and right away there was more to him than meets the eye. He’s a very literate guy.”
The result was “Boo-Dunit,” an inventive episode that saw Winston take center stage after the Ghostbusters are called out to the estate of recently deceased Agatha Grizzly where occupants are being terrorized by the ghosts of several characters from her final unfinished novel.
“We made Winston a big fan of murder mysteries. So there was then this whole thing where he had to solve this mystery involving ghosts in order to stop people getting killed in the real world,” McCoy explains.
Straczynski loved the script and Hickey and McCoy went on to produce nine more during the show’s run, putting them among the most prolific writers on the series.
“Every time they wanted a weird story, they’d come to us,” McCoy says. “It was a very interesting environment because the syndicated shows were run by [Straczynski] where we had a lot of freedom. But the episodes for ABC, which were run by Len [Jensen] and Chuck [Manville] were under network protocols which were very strict.”
It was the syndicated episodes that gave the team more freedom.
“On the syndicated episodes of The Real Ghostbusters it was no holds barred,” McCoy says. “You could get away with a lot more as long as you stayed faithful to the characters. The sky was the limit.”
This environment gave birth to arguably the most famous of the couple’s episodes and one that ranks among the very best from The Real Ghostbusters’ run: “The Devil to Pay.” It sees the gang sign up to take part in a gameshow, with the prize of a trip to Tahiti up for grabs. However, they soon discover it’s being run by the Devil himself and if they lose he gets to claim their eternal souls as his prize.
“It started with us asking ‘What would they do if they were on a game show with the Devil?’ And just went from there,” Hickey says. “We figured the Ghostbusters might want to go on a vacation so would sign up for this game show.. To be honest a lot of the writing was us just sitting there for a couple of days trying to crack each other up. ‘What kind of game would you play with the Devil?’ Dennys would ask and I would be like Wheel of Fortune.’”
The end of the episode sees the Ghostbusters strapped to a giant spinning wheel where they must confess a past misdeed to escape the Devil’s clutches.McCoy ranks it as his personal favorite. Not everyone was quite so enamored with them summoning Satan for a kids TV show though.
“What’s scary about it is that we got it broadcast,” McCoy laughs. “Oh my God, we got so much shit. We had every evangelical right wing religious nut in the world complaining about it. Even my own brother, who was born again, gave me shit about it.”
Not that they were the only writers to push the envelope when it came to blending laughter and scares on a kids show. Straczynski delivered some of the most striking episodes in this regard, including “Knock Knock” in which subway workers unwittingly unleash evil creatures from hell into the underground system and “The Thing in Mrs. Faversham’s Attic” a spookfest about an old lady with spirits lurking in the roof of her home.
Others like the Reaves-penned “The Boogieman Cometh” where Egon is forced to confront his own very real fear of the bogeyman and the Brennan-written effort “Night Game” where the gang must deal with a haunting at the New York Jaguars’ baseball stadium are regularly cited among the best and most unsettling.
Hickey and McCoy took inspiration from a variety of sources both contemporary and otherwise when it came to coming up with ideas.
“I have a background in folklore, so we were also looking into stuff like that we could use,” McCoy says, recalling the episode “Banshee Bake A Cherry Pie” in which an Irish chart-topping singer is revealed to be a Banshee intent on wreaking havoc on the world.
Elsewhere, episodes like “The Long, Long, Long etc. Goodbye” served as an ode of sorts to Philip Marlowe stories – not something you would see in many children’s cartoons -while “Dont Forget The Motor City” saw the guys head to Detroit to deal with some pesky gremlins, where they met a character who looked a lot like Aretha Franklin, even if she was rather carefully referred to as “the Queen of Soul.”
Not that that quite went to plan. “We were supposed to avoid saying Aretha Franklin,” Hickey recalls. “But at the end of the episode, I don’t know how it happened, they had the Ghostbusters singing Respect. I don’t know how they got away with it because it was the whole R-E-S-P-E-C-T.”
McCoy says the fact that the series was animated in South Korea to save money also led to similarly bizarre moments, where hair color would change or continuity would be slightly off.
“I remember this one scene where the Ghostbusters were supposed to be eating a pizza,” McCoy says. “But pizza wasn’t really a big thing in South Korea at the time, so they ended up drawing it looking like a seven layer cake. It was deep. Anyway, they didn’t what to pay to redo it so the show just ended up having the weirdest deep dish pizza you’ve ever seen in your life.”
But while the cartoon may have lacked the polish of the film, it did end up having some influence on the franchise and plans for the sequel.
“If you notice in Ghostbusters II, they have all these little incidental scenes where Slimer appears,” McCoy says. “Well, the thing is they did the entire movie without Slimer. It was only when Gross and Medjuck told them that was the most popular character in the cartoon that they put him in.”
The influence worked both ways though, as Hickey explains.
“We knew that Bill Murray watched the show with his kid, because he called him up and Ivan Reitman and said ‘What’s Garfield doing Venkman’s voice for?’”
Lorenzo Music, who also voiced the character of Garfield on the animated series, played Peter in the early series. Oddly enough, Murray voiced Garfield in two big screen outings made after he passed away.
In the case of The Real Ghostbusters, however, for whatever reason Music vacated the role of Venkman from the third season onwards with comedian Dave Coullier taking his place.
The crossover almost manifested itself in one other way too.
“So we had a story we wanted to do and we knew it was good,” McCoy says. “We pitched it to Straczynski for the syndicated shows. He loved it but when we sent the script through it was rejected. So we went to Gross and Medjuck for the network. Again, they loved it. We sent the script in and it was rejected.”
It was only when they went to see Ghostbusters II that the truth emerged. “The crux of our story had been that the Statue of Liberty comes to life. So when we saw the film it suddenly made sense.”
Hickey believes The Real Ghostbusters had the potential to run much longer as a series – but it didn’t. Instead, the network, ABC, made the cardinal sin of tinkering a little too much with the original formula.
Eager to improve ratings for its Saturday Morning lineup of shows, they drafted in a consultancy firm called Q5 who from the third season onwards began making changes that altered the makeup of the show entirely.
There was less satire and less of the subtle, sophisticated verbal humor that had made the cartoon such a fine sparring partner for the film.
Janine’s character was rewritten, moving away from the sharp-edged wise-cracker who had more in common with Annie Potts’ version of Janine from the film, and becoming simplified and, to their way of thinking, warmer and more appealing to young female viewers. It could have been even worse with the consultants suggesting at one point that Ray Stantz be written out entirely.
The likes of Strazynski and Reaves objected to the changes with the former stating that the changes were “diminishing” the show while the latter lamented that the show was “not as much fun” as it used to be.
“Janine was a strong, vibrant character. They wanted her to be more feminine, more maternal, more nurturing, like every other female on television,” Straczynski told the LA Times. “I think they [the consultants] reinforce stereotypes–sexist and racist. I think they are not helping television, they are diminishing it…I sat there in dumbstruck shock at what they were saying…
“We [Straczynski and Reaves] just looked at each other and started laughing. We couldn’t deal with it anymore; it had gone so far into the realm of the absurd.”
McCoy and Hickey shared much of the same criticism of the changes, highlighting one other noticeable shift in focus that hindered proceedings.
“They brought in The Junior Ghostbusters and changed things,” McCoy says.
A team of three children drafted in to help out the team on several episodes, while McCoy and Hickey were able to integrate the characters, the new additions coupled with a move, later in the series’ run, to make the increasingly popular Slimer the main focus, hindered the show.
“Sometimes people try to refresh things that don’t need to be refreshed,” Hickey says. “So you get things like all of a sudden the network would add something like the junior Ghostbusters. We made those work. It was cute.”
“There was always this idea that children have to have somebody their own age in their cartoons,” McCoy notes. “But how do you explain watching Bugs Bunny? He was obviously a 25-year-old guy.”
“It’s a fallacy because if you look at the most successful cartoon in the world today and it’s something like One Piece where there are no children and yet everyone watches it,” Hickey says. ”Kids appreciate a good story as much as anybody, and they’re they don’t care if it comes out of an adult space or a kid’s one.”
Had the show continued, then they would have loved to explore other areas of the Ghostbusters universe.
“We always wanted to do a spin off with Louis and Jeanine,” McCoy says. “They’re Ghostbusters, but they’re not Ghostbusters. It would be interesting to have them as a team.”
Having recently celebrated 50 years working together – Hickey and McCoy first met in a creative writing class in high school – the pair are showing no signs of slowing down writing multiple scripts during lockdown, including one feature.
“Pam and I are so in sync,” McCoy says. “We know each other so well,” Hickey agrees. “It’s been long enough that we know whether what the other person is right almost immediately when they start typing.”
Specialist writers in their field, the duo describe how a few years back they developed an entire 52-episode series called Pander and Rooster in the space of a five-day trip to Beijing. They say it’s an exciting time for animation, which has evolved a lot since the days of The Real Ghostbusters.
“The most interesting animation being done right now is in Europe and Asia,” McCoy says.
“Anime is thriving,” Hickey agrees. “Because there is that element of a continuing storyline to a lot of these shows. It’s no longer about doing episodic TV, it’s about creating something that is like a very long movie.”
The pair have high hopes for the new Ghostbusters: Afterlife movie too.“It’s a Ghostbusters movie that pays homage and uses what they have done before,” Hickey says. “No gimmicks.”
Should the film prove a hit, then they would be against firing up some more animated proton packs for a new set of cartoon adventure. “If they came to us and said ‘Can you do an animated series?’ Sure, we would probably say yes,” McCoy says. “We could do that.”
The days of animated spinoffs of big screen properties may be long gone, but we’ll hold out a little hope for The Real Ghostbusters: Afterlife.