15 Things You Gotta Love About 'Dinosaurs'

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The ABC primetime lineup back in 1991 was all about the sitcoms. Families gathered in front of their televisions to eat TV dinners and watch Roseanne, Family Matters, Full House, Step by Step, and a brand new series from the guy who gave us The Muppets and whatever Ludo from Labyrinth (1986) is supposed to be.

Jim Henson wanted to make a sitcom that followed the basic formula, with the twist that the family would be dinosaurs, that they would live a very unsustainable lifestyle, and the whole thing would be made using puppets and animatronics. In celebration of what would have been Jim Henson's 79th birthday, here are 15 cool things you've gotta love about Dinosaurs.

1. THE SERIES WAS PARTIALLY INSPIRED BY A CHOW MEIN COMMERCIAL.

In a DVD special feature segment titled Pre-Hysterical Times: The Making of Dinosaurs, Jim Henson’s son, Brian, says that his father’s early work for La Choy brand Chinese food planted the seed for a show about walking, talking dinosaurs. “The La Choy dragon just wrecked everything, and I think my dad always thought that was a hilarious character. I think maybe [Dinosaurs] had the roots in that.”

2. NO ONE HAD EVER ATTEMPTED TO MAKE A SHOW LIKE DINOSAURS.

Taking inspiration from dysfunctional TV families of the 1950s, '60s, and '70s (The Honeymooners, All in the Family), Henson wanted to make something that audiences had never seen before. “The whole thing is about a family and a civilization that’s doomed,” said producer Pete Coogan in the book No Strings Attached: The Inside Story of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. “No one had ever undertaken a network primetime sitcom show that was purely animatronic.”

3. THE PRODUCERS BORROWED MANY MEMBERS OF THE SESAME STREET TEAM.

Independent Lens, YouTube

Brian Henson hired the best puppeteers in the business to perform in Dinosaurs and to operate what they called the Performance Control System. Among the all-stars to join the team were Kermit the Frog and Ernie performer Steve Whitmire, Gonzo performer Dave Goelz, and Kevin Clash, who voiced and performed Elmo, Splinter from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990), and Baby Sinclair.

4. JIM HENSON NEVER GOT TO SEE A SINGLE EPISODE.

Sadly, Henson passed away in 1990, a year before the sitcom went into production and premiered on ABC. Before his death, the master puppeteer worked with designer Kirk Thatcher to develop the characters and the general ideas for the show. The political themes and more fleshed out sitcom elements came later with the help of co-creators Bob Young and Michael Jacobs, and Brian Henson made sure that the final product was something that would make his father proud.

5. BABY SINCLAIR'S CATCHPHRASES CAME FROM AN ACTUAL BABY.

While developing the personalities for each of the characters, co-creator and writer Bob Young used his third son for inspiration. “Not the mama” and “I’m the baby, gotta love me” became the most popular quotes from the series and were printed on T-shirts, buttons, and other merchandise.

6. THERE WAS A MUSIC VIDEO FOR "I'M THE BABY (GOTTA LOVE ME)."

The catchphrase was a big hit for the show, so a song was created for their Big Songs (1992) soundtrack, and a MTV-style video was produced and incorporated into the final episode of season three. The song was written by the voice actor for Earl Sinclair (Stuart Pankin) and film and television composer Ray Colcord provided the music.

7. EACH FAMILY IN THE SHOW IS NAMED AFTER AN OIL COMPANY.
 

eileenmak, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

As a joke that references the (false) idea that oil reserves come from dead dinosaurs, the prehistoric surnames in the show were taken from petroleum companies. The Sinclairs are named after the Sinclair Oil Corporation; Earl’s boss (B.P. Richfield) is a combination of B.P. (British Petroleum) and the Richfield Oil Corporation; Roy Hess references the Hess Corporation; and grandma Ethyl is named after a fuel additive company.

8. THE SINCLAIR FAMILY WAS BIOLOGICALLY IMPOSSIBLE.

Earl Sinclair is a megalosaurus, his wife Fran is an allosaurus, and the children are all completely made-up species for the sake of the show. The maternal grandmother, Ethyl, was originally a pterodactyl that was supposed to hang in a closet, according to designer Kirk Thatcher. During development, Ethyl became more of a core character, so she evolved into the seated matriarch that we know and love.

9. EACH 23-MINUTE EPISODE TOOK 170 TIMES LONGER TO MAKE.

In 1994, Creature Shop creative supervisor David Barrington Holt told the Chicago Tribune that each episode of Dinosaurs took approximately 65 hours to produce, and at its peak, there were 90 people working on the set to meet its deadlines. “We would work pretty long hours. We'd start at 5 a.m. and last until 2 or 3 a.m. We pretty well worked around the clock. The shooting side of things can get pretty intense. At night we'd make repairs and then get ready for the next day.”

10. NO PRESS WAS ALLOWED ON SET DURING PRODUCTION OF THE FIRST SEASON.

No one got to peek behind the curtain of Jim Henson's Creature Shop while the show's first season was being made because co-creator Michael Jacobs and the rest of the crew didn’t want to spoil the magic. “We said all along that for the first season we would have no press on the set, because we did not want to blow the integrity of the show for kids,” he told the Los Angeles Times. "I didn't want the press around because the angle would have been to take pictures of these creatures with their heads off. It's like ALF: Do you want to see pictures of ALF or somebody's hand up ALF? I wasn't going to have it. It's the kids who come first, and I didn't want to blow the fantasy for kids."

11. EPISODES WERE RELEASED ON VHS TO HELP PAY FOR THE SHOW.

VideoObscura, Etsy

Because Dinosaurs was one of the most ambitious projects on television, the cost to produce the show was very high. The first six episodes were released on home video ahead of schedule in December of 1991. “We never dreamed the show would be as expensive as it is,” said Jacobs at the time. “The videocassette release is very early, based on getting some of the money defrayed.” The characters were also used as promotional tools at Walt Disney World in Orlando and at Disney-MGM Studios.

12. IT ONLY TOOK 10 WEEKS FOR THE CREATURE SHOP TEAM TO BRING THE CHARACTERS TO LIFE.

Creature Shop supervisor John Stephenson was given a very short window to build the first 10 characters for the show and somehow made it happen. “Of course it wasn’t possible, but we did the best we could,” said Stephenson in No Strings Attached. “We got them to Los Angeles, sent an enormous service crew over with them and David Barrington-Holt in charge. We started shooting them then, building and rebuilding them, and eventually made them perfect.”

13. EARL SINCLAIR'S CONSTANT SIGHING ACTUALLY SERVED A PURPOSE.

Throughout the show, the tortured soul that is Earl Sinclair is more often than not frowning and sighing heavily. Part of it is the nature of the character, but Bill Barretta, the performer inside the suit, revealed in a behind-the-scenes featurette that he needed to open Earl’s mouth constantly because it was the only way he could see where he was going. The head of the costume sat above Barretta’s own head and did not have eye holes, so he looked through the mouth while the character was talking or let out a sigh when he needed to maneuver around furniture.

14. DINOSAURS BIRTHED THE L.A. CREATURE SHOP.

According to Brian Henson in No Strings Attached, when the show wasn’t renewed after the fourth season, the 35 people who worked on the show did not want to leave L.A. and head back to the Creature Shop’s base in London. “The crew were saying that they didn’t want to leave. In the end, we decided we’d have a core of six to eight people there all the time and have a full crew on a project-to-project basis.” The L.A. shop worked primarily on TV commercials in the early years while the London shop continued to do big productions, and then Steven Spielberg hired them to help make a little dinosaur movie called Jurassic Park (1993).

15. GEORGE MILLER PRODUCED BABE AFTER A VISIT TO THE DINOSAURS SET.

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The guy who made the Mad Max series worked with the Creature Shop to bring a talking pig to the silver screen, but that might never have happened if it wasn’t for Dinosaurs. Miller bought the rights to a book called The Sheep-Pig in the mid-1980s and wanted to make a live-action version of it because he saw the potential of computer graphics and animatronics. Miller was waiting for his dream to become cheaper to produce, and when his co-producer Bill Miller and director Chris Noonan saw what was happening with the sitcom, Miller decided to move forward with Babe.

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September 24, 2015 - 10:00am
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