12 Very Special Facts About Punky Brewster

Shout! Factory
Shout! Factory

Sitcoms about kids abandoned by their parents and left to fend for themselves are few and far between. Fortunately, Punky Brewster, which ran from 1984 to 1988, was able to fill that need. Starring Soleil Moon Frye as the aggressively optimistic Punky and George Gaynes as her adoptive father, Henry, the show was famous for Punky’s distinctive fashion palette and its obsession with Very Special Episodes. (In “Urban Fear,” Punky learns a serial killer is stalking her neighborhood; in another, Punky learns a valuable lesson about peer pressure and drug use.)

On the 30th anniversary of the series' finale, check out these 12 facts on alternative casting, a failed spinoff, and the real origin of the infamous refrigerator episode.

1. PUNKY IS A REAL PERSON.

Though she probably didn’t dress like a rainbow vomited on her. In the mid-1980s, the Federal Communications Commission insisted that networks use the 7 and 7:30 p.m. slots on Sunday for news or children’s programming. Instead of competing against CBS’s 60 Minutes with more topical content, NBC President Brandon Tartikoff decided to counter-program with a show about a spunky little girl. He wanted to name her after a teacher's daughter he knew in prep school, Peyton “Punky” Brewster: Peyton gave NBC lawyers her approval. As reported by Mental Floss's own Stacy Conradt, the "real" Punky even appeared in a later episode as a teacher.   

2. VICKI THE ROBOT AUDITIONED FOR THE ROLE.

When NBC’s casting call went out for Punky, more than 3000 adorable, elfin actors campaigned for the role. Among them was Tiffany Brissette, who later appeared as the monotone Vicki in the kid-robot series Small Wonder; Melissa Joan Hart (Clarissa Explains It All) was also a contender. But producers knew the relatives of Soleil Moon Frye, a 7-year-old with three TV movies under her tiny belt, and decided she had sufficient Punky Power.

3. HERMAN MUNSTER WAS UP FOR THE HENRY PART.

Before actor George Gaynes (Police Academy, Tootsie) was awarded the role of Punky’s adoptive father, Henry, producers were fielding another possibility: Fred Gwynne, best known as Herman Munster on The Munsters. Gwynne was said to be eager to distance himself from Munster and agreed to audition with Frye. But when the actress asked if he was Herman Munster, a disappointed Gwynne slinked out.   

4. THE SHOW WAS KIND OF GRIM.

When Tartikoff had the idea for a kid show, he passed it along to writer David Duclon, a producer on the network’s hit series Silver Spoons. Duclon told TV Guide in 1986 that he researched topical issues and found an alarming number of girls were victims of abandonment. It was decided Punky’s parents would be deadbeats; future episodes threatened to have her locked away in an orphanage, helping Henry cope with a bleeding ulcer, and addressing his sleeping pill addiction—unless, of course, she was busy tending to her dog, Brandon, who was hit by a car.

5. COLUMBIA PICTURES SUED SOLEIL MOON FRYE FOR $80 MILLION.

Being precocious apparently isn’t enough to keep a battalion of lawyers from trying to devour you. According to the Associated Press, Columbia Pictures (which took over production of the show when it went into syndication for its third season) sued Soleil Moon Frye for $80 million in 1986. The reason? Frye failed to report to work. Her attorney, Dennis Ardi, asserted Frye was under no legal obligation to perform once the series left NBC. Since the show ran for two more years, it's safe to say things were worked out and no Punky punitive damages were assessed.

6. THE INFAMOUS FRIDGE EPISODE WAS THOUGHT UP BY A KID.


NBC

To help stir up publicity for the series, NBC ran a contest in 1985 that solicited story ideas from kids. The winner was Jeremy Reams, who submitted a premise that involved Punky having to perform CPR on her friend, Cherie, who had gotten trapped inside an abandoned refrigerator. While this was an actual danger for older appliances with latches that couldn’t be opened from the inside, by 1956 the government mandated magnetic handles. In New York State, it was also illegal to discard a fridge without removing the door.

7. SOME EPISODES WERE ONLY 15 MINUTES LONG. (THANKS, KNIGHT RIDER.)

While Punky usually occupied the normal 30-minute sitcom slot, the fall arrival of football on NBC prompted some format changes. Because games airing in the afternoon often run late, NBC decided to avoid joining a program in progress by scheduling 15-minute mini-Punky episodes to follow NFL broadcasts; it also guaranteed their hit Knight Rider would start on time at 8 p.m. Three episodes were structured to be “broken" in half, making for six truncated installments. It was the first time a major network had aired a 15-minute show since news programs in the 1960s.  

8. T.K. CARTER (A.K.A. “MIKE FULTON”) WAS ARRESTED FOR STEALING A CAR.

Fans may remember actor Thomas Kent Carter as Punky's “cool” teacher Mike Fulton. According to the Associated Press, Carter behaved in a very uncool manner when he approached a woman in December of 1991 and demanded her car. She refused; he allegedly punched her in the stomach before speeding away. Carter was arrested after a high-speed chase and having taken out two highway dividers. He was released on $10,000 bail.

9. PUNKY RETURNED AS A WEB COMIC.

Punky Power could not be suffocated for long: In 2014, publisher Lion Forge obtained the license to a number of 1980s series (Miami Vice, Airwolf) and began churning out a line of digital comics. The prequel sees Punky homeless in Chicago after being abandoned by her mother, “sleeping in empty apartments and mattress stores.” Eight issues have been released.   

10. IT ADDRESSED THE CHALLENGER EXPLOSION.

When the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986—killing all seven people on board—it left a lot of people shaken. The producers of Punky Brewster quickly packaged an episode with the help of psychologists that depicted Punky watching the telecast with her classmates and then struggling to cope with her feelings over the tragedy. Buzz Aldrin appeared in the episode as himself.    

11. THERE WAS A SPINOFF ABOUT AN ORPHANAGE.

During Punky’s first season, NBC considered a spinoff, Fenster Hall, about an orphanage full of wayward kids. T.K. Carter was set to reprise his role as Mike Fulton; producers also invited a pre-Saturday Night Live Dana Carvey to join the cast. (He declined.) The series was considered for a fall 1985 premiere but never made it to air.

12. IN 2009, FRYE DRESSED AS PUNKY FOR HER TWITTER FOLLOWERS.

After hitting a milestone 1 million followers on her Twitter account in 2009, Frye celebrated by dressing in her signature Punky gear. The then-33-year-old filmed a five-minute video thanking her fans and pointed out that Punky’s many bandanas were “gangster before there was gangster.”

Friends Cast Confirms Reunion Special is Coming to HBO Max

David Schwimmer and Jennifer Aniston in Friends.
David Schwimmer and Jennifer Aniston in Friends.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Could we be any more excited? After months of reports that the cast of Friends might be coming together for a reunion of sorts, it looks like it's officially a done deal.

According to Variety, all of the six original actors—Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry, and David Schwimmer—have signed on for an unscripted special from HBO Max. While previous reports claimed each star would likely earn between $3 and $4 million for their appearances, it's now believed their paychecks will be "at least" $2.5 million apiece.

And to make everything even more real, the beloved actors behind the iconic series are personally confirming the news. All six stars took to Instagram quickly after the news dropped to share their excitement. "It's happening," they captioned the posts.

In a statement, HBO Max's chief content officer Kevin Reilly had this to say of the news:

"Guess you could call this the one where they all got back together—we are reuniting with David, Jennifer, Courteney, Matt, Lisa, and Matthew for an HBO Max special that will be programmed alongside the entire Friends library. I became aware of Friends when it was in the very early stages of development and then had the opportunity to work on the series many years later and have delighted in seeing it catch on with viewers generation after generation. It taps into an era when friends—and audiences—gathered together in real time, and we think this reunion special will capture that spirit, uniting original and new fans."

The Friends reunion does not have a release date yet, but HBO Max is debuting this May.

Party Like a Hobbit at Chicago’s Lord of the Rings Pop-Up Bar

Gollum and a Ringwraith loom near Bilbo's hobbit hole at Replay Lincoln Park's Lord of the Rings pop-up bar.
Gollum and a Ringwraith loom near Bilbo's hobbit hole at Replay Lincoln Park's Lord of the Rings pop-up bar.
Replay Lincoln Park

One does not simply walk into Mordor, but one does simply walk into The Lord of the Rings pop-up bar in Chicago—as long as you’re at least 21 years old, of course.

Replay Lincoln Park, known for elaborate themed pop-ups for Game of Thrones, South Park, and other entertainment franchises, has transformed its premises into a magical reproduction of Middle-earth aptly called “The One Pop-Up to Rule Them All,” open now through March 23.

Inside, you’ll be able to crouch under an outcropping of tangled tree roots while one of the dreaded Nazgûl lurks above you, high-five a grimacing Gollum, and snap photos with all your favorite Lord of the Rings characters.

nazgul at the lord of the rings pop-up bar at chicago's replay lincoln park
The Nazgûl like to party, too.
Replay Lincoln Park

You might want to skip elevenses to make sure you have plenty of room for a Hobbit-approved feast during your visit. The menu, catered by Zizi’s Cafe, features items like Fried Po-tay-toes, Lord of the Wings, Beef Lembas, and Pippen’s Popcorn.

ent replica at chicago's replay lincoln park pop-up bar
Say hello to a friendly Ent while you munch on "Pippen's Popcorn."
Replay Lincoln Park

According to Thrillist, there will be three different counters in the bar, each with its own specialty drinks. Head to The Prancing Pony for a second breakfast shot (maple whiskey, bacon, and orange juice), or take a trip to Minas Tirith to toss back a palantir shot, made of silver tequila and passion fruit purée. If you’re in the mood for a little dark magic, you can trek over to Mordor and try a “my precious” shot, a fusion of dark rum, orange liquor, and Cajun seasoning.

lord of the rings pop-up bar at chicago's replay lincoln park
The Eye of Sauron is watching you order another round of Mordor shots.
Replay Lincoln Park

For those of you who are happy to accompany your Tolkien-obsessed friends to the pop-up but aren’t exactly tickled at the sight of a moss-covered Ent replica yourselves, take heart in this added bonus: Replay Lincoln Park also boasts more than 60 free arcade games and pinball machines.

[h/t Thrillist]

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