Welcome to Way Back Wednesday, a regular column at The Longfellow Bridge that focuses on the magic of the not-so-distant past of the 80s and 90s. Music, movies, video games, television shows and more are all fair game for the enjoyment of hindsight.There was a point in time where actual honest-to-God Nintendo merchandising barely existed.Because we’re speaking of Nintendo and the Super Mario Brothers and what have you, I’m going to skip any sort of pretentious opening here. Yeah, yeah, if you were a kid in the 80s, you loved it all. We all know this. However, I’m going to bypass the meat of this normal discussion (these parentheses will contain the only reference to how excited we all were for Super Mario 3’s debut in the 1989 film The Wizard) to discuss the dark part of Mario’s past. It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a point in time where, despite Nintendo having just as strong a foothold in popularity, actual honest-to-God Nintendo merchandising barely existed. I personally owned a coloring book, and later on a couple Happy Meal toys from the Mario 3 era, but beyond that there was little besides school supplies. No toys, no books, and no feature film (and I think we can all agree that is still the case). Yet Nintendo did see it fit to allow one Mario-related oddity outside the confines of the console: The Super Mario Brothers Super Show!.
The Super Mario Brothers Super Show (which I will henceforth refer to as TSMBSS!) was the perfect fit for children who needed more than hours of Mario gameplay to satisfy their itch. It made its debut in the Fox afternoon Fall lineup of 1989, and lasted a single season boasting a mighty 65 episodes. The format of each episode involved a 15 minute cartoon sandwiched between two live action segments, in which Mario (Lou Albano) and Luigi (Danny Wells) engage in pre-canon adventures while working in their plumbing shop in Brooklyn. The cartoons focused on Mario and the gang’s post-Super Mario 2 adventures in which the copyright-friendly-named King Koopa (Bowser from the games) attempted to take over the Mushroom Kingdom, kidnap Princess Toadstool, or generally do whatever other terrible thing he could do. Pop culture references du jour (or more often, après du jour) abounded ; Robocop, Godzilla, and Indiana Jones were all deemed suitable plots to adapt to the Mario universe, and episodes were often soundtracked by an aging (or aged) mainstream pop song. It’s amazing how much better that all sounds than the cartoons really were.
On Fridays, TSMBSS! would change things up a bit and screen a cartoon based on The Legend of Zelda. The Zelda cartoons had nothing to do with the live action sequences, of course, and very little to do with the actual games they were based on. In the games, Link was a brave teenager who rose to the occasion to rescue his kingdom when it was in peril. In the Zelda cartoons, Link is an arrogant and conceited young adult whose Hayden Christiansen attitude often causes the obstacle that fuels each story. Zelda herself is a stuck up and spoiled rich girl, albeit one with a few redeeming qualities. Watching the two of them bicker for fifteen minutes was enough to dread this particular block of programming on Fridays, evil Ganon’s cool look aside.The set looked very much like a cheap basement retail space in a back alley normally preserved for squatters.The live action sequences were far stranger. In a set that looked very much like a cheap basement retail space in a back alley normally preserved for squatters, Mario and Luigi attempted to run their plumbing outfit without much success. Albano’s Mario never quite had the mental fortitude or balance that his animated counterpart possessed, and would frequently find himself a slapstick victim of his own incompetence. Luigi, on the other hand, always struck me as looking slightly sickly and the much more age inappropriate casting choice (not that Albano was a good pick for Mario by any stretch). Luigi’s appearance was so striking to me, that when in college I nicknamed a friend of my girlfriend at the time’s family “Live Action Luigi” due to an unfortunate physical resemblance. The show was rounded out by a new “celebrity” guest star each week, ranging in notability from Danica McKellar (who was on the Wonder Years at the time) to Larry Gelman, who Wikipedia tells me is known for appearances on The Bob Newheart Show, The Odd Couple, and an X-rated version of Alice in Wonderland. I think I managed to miss all three appearances.
Most interesting about TSMBSS! is how my perspective has completely changed on it with age. As a child, I would frequently gaze slack jawed at the animated shorts in which Mario and his friends in the Mushroom Kingdom thwarted Koopa’s plans time and time again, and I would either watch with embarrassment or an expression of pain through the live action scenes. As an adult, I find the complete opposite to be true: the animated segments could probably have been produced with the proceeds from a child’s lemonade stand, and the writing, stories, and pacing are atrocious. It’s actually very, very difficult to sit through. However, the live action sequences are nothing short of incredible. Seeing two grown men pretend to be plumbers on the cusp of going to a magical land interacting with C-level celebrities on their way out of fame or life is utterly fascinating. The writing is just as bad, but seeing the looks of these people desperately needing one last shot in the spotlight (if not just a paycheck) is a much more compelling variant on torture porn for me than any Hostel or Saw movie could provide.
Were you a fan of The Super Mario Bros Super Show? Let us know in the comments below!