In 1991, a sitcom about anthropomorphic dinosaurs popped up on ABC's family friendly TGIF lineup, couched between Full House and Family Matters. With its emphasis on family, unique brand of weirdness, and ties to Jim Henson, Dinosaurs was supposed to take off in a similar fashion to The Simpsons; but viewers failed to tune in, and ABC executives stopped paying attention.
Perhaps it was this lack of attention that allowed the show to produce four seasons of increasingly bizarre and surprisingly smart satirical comedy, including a sexual harassment episode based on Anita Hill that rings even truer today and a carnivore declaring that he's actually a herbivore, mirroring teenage coming-out stories. But maybe the most well-known is "A New Leaf," a weed-centric episode that simultaneously encouraged drug experimentation, worked as an anti-drug episode, and provided an accurate parody of preachy anti-drug episodes.
"We would always talk in the writers' room about the 'special episode,'" co-creator Michael Jacobs told me over the phone. "Sitcom showrunners try to delineate their show by taking on special episodes, and unfortunately, there has been so many of them. Some have succeeded, and some just have not. Sometimes the network executive will demand a particular entertainment value or a particular lack of intelligence within that episode so that it reduces the intent of the episode and makes it sort of a cliché looking episode." Jacobs isn't a stranger to very special episodes—he's best known for creating Boy Meets World—so he knows there's a fine line between being effective and being cheesy, between understanding your audience and condescending toward them.
"If you tell teenagers, 'If you smoke this thing once, you will hate it and it will destroy you,' they're going to find out that's not true," added Rob Ulin, the episode's writer, referencing the original Reefer Madness. "It's not going to be an effective message, but if you acknowledge that these things are a lot of fun and there's an upside to it in the short run, but that you will pay the price in the long run if you go too far, you're much more likely to have an audience that will remember [the message]."
To sum up the plot: Teen dinosaur Robbie eats a plant in the woods and suddenly discovers that he's happy, carefree, and unable to stop laughing. He shares the plant with his father, who has a similar reaction, and the two can't shut up about how happy they are. The plant is perfectly fine in moderation, but as they keep eating it—and roping the daughter in, too—they start becoming too forgetful and careless. Earl stops working, the baby goes hungry, and it's chaos. Also, in one pitch-perfect moment, Earl's boss Mr. Richfield (voiced by The Jeffersons's Sherman Hemsley) does a wonderfully stoned Jimi Hendrix impression. "To be able to say that we were prehistoric, and we had Sherman Hemsley sing 'Purple Haze' was really astounding," said Jacobs.
Part of what makes "A New Leaf" stand out from the other drug episodes that popped up on TGIF and elsewhere—besides the fact that these were dinosaurs, of course—is that it didn't possess a strong anti-drug message. Its message was more realistic and easier to abide by: Moderation is key. "The human being in an eternal search for happiness sometimes confuses distraction for that happiness, and the thing that we believe might cause us to be temporarily happy is the very thing that can ruin our lives if it's not carefully monitored," said Jacobs.
But maybe the aim of "A New Leaf" was to satirize the anti-drug movement as a whole—and the way this movement leaked into television. In 2000, Salon reported that under Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, TV series like ER, 7th Heaven, and Beverly Hills 90210 "have filled their episodes with anti-drug pitches to cash in on a complex government advertising subsidy." When asked about the episode's origins, Ulin—who was also on staff for Roseanne's weed episode, "Stash from the Past"—cited Drugstore Cowboy and specifically a William S. Burroughs scene where "he gives this speech about how anti-drug hysteria will be used to create a police state. It's really compelling, and I remember applauding in the movie theater and thinking, 'This is so right, and nobody else is saying that'… A lot of shows had done anti-drug issues, but what if you did a show that satirized the anti-drug movement? It seemed very fresh. You didn't want to come out in favor of drugs, but you can still poke a lot of fun at the anti-drug movement."
This leads to the cleverest moment of the episode—specifically, when Robbie breaks the fourth wall to address the audience about the perils of drugs but veers in an unexpected direction: "Drugs ruin lives, divide families, and lead to heavy-handed preachy sitcom episodes like this one." Robbie compares these preachy episodes to an "epidemic" threatening comedy, drawing a parallel between the overwrought fears and language of the anti-drug movement ("When one show does an anti-drug episode, other shows feel pressured to do one, too") and joking that they're "even going after the younger shows," since Dinosaurs was only in its second season at this point. "Say no to drugs. Help put a stop to preachy sitcom endings like this one," he concludes.
Rob Ulin recalled the ABC promo for this episode, which was "presented like it was the most generic, earnest, non-satirical typical anti-drug thing—exactly the sort of thing we were making fun of. I imagine, perhaps, a lot of right wingers watched it and maybe were appalled that we had it both ways." But they got away with it, largely because ABC, it seemed, had a hands-off approach to the series once the show failed to be the new Simpsons. "All the executives at ABC kind of left us alone when it became clear it wasn't exploding. They moved on to other shows, and they kept letting us make 'em, but they didn't pay a lot of attention, so we did a lot of subversive stuff." And though Michael Jacobs said ABC had concerns "with everything we did," he only recalled one major call from ABC exec Ted Harbert about Dinosaurs: the series finale. "It was a kid's show, and we were murdering the whole cast," Jacobs laughed.
It's these subversive episodes—as well as the murderous series finale, because how else could you end Dinosaurs if not with extinction?—that are most memorable, putting Dinosaurs ahead of its time despite it being set in 60,000,003 BC. "A New Leaf" has been bumped up to cult status by a certain section of nostalgic, television-fanatic stoners: A few years ago, at an event I hosted celebrating TGIF sitcoms, attendees voted to watch "A New Leaf" above the far more popular sitcoms of that era; when I was in college, the humor magazine's scavenger hunt gave players bonus points if they recreated the episode's musical number.
That musical number is a prime example of what makes "A New Leaf" not just fun and fantastical but also prime viewing material when you're high and just want to watch some dinos sing and dance to "It's a Most Unusual Day" from the film A Day with Judy. "We had these enormous—you just can't imagine how big and cumbersome these creatures were—and naturally we thought, Let's do the opposite. Let's make them appear to be incredibly light-footed, and the best way to do that is to turn Earl and Robbie into Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers," said Jacobs. "That episode literally sang, and it was one of my favorite episodes of the series." Ulin wistfully remembered how they had to clear the entire stage and how after, "as soon as it was over, everybody on the stage—the cameramen and everybody—applauded. It was so much fun."
Both Michael Jacobs and Rob Ulin repeatedly reiterate how much fun working on Dinosaurs was—Ulin in particular, as it was his first TV job, and he even still has props from the show in his basement—and this is evidenced even when just watching "A New Leaf," stoned or not. "It really makes me feel good that these episodes still mean something to somebody," said Ulin," because we really loved doing them."
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