Somewhere between Modern Family and a modern Stone Age family, there were the Sinclairs — a vibrant clan of dinosaurs and the nuclear unit of ABC’s prehistoric hit, Dinosaurs.
The live-action puppet show, which premiered 25 years ago on April 26, 1991, as part of ABC’s TGIF comedy block, began as a pitch from Brian Henson, the son of the late visionary puppeteer, Jim Henson. When Henson took over the reins of his father’s company, he also took over a pitch Jim had prior to his passing: one about the domestication of dinosaurs.
As Dinosaurs executive producer and co-creator Michael Jacobs tells it, “Brian was pitching Jim’s idea that dinosaurs had started families, and because of the immense popularity of dinosaurs with children and because of TGIF being a safe place for families, what if we combined the two? ABC and Disney responded to it immediately.”
The network brought in Jacobs — an alum of Charles in Charge and My Two Dads — to offer his take on the idea. “I looked at Brian and I said there was one more element we should consider: What if we take his dad’s idea and postulate that the dinosaurs domesticated, got married, fell in love, and had children — and what if that was the reason they went extinct? Brian started laughing, the ABC and Disney executives started laughing, and they knew we had a show because all of a sudden we had great conflict and great associability from an audience who would realize that we could put some edge in this.”
During early design tests with Henson, co-creator Bob Young, and a designer named Kirk Thatcher, Jacobs realized there was still something absent from the formula: A breakout character, someone who would be the audience’s conduit into the dinosaur world and elevate the show from a familiar family to an unforgettable one… the Baby.
Jacobs recalls: “I remember flying to Great Britain, looking at sketches on the plane, and I told Bob that something was troubling me about the show. We were missing a character in the show. Mommy, daddy, sister, and brother is not enough in this case, because I don’t think we have an audience surrogate. I don’t think we have anybody that’s bringing the viewer into this fantastic world. I think we’re missing a narrator. So Bob said, ‘How would we do it?’ and I said, ‘What if a baby hatched right out of the egg and started talking?’ And Bob immediately said, ‘Not the mama.’ I said, ‘What does that mean?’ He said, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if the baby didn’t recognize the father as having any part at all?’ And then I said, ‘What if we threw the puppet against the wall and the baby said, ‘Again!’’ All of a sudden we knew that the series had been enhanced because we stopped talking about the rest of the characters for a 12-hour ride across the ocean. What was really interesting was that knew we had made the show better, but everybody back in Los Angeles at Disney was plotting a show about these four characters, and we knew that wasn’t the show at all anymore.”
The series tapped a handful of now-famous names to voice the core Sinclair family, including Jessica Walter as mother Fran, Sally Struthers as teen daughter Charlene, and the voice of Elmo himself, Kevin Clash as Baby Sinclair. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Sherman Hemsley, Christopher Meloni, Tim Curry, Jason Alexander, Jeffrey Tambor, and Richard Simmons also appeared (or their voices did, rather) during the show’s run.
In its four seasons on air, Dinosaurs did manage to become something of a cultural spoof, a jurassic juxtaposition of an old-world family with new-world problems. “We wanted Dinosaurs to be a little more biting in its satire,” says Jacobs. “We went after the oil companies. We went after corporate America. I don’t think [the network] knew it’s what we were doing in the beginning. I think you’re allowed to do anything on television as long as they don’t understand what you’re doing until it airs.”
Critics were mixed, but the show premiered with a huge percent share of its core family demographic and hyperbolic praise came in. “It was called the next big thing, and every other possible thing that could kill a television show,” Jacobs muses. “Telling the audience how good it was in advance certainly hurt us. The show did well on Friday night, and when it was moved to Wednesday, we ran solidly if not spectacularly for another [few] seasons. But I would say, if we were kept on Friday nights, the show might still be running.”
Instead, the Dinosaurs are extinct, exiting televisions in a blaze of glory in the show’s explosive series finale in July 1994. When ABC suits read Jacobs’ pitch for the series finale, the producer fielded a rare direct call from the network president. “Ted [Harbert] called me and said, ‘Over my dead body are you killing that baby dinosaur,’” Jacobs recalls with a laugh. “I said, ‘Ted, they went extinct! I didn’t do it. If you’re going to cancel the show, I’m going to cancel the dinosaurs.’ He laughed, and we put together certainly one of the more memorable finales on television.”