In the mid 1980s, the U.S. media latched on to a story: teens were committing suicide, and the roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons was somehow to blame. As a kid who was playing D&D during this media firestorm, I remember the outcry pretty vividly. All the kids I knew who played the game were nerds, just like me. I was vaguely aware that sometimes teens did commit suicide...perhaps even nerds. Was there any connection between nerds playing D&D and nerds committing suicide? Not from what I saw. But I saw a lot of adults up in arms, concerned for my health and my soul, while for me, D&D was just a fun way to socialize and nerd out with my friends. (A similar discussion centered on teen suicide and heavy metal, and it always seemed equally bizarre to me.)
In 1985, 60 Minutes broadcast a segment on the controversy over Dungeons & Dragons, interviewing the families of kids who had killed themselves, and who had also been D&D players. 60 Minutes also interviewed D&D creator Gary Gygax, who stated that the whole thing was just "a witch hunt." If you played D&D in the 80s, or remember the controversy over it, this video is worth a look:
It was the show that every baby loved and every parent found annoying, but somehow Teletubbies took over the world in the late 1990s, much the same way The Beatles did in the 1960s. Tinky-Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa, and Po—the four colorful characters with televisions in their stomachs—demanded hugs, loved to repeat themselves, and became icons of educational television, though many still question just what was to be learned from their antics. On the 20th anniversary of the series' American premiere, we're looking behind the scenes of the weird show that somehow just worked.
1. THEY WERE RACIALLY DIVERSE, INSIDE AND OUT.
When the Teletubbies sat down with Today to reveal their true identities, fans learned that the actors inside the costumes were as diverse as the characters themselves, and each one added a bit of his or her own culture to the character they portrayed. John Simmit blended reggae into Dipsy’s babytalk, while Pui Fan Lee incorporated Cantonese into Po’s gibberish. In a short film called Understanding Teletubbies, Tina Wagner from Ragdoll Productions and educational consultant Faith Rogow revealed that body color and height are not the only differences between the four characters. “They also have different skin tones in their faces,” Rogow said. “All of that is very purposeful.”
2. THEY LOOK LIKE ALIENS BUT WERE INSPIRED BY ASTRONAUTS.
Teletubbies co-creator Andrew Davenport toldThe Guardian that when writing the show, he was inspired by the moon landings and the physical appearance of the astronauts. “It struck me as funny that, at this pinnacle of human achievement, the figures that emerged in bulky spacesuits from landing capsules are like toddlers, with oversized heads and foreshortened legs,” he said, “and they respond to the excitement of their new world by bouncing about. So I devised characters based on spacemen, with limited language just like the emergent speech of young children.”
3. THEY’RE A LOT TALLER THAN THEY LOOK.
Because the Teletubbies only appear on the show in their fake world, there is nothing to compare them to besides each other. Wagner revealed in the short film that in costume, Tinky-Winky is almost nine feet tall.
4. THE RABBITS IN TELETUBBYLAND WERE ALSO MASSIVE.
Teletubbies co-creator Anne Wood revealed in an interview with The Guardian that those cute and fluffy rabbits that appear in the show are not your average pet bunnies. “They needed to be big to fit in with the scale,” Wood said. There was also a problem with their health. “The only suitable ones we could find had been bred on the continent to be eaten,” Wood revealed. “We gave them perfect conditions, running free over the Teletubby grasslands, but their breeding had given them enlarged hearts, and almost weekly the animal trainer would greet me in distress and tell me another had died.”
5. IT WAS THE BBC’S BIGGEST BRAND.
TIMOTHY A. CLARY, AFP/Getty Images
According to the BBC'S annual report for 1998/1999, Teletubbies was its leading brand with over $46 million in revenue. At the time, they were seen by children in 120 countries and territories and aired in 20 languages.
6. THEY SUED WAL-MART.
Because the Teletubbies brand was so big, it had to be protected. In 1999, they sued Wal-Mart Stores Inc. for selling blatant knockoffs called Bubbly Chubbies. “It's not flattery. It's just illegal," Kenn Viselman, the chief executive of the company that marketed the Teletubbies in the United States, told the Los Angeles Times. A spokesperson said that Wal-Mart would “never knowingly infringe on copyright or trademark law,” but the company later agreed to stop selling the toys and destroyed the rest of the inventory.
7. SOME PEDIATRICIANS PROTESTED.
In 1999, the German Association of Pediatricians argued that Teletubbies was bad for children because it (and other shows like it) caused “uncontrollable television consumption in later years.” The doctors also questioned the educational value of the show.
8. TAYLOR SWIFT WAS A FAN.
This past Halloween, Taylor Swift Instagrammed a throwback photo of a Teletubbies costume she wore as a child. The photo is black-and-white, but Swift said that she was Laa-Laa and none of the other kids got it. “When you dress as the yellow teletubby for Halloween, but it's before Teletubbies got huge so all the kids at school ask you why you're dressed as a yellow pregnant alien,” she captioned the photo.
9. THERE WERE A LOT OF EPISODES.
According to IMDb, there were 365 episodes of Teletubbies produced. They aired in the UK on BBC2 between March 31, 1997 and February 16, 2001, and on PBS in the U.S. And there will be more episodes: In 2015, a Teletubbies reboot was announced. The series has also been kept alive in pop culture thanks to numerous references in everything from Family Guy to Doctor Who to Major League Baseball.
10. THEY ARE PLATINUM RECORDING ARTISTS.
On December 1, 1997, the Fab Four dropped a single called “Teletubbies Say ‘Eh-Oh'.” In the week before Christmas, the song had already reached number one on the Billboard UK Singles Chart, selling 1.2 million copies and earning a double platinum certification. It remained in the top 75 for 29 weeks.
In 1989, while speaking with the Chicago Tribune, a 30-year-old dancer named Michael Flatley outlined some significant plans he had for the future. Chief among them: franchising a plumbing business called Dynasewer, which he hoped would one day replace Roto-Rooter as the go-to company for desperate people with impenetrably clogged toilets.
Few people outside of the Chicago area have ever heard of Dynasewer, which tells you everything you need to know about Flatley’s grand plans. Instead of running a sewage empire, he embraced dancing, something he had loved and practiced since the age of 11. A little over six years later, he was selling millions of videos and made a fortune touring as the Irish-stepping star of Lord of the Dance.
The contrast between Flatley’s plumbing aspirations and his theatrical gifts isn’t as jarring as it might seem. Born in Chicago on July 16, 1958 to Irish immigrants, Flatley took cues from both his parents. His mother was an accomplished Irish step-dancer, which usually emphasizes a rigid torso and vertically-held arms along with rhythmic lower body choreography; his grandmother was a contest champion in their native Ireland. His father was a construction laborer and plumber who eventually owned his own contracting business. There was no reason Flatley couldn’t be inspired by both of their talents.
Dancing was an informal hobby for the young Flatley, and one he didn’t begin to take seriously until age 11—a significantly late start for step-dancers. To make up for lost time, Flatley practiced for hours every day in his family’s garage. The work paid off: At 17, he won the All-World Championships in Ireland, becoming the first American ever to do so.
While it was a commendable accomplishment, and one that surely thrilled the step-obsessed Flatleys, Irish stepping was not considered a viable option toward financial independence. For the next several years, Flatley assisted his father in construction work, digging ditches and contemplating a career in professional boxing, another physically demanding passion he had developed.
Then The Chieftains came calling. The Irish folk band was successful touring Ireland with an act that mixed traditional Celtic music with high-energy step routines, and Flatley acquitted himself well as a supporting player. He accompanied the group for four years, at the same time developing the Dynasewer brand as a financial cushion to fall back on, as he assumed his dancing career would be a short-lived endeavor. Even a Guinness World Record—which Flatley earned for tapping his feet 28 times in one second in 1989—was hard to monetize. (In 1998, he broke his own record when he reached an impressive 35 taps per second.)
Flatley’s fortunes changed in 1994, thanks to the Eurovision Song Contest. Looking to broadcast the distinctive art of Irish stepping, Flatley joined a new troupe and co-created Riverdance, a seven-minute number that broadened the appeal of his art by adding flashy costumes, a stage-filling number of backup performers, and a degree of sensuality.
Riverdance was a phenomenal ratings success, becoming the talk of that year’s Eurovision field in much the same way Michael Jackson had walked off with a televised Motown special in 1981 by debuting the Moonwalk. Almost immediately, Flatley and producers began assembling a full-length Riverdance stage show that was even more bombastic. Flatley, his exposed torso reminiscent of a flamenco dancer, led a wildly successful international tour and became one of the very few dancers recognizable to the general public—attention usually only afforded to actor-performers like Gregory Hines or Mikhail Baryshnikov.
For six months, Flatley was on top of the world. Then, the night before Riverdance was scheduled to open in London, he was fired.
According to Flatley, the acrimonious split from Riverdance was a result of the show’s unprecedented success. As the key creative force behind the scenes, the performer wanted to retain control of his choreography, a concession that the show’s producers were unwilling to make. In a show of force, they ousted their star from the stage.
Flatley’s legal response to that situation wouldn’t be resolved until 1999, when the two parties came to an undisclosed settlement. But it didn't take that long for the parties to realize that it was Flatley, and not the Riverdance banner, that audiences were flocking to see. Less than six months after his Riverdance dismissal, Flatley and new partner John Reid conceived Lord of the Dance, a brand-new stage attraction that featured a loose narrative—Flatley is a warrior up against sinister forces—and even more bombastic theatrics. (Reid and Flatley would part ways, rather acrimoniously, a couple of years later.) Flatley exuded so much energy that he claimed he lost 8 to 10 pounds during each performance (then ate “everything in sight to keep my weight up").
Alaxandra Beier, Getty Images
Lord of the Dance was a staggering success, making $60 million in just two years of touring and selling 12 million copies on video. Flatley continued performing through 1998, before announcing his retirement from the show. He was nearing 40, and his back, feet, and joints had taken a significant amount of impact. He felt it was time to step away.
In 2005, the urge to perform returned, and Flatley debuted Celtic Tiger. He continued dancing through 2016, at which point, he told reporters, being the Lord of the Dance had led to diminished physical abilities. “My groin is gone,” he said. And his left foot sometimes fractures spontaneously.
Wealthy from touring, Flatley could sit idle and nurse his aching frame. Instead, he recently shot a film, Blackbird, which he directed and stars in alongside Eric Roberts. He also paints, albeit in an unconventional way: Flatley produces abstract works by dipping his feet into paint and moving them across the canvas.