8 Things You May Not Have Known About Aaahh!!! Real Monsters

On October 29, 1994, SNICK's Halloween themed evening began with the series premiere of Aaahh!!! Real Monsters. Viewers watching Nickelodeon that night were treated to "The Switching Hour," the first of 56 half-hour installments of the bildungsroman featuring monsters-in-training Ickis, Oblina, and Krumm learning to terrify unsuspecting humans one scare at a time, with the help of the sometimes creepy headmaster Gromble and his literally underground monster academy.


Graphic designer Arlene Klasky and animator Gábor Csupó met in 1979, got married, and started their own animation and graphic design company in 1982. After working on commercials and music videos, Klasky Csupo Inc. got the break of a lifetime in 1988 when they were asked to animate The Simpsons' one-minute shorts on The Tracey Ullman Show. Matt Groening was responsible for "tone and style," but it was Klasky Csupo that was responsible for making the characters yellow, not to mention for the color of Marge's distinctive blue hair.

After three seasons and "two years of battles and putting out fires," the producers of the show and Klasky Csupo ended their business association. Before the break-up however, Klasky, Csupo, and Paul Germain created Rugrats for Nickelodeon. Once Rugrats became the number one cable kids' show, Nick asked for another kids' show from the power couple, and Real Monsters was inspired by their monster-loving young children.


Csupó believed that Aaahh!!! Real Monsters had a "very film noirish look," and that the city dump in which the monster academy was located was similar to the look of cult classic dystopian films Blade Runner and Brazil. Herb Scannell, Nickelodeon's programming executive, went on record saying that the characters on Real Monsters looked like the characters in The Beatles' 1968 animated movie Yellow Submarine. This is very apparent with The Gromble, whose voice and look echoes The Blue Meanies in The Beatles' acid trip universe.


The Brothers Grunt was an MTV animated comedy series that premiered two months before Real Monsters. Because the show was visually similar and on networks owned by the same company, Csupó was asked if there was a legitimate comparison to be made. Csupó said his show was "a lot more story driven," whereas the MTV show was "more idea driven." The Brothers Grunt wasn't liked by critics and would only last for seven months, leading its creator Danny Antonucci to spit out that his show was "MTV's dirty secret." Antonucci would later rebound to create Ed, Edd n Eddy.


The Brothers Grunt was never a show that Real Monsters worried about legally, but they weren't entirely free of copyright concerns. In the pilot episode that would never be aired on television, The Gromble had a different, rather tame name—The Womble. Unfortunately, there was a stop-motion animation British program in the seventies called The Wombles. To avoid a lawsuit, "Monsters, Get Real!", the second episode of the series, was nearly identical to the pilot with the exception of slightly better graphics and the one name change.


Krumm was always written as a monster with a slothful, "slow, lethargic voice," which wasn't much of a challenge for voice actor David Eccles. Eccles, who also voiced the incoherent Snorch, revealed in the Nickelodeon teaser embedded above that Krumm, the character who walked around with his eyes in his hands and struck fear in humans with his armpit stink, was originally named Slumbo in an early version of the pilot script. No reason has ever been given for the change.


You'll recognize Christine Cavanaugh's voice, whether it's as Chuckie from Rugrats, Dexter from Dexter's Laboratory, Marty Sherman on The Critic, or as Babe the Gallant Pig in Babe. Cavanaugh's voice was distinct enough in 1994 for her to try something different with her portrayal of Oblina, the upside-down candy cane-shaped worm that turned her organs inside out. She ultimately decided to sound like a British version of the actress Agnes Moorehead, who played Endora on Bewitched.


Tim Curry has had a long, successful career in theater, TV, and film. What some people don't know is that Curry has voiced many animated characters, like Nigel Thornberry on The Wild Thornberries and currently as Palpatine in Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Curry was the voice of Zimbo on Real Monsters, a bee-like creature with green hair and one bird's leg who served as The Snorch's interpreter, The Gromble's assistant, and as an all-around nuisance to the students. Mama Gromble was voiced by SCTV comedy legend Andrea Martin. Bronson Pinchot, a.k.a. Balki Bartokomous, voiced Deitrich Dunlap. Jim Belushi played Simon, the human who was determined to prove that the monsters existed, for eight episodes.


Fresh off the runaway success of The Rugrats Movie, Nickelodeon, Klasky Csupo, and Paramount Pictures were all interested in making a movie for Aaahh!!! Real Monsters. Allegedly, production of the movie was permanently shut down because the story for it was "too dark for children." Instead of developing a different concept, Nick and Klasky Csupo came up with Rugrats in Paris: The Movie, The Wild Thornberrys Movie, and Rugrats Go Wild—all of which turned a profit. Outside of Ickis, Oblina, and Krumm cameos on a 1999 episode of Rugrats, new material from the Aaahh!!! Real Monsters universe disappeared after its 1997 cancellation.

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Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.


To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”


There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”


Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”


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