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Sarah Bynum via YouTube
Sarah Bynum via YouTube

The Lost Magic of Zoobilee Zoo

Sarah Bynum via YouTube
Sarah Bynum via YouTube

It wasn’t easy to impress Peggy Charren. As the founder of the Action for Children’s Television (ACT) organization, Charren was a tireless crusader for quality kids' programming. She resented the glorified toy commercials posing as juvenile entertainment and successfully lobbied Congress to pass legislation limiting the number of ads aired during shows. She hardly ever promoted or endorsed a specific series.

But Charren made an exception for Zoobilee Zoo.

The 1986-1988 syndicated series about six anthropomorphic, artistically-inclined animals—including Bill Der Beaver, Van Go Lion, and Talkatoo Cockatoo, with Ben Vereen as the leopard-spotted host—so impressed Charren with its determination to foster creativity among its preschool audience that she praised it in the pages of the Los Angeles Times. It was racially diverse, she said, and tackled subjects (like disabilities) not commonly found in adolescent television.

Charren wasn’t alone. The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers both acknowledged Zoobilee as important. So why didn’t more kids watch?

According to Steve Binder, the producer and director who supervised all 65 episodes of the original series, Zoobilee Zoo was conceived by the entertainment division of Hallmark greeting cards for one reason: to win awards. “That was their number one focus,” Binder tells mental_floss. “And we did.”

Zoobilee Zoo was originally a joint project between Hallmark and Mattel. When Mattel bowed out, children’s distributor DIC was brought on board. Binder’s production company was responsible for delivering 65 half-hour episodes, all of them to be completed in the spring and summer of 1985.

“When I got to Hallmark headquarters in Kansas City, the characters looked like theme park people,” Binder says. “I thought they needed to have expressions.” The director lobbied—and got—make-up and prosthetics rather than sports mascot costumes.

Back in Los Angeles, Binder sought out actors with theatrical experience who could sing, dance, and memorize the hundreds of pages of script required for the shoot. For the host, who appeared in wraparound segments, Binder approached well-known performer Ben Vereen: “I had had a relationship with him for years and asked him to be the mayor.” While Vereen was only around for a few weeks, the other actors “had no social life” for the duration of the shoot. “It was like doing a Broadway show every day,” Binder says.

When Zoobilee Zoo premiered on September 22, 1986, Binder was dismayed to find it confined to a too-early 6 a.m. slot in Los Angeles. While that was quickly changed to 7 a.m., it foreshadowed a recurring problem: Zoo bounced around the dial, appearing in the early-morning hours on PBS and local affiliate stations. Those who saw it loved it; those who didn’t had no idea it existed.

“I think we developed a tremendous cult following,” Binder says. “The cast would go to different libraries and perform in character. But when I’d walk into a Hallmark store, there wouldn’t be any merchandise. I found it so odd.”

Strangely, Charren’s endorsement—that the show avoided peddling toys to kids—may have contributed to its premature end. Without Zoobilee merchandise on shelves, awareness was muted. The series aired to modest ratings for years, eventually winding up on the Disney Channel in 1992 before Hallmark (who declined comment) produced 14 additional episodes for home video release in 2000. Though Vereen seems open to a revival, it never quite materialized into what Binder imagined could have been a franchise.

“This was pre-Barney, and we basically had six Barneys,” Binder says. “I once had someone offer to build an entire theme park. Hallmark turned them down. I never understood it.”

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holidays
40 Years Later: Watch The Johnny Cash Christmas Show
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Over the course of his career, Johnny Cash made a series of Christmas TV specials and recorded a string of Christmas records. In this 1977 TV performance, Cash is in great form. He brings special guests Roy Clark, June Carter Cash, The Carter Family, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison ("Pretty Woman" starts around 23:50), Carl Perkins, and the Statler Brothers. Tune in for Christmas as we celebrated it 40 years ago—with gigantic shirt collars, wavy hair, and bow ties. So many bow ties.

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Pop Culture
An AI Program Wrote Harry Potter Fan Fiction—and the Results Are Hilarious
Andreas Rentz/Getty Images
Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

“The castle ground snarled with a wave of magically magnified wind.”

So begins the 13th chapter of the latest Harry Potter installment, a text called Harry Potter and the Portrait of What Looked Like a Large Pile of Ash. OK, so it’s not a J.K. Rowling original—it was written by artificial intelligence. As The Verge explains, the computer-science whizzes at Botnik Studios created this three-page work of fan fiction after training an algorithm on the text of all seven Harry Potter books.

The short chapter was made with the help of a predictive text algorithm designed to churn out phrases similar in style and content to what you’d find in one of the Harry Potter novels it "read." The story isn’t totally nonsensical, though. Twenty human editors chose which AI-generated suggestions to put into the chapter, wrangling the predictive text into a linear(ish) tale.

While magnified wind doesn’t seem so crazy for the Harry Potter universe, the text immediately takes a turn for the absurd after that first sentence. Ron starts doing a “frenzied tap dance,” and then he eats Hermione’s family. And that’s just on the first page. Harry and his friends spy on Death Eaters and tussle with Voldemort—all very spot-on Rowling plot points—but then Harry dips Hermione in hot sauce, and “several long pumpkins” fall out of Professor McGonagall.

Some parts are far more simplistic than Rowling would write them, but aren’t exactly wrong with regards to the Harry Potter universe. Like: “Magic: it was something Harry Potter thought was very good.” Indeed he does!

It ends with another bit of prose that’s not exactly Rowling’s style, but it’s certainly an accurate analysis of the main current that runs throughout all the Harry Potter books. It reads: “‘I’m Harry Potter,’ Harry began yelling. ‘The dark arts better be worried, oh boy!’”

Harry Potter isn’t the only work of fiction that Jamie Brew—a former head writer for ClickHole and the creator of Botnik’s predictive keyboard—and other Botnik writers have turned their attention to. Botnik has previously created AI-generated scripts for TV shows like The X-Files and Scrubs, among other ridiculous machine-written parodies.

To delve into all the magical fiction that Botnik users have dreamed up, follow the studio on Twitter.

[h/t The Verge]

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