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16 Devilish Facts About Problem Child

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Problem Child looked like a family film. But its story—about a married couple who adopt a sweet kid, only to quickly realize that he's a pint-sized version of Satan who also happens to be pen pals with a serial killer—was not an all-ages affair. John Ritter and Amy Yasbeck starred as the well-meaning Ben Healy and status-seeking Flo Healy, adoptive father and mother to Junior, thanks to the unscrupulous and strange-sounding Igor Peabody (Gilbert Gottfried). Neither the filmmakers nor the studio was expecting much from the film; critics disliked it and advocacy groups spoke out against it—which made Problem Child's box office success (which led to two sequels and an animated television series) all the more surprising.

1. IT WAS INSPIRED BY A NEWSPAPER ARTICLE.

Writing partners Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (who would go on to write Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt, and Man on the Moon and co-create The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story) read a 1988 Los Angeles Times article by Dianne Klein titled "An Adopted Boy—and Terror Begins." It told the story of an Orange County couple who adopted a boy who was "so disturbed that animals instinctively feared him." While other writers pitched movies making the story into a horror film, Alexander and Karaszewski pitched it as a dark comedy.

2. MACAULAY CULKIN AUDITIONED FOR THE LEAD.

Fortunately for Macaulay Culkin (who landed the starring role in Home Alone, which came out four months after Problem Child), casting director Valerie McCaffrey believed Michael Oliver was the right Junior after seeing him in a commercial.

3. DENNIS DUGAN STOOD UP ON A TABLE TO LAND THE DIRECTING GIG.

Dennis Dugan had never directed a feature film before, so he decided to make his pitch to Universal executives a memorable one. He stood on the studio president's coffee table and passionately proclaimed, "You're looking at me like I'm f*cking nuts, and this is what we want. We want this kind of chaos." Three hours later, Dugan learned he had the job.

4. JOHN RITTER AND AMY YASBECK MET REHEARSING THE MOVIE.

The two actors, cast as a married couple, met for the first time before a table read at Dugan's house. "He was funny as can be, and she's funny as can be, and they just hit it off," Dugan told The Hollywood Reporter. Ritter and Yasbeck married in 1999.

5. JACK WARDEN ONLY AGREED TO APPEAR AFTER DUGAN OFFERED HIM HALF OF HIS POINTS.

Jack Warden played "Big Ben" Healy, John Ritter's father, after Dugan offered Warden half of his net points (a percentage negotiated beforehand of the net profit to a movie). Warden was so touched by the gesture that he agreed to take the role, but refused to take any of Dugan's potential earnings.

6. THE TEST SCREENINGS WERE A DISASTER.

"Seventy percent of the audience walked out [during the film], and some people were actually verbally angry," Dugan recalled of the test screenings. The film "scored a 30, and you're in trouble if you're in the 60s."

7. THERE WERE A BUNCH OF RESHOOTS.

After the bad test audience reactions, two weeks of reshoots were necessary, including a "retooled ending." Alexander and Karaszewski quipped that it was reshot "about 11 times."

8. SCOTT ALEXANDER CRIED AT THE CAST AND CREW SCREENING.

"I cried at the cast and crew screening," Alexander admitted in 2014. "It was our first movie and it was so terrible. And I was so sad."

9. IT WAS INTENDED TO BE A DARK COMEDY, NOT A FAMILY FILM.

"The tone we wanted was Ruthless People (1986) or Throw Momma From the Train (1987)," Alexander and Karazewski wrote in a Reddit AMA.

10. GILBERT GOTTFRIED SAID NOBODY HAD ANY FAITH IN IT.

"Even while we were making it, we all thought, 'This is going to be a bomb,'" the actor/comedian who portrayed the adoption agency worker said. "In fact, I remember when my filming was through and I was going home, I was saying goodbye to John Ritter, and he was kind of looking around, shrugging his shoulders, going, 'Well, you know the way it is in the business: You do something, and then you go on to the next thing.' I think he thought it would be a failure. And the people involved at Universal, one of them said, 'We’re going to treat this like a wounded soldier on the battlefield: leave it there to die and run and save our own asses.'"

11. THERE WERE PROTESTS OVER THE MOVIE POSTER.

The Defense of Animals protested Problem Child after its poster showed a panicked cat being loaded into a dryer—a scene that wasn't in the film. The group managed to get some theaters to take down the poster, after they claimed that impressionable kids might do the same to their pets. Adoption services were also worried, believing people would think that adopting older children was a big risk.

12. THERE WERE NO PRESS SCREENINGS.

The Los Angeles Times' Jack Mathews speculated that Universal "dumped" Problem Child on the market without press screenings not just because of its lack of faith in the product, but because HBO aired the documentary Child of Rage weeks earlier. The doc was about a self-destructive adopted girl named Beth who turned out to be homicidal.

13. IT WAS A (SURPRISE) BOX OFFICE SUCCESS.

Problem Child was one of Universal's most profitable films of 1990. Even Alexander and Karaszewski eased up on their bastardized product, saying in that aforementioned AMA that "over the years, we've come to peace with the film, because people just like it so much!"

14. GOTTFRIED WAS UP FOR A GOLDEN RASPBERRY, BUT LOST TO DONALD TRUMP.

In 1991, Gottfried was nominated for a Worst Supporting Actor Razzie for his work in Problem Child, The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, and Look Who's Talking Too, but lost to Donald Trump for his performance in Ghosts Can't Do It. Trump played himself.

15. MICHAEL OLIVER LEFT SHOW BUSINESS.

"After having been thrust into the spotlight as a child, I appreciate some peace and quiet. I am grateful and always will be for the experiences," the former Junior said in 2012. "I'm actually quite happy with my life the way it is today. I have a decent job. I work hard. I have a beautiful girlfriend. We have three cats and a hamster. It's a nice, quiet existence. I like it." (Hopefully the cats are happy and healthy.) Oliver works in computer programming.

16. NBC ORDERED A TV REBOOT IN 2015.

The pilot was written by Scot Armstrong (Road Trip, Old School) and starred Matthew Lillard in the John Ritter role and Erinn Hayes in Yasbeck's. NBC chose not to advance it to series.

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The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Turkey Day Marathon Is Back
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Shout! Factory

For many fans, Mystery Science Theater 3000 is as beloved a Thanksgiving tradition as mashed potatoes and gravy (except funnier). It seems appropriate, given that the show celebrates the turkeys of the movie world. And that it made its debut on Thanksgiving Day in 1988 (on KTMA, a local station in Minneapolis). In 1991, to celebrate its third anniversary, Comedy Central hosted a Thanksgiving Day marathon of the series—and in the more than 25 years since, that tradition has continued.

Beginning at 12 p.m. ET on Thursday, Shout! Factory will host yet another Mystery Science Theater 3000 Turkey Day marathon, hosted by series creator Joel Hodgson and stars Jonah Ray and Felicia Day. Taking place online at ShoutFactoryTV.com, or via the Shout! Factory TV app on Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire and select smart TVs, the trio will share six classic MST3K episodes that have never been screened as part of a Shout! Factory Turkey Day Marathon. Here’s hoping your favorite episode makes it (cough, Hobgoblins, cough.)

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11 Bite-Sized Facts About Cannibal! The Musical
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Troma Entertainment

Back in their film school days, the creators of South Park made a twisted tribute to Rogers and Hammerstein. Cannibal! The Musical is (very) loosely based on the life of Alfred "Alferd" Packer, an American prospector who resorted to eating his travel companions in the harsh winter of 1874. Below, you’ll find a buffet of bite-sized facts about this weirdly upbeat black comedy. Bon appétit!

1. IT ALL STARTED WITH A GAG TRAILER.

In 1992, Trey Parker was studying film at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where pretty much everyone knows all about the legend of Alfred "Alferd" Packer. Indeed, when a new restaurant opened up on campus in 1968, the student body chose to name it after this famous man-eater. The restaurant’s slogan? “Have a friend for lunch.” As a joke, Parker rounded up some of his fellow film majors and spent three days shooting a phony trailer for a nonexistent movie called Alferd Packer: The Musical. Included in the ensemble was Matt Stone, with whom Parker would go on to create South Park.

Once the Alferd Packer promo was finished, those who worked on it weren’t sure if they could turn this concept into a feature-length picture. Fortunately, the trailer was a huge hit. “People thought it was really funny,” Parker told The Denver Post, “so we went around … and said, ‘So do you want to invest?’” Thanks (for the most part) to donations from a few CU grads with wealthy parents, Parker and his co-stars amassed a $100,000 budget.

2. LIANE THE HORSE WAS NAMED AFTER TREY PARKER’S EX-FIANCÉE.

At age 21, Parker was all set to marry his high school sweetheart. “We had plane tickets, the dress was bought, the church was paid for,” Parker shared on the DVD commentary. Then, about a month before the wedding, he caught his bride-to-be with another man. Devastated, Parker broke off the engagement and came up with an unusual way to get even. “I really wrote this movie for her,” he said.

A major character in Cannibal is Liane, Packer’s beloved horse, who leaves him for another rider. The two-timing equine was named after Parker’s former fiancée. Some artistic license was taken here, as there’s no proof that the real Packer ever owned a horse named Liane—or that he ever wistfully sang about being on top of her.

3. AN AVANT-GARDE LEGEND WAS CAST IN A MINOR ROLE.

World-renowned for his experimental filmmaking, the late Stan Brakhage taught off and on at the University of Colorado, where he met Parker and Stone. The two convinced him to appear in Cannibal! as George Noon’s father, who gets about two minutes’ worth of screen time.

4. PARKER’S DAD WAS IN IT, TOO.

Just like Stan Marsh’s dad in South Park, Trey Parker’s father, Randy, is a geologist. In Cannibal! The Musical, he portrays the Breckenridge judge who sentences Packer (played by Trey) to death.

5. “SHPADOINKLE” WAS MEANT AS A FILLER WORD.

In addition to penning the Cannibal! script, Parker also wrote the film’s musical numbers. The first of these is “Shpadoinkle Day,” an offbeat tribute to “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! Parker knew that the first verse had to include a positive, three-syllable word, but couldn’t think of any that fit. So he used the made-up term “Shpadoinkle” to plug the gap until he could come up with an alternative. However, the creative team liked “shpadoinkle” so much that it stayed put and became one of Cannibal’s running jokes.

6. THEY SHOT IN THE COURTROOM IN WHICH PACKER WAS ACTUALLY TRIED.

On April 6, 1883, Packer was put on trial at the Hinsdale County Courthouse in Lake City, Colorado. Over the next few days, he admitted to dining on two of his dead travel companions—one of whom he supposedly killed in self-defense (the other died of natural causes). Packer was found guilty of murder, but avoided the hangman’s noose by fighting for a second trial, which took place 30 miles away in Gunnison. This time, he was charged with five counts of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to 40 years in prison. However, while Packer languished behind bars, public opinion slowly turned in the cannibal’s favor. Under near-constant pressure from The Denver Post, Governor Charles S. Thomas pardoned Packer in 1901.

More than 90 years later, Parker filmed the trial scenes of Cannibal! The Musical at the still-standing Hinsdale County Courthouse. About halfway through the movie, the judge delivers a big speech in which he sentences Packer to death. His on-screen monologue was copied word-for-word from the court transcript of that 1883 Lake City trial.

7. AS THE MINERS SING “THAT’S ALL I’M ASKING FOR,” YOU CAN SEE PARKER MOUTH THE WORD “CUT.”

It goes by fast, but you can see Parker call "cut" to end the shot at the 3:06 mark in the clip above.

8. PARKER USED A PSEUDONYM FOR THE OPENING CREDITS.

Parker billed himself as "Juan Schwartz" in the cast of Cannibal because, according to the movie's website, "Trey doesn't like seeing one person's name plastered all over a movie's credits." Since he is properly credited as writer and director, he likely felt the additional acting credit was a bit too much. Incidentally, Packer called himself “John Shwartze” while evading the law before his arrest.

9. A FEW SONGS WERE DELETED.

The original cut of Cannibal! The Musical ran for two and a half hours, but thanks to some major-league editing, the runtime was reduced to a breezy 93 minutes. “There were fights about that from the get-go, but I give credit to Trey for being the toughest critic,” producer Jason McHugh told MovieMaker Magazine. “He had the maturity to know that a musical comedy about cannibals can’t be two and a half hours long.”

In the streamlining process, two musical numbers got the axe. The first was a quick little dirge called “Don’t Be Stupid,” wherein some nameless miners tell Packer’s group to postpone their journey until springtime. The other was “I’m Shatterproof,” a rap/funk song that Packer, hardened by his recent ordeals, delivers during a bar fight. Also deleted was a reprise of “When I Was On Top of You.”

10. COMEDY CENTRAL WOULDN’T BROADCAST IT.

Cannibal! was distributed by Troma Entertainment, an independent production company best known for creating The Toxic Avenger series. When South Park began to emerge as a major player on cable TV, Troma’s co-founder, Lloyd Kaufman, assumed that Comedy Central would jump at the chance to air some of Parker and Stone’s earlier work. Instead, the channel flatly refused to air Cannibal.

Kaufman was sent a rejection letter from Comedy Central, which read: “Thank you for submitting and re-submitting Cannibal! The Musical, but it is simply not up to our standards for broadcasting.” Troma forwarded a copy of this dispatch to Parker. Today, it’s prominently displayed in his office—at Comedy Central!

11. IT HAS BEEN TURNED INTO A STAGE MUSICAL ON MANY OCCASIONS.

Can’t get tickets to The Book of Mormon? Perhaps you can catch a live reenactment of Cannibal! The Musical instead. Since 1998, the movie has been seen more than 60 stage adaptations. There’s no “official” version of the theatrical show. As such, acting troupes that might be interested in performing Cannibal! have to write their own scripts based on the original movie. 

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