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How Captain Planet Turned Kids Green

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Sometime in the late 1980s, Ted Turner came to a conclusion about Scooby-Doo: It didn’t have much of a message.

Nor did Yogi Bear, or The Flintstones, or any of Hanna-Barbera’s multiple animated properties that Turner had purchased the rights to air as part of his children’s programming blocks on the Turner Broadcasting Station (TBS). Scooby was not concerned with the environment—his friends got around in a smoke-belching van. As an environmental activist, Turner decided he wanted to use more of TBS’s airtime to explore the effects of pollution, deforestation, and the ozone layer.

In 1988, Turner summoned Barbara Pyle, his vice president of environmental concerns, and gave her two words: "Captain Planet." Pyle asked what that meant.

"Figure it out," he said, and turned away.

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The rise of eco-consciousness in the 1980s had been reflected on an episode-by-episode basis on several television shows, but none had ever made it the recurring focus. With Captain Planet and the Planeteers, an animated series that ran from 1990 to 1996, Turner had ushered in the first programming of its kind: a narrative that hinged directly on the man-made hazards putting stress on the environment.

Working with producers Thom Beers and Nicholas Boxer, Pyle took Turner’s notion and beefed it up considerably: Captain Planet would be a mullet-wearing hero who materializes when summoned by the Planeteers, a group of five teenagers from across the globe who try to minimize the damage done by eco-villains like Looten Plunder and Verminous Skumm. Instead of bank robberies, the team would confront tuna fishermen entrapping dolphins and oil drillers. Pollution would weaken Captain Planet; solar energy would empower him.

Pyle ran a full-page ad in The Hollywood Reporter, calling on the entertainment industry to lend its talents to television’s first environmentally-aware educational program for kids. Despite having no credits in voiceover work, Tom Cruise was the first to get back to her; as an activist, Cruise appreciated the message and agreed to voice Captain Planet, who bore a passing resemblance to the actor. Whoopi Goldberg, Neil Patrick Harris, Jeff Goldblum, and several other well known actors followed suit. Pyle even got Carl Sagan and Jean-Michel Cousteau (Jacques's son) to consult on the program for no fee.

But when Captain Planet and the Planeteers premiered in September of 1990—it aired both on TBS and in syndication—Cruise was nowhere to be heard. After recording six episodes, the Days of Thunder star was reportedly insistent on having more control in how the show was merchandised and what topics it would explore. (At the time, his representatives declared it was a scheduling issue.) Rather than have a jarring vocal change during the first season, producers opted to re-record his lines.

Turner, meanwhile, had tried to convince his board of directors that the expensive series would be worthwhile. Fearing kids wouldn’t want anything to do with a "message" cartoon or that they might not even pick up on the message at all, they insisted Turner was wasting money.

Very informal polls of kids saw things differently. In a piece in The New York Times, 8-year-old critic Mollie Lief said she grasped the concept of an episode in which animal watering holes were drying up. "The elephants, the birds, the fish, they have to have water," she said. "It’s a good show to teach children."

Savvy consumer that she was, Lief also mentioned she had no desire for a Captain Planet T-shirt, declaring "that's not my style."

That sentiment might have disappointed Turner, who was dependent on the 50-plus licensees making tie-in products to help fund the Captain Planet Foundation, a firm devoted to financing environmental education programs. Unlike most shows, toys for Captain Planet had to meet a reasonable standard of sustainability. A globe bearing the Captain’s likeness was made from paperboard and stuffed with recycled clothing; toy packaging used recycled cardboard. (There was never getting around the plastic used for the action figures, which some observers cheerfully pointed out was counter-productive to the show’s aversion to wastefulness.)

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By 1993, Captain Planet was a success: more than 7 million weekly viewers tuned in to see how the Planeteers would resolve ivory poaching, puppy mills, and radiation leaks. Brief 30-second spots at the end would highlight tips that could be implemented in the home, like cutting up six-pack plastic rings before disposal. Other cartoons, like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, began to slip in eco-friendly messages: the Turtles reminded kids not to leave the water running while brushing.

Unlike most animated shows of the era, which typically had short production runs of two or three years, Captain Planet ran for six seasons and 113 episodes. In 1994, it even changed its name to The New Adventures of Captain Planet to remind viewers they weren’t watching reruns.

It was a large library of lecturing, and not everyone was pleased. Some critics believed the series instilled a concerning suspicion of humans in children, where man and technology were inevitably responsible for harming nature. One pundit called it the "greenwashing" of youth.

In the end, Captain Planet was in little danger of creating an environmental cult. According to Pyle, environmental consciousness ceased to be cool; Turner wound up selling TBS to Time-Warner, minimizing his input over content. The sixth and final season, which was aired internationally, was on ice for 10 years before being screened in the United States.

It wouldn’t be the Captain’s last stand, however. Laura Turner Seydel, Ted’s daughter, held fundraisers to keep the Captain Planet Foundation going, and the organization is still in operation today. The characters recently popped up in a Ford Focus commercial, and Hollywood is mulling a possible feature film. While a new wave of licensing might create new waste materials, the show really did try its best to practice what it preached: animators recycled the storyboards for each episode.

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10 Things You Might Not Know About South Park
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Comedy Central

South Park has been a favorite of comedy fans since its broadcast debut in 1997, keeping a permanent seat in internet culture thanks to a slew of quotable catch phrases and delightfully inflammatory conversation pieces. Nevertheless, there are a few things about Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s iconic series—which made its debut 20 years ago today—that you might not know.

1. SOUTH PARK PIONEERED THE WAVE OF “MATURE” TELEVISION.

Making its debut in the summer of 1997, South Park entered the small screen circuit just in time to reap the benefits of the Federal Communications Commission’s latest venture: the TV Parental Guidelines. The rating system went into effect in January of the same year, distinguishing “child friendly” programming from “adult content.” Upon its premiere on August 13, South Park became the first weekly series to earn the “TV-MA” (or “Mature Audiences”) label.

2. MOST OF THE SERIES’S FEMALE CAST MEMBERS PERFORM UNDER PSEUDONYMS.

The wealth of the male characters on South Park are voiced by creators and writers Parker and Stone, but the animated Colorado town’s female population has long owed its lines to a small number of women behind the scenes. The voice actresses principally responsible for this lot have been, at various points, Mona Marshall, April Stewart, Eliza Schneider, and the late Mary Kay Bergman.

Early on in her South Park tenure, Disney and Hanna-Barbera mainstay Bergman was sometimes credited as Shannen Cassidy in order to avoid fallout from the ideological differences between South Park and her family-friendly material. Similarly, Stewart adopted the alias Gracie Lazar for her South Park work, and Schneider (who left the series in 2003) performed as “Blue Girl,” a handle she also utilized in her music career. Only Marshall has been consistently credited without a pseudonym.

3. SEVERAL CELEBRITIES HAVE PLAYED EASY-TO-MISS CAMEOS.

South Park’s preferred use of celebrity guest stars differs quite a bit from that of its animated sitcom brethren, a community that typically aims to “play up” the notability of a visiting voice actor. With a few exceptions, South Park favors hiding any trace of a star’s contribution, relegating big-name guests to little more than animal sounds. Actors as renowned as George Clooney, Jay Leno, and Henry Winkler have provided dog barks, cat purrs, and monster growls, respectively, for the show.

4. ONE NOTABLE FAN REFUSED AN OFFER TO GUEST STAR.

Of course, not all Hollywood stars are game for this caliber of work. Taking note of South Park’s meteoric rise in popularity at the inception of its second season, Jerry Seinfeld contacted creators Parker and Stone to express interest in voicing a character. They offered the comedian the nonspeaking part of “Turkey No. 2” in their Thanksgiving episode, but Seinfeld declined.

5. SOME FAMOUS NAMES HAVE WRITTEN FOR THE SERIES.

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Today, Bill Hader and Kristen Schaal are TV comedy stars in their own right. However, while Hader was still appearing on Saturday Night Live, he doubled as a consultant writer and then producer for Parker and Stone’s animated series. Similarly, Schaal spent 2007 working as a consultant writer on South Park, before padding her resume with parts on Flight of the Conchords, The Daily Show, and 30 Rock.

6. A SITCOM LEGEND CONTRIBUTED TO TWO EPISODES OF THE SERIES.

It is hardly a surprise to learn that the daringly controversial Parker and Stone hold great reverence for the king of all politically incorrect sitcoms: All in the Family. As such, the pair’s communal dream came true when Norman Lear, the brain behind the groundbreaking series, brought his talents to the South Park set as a writing consultant on the consecutive season 7 episodes “Cancelled” (the 100th episode produced) and “I’m a Little Bit Country.”

7. TREY PARKER APPLIED THE SHOW’S VISUAL STYLE TO A SERIES OF PHILOSOPHICAL SHORTS.

Inheriting a reverence for Buddhism from his father, Randy, Trey Parker went on to discover affection for the philosophies of Zen writer and speaker Alan Watts. In 2007, Parker borrowed the construction paper aesthetic of his popular Comedy Central series to a side project: animated sequences accompanying short segments of Watts’s lectures. Subjects brought to life through Parker’s animation included Watts’ take on music (“Life and Music”), personality extremes (“Prickles and Goo”), and the human race’s relationship with the planet (“Appling”).

8. SOUTH PARK REUNITED A FAMOUS COMIC DUO.

The season four episode “Cherokee Hair Tampons,” which aired in 2000, was notable for employing a pair of guest stars for more than just a few canine grunts. Counterculture comedians Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong, who had long since dissolved their big-screen partnership, both lent their voices to the installment. Chong admitted that he and Marin didn’t record their parts together for the episode, but he did credit South Park with reviving their professional camaraderie.

“Cheech did his bit one day and I came in the next day and did my bit,” he told UCTV. “That was the first time we did something together in 20 years so yes, we can give South Park the credit.” Chong’s math might be a little off—his and Marin’s previous proper film collaboration was Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, although they shared credits well into the ’90s—but the spirit of his words sticks. Since the South Park episode, Chong and Marin have joined forces on a handful of film and television projects, including Cheech & Chong’s Animated Movie.

9. AN INSECT MUTATION WAS NAMED AFTER A SOUTH PARK CHARACTER.

Comedy Central

Throughout the first five seasons of South Park, the primary distinguishing characteristic borne by the character Kenny McCormick was his proclivity to die suddenly in every episode. This unfortunate trait won Kenny the honor of lending his name to a mutation in the genetic structure of the adult fruit fly, discovered in 2002 by scientist Sophie Rutschmann. The gene was found to predict imminent mortality upon contact with an otherwise benign strain of bacteria; this “certain death” mutation was aptly nicknamed “Kenny” after South Park’s ill-fated character.

10. THE TOURETTE SYNDROME ASSOCIATION HAS PRAISED SOUTH PARK’S TREATMENT OF THE DISEASE.

Well aware of South Park’s reputation for insensitivity, the Tourette Syndrome Association approached the series’ season 11 episode, “Le Petit Tourette,” prepared to be gravely offended. The nonprofit organization was unsurprised by South Park’s heavy focus on coprolalia, or involuntary cursing—a symptom disproportionately associated with the disease in popular culture—but went on record as saying that they were impressed by the episode’s treatment of the condition, as well as by its wealth of well-researched information.

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A Physicist Weighs In On Whether Scrooge McDuck Could Actually Swim in a Pool of Gold Coins
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Batman has the Batcave, Superman has his Fortress of Solitude, and Scrooge McDuck has his money bin. For 70 years, the maternal uncle of Disney’s Donald Duck has been portrayed as a thrifty—some might say miserly—presence in cartoons and comics, a waterfowl who has such deep affection for his fortune that he enjoys diving into his piles of gold and luxuriating in them.

It’s a rather gross display of money worship, but is it practical? Can anyone, including an anthropomorphic Pekin duck, actually swim in their own money, or would diving headfirst into a pile of metal result only in catastrophic injury?

According to James Kakalios, Ph.D., a professor of physics at the University of Minnesota and author of the recently-released The Physics of Everyday Things as well as 2005’s The Physics of Superheroes, the question really isn’t whether someone could swim in a mass of gold. They could not. It’s more a matter of how badly they’ll be injured in the attempt.

Diving into a gold pile the Scrooge way—hands first, prayer-style, followed by your head—is the most efficient way to begin breaking bones. “Keeping his arms stiff and his elbows rigid, he’s definitely going to break his wrists,” Kakalios tells Mental Floss. “Gold is a granular material like sand, a macroscopic object. You can’t swim through sand or dive into it easily.” Launch yourself off a diving board from 3 or 4 feet up and you will meet a solid surface. Landing with your feet, a far better bet, is unlikely to result in injury—provided you try to bend your knees.

In that sense, diving into gold is not dissimilar from “diving” into a concrete floor. But with gold being granular, it might be possible to break the surface and “swim” if the friction were low enough. “A ball pit is a good example,” Kakalios says. “The balls are lightly packed and have low friction relative to one another. The key is to have objects in front of you move out of the way in order to advance.”

Despite being a fictional character, McDuck hasn’t totally ignored the impossible physics of his feat. His creator, Carl Barks, has written in repeated references over the years to the implausibility of using his money vault as a swimming pool and has depicted the villainous Beagle Boys trio as getting hurt when they tried to emulate the stunt. Scrooge smirked and said there was a “trick” to making the gold dive.

That’s led to one fan theory that McDuck has used his fortune to coat the gold coins in some kind of lubricant that would aid in reducing friction, allowing him to maneuver inside the vault. Ludicrous, yes. But is it possible? “You would need a massive amount of lube to slide your body past the coins with minimal effort,” Kakalios says. “The ball pit is easier because the weight of the elements is low. Gold is a very dense material.” Diving and swimming into it, even with lubricant, might be analogous to trying to shove your hand into a deep bowl of M&Ms, he says. “M&Ms have a low friction coating. Continuing to move is really the problem.”

Presuming McDuck could somehow maneuver himself deeper into the pile, his delicate duck bones would almost surely succumb to the crushing weight of the gold above him. By one estimate, diving under one of his 5-foot-tall gold piles would put 2492 pounds of pressure on his bill.

We'll see if he tips his top hat to any further gold-diving tricks—or if he's in a full-body cast—when Disney XD relaunches DuckTales this summer.

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