the comedy undercards

Comedy Undercard: ALF vs. Dinosaurs

Vulture is in the midst of its Sitcom Smackdown, a three-week contest that pits the best sitcoms of the last 30 years against each other to crown the ultimate winner. But while that bracket focuses on the greatest, most innovative modern comedies, it couldn’t cover all of the series that live on in our hearts, the ones that may not fit those highfalutin parameters but which we could talk about for days. To give these other series their moments to shine, every day we’ll be pitting two like-minded comedies against each other: We’ll pick our winner, and readers will then vote for their own. Today: It’s alien versus predators as we pit ALF against Dinosaurs.

Today’s contenders:  ALF (1986–1990) vs. Dinosaurs (1991–94)

The next puppets to make prime-time TV history following The Muppet Show arrived in a pair of family sitcoms with a twist. The first was ALF, which followed the plight of an eight-stomached alien — part live-in slob, part two-bit stand-up — who crash-landed on Earth and moved in with a suburban family. A few years later, ABC added Jim Henson Productions’ Dinosaurs to its TGIF lineup. It starred the Sinclairs, a family of middle-class dinos (powered by animatronics) in 60,000,003 B.C. whose patriarch, Earl, was a proud couch potato who made his living knocking down trees for the eco-unfriendly WESAYSO corporation.

Snack of Choice: Cats, which were said to be like cattle on ALF’s home planet of Melmac, and smaller dinosaurs. Robbie Sinclair once dated a dino whose father was eating all of her exes.

Still Quoteable: ALF: “Haaa! I kill me!” and Baby: “I’m the baby, gotta love me!”

Producer Pedigree: ALF’s Tom Patchett, a writer on The Bob Newhart Show and The Carol Burnett Show, and Dinosaurs’ Michael Jacobs, who created Boy Meets World and wrote for Charles in Charge and My Two Dads.

Controversial Collaborators: Jerry Stahl, who was addicted to drugs while writing for ALF (a period chronicled in the Ben Stiller film Permanent Midnight, based on Stahl’s memoir), and future Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash, who would later be accused of sexual misconduct with minors.

Shows Within the Show: ALF once wrote a spec script to juice up Kate’s favorite but boring soap One World to Hope For, and the Sinclairs watched tons of TV, including recurring spoofs Ask Mister Lizard (“We’re gonna need another Timmy!”) and TriCera COPS.

The Very Special Episode: In “Hooked on a Feeling,” ALF gets addicted to cotton, which causes him to get loopy and cranky and belt “New York, New York” at odd hours; he later confesses that he’s lonely and vows to get sober. And in “A New Leaf,” Robbie finds a plant that makes the family feel “happy,” but makes them unproductive; after Fran rids them of the plant, Robbie addresses the viewers, telling them not to do drugs. “Help put an end to preachy sitcom endings like this one.”

Bizarrely Depressing Finale: The Alien Task Force captures ALF after intercepting a message from his friends, who planned to pick him up and start a colony on a new planet. (It wound up an unintentional cliffhanger, as NBC canceled the show after the episode aired.) Earl accidentally triggers the Ice Age, and breaks the bad news to his family in the show’s final minutes. 

Legacy: ALF had a bigger impact on pop culture, spawning merchandise and several spinoffs (including video games, a Saturday morning cartoon, and, years later, his own TV Land talk show). Last year, Sony said the studio was developing a CGI-live-action ALF movie (à la The Smurfs). The Sinclairs, alas, never made it out of the Ice Age.

Are the shows any good? Apart from ALF being a puppet, its fish-out-of-water shtick felt recycled and dated, even in the mid-eighties. Many shows did the same thing better — My Favorite Martian, Mork and Mindy, and 3rd Rock From the Sun, to name just a few — and without the irritable family unit. (It’s not surprising to learn that ALF’s puppeteer, Paul Fusco, created him from a puppet that he normally reserved to annoy his family and friends.) Henson and Jacobs had bigger ambitions for Dinosaurs, which was smarter and funnier in general, and, like a gentler Norman Lear production, it dared to address issues including religion, sexual harassment, drugs, environmentalism, and feminism. I’d also put the sly Baby Sinclair up against the precocious talking infants that came before (Look Who’s Talking’s Mikey) and after (Family Guy’s Stewie): Baby would win every time.

The Moment of Truth: ALF always reminded me of Joey from Full House (if Joey were ornery, burped more, and hailed from another planet): They were unrelenting, if very popular, cheese machines on corny sitcoms aimed squarely at kids. Dinosaurs also had a fair amount of slapstick and an equally weird vibe — neither show’s puppet was adorable — but it was really a postmodern family sitcom. Like The Simpsons before it, Dinosaurs both celebrated and pulled apart sitcom conventions (i.e. the very special drugs episode) because it could. As evidenced by the amount and range of television watched by the Sinclairs, the producers were obsessed with both the good and the bad.

Winner: Dinosaurs.