Earl Sinclair (Stuart Pankin)

Dinosaurs: Before Bart ruled the Earth

Riley Riley

Although The Muppets Jim Henson has been accused of ripping off The Simpsons, he actually came up with the idea for Dinosaurs before Bart and the family hit screens.

It’s more than 30 years since the launch of the show, but it’s well worth revisiting, especially if you haven’t seen it before.

Described as one of the top 10 sitcoms of all time, Dinosaurs ran for four seasons between 1991 and 1994.

What set the show apart was the animatronics that were borrowed from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The first Turtles movie in 1990 featured costumes designed by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop.

In fact, many of the actors from Turtles worked in various roles in dinosaur suits for the series.

The full-sized costumes came in two parts, a full body suit and a separate animatronic head.

The head contained radio-controlled motors that moved the jaw, lips, eyes, and eyebrows.

For close-up speaking and lip-sync, the heads were separated and operated by a team of puppeteers.

Earl often sighs as he walks across a room because he could only see through the open mouth, allowing him to see where he was going.

Dinosaurs is set in 60,000,000 BC in Pangaea.

The story revolves around the Sinclair family.

There’s father Earl Sneed Sinclair, mother Fran Sinclair (née Phillips) and their three children: Robbie, Charlene and infant, Baby — along with Fran’s mother, Ethyl.

Earl works in construction, or more specifically he pushes over trees for the Wesayso Corporation with friend and coworker Roy Hess.

Their boss is the gruff, over-bearing Bradley P. Richfield.

The show was produced by Michael Jacobs Productions and Jim Henson Television in association with Walt Disney Television.

The characters were designed by Henson’s Kirk Thatcher.

Henson reportedly got the idea of a live-action show featuring animatronic dinosaurs after he saw the technology his Creature Shop was developing for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990).

The same technology was used to create the Dinosaurs.

News stories of the time highlight Dinosaurs’ connection to Jim Henson, who had passed away the year before, aged 53, from Toxic Shock Syndrome.

Henson conceived the show in 1988, reported The New York Times, adding he wanted it to be a sitcom — but about a family of dinosaurs.

Ironically, says Alex Rockwell, vice-president of the Henson organisation, until the success of The Simpsons, “people thought it was a crazy idea.”

The Simpsons (S03E21)  “Black Widower” actually parodied the show, implying it was a rip-off.

The Dinosaurs are:

James Belushi apparently turned down the role of Earl Sinclair to pursue a movie career.

The Dinosaurs family name Sinclar is a reference to the Sinclair Oil Corporation, which has prominently featured a dinosaur as its logo and mascot for decades, under the now-rejected belief that petroleum deposits were formed during the age of the dinosaurs.

Other character and family names throughout the series often referred to rival petroleum companies and/or petroleum products.

For example: PhillipsHessB.P.Richfield, and Ethyl, among others.

Dinosaurs is full of sharp wit and social commentary, and will appeal to adults as much as it will children.

Chilled, but live prey, are kept in the refrigerator and are helpful when you can’t find the milk.

Cavemen make occasional appearances as pets and wild animals.

Breaking the rule characters sometimes speak directly to the camera, especially Baby.

When Fran and Earl spell out words in front of Baby during an argument, Baby looks at the camera, saying: “This could get ugly”.

He then proceeds to spell out the words, “They think I can’t spell” (with his alphabet blocks).

Because of the popularity of Baby the network allowed the creators to run the show pretty much as they saw fit.

Baby would repeatedly batter his father with a frypan, yelling out: “Not the mama!”

“As long as the Baby hit his father over the head with a pot, we could use that to hide anything.”

According to makers, Touchstone Television (owned by Disney) constantly pressured them into making budget cuts, which they couldn’t accommodate due to the high demands of combining live action with puppet animation.

The final episode of Dinosaurs produced and aired on ABC, Changing Nature, was intended as the series finale and depicts the irresponsible actions of the dinosaurs toward their environment, and the ensuing Ice Age which leads to their demise.

Not surprisingly, Touchstone originally did not air the episode, but it was later broadcast in syndication.

You can catch Dinosaurs on Disney+.


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