Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Time Warner's The Earth Day Special (1990)

Earth Day may be unrivaled among holidays in the nobility of its sentiment, but when it comes to pop culture, its impact is somewhat lacking. Even Arbor Day has an associated Charlie Brown special, but Earth Day? Well, maybe not quite. Back in 1990, the holiday took quite a bite out of pop culture in a celebrity-packed video tribute produced and presented by Time Warner.

When I found an old VHS copy of the special, the back cover blurb made it an imperative to check out:
A fun-packed salute that makes a world of difference.

The biggest stars of the '90s take on the biggest story of the '90s in this informative blend of entertainment and cause. Rich in comedy, song and reports on the state of the planet, The Earth Day Special captures the excitement and commitment of Earth Day 1990 — and shares tips everyone can use to help solve the most urgent crisis the world faces today.

Mother Earth (Bette Midler) is ailing and it's up to folks in Anytown USA to help her recover. So Harold Ramis joins the Wastebusters. Robin Williams busts everyone up with one-liners, then plays straight man to an uproarious corporate weasel (Dustin Hoffman). Dr. Carl Sagan talks facts, Morgan Freeman talks trees and Rodney Dangerfield talks about the "ideal date" (organically grown). Rhea Perlman shanghais Danny DeVito into watching The Earth Day Special — and it opens Danny's eyes to the polluting ways of pals Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase and Rick Moranis. Plus, Christopher Lloyd drops in from the future, E.T. drops in from outer space and over 40 other celebrities — including Bill Cosby, Kevin Costner, Magic Johnson, Meryl Streep and Barbra Streisand — drop everything to aid Mother Earth.

Nothing so important was ever so much fun!
The summary gives an idea of just how many 1980s/1990s era celebrities appear (and there are even more than are listed), which alone makes it worth checking out for fans of unusual ephemera from that era, but the presence of a little-known Carl Sagan appearance elevated it to a must-see.

The special starts with what the credits call a "Galaxy Intro", in which the camera zooms through outer space accompanied by a somewhat Cosmos-like narration — no coincidence, since the segment turns out to have been written by Sagan and Ann Druyan:
We have searched the skies for signals. Our spacecraft have explored dozens of exquisite worlds in the family of our sun. But as far as we've looked, there's only one place in the entire universe where the miracle of life exists: our own planet Earth. Life is so rare and precious. We must safeguard, protect, and cherish it.
Then the scene shifts to the "Anytown", while an Earth Day procession winds through the town square. The cast listing includes a lengthy array of celebrities, and the working definition of "stars" is a bit, well, flexible, since Bugs Bunny, E.T., The Muppets, Porky Pig, and Tweety Bird are all listed as part of the cast. Sure enough, outside the parade, Bugs, Tweety, and Porky all appear in fully animated form in a Greg Ford-scripted sequence, with variations on their signature lines ("I did! I did see a Mewyl Tweep!").

Robin Williams starts telling a bunch of jokes. Oddly enough for an Earth Day celebration, nature is the butt of most of the jokes, but when he says that Mother Nature is the sort of parent who can't say no, he crosses a line; Mother Nature appears in the personified form of Bette Midler, to set him straight. Not only is she not too happy about being poked fun at, but she's already ailing from environmental damage. Collapses from illness, she's rushed to the emergency room of the nearest hospital, where she is looked after by none other than Doogie Howser, M.D. (!)

While Midler's Mother Earth is undergoing medical treatment, the stage is set for a series of short, mostly self-contained segments involving various celebrities.

Meanwhile, a layer of meta-narrative is added by having the entire proceedings being watched on TV by Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman. (When DeVito treats the proceedings as if they're just another TV show, betting "I give you 2 to 1 she [Mother Earth] bites it", Perlman ripostes, "If she bites it, we all bite it!" Adding to the meta-fiction, some segments occur when DeVito tries to switch channels, only to find that every show on the air from Cheers to The Cosby Show to Married with Children has some sort of environmental spin to it, with the Huxtables trading quips about how to incorporate energy conservation into their daily routine and Rodney Dangerfield appearing on a game show where being the potential date partner with the most eco-friendly plans earns him some respect. When it turns out that Jeopardy!'s categories are "Acid Rain", "Garbage Overload", "Deforestation", "Global Warming", "Toxics", and "Ozone Depletion", DeVito exclaims, "I can't get away from this stuff!"

The big genre franchises of the 1980s aren't neglected, either. In order to show the future impact of environmental devastation, Back to the Future's Emmett "Doc" Brown appears — and yes, he rides in on the DeLorean! In one of the few cases where the crossover potential of the special is realized, he barges in to the emergency room in order to share his knowledge of the future with Doogie Howser, in a true meeting of pop culture "doctors". To represent the Ghostbusters movies, Harold Ramis appears, but not quite reprising his role of Egon Spengler, instead playing that character's "brother" Elon, who works for "Wastebusters". Elon's job is also a bit less glamorous than his more famous brother's — "Our job at Wastebusters is to identify industrial polluters, track them down, and humiliate them" — and sure enough, he accosts Martin Short as a sleazy corporate lawyer from "Diversified Industries" (with Short reprising his SNL character Norman Thurm, who apparently doesn't have a little-known sibling). As for E.T., he shows up in a pile of garbage outside the hospital and produces a book called A Practical Guide to How You Can Save Earth by the people of the Earth for the people of the Earth which he gives to a bunch of kids. And no, I don't have any idea why one of pop culture's most famous aliens was chosen to produce a book "by the people of the Earth".

Sleazy corporate lawyers are something of a recurring theme; in a segment featuring Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams, Hoffman's lawyer ("I can always argue the other side") out-Thurms Thurm, tricking Williams's Everyman into admitting that pollution might not be so bad after all.

In a segment directed by Jim Henson himself (who passed away only weeks after the special aired), Kermit the Frog and other Muppets discuss the effect of pollution on animals. The Muppet Wiki has a complete transcript of the segment, accompanied by numerous screenshots, to supplement its detailed entry about the special in general.

And no movie from that era would be totally complete without a rap song. The special's one features rappers like Will "Fresh Prince" Smith and Ice-T, and lyrics like "Every time you put a paint can in the trash can, you take a piece of the world from the next man".

And last but not least, the Carl Sagan segment! Surrounded by an attentive audience in Anytown, and working from a script written by Sagan and Druyan themselves, Sagan goes into full Cosmos explainer mode, taking on global warming, ozone depletion, and acid rain. The scientific principles at work behind those three phenomena are discussed in as much depth as the brief segment run time allows, adding scientific heft as well as entertainment value to the proceedings. (Sagan is also one of the scientific advisors listed in the credits.)

Long out of print on VHS, and with almost as much time elapsing since its production as between it and the first Earth Day, the special has definitely faded into obscurity over time. More surprisingly, it has received almost no attention from the array of nostalgia websites devoted to ephemera from 1980s and 1990s pop culture, of which it would seem to be the perfect example. The range of celebrity cameos gives a real flavor of pop culture at that moment in time, the science holds up pretty well (that's what you get for getting Sagan on board), and while it definitely has its cheesy elements, it has aged far less badly than some of the contemporary attempts to cross over entertainment with serious issues.