Blasted Betty. Split Kit. Stu Spew. Mala Nutrition. Valerie Vomit. These are just a few of the colorful, distasteful, and offensive characters that had parents and teachers massaging their sore temples from coast to coast in the during the mid-80s. I’m talking of course about the much loved and much reviled Garbage Pail Kids.As a young cub going to Schumaker Elementary, I remember it well when the Garbage Pail Kids trading cards spread through our school like a gnarly disease. To say we were addicted and obsessed is a gross misunderstatement, and when we found cards with our names associated with the ragtag assortment of mutants (in my case - Stair CASEY, Cassette CASEY and Screwy DEWEY), our various trapper keepers, notebooks and the insides of our desks didn’t stand a chance. We stuck them everywhere. Cards were traded. Cards were coveted. Cards were stolen. It suddenly didn’t matter what popular lunchbox you had anymore. If you didn’t keep up with the latest and nastiest, if you were still stuck buying the third series when the fourth series came out - you weren’t shit and were regulated to schoolyard name-calling and other types of ridicule.
Our teachers had had enough. I can still see it, the freshly xeroxed pink letter they sent out to our parents. I remember my mom holding it up to my face and telling me I was no longer allowed to bring Garbage Pail Kids trading cards to school anymore. As a matter of fact, I wasn’t allowed to own them anymore and could I please hand over my shoebox with the forbidden loot thank you very much. Well, that was that. Soon enough, the GPK’s were purely verboten. Some luckier kids got to keep their shoeboxes and scrapbooks at home, and we could sometimes peruse and trade them there. There were rumors that the ice-cream man (our dealer, our MAN), who parked a few blocks from the school when it let out, was personally told by the principal to halt all sales of the offending material. This only insured that our craving for the gross-out cards would not end.
You can’t talk about the Garbage Pail Kids without mentioning their wholesome and accepted cousins, the Cabbage Patch Kids dolls. These cherubic moppets where EVERYWHERE. Like the Furbies and Beanie Babies that followed them, the Cabbage Patch Kids were the must-have toy for Christmas. Parents played tug of war with each other and riots erupted in toy aisles across the nation. Everybody's little sister would caterwaul for days if they weren’t unwrapping the doll “born” at Babyland General Hospital. That’s right, these brats had their own fictional genesis! Crawling right out of the slime these hyperbolic babies left behind were the Garbage Pail Kids, the bastard brethren whose plump bodies and chubby cheeks bore more than a passing resemblance to the popular and accepted tots from the cabbage patch.
Art Spiegelman, best known for the Pulitzer Prize-winning Holocaust tale Maus, had gotten his start with Topps Company when he was a teenager. In his twenty years of development there he was the brains behind Garbage Candy, a PEZ-like candy that came out of a small garbage can package and shaped as old shoes, bent tin cans, fish bones, etc., and the groovy and beloved Wacky Packages. The “Wacky Packs”, as my older cousin called them, were a card series that goofed on the various products of the day. Capn’ Crunch became “Capn’ Crud”, Gulf Oil was branded “Gulp Oil”, you catch the drift. Wacky Packs were the perfect companion to that sometimes doofy brand of 70s humour that also permeated National Lampoons and Saturday Night Live.
After the success of Garbage Candy and Wacky Packages, and wanting to skewer the seemingly unending fad of the Cabbage Patch Kids, it was time for Spiegelman and Topps to galvanize the Good Morning America 1980s. Debuting in 1985, these mutant children of the nuclear age appeared on five 2 ½ x 3 ½ cards with a peelable sticker in front, and either puzzle pieces or miscellaneous facts pertaining to the particular character on the back. Let’s not forget about that prison shank-like stick of gum that came along with these cards! If you were brave enough to stick that in your mouth, more often than not you’d be paying the school nurse a visit with cut gums and a bleeding palate. All of this for a measly quarter! Shops couldn’t keep boxes of the cards on shelves. With characters like the severely pockmarked Acne Amy and the motorcycle riding, beer swilling Disgustin’ Justin, we schoolkids ate this up in droves
The parental and authoritative backlash was fast and swift. A principal of a public school in Manhattan called the cards “nasty and unkind -- they make fun of the way people look and act.” Xavier Roberts, the creator of the Cabbage Patch Kids, also was not pleased. He sued the Topps Company and got them to loosely change their design so they wouldn’t resemble his beloved dolls as much.
With sales up and a controversial storm brewing, the logical next step is - make a movie! 1987 brought us The Garbage Pail Kids Movie. Written, directed and produced by Rod Amateau and starring Mackenzie Astin, it was a commercial and critical flop. I remember getting my dirty paws on it when it debuted at the local video, and even I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. It’s been awhile, but what I remember is Mackenzie Astin stumbling on the GPK’s (played by dwarves in unsettling puppet costumes) in a sewer and getting into hijinks with some valley girl that Astin has a crush on. I also remember the Windy Winston puppet farting on a stage for like five minutes. With its shitty plot, shitty acting, shitty camera work and worse of all, the shitty puppetry - it’s widely known as one of the worst movies ever made. Die-hard card collectors and fans of potty humor were left scratching their heads about what they just saw. It’s now touted as a genuine cult movie and tours the midnight circuit, but I honestly don’t know anybody that can muster the courage to see it. Pure Kindertrauma.
A Saturday morning cartoon also stumbled out, but was dumped by the CBS network before its debut, literally at the 11th hour. Parents and special interest groups assailed the network with protest letters, phone calls, and threats to the sponsors. Peggy Charren, president of Action for Children’s Television (ACT) said “The idea that you take handicapping conditions and make them funny, and have to go to that kind of humor on children's television, I find outrageous.” The Rev. Donald Wildmon of the National Federation for Decency (NFD) said in an interview “CBS is pulling the show for two reasons. Number one, it has been extremely difficult finding sponsors. I know that because I have letters from the most likely sponsors on my desk and they are not going to be associated with it. Number two is because of outrage from the public, the likes of which they have not seen in a long time. Those are the reasons they are pulling it." Although it never aired in the US, it did get some love in Europe, and its thirteen episodes debuted on DVD in 2006. Split Kit, Patty Putty, Elliot Mess and a few others are the stars here; every episode features the cretin kids getting into some sort of trouble, along with parodies of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, King Kong and Superman, pointless PSAs and fake commercials.
The Garbage Pail Kids are a great childhood memory of mine, and every now and again a friend will pick up a Screwy Dewey or Stair Casey card for me they’ve found and I’ll remember the scares these once kicked up; years before Beavis and Butthead, Family Guy and Robot Chicken have become mainstream fare. There’s talk about making another movie with CGI Garbage Pail Kids, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon. Let’s make a trash toast to the sick, twisted, gross, perverse, unhealthy and offensive little boys and girls who sprinkled the 1980s with their toxicity. Thanks for all the fun.