Intermission: 1990 Warner Bros. Collection Catalogs

I concluded last week that Perfect Strangers, in its attempts to recapture the feeling of an I Love Lucy highlight reel, was constantly being pulled in two directions as it tried to navigate a successful path through the media landscape.

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*ahem*

It was gearing its stories increasingly towards children, but didn’t have the benefit of any child characters. And at this point, I think its star was waning in comparison to other TGIF programs. I’m basing this entirely on programming changes, by the way. Perfect Strangers started out at the beginning of the TGIF programming block, was soon placed after Full House, and most recently wound up in the third spot, after Family Matters.

Both of those shows were wildly successful with children–and both had plenty of merchandise. Just a quick glance at Google Images shows me that Full House had dolls, a board game, a Tiger handheld game, and book tie-ins. I remember seeing the Michelle books in Wal-Mart for a few years after the show had gone off the air, but god damn god damn that series lasted until 2001, a full six years after the series finale!

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And if you’re near my age (32), I’m guessing there’s a 75% you had some piece of Urkel merchandise. Steve Urkel was a hot commodity then (the kid had his own logo!), and what I can find on eBay backs that up. I myself owned a talking doll and a “novelization” of a couple of episodes, but kids could also beg their parents for Urkel cereal, an Urkel Colorforms set, an Urkel lunchbox, and Urkel Magic Slate… hell, if you ever need proof of merchandising overreach, look no further than Urkel Fashion Plates:

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I think it’s fair to say that not only were these individual shows popular, but that TGIF itself was a powerhouse of programming. It sure felt like it at the time, anyway.

But what about Perfect Strangers? From what we learned in the season 5 reportage a couple of weeks ago, it sounds like ABC had decided that the show would run for only two more seasons. In the meantime, though, it was surely still popular with some percentage of the audience that showed up for Full House and Family Matters.

Whether because of that percentage being too much smaller, Perfect Strangers not having child characters, or maybe just due to the fact that it cost too much to repaint old Bert & Ernie toys, Perfect Strangers merchandise is almost non-existent. Try searching for it on eBay, and once you’ve sifted through the numerous record albums, romance novels, and movies with the same title, you’ll find the season 1 & 2 DVDs, some promotional photos, the occasional TV Guide, maybe some buttons, and if you’re lucky, an authentic copy of a script. (Now, there were also TGIF trading cards, and I do plan to review those between seasons 6 and 7 since they came out in 1991. But I also need a good easy filler post this week since I start my new job today.)

And it’s not like it would be terribly hard to come up with ideas for products. I can imagine that, with a little more popularity, we might have seen a talking Balki doll; though whether a tiny tape could have held his 68 catchphrases is another question. Perhaps a compilation album of Balki singing full versions (or parodies) of the songs featured on the show.* Or a board game for four players, but designed so that Jennifer and Mary Anne lose in the first few turns. I even asked the members of the Perfect Strangers Facebook group what Perfect Strangers merchandise they wished existed, and the most common answer was a Dmitri doll. And yeah, why the fuck didn’t that exist? I mean, what child wouldn’t want a featureless, dull, grey plush toy to end up buried in the toybox underneath Teddy Ruxpin?

One of the other things that came up in the Facebook group discussion was the Warner Bros. Store catalogs. From what I understand, there were three different catalogs featuring Perfect Strangers merchandise. I purchased two from sellers on eBay; I don’t think I’ll bother with the third since a lot of the stuff is repeated between the two catalogs.  I’m not going to differentiate which pages are from which catalog, because fuck you, it’s too much trouble. Let’s just hit the highlights. Here are the covers for the Summer 1990 and Fall 1990 Warner Bros Collection catalogs:

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There appear to be different covers for each of these editions. I bought that specific Fall 1990 copy because of the Nothing But Trouble photos on the cover, and I can’t express just how disappointed I was that there wasn’t any corresponding merchandise inside. I love that movie and I will personally kick the groin of anyone who feels differently.

These catalogs are strange cultural artifacts in and of themselves.  When I think of Warner Bros, I think primarily of their movies and Looney Tunes.  And, no doubt, much of what these catalogs sell is memorabilia related to whatever new movies they’d just released.  Batman, Beetlejuice, Gremlins 2: The New Batch all show up here, as well as posters for other, non-blockbuster films. And for someone like me who grew up with these films, these catalog pages are not only a fun way to nostalgize, but also allow me to get the scoop on these Gremlins 2 shirts before Dinosaur Dracula does.

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Jesus, even Beetlejuice, a character who says “fuck” and “shit”, got his own talking doll! Since these catalogs are pushing 30 years old, the pricing information was only so much white noise until I hit the Beetlejuice pages. I had all of these Beetlejuice action figures, and I promise you they would not have cost $8 at Kmart (it was probably more like $4).

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And much of both catalogs is given over to Looney Tunes merchandise.  1990 was the 50th anniversary of the creation of Bugs Bunny, so there are plenty of items related to that. In fact, the weirdest thing you could buy from either one of these catalogs was an actual carrot cake. Even if there weren’t a chocolate bar on top of it that you’d have to remove before you cut it, the logistics of this baffle me. Would Warner Bros. coordinate with a local bakery? What if you lived 100 miles from the nearest one? Who thought that people would want to eat Bugs’s favorite cake in honor of his 50th “birthday”? And, most importantly: what the fuck?

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I said that these were strange artifacts, and once you get past the overpriced movie memorabilia and the Bug Bunny adult diapers, you can see why.  Many of the products are simply clothes or household items with the WB logo slapped on it. Sure, I mean, if you want to get a Warner Bros director’s chair to make yourself look important and official or whatever, I guess I get it.  But a WB robe? a WB rhinestone pin? Who is this for? We’re all products of the society we live in, and unless your mother was like Bronson’s and shielded you from the Beatles, popular culture is a major part of your experience. I wore shirts featuring South Park characters when I was in middle school.  Some people relate personally to television characters, or to the philosophy of a movie, or may wear a t-shirt to signal membership in the fanbase to other fans. But who’s burning a candle for motherfucking Warner Bros.? That’s like being a fan of the novel Fight Club, but instead of getting a tattoo that says “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything”, you get one that says “W. W. Norton & Company”.

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Oh, by the way, that’s Brooke Theiss from Just the Ten of Us, another TGIF show that I’ve barely mentioned on this blog.  An interesting part of these catalogs is that they feature actors who were in recent Warner Bros. productions. I’m sure Warner Bros. had fuckall to do with his book Winters’ Tales, but the best I can figure is that they got him to do drag because he had done some voices for Tiny Toon Adventures.

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And I have to assume that “Weird Al” Yankovic and his then-girlfriend Victoria Jackson are here because they were in UHF the previous year (Warner Bros. appears to have had a stake in Orion Pictures), because otherwise it feels like a stretch.

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Many of the other “models” in these catalogs are sitcom personalities. Some of them are from Warner Bros. shows like Night Court and China Beach and how in the fuck did Bull get a doll and not Balki?

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I know, I know, I’m 1400 words in and I still haven’t shown you any Perfect Strangers merchandise. I’m just wanting to savor what an incredibly odd mix of properties these catalogs feature. Who could resist sharing the ad copy for this 6-foot inflatable Gumby? “America’s favorite pliable playmate grows up–when you blow him….”

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And how can I miss an opportunity to point out a company not even getting its own properties correct? The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Hour stopped airing in 1978; we saw in the Saturday Morning Preview that it was The Bugs Bunny and Tweety Show by then.

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By the time the first season of Family Matters was finished, Urkel was already the biggest star, eclipsing the four main children. Jaleel White shows up a couple of times, but Darius McCreary only once and I was going to joke about how they didn’t get Darius to look in quite the right direction but my fucking god a clapperboard calculator???

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You know how, in The Fountainhead, Steven Mallory shoots Ellsworth Monkton Toohey after reading his writing? In a very similar way, that clapperboard calculator makes me want to shoot myself.

But yes, finally we’re getting to the TGIF shows. Lorimar, which produced Family Matters, Full House, and Perfect Strangers, was a subsidiary of Warner Bros.  In some cases, the actors are again shilling Warner Bros. clothes that are guaranteed to have been stitched by genuine Asian children’s hands…

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…or in others, staring off into various distances pretending that they’re interacting with something…

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…or in others, trying to hide creeping unease of being one step away from physically branded by the show they star in.

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I posted the above page to Billy Superstar’s Facebook wall, and his response was, simply, “Ugh!”. The two Full House designs are obvious hack jobs that look like someone just traced over some photographs. As hideous as they are, though, I bet that fanny pack could bring at least $100 on eBay and holy fucking shit Michelle’s fucking pig doll got made and not Dmitri? Shit.

Anyway, here’s John Stamos’s butt doing its best George Michael impersonation.

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And there’s Melanie Wilson in an outfit with as much personality as Jennifer. The ad copy on these is ridiculous, but I am willing to believe that Melanie has time to change “between takes of ‘Perfect Strangers'” since for her, they were generally a week apart.

Here’s Uncle Jesse’s butt again:

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One thing I didn’t anticipate when I started this blog was that I’d develop a huge crush on one of the actors. Rebeca Arthur can make anything look cute. Also, haha, Mary Anne is so dumb she thought XL was short for “excellent” but oh my godddd that dumbass lamp it should be a projector for chrissakes jesus god shitcakes

Here she is not quite looking at Daffy Duck:

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Mark Linn-Baker looks like he feels a little shy showing off his butt, trying to read your eyes because he wants so bad for you to like it. Anyway, here we are, finally, at the actual Perfect Strangers merchandise.

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I like to think that I’m a decent person who owns up to his mistakes when they’re called out.  I’m also the kind of person who likes to blow my own Mypos sheep horn when I do it so everyone will know what a decent person I am. Thanks to these catalogs, I now know that the official spelling of Balki’s sheep doll is Dimitri.  And I’ll put aside my complaint that the Dimitri on these outfits looks nothing like the doll on the show because–unlike the aforementioned Full House shit–someone spent some time on the art.

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I’ve got to say, though, these products make sense from a certain standpoint. Whoever was in charge of choosing these items appears to have made their decisions on the basis that Perfect Strangers had only adult actors, and must have adult fans.  Full House got a backpack and a plush pig, Perfect Strangers gets mugs. And for this type of catalog, where most of the items were clothing or household items already, these seem logical enough. Virtually everyone drinks coffee or tea and wears a t-shirt; and Perfect Strangers was coming on at 9 back then, so nightshirts make sense as well.  I’ll give the “Club Mypos” jackets and sweats some credit for being a clever play on–I assume–a trend in fashion back then to show off what “club” you were a member of. And fandom is a kind of club already. But that’s about as far as I think you could stretch the property. “Dimitri’s Cafe”, though, is stretching Perfect Strangers to goatse levels. I mean, Balki cooks, like, three times a season or something? And the show has never associated Dimitri with cooking.  And, with so many items in this catalog, I have to wonder at who the apron and oven mitt were for.

I’m working without a lot of the context here–like what the distribution of Warner Bros. Collection catalogs was, or how you’d even find out it existed and get on their mailing list, or whether these items were advertised/sold at tapings of Perfect Strangers and other shows. But it certainly seems to be one of those types of catalogs for people with lots of money to throw around who’s probably to busy being rich to set foot in a Wal-Mart; or at the very least for major Looney Tunes fanatics, but again, that assumes some level of expendable income. And the Warner Bros. Studio Stores wouldn’t open up until 1991.  I’m guessing that there was only a tiny, likely self-selected group of consumers being exposed to these items to begin with, and then one of them would just coincidentally have to be a big enough Perfect Strangers fan to buy the stuff.

A lot of brands try to sell a lifestyle, even if they don’t sell the accoutrements for it. I mean, imagine how a Playboy reader (say, circa 1977) was supposed to drink and dress and drive. Marlboro sells the idea of being a rugged cowboy, even if they don’t produce leather chaps. I don’t think the Warner Bros. Collection catalog, as a whole, is selling a lifestyle, but the apron kind of feels like it’s trying to.  Somehow an apron feels like a much more major commitment to being a fan than just a coffee mug.  From what I understand, the “Kiss the Cook” aprons first appeared in the 1950s, and then became more widespread in the 80s. I think it’s safe to say that a person’s choice of cooking apron is not only a statement that they think they’re a regular enough or good enough cook to get use out of one, but also an indicator of the sense of humor they’d like to project.  But the problem I have with Dimitri’s Diner is that–in my opinion, at least–funny aprons ought to be pretty accessible to a wide array of people that will see you in it.  I could imagine a young adult couple being big enough Perfect Strangers fans that the apron could be one of those little relationship in-jokes (I’ve heard those exist, anyway). But at a party or a cookout? The person wearing this apron would have to explain to every single person individually what the hell the apron is supposed to be about.

I think what I’m trying to say here is that probably only three people bought one of these damn things, and only one of those three ever used it, at one cookout, and then shamefully shoved it deep into a closet behind their embarrassing skin mags.

But seriously, though, if that “I Spent the Night With Perfect Strangers” shirt shows up on eBay, I’m buying it. Not because I love this show, but because I want to imply to women that I have had sex with Bronson and Mark.

I hope you enjoyed this look at a very niche, very 1990 catalog which had almost nothing to do with Perfect Strangers.

Join me next week when we’ll start Season 6!

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You thought I was done? I ain’t never done. Time for cross-promotion!

I made vague mention of having had a shitty year last week. You may have as well. Other than starting a new job, the Noiseless Chatter Xmas Bash! is the event I’ve been most anticipating all year long.  A bunch of us get together on Livestream and watch some shitty old TV Christmas specials and curse at them (and each other) in the chat. It’s been the best night of the year for me for three years running now.  This year the Bash! is happening on December 8, one week from now! You can get all the details about the event at Noiseless Chatter. Come join us!

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5 thoughts on “Intermission: 1990 Warner Bros. Collection Catalogs

  1. Okay, so here’s the convoluted way I think I got added to the Disney Catalog mailing list back in the day: they sent it unsolicited to people who bought Bradford Exchange collectibles featuring those characters. And I bought hella Bradford Exchange Disney plates with babysitting money. Where does one get hooked up with Bradford Exchange? Everywhere. They advertise in every magazine ever created. And that’s how you find your niche collectible buyer pre-internet. Someone out there was so stoked to buy that clapper calculator.

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  2. Also! “Handbook for the Recently Deceased”… DUSTJACKET? Get the fuck out of here. You own a property, just hire a ghost writer to write down the parts already covered in the movie, then fill in the blanks. Write the damn book and call it offical licensed merch. It’s a little book, not Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Don’t be cheap, WB.

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  3. I’m pretty sure I had that Little Shop of Horrors bank.

    And I am so torn between wanting those Perfect Strangers mugs because I collect mugs, and knowing that they are both (a) kinda ugly and (2) probably an obscene amount of money these days.

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