Tag Archives: 80s Nostalgia

8-Bit Christmas is the Fruitcake of 80s Nostalgia Novels…

This is the first year in a long time when I’m doing my best to get into the holiday spirit for the Christmas season. For a good portion of my life Halloween has basically been my “Christmas”, and for all intents and purposes the period between November 1st through to January 1st is usually a time when I duck my head down and try and run as fast as I can through the rest of the year trying my best not to knock down any family and friends along the way. It’s a mixture of being burnt out after celebrating a month-long Halloween, and trying to fend off the insanity that comes with trying to find the perfect gifts, visiting with a modern fractured family and trying my best not to go broke in the process. But this year? I’m going all out by letting go of my worries and embracing the holiday.

So I was pretty stoked when I was approached by DB Press to take a look at the first novel from scriptwriter Kevin Jakubowski titled 8-Bit Christmas. Being described as “…A Christmas Story for the Nintendo generation…” (by author James Frey), 8-Bit Christmas tells the story of one kid’s epic quest of Super Mario Bros. proportions to secure a NES for Christmas. Amidst flaming wreaths, speeding minivans, lost retainers, fake Santas, hot teachers, snotty sisters, “Super Bowl Shuffles” and one very naked Cabbage Patch Kid, Kevin’s book vividly weaves a nostalgic tale of Christmas magic and 8-bit glory. Honestly this book being touted as packed with 80s era Christmas nostalgia sounded like just what I needed to kick off my own attempt to embrace the holiday again.

8-bit christmas

First and foremost, 8-Bit Christmas delivers on the nostalgia. Set in the late 80s and centering on Jake Doyle, a nine year-old who covets a neighbor’s NES to the extent where it borders on single-minded stalker-level obsession, the book makes reference to practically every major pop culture aspects from the decade. The Super Bowl Shuffle, baseball card collecting, Showbiz pizza and the Rock-Afire Explosion, the Pizza Hut Book It program, KangaRoos zipper pocket shoes, Max Headroom, Members Only Jackets, Moon Boots, as well as a litany of bands, cartoons, movies, TV shows, and toys way too numerous to name. Karate Kid references? Yup, there’s more than the entire Cobra Kai can battle. Star Wars? G.I. Joe? Transformers? Go Bots? Strawberry Shortcake? Cabbage Patch Kids? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. Much like Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One before it, the novel is an outlet to celebrate all of the stuff we 30-Somethings loved so much about our 80s childhoods, and all of our hyper-collective shared experiences. If there’s one thing our generation does well, it’s bonding over the insane level of pop culture awareness and merchandising from that decade. Jakubowski does an admirable job of shoehorning in so many references, and touching on so many aspects of what it was like being a kid during that time that I’d be hard-pressed to imagine any rock he left unturned. Well, he does skip over the mentioning branded lunchboxes when comparing and contrasting packed lunches versus buying the hot tray at school. Is every reference accurate and researched? No. He fudges release dates (mentioning the Karate Kid cartoon as a favorite even though it didn’t debut until a year after the winter of ’88 when the book is set) and mashes together experiences (like listing cartoons that only aired during the after school animation blocks or on cable like Inspector Gadget, Transformers and G.I. Joe as Saturday Morning cartoons.) But when you consider the sheer volume of nostalgic references, nit picking the errors and decade blending is pretty pointless.

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Where the book sort of falls apart for me can be summed up by James Frey’s pull quote from above which evokes the film A Christmas Story; Jakubowski doesn’t just shoot for ACS‘s tone, he basically uses it as a point-for-point outline. Whether it’s aping the aged and slightly sarcastic narration of the main character reflecting on his youth, the plot device of a kid yearning for that one specific Christmas gift and then dealing with parents that basically tell him he’ll shoot his eye out with the NES Zapper, being forced to wear an item of goofy, girly clothing, reminiscing over the old man’s curmudgeonly ways, dealing with an annoying and whiny younger sibling, battling the town bully, or using the exact turn of phrases that seem uniquely in the voice of A Christmas Story, the book starts to feel a little hollow when you get past 80s homages. This is amp-ed up by a sort of ridiculous conceit that in 1988 only one kid in an entire Illinois county has a Nintendo Entertainment System, and only because his parents are filthy stinking rich. Having grown up in a decidedly middle class family with plenty of friends on both sides of the financial spectrum, I’m having a hard time remembering many kids who DIDN’T have an NES. Amp the story up even further with a Footloose-level county-wide ban on both owning AND selling Nintendo after the system is blamed for the accidental death of a yappy dog and all the reader is left being able to relate to is the plethora of 80s references. I think the problem lies with Jakubowski slavishly relying on A Christmas Story for inspiration. He riffs on Ralphie’s obsessive daydreams in that film as a jumping off point to tell Jake Doyle’s story, but forgets that with the exception of an all out attack by a pack of wild neighbor dogs on the family’s beloved turkey and an outlandishly sexualized leg lamp, that film is pretty firmly grounded in a very believable reality. 8-Bit Christmas has its head in the clouds and packs the book so full of wacky adventures in addition to Doyle’s Nintendo obsessed daydreams, that for me it was hard to relate to the story. As a film it would probably be easier to get behind, with only an hour and a half’s investment, but spending 8 or so hours reading a book it just sort of left me a little cold. It also doesn’t help that the singular obsession with obtaining an NES overshadows most if not all of the Christmas spirit in the book. I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say that instead of helping me get into the mood the book kind of reinforced a lot of insanity I’ve been trying to avoid for the past 15 years.

When all is said and done, even though the story didn’t resonate with me as much as I’d hoped, I can’t help but recommend 8-Bit Christmas purely on the richness of the 80s pop culture experience. There are enough obscure observations to balance the obvious references and that alone makes the book a worthwhile read.  It’s so literally heavy and densely packed, it’s like the fruitcake of 80s nostalgia novels…

My name is Walter Kellogg, Cereal Detective…

From time to time I find myself flipping through 30 year-old issues of various Mom magazines looking for inspiration and cool ads to scan for the site.  Over the past couple years I kept running across a series of ads for Kellogg’s Honey & Nut Corn Flakes that tugged at my mind, but I wasn’t quite sure why.  There’s nothing all that special about the ads except for a cartoon crow mascot (aptly named the Honey Nut Crow), but even he seemed more like the hillbilly cousin of Sonny the Cocoa Puffs bird and nothing that would really make for an interesting article on Branded.  Then out of the blue this past week I encountered the perfect storm of coincidences that finally led me back to those ads and a weird realization about how insanely complex and difficult the marketing of branded products must really be.

  

Let me back up a bit to 2010 and a free box of the newly launched Kellogg’s Crunchy Nut cereal that I received through Amazon Vine.  For those that don’t know, Amazon Vine is a goofy program where you can get early access to select products in exchange for reviewing them.  It’s mainly ARCs (advanced reading copies) of books, but from time to time there are DVDs, toys, and the occasional newly launched food item.  Basically the companies that publish or produce these products offer them to Amazon customers for free so that they can get product reviews (positive or negative.)  When I see food pop up I tend to grab it because I’m all for saving money on the grocery tab (and it’s hard to pass up free eats.)  I thought it was a little weird when the Crunchy Nut cereal popped up because I couldn’t imagine that cereal reviews on Amazon really make any sort of difference in the grand scheme of things.  Books and DVDs are one thing, but who stops while browsing the cereal aisle to look up reviews on the web, let alone Amazon?  Anyway, it was free, so I ordered it and ended up really loving the Crunchy Nut (it basically tastes like Cracker Jacks in cereal form.)

Though I really dug that cereal, it was way sweeter than the stuff I typically buy so I haven’t actually bought any more in the past two years.  This past week though, I was suckered into picking up another box as there was both an amazing sale on Kellogg’s ($2 a box), and if you bought two boxes of cereal you could get a free branded cereal bowl (from an in-store display), and I really wanted the entire set of four bowls.  Eight boxes of cereal and one embarrassing trip through the checkout line later I was the proud owner of four cheap character bowls and a couple boxes of Crunchy Nut flakes.  Later in the week I found myself inexplicably humming the commercial jingle to the extinct Nut & Honey Crunch cereal (I say inexplicably, but let’s be honest, this is the type of crap that is constantly floating around in my brain.)  Anyway, this all leads up to yesterday when I was flipping through some 1982 issues of McCall’s looking for something (I can’t even remember right now), and I came full circle back to one of those Kellogg’s Honey & Nut Corn Flakes ads featuring the Honey Nut Crow, and then all of a sudden it dawned on me that all three of these incidents were connected.  It was like that moment at the end of the Usual suspects, only I was flipping through a 30 year-old woman’s magazine while stuffing my face full of cereal…

I grabbed my copy of The Great American Cereal Book to confirm it, but was slightly devastated that there was no entry for Kellogg’s Honey & Nut Cornflakes.  There was an entry for Nut & Honey Crunch though, and listed as a bit of trivia was that the Honey Nut Crow was a former mascot associated with the cereal (though I don’t remember the Nut & Honey boxes ever featuring that character.)  I did a little digging on the internet this morning and sure enough, all of these cereals (Honey & Nut Corn Flakes, Nut & Honey Crunch, and Crunchy Nut cereal) are one and the same.  I’m pretty sure it was also marketed under the name Honey Crunch Corn Flakes (marketed with the Kellogg’s green rooster mascot.)  How could this one cereal keep popping up in my life under so many different circumstances?  And why did I never make the connection before?

It’s kind of hilarious when you look back over the cereal’s sordid merchandising timeline between its introduction in 1979 to today.  Whereas most cereals have stayed pretty consistent for decades, this one seems to be one hell of a hard sell to the public, even though it had a semi-successful ad campaign at one point (the “Nuttin’ Honey” commercials of the late 80s, early 90s for Nut & Honey Crunch.)  Why has the product been in need of re-branding no less than four times?  I mean, it’s nut and honey covered corn flakes?  How much simpler can you get?  I can see how the Honey Nut Crow was a misfire as he resembles Sonny the Cocoa Puffs bird a bit too much perhaps, but outside of that issue the tone of the marketing has been all over the map.  Initially the campaign focused on a “see it, hear it, taste it” motif (as seen in these two commercials from 1980.)  Then there are a series of commercials that tried to sell the cereal as “so good it needs to be stolen” (as seen in these two commercials from 1986 and 1989, as well as this British ad starring Hugh Laurie from 1985.)  In 1987 there seemed to be a pretty major fracturing of the ad campaign as it’s rebranded as both Crunchy Nut Corn Flakes (aimed at adults and placed in a black box, a food packaging no-no if there ever was one), and as the afore mentioned Nut & Honey Crunch (here are a couple more commercials from 1987.)  Then by the mid to late 90s it had been re-branded again, this time as Honey Crunch Corn Flakes (I guessing that nuts weren’t cool in the 90s after grunge rock hit.)  Now we’re back to the Crunchy Nut branding, though they’re dropped the Corn Flakes from the name.  Honestly, judging by their all-over-the-board advertising for the current branding I’m not convinced they know how to handle it even today (I mean, Inception and She-Males?!?)  Also, thank goodness for the archive of cereal commercials on youtube…

All of this leads me to the weird realization that in a way I’ve been able to taste the past.  When I first came across the old ads in the McCall’s magazine I was curious about what that cereal tasted like and was bummed that so many cereals have been retired by companies like Kellogg’s.  This was compounded by reading a tome like The Great American Cereal Book (filled with exciting extinct brands), and all the recent hoopla surrounding the bankruptcy of the Hostess company and thinking about the possibility of a product like the Twinkie disappearing from store shelves.  The idea that I wouldn’t be able to taste these things was sort of sad, but in realizing that some of these cereals still exist, just under different branding is sort of cool.  It’s like having a time machine for my mouth.  Anyway, I’m glad to have finally closed the book (the proverbial cereal book) on this flaky caper.  I’m going to call this one, The Case of the Honey Crow that Couldn’t Sell His Damn Cereal for Nuts…

Cartoon Commentary, taking a closer look at King Gorneesh from the Ewoks…

I’ve been on a kick lately going through my collection of ephemera and animation cels looking for my favorite stuff to pull out and frame.  I recently converted our office into the true Branded HQ and archive, and for the first time in 6 years there’s actually stuff on the walls besides action figures.  While sifting through my collection of cartoon cels, I came across this one of Gorneesh, King of the Duloks from the Ewoks cartoon, circa 1985…

I’m a pretty big fan of the design of these bumbling villains in the series.  There’s something about how they visually spar with the shorter, stubbier design of the Ewoks that really works for me. They’re taller, lanky, and much more slimy in appearance, yet they feel like they inhabit the same world I guess, specifically in the cartoon series (I have a hard time imagining them in the live action Star Wars world without them coming off like the Gungans from the prequels.)  Actually, now that I think about it, the Duloks were a sign of things to come in the overall Star Wars universe, design-wise, but I guess I can forgive a lot of their cartooniness when they’re in an actual cartoon.  Hell, there’s an episode of the series where the Duloks big scheme is to steal the fabled Ewok soap so they can take a bath and get rid of their ever present fly infestation!  Maybe it’s hypocritical of me, and I can accept that, though I think there’s a possibility of them being pulled off less like Jar Jar, and more like the characters in say Jabba’s Palace from Jedi if handled by the right creative team.  Hell, the Ewoks don’t come off nearly as cartoon-y in ROTJ as the Gungans so in TPM.

In particular, with King Gorneesh, I love the animal bone armor he was given, and think that the vertebrae headpiece doubling as a Mohawk was a brilliant flourish.  I also love that one of his ears has been scarred, along with his eye; makes the character design seem really imposing, even though he was sort of goofy in the cartoon.

 

I also loved the dark, dank, swamp the Duloks called home.  Again, it’s in drastic contrast to the Ewok’s village in the trees, and reminds me of the Legion of Doom’s hideout in the Super Friends cartoon

 

All in all, whenever I think about the Ewoks series, the first thing that comes to mind is King Gorneesh, as the Duloks were the most striking addition to the mythology that the cartoon introduced.  I remember seeing these Kenner figures on the pegs before I got a chance to see the cartoon and was in awe of a Star Wars villain I’d never been introduced to before.  It’s made the acquisition of the animation cel above one of my favorites too.

Now, if only the animated series would get a proper release on DVD instead of the horrible edit that already exists, I’d be a truly happy Ewoks fan…

The most powerful cake pans in the universe!

While cleaning up and organizing Branded HQ I found a handful of loose catalog pages that my good buddy HooveR sent me awhile back.  They were from the 1987 Wilton Yearbook of Cake Decorating, and featured their line of pop culture cartoon figural cake pans.  Since I’ve sort of been on a food-centric nostalgic kick of late I thought this would be the perfect thing to share.

Though I have plenty of memories seeing this style of cake pans in grocery stores back in the day, I was never treated to a cake baked in one during my childhood.  It’s not for lack of asking mind you, just that my mom wasn’t keen on that level of preparation and patience when it came to birthday cakes.  She always bought something at the store and put some special candles or action figures on my cakes.  There’s still a part of me that kind of wants to track one of these down and do it myself one of these days…

I’m not sure if it’s the date when the catalog was printed, or if Wilton didn’t have a huge licensing department, but I was kind of sad not to see any Transformers or Star Wars cake pans in the pages.  That being said, there are still some pretty cool franchises represented in sugar and flour, not the least of which are He-Man, General Hawk from G.I. Joe, Superman and Batman.  I love how these came with plastic faceplates so that some sort of recognizable figure would emerge from even the sloppiest cake decorator’s piping tip.  I also love that apparently Superman and Batman were more or less interchangeable when it comes to their cake-y bodies…

  

By far, the majority of the pans in this catalog were geared towards girls with Rainbow Brite, The Poppels, Cabbage Patch Kids, Care Bears, Barbie, and the Wuzzles represented.  Makes me feel like there should at least be a Thundercats cake pan in the mix, but again I’m not sure if it was licensing or when this was released.  Can you imagine the fun that would come from piping out Lion-O’s red frosting hair!

   

For all those curious about getting some pointers on just how to go about frosting one of these beauties, here’s a spotlight on the Snoopy and He-Man cakes…

The weirdest thing about these cakes for me is the extremely sharp and spiky nature inherent in this style of frosting a cake.  Granted, it makes it much easier to keep the colors from mixing, but it always seemed weirdly antagonistic to me.  Is it just me?

Is that Kraft Mac and Cheese under that pepperoni, or do you just want to die for dinner?

It’s been awhile since I dipped into my collection of old advertisements I clipped from my collection of 80s era Woman’s Day magazines, so I thought it would be fun to take a look at one of the crazier ads from 1983.  Alright, raise your hand if you’ve been to a Ci-Ci’s or Stevie-B’s pizza buffet.  C’mon, I know we’ve all tried it at least once, I mean quality aside, it’s the best damn pizza value in town.  Seriously though, for anyone who has eaten at one of these pizza buffets in the last 20 years you’ve probably noticed that they have all sorts of weird pizzas to please kids and parents alike.  Whether it’s the taco pizza (replacing the sauce with salsa and adding lettuce and sour cream as toppings) or the baked potato (sour cream sauce, topped with cheddar cheese and slices of baked potato), there’s usually some funky stuff to keep it interesting and as unhealthy as possible.  The craziest buffet pizza in my opinion is the Mac ‘n Cheese pizza which has a cheese-based sauce, pasta, and loads of extra cheese to boot.  Not only is it a little slice of heart-attack, but there’s enough carbohydrates in one slice to make the pickiest vegan into a diabetic.

Well, while flipping through a 1983 issue of Woman’s Day I found an ad that puts the Stevie-B’s pasta pizza to shame. How about a pizza where the crust is entirely made out of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese!?!

That’s right, who needs working arteries when you can taste the awe-inspiring scrumptiousness that must be a slice of pizza made entirely out of Mac ‘n Cheese!  I’m so tempted to make this monstrosity, but I’m not sure my mouth can withstand the insanity.  What were the ad reps at Kraft thinking when they came up with this idea?  I can only assume these are the same geniuses that convinced KFC that fried chicken would made an awesome substitute for bread in a sandwich.

So has anyone out there ever experienced this gastronomical indulgence?

Taking a look at the first season of the ThunderCats!

So I recently caught the first couple episodes of the newly relaunched ThunderCats cartoon and it got me in the mood to break out the first season of the original show on DVD and watch a bunch of episodes.  Sort of like the Transformers posts last month, I figured I’d run through a bunch of scenes and aspects that I found interesting.  Before I get to that though, I wanted to say that I’m enjoying this new series even though I think it’s making some very weird choices story-wise.  For the most part I really like the changes the writers have made to the back-story, picking a relate-able age for Lion-O, ignoring the Superman origin of escaping the destruction of Thundera, and introducing some familial ties to the characters; heck, even tying in Mumm-Ra to the legend of the Eye of Thundera feels like a move in the right direction of making sense of the enormous amount of ideas presented in the original series. T here are some odd aspects to the story though, that I feel just don’t work.

First, the concept of treating “technology” like magic, as if it were some mystical unknown fairytale, is just weird and goes against the logic of what technology is.  With magic, which is heavily prevalent in the world of the ThunderCats in both series, there is no real basis for why it works or exists because it’s completely fictional and a product of fantasy.  There’s no science or reason to it, it just is.  Technology on the other hand has its roots in reality, in the simplest of tools (levers, wheels and inclined planes), and even though a graphing calculator might be light years ahead of an abacus, it’s a natural progression of the concept.  Granted the tech introduced in the show is of a more advanced and alien design than what we currently have in the world, but it’s not to say it’s stuff that out of the realm of possibility.  It’s the science fiction aspect of the series.  So to treat technology as if it were a fairy tale, a part of fantasy, though interesting, just seems like a plot device full that’s at odds with itself by the very nature of the difference between science fiction and fantasy.

The other weird plot point is that at the end of the first episode we’re left with a group of ThunderCats that are more less seeking vengeance for the destruction of their kingdom and the murder of their people and king.  Don’t get me wrong, I love a good vengeance/revenge story, but I think it’s the wrong way to frame a story about heroes.  The Punisher, the Bride from Kill Bill, Lone Wolf and Cub; these characters aren’t heroes and are beyond redemption.  It’s a weird choice to frame the ThunderCats story with this sort of anger and intensity.  Not only does it possibly lead to unjustifiable actions by the “good” characters, it’s also hard to keep that intensity going over the course of an extended series.  Either every story has to tie into Mumm-Ra and the revolt of the Mutants, or there’s going to have to be a pretty darn good reason to stray from the path to have a stand alone story without it feeling like a waste of time.  The beauty of a lot of 80s era cartoons was that they were set up in such a way that you could go anywhere with the characters.

Well, anyway, that’s how the new show’s introduction came off to me.  Getting back to the original series and the point of this article though, first thing’s first, let’s get the naked cat out of the bag so to speak.  By that I mean…

Why were the ThunderCats freaking naked in the pilot episode!?!

I have absolutely no idea why Leonard Starr (the pilot’s writer) or the guys in charge of production on this series decided it would be a good idea to introduce the ThunderCats as a race of seriously naked cat people.  Not only are the characters naked, but they don’t even have any distinguishing genitalia.  They all have creepy Barbie Doll crotches and it’s just weird and disturbing.  I mean I know there is a history of anthropomorphized cartoon animals that aren’t wearing clothes (Porky Pig’s missing pants anyone), and I understand that there are plenty of mammals in nature that just have the fur on their backs, but this goes beyond that.  Way beyond that…

I mean there’s even a point where Jaga takes all the characters aside and gives them each magical clothing (and weapons) stating that “…on our planet you needed no protective clothing or special weaponry…”.  My question then is why is Jaga wearing clothes from the very beginning then?  I almost get the vibe that Jaga’s been traveling off-world or something, which he may very well have, but from a design standpoint it’s just really wonky.  Maybe it was the writer’s intent to showcase the characters getting fancy new uniforms, but then why not introduce them in some common bland tunics or something that they eventually change out of?

  

Honestly, it probably wouldn’t seem so weird if the character design on all the ThunderCats didn’t allude to the idea that their faces, chests and neither regions aren’t covered in fur. Or the fact that though naked, they’re all wearing boots.  It also doesn’t help seeing scenes with Kit and Kat, or a naked Cheetara waking up a very young, naked Lino-O.  Maybe it’s just me, but seeing naked women and adolescent young boys and girls in cartoons for kids is just wrong…

Speaking of weird decisions in the pilot episode, why did Lion-O grow to full adulthood while in the suspension capsule?

  

While preparing for the long journey to Third Earth the ThunderCats are ordered by Jaga to make the trip in a series of suspension capsules that will slow their aging and enable them to survive the trip.  He mentions offhand that some aging does occur, but when their ship crash lands on Third Earth Lion-O has grown to full adulthood and it’s treated like an anomaly.  What’s weird is that none of the other characters seem to have aged at all, including Wiley Kit and Kat who were roughly the same age as Lion-O.  Again, I have a feeling the writers and/or producers wanted the character to be like a child in a man’s body who has to learn to lead the ThunderCats, but their choice to age him up with no real reason was just weird.  How hard would it have been to write a quick segment that showed his capsule being damaged somehow?  I mentioned above that one of the cool aspects to 80s era cartoons was that they were usually set up in such a way that nothing was off the table.  The guys and gals who put this show together really took that to heart though, and these sorts of decisions, to age Lion-O, etc., really point to that freedom to try anything (even if it doesn’t make sense.)

I completely forgot that Wiley Kit and Kat were just as likely to shred some waves as the Autobots and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!

One of the first things that Panthro creates for Wiley Kit & Kat are surf/hover boards to give them a little bit more mobility and something to do.  Growing up in Florida it was really hard to not be inundated with the surf and skate culture of the 80s, but I’m not sure how other areas of the country reacted to it.  After moving up to New Hampshire at the end of 1989 I was shocked by the lack of T&C, Billabong, and Maui surf and skate T-shirts at school, and I even ran into some kids that didn’t know what surfing was.  Watching these cartoons though, it’s really weird to see the surfing trend popping up so often.  It makes me wonder how many of the other series feature it?

Sometimes, life REQUIRES arm wrestling!

  

In Episode 15, The Time Capsule, Lion-O is getting a bit depressed and home sick for Thundera.  At the same time he doesn’t remember all that much about it and Jaga appears to him and mentions that part of their ship’s cargo was a Time Capsule that contained the collective knowledge of Thundera.  The ThunderCats go on a quest to seek out the capsule and Lion-O eventually finds it in a cave, though it’s now apparently been claimed by a caveman that isn’t going to give it up without a fight.  Actually, he won’t give it up unless Lion-O beats him in the most macho of all manly contests, the arm wrestling match!  It’s like watch an animated version of Over the Top, just with no estranged children in military academy, eating cigars and drinking motor oil, or big rig trucks.

The last thing I wanted to bring up today is an aspect of the series that’s very close to my heart, the amazing amount of branding in the cartoon!

Not that long ago I met a guy though my day job that used to play with the Misfits back when the band was still coming together for the first time.  I have a Misfits messenger bag, and he noticed the Crimson Ghost Skull logo and we got to talking about how amazing it is that over thirty years later there are still kids picking up stuff stamped with that image.  Heck, though Jerry Only has been trying his damnedest to keep the band going, most people really only dig the original stuff when Danzig was a part of the band, and that’s been over for about 25 years.  Yet still, that iconic skull has power.  If there’s one thing that came out of the commercial design of the 70s and 80s, this type of powerfully iconic branding was it.  The Autobot and Decpticon symbols, the Ghostbusters logo, Pac-Man, the Atari Logo, the Nike Swoosh, and the ThunderCats logo are just a few of the hundreds of popular logos that are still around to this day.  This show really took this banding to heart and you can see it in almost every aspect of the design from the vehicles…

   

…to the castles…

   

…and even the villains. Mumm-Ra’s logo, though almost as iconic as the cat’s head logo, is actually the one aspect of this sort of branding in the show that was really underused.  I’m surprised, seeing as how Mumm-Ra is basically the leader of the Mutants, that they weren’t all sporting the entwined snakes on their outfits, vehicles and gear.  This is actually something addressed in the new series that I really loved.

In particular I love how the ThunderCats logo is worked into the stories of the various episodes because of the Sword of Omens.  Whenever Lion-O is in trouble he can call upon the other ThunderCats by reciting a chant (“Thunder, Thunder, Thunder, ThunderCats HOOOOOOO!”) and then holding the sword aloft.  It then projects the ThunderCats logo into the sky so that any member of the team within sight of the symbol will feel the call and come running…

So not only is the logo plastered on every building, vehicle, article of clothing, etc, it’s even an integral part of the narrative.  In my opinion this is hands down the most brilliant use of branding in a cartoon during the 80s.

Well, come back next week for part 2 of this article where I’ll be talking a look at some of the ThunderCats characters, the crazy designs, and more.

Move over TMNTs, The Transformers are going to Hang Ten!

So, picking up from where I left off last week when discussing some of the things that jumped out at me while re-watching the 1st season of the original Transformers cartoon, there were a lot of things that I didn’t remember from watching the show as a kid.  I really curious to see how the second season holds up to the first considering the franchise really caught on and became hugely popular between the two.  At some point I also need to go back and see how these first 16 episodes stack up against the Marvel comics.

Did you know that the Autobots can SURF!

Whereas a motif in the series is to introduce new characters with specific alt-modes that work in a specific environment (ala Jetfire to help give the Autobots flight capabilities or the Constructicons to enable the Decepticons to burrow under the Autobots base), sometimes this is thrown out the window because there are no toys to back up these needs.  In episode 13, “Revival”, part 3 of “The Ultimate Doom” mini series, the Autobots need to infiltrate the Decepticons new energy station from the sea.  Instead of building a boat or introducing a new character (Sea Spray was a year or so away from release), the Autobots instead decide to catch a tidal wave and secretly surf into the complex.  Hey, maybe skateboarding mutated giant turtles weren’t such a groundbreaking idea after all!?!

Did you know that Soundwave can read your mind?

   

In episode 5, “Roll For It”, we’re introduced to a new human, Chip Case, who is working in a laboratory with a scientist on an antimatter formula.  Of course Megatron wants to steal it as a means of producing energon cubes, and though he tried to out-smart those big evil bozos by memorizing the formula and destroying the only electronic copy, Chip Chase soon learns the folly of underestimating the Decepticons!  Again, another motif of the Transformers was for the writers to introduce new powers for each of the robots, but largely these were dictated by the plots and from a continuity standpoint didn’t make a whole lot of sense.  For instance, sometimes Optimus Prime’s antennae on his head can work as a long range communications device, yet other times when he’s stranded and needs help these aren’t utilized.  Hell, just consider his trailer which rounds out his vehicle form nicely, but then typically it disappears when he transforms (except the episode where he’s badly injured and Huffer helps out by hauling it back to their base.)

So when Megatron is confronted with Chip holding the antimatter formula hostage in his brain, he simply orders Soundwave to read the puny human’s un-evolved mind.  At first I thought Soundwave was going to utilize some sort of device, but then I was surprised to see him bend down and place his index fingers to Chip’s head, downloading all the pertinent aspects to the formula.  How utterly weird!

So Soundwave was a streetlight on Cybertron?!?

One of the cool aspects to the first episode, and something I’m really glad that the writers and story editors decided to include in the Transformers series was to highlight the Autobot and Decepticon’s alien natures by giving them different alt-modes before they come to Earth.  It isn’t until crashing on the planet and being awoken millions of years later that the Transformers get their iconic alternate modes (Teletran-1 is awakened and send out a satellite that scans various vehicles and items and then sends that data back to be reprogrammed into the Transformers.)  For instance, before becoming fighter jets, the Decepticon seekers Starscream, Thundercracker, and Skywarp have an interesting pyramidal alt-mode, referred to by the fans as Tetrajets…

These al-modes back on Cybertron were typically similar in nature to their eventual vehicles counterparts, with a couple weird exceptions.  Apparently on Cybertron Soundwave was a streetlight!  Granted, as far as spying on the enemy faction goes, this would be an awesome alt-mode, but with the playability factor in mind for the toys this would have been a nightmare.  Some of the characters were also somewhere in the middle of oddly alien and their new Earth counterpart.  Take Laserbeak for instance.  He seems like a weird flying disk, but also has the head of an avian…

   

Even though this concept was decently thought out by the writers, there was one major stumbling block that couldn’t be overcome (at least not without confusing the young target audience.)  Having an alien alt-mode is one thing, but what about the iconic appearance of the robot characters?  How would the kids know who is who if for instance Bumblebee is introduced in a robot mode that retains some of the parts of his Cybertronian alt-mode, and then changes after he’s programmed to convert into a VW Beetle on Earth?  Sure, he might still be yellow, but then so is Sunstreaker.  Nope, to circumvent any confusion and to keep the iconic designs of the robots intact Sunbow decided to keep aspects of the eventual Earth alt-modes on the characters.  So Bumblebee’s feet are still the front end of the VW Beetle, Optimus Prime still has the big rig front end on his chest, and Soundwave still has the playback buttons of a tape recorder on his chest…

So there was already a 2nd set of seekers, before the introduction of Dirge, Thrust, Ramjet?

In episode 6, “Divide and Conquer”, a group of Autobots travel over the spacebridge back to Cybertron in an attempt to find a crucial component to save Optimus Prime’s life.  While there Megatron orders three Decepticon seeker jets to attack them by causing an acid rain storm.  These seekers have mostly different color schemes than Starscream (red, white and blue), Thundercracker (mainly blue with red accents), and Skywarp (purple, grey and black), and are neon green, bright yellow and completely blue…

Though not named in the episode, these characters are dubbed the Rainmakers by fans (since they create the acid rain storm), and eventually some of them would get monikers.  The green one is named Acid Storm, and was released by Hasbro recently in their Transformers Classic line of toys.  The yellow one is technically unnamed by Hasbro, though there is a seeker jet named Sunstorm with similar coloring that some fans assume is this character.  I don’t believe the blue one was ever given a name or a back story.

So Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon swiped the overall plot MacGuffin from the original cartoon?

Yup, from the three part series “The Ultimate Doom”, episodes 11-13, Megatron conceives of a plan to conquer Earth by building the ultimate spacebride, large enough to reach through space and transport Cybertron into the planet’s orbit.  The idea is to capture the energy released by this cataclysmic cosmic disturbance and funnel it into Cybertron.  Part of this plan even involves setting up Pylons around the globe, all of which is part of the new big screen movie.  Personally I’m not a fan of these films, but it was interesting to see this plot point ripped out of the cartoon…

   

As a last bit of interesting trivia for the Transformers 1st season, I thought it would important to point out the level of action and violence.  Generally, when I think about the action cartoons of the 80s I tend to remember them having a whole lot of lasers with none of them actually finding any of their targets.  I mean there are running jokes about Cobra Troopers being horrible marksmen and then there’s the idea that the Decepticons must of have a lot of accuracy training between the end of the second season and the beginning of the ’86 film.  The fact of the matter is that there was a ton of violence in the 1st season of the Transformers and actually there are scenes that rival the movie for its gritty reality.  In episode 6 Optimus is hurt so badly in a fight that he’s on the verge of death.  This scene could have been ripped right out of the ’86 film, complete with him lying on an operating table with exposed inards and such…

The main difference between the movie and the 1st season is the finality of the violence.  No one dies in the series, not like in the film, but there are plenty of scenes that surprised me because of how gritty and action packed they were.  Just goes to show that the zeitgeist, though ever-present and affecting everyone, isn’t always accurate.

Taking a closer look at Season 1 of the Transformers…

I’ve spent the last five years building a library of cartoons on DVD and sometimes I fear that I get too caught up in acquiring new series and not spending nearly enough time actually sitting down and watching them.  Since it had been awhile, I decided to devote an entire afternoon of my recent vacation to planting myself on the couch and getting reacquainted with the first season of the Sunbow Transformers cartoon, a feat that I haven’t attempted since I was in middle school.  I’ve always been more apt to watch the 1986 film than the actual series that proceeded it, and over the years I’d forgotten how many of the little things that I loved about those first 16 episodes.  I thought I’d talk a bit about some of the highlights over the next week or so…

So, first things first, can the Autobots fly?

For some reason I was always under the impression that one of the things that separated the Autobots from the Decepticons was the enemy’s ability to fly, regardless if they had some sort of aircraft for their alternative mode.  In fact some of the most common scenes from the series are consist of a sky full of Decepticons either flying into the extended opening to their hidden sea base or while retreating from battle.  But the Autobots on the other hand seemed to very rarely take flight, and when they did it seemed to be limited to Sideswipe or Sunstreaker (the two flashy Lamborghinis of the team) who had jet packs.  That concept always made sense to me since the Autobots mainly consisted of cars and trucks while the Decepticons were an assemblage of jets, birds and insects.  If nothing else, the Decepticons alt modes are fashioned after war or spy-influenced devices and it kind of makes sense for them to have powers above and beyond the heroes.

So I was taken aback a bit by the first few episodes that showcase the entire Autobot team flying into battle.  This is the kind of storyline continuity debate that really brings the nerdiness out in the fandom, and honestly it’s something easily explained by the differences in cartoon writers ideas and how difficult it is to create a consistent set of rules and guidelines when creating a fictional universe.  I’m not sure whether flight was addressed in the Transformers series bible (developed by the story editors and show creators to help the writers keep the series consistent), but my guess would be that writers like George Arthur Bloom and Donald F. Glut wanted/needed the characters to fly for the scenes they were working on and so they didn’t hesitate in making that happen.  I can imagine it’s a pain to have to constantly flip through the bible while writing a script, and I doubt at the time that they were considering that people would be watching these episodes almost 30 years later.

Spike really wanted to blast some Deceptichops!

  

When the Decepticons come calling the Autobots are usually there to stand up and fight, but every so often they’re just too damaged or scared to carry on the fight.  That’s when it’s Spike’s time to shine, and these scenes usually involve him grabbing one of the Autobots oversized laser guns and then comedically hoofing it into battle.  There’s something really absurd about these scenes, and it’s not the huge blaster he’s toting and firing, but the fact that the Autobots let him get that involved in the battles.  This is the kind of weird logic-defying writing (employing a relatable vehicle character for the audience to feel connected to) that bugs me a bit about the cartoon, and honestly it’s one of the main things that keep me from enjoying the recent big screen adaptations.  I’m watching the Transformers to see giant robots square off, and all the human drama tends to get in the way.  Don’t get me wrong, it can be done well, just look at the original Japanese Godzilla film, but there are times when it’s just a bunch of whining and overly implausible situations that take me right out of the story.  I do have to admit that Spike’s passion to fight the good fight gets to me emotionally; I just wish it didn’t typically involve hefting a blaster that’s bigger than his own body…

Energon Cubes = the Flashiest MacGuffin ever!

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from re-watching these episodes it’s that Megatron wants his damn energon Cubes, and like right NOW!  Every single episode revolves around the Decepticon tyrant devising a plan to manufacture energon Cubes, be it stealing energy from a power plant, tapping into the Earth’s core, or utilizing an antimatter formula.  And in every single episode his plans are thwarted, the energon Cubes are destroyed, and it’s back to the drawing board.  What I never understood as a kid was why the Autobots weren’t on a similar quest to find the fuel they need to replenish themselves and to get them back home to Cybertron.  If energon is the fuel that these sentient robots need in order to survive, wouldn’t they all need it regardless of political stance or faction?

   

Regardless, I love how crazy and versatile these cubes are.  Typically created by Soundwave out of his tape-deck chest, the cubes are clear and empty until filled with some form of energy (from fire and lightning, to oil or ever the energy released by volcanos and natural disasters) after which they turn into a rainbow of flowing back-lit colors.  It’s one of the most stunning light and animation effects in the series, and it certainly helped to define and differentiate the look of the Transformers series from other syndicated action fare of the 80s.

Wait … Hauler?  I thought his name was Grapple, and he didn’t come until later!

One of the things that I was really curious about when re-watching these episodes were which characters appeared and when.  I’ve read in interviews with some of the Sunbow story editors that Hasbro wasn’t overly restrictive in terms of trying to match up characters that were on the toy shelves to those in the current episodes, but then again there was that idea to kill off the majority of the original Autobots and Decepticons for the ’86 film to make room for all the new movie characters on the toy shelves.  From what I can gather though, all of the characters present in the first season were part of the first two waves of toys from 1984-85, and most were from wave one.  The wave two exceptions were the Dinobots, Skyfire, the Insecticons and the Constructicons, all of which were special and more or less had specific origin stories.  Well, except for a character named Hauler who shows up in the first episode only in his alt mode.  What I find strange about this is that Hauler would later appear as the character Grapple both in the cartoon’s second season and in the second wave of toys.  I’m sure George Arthur Bloom, the writer for this episode, included the character in the script with no thought to the release schedule of the toyline, probably after seeing a variation of the toy or box art.  I always find these little mistakes in continuity interesting though…

Reflector, generic Decepticon clone or just as cool as Soundwave?

Finally I wanted to talk about another odd character from the first season that I feel never really got a fair shake, the Decepticon Reflector.  Though he, and by he I mean the three robots that speak in conjunction and make up “Reflector”, gets plenty of screen time in the first sixteen episodes, there’s something awfully generic about his character design that tends to keep him in the background.  I think a big part of this is that he is comprised of three robots that all look alike with the exception of the “main” bot who has different markings on his legs and has the lens of his alt mode camera on his chest.  Since repeated character designs are extremely common in the series (consider the Decepticon seeker jets Starscream, Skywarp, and Thundercracker or Ironhide and Ratchet), when you see a set that has the same color scheme and design it tends to make them feel like drones instead of main characters.  It also didn’t help that the character didn’t receive an American toy release until 1986, and even then only as a mail-away figure which made him even more rare.

  

I find that this kind of a shame because when you stop and think about it, Reflector is just as dynamic and interesting as Soundwave, but not nearly as popular.  Both characters are comprised of multiple robots (if you consider Soundwave’s arsenal of cassettes), both transform into common household electronics (camera/tape deck), and both are commissioned by Megatron to spy on the Autobots.  Soundwave does have a leg up in that his voice (provided by the ever awesome Frank Welker) is a bit more interesting and iconic.  I think in the pantheon of Transformers characters Reflector is the one that got the shortest shrift and probably deserves a nice Classics redeco toy to be released.

Next week I’ll discuss another handful of topics that struck me including the characters pre-Earth designs, some more interesting and weird powers, and a weird plot connection to the new summer blockbuster Transformers 3!

Easy Cheese Part Deux, I love the smell of cheese in the morning…

A couple weeks ago I wrote a piece taking a look at the general history of that crazy canned, pasteurized, spray cheese known as Easy Cheese (or Snack Mate circa 1966-1984 or so.)  Though I don’t remember when I first came into contact with this wonderfully odd product, I do know that there always seemed to be a can in our pantry.  Actually, now that I’m thinking about it, I don’t remember my mom ever really using it for snacks and meals, so I’m wondering why she always bought them?  Regardless, I have a lot of fond memories of artistically playing with Easy Cheese in the attempt at creating some sort of impressionist cheese masterpiece on top of a Ritz cracker canvas.  Years before Ritz Bits hit the shelves I was drawing happy faces on crackers, marveling at my work for a second, and then smashing down a second cracker to make a creamy cheese and cracker sandwich.  I also seem to remember also having contests with friends to see who could squirt the most cheese into our mouths without suffocating to death.

Looking back, even though Easy Cheese’s frilly decorative snazzy origins didn’t really stick around very long, it’s interesting to note that Nabisco was still trying to push the canned product as an important addition to any home cook’s pantry as late as 1981 with the release of the Quick’n Easy Ideas with Snack Mate cookbook…

Again, I learned about this cookbook from an old ad I found in Woman’s Day, and I couldn’t imagine writing an article on Easy Cheese without tracking down a copy of this tome to share on the site.  Luckily, I managed to find a copy being sold by an mom and pop cookbook website, and I quickly snatched it up hoping that there were a bounty of mind blowing canned cheese recipes between those 30 year-old covers.  After receiving it and cracking it open I was a little disappointed.  I should have seen it coming, but of the 62 “recipes” contained in this 18 page leaflet, almost every one can be condensed to the following phrase, “…and top with Snack Mate cheese.”  Hey, grab a Triscuit and top with Snack Mate cheese.  Hollow out a cherry tomato and top with Snack Mate cheese.  Boil 4 ears of corn and top with Snack Mate cheese.  The list goes on and on of the various stuff you can top with Snack Mate cheese.  I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, maybe a bunch of cheese sauce recipes or some actually cooking, but again, I should have seen it coming.  Actually, one of the most disappointing aspects is that there was no mention of anything like the Twinkie Weiner Sandwich (which I’ll get to below)…

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t some crazy stand-out ideas in this guide book.  In fact one of the weirder revelations was how often the Nabisco test kitchen urged the reader to mix the canned cheese with unlikely products like fresh fruit or desert items.  One reoccurring theme was mixing Snack Mate with canned pineapple, which is about as unappetizing a thought as I can muster, and I’ve eaten a Twinkie Weiner Sandwich (seriously, I’ll get to it in a minute…)  There are also a couple of recipes that call for squirting Easy Cheese on raisin bread, which is just wrong!

 

Well, even if Easy Cheese never really caught on as the home chef’s answer to amazing dinner party preparation, it has achieved a sort of cult status as a weird, truly American product.  I’m sure there are a ton of people who have dreamed about pulling out the little black stopper on the bottom of the can, but have held back because they feared that it would explode like a cheesy hand grenade.  I’d also bet that somewhere out there someone has coined a hilarious term for the hardened nub of excess cheese that forms on the nozzle between uses.  More importantly, Easy Cheese has popped up on the silver screen in a few classic films including the Blues Brothers…

  

Actually, the appearance in the Blues Brothers has kind of stirred up some weird controversy in the pasteurized cheese fan community (and if you through Trekies were nuts.)  Basically, there’s a scene with Jake and Elwood coming home to their apartment and there’s an old guy who stops them and says, “Where’s my Cheez Whiz, boy?”, after which Elwood (Dan Aykroyd) reaches into his pocket, pulls out a can of Snack Mate and tosses it to the geezer.  This one silly miscommunication has led to a belief that the king of pasteurized cheese products, Cheez Whiz, once came in a pressurized spray can.  I can’t disprove the rumor 100%, but I can say for a fact that the can in the movie is indeed a can of Nabisco Snack Mate and not Cheez Whiz.

Here’s the thing, in the zeitgeist of the year 1980 (when the film was released), the Cheez Whiz brand name was, and probably still is, the most recognized term for a pasteurized cheese product known to mankind.  It’s also 3,000% more funny than the phrase Snack Mate, and thus I’d guess that it won out in the wording of that joke (whether it was thought-out and scripted or if it was a spur of the moment ad-lib on set.)  Vice versa, the appearance and packaging of Snack Mate is 3,000% more iconic and side-splittingly hilarious than the Cheez Whiz bottle, not to mention more handy for keeping in one’s pocket and much easier to throw without hurting anyone.  So just by breaking down the logic, I’d have to say that it was an unfortunate amalgamation that gave birth to a rumor that honestly no one really cares about.  Except me.  And this guy.

Another notable appearance of Easy Cheese on the silver screen was in an animated form in a couple of scenes in the Goofy Movie…

  

One of the side characters, Bobby Zimmeruski (voiced by Pauley Shore), was a bona fide cheese-a-holic who can be seen making his own Easy Cheese art and eating the product by the can-full.  A special thanks goes out to Devin who helped me find this scene…

Personally, the most classic and famous appearance of Easy Cheese on the big screen was during one of my favorite all time flicks, Weird Al Yankovic’s UHF!  It’s in this wondrous film that I was introduced to the majesty that is the Twinkie Weiner Sandwich.  After losing yet another menial job, George Newman (Weird Al) tries to cheer up his best friend Bob by making him one of these legendary sandwiches.

Step one, cut a slit down the center of an upside-down Twinkie, taking care not to cut all the way though the cake.  Step two, place a standard hot dog wiener, fresh from the package, inside the slit…

   

Step three, apply a liberal amount of Easy Cheese on top of the hot dog.  Step four, dunk the sandwich in a mug of milk, and enjoy!

   

Actually, there should be a step five, which would consist of making a second sandwich and giving it to a friend…

   

Weird Al mentioned on the commentary track that he probably ended up eating 7-8 of these sandwiches to get the iconic sequence on film.  He even enjoys one of these amazing wonders of culinary delight from time to time, though he’s a vegetarian these days and substitutes the hot dog for a tofu dog.

No article on Easy Cheese would be complete without making my own Twinkie Weiner Sandwich, which is what I did this past weekend with the wife.  I decided to change mine up a bit as I’m not a big fan of eating cold, unprepared hot dogs, so we broiled ours first.  We also went with a more New York deli style hot dog as we generally prefer them to the standard Oscar Meyer wieners.  The resulting TWS was no where near as pretty as Al’s was in the film, but they were still a sight to behold…

So how did it taste you might be asking?  Well, it was both unlike anything I’ve ever eaten, and not nearly as bad as the description makes them out to be.  Actually, it reminded me a lot of eating sweet northern cornbread with barbeque.  The Twinkie was an adequate replacement for a bun, though there was an unfortunate side effect of broiling the hot dogs that we weren’t prepared for which resulted in the Twinkie basically melting and falling apart halfway through the sandwich.  On the upside though, the heat from the dog made the filling inside the Twinkie taste like toasted marshmallow.  The final verdict?  Eating a Twinkie Weiner Sandwich is a lot like what I expect eating one of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man’s fingers might taste like.  Meaty, sweet, and full of unholy rage!  But more important, the Easy Cheese tied the whole thing together…

Before this cheese was Easy it was the perfect Snack Mate!

A couple weeks ago I was in a rush during the morning routine.  For some reason it seemed like I had two hundred things to do before running out the door to go to work, and right when I thought I’d finished everything, I remembered that I’d intended on updating Branded with a quick post during lunch.  What was I going to write about though?  There was nothing on the hopper and I didn’t have time to sit down and get a bunch of screen caps from a cartoon, so I quickly ran into out home office and grabbed a magazine advertisement blindly from a stack on my desk and stuffed it into my bag.  Problem solved, or so I thought.  When I got to work and got a second to catch my breath I pulled out the ad to see what I’d ended up with.  It was an ad for Nabisco Snack Mate, the spray cheese we know as Kraft Easy Cheese these days, from a 1981 issue of Woman’s Day.  I’d originally torn it out because I thought the artwork on all the little cheesy hors d’oeuvres was fun and it made for a striking image overall.

So I scanned the ad on my lunch break and got ready to fire off a few short thoughts about Easy Cheese when I noticed the small section at the bottom that featured a mail-away Snack Mate cookbook.  How weird I thought, that a culinary product this mocked and reviled had an entire cookbook dedicated to it.  I took a second to try and postulate what sort of interesting concoctions one would come up with that included spray cheese.  Then a scene from Weird Al Yankovic’s UHF popped into my head, the one where his character George and his friend Bob both get fired from their umpteenth lackluster job and in trying to cheer Bob up, George makes him the heartburn-inducing delight known as a Twinkie Wiener Sandwich!  I figured there was no way something that crazy was in the mail-away cookbook, but I couldn’t help but wonder what was in that book.

Before I knew it my lunch was over, I hadn’t eaten a thing, and I suddenly realized that this quick post for the site wasn’t going to happen without some more research.  I felt I needed to get some screenshots of Weird Al building a Twinkie Wiener Dog for starters, but if I was going to mention that, it seemed only natural to mention some other theatrical appearances of Easy Cheese.  Since I was digging that deep I figured I might as well go a bit farther and track down some other Snack Mate ads, as well as trying to figure out where this amazing cheese innovation got its start.  Most importantly I needed to get my hands on a copy of that cookbook!  By the end of the day I’d put the wheels in motion to do just that.

Today I’m just going to concentrate on the history. In addition to the ad I found (at the top of the article), I managed to locate a few more that date back to the introduction of this pressurized pseudo-dairy treat which was introduced sometime in 1966.  The oldest ad I was able to track down is from a 1967 issue of Life magazine and features three of the four original flavors, American, Cheddar, and Pimento (Nabisco also offered the cheese in a Swiss variety.)  From what I gather the canned spray cheese phenomenon began as an affordable and easy way for families to prepare nicely plated and pretty hors d’oeuvres for dinner parties.  Burgeoning household gourmands were popping up everywhere in the 60s, and Nabisco wanted a piece of that action, as well as creating a product that would require purchasing their mainstay line of snack crackers.  Design-wise, I actually think the decision to include the frosting-esque applicator tip was a stroke of genius and it beats the hell out of melting your own cheese and trying to scoop it into and dispense it from a piping bag.

It’s also interesting to note the difference between what was considered pretty and chic (in food presentation) back in 1966 versus what we typically think of today.  Plating was a lot more architectural or sculptural in nature 55 years ago, and the idea of building up a cracker with mounds of immaculately sliced olives (pimento included), lump crab meat, and a heaping yet frilly helping of creamy processed cheese so that it looked like a work of modern art was the goal.  If watching 7 billion food-centric shows on TV has taught me nothing else, today’s presentation is more about simplicity and sparseness.  I’m betting the Easy Cheese (which, let’s face it, would never make it to the plate unless we’re watching an episode of Chopped) would be applied in a single dollop only to be smeared in a pleasing arc along side a crisscrossed stack of two grilled baguette croutons over a bead of lightly blanched asparagus.  Or something like that.

I think by 1969 the idea of using pasteurized, processed cheese in a can for froufrou parties wasn’t catching on and as you can see in the next advertisement Nabisco was having a little more fun with dressing up their crackers.  Now the user was encouraged to make cheesy smiley faces, more along the lines of pleasing one’s family instead of guests.  We also get to see a new option of cheese, French Onion.  Also notice that in the line-up of cracker options there is still a Nabisco bacon variety.  I remember eating these, or something similar, as a kid and marveling at the baked-in bacon bits.  In today’s salty-pork belly obsessed world, I’m surprised these haven’t made a comeback.  I mean Chicken in a Biskit crackers are still around, why not Bacon in a Biskit.  I wonder if that rings too much with a dog treat sort of feel?

The only Snack Mate ad I could locate from the 70s was this next one featuring a much more robust line of spray cheese varieties.  Unfortunately I can’t make out the new varieties, though it looks like one might be a Swiss/American blend.

By the 2000′s I know there were at least seven more varieties introduced including Nacho Cheese, Pizza, Shrimp Cocktail, Bacon, Sharp Cheddar, Roasted Garlic and Philly Cream Cheese.  The product was also known as Snack Mate up until the 80s when Kraft Foods bought Nabisco and rebranded the product as Kraft Easy Cheese.  Today there are only four varieties offered, Sharp and regular Cheddar, American and Bacon flavored.  I’m also kind of bummed out in that the Bacon option has changed over time.  From what I remember in the 80s, there were actual bacon bits mixed in with the cheese as opposed to today where there is just a smoky bacon flavor added to the cheese.  I’m sure it’s cheaper to produce, but it’s kind of a letdown.

Next week I’m hopefully going to have part two of this crazy article up featuring some of my own memories of the product, the various cinematic appearances of Snack Mate/Easy Cheese, as well as a the 1981 cookbook, and a bit of fun with the Twinkie Wiener Sandwich!