Over the years… decades… a century or so, really.. countless cartoons and animated series have come and gone. Some came and went faster than others, never quite finding an audience, and thus quickly being cancelled. In some cases, mercifully so. (Looking at you, Turbo-Teen!) There are also the numerous projects that never even made it to air, but that topic alone could fill a year’s worth of posts.
In a few highly unfortunate (and usually poorly planned) instances, these failed series also spawn unsuccessful toy lines and/or generally dismissed (if not completely shelved) video games. Actually, disregard that last part. There are tons of video games based on unsuccessful cartoons. Did anyone here play El Tigre for Playstation 2, Family Dog for the Super Nintendo, or The Secret Saturdays (you can pick a number of consoles for that turd)? No! Of course you didn’t!
One such failed animated series is Toonsylvania, which debuted on the now-defunct Fox Kids Network on February 7th, 1998. Executive produced by none other than Steven Spielberg, Toonsylvania would serve as the flagship animated series from the newly founded Dreamworks Animation, which was formed by former team members of Spielberg’s own Amblin Entertainment’s animation branch.
Toonsylvania was developed by Bill Kopp and Jeff DeGrandis. Kopp had previously co-created the cult-favorite, Eek! the Cat, with Savage Steve Holland (Better Off Dead, One Crazy Summer), which aired on Fox from 1992 -1997. DeGrandis, meanwhile, had worked on Animaniacs for Fox, as well as the 1992 film, Stay Tuned! He’d later serve as a producer on Dora the Explorer, which is nowhere near as cool as his previous credits.
Each episode, or at least each episode of the first season, of Toonsylvania was comprised of 5 segments. The opening segment of the first season’s episodes was the “Frankenstein” segment, which featured the show’s “star” characters: Brilliant (but mad) scientist Dr. Vic Frankenstein (voiced by the always entertaining David Warner – The Omen, Time Bandits), the hunchbacked assistant Igor (Wayne Knight – Jurassic Park, Seinfeld‘s “Newman”), and dim-witted, but well-meaning monster, Phil (voiced by Brad Garrett, who was just finding stardom as “Robert” on CBS’s Everybody Loves Raymond). These segments usually featured Igor’s failing attempts to create something that will surpass his master’s brilliance, with Phil his unwilling/unwitting assistant/guinea pig.
This was followed by the “Remote Control” segment. These were brief bits in which Igor and Phil would attempt to change the channel on their television set via remote control, only for something to go comically wrong each and every time.
Next was the “Night of the Living Fred” segment, created by Mike Peters. Peters is best known for the long-running newspaper comic, “Mother Goose and Grimm”. The “Night of the Living Fred” segment focused on the Deadman’s, a friendly family of zombies who want nothing more than to fit in with those around them. The segments notably featured the voice work of Billy West (Ren & Stimpy, Futurama) as the son, Fred, and “Max Headroom” himself, Matt Frewer (The Stand, The Lawnmower Man 2) as the patriarch of the clan, Deadgar. Personally, I generally find these segments to be the finest moments of Toonsylvania‘s short lifespan, and wouldn’t have objected to seeing it spin-off into its own series.
This is followed by “Igor’s Science Minute”. These segments feature Igor attempting to give various scientific demonstrations. Much like “Remote Control” before it, these segments are quite brief and always end in disaster. It’s worth noting, though, that the general premise of both the “Remote Control” and “Igor’s Science Minute” segments really aren’t all that far removed from the longer “Frankenstein” portion of the program.
Episodes of Toonsylvania would close out with “Melissa Screech’s Morbid Morals”, wherein Igor tells Phil various moral tales featuring one Melissa Screech, a young girl who would always pay the price for not heeding the advise of elders… namely her parents. The voice of “Melissa” was provided by Nancy Cartwright, who is best known as the voice of Bart Simpson. Cartwright also provides the voice for schoolyard bully “Nelson” on “The Simpsons“…. which is the exact same voice that she uses for Melissa Screech! While I really don’t mean to come off as disrespectful, it almost seems lazy. For me, these segments are by far the series’ weak point. I find Melissa’s surname to be quite apt, as, for me, her presence brings the show to a screeching halt.
Toy Line and Promotions
In order to help promote what many had hoped would be a highly successful franchise to kickstart Dreamworks animation endeavors, a Toonsylvania toy line was created by Pangea Corporation, the creative team behind the original cartoon series and toyline for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, as well as cartoons and toys based on The Coneheads, Dragon Ball Z, Biker Mice from Mars, the New Kids on the Block, and more. The Toonsylvania toy line was distributed by a company called Toy Island, who also released a few Sonic the Hedgehog toy lines.
The Toonsylvania toyline can be divided into 4 sections. We’ll start with the “Monster Muck Collection”, which featured figures of the show’s 3 primary “mascot” characters: Dr. Vic, Igor, and Phil. Also produced were figures for Melissa Screech, as well as the “Baby Human”, a re-occuring character spawned from one of Igor’s failed experiments. As the series did showcase horror themes and elements, and as gross-out toys were still highly popular in the late-1990s, each figure came with a packet of colored sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) that, when inserted into the figure and mixed with water, re-created various bodily functions and other similarly disturbing side-effects. This includes the fizz of Dr. Vic’s Cranium Colander, Igor’s foamy acid reflux, or Baby’s Human’s overflowing diaper!
The second set of Toonsylvania toys are called the “Psycho Screamers Collection”. These battery-operated toys, only available in the 3 “mascot” characters, were essentially water squirters with a mechanism built in that emitted a loud scream every time it was discharged. In addition to the “Psycho Screamers” and “Monster Muck” lines were wind-up figures called, generically enough, the “Weird Wind-Up Collection”. This series of toys omits Dr. Vic, replacing him with Melissa Screech, but is surprisingly the only of the 4 toy lines to feature Fred Deadman. I have not personally handled any figures from either of these sets, but do feel that both would have provided less hours (or minutes) of entertainment than the other 2 collections.
The fourth and final Tooyslyvania toy line were the much larger playsets, four of which were released. These included: “Igor’s Dungeon Delight Workout Room”, “Phil’s Foren-Sick Fun Time Gizmo”, “Dr Vic’s Electric Chair”, and the “Deluxe Laboratory Playset”. All four of the sets are battery-operated and feature various lights, sounds, and motion. I, personally, am proud to admit that I own 3 out of the 4 playsets, having purchased them for $20 at a convention about a decade ago, but must also admit to having never opened them, as tempting as that has been. Also, “proud” may be too strong of a word to have used for this purchase.
The photos of the Psycho Screamers, the Weird Wind-Up Collection figures, and (a few of) the Monster Muck figures come from https://www.figurerealm.com, who have a huge section on their site devoted to the Toonsylvania toys. Any other photos used in this review come from my own collection.
As mentioned at the start of this section, a line of smaller Toonsylvania toys was released through promotion with Burger King, included with their kid’s meal. Five total figures/mini-playsets were released through this promotion.
Second Season And Cancellation
Unfortunately for all (well, most) involved, Toonsylvania was not an immediate success. Part of this failure to connect with an audience may be due to a change in viewing habits, as many kids where now choosing video games over cartoons. As the internet had started to seep its way into more and more homes, some potential viewers were inevitably lost to its newfound allure. There’s even valid argument that horror had lost its allure for many during the 1990s. With Freddy and Jason no longer being matinee idols, and Ghostface having only made his debut shortly before the show’s premiere, most horror seemed to come via a barrage of low-budget, straight-to-video campiness found cluttering the shelves of your local movie rental conglomerate or in heavy repeat on one of the cable movie networks. However, truth be told, the biggest cause for Toonsylvania‘s lack of popularity may be that it just wasn’t a great show.
Whatever the reason, the 2nd season of Toonsylvania brought many changes with it, most of which did not prove to be beneficial. With some reports citing lackluster ratings and others “studio interference”, both Kopp and DeGrandis were either dismissed or left the show. (Reports vary there as well.) They were replaced with Paul Rugg, who had previously worked for Spielberg on Animaniacs. Rugg also provided the voice of the also short-lived Freakazoid!, which tends to be more fondly remembered than Toonsylvania.
The show’s format would also change, most notably by dropping both the “Remote Control” and “Night of the Living Fred” segments. The Melissa Screech segments were re-tooled into “The Melissa Screech Show”, in which the character would fantasize about exacting revenge on those she felt wronged her. Most notably, the “Frankenstein” segments became longer and more sitcom-like, adding Lost In Space alum Jonathan Harris to the cast as nosey neighbor “Seth Tuber”.
However, it was all for naught. At some point, the decision was made to move the show from Saturday mornings to weekday afternoons, primarily on Monday. Unfortunately, this was at a time when both syndicates and network affiliates were phasing out “blocks” of afternoon cartoon programming in favor of reruns of popular sitcoms, or (far more damning to the show’s chances for success) talk shows like “Oprah”, “The Rosie O’Donnell Show”, and (to a much lesser extent) “The Rikki Lake Show”.
With low ratings and high production costs, Toonsylvania‘s run finally came to an end on January 18th, 1999. In all, there were only 21 episodes aired, comprised of 82 total individual segments. Reruns of the series aired on Fox Family (Channel) until 2000, and a collection of segments from the series was released to VHS the same year. Otherwise, Toonsylvania has pretty much vanished from existence. Toonsylvania was available on Netflix’s Latin American feed during 2014-2015, but has since disappeared from all streaming sites, nor are full episodes available on Youtube.
(It is worth noting that while all of the segments featured on the VHS complication are from the show’s first season, the opening used is actually from the abbreviated second season.)
In June of 2000, months after the show’s cancellation, a Toonsylvania video game was released by Ubisoft for Nintendo’s Game Boy Color handheld system. A standard platformer in which players assumed the role of Igor as he attempted to collect body parts in order to rebuild Phil, the game received generally negative reviews. Much like the cartoon it was based on, the Toonsylvania video game has slipped into obscurity, and can be found on eBay for relatively cheap.
It’s fairly safe to say that Toonsylvania didn’t garner much of a cult following after its cancellation, although the lack of availability was surely a factor in that. In fact, a large reason why I even decided to write this retrospective, or whatever you want to call it, was because it was a generally unmentioned subject. It wasn’t something that I saw other sites talking about.
In researching this piece, I found that there were, in fact, a handful of other sites that had covered the show in the past. I was able to gather a few interesting notes from each of these sites, as well as from IMDB and Wikipedia, to offer a brief history of the show’s troubled production. If nothing else. I do hope that this article either reminds a few folks of the show’s existence, or introduces them to Toonsylvania for the first time. Who knows? It just might make for an interesting footnote on some horror movie review and fandom website of the future.