Where is my bony stranger,
Where is my hairy son?
Where has my slimy friend been,
Where have all the gross-outs gone?
– Appalling Coal, “Where Have All the Gross-Outs Gone”
© Warner Brothers Blecch-ords
“Yuck”’s and “ew”’s abound as your average 9-year-old blasts through the Madballs: Escape from Orb VHS for the hundredth time, the bright red Hi-Tops Video logo barely discernible through busted tracking errors. Slime has long since dried up and caked over the roof access grate on their old Ghostbusters Firehouse, and that bug in the corner is either long dead or part of a discarded Creepy Crawlers kit. The kid in question hasn’t been formally diagnosed yet, but there’s no doubt about it—we’re dealing with a full blown gross-out maniac here.
If you were ever anything like that kid, you’re one of the few and proud with nostalgic glasses that sport a tint closer to puke green than rose. You dealt in toys with distended eyeballs and exposed brains—heroes who were nasty by nature, sometimes even more so than the actual villains. In the years since Garbage Pail Kids stickers were slapped on every surface imaginable, the fever for gross-out media has died down considerably. Despite a few lukewarm comebacks over the years and some modern takes on everyone’s favorite nasties, we’re left to worship the disgusting deities of the past, an elite pantheon of the gross, the grimy, and the great.
Balls Gone Mad
As repulsive as the Garbage Pail Kids and the media they spawned may be—the 1984 feature film deserves its own place in the Nasties Hall of Fame—nothing quite hits the high note of gross-out nostalgia like Madballs. For those who weren’t around or chose to ignore these little stinkers, Madballs started out as simple rubber balls by AmToy, which cooked up a small assortment of weird quasi-heroes like Screamin’ Meemie, a baseball with a massive tongue, and the much more graphic Slobulus, who has one loose eye and a permanently vacant, drooling stare. They went on to mix the giant head motif with poseable figures in the Head-popping Madballs line, and they even had vehicles like the Mad Rollercycle, which inexplicable had a basketball net attached to it.
The whole Madballs toy line was essentially the childhood retail equivalent of the Gremlins phenomenon. Joe Dante’s original flick really lit a fire under the asses of everyone who wanted to make a horror movie about small monsters running amok, from Critters to Ghoulies and beyond. For every Slobulus Madball toy there’s an equally nasty—but safely caged—Boglin. Toy manufacturers got really creative back then, riding the wave of Madballs to produce such inspired pieces of art as Blurp Balls, Weird Balls, and Spit Balls.
After all, who could forget everyone’s favorite Blurp Ball heroes, such as “Skullsquert,” “Croaky Bugchuck,” and “Retch-A-Rat Tomcat.” At least these blurping bastards had the cred of Madballs artist James Groman behind them, or else we’d never, ever remember the likes of “Boney Tossteeth.”
The adventures of the Madballs came to a head in Escape from Orb, a 22-minute VHS that had the crew jammin’ together in a band called—you guessed it—Madballs. In an extraterrestrial Footloose-esque twist, it turns out the Madballs hail from a planet where music is illegal, all thanks to the wishes of the evil Wolf Breath, leader of the Badballs. This prompts a hasty escape from Orb as their rickety spaceship takes them straight to Earth, where rockin’ isn’t a hobby, it’s a way of life. Luckily, they happen to hook up with a 12-year-old boy who also manages rock acts or something, defend our planet against invading Badballs, and live to rock another day.
Outside of Orb, the only other piece of video media related to the franchise is Madballs: Gross Jokes, which is 22 minutes of “sketch comedy.” Marvel as Horn Head, Freakella, and the rest of the gang try out their best impression of rejected Monty Python material—or you could just pop Escape from Orb in again and pick up some old back issues of the short-lived Madballs comics, which were released for 10 whole issues under Marvel’s Star Comics label.
Whether intentional or not, Madballs left a thick imprint on the spectrum of gross-out cartoons, which would also go on to dip regularly into the old Hollywood well for inspiration. One of the most bizarre examples is 1990’s Toxic Crusaders, which took Troma’s lewd The Toxic Avenger films and dumped them on children’s television like so much hazardous waste.
When Dr. Killemoff decides to use Tromaville, New Jersey as his own personal toxic dumping grounds, his henchman Psycho chimes in with an amazingly prescient reply: “I don’t know if that’s such a good idea, doc. What if some complete and hopeless nerd falls into the Grossolium and transforms into a hideously deformed creature of superhuman size and strength?” Don’t be ridiculous! There’s no way that’s exactly what would happen to the otherwise unassuming Melvin Junko, a nerd who likes to sniff his armpits from nine to ten o’clock each night. That’s an actual throwaway line from the first episode, but think about it. An HOUR of sniffing your armpits every night. The mind reels.
The way Melvin’s serial harassers trick our hero into putting on a pink tutu and, after plenty of mean-spirited laughter, eventually force him to slip and fall into a vat of toxic waste, is familiar territory for Troma fans. Toxie’s origin story is watered down to overflowing and sanitized just enough to make it perfect fodder for 13 episodes, a toy line, and video games. It’s Captain Planet with a malformed gross-out twist, back when your average citizen at least pretended to give a shit about the environment. Somehow, pilot episode writer Chuck Lorre—also the creator of actual toxic sludge like Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory—even managed to squeeze some of Toxie mastermind Lloyd Kaufman’s tongue in cheek take on golly-gee suburban idealism into the script.
But what about the kiddies who discovered that there were actual full-length films featuring their favorite superhero Toxie? Speaking from experience, the act of post-cartoon childhood Troma discovery is nothing short of confusing and, depending on how deep you were willing to dig before your face turned redder than a thousand suns, downright traumatic.
Speaking of movies turned into cartoon properties, there was plenty of gross-out fun to be had with shows like The Real Ghostbusters, a series just as notable for its slime-filled 140-episode run as it is for all the bizarre toys it spawned. Granny Gross and Fearsome Flush are just a couple of these, the latter of which is a living toilet that inspired fears ten times worse than the old Ghoulie-up-the-butt nightmare. The improbable cartoon Beetlejuice adaptation ran for nearly as many episodes starting in 1989, and 1988’s short-lived Robocop: The Animated Series always begged the important gross-out questions, like “will an acid-drenched dude pop like an overstuffed water balloon on this, the most sacred of Saturday mornings?” Sadly, the planned Aliens series—which surely would have prominently featured slime and acidic drool—never made it to our screens.
Carrying the Splortch Torch
The rest of the ’90s weren’t without their own gross-out heroes. Ren & Stimpy made the gross-up close-up—a term for the nasty still-frames that turned the show’s vilest moments into modern art—prevalent enough to be featured on t-shirts that actual children wore in public. Aaaahh!!! Real Monsters was just as foul as its character designs would lead you to believe, and every commercial break was punctuated with the promise of Cree-ee-ee-py CRAWLERS, a “make your own gross rubber bugs” device marketed as an Easy Bake Oven for boys. Nickelodeon even managed to filled toy stores with seemingly endless kinds of slime including Gak, a plastic container of ooze that has got to boast one of the highest profit margins in toy history.
Where does that leave us today? Kids keep Elmer’s glue in business making their own homemade slime, but where is my bony stranger? What of my hairy son? For the most part, contemporary kids’ TV is squeaky clean without an errant eyeball in sight. Madballs had a revival of sorts in 2007—complete with new toys and some amazing art by James Groman—and Screamin’ Meemie and the gang got back together for online animated shorts and more toys in 2017. Is that enough? Are you not entertained and thoroughly grossed out? Probably not.
Thankfully, there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Check almost any toy shelf and you’ll see the occasional grody highlight, with a line of figures called The Grossery Gang seemingly leading the charge. With characters like Putrid Pizza, Dodgy Donut, and Fungus Fries, who could possibly hope to challenge their rotten reign? These are essentially the Barnyard Commandos or Food Fighters of the aughts, and you gotta give it up to them for that alone. The official website even has an animated short based on the line’s latest arc, Time Wars. Yes, The Grossery Gang has different series to follow, so you better keep up or you’ll end up chomped, chewed, and poo’d—their words, not mine—by the likes of the Trash-O-Saur.
Maybe that’s where I belong. Chew me up, spit me out, and bury me in the very toxic sludge that raised me.