Creator and voice of ALF, Paul Fusco, talks with TV STORE ONLINE about his early '80s Showtime special Santa's Magic Toy Bag, Alf, and the state of children's television...
TV STORE ONLINE: I had never seen Santa's Magic Toy Bag (1983) prior to yesterday...
FUSCO: Yeah, that's probably because it aired on Showtime back in the early '80s. After that--it ran for a brief time on some syndicated stations across the United States before it went back into the vault--which is where it has been ever since then. It's come to DVD because of Legend Films. A girl that I've been working with there grew up with Santa's Magic Toy Bag and she's been pushing for it to be released. I really didn't think there was any market for it--but it turns out that there is a fan base for it because of the people that remember seeing it first on Showtime back in 1983.
TV STORE ONLINE: Santa's Magic Toy Bag was really your third major work....You had done The Crown Of Bogg (1981) and The Valentine's Day that Almost Wasn't (1982) prior. How did Santa come to fruition?
FUSCO: Well, The Crown Of Bogg was a Halloween show. I made it with my own money, which was kind of stupid--because no-one should ever do that. But we made it on spec and Showtime saw it and they became interested in working with our company that my partners and I had started for The Crown Of Bogg. Back then, Showtime had a fledgling children's television division. They were showing children's programming in the morning and in the afternoons in the early '80s. They saw The Crown Of Bogg and asked us to produce six shows for them with different puppets and on different holidays. We didn't have much money to work with but once we figured out where and how the spend the money that they had given us for the specials we were off and running. Santa's Magic Toy Bag was the last of the six that we produced for Showtime. I think that Santa's Magic Toy Bag is the best of the six as well.
TV STORE ONLINE: Where were you creatively at the time that you created this special and the lead character "Sherman"? He's a Christmas toy maker but no-one at the North Pole appreciates his outside-the-box toy designs or thinking, and maybe I'm reading a bit too much into Santa's Magic Toy Bag here, but this whole special, for me, is an allegory for the frustrated artist who is trying to create in an uncompromising commercial setting...
FUSCO: (Laughing)...Right. Well, when I first started out I was working in television production on a local children's television show. I always felt that there was nothing on television that was made for kids. Even growing up with Rocky & Bullwinkle...as a kid you laughed at it, but you didn't always get the jokes because they were designed for adults. Going back to Bugs Bunny and the Warner Brothers cartoons...While I grew up watching those on local television--those were originally made to play in theaters for adults. They were short films that played before you saw CASABLANCA (1942).
When the '80s hit and we entered the era of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Kung-Fu and that violence that started to creep into Saturday morning television--I saw that there was nothing on television for kids to laugh at. I took the same approach with Alf. I never wanted to write down to the audience or the kids that would be watching the show. We always did storylines that we thought were funny, or intriguing, or topical for the time. Knowing that it was intelligently written and knowing that we weren't playing down to anyone--we knew that it would succeed. That's what I tried to do with Santa's Magic Toy Bag and the previous Showtime holiday specials that came before it. I wanted it to be funny, edgy, timeless, and I wanted them to be totally original stories.
TV STORE ONLINE: Where does your interest in puppetry come from? You were born in the early '50s--so you must have seen something like Stan Freberg's '50s television puppet show Beany and Cecil?
FUSCO: I think that was part of it. As a teenager--I did magic, ventriloquism, and stand-up comedy. So it comes from a combination of all of those. Then I hooked up with a guy who used to work with Jim Henson on The Muppets and he showed me something that Jim Henson had discovered back in the '60s--that the television screen, the lower edge of it, was the stage for these characters. With my background in television production--that really intrigued me. I became fascinated very quickly with the possibilities of the production with the puppets.
TV STORE ONLINE: Were you already unconsciously considering the character of 'Alf' in your head by this time? I'm reaching here....we have Alf, the character, and here in Santa's Magic Toy Bag we have 'Sherman' who only wants to be an Elf...
FUSCO: (Laughing)...You're reading too much into that...That's a coincidence.
TV STORE ONLINE: You can't blame me for trying!
TV STORE ONLINE: I really love the music in Santa's Magic Toy Bag...Can you talk a bit about it?
FUSCO: It was done by my wife, Linda Fusco, and another person named Richard Schellbach--who was part of my production team. By the third special--we were scampering around to find people to do the music and we weren't really getting anything that we liked. Linda and Richard said, "We can do better than that." So they did! They did the music for the last two holiday specials.
TV STORE ONLINE: At the end of Santa's Magic Toy Bag...Santa Claus reads a letter he has received from a little boy named "Paul" who wants an electronic kite. Is "Paul" you?
FUSCO: Yes! And there are other members of my production team mentioned in the end as well. We just filled the end of with inside jokes for us.
TV STORE ONLINE: This is a set of loaded questions...Even though I didn't see Santa's Magic Toy Bag when it first aired...I'm struck as an adult--watching it for the first time--just how much of that timeless quality it has. Like you mentioned earlier was your goal with it... It really makes me feel like an eight-year-old kid again. There's an innocent to it that is really missing from things produced today in the modern milieu of children's programming. Why do you think that is?
FUSCO: I just think that the times have changed. Look at how many television stations there are today. People can access anything online that they want now. One thing--the innocence of a child is something that will never change. If you took a child who was completely void of the violence of the video games today--and you set them down in front of something like this--I think that they're going to love this. They will enjoy it because their innocence is still intact. Take Sesame Street for example. That's a show that has been on for over thirty years now. They've had to tailor the show for the new generation of kids that are watching it. The old shows don't move fast enough. Everyone's attention span has shortened. We want our information and our news in thirty-second bites. No-one reads newspapers anymore. The media has changed. The way we get information has changed. Society has changed. Back in the '80s--it was a kinder and simpler day. But I still think that if you have something good and funny--people will find it. That's why all of these new television stations are popping up now and airing only shows from the '60s and '70s. There is an escapism there. The fact that a show like Bewitched is still on television on some of these new stations...My God, that show is...
TV STORE ONLINE: Wonderfully surreal...
FUSCO: Exactly...and talk about a suspension of reality! Even something like Gilligan's Island...What a horrible show, but people watched it because it was funny.
TV STORE ONLINE: Do you think that the way people are parenting today has anything to do with it now? On this new DVD for Santa's Magic Toy Bag...there is a blooper reel of the puppet characters swearing with bleeps throughout...When I was a kid--I would have loved to have seen this stuff, and my parents probably wouldn't have cared if I watched it actually. But with parents today--it seems a point of worry and contention...
FUSCO: Possibly. I was not a big fan of actually putting the bloopers on the DVD. I wasn't a fan of it--not because I thought that there was anything objectionable there--I just thought that it took away from the magical and innocent qualities of it all.
TV STORE ONLINE: Right, it breaks the fourth wall...
FUSCO: Exactly, and you see the puppets making mistakes.
TV STORE ONLINE: Last question... What are you working now?
FUSCO: We're trying to get an Alf movie off the ground. So watch for that.