Old Friends

36 Years Ago, A Very Adult Film Morphed Into An Instant Kids’ Classic

Let's talk about what we mean by "real" when it comes to 'The Real Ghostbusters.'

Real Ghostbusters
Sony/Columbia

The idea that Ghostbusters was supposed to be a kids’ brand is nuts. The first movie begins with Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) giving a guy electric shocks in a roundabout way of trying to get a date with a woman who he is building up as a fake psychic. This isn’t just a one-off thing.

The entire plot of Ghostbusters is driven not only by sexual innuendo but by actual sex. Venkman’s desire to get to the bottom of the Zuul situation is motivated by his attraction to Dana (Sigourney Weaver), Ray (Dan Aykroyd) experiences a dream where a ghost goes down on him, and the entire reason Gozer is able to enter our dimension is that Dana and Louis (Rick Moranis) do it. And yet, sometime between 1984 and 1986, enough people watched the hilarious adult masterpiece that is Ghostbusters and said, “hey, let’s make this into a children’s show!”

On September 13, 1986, The Real Ghostbusters debuted on ABC and instantly transformed the entire perception of the Ghostbuster's tone and audience. Had this show not happened and not been as good as it was, there’s every reason to believe the “franchise” as we think of it now would never have really progressed. Because The Real Ghostbusters is waaaaaay better than it has any right to be.

Yes, this is a children’s show. It very clearly watered down the raunchy aspects of the cinematic ‘busters, but, the cartoon also retained and doubled down on the element that actually made the film so popular; quirky action-adventure and off-beat science fiction. Infamously, Dan Aykroyd originally conceived of Ghostbusters as a serious science fiction movie and even pitched a version that was set in the future. It wasn’t until Ivan Reitman and Harold Ramis got involved did the more lighthearted version emerge.

But, for kids who were fans of The Real Ghostbusters — which ran from 1986 to 1991 — the original film didn’t seem like a comedy. Instead, for kids who watched the cartoon first, the movie scans as a weird approximation of the slightly more self-serious sci-fi/horror cartoon we adored.

If episodes of The Real Ghostbusters (especially in Season 1) remind you of good sci-fi shows, there’s a reason for that. Chuck Menville — who wrote several episodes of Star Trek: The Animated Series — was the first script editor. Because of workload commitments, Menville was replaced by J. Michael Straczynski, who is literally one of the most prolific and talented TV science fiction writers of all time.

J. Michael Straczynski signing Spider-Man comics in 2007.

Stefan Jeremiah/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Today, Straczynski is probably best known as the creator of Babylon 5, the co-creator of Sense8 (along with the Wachowskis), the co-writer of the first Thor (2011), and the writer of countless critically acclaimed comic books in both the DC and Marvel universes.

In the early ‘80s, his Real Ghostbusters gig happened right after he’d been a staff writer for He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, as well as She-Ra: Princess of Power. So, if you feel like random episodes of He-Man or The Real Ghostbusters are more sophisticated and layered than you remember, the reason for that is likely because Straczynski is a really good writer.

The Real Ghostbusters took the basic world-building of the first film and actually tried to make sense of it. The series attempts to reconcile the continuity of the 1984 movie with the episode “Citizen Ghost,” in which we actually see the ‘busters switching from their beige jumpsuits in the movie, and into the color-coded versions in the cartoon. This episode explains why Slimer is “good” in the series and even pits the ‘busters against phantom versions of themselves, a kind of metaphysical battle of the cartoon’s reality versus the canon of the film.

In fact, Straczynski even suggests a kind of Nabokovian nested narrative within The Real Ghostbusters in the episode “Take Two,” which finds the animated ‘busters getting consulted on a feature-film version of their adventures, which turns out to be the movie we’re familiar with in real life.

All of this might make you think that the reason The Real Ghostbusters got that “real” in the title is because of its meta-fictional musings. But, in fact, the reason the show was titled that way was because of a rival 1975 cartoon called “The Ghost Busters,” which has nothing to do with the franchise you’re familiar with. “The Ghost Busters” features a talking gorilla and is basically unwatchable. Anyway, for legal reasons, The Real Ghostbusters needed to distinguish itself from the 1975 cartoon, which to this day, feels oddly appropriate. In many ways The Real Ghostbusters is more consistent than the film series, which means that for a ton of ‘80s and ‘90s kids, it really is the real one.

Sony/Columbia

Overall, the quality of the show drops off around Season 3 and Season 4. Many kids might remember that time as when the show was retitled Slimer! And the Real Ghostbusters. Shocking nobody, most of the more complex writing starts to fade away as the influence of Straczynski ends. Although he has a lot of writing credits on various episodes, he wasn’t the story editor after Season 2.

Still, The Real Ghostbusters remains an interesting curiosity among popular animated shows for kids. It shouldn’t have worked. It barely made sense when it began, but it quietly redefined why people loved this concept at all. For every kid who adores Slimer or proton packs or even that song, the fact is, all that loves runs — like a river of slime — directly from this show.

How to stream The Real Ghostbusters

Although this changes from time to time, as of this writing, you can stream The Real Ghostbusters on Amazon Prime and “feel” on Crackle.