The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! premiered in 1989, a few years after the Nintendo craze hit America’s shores. It was a half-hour show that starred professional wrestling personality “Captain” Lou Albano as Mario, a portly Brooklyn plumber, and Danny Wells as his ectomorph brother, Luigi.
Each episode begins and ends with a live-action segment and often features a guest star plucked from the upper reaches of the C-list firmament. The meat of the episodes are the animated bits, usually a play on some classic public-domain tale like Sherlock Holmes, the labors of Hercules, or Romeo And Juliet, but peopled with characters from Super Mario Bros. 2. (On Fridays, the cartoons were Zelda-themed instead.) In these short cartoons, Mario, Luigi, Toad, and the Princess thwart the nefarious schemes of King Koopa all across the Mushroom Kingdom.
The show’s instantly recognizable theme song—the “Plumber’s Rap”—mixes the game’s familiar tune with a bastardized version of old-school hip-hop popular during the period. Played in concert with Vanilla Ice’s “Ninja Rap,” I’m fairly certain that some kind of topical Higgs-boson universe-imploding nexus will open. And good riddance to us, I say.
Due mainly to a severe lack of quality programming on Netflix’s instant streaming menu, I recently found myself taking a survey of the Super Show!’s first season—and then exploring further on YouTube. The live-action and animated segments in each episode are unrelated, but I’ve taken the collective quality into account in picking three representative episodes. Here are the highlights.
Episode 12: Live-action—“Alligator Dundee” / Cartoon—“Stars in Their Eyes”
“Alligator Dundee”: Mario and Luigi are paid a visit by a poor man’s Paul Hogan, Alligator Dundee. This Outback reject has tracked a vicious animal to the plumbers’ home, and he warns them they should expect to be attacked “any minute now.” It turns out that Dundee is actually after Mario and Luigi’s pet, the sewer-dwelling Ratigator. Dundee recruits the brothers to help him capture the beast, but when he tries to lure it out of the sewer with a tuna sandwich, they protect their friend and put an end to Dundee’s big-game sewer hunting days.
I’m not sure how much truth there is to the New York City giant sewer alligator myth, but I do know that the city has its share of Rodents Of Unusual Size. This segment, then, can be read as an impassioned protest against the city’s inhumane pest-control policies. I was playing Dawnguard a month or so ago when I noticed one sauntering into my bedroom. Yes, this disgusting, overfed plague-wallet had climbed through my open, second-story kitchen window in search of cheese or human babies. After a tense two-or-three-hour standoff, I cornered him in the back of my refrigerator. From there, I quickly decided to unplug the fridge and move it, ass end first, to my front door, where I hoped the little-big fella would run free. The Super Show’s lesson of humanity was well-learned: No tuna sandwiches were harmed in this capture.
“Stars In Their Eyes”: For some reason, the gang is all aboard a spaceship under attack by King Koopa’s space-troopas. Mario, whose plumber training apparently includes piloting intergalactic spacecraft, is forced to crash land on the planet Quirk. The situation on Quirk is grim. The peace-loving Quirks—who bear a strong resemblance to Q*bert, a video game hero presumably not covered by the show’s licensing agreements—have all been enslaved by Moonman Koopa. (King Koopa often takes on characteristics based on that particular episode’s setting. The moon is an object that exists in space; this is a space-themed adventure; hence Moonman Koopa. Q.E.D.) Some brave Quirks help Mario and Co. escape, but Moonman Koopa uses his giant magnet to recapture the Quirks and the wrench-laden Mario Brothers.
As they toil in Koopa’s moon gulag, Mario apologizes to his Quirk buddy: “Sorry we got you into a lifetime of enslavement, little pepperoni.” Like any good union man, though, Mario tries to rally the troops with some fiery Marxist rhetoric. The Quirks, realizing that they have nothing to lose but their chains, use their bugle-like snouts to sonically assault Koopa with a rendition of the Zelda theme song, and the gang escapes, with the only casualty being the ship’s emergency pasta rations. I know this is a kids show, but I suspect it would make a whole lot more sense on drugs. The pizza phone looks delicious.
Episode 2: Live-action—“Day Of The Orphan” / Cartoon—“King Mario Of Cramalot”
“Day Of The Orphan”: Fred Savage and I don’t have much in common, but we do have this—we both once loved the same woman. Fred’s on-again, off-again love interest from The Wonder Years, one Winnie Cooper, was everything an adolescent boy wanted from a girl, in the days before he knew what he was supposed to want in a girl. Danica McKellar, Winnie’s real-life counterpart, eventually grew up and became a sort of celebrity math guru, but before that she took a turn as a guest star on The Super Mario Bros. Super Show!
A pig-tailed McKellar shows up at the door and introduces herself to Mario and Luigi as Patty The Sad-Eyed Orphan. The brothers agree to look after this down-on-her-luck waif, but soon it becomes clear that she’s just a cute little con artist, shaming them into waiting on her hand and foot. Her parents eventually show up and put an end to her scheme, but the emotional damage is already done. Add Mario and Luigi to the pile of emotional wreckage left in Winnie Cooper’s wake. The bros. will never trust any person who isn’t a pizza delivery man ever again.
“King Mario Of Cramalot”: King Arthur’s legend has gone through innumerable revisions since the mythical British monarch supposedly repelled the Saxon invaders from Great Britain. Some of my favorite Arthurian riffs include T.H. White’s The Once And Future King, Monty Python And The Holy Grail, that Merlin miniseries with Sam Neill, and maybe the Camelot musical. (Shut up, Richard Harris is awesome.)
The Super Show!’s version sticks to the story only in the broadest possible sense, as Mario & Co. go looking for Mervin The Magician. Koopa, meanwhile, has usurped the throne of Cramalot to spread his evil meanness all over the land. As Mario says—exercising his penchant for plumbing and/or pasta-related metaphors—“That Koopa’s a clog in the drainpipe of happiness.” Yes, happiness is a metal tube that tends to get backed up with hair and scum. No wonder they call him the Sylvia Plath of Italian plumbers.
According to prophecy, the person who pulls the golden plunger from the sacred sink of Cramalot becomes the new king. Fortunately, there isn’t a sink built that Mario can’t unclog. Koopa steals the plunger, but in his darkest hour, Mario finds Excalibur, held aloft from the bosom of the water, which in this story is a magical plumber’s snake. It’s possible that the producers of The Super Mario Bros. Super Show overestimated the degree to which plumbing factored into Mario’s appeal. Anyway, Mervin later offers Mario the throne, but this is a pasta-loving slob from Brooklyn, not a king. So, as if he were proffering the proverbial backflow arrestor valve of humility, Mario declines.
Episode 64: Live-action—“Captain Lou Is Missing” / Cartoon—“Robo Koopa”
“Captain Lou Is Missing”: Cyndi Lauper is ’80s royalty, and “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” one of her more famous music videos, features her good friend “Captain” Lou Albano as the fun-loving girl’s angry father. Albano returned the favor, and Lauper guest stars as herself in the series’ penultimate episode.
When she shows up at the door, Lauper is distraught. She was supposed to meet Captain Lou for picnic, but instead she found a note from the good Captain telling Lauper that he’s “gone for good.” Also she found a bunch of rubber bands from his beard, because Captain Lou’s trademark is the somewhat unorthodox use of office supplies in facial hair.
After an exhaustive search that ranges all the way to Moscow, Lauper receives a letter from the president himself calling off Operation Lou Search, declaring him missing forever. Mario goes out for pizza, and Captain Lou conveniently shows up while he’s gone. It was all a silly mistake: Lou’s note was supposed to say that he’s “gone for good fried chicken.” So rather than suicide, Lou has instead opted for the slow death of high cholesterol.
Of course, Mario misses all this action—Luigi notes the cruel irony, since Mario is Captain Lou’s biggest fan—and there’s something almost Shakespearean in this scenario. Physically, the main difference between the “two” men is that Mario wears a handlebar mustache, while Captain Lou rocks his rubber-band-bound beard. Which egregious facial hair style is real, and which is pasted onto his face? “Captain Lou Is Missing”? Maybe we’re all missing—just beards and mustaches projected on the cave wall of our faux reality. I don’t even know what’s real anymore. Let’s move on.
“Robo Koopa”: In a futuristic-looking corner of the Mushroom Kingdom, Mario, Luigi, Toad, and the Princess learn how ill-equipped they are to deal with perils of technology. What good are bouncing fireballs and toilet-based bon mottes against Robo Koopa, a mechanized terror designed by a scientist named Dr. Nerdnick? The doctor designs a suit for Mario and Luigi to counter Robo Koopa, but its plunger fists and egg-shooting guns prove no match for their enemy’s more conventional arsenal, a rare instance in which the Super Show renders plumbing-based might as something less than all-powerful.
There is an unintentional allegory here: Nintendo and their gunless, brick-breaking hero go up against tech juggernauts Sony and Microsoft. On the Super Show, Mario’s silly, cartoonish assault is initially impotent against Koopa’s explosives, but the plucky plumber still ultimately prevails. From what I’ve seen of the Wii U, Nintendo might not have similar success.