Saturday Morning Cartoons: Dead Men Don’t Jump

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A surprising abundance of children’s media adapted from source material very much targeted at adults emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s. 

Jason Voorhees wasn’t just the original Hockeymans So Tough, playing through injury that would surely send a basketball player to the locker room — such as a machete to the head and drowning at the bottom of a lake. He was also a homicidal maniac who offed countless teenagers for smoking pot and having sex. And he got his own video game in 1989 at the peak of his rampage. 

That same year, child-killing horror movie monster Freddy Krueger appeared in a Nintendo video game designed for kids. 

Both were odd choices to reimagine in media meant for consumers much younger than the 17-year minimum for R-rated films, but theirs aren’t the only examples of entertainment producers in that era trying to reshape very adult movie characters into kid-friendly roles for other avenues. 

Troma made an attempt with its borderline NC-17 superhero franchise, The Toxic Avenger, debuting its Toxic Avengers cartoon series in 1990 — and you can bet Saturday Morning Cartoons will review that at some point. In the meantime, a similarly odd choice for the children’s animated block gets the spotlight: Tales from the Cryptkeeper. 

Tales from the Crypt debuted in 1989 on HBO as a comedy-horror anthology series; a pretty good one at that. It’s remembered more now for its host, a wise-cracking and creepily designed puppet named the Cryptkeeper. 

I love the classic TV horror hosts like Elvira and Svengoolie, who provided levity between segments of a scary movie, or enhanced the comedy in some of the more absurd instances. Cryptkeeper was a more adult spin on the same concept. 

Between the peak in popularity of Tales from the Crypt, and before the character largely disappeared from pop culture after the disappointing performance of R-rated films Demon Knight (very good) and Bordello of Blood (very awful), Cryptkeeper had his own Saturday morning cartoon. 

I don’t remember much about Tales from the Cryptkeeper. One episode in particular does stand out in my mind, however, and feels pertinent with the NBA Finals afoot: “Dead Men Don’t Jump.” 

Yes, a 1990s children’s cartoon, based on a character from a series that just a year later would feature Billy Zane doing this…

…had an episode named for an R-rated film released two years earlier, in which UCLA legend Marques Johnson does this: 

And lest you think the creators of Tales from the Cryptkeeper were merely amusing themselves with a reference to a movie for adults, the episode focuses on a young playground basketball hustler. 

White Men Can’t Jump isn’t the only bit of early ’90s basketball pop culture referenced. Episodes of the cartoon begin with Cryptkeeper and two counterparts — neither of which existed on the HBO series, so I’ll be damned if I recognize them as canon — jockeying to intro the day’s tale. 

“Dead Men Don’t Jump” opens with the Cryptkeeper and who I deduce from Wikipedia is the Vaultkeeper, squaring off in a game of H-O-R-S-E. The outlandish shots both call is a direct reference to the 1993 McDonald’s ad campaign featuring Michael Jordan and Larry Bird. 

Jordan vs. Bird, it ain’t.

The ensuing story sees Nathan, a promising young basketball player, nearly losing his life hustling against a ghost. The supernatural finale occurs in an abandoned, old basketball arena. Were the same cartoon made in 2018, the “old” arena would have been built in 2001 but replaced in favor of a taxpayer-subsidized eyesore in the suburbs. 

“Dead Man Don’t Jump” is pretty standard early ’90s cartoon fare, couching a moral within the action. In this case, it’s that cutting corners and dismissing education for short-term success lead to long-term failure. A character originally intended for an adult-oriented program on premium cable is the odd part. 

The episode, as well as the series in its entirety, is available on YouTube.