Something parents often fail to acknowledge is how much little kids have a gross-out sense of humor. Oh sure, parents have to bear the unending brunt of booger and fart jokes from their second-grade sons and daughters and live among the unending tide of armpit noises and fake belches. But the instinct, for parents, is to quell this rising tide of silly vomit re-enactments from their young kids and not to indulge them. No parent calls their 8-year-old in from the next room so that they may show off their fake nose-picking game.
Toymakers, meanwhile, have spent years boldly flying in the face of parental instincts, making a long string of toys that cater directly to the baser instincts of 8-year-old boys and girls. One can enter a Toys “Я” Us to this very day to find small tubs of slime and goop, often billed under names like Fart Putty. There are toys that allow you to make your own creepy crawly insects, pull bones out of monster bodies, and construct your own edible skull brains. As a male who was once 8 years old, I can say, without any hint of irony or hyperbole, that these gross-out toys are probably the best thing in the world.
In 1986, the year this author turned 8, something wonderful happened to the world of toys. A product, made by a company called AmToy, flooded the marketplace in a big way, and collectors of gross, inappropriate toys had their hearts set aflame. It was the year of MADBALLS.
MADBALLS were, as the name implies, a series of eight collectible foam-rubber balls, each inscribed with a gross monster face. There was a skull (Skull Face), a zombie (Slobulus), a mummy (Dust Brain) an eyeball (Oculus Orbus), a horn-headed Minotaur-looking thing (Horn Head), a creature with an exposed brain (Crack Head, yikes), and, least gross of them all, a baseball with a rude tongue face (Screamin’ Meemie). There was even a creature with one eye and scars called simply Aargh. They came in the classical blister packaging and sold for about five or six bucks a pop, which, to an 8-year-old in 1986, is a small fortune.
The MADBALLS were successful right away, but had no staying power. Which means, for about two-and-a-half glorious years, MADBALLS were everywhere, followed by a fallow period wherein little kids could only reminisce about their love of MADBALLS and continue to cherish the ones they managed to collect. After the initial release of the first eight, AmToy released a second series of eight MADBALLS, including a few innovative new creatures including a fist holding an eyeball (Fist Face), a wolfman (Wolf Breath), and a zombie football player (Freaky Fullback). The most disturbing to me was the creature missing half of the skin on its face (Splitting Headache).
In addition to the second series, MADBALLS made a few larger products that could actually be used – gently – for other sport. There was a football monster, a soccer ball monster, and a basketball monster. The basketball, Foul Shot, did not bounce the way you wanted it to, as the face would cause it to roll around erratically. It was more or less for catch and shooting hoops. Only with worms crawling out of an eye socket.
The release of the MADBALLS was, like most toy products of the 1980s, intended to be tied into a cartoon series as well. This was a pretty gross time in toy history when most cartoon shows were planned as commercial bumps for toy products and vice-versa. These were not earnest attempts to tell stories, but to sell toys. See TRANSFORMERS for the most insidiously successful form of this practice.
But MADBALLS was granted a pilot – and just a pilot – in the form of a VHS tape called MADBALLS: ESCAPE FROM ORB. In it, the origin of the Madballs was given, and it was explained that they were form a distant planet, and that they could sprout limbs. It’s as cheap and as unfunny as many toy-based cartoons from the era were. You can watch it in its entirety here:
Knowing the origin of the MADBALLS was totally irrelevant to the kids who collected them. They wanted fun, gross-out toys with dangling eyeballs and green slime drool. They didn’t want massive mythologies or explanation on how they came to be. MADBALLS were complete unto themselves. They didn’t need extrapolated personalities. How does one extrapolate the personality of an eyeball anyway? Did it come from someone’s head, or was it born as just an eyeball? Who cares? I would rather simply throw around an eyeball.
To confuse matters, there was an alternate history given to the MADBALLS in a short-lived series of comic books, wherein the balls did not have bodies and were created by a mad scientist with access to a pool of mutating toxic sludge. Toxic sludge was a common motif in 1980s children’s entertainment. It created The Toxic Avenger, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and a few others. The comic book was played for laughs, of course, and was hastily produced. It was canceled after 10 issues.
The glut of MADBALLS continued as late as 1988, but the fad faded quickly. There was a secondary VHS tape released – MADBALLS: GROSS JOKES – which was difficult to track down. Thanks to the glories of YouTube, it’s now readily available again online. Watch it if you dare:
After 1988, MADBALLS pretty much vanished. It was a trend, if anything. There was also, if I recall correctly, some minor controversy. Not over the gore or grossness, oddly (seriously, these things had pus and barf and severed eyes!), but because the foam rubber used to manufacture the balls was too hard, and kids were pelting one another in the face with these things causing injury. The company re-released them with a softer material, which may have come at a great cost, and may have been part of the reason they didn’t stay. It’s hard to say for sure.
There was enough goodwill, at least, to warrant the production of a poorly-reviewed and not-at-all-good 8-bit video game. Good luck tracking that one down. The game failed miserably. In 2009, some nostalgia junkies incorporated some MADBALLS characters into a new spinoff game called BABO: INVASION, but it was hardly a bold return. It was more or less a little fun wink to pop culture junkies. There were other, newer MADBALLS in place of of the ones previously known.
Thanks to the way nostalgia operates, MADBALLS have lingered in small ways over the years. People now in their 30s recall the toys with fondness, and certain manufacturers have re-released limited batches of the little pustules. Here in 2016, 30 years after the MADBALLS initial invasion, it has been announced that the MADBALLS will indeed return in a series of online cartoon, starring John K.-inspired re-designs of the some of the original creatures (and what modern cartoon is not inspired by the work of John K., really?). There’s a stylized website already operational, although the cartoons won’t be made available until January of 2017.
Although the MADBALLS themselves remain a bit of a nostalgic oddity, their brief success does represent a glorious cultural legacy of gross-out humor for children that is too readily dismissed as jejune and gauche. Of course, as kids, we instantly realized that that was the whole point of toys like MADBALLS. Children love jejune humor. They’re kids. When it comes to gore, grossness, bodily fluids, and creature faces, children can handle more than adults typically give them credit for. The MADBALLS were genuinely scary toys that dealt directly with violence and awfulness, and they were presented as fun, silly, and exhilarating. And the kids understood immediately. That the monster-ness and grossness were something that was silly. It was poking at the verboten, while still being totally appropriate for kids with sick senses of humor.
It seems that very little of children’s commercial comedy contains this sense of the verboten anymore. There are no longer things like GARBAGE PAIL KIDS or MADBALLS any longer, at least not at the same commercial size. MADBALLS remind us that we need to give kids more credit. They can handle it. After all, we grew up with MADBALLS, and look how we turned out…