What do you get when you take a Nerf like ball and mix it with a Garbage Pail Kid? You’ve got something that disgusts parents and teachers and that kids of the ‘80s loved.
Madballs were a series of rubber ball toys created by Amtoy in the 1980s. They were designed with a grotesque appearance and each ball had an on odd name and theme. Madballs would expand into cartoons, video games, and comic books.
I remember my parents hating Madballs, thinking they were disgusting and wondering what the hell the appeal of them was. I also remember them being discouraged from being brought to my public school.
One of my earliest birthday memories was having a Madballs based birthday and a friend’s younger brother accidentally revealing which one they got me. For a young kid in the ‘80s, you couldn’t come up with a much better toy. You could throw it and bounce it but they were so unique and your parents hated them.
Bodily functions will always be funny and It equaled into being a great ‘80s toy. They were pretty much a fad but here’s the story of Madballs.
Madballs came out in 1985 and were the creation of AmToy which was a part of American Greetings. American Greetings is actually the world’s largest greeting card company ahead of Hallmark. They had many divisions, one being called Those Characters From Clevland, and are ultimately responsible for bringing us things like:
- Care Bears
- My Pet Monster
- Strawberry Shortcake
- The Get Along Gang
- Hollie Hobby
These guys were kind of heavyweights when it comes to ‘80s nostalgia. But if you notice they were primarily based on things girls tended to prefer. They wanted to start catering specifically to boys.
Their first introduction specifically to boys was a plush “doll” called My Pet Monster. This would be a huge hit resulting in a successful cartoon show. But what else specifically did boys like?
Balls and gross-out humor…
Anything you can throw, catch or bounce is always going to be popular and if you can mix in something gross then so much the better. In-house designers James Elliot, Mark Spangler, Vint Gosner, and Tom Kuebler were the first to work on Madballs.
They were pretty psyched to be able to work on something so unconventional and not run of the mill like the other toys they’d always designed.
The Original Concept Behind Madballs
The group was playing around with ideas and one that came up was the idea of passing around something like you would with hot potato. You have music playing and the person stuck with the potato when the music stops were out. They then started drawing grotesque faces on sketches of potatoes.
They then had an unofficial competition to see who could draw the grossest face on the potato. Some of these drawings would go on to be on the original Madballs. The executives had seen the drawings and realized they might have something sellable here.
Releasing Madballs To The World
Madballs were released in 1985 and were an immediate hit. I remember seeing these toys and thinking they were too good to be true. The original series would include 8 Madballs and were made up of the following characters:
- Screamin Meemie: A screaming baseball with a large tongue
- Slobulus: A drooling green creature with one eye hanging out of its socket.
- Aargh: A one-eyed, blue Frankenstein’s monster-style creature with stitching all over his face.
- Horn Head: A horned cyclops with a nose ring (which is chained to his ear in the Art Asylum era).
- Dust Brain: A mummy with rotting teeth and wrinkly teal skin.
- Oculus Orbus: A bloodshot eyeball (later sporting a mouth in the Just Play era).
- Skull Face: A skull with large eye sockets sporting tiny red eyes, a big set of teeth, and a partially exposed brain (which is depicted as a sentient being in the Just Play era).
- Bash Brain: A red-skinned zombie with a partially exposed brain.
Now if you really remember Madballs you might remember that Bash Brain was originally called “Split-Skulled Crack Head”. Unfortunatly AmToy was not aware that this was a term for a drug user and I wonder how in the hell no one there would know that?
The toys were hot because they were a real novelty and not that expensive. But they also had a second problem besides being associated with crack heads. If you remember, the balls had some pretty hard parts to them and would result in some legit injuries as kids would be whipping them at each other. The Madballs were already made with a hard rubber but then some had protruding parts to them that could cause some real damage,
I remember my school banning all games that involved ball throwing as kids were getting smoked left and right. To avoid potential lawsuits AmToy would move to a softer foam for the subsequent releases.
The Second Series
With the next launch you had characters like:
- Snake Bait: A forked tongue-sporting gorgon (later depicted in the Just Play era as a monster being devoured by a snake)
- Freaky Fullback: A mutant football player
- Splitting Headache: A monster with the skin on half of his face peeled off.
- Bruise Brother: An ugly biker with a battered blue helmet
- Wolf Breath: A werewolf with large, rotten fangs dripping with blood (drool in the Art Asylum era)
- Fist Face: A severed hand clutching an eyeball (later depicted as a severed hand with an eyeball emerging from it in the Just Play era)
- Swine Sucker: An ugly, drooling boar
- Lock Lips: A creature with its jaw locked shut and one eye covered by a riveted plate
I remember Freaky Fullback as being my favorite, the second series was maybe not as interesting but for AmToy the profit margins were now becoming massive and they were making a fortune.
They would then put out actually sports based balls which they called Super Madballs and it included an American football called “Touchdown Terror”, a soccer ball called “Goal Eater”, and a basketball called “Foul Shot” and those are all awesome names.
The would also release Head-Popping Madballs which would capitalise on the huge action figure craze that was hitting the ‘80s such as G.I Joe, Star Wars, and Transformers. They would add a posable body that had an ejectable head.
They would then put Madballs on anything they could including things like pencils, stickers, erasers, lunchboxes etc. You would also see the inevitable knockoffs including “Burp Balls”, “Weird Balls”, and “Spit Balls” which were all pretty feeble attempts.
The Madballs Cartoon
There was free reign in the ‘80s to produce any type of marketing/cartoon tie-in and Madballs wanted to jump all over that. Somehow they dropped the, um, ball, and were never able to get a show on the air that could be used to sell more toys.
They put together a direct to home video cartoon show as American Greetings partnered with Canadian animation company Nelvana. The goal was to get a Saturday morning cartoon show or syndicated one out there but it never happened.
What they put out was a 22-minute episode in 1986 that was called “Escape From Orb”. I feel Madballs would have worked well as a Saturday morning cartoon but in Escape From Orb, they introduced a female Madball named “Freakella” who was modeled after the Bride of Frankenstein.
That show is up to watch on YouTube if you want to check it out. But the video created a bit of a backstory which is always good to help sell more toys. Madballs came from the planet Orb and were part of a rebellious rock band that was fighting back against the “Bad Balls” and their tyrannical oppression. Okay…
The second episode they put out was in 1987 and was called “Madballs Gross Jokes”. It was basically a mix of Monty Python and You Can’t Do That On Television which was two of the greatest shows ever developed by human beings.
The Future Of Madballs
Madballs was definitely more on the fad side but they tried to keep it going strong. They released a three-issue comic miniseries in 1986 and kept them going for ten issues until it was canceled. The comics do feature a character named Dr. Frankenbeans which is amazing.
There was also the Madballs video game which came out in 1988 by Ocean Software but was really only released for 8-bit home computers like the Commodore 64.
Madballs would eventually fade away but got a revival like most things from the ‘80s did. Madballs were revived by a company called Art Asylum in 2007 and then by Just Play Inc in 2017. Just Play would work with American Greetings to reissue some of the old characters and put out some new ones too.
Wrapping It Up
I’d say that Madballs are definitely a blip on the radar of 1980s related toys and pop culture but they carved out their own little corner and made an impact. Kids loved them and I think they made a big splash and took advantage of being the novelty that they were.
I loved seeing their legacy continued in the epic Ready Player One movie when an original Dust Brain Madball was used as a bomb in the climactic battle scene. That got one of the biggest reactions of the night when I saw it in the theatre.
So in a movie filled with epic nostaliga Madballs still held their own.