Was Punky Brewster Too Intense For A Kids Show?

Punky Brewster
Photo credit: NBC Universal Studios

What do you get when you take a child actor that seems like a cartoon character come to life and create a whole show around her?

Punky Brewster was a live-action show on NBC starring Soleil Moon Frye that aired on Sunday nights and ran from 1984 to 1988. It told the story of Punky, an orphaned youngster who gets adopted and raised by a foster parent. The show would lead to a spinoff and a cartoon called “It’s Punky Brewster”.

I was just maybe a smidgen too young to be in the right wheelhouse to appreciate Punky Brewster. When it came out, I was only 7 and there wasn’t any transforming robots or battle against Cobra so it didn’t totally appeal to me,

I did see the draw to it though and I remember other kids thinking it was a big deal. Since we were young – and there were only like three different networks – there weren’t a lot of options that were catered to us. Punky Brewster did have a significant impact I believe and everyone has some memories of it, especially that episode with the fridge… which we’ll get to in a bit.

This is a look back on the history of Punky Brewster.

What Was The Premise Of Punky Brewster?

Here’s a quick rundown; Punky Brewster was actually named Penelope Brewster, and it’s a bit of a tragic story that seemingly pulls on the heartstrings. Punky’s father walked out on them when she was a kid and then her mother abandons her at a friggin’ shopping center in Chicago. Was this the best way to draw us in? It’s like the story of Les Miz but with pigtails.

So Punky is left with her dog Brandon and as most kids have access to, she finds an abandoned apartment in a nearby building. Turns out the building is managed by Henry Warnimont whos a grumpy old widower, but Punky bonds quickly with the granddaughter of one of the tenants.

Henry finds outs that Punky has assumed squatters rights in the vacant apartment and he learns of her whole ordeal. The two of them start to bond but then Punky is forced into an orphanage that doesn’t feature any singing or Carol Burnett. Henry tries to become Punky’s foster parent and – spoiler alert – he does…

The Cast Of The Show

  • Punky Brewster – Soleil Moon Frye (Fun fact: Tiffany Brissette who played Vicki on Small Wonder auditioned for the role. Check out my Small Wonder article!
  • Henry Warnimont – George Gaynes
  • Betty Johnson – Susie Garrett
  • Cherie Johnson – Cherie Johnson (interesting decision but she also played Laura Winslow’s best friend, Maxine on Family Matters)
  • Mike Fulton – T. K. Carter (OK, I have to do a rundown on all the shows Carter has been on)
  • Jem and the Holograms
  • The voice of Rocksteady on Transformers
  • Mylo from the Saved by the Bell predecessor, “Good Morning Miss Bliss”
  • 227
  • Ty, Laura Winslow’s guardian angel on Family Matters
  • A Different World
  • The Steve Harvey Show
  • The Nanny
  • Everybody Hates Chris
  • And last but not least; Monster Nawt in Space Jam

Fun Fact: Jim Carrey actually auditioned for the role of teacher Mr. Fulton but he was seen to be a bit too “comicy”. Which is not the most surprising thing I’ve learned today.

There were a few recurring characters such as Margaux Kramer, Allan Anderson, Eddie Malvin, and Mrs. Morton.

The Real Life Punky Brewster

The programming chief at NBC, Brandon Tartikoff, was the one responsible for naming the show which he did after a girl he had a crush on as a kid. That girl was named Peyton “Punky” Brewster and I don’t recall meeting anyone in my life that had the nickname Punky.

They actually had to track down the original Punky Brewster in order to get the rights to use her name as the title of the show. This is kinda similar to the movie “Meet the Fockers”. You’re technically allowed to use any inappropriate names in movie titles as long as there are people in real life that have that name. Luckily for that movie there were people named the Fockers that lived in British Columbia.

The real Punky Brewster also appears in an episode called “The Search” from November, 10th 1985. The real Punky Brewster played a school teacher, and the idea is that they wanted to have the real life Punky, and the fictional Punky both appear in a scene together. In that scene the real life Punky gets to say the line, “Punky Brewster? Strange name.”

Production On Punky Brewster

So if you don’t remember, Punky Brewster aired on NBC on Sunday nights which seems like a weird time to air a kids show. I actually think Punky Brewster falls more into “family entertainment” as opposed to a kids show.

The reason it aired on that unique time slot was partly what led to its creation. The Federal Communications Commission actually put into place a regulation that networks had to use the period from 7-8pm on Sunday night for either news programming or family entertainment.

This is one of the reasons you saw the “Wonderful World of Disney” at that time along with the “Jim Henson Hour”. So the 7:00 and 7:30 time slot needed this type of content but the problem was “60 Minutes” on CBS was a juggernaut and no one wanted to make a news program to go up against it.

Brandon Tartikoff (which is who Brandon the dog is named after) decided to go in the opposite direction and create a show with a spunky youngster who was like a cartoon character come to life.

The show debuted on September 16, 1984, and was produced by Lightkeeper productions. But there were a few issues that came up with how the show would be broadcast.

Punky vs Monday Night Football

So obviously Sunday is a big-time day for the NFL and this caused issues with how Punky Brewster would be broadcast. According to Mental Floss, the regular schedule would be fine until the fall when NFL Football would start on Sundays. At this point, they started producing 15-minute long episodes of Punky Brewster because of the real possibility of the afternoon games running late.

Football games have screwed up a lot of programming and instead of having their show joined “already in progress”, they would have 15-minute shows ready so people could at least catch a “full episode”. Another interesting thing has to do with one of my all-time favorite shows Knight Rider.

Knight Rider was a monster hit for NBC and they couldn’t let anything interfere with it. To make sure it would never get overlapped with football, they would keep it at the 8 pm time slot and Punky Brewster would be moved earlier. If there was a late-running game Punky Brewster would have to take the hit to allow Knight Rider to have a full episode – which I’m totally OK with it. They made six 15-minute episodes to be covered for any of these late-running games.

One interesting thing in all this was that it was the first time since the 60s that a major Network was airing 15-minute shows. And if you want to learn more about the epicness of Knight Rider, you need to check out my article all about it.

The Intense “Very Special Episodes” Of Punky Brewster

Do you remember hearing those words “very special episode”? It meant that the lightheartedness of the sitcom you were used to was about to take a very dark turn. I wonder now if was writers and producers wanting to get out of the cookie cutter approach that most sitcoms take, but now that I think of it, I’m sure it was more to capitalize on whatever hot topic was in the public’s mind at the time to bring in more viewership.

Punky Brewster tackled some pretty hefty topics over the course of four seasons, with a few that I think had a pretty damaging effect on a lot of kids who were watching. I mean, the premise of the show is already grim AF but let’s look at some big issues they covered:

1. Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster

There’s no way an event this big can be ignored, and it seems a heavy burden for a family friendly show to have to deal with it. But credit to NBC, and the writers and producers of the show, and they were dealing with it the same way that families were trying to explain it to their kids.

Sometimes collective moments like this can work well if presented in the right manner and on this episode the show worked with child psychologists in order to handle this in the best way possible. Buzz Aldrin appeared in this episode and in his book “Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey From Home” he mentions he wanted to appear to help convey to kids to not let this tragedy prevent them from their dreams if they wanted to be astronauts.

Soleil Moon Frye herself had dreams of becoming an astronaut then changed her mind after the Challenger disaster. Aldrin, and the shows producers, thought addressing her real life anxiety could work as an episode and they quickly put it together. This would hopefully help viewing children work through the same fears and that there is great risk in exploring – but the rewards are worth it.

2. The Fridge Episode

This episode messed me up. If you saw it as a youngster you probably can recall the same form of anxiety that was created in this intense episode. Turns out that this episode was used as a publicity stunt in the sense of creating more interest in the show. A contest had been run in 1985 that was looking for kids to submit story ideas that could be turned into an episode.

The winner of the contest came up with the idea about having an episode all about CPR, which, truthfully, is a really great use of an episode to create more awareness. In this episode, Punky’s friend Cherie locks herself in an abandoned refrigerator and Punky had to perform CPR on her.

Turns out that fridges that couldn’t be open from the inside had been outlawed in 1956 but I think the idea still served its purpose. The thing that I remember taking away from this episode however, is not about CPR but the fear, and danger, of trapping yourself in a fridge or freezer. Honestly, I don’t think that idea has ever left my head.

BUT shows like this can have a big impact and there is the story of a bunch of kids who gave CPR to an electrocuted man, saving his life, because they had seen this episode – and that’s truly amazing.

3. Henry’s Issues

Henry was obviously getting on in years and the show addressed this. There were episodes where he would suffer from a bleeding ulcer and Punky would have to help him cope with this. There was also the issue with his sleeping pill addiction and, again, Punky was there to try to take care of thing.

She’s also doing all this while trying not to end up being locked up in an orphanage.

4. Brandon Gets Hit By A Car

Bloody hell NBC, what were you trying to do to us?? In an episode on March 13, 1986 the episode centers on Punky’s dog Brandon who is critically injured by a speeding car.

OK, here are some other topics that the show also touched on:

  • Henry’s photography studio burns down (this is what leads to his bleeding ulcer)
  • In the episode “Urban Fear”  from January 5th, 1986, they learn a SERIAL KILLER is stalking their neighborhood. Holy f-ing crap
  • Missing kids on milk cartons
  • The usual focus on peer pressure and drug use, but I feel that was better left for Saved by the Bell

The Unique Way In Which Punky Brewsters Seasons Worked

So after the first season finished Punky Brewster had finished 64th in the Nielsen ratings. Not exactly a smash hit but it was a bit hit with kids – not surprisingly. It’s interesting because the main audience was as low as 2 years old up to age 11.

At the end of the second season they had produced 44 episodes, but they still hadn’t improved in the ratings. Both Punky Brewster, and Silver Spoons, just couldn’t compete against the mammoth 60 Minutes and both shows were cancelled.

The thing was that Punky Brewster had this huge younger audience that was enamoured with the show. “Punky” was getting 10,000 letters a week sent to the show with kids thinking she was a real person and opening up about their lives to her. They would ask for advice and also share some pretty damaging things.

The other thing, again, not surprisingly, is Punky Brewster merchandise was a huge hit and money maker so they would bring the show back but in a different manner.

They would make a third and fourth season but do it by syndication. This means they would make the show in the regular way but wouldn’t have to broadcast it on a specific night and basically air brand new shows as “reruns”. This saves a ton of money and it’s a similar approach to what Small Wonder would do. With Small Wonder the whole series was started as syndicated which meant it cost practically nothing to make.

The third season of Punky Brewster would be delayed in airing though and wouldn’t come out till October 30th, 1987. This time it would air like a normal syndicated show, five days a week. It was now on regular weekday TV in the later afternoon and it allowed more kids to watch it.

The Punky Brewster Cartoon

Almost as big as the show – maybe a bit bigger – was the cartoon show “It’s Punky Brewster”. It came out as the same time as the show and ran for two seasons and 26 episodes running from September 14th, 1985 to December 6th, 1986.

The good thing with this cartoon is it featured the real voices of all the major characters which gives it more of an authenticity. It also ramps up the fantasy factory and includes a new character named “Glomer” voiced by the iconic Frank Welker (aka Megatron).

In this show it’s more straight up fantasy with Glomer being able to teleport Punky and her friends to anywhere on the Earth instantly. It has a really catchy theme song and took some of what made the character of Punky Brewster unique but ramped up the fantasy and adventure.

Final Thoughts On Punky Brewster

So a lot is said about how the live-action show dealt with a lot of pretty rough topics. This does seem way too intense for a kids show – considering how young their audience really was – but it was kind of necessary at the time.

Since they were filling this FCC slot, they did have to have educational aspects to the show, and they used what was relevant in culture, and in the news, as the basis for a lot of shows. They were also competing against a massive news program in 60 Minutes so they were trying to embrace all the relevant topics we were reading about, anyway.

It was also tough to attract an audience and if you can draw in more viewership with a controversial topic then, well, you really had no choice. There was a good juxtaposition with the show because even with the doom and gloom of some topics it was balanced out by the joy and optimism of Punky Brewster.

I believe the character was a good lesson in positivity, being unique, and seeing the best in life. The character of Punky was always able to find the silver lining and I think she motivated and influenced a lot of young people while doing so.

Just forget that the series finale featured a dog wedding…