This weekend marks the 35th anniversary since our favorite overall-wearing, mustachioed plumber ingested his first mushroom in Super Mario Bros. To mark the occasion, Nintendo is releasing new games and holding events in the coming weeks. The Ringer is also celebrating, looking back at the legacy of the most iconic video game character of all time, both in games and his forays into film and television. So jump down the pipe and warp to the Mushroom Kingdom with us.
In 1989, the Most Valuable Player met the Most Valuable Plumber. That’s right: Magic Johnson once visited Mario at his home. When the reigning MVP arrived, the greatest video game hero of all time was playing one-on-one with Luigi.
The Lakers superstar, however, had no interest in shooting hoops with the two mustached brothers. “Sorry to disappoint you guys, but what I really want to do is practice some magic tricks,” Johnson told them. “I always wanted to be a magician.”
Magic then proceeded to do some magic. First he made a basketball disappear, next he helped Luigi pull a rabbit out of a top hat, and finally he sent Luigi into the hat before bringing him back. Then Johnson had to go—he had to get to a game.
I know what you’re thinking: This sounds like a late-’80s kid’s fever dream. But I assure you, it actually happened. For a short stretch, The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! brought Nintendo’s two Italian American mascots to life. The series featured pro wrestler and manager Captain Lou Albano as Mario and comedic actor Danny Wells as Luigi.
The program was awash with time-capsule worthy guests. Among them: Nicole Eggert, Danica McKellar, Sgt. Slaughter, Ernie Hudson, Elvira, Patrick Dempsey, Vanna White, Cyndi Lauper, and yes, Magic Johnson. In fact, he popped up twice. While filming, producer Troy Miller says, Magic “was everyone’s friend.”
Sandwiched between these short, laugh-tracked live-action segments shot on a faux Brooklyn set in Los Angeles was an animated version of Super Mario Bros. that also starred Albano and Wells in the title roles. And: The theme song was a rap. But more on that delightful monstrosity later.
The syndicated children’s series, which aired every weekday, is a trippy relic of a time when a toy’s popularity could be gauged by whether Hollywood wanted to turn it into a cartoon. Like G.I. Joe, Cabbage Patch Kids, My Little Pony, He-Man, The Transformers, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles before it, Super Mario Bros. was a pop-culture phenomenon. But none of those properties, not even TMNT, has remained as universally beloved as Nintendo’s flagship.
The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! may have only lasted one season, but the fact that a generation of kids now in their 30s remembers it fondly is a testament to the franchise on which it’s based. Mario is an icon. And icons endure. “Everybody has heard of Mario,” says Super Show! writer Phil Harnage. “Dare I say kindergarteners know Mario. They still know Mario.”
It’s a lesson borne out by a slightly bigger animated hit that premiered 31 years ago. As Harnage puts it: “The Simpsons came along and proved that character is everything.”
Even before The Super Mario Bros. Super Show!, its characters had become ubiquitous. The Nintendo Entertainment System was a best-selling home console, Nintendo Power magazine had launched the year before with Super Mario Bros. 2 on the cover, and there was a glut of adjacent merchandise, including a sugary breakfast cereal. Still, the idea of building a show around a video game franchise was daunting.
In the late 1980s, DiC animation head Andy Heyward recalls, he met with Nintendo of America executive Howard Lincoln about a potential collaboration. “They had two plumbers, a princess, a very infectious song, and that was about it,” says Heyward, who launched his animation career at Hanna-Barbera, the studio behind The Flintstones and Scooby-Doo. “And they wanted to see if we could come up with an animated TV series for them.”
DiC was the right company to tackle Super Mario Bros. Among other shows, they’d already cashed in on Dennis the Menace, Inspector Gadget, The Real Ghostbusters, Rainbow Brite, and Care Bears. And it’s not like adapting a video game for TV was a truly novel concept. In the early ’80s, Pac-Man and Donkey Kong got their own Saturday morning cartoons. “There are no accidents with Andy,” says animator Dan Riba, who worked on not one but two Alf animated series for DiC. “He knows everything, trend wise.”
In the mid-’80s, kids loved Pee-wee’s Playhouse. The inventive CBS series’ success led to DiC not just borrowing its combination live-action/animated format, but also its first production team. Steve Binder, who before working with Pee-wee star Paul Reubens had become known for directing T.A.M.I. Show and Elvis Presley’s ’68 Comeback Special, came on as an executive producer.
But an important question remained: Who would play Mario? A few years prior, Heyward had worked with WWF chairman Vince McMahon to develop Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling. One of the characters in the cartoon was Captain Lou Albano, a hefty, endearing loudmouth who famously kept his salt-and-pepper beard as neat as possible with rubber bands. Non-wrestling fans knew him from playing Lauper’s father in the “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” video. To say that he was interested in the role of Mario is an understatement.
“Lou offered to legally change his name to Mario,” Super Show! producer John Grusd told me in an email. “Welcome to showbiz. That was weird, it was actually considered.” But in the end, Albano decided against it.
Joining Albano as Luigi was Danny Wells, a character actor who in addition to doing dozens of TV guest spots had appeared in 23 episodes of The Jeffersons as Charlie the bartender. He’d also voiced several characters in the DiC cartoon Heathcliff & the Catillac Cats.
Because Heyward envisioned The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! as a series with both animated and live-action elements, the two leads needed to have chemistry. To the show’s benefit, the stout Albano and the skinny Wells had an Abbott-and-Costello–like rapport. “Danny was an actor. Lou was a live performer,” says Miller, who went on to direct and produce, among many other funny series, Mr. Show, Arrested Development, and Flight of the Conchords. “They had a great comedy partnership.”
Albano, Grusd says, “was the loveliest of human beings.” But his lack of acting chops occasionally made life difficult. After all, as Mario, Albano basically played himself. “It was wonderfully idiosyncratic,” Grusd adds. “But directing him was a nightmare if you didn’t accept him as he was. You could waste everybody’s time by having him read a line five different ways because every version would come out exactly the same.”
Working with a wrestler, however, did have its benefits. Albano could do things like tumble off a 12-foot ladder, pop up, and deliver a line without sweating through his red overalls.
When production on The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! began, the middle-aged Grusd quickly became acquainted with the NES. “I had to learn the game to understand the basis of the show,” he says. Harnage remembers seeing his colleague fall in love with Super Mario Bros. “It was serendipity, really,” Harnage says. “I spent every free moment sitting in John’s office, watching him play, taking notes.”
For a video game of that era, Mario’s world was expansive. For a TV show, it was not. The writers knew that Mario, Luigi, Princess Toadstool, and the mushroom-shaped Toad (“I was disappointed to find out that Toad was not an actual toad,” Harnage says) would be battling King Koopa, but beyond that premise, there wasn’t much to go on. So the staff got creative, making most episodes spoofs of classic literature (Count Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, Aladdin) and movies (Godzilla, The Road Warrior, Raiders of the Lost Ark). There was also a send-up of Three Men and a Baby where Mario, Luigi, and Toad look after Princess Toadstool when the fountain of youth turns her into a toddler. (Hey, it was 1989.)
Harnage recalls that the world’s most successful video game company was less protective of legendary designer Shigeru Miyamoto’s characters than the writer thought it might be. “I was kind of amazed at how hands-off Nintendo was on this whole thing,” he says. “Because they had guarded that franchise so closely.”
Every week, Mario and Luigi’s show took one day off. On Friday afternoons, The Legend of Zelda aired in its place. Based on the role-playing NES game of the same name, the cartoon centered on the Link and Princess Zelda relationship, which according to writer Bob Forward, was inspired by the dynamic between Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd’s characters in the dramedy Moonlighting. (Hey, it was 1989.) And the petulant Link’s now heavily memed catchphrase, “Excuuuse me, Princess!”, was a facsimile of a classic Steve Martin bit.
The sights and sounds of both cartoons were familiar to those who played Zelda and Mario Bros. Theme songs and noises lifted directly from the games—like Mario going in and out of pipes—ended up on the show.
Animation director Dan Riba remembers that Nintendo provided style guides for the characters. The Japanese company’s models, he recalls, looked to be inspired by the work of 20th-century animation titans Osamu Tezuka, who’s been dubbed the “Father of Manga,” and Max Fleischer, whose eponymous studio brought Popeye the Sailor and Betty Boop to the big screen.
“We couldn’t just pop those into animation. We had to kind of refine them,” says Riba, who has a large collection of both Tezuka and Fleischer material. “I kind of introduced the idea of pie-cut eyes to make them feel a little bit more cartoony.”
Although Riba had a sizable staff, animating The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! was a speed run. “We had to deliver 52 episodes at a rate of four a week,” story editor and writer Reed Shelly told me in an email.
Initially, Riba was incredulous. “Andy got the idea, he got the deal, but it was like, ‘We have to go on at this date,’” he says. “We were like, ‘This is impossible. There’s no way to get a series done this fast.’ … The production was so tight that we had to keep it flat and simple so the animation wouldn’t suck.That was the idea. Many head shots. It looks really simple. I begged for some dimensional shots. ‘Can we please have the characters come towards camera? Please?’ It was trying to keep it as left to right as possible.”
In a way, it was fitting: Super Mario Bros. was and still is the quintessential side-scroller. But in reality, any nod to actual gameplay was inadvertent. “We tried so hard just to get it done,” Riba says. “It’s a miracle the thing exists.”
In May 1989, Albano promoted his upcoming new series the only way he knew how: with a stunt. During an appearance on Live With Regis and Kathie Lee, he shaved his trademark beard but kept his Mario-style mustache. (Hey, it was 1989.)
On September 4, The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! premiered. Performed by Albano and Wells, the theme song, “Plumber Rap,” was a terrifyingly, cringingly effective ear worm. The first verse goes like this:
We’re the Mario Brothers and plumbing’s our game
We’re not like the others who get all the fame
If your sink is in trouble, you can call us on the double
We’re faster than the others, you’ll be hooked on the brothers
“We were kind of like, ‘Really? OK!’” Riba says. “So it was a way of sort of like, ‘Let’s keep this current.’ Of course now it’s horribly dated. But it was endearing to kids.”
That year, Nintendo unleashed an all-out blitz on American children. On September 9, another NES-rooted cartoon, Captain N: The Game Master, began airing on NBC. In the fall, Fox’s Los Angeles affiliate launched the bizarre, short-lived King Koopa’s Kool Kartoons, a local program whose human host was indeed someone in a Koopa costume.
And on December 15, the Fred Savage vehicle The Wizard, which included a preview of the forthcoming Super Mario Bros. 3 hit theaters. Critic Roger Ebert correctly deemed the film “a thinly disguised commercial for Nintendo video games.”
On its first run, The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! earned high ratings, but by 1990, Nintendo and DiC had already canceled it and moved on to capitalizing on the success of the newest installment in the Mario franchise. That September, The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3 debuted on NBC. A year later, Super Mario World followed. Syndicated reruns of The Super Show! aired until 1994, but after 1989 there were no new episodes produced. Albano, who died at 76 in 2009, and Wells, who died at 72 in 2013, did live to see it find a new life on DVD.
There have been plenty of animated series based on video games over the last three decades, but none have been as memorably, loveably weird. “We were taking that video game world and translating it into a whole different medium,” Harnage says. “Kids that knew the game tuned in to see what we did with it.” Today, when much of children’s programming is hyper-polished to the point of dullness, The Super Mario Super Show! would shine as brightly as a Super Star.
In 2018, Nintendo and the animation studio Illumination announced that they were developing a Super Mario Bros. movie. The only disappointing thing about that news is that Captain Lou isn’t around to audition for the lead role.