The PBS game show went off the air 20 years ago this week
There’s a long history of grown-ups trying to make educational materials entertaining. However, there’s also a long history of most of these efforts turning out to be heavy on the education, light on the fun. It’s a tough one for adults to wrap their heads around, but they’re not always the best at predicting what kids will take to and what they’ll sniff out as just being homework gussied up like playtime.
One exception? The various Carmen Sandiego games. Next to Oregon Trail, they were often the best possible use for a school computer back in the day. And in 1992, a TV game show spinoff was launched, the PBS series Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? The show lasted five seasons and 295 episodes before concluding on Dec. 22, 1995 – 20 years ago this week. We’re taking the opportunity to look back on what made this edutainment effort work better than most.
Way before Pentatonix tried to make a cappella cool, the equally puntastic group Rockapella tried to make it (at least) educational. Lyrics like “They never Arkansas her steal the Mekong from the jungle” might have been lost on younger viewers, but you can’t deny that that song is still ridiculously catchy today.
As various nations came up in the show’s questions, viewers had an opportunity to learn about history and current events if they were paying attention. Even if they weren’t, however, it would have been tough not to learn what certain countries looked like on the map, at the very least – and that’s still more than the kids just watching cartoons would have known. Well, except for that one Animaniacs song.
I’m going to go out on a limb and surmise that at least a few young viewers regularly tuned in to Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? less for the education in world geography and more for the fact that host Greg Lee was kind of cute – in a ’90s-tastic, PBS host way, sure, but still. Lee, who had previously been the co-host of the Nickelodeon game show Total Panic, has continued to act after the end of Carmen Sandiego, and Nickelodeon diehards might be surprised to learn he also provided the voice of the principal on Doug.
Every episode began with the Chief explaining the latest caper by Carmen’s gang of dastardly globetrotting criminals. And man, could Lynne Thigpen nail that delivery every time. She had a special energy, and it didn’t seem to deter her in the least that she was bringing it to a kids’ show. Thigpen, who had acted onstage, in movies and on TV, even reprised the role of the Chief for the spinoff video games. Although she died in 2003, she still lives on – in our memories, in the YouTube archive of old Carmen Sandiego episodes, and most recently in a Saturday Night Live sketch just a few weeks ago.
And this is coming from someone who actually enjoyed geography as a subject but still never cheered for geographical goings-on as enthusiastically as the kids in the audience did. Maybe they were just stoked to be on TV. Maybe they just liked watching pre-teenage contestants win big. But whatever Pixie Stix or similar stimulant they were given prior to taping seemed to work.
In the video games, Carmen’s operatives usually had pun names. On the game show adaptation, the villains were new but many of their names were still puns – among them, Patty Larceny, Sara Nade, and an alien named Kneemoi. (Get it?) Furthermore, some creative higher-up at the show had the bright idea to give all the bad guys personalities, voices and their own theme songs, each of which were sung by Rockapella. It was a small touch that made every episode special in that you wanted to find out who the latest bad guy was.
Occasionally, contestants would take clues from special guests who’d deliver their information via a pre-recorded video. And who knows – sometimes that guest might just turn out to be the future vice president of the United States, Mr. Joe Biden.
Each episode concluded with the winning sleuth-contestant trying to identify nations on a giant map of one of the continents. You always hoped that if you were on the show and you were the winning kid, you’d get an easy map like North America. On this episode, the kid gets Africa – and wins! Specifically, he won a trip to Arizona, but hey – who am I judge his pick of North American destinations?
Before winning contestants proceeded on to the final round, they got to pick a destination – in the first season, it was limited to the continental United States and for each subsequent season, it was the entirety of North America. If they won, that’s where they’d get to go. Can you imagine how cool that seemed to a middle-schooler? The power to pick a single destination that you wanted to go to – and that you wrote down on the show without having your parents breathing over your shoulder and telling you, “Pick Des Moines so we can visit your great aunt.” Geography nerds had never been so generously rewarded.
Roughly a year after Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? ended, PBS launched a history-focused spinoff, Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego? The more science fiction-themed show had Thigpen reprising the Chief role. Rockapella and Greg Lee, of course, were sorely missed.