It’s tough to exaggerate how popular the Ninja Turtles were in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Batman may have been a bigger movie and The Simpsons may have been a bigger TV show, but the thing about the Turtles is that they hit into EVERYTHING.
All at once, they had a white hot cartoon, a white hot movie, a white hot toy line, a white hot arcade game, and a comic book series that was at least red hot, but probably white, too.
When something gets into the zeitgeist to that degree, its reach keeps expanding even when it’s not doing anything. From their halcyon days, below are five times the Ninja Turtles were referenced in movies and TV shows. (You know you’ve made it when Sophia Petrillo namedrops you!)
TMNT 2 VHS on Step By Step! (1992)
In Back to Basics (S2), Carol fumes over the kids’ financial irresponsibility — mostly thanks to a rented copy of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II, which got lost under a bed for so long that she had to buy it outright.
Frank is less annoyed, because he’s heard great things about The Secret of the Ooze. Surely there are worse things to be saddled with than a movie wherein David Warner uses magic slime to grow a werewolf. Frank can’t wait to kick back and relax with the Ninja Turtles and a cold can of… Sprit?
Props to the prop department: Not only is that a legit TMNT II videocassette, but it’s very specifically a rental copy. You can tell by the cumbersome hard plastic sleeve. (I couldn’t stand those. They may have been protective, but I hated having to shake them like maracas to get the tapes out.)
(Big thanks to Looey Q Comics for tipping me off about this!)
TMNT Cereal on 21 Jump Street! (1989)
In the opening seconds of Mike’s P.O.V. (S4), a high school student (that’s Mike) breakfasts on TMNT Cereal before heading off to school. Oh, and because this is 21 Jump Street, he kills someone on the way to class.
The cereal wasn’t just a cute reference or a matter of happenstance — it helped establish that Mike was still a kid. Given that the guy who played him (Donovan Leitch Jr.) was over 20 at the time, that was pretty essential.
A mix of cheap Chex and chalky marshmallows, TMNT Cereal wasn’t one of my favorites. That never kept me from grabbing it, because the Ninja Turtles were my gods and they demanded tribute. (And also because of the way-cool giveaways, like those bowls that came shrink-wrapped to the boxes!)
TMNT Pajamas on Full House! (1990)
In Slumber Party (S4), Joey steps in for an incapacitated Becky to take Steph to a mother-daughter sleepover. Stephanie tries to roll with it, but the sight of Joey stumbling through makeovers and high heel races just reminds her of how much she misses having a real mom.
It’s a solid episode, all things considered. Full House may have been too liberal with the “awwwws” on its audience track, but I think they earned ‘em this time.
More to the point, Joey wears official Ninja Turtles pajamas to the slumber party, and even brings a TMNT sleeping bag. Weird that he’d go for the Donatello PJs, as Joey was inarguably a Michelangelo. (If anything, Danny would’ve been the Donny, and then Jesse could’ve flitted between Leo and Raph.)
TMNT Reference on The Golden Girls! (1990)
In Zborn Again (S6), Rose is frustrated by her histrionic coworker’s constant calls, and enlists Sophia for the big confrontation. After telling said coworker that she’d like to shoot her with a tranquilizer, Sophia admits that her dart gun was confiscated after an incident with trick-or-treaters dressed like Ninja Turtles. Oh, Sophia.
TMNT Halloween costumes were immensely popular, but even back then, I thought I was too old to wear one. My costumes had already slid into whatever combination of scythes, hockey masks and Freddy gloves could be found at CVS on October 29th.
Pop references were part of the show’s charm, but it’s still a testament to the Turtles’ stroke that they managed to get mentioned on a series like The Golden Girls.
TMNT Pudding Pies in Encino Man! (1992)
I’ve already written about this, but it’s too fitting to exclude. During the convenience store scene in Encino Man, there’s a honest-to-goodness Hostess TURTLES PIE hiding in the background. You’ll have to squint to catch it, but it’s totally there.
We’ve seen a lot of discontinued junk food revivals over the last few years, but people are still clamoring for this one. I’m slightly shocked that it hasn’t happened, but then again, in today’s world, I’m not sure that Nickelodeon would want to draw a straight line from the Ninja Turtles to a 500-calorie pudding pie.
As I’ve long associated pudding pie innards with bug guts (thanks, Super Inframan), I used to just eat the corners of the pastry shells before tossing the rest. Course, TMNT Pies would’ve been worth buying even if I couldn’t get that far, since they came with free stickers and smelled like the stuff they pipe into Main Street USA.
Thanks for reading. Now go order a pizza.