High Comedies

Great moments in the drug war Kulturkampf


If the recently concluded HBO series The Wire is arguably the most aesthetically accomplished fictional indictment of the decades-long war on drugs, there is no shortage of contenders for the most absurd bit of prohibitionist agitprop, from the unintentionally hilarious 1936 movie Tell Your Children (better known as Reefer Madness) to the widely parodied 1987 public service announcement in which the role of "your brain on drugs" is played by an egg frying in a skillet to an early 1990s TV ad in which the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles counsel a grammar school kid offered a fistful of joints ("Get a teacher," advise the Turtles, "get a pizza, get real").

Then there's the latest offering sponsored by the Office of National Drug Control Policy's National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, a mockumentary called Stoners in the Mist, featuring a pith-helmet-wearing narrator explaining the strange customs of the slack-jawed, amotivational, Lava lamp-loving inhabitants of "Cannabis Isle." Online at abovetheinfluence.com and featuring squirrely navigation and a rhythmic drum track more stupefying than anything produced by Cheech & Chong, Stoners underscores what most Americans already knew: Real winners don't do anti-drug websites.

Here's a short magical mystery tour, culled from the foggy memories of reason's editors, of decades of advertising and small-screen messages that inadvertently made childhood just a little more bearable. And drugs—even NoDoz—just a little cooler.

"Marijuana…is the Hula Hoop of the Jet Generation!" Produced in the late 1960s by the American Medical Association, this anti-cannabis commercial featured animation groovier than the film Yellow Submarine and a detailed list of just how fun it is to get high. "The human brain," notes the serioso narrator, "is hardly a Tinker Toy." But judging from the spot's graphics, it sure looks like one, especially if you've been smoking dope.

Dragnet's "Blue Boy" Episode. Clocking in at number 85 in TV Guide's 1997 list of the best TV episodes ever, this segment told just the facts about LSD-and a face-painting hippie called Blue Boy, who overdosed on the stuff after being arrested by Sgt. Joe Friday, played by three-pack-a-day smoker Jack Webb, who died in real life of a heart attack at age 62. Honorable mention: the "Big High" episode, in which two cannabis-craving parents get stoned and let their child drown in a bathtub. "After 25 years on the job, it's finally happened," groans Friday's partner, Bill Gannon. "I'm going to be sick."

Sonny Bono's Secret Message. "If you become a pothead," the curiously speech-slurring future congressman warned in this 1970 PSA, "you risk blowing the most important time of your life: Your teen age [sic]." The pitch might have been more effective if Bono's eyes weren't quite so red–or his jumpsuit so golden and shimmery.

Stop the Madness! This star-and-monkey-studded mid-'80s video is the Citizen Cocaine of Nancy Reagan's Just Say No campaign. (The First Lady even has a cameo.) Featuring past and future drug users ranging from Arnold Schwarzenegger to David Hasselhoff to Whitney Houston-and a spasticated spider monkey dancing to the strains of a Herb Alpert trumpet solo-"Stop the Madness" didn't just make a case for getting high (anything to stop the "Stop the Madness" video!). The title track previewed the lockdown that has given the U.S. the highest rate of incarceration in the world: "You thought that using dope would be a party/Now you're a prisoner in a cell crying to be free."

Heavy Metal Drug Addicts Destroy Communism. In August 1989, what The New York Times described as "thundering hordes of Western heavy-metal rock" acts, including Motley Crue, Ozzie Osbourne, Skid Row, and Bon Jovi, played at the Soviet-sanctioned Moscow Music Peace Festival as guitar-grinding "ambassadors of peace and temperance." The concert, which was broadcast to the West on MTV, was created by the American impresario Doc McGhee as part of a parole deal stemming from a 1987 conviction for marijuana importation. The Berlin Wall fell a scant 14 weeks later-long before Ozzy or Motley Crue's Nikki Sixx entered rehab.

I'm So Excited by Caffeine Pills! In a 1990 episode of the crypto-kiddie-porn high school sitcom Saved by the Bell, Jessie (played by Elizabeth Berkeley, later to triumph as a bare-it-all-to-get-ahead dancer in Showgirls) gets hooked on caffeine pills while studying for a big math test and rehearsing for a singing audition. Her friends' intervention comes soon enough to save Jessie from the ultimate coffee high but not before the audience hears her espresso-distorted version of the Pointer Sisters' anthem of chemically free overexuberance, "I'm So Excited!"

Pee-Wee Herman Says No to Crack-and Jail Time. "Everyone wants to be cool," the uber-ironic Saturday morning children's show host admits in this ad made as part of a sentencing deal after Pee-Wee's 1991 arrest for masturbating in a Florida movie theater. "But doing it with crack isn't just wrong. It could be dead wrong."

One Frying Pan Can Ruin Your Whole Kitchen. Riffing off the legendary 1987 ad "This Is Your Brain on Drugs," this 1999 spot created by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America features an underweight model personifying heroin chic, who explains the downside of smack (a drug regularly used by less than 0.1 percent of Americans) by smashing up a kitchen with a cast-iron frying pan.

If you're interested in related fare, check out The Best Week Ever's "10 Funniest Anti-Drug Commercials in Advertising History" and 10 Zen Monkey's "Five Druggiest High School Sitcom Scenes."

And if you're still locked in a terminal buzz from watching so many videos online after your coffee break, contribute a little more to the declining productivity of the American economy by watching the infamous episode of Quincy, M.E., that answers the musical question, "Can punk rock kill?"

Nick Gillespie is editor of reason.com and reason.tv. A version of this appeared in the June reason.