Forget the British Invasion of the 60s; let’s talk about the lesser-known Flemish Invasion of the early 80s. For that is when America was introduced to a herd of little blue humanoids known as Schtroumphs in their native land. Not ringing a bell yet? Perhaps you know them by their American translation – Smurfs. Created back in 1957 by cartoonist Peyo Culliford, they first made their presence known in the form of toys, but once TV executive Fred Silverman wisely bought the rights to use their likeness on NBC, The Smurfs quickly won over the hearts of tykes from coast to coast and Smurfmania was on the rise.
Living in the depths of the remote Smurf Village, this collection of 100 or so blue creatures lived in quaint mushroom-shaped homes under the guidance of the all-wise, 543-year old Papa Smurf. They lived a peaceful existence, with their only known enemy being the dastardly Gargamel, his cat Azrael and evil cohort Scruple – who sought to capture the critters at every opportunity. The roster of Smurfs, including Jokey, Vanity, Brainy, Clumsy and Grumpy banded together in the hopes of keeping each other safe from these predators.
The show found immediate success, but not everyone was completely enamored with the lack of political correctness, for it seemed that The Smurfs only had one token female character on the show, Smurfette – and she was a creation of Gargamel, who used her merely to fool the other Smurfs. Facing pressure from the critics, the show began to address their shortcomings and, not only was Smurfette brought over to the good side (with a little help of some Papa Smurf hocus-pocus,) but more female characters were added, such as the lovely Sassette.
The Smurfs, who had a particular fondness for using the word “Smurf” as an all-purpose adjective (Isn’t today such a smurfy day?) weren’t above throwing in a few life-lessons along the way for their young viewers. Surprisingly, even the topic of drug abuse was covered on a very special Smurf episode, when poet Smurf (Isn’t it always the artists?) developed a substance abuse problem of sorts after repeatedly rubbing a witch’s magic orb. Luckily, Papa and the gang stepped in with some much needed smurfy intervention and all was soon right again in Smurf village. Imparting lessons such as this on young viewers led to the show winning two Emmy Awards for Outstanding Children’s Entertainment.
In 1982, a new segment was added to the show, based on two other characters from creator Peyo Culliford – Johan and his cohort Peewee (originally Peewit), two humans that seemed decidedly out of place in the otherwise diminutive series. Lacking the same appeal as their hosts, they were removed from the line-up shortly after their arrival.
In 1984, the entire gang appeared in a feature film together, The Smurfs and the Magic Flute. Rather than an all-new adventure, however, this was really a re-release of a much older Belgian film and, with the Smurfs not even showing their little blue heads until well after the film started, audiences were less-than-impressed and the box office numbers proved it. Not to worry though – it didn’t manage to diminish the overwhelming popularity of The Smurfs on television, which retained its ratings through much of the decade.
The cardinal rule of “never fixing anything that isn’t broken” was unwisely broken in 1989, when the gang was taken away from their beloved Smurf Village and sent to various times and locations throughout history. This didn’t sit well with long-times fans and as a result, the show was smurfed after this forgettable season. Luckily, the glory days of The Smurfs managed to live on for a considerable time afterwards in syndication, as The Smurfs Adventures.
And sure, the Flemish might not have made the same impact on the world as the Brits did in the early 60s, but their contribution to our culture was one that millions of little kids embraced – and is still fondly remember to this day – a rather smurfy day, one might say. If The Smurfs happened to play a role in your childhood, we’d love to hear your memories in our comments section below, as we tip our hats to this pop culture phenomenon.