Case Study 39: Chuck Norris: Karate Kommandos, Episode 1–“Deadly Dolphin”

Original Airdate: September 15th, 1986 on first-run syndication

If you’re sputtering in disbelief at the existence of a Saturday morning cartoon show predicated on the fame of 1980s-era Chuck Norris (Walker, Texas Ranger) rest assured that it is only the seventh or so most ridiculous thing cranked out by Ruby-Spears Productions, which is apparently where Saturday morning cartoons go to die. But Kommandos and another Spears gem centered around an action-adventure icon, the Mister T cartoon, live on thanks to Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim lineup. It makes sense—Adult Swim has long mined old cartoons for ironic lulz, and Ruby Spears is a great fit for them, since Ruby & Spears started out writing episodes of Space Ghost for Hanna-Barbera. They went on to create a juggernaut in cartoon history–Scooby Doo, Where Are You! In 1977, they struck out on their own to form a new production company. Did they make new Scooby cartoons? They sure did–and they introduced Scooby’s charming nephew, Scrappy! Beyond The Scooby & Scrappy-Doo/Puppy Hour, about which the less said the better, the biggest hit for the production company was the Alvin & The Chipmunks cartoon. But if we just focused on the hits, we’d miss all the bizarre licensing cash-ins: The Mork & Mindy/Laverne & Shirley/Fonz Hour boldly ignores the Chachi-centric components of the Happy Days universe; The Pac-Man/Rubik, The Amazing Cube Hour reveals what Pac-Man’s dog eats (power pellets) and what keeps puzzles awake at night (evil magicians;) Saturday Supercade gives us a look at the inner life of Q*Bert and friends, since I guess that Pac-Man bet paid off in some way; Police Academy, Punky Brewster and Rambo all enjoyed bafflingly unnecessary Saturday morning cartoons thanks to Ruby-Spears; there was also a cartoon about time-travelling laser tag enthusiasts. Compared to those projects, a Chuck Norris cartoon looks downright reasonable. What could go wrong?


  • Hilariously campy. Ever since Susan Sontag, critics have been trying to figure out the value and merit of camp in their personal definition of what makes any given cultural artifact worthwhile. With an entire catalog of Ruby-Spears gems waiting in the wings, it was inevitable that I’d have to deal with this eventually, but if I stray too far into J. Bryan Lowder territory please feel free to come to my house and shoot me in the head, or force me to watch every episode of the Rubik’s Cube show. Unfortunately, thanks to people like Lowder writing 16-part thinkpieces on the subject, it’s become something like an empty signifier. For all the shit he talks about Sontag, he manages to obfuscate the subject more profoundly than ever. One of the things I find most confusing about camp is a question that should rightly be confusing for any critic—intent. Sontag says that “One must distinguish between naïve and deliberate Camp. Pure Camp is always naive. Camp which knows itself to be Camp (“camping”) is usually less satisfying.” This allows for the campy possibilities of Kommandos or Showgirls, but it disqualifies some of the most universally acknowledged camp touchstones—Batman, Rocky Horror Picture Show, everything John Waters ever worked on. Meanwhile, we have the usually impeccable Emily Nussbaum calling Ryan Murphy’s polished turds camp, and the Oxford English Dictionary is content to make it synonymous with “effeminate and homosexual.” (I am sad to report that the only subsections of the queer community that Kommandos makes a direct appeal to are the Men’s Health crowd.) Where this gets prickly is simply this—usually I’d penalize a show for being aggressively, cartoonishly bad. But with something like this I can’t help but laugh—to return to John Waters, it’s “tragically ludicrous.” I totally get why Cartoon Network bought the rights to this, because even a nocturnal viewer who isn’t totally baked will get a chuckle out of Norris disarming three gunmen with something that appears to be an oversized grocery store can retrieval gripper, or Kommando Pepper (Kathy Garver, Family Affair) dislodging two assassins from the trunk of her car by turning on the retractable spoiler, or a villain called Claw (Bill Martin, writer of Harry & The Hendersons) threatening his minion over video phone by telling her to “remember this” and waggling his claw hand at the camera. But you can’t let camp be a blank check for everything, so let’s dig into the fertile loam of weakness.


  • Chuck Norris. Well, he may be so badass that he can kill two stones with one bird and delete the Recycling Bin, but he’s a goddamned terrible actor. I think he knows it too—he once famously said of David Carradine that he’s “about as good a martial artist as I am an actor.” ZAP! That line was so delicious that The Telegraph couldn’t help but use it in the poor man’s obituary, but I guess they deserved a treat for restraining themselves re. chokeplay. Anyway, maybe it’s helpful to have Chuck Norris on camera so you can marvel at the balletic ass-kicking, but this is cartoon Chuck Norris so the feats of martial arts are decidedly less impressive. I mean, he could also grapple his foes with steel tentacles. It’s a cartoon. He can do anything. And god knows he isn’t a good voice actor, either.
  • Racism. The Wikipedia page describes the Kommandos as “radically diverse,” complete with scare quotes. It’s easy to read this as sarcasm, because Kommandos’ idea of diversity is white people, Asian people, and no one else. This flaccid attempt at “radical” diversity supposes that only whites and Asians can be good at martial arts, ignoring a lengthy tradition of black martial artists and pretending that capoeira isn’t a thing. Many if not most TV shows erase people of color and make them invisible, and I often don’t point it out because it’s considered poor form as a critic to criticize a show for something it’s not. So in that spirit, let’s criticize Kommandos for what it DOES do with its Asian characters. There’s Tabe (Robert Ito, Quincy M.E.,) a sumo wrestler who stops in the middle of a fight to wolf down a tray of fried chicken. Who cares about the fact that sumo wrestlers aren’t hopeless gluttons but instead deliberately gain weight and bulk up in both fat and muscle for power in the ring when you can make lazy fat jokes? There’s Kimo (Keone Young, Men In Black 3) an ahistorical samurai given to sage pronouncements like “Sometimes to get rid of the cat the bird has to invite him inside his cage.” And what does he mean by that pearl of wisdom? “Let’s do that old trick where we lure the prison guard into our cell, knock him out and escape.” Dressing your cliches up in the garb of a magical Asian doesn’t make them less cliche. Finally, we have the diminutive Too Much (Mona Marshall, South Park.) You may be confused about whether or not that’s a name an actual person would have, until you realize that the cutting edge of racism has just given Norris an upgraded version of Short Round from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Woof.
  • Astonishing mixture of incoherence and cliche. I didn’t know it was possible to make something that was simultaneously total gibberish and riddled with tired, careworn stock tropes, yet here we are. This is the first episode of this show, and we’re given no introduction or explanation as to why the star of that Rambo knockoff is leading a crack team of fighters in the defense of some kind of Sealab. No, it’s not THAT Sealab—Hanna-Barbera owns the rights to that. It just looks kind of like it and is called the same thing. Fine. So Claw dispatches some people to capture the head scientist, Dr. Sanford (uncredited) so they can read his mind using a CAT scan (!?) and thereby divine the blueprints to Sealab, which they subsequently invade in order to threaten the world’s coastal cities with Sealab’s Wave Reactor. The Wave Reactor generates gigantic destructive tidal waves. Why a presumably peaceful underwater research station (I think?) would want to invent something that does that is anyone’s guess. Here come the cliches—Chuck must sneak into a supposedly impregnable fortress through a handy pregnable spot and take down the whole operation while the rest of his team is being held captive. Of course, they escape using the aforementioned trick the very stupid guard cliche and there is a final confrontation where the baddies activate the Irreversible Self-Destruct Mechanism that turns out to be reversible when you just turn the power off. Through martial arts, of course. Did you know that cutting the electricity stops a tidal wave in its tracks? All that energy just goes nowhere, because of Sealab.

Motivation: Well, I have no earthly idea who the Kommandos are or why they care about any of this, but Claw and his friends want money. Which I guess is better than just being evil because somebody’s got to be evil if there’s going to be a plot. Not much better, though.

Final Episode Judgment: 2/10. Comparing this to Shnookums and Meat shows us that it’s better to attempt seriousness and fail than to attempt humor and fail. At least if you fail at being serious you’ll make the viewer laugh and hipsters 30 years into the future will still view your work for the lulz. Ain’t nobody gives a fuck about Shnookums and Meat, except me, and I have mental health problems.

NEXT TIME: I crack open the ribcage of the medical drama like a rusty drawbridge as I review Emergency!

Case Study 39: Chuck Norris: Karate Kommandos, Episode 1–“Deadly Dolphin”