The Story of Madballs: Hated by Parents—Loved by Kids

James Logie
Photo via Reddit

What do you get when you take a nerf-like ball and mix it with a Garbage Pail Kid?

You’ve got something that disgusts parents and teachers and that kids of the ‘80s loved.

Madballs were a series of rubber ball toys created by Amtoy in the 1980s. They were designed with a grotesque appearance and each ball had an odd name and theme.

Madballs would expand into cartoons, video games, and comic books.

You could throw them, bounce them, they were unique, and probably what really drew kids to them: parents hated them.

Bodily functions will always be funny and that led to a great 80s toy. Here’s the story of Madballs.

Creating Madballs

Madballs came out in 1985 and were the creation of AmToy which was a part of American Greetings.

American Greetings is actually the world’s largest greeting card company ahead of Hallmark.

They had many divisions, one being called "Those Characters From Cleveland." They are responsible for bringing us things like:

  • Care Bears
  • Popples
  • My Pet Monster
  • Strawberry Shortcake
  • The Get Along Gang
  • Hollie Hobby

These guys were kind of heavyweights when it comes to 1980s nostalgia. But if you notice, they were primarily based on things girls tend to prefer.

They wanted to start catering specifically to boys.

Their first introduction specifically to boys was a plush “doll” called My Pet Monster. This would be a huge hit resulting in a successful cartoon show.

But what else specifically did boys like? Throwing a ball and gross-out humor.

Anything you can throw, catch or bounce is always going to be popular. And if you can mix in something gross, then so much the better.

In-house designers James Elliot, Mark Spangler, Vint Gosner, and Tom Kuebler were the first to work on Madballs.

They were pretty psyched to be able to work on something so unconventional and not the run-of-the-mill toys they'd always designed.

The Original Concept Behind Madballs

The group was playing around with ideas, and one that came up was the idea of passing around something like you would with a hot potato.

Music is playing, and the person stuck with the potato when the music stops were out. They then started drawing grotesque faces on sketches of potatoes.

They then had an unofficial competition to see who could draw the grossest face on the potato. Some of these drawings would go on to be on the original Madballs.

The executives had seen the drawings and realized they might have something sellable here.

Releasing Madballs to the World

Madballs were released in 1985 and were an immediate hit.

The original series would include 8 Madballs and were made up of the following characters:

  • Screamin Meemie: A screaming baseball with a large tongue
  • Slobulus: A drooling green creature with one eye hanging out of its socket.
  • Aargh: A one-eyed, blue Frankenstein's monster-style creature with stitching all over his face.
  • Horn Head: A horned cyclops with a nose ring (which is chained to his ear in the Art Asylum era).
  • Dust Brain: A mummy with rotting teeth and wrinkly teal skin.
  • Oculus Orbus: A bloodshot eyeball (later sporting a mouth in the Just Play era).
  • Skull Face: A skull with large eye sockets sporting tiny red eyes, a big set of teeth, and a partially exposed brain (which is depicted as a sentient being in the Just Play era).
  • Bash Brain: A red-skinned zombie with a partially exposed brain.

The toys were hot because they were a real novelty. They were also inexpensive.

But there was a problem: If you remember, the balls had some pretty hard parts to them and would result in some injuries as kids would throw them at each other.

The Madballs were already made with hard rubber, but also had protruding parts to them that could cause some real damage,

Some schools would ban their use on the playground. To avoid potential lawsuits, AmToy would move to a softer foam for the subsequent releases.

The Second Series

With the next launch you had characters like:

  • Snake Bait: A forked tongue-sporting gorgon (later depicted in the Just Play era as a monster being devoured by a snake)
  • Freaky Fullback: A mutant football player
  • Splitting Headache: A monster with the skin on half of his face peeled off.
  • Bruise Brother: An ugly biker with a battered blue helmet
  • Wolf Breath: A werewolf with large, rotten fangs dripping with blood (drool in the Art Asylum era)
  • Fist Face: A severed hand clutching an eyeball (later depicted as a severed hand with an eyeball emerging from it in the Just Play era)
  • Swine Sucker: An ugly, drooling boar
  • Lock Lips: A creature with its jaw locked shut and one eye covered by a riveted plate

The second series was maybe not as interesting, but for AmToy, the profit margins were now becoming massive--and they were making a fortune.

They then put out sports-based balls which they called Super Madballs. They included an American football called “Touchdown Terror," a soccer ball called “Goal Eater," and a basketball called “Foul Shot.”

They would also release Head-Popping Madballs which would capitalize on the huge action figure craze that was hitting the 80s such as G.I Joe, Star Wars, and Transformers.

These versions had a posable body that featured an ejectable head.

The Madballs brand was then put on everything possible including pencils, stickers, and erasers.

You would also see the inevitable knockoffs including “Burp Balls," “Weird Balls," and “Spit Balls.” These knock-offs were considered very sub-par to the original Madballs.

The Madballs Cartoon

There was free reign in the 1980s to produce any type of marketing/cartoon tie-in--and Madballs jumped all over that.

However, they were never able to get a show on the air that could be used to sell more toys.

They put together a direct-to-home video cartoon show as American Greetings partnered with Canadian animation company Nelvana.

The goal was to get a Saturday morning cartoon show--or syndicated one--out there. But it never happened.

What they put out was a 22-minute episode in 1986 that was called “Escape From Orb."

In Escape From Orb, they introduced a female Madball named “Freakella” who was modeled after the Bride of Frankenstein.

That show is up to watch on YouTube if you want to check it out. The video created a backstory which is always good to help sell more toys.

Madballs came from the planet Orb and were part of a rebellious rock band that was fighting back against the “Bad Balls” and their tyrannical oppression.

The second episode they put out was in 1987 and was called “Madballs Gross Jokes." It was basically a mix of Monty Python and You Can’t Do That On Television.

The Future of Madballs

Madballs was definitely more on the fad side, but they tried to keep going strong. They released a three-issue comic miniseries in 1986 and kept them going for ten issues until it was canceled.

There was also the Madballs video game which came out in 1988 by Ocean Software but was only released for 8-bit home computers like the Commodore 64.

Madballs would eventually fade away but then got a min revival. They were revived by a company called "Art Asylum" in 2007 and then by "Just Play" Inc in 2017.

"Just Play" worked with American Greetings to reissue some of the old characters while also releasing some new ones.

All in all, Madballs were a small part of the 1980s, but are still remembered fondly to this day.

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Personal trainer, podcaster, Amazon best-selling author. Writing about some health, a little marketing, and a whole lot of 1980s.


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