It was a drizzly afternoon several weeks ago when I discovered my new favorite historical figures, two gay dinosaur hunters who fell in love and traveled Europe together on a motorcycle, digging up fossils 100 years ago. Franz Nopcsa and Bajazid Doda were a scientist couple in the early 1900s, and they lived a life of adventure that seems like it came out of a pulp novel: Franz served as a spy during World War I, was the first person in history to hijack an airplane, and Doda's father once rescued the two men when they were captured by mountain bandits. What a life.
I stumbled across their story in an unexpected context: It was while I was researching the gay(ish) episode of the ‘90s sitcom Dinosaurs. Stay with me here, because there really is a connection between the animatronic foam puppets on ABC and the real-life Transylvanian dinosaur adventurers of the early 1900s.
My YouTube series Culture Cruise explores LGBTQ+ milestones from TV and film, and it was only a matter of time before I tackled this weird, weird show:
So, let’s start with Dinosaurs the TV show. It came from a late-80s concept of Jim Henson's, and then morphed into an early-90s Simpsons clone that was probably only sustained by the fortunate presence of Baby, a merchandise-generating character who was kind of an Elmo before Elmo really took off.
Dinosaurs did its best tackle timely topics to the extent that a show could in the TGIFridays block next to Full House and Step by Step, but I think it was in a no-win situation. The show was at its best when it was approaching The Simpsons’ style of incisive social commentary, but it was on a network and in a time slot that was all about domestic comfort and reassurance. How edgy can you be when you’re programmed next to a sitcom that literally has the lyrics “whatever happened to predictability” in the theme song?
Anyway, in Season 2, the show presents the character of Robbie (on whom I am just now realizing I had a crush as a teen) as an herbivore, with dialogue that is clearly a metaphor for homosexuality. “How long have you known” and “it’s not hereditary” lines get thrown around, along with disapproving parents.
The disapproving parents are what link this episode to the work of the real-life gay dinosaur hunters Franz Nopcsa and Bajazid Doda. In addition to being adventuresome lovers, Nopcsa contributed to the theory that dinosaurs take care of their young. He was among the first to try to reconstruct dinosaur social behavior, based in part on how fossils were found and also on bird behavior. His theories were pretty fringey at the time, but now they’re generally accepted as true.
Along those lines, in the Dinosaurs episode, Robbie is himself eaten by a larger carnivore and the parents mount a rescue. In the end, the parents realize that their conservative carnivorous values are hurting the family, and should be put aside for something better: Protecting their young. That’s about as subversive as I think an ABC sitcom could be at the time, while still resetting as shows must so they work in syndication.
I can’t imagine the showrunners had Nopcsa in mind when they wrote this episode (how I wish they had!), but it’s still so bizarre to hear this goofy sitcom validating theories of history’s greatest gay dinosaur-hunting couple. A few years later, Dinosaurs went off the air in a stunning finale: The characters are all killed by climate change. (ABC executives were reportedly livid about this.)
Showing the parents accepting their kids is a lovely conclusion to an episode; showing them causing their own extinction is a bit more... aggressive. Watching it today, both still feel rather timely—but that conclusion hits particularly hard, a reminder that we ought to at least try to be better than the dinosaurs if we don't want to end up like them.