“My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic” ran from 2010 to 2019, and famously spawned a group of passionate adult fans who dubbed themselves Bronies. During its nine-year run, the show and its spinoff movies remained popular mainstays of children’s entertainment.
Based on a line of Hasbro toys from 1983, the original “My Little Pony” cartoon show was little more than a 30-minute toy commercial, one of many of the era. Despite this, the show became incredibly well-liked by a generation of kids, and the “My Little Pony” shows and toys have continued to be part of the pop consciousness ever since. The original toy line was designed by illustrator Bonnie Zacherle, who also designed the Nurfuls toys in 1985. Incidentally, Bonnie was the niece of legendary horror host John Zacherle.
When “Friendship is Magic” was released in 2010, the ponies themselves were drastically redesigned to have a friendlier, wider-eyed appearance, and the writing on the show just as drastically improved. True to its title, “Friendship is Magic” centered largely on stories about the difficulties of getting along and the power of healthy relationships. It was suddenly a lot less cynical than its commercialized origins would have a viewer believe.
The animators and designers behind the scenes of “Friendship” were, it seems, a lot more media savvy than their forebears, at least when it came to pop culture references. In order to keep their minds occupied, many designers would throw in cute homages into the backgrounds of certain episodes, perhaps no more notably than in the season two episode “The Cuite Pox” (November 12, 2011), which introduced the characters Jeff Letrotski, Walter, and Donny, characters clearly inspired by the 1998 comedy “The Big Lebowski.”
In “The Cutie Pox,” the show’s central ponies were all idly bowling at the Ponyville Bowling Alley. The characters, it should be noted, walk on all fours and have no fingers, making bowling a bit of a difficult task. When the young Scootaloo (Madeleine Peters) kicks a ball incorrectly, it careens across the alley, causing two familiar ponies to duck out of the way. Their hair and clothes and setting match Jeff Bridges’ and John Goodman’s characters from “The Big Lebowski,” a film for which bowling was a common motif. Also seen in the background were ponies made to look like Steve Buscemi’s Donny and John Turturro’s Jesus.
The ponies have traditionally bore colorful “tattoos” on their hind quarters called, in the myth of the show, cutie marks. Cutie marks tend to relate to the pony’s interest or character. Jeff Letrotski bears an unrolled red rug, an object that Jeff Lebowski had stolen from him at the outset of the Coen Bros. movie. Walter bore a suitcase as his cutie mark, a reference to a bag full of dirty laundry that the Coens’ Walter intended to use as a ringer in a kidnapping ransom exchange. Donny’s cutie mark was merely a bowling ball flanked by two bowling pins.
The characters started as a cute background joke, but they would continue to appear in crowd scenes in future “Friendship is Magic” episodes. All told, Jeff Letrotski would appear in eight episodes of the show. Walter would show up in three episodes. Donny … Well, Donny would seemingly suffer a sad fate, very much like his live-action counterpart.
The fifth season episode “Slice of Life” (June 13, 2015), the show’s 100th episode overall, was about a wedding between Cranky Doodle (Richard Newman) and Matilda (Brenda Crichlow) that was meant to be planned by the show’s main characters — mane characters? — who were busy fending off a monster attack. The episode contained any number of Easter eggs for the show’s many fans, including the return of Jeff Letrotski and Walter, who could be seen as guests at the wedding.
Fans with sharp eyes might notice that the Walter pony is holding a can of coffee grounds in his lap. This is a reference to the ending of “The Big Lebowski” wherein Donny unexpectedly suffered a heart attack and died. Rather than pay a great deal of money to the crematorium, Walter took away Donny’s ashes in a Folger’s Instant Coffee container. It seems that the pony version of Donny met a similar end.
Who’s responsible for all these Lebowski ponies? In 2012, Comics Alliance published an explanation from co-executive producer Meghan McCarthy where she pointed to supervising director Jayson Thiessen as the culprit, as he oversaw the show’s storyboards. The references were, of course, merely a matter of adult animators sneaking in-jokes and references for themselves, and was never intended to be understood by the show’s youth audience. They knew kids weren’t watching R-rated Coen Bros. movies.
Of course, once the characters had been modeled and animated, directors included them more and more until, voilà, they became part of the myth. The ponies, it seems, abided.
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Author: Witney Seibold
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November 21, 2022