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Is Pixar’s Inside Out Just a Herman’s Head Rip-Off?

The moment I heard the premise of Pixar’s new “masterpiece” Inside Out (that’s not me calling it a masterpiece; that’s NPR, io9, The Daily Beast, etc.) I assumed it was at least vaguely related to the old Fox sitcom Herman’s Head.  Oh, really, Pixar, you’re going inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl to visit the personifications of her primary emotions – Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black), all of whom congregate in “headquarters.”  In the immortal words of George Harrison watching the Bee Sharps perform on top of Moe’s Bar on The Simpsons, “It’s been done.

What’s Herman’s Head?

The year was 1991.  The world turned its weary eyes and ears to Seattle for the amazing music and often indecipherable lyrics of Nirvana and Pearl Jam.  Terminator 2: Judgement Day added the phrase “liquid metal” to our nightmares.  And Saved By the Bell‘s assault on the impressionable minds of the world’s pre-teens continued unabated.  On Sunday nights on Fox, a new show called Herman’s Head premiered, starring William Ragsdale (Fright Night, Mannequin 2) as Herman Brooks, a young fact-checker at a magazine publisher.  It was an otherwise unremarkable workplace sitcom, with Herman seeking to please his eccentric boss and keep the peace with his two female co-workers, one bitchy (Jane Sibbet), one nice (Yeardley Smith).  Hank Azaria was even around as Herman’s womanizing best friend Jay.

But that was really only half of the show.  Just like Inside Out, the main attraction was delving into Herman’s head to check in on four characters representing his psyche: intellect (Peter Mackenzie), fear (Rick Lawless), compassion (Molly Hagan), and lust (Ken Hudson Campbell), gathered together in a large attic-like room filled with random junk and filing cabinets for memories.  Herman’s Head super explanatory opening credits sequence laid all of this out for audiences:

The show lasted for 3 seasons, making it one of many relatively short-lived Fox sitcoms from the era in which the network had Married With Children, The Simpsons, Cops, In Living Color, The Arsenio Hall Show and not much else.  However, it’s always been an odd curiosity for TV buffs for a variety of reasons beyond its memorable premise.  When it premiered, The Simpsons was entering its third season, exploding in popularity and enhancing interest in anything remotely Simpsons-related.  As such, Herman’s Head was always the place to see what the voice of Lisa Simpson (Yeardley Smith) looked like.  The show even lampshaded this, having Smith’s character flat out ask Herman at one point, “I don’t sound that much like Lisa Simpson, do I?”  To a lesser degree, you could also watch to see what the voice of Moe, Apu, Chief Wiggum (Hank Azaria) looked like.  Jane Sibbet, who played Herman’s ice-queen co-worker, went straight from the show to portraying Ross’ ex-wife-turned-lesbian throughout the entire run of Friends, and Molly Hagan has become a frequent guest star on various TV shows, currently appearing as the mom on The CW’s iZombie.

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Jane Sibbet on Friends
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Molly Hagan on iZombie

The show is well-remembered enough that several of the cast members reunited a couple of years ago for a Funny or Die sketch about a sex scandal plaguing Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain.  They called it, what else, “Herman Cain’s Head.” 

If not for Inside Out, that would probably be the extent of the legacy for Herman’s Head, which is really already more than you’d expect for a short-lived 90s sitcom.  However, as soon as Pixar released a plot description for Inside Out along with the eventual teasers and trailers the internet seemed to collectively realize, “Wait, isn’t that just like Herman’s Head?”

How is Inside Out similar to Herman’s Head?

inside-out-bannerThe basic premise is pretty much the same.  Yes, the specific emotions on display (joy/sadness/disgust/fear/anger for Inside Out, intellect/compassion/lust/fear for Herman’s Head) and the total number of them (5 for Inside Out, 4 for Herman’s Head) aren’t exactly the same, with “fear” being the only to overlap between the two.  However, the idea of going into someone’s head to visit personifications of the various emotions guiding their actions is the same; Inside Out just takes the same premise and runs much further with it.

How Does Inside Out Differ From Herman’s Head?

  • Inside Out actually starts from the very beginning of the girl’s life, quickly showing us how her emotions developed before taking us up to her as an 11-year-old; Herman’s Head simply dropped us into a grown man’s life.
  • Inside Out occasionally offers glimpses into the minds of other characters; Herman’s Head only ever stayed in, well, Herman’s Head, although there were plans to expand from that if they’d been renewed for a fourth season.
  • Inside Out color coordinates its characters (e.g., red = anger, green = disgust, blue = sadness) not just in appearance but also in the corresponding color of the orb-like objects representing the little girl’s memories; Herman’s Head simply assigned the emotions easy identifiable costumes (e.g., a tailored suit for intellect, a fraternity T-shirt for lust).
  • Inside Out turns its “headquarters” into a mission control-like atmosphere whereas the attic-like hangout for Herman’s Head‘s emotions was far less organized.
  • Inside Out expands its setting considerably, establishing that beyond “headquarters” there are various theme park-like islands governing personality (Goofball Island, Friends Island, Family Island, etc.); Herman’s Head never did anything remotely similar to that.
  • Inside Out deals heavily with the importance of memories to forming who we are, devising a classification system wherein there are crucial “core memories” as well as items designed for short and long-term memory.  We see these memories stored on book shelf-like structures in the midst of a maze-like environment, with rather blue collar workers charged with stocking the new memories and discarding the old.  Herman’s Head never did any of that, at best having its emotions going through filing cabinets to locate memories.

Ultimately, Inside Out starts off as a clear Herman’s Head imitator, but it takes a familiar idea and makes it so much better, plunging for emotional depth instead of easy sitcom joke, teaching little girls that it’s okay to be sad some times instead of merely peeking in on some guy’s head as personifications of his feminine and masculine side duke it out as he plots his next romantic conquest.

Still, while it may be clear to TV junkies like myself that Inside Out‘s premise is not exactly the great, unique idea the trailers wanted us to believe, the actual backstory behind the film is kind of adorable.  Director and co-writer Peter Docter didn’t draw any inspiration from Herman’s Head whatsoever.  Any similarities are completely coincidental.  His idea for the movie came from watching his daughter and wondering what the heck was going on in her head.  As he discussed in conversation with Screen Rant:

I have [pictures of my daughter where she’s] being all goofy and she’s got a broken arm and she’s making a funny face. And then when she was 11, she was more kind of like, “Ugh…” I think that rang true for me as a kid. I definitely went through a big change. As a parent, it was really tough, because you don’t want your kid to be sad. Also, personally, I really value the sort of goofy, funny play on the ground with dolls and stuff. That’s gone away. That’s not going to be a part of my life anymore. The story is kind of told from a parent’s point of view, Joy being this surrogate parent. Trying to figure out what’s going on in our kids’ heads is what led to this movie.

And as he explained to NPR’s Terry Gross on Fresh Air when asked what gave him the idea of personifying five emotions and having them at the control room of the child’s brain?

The idea kind of started for me, “What would be fun to see in animation?  What have I not seen?”  I’ve seen a lot of movies about all of these different subjects.  For some reason, I got thinking about the human body.  I’ve seen movies about traveling through the blood stream and into the stomach and things.  What if we did this in the mind as opposed to the brain?  So, what if instead of blood vessels and dendrites we had consciousness and dream production?  That would allow us to have characters that represent emotions and that felt like exactly what animation does best – strong, opinionated caricatured personalities, and that just got me excited.

So, no, not a rip-off, at least not an intentional one.

Source: ScreenRant, NPR

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13 comments

  1. I really enjoyed it, though I don’t think I did as much as some others did. It didn’t have the tear jerker aspect as much to me. However, I was also hoping it would kind of go deeper. It’s a great platform and I was kind of hoping they might delve into the subject of mental illness.

    1. I think the term “masterpiece” has been thrown around with reckless abandon in reference to Inside Out by a lot of professional reviewers. I think it has raised expectations too much, and I also think that there is now a tendency to over-embrace seemingly original movies for what they represent in the current marketplace. I admire the heck of Inside Out and enjoyed it, but I think I fell victim to the hype and came away with one of those standard, “It’s good, but it’s not that good” kind of reactions. I get the impression that the film’s emotional wallop probably hits you much harder if you’re a parent, although the stuff with the imaginary friend was pretty great. Finally, someone combined Herman’s Head and Drop Dead Fred! And pretty much pulled it off!

  2. “Tiny people living inside your head driving you” is old as dirt. You could call Herman’s Head a ripoff of the 40s Disney short Reason and Emotion.

    1. Ultimately, whether or not a concept has been done before doesn’t matter as much as whether or not the new person does something more or different with it. Inside Out is similar to Herman’s Head, but it does so much more. Plus, whether or not the mimicry is intentional or not plays a role, and I really don’t think that Peter Docter was in any way thinking of Herman’s Head when he conceived of Inside Out. Also, I highly doubt he was thinking of the Disney short you mentioned since he told Terry Gross he thought it hadn’t been done in animation before yet it kind of had. He didn’t know that, though, and what he did was similar but so much more elaborate:

      Another “it’s kind of like this” example to throw on the pile is the British comic strip Numskulls, which The Hollywood Reporter recently profiled:

      http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/inside-revisiting-britains-numskulls-803854?utm_source=twitter

  3. Re: “Smith’s character flat out ask Herman at one point, ‘I don’t sound that much like Lisa Simpson, do I?'”

    In The Simpsons episode “Duffless” (Season 4:16), Lisa, giggling over the notion of pranking Bart, explains her laughter to Marge by saying, “I was just thinking of a joke I saw on Herman’s Head.” – https://youtu.be/jQbF-PwpBw0

  4. Great article. Loved “Herman’s Head” and most of the early 90’s Fox sitcoms (remember “Down The Shore” and “Shaky Ground”, not to mention “Flying Blind” starring a then-unknown actress we now dub “Madam Secretary”?).

    However, one clarification: “The Arsenio Hall Show” was not a Fox network thing; it was distributed by Paramount Pictures Domestic Television, though it ran on many Fox affiliates.

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