A Megalosaurus Hit?

All in the prehistoric-family comedy

Get a load of Earl Sinclair. He's the natural evolution of Ralph Kramden, Archie Bunker and Dan (Mr. Roseanne) Conner. Except evolution isn't quite the word. The year is 60,000,003 B.C. Earl is a cigar-chomping, blue-collar megalosaurus, and he's just been canned from his job as a tree pusher for the Wesayson Development Corp. Lumbering into the kitchen of his prehistoric digs, he has only gruff words for his wife: "Look, I don't give a damn about your day." Fran Sinclair, a megaschnozzed dino who makes Marge Simpson look like Laura Petrie, responds by coyly stepping away from the kitchen table to reveal an egg--her egg, their egg. Earl spies it and grunts, "That better be breakfast."

It's not, and Earl's mistake is the essence of "Dinosaurs," a sometimes heavy-handed but mostly warmblooded sitcom beginning April 26 on ABC. There's nothing really new about a show that plumbs family values and tests the limits of civilization. What makes "Dinosaures" special is the cut of its characters. This is no cartoon. Earl et al. are fully formed figures who bellow and belch the same way Danny Thomas spit coffee: realistically. The notion for the show was hatched by Muppeteer Jim Henson. Before his death last May, Henson took the idea to Disney as part of a plan to sell Henson Associates for $100 million-plus. When their deal fell apart in December 1990, "Dinosaurs" was one of the few projects to keep its feet. Last fall, Disney added executive producer Michael ("My Two Dads") Jacobs to the team.

Just how well the Hensen staff, wholly imported from New York and London, is getting along with Disney depends on whom you ask. Jim Henson's son Brian, now company president, insists, "In a lot of ways, I've been able to forget it's Disney." But one Henson insider paints a darker picture. "It's been very hard,"the source says. "At Henson, the creative people have always controlled the business. At Disney, the business people control everything. They're total control freaks."

With or without friction, there are lots of reasons why Disney and Henson want the marriage to succeed. For Disney, "Dinosaures" offers untold millions in merchandising opportunities, though its hard to imagine a smoking, cussing megalosaurus adorning lunch boxes or escorting Snow White in the Rose Bowl Parade. For Henson, it's the first big project since the patriarch's death. Should "Dinosaures" become extinct, the company's health could suffer. So far, though, there's nothing in the script that says any of them are doomed.