Problem Child
Theatrical release poster
Directed byDennis Dugan
Produced byRobert Simonds
Written byScott Alexander
Larry Karaszewski
Music byMiles Goodman
CinematographyPeter Lyons Collister
Edited by
Distributed byUniversal Pictures
Release date
  • July 27, 1990 (1990-07-27)
Running time
81 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
Budget$10 million[2]
Box office$72.2 million[3]

Problem Child is a 1990 American black comedy film directed by Dennis Dugan in his directorial debut and produced by Robert Simonds. It stars John Ritter, Michael Oliver, Amy Yasbeck, Gilbert Gottfried, Jack Warden, and Michael Richards. It was released on July 27, 1990.

The film was panned by critics but was a box office success, grossing $72.2 million worldwide against a production budget of $10 million.

It was followed by two sequels, Problem Child 2 (1991) and Problem Child 3: Junior in Love (1995).


Ben Healy is a kind man working for his father, "Big Ben" Healy, a successful, but tyrannical sporting goods dealer running for mayor. Although Ben has worked for his father for ten years with nothing in return, his father plans on selling the company to the Japanese rather than giving it to his son, considering his son "too nice" to be his heir. Meanwhile, Ben and his wife, Flo, cannot conceive and visit a fertility doctor who states Flo is infertile. Wanting a child, Ben seeks help from adoption agent Igor Peabody, who presents him and Flo with a cute 7-year-old boy named Junior. However, he is a mischievous and incorrigible child. He often causes chaos, and is pen pals with serial killer Martin Beck, the "Bow-Tie Killer". The film is interspersed with scenes of an imprisoned Martin looking to escape and meet Junior.

Shortly after Ben and Flo bring Junior home, Big Ben visits them and is shocked that they adopted. Junior's bedroom catches fire when he shorts out the clown lights, and Big Ben calls him "The Devil". Junior throws Flo's cat at Big Ben and they both fall down the stairs and are injured. Next, Junior ruins a camping trip with the neighbors by urinating on the campfire and luring in a bear to scare Roy's kids. He then sabotages Lucy Henderson's 6th birthday party, after she snobbily bans him from her magic show for touching her presents. Ben gives Junior his lucky prune, which his grandfather gave him shortly before he died, and which he considered a special bond. Finally, Junior wins a Little League game by belting rival players with a bat for bullying him. Horrified, Ben decides to return Junior; however, after hearing from Mr. Peabody that Junior was returned 30 times, Ben decides to love him, which no one else has ever done before. However, Ben absent-mindedly leaves his keys in the car, and Junior drives through Big Ben's sporting goods store, leading to Ben's individual retirement account being seized by his father to pay for damages.

Martin escapes from prison and arrives at the house, with Junior asserting Martin is his uncle. Flo sees this as a chance to get rid of Junior and sleeps with Martin while Ben listens from the other room. The following morning, Martin kidnaps Flo and Junior by pretending to take her on their honeymoon, and him on a family outing, leaving a ransom note for Ben. Martin then reveals that he works alone. Ben first sees this as good riddance to both Flo and Junior, but he starts to realize Junior isn't as bad as he initially seemed; a series of Junior's drawings depict children and adults who mistreated him as deformed monsters with hostile surroundings but depict Ben as a happy man in a pleasant background, revealing that Junior truly valued him as a father and that Junior's behavior was simply a reaction to the mistreatment he had received most of his life.

Also finding the prune intact, Ben undertakes a mission to rescue Junior. Ben goes to Big Ben for an offer but he refuses. Enraged, Ben activates the camera while Big Ben is ranting and he ends up mooning the camera. He then commandeers Roy’s SUV and drives tracks in his yard. Ben catches up with Martin and Junior at the circus. Junior is rescued after escaping from Martin through a trapeze act, and he calls Ben "Dad" for the first time. Martin drives away, but the Healys are catching up. Flo, locked in a suitcase, tells Ben she wants a divorce. Eventually, the suitcase flies over the wall, and lands in the back of a pig farmer's truck heading to Mexico. Martin is arrested, but not before shooting Ben in the chest. Thinking he has died, Junior apologizes for everything he has done, promises not to be naughty again, and says he loves Ben; however, Ben wakes up and says he loves Junior too, much to Junior's joy. Ben then reveals he survived because the bullet hit the prune.

Junior asks if Ben will hold him to all he said about being nice. Ben denies it and advises Junior to just be himself, and the two hug. Ben and Junior start home, but not before Junior removes his bow-tie, and throws it over the bridge, following Ben's advice.



The film was shot on location in Texas, from October 2 to November 24, 1989. The primary locations were Dallas, Farmers Branch, Fort Worth, Irving, and Mesquite. Also, there were two weeks of reshoots in Dallas (see below) in March 1990.[4]

Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Richard Dreyfuss, Steve Martin, Rick Moranis and Kurt Russell were considered for the role of Little Ben before it was turned over to John Ritter. The part of Martin "The Bow-Tie Killer" Beck was originally offered to Christopher Lloyd, who turned it down because of his commitments with Back to the Future Part III, released two months before Problem Child,[5] and was replaced by Michael Richards; this was the second role, following UHF (1989), that Lloyd had turned down only to be taken by Richards.[6] A then-unknown child actor Macaulay Culkin reportedly auditioned for Junior before the role was taken by Michael Oliver.[5]

During a 2014 interview on Gilbert Gottfried's Amazing Colossal Podcast, screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski revealed that the story was inspired by the 1988 Los Angeles Times article "An Adopted Boy--and Terror Begins"[7] about a married couple suing an adoption agency after they were not informed that their adopted son had severe mental health issues with violent tendencies and had been previously returned to the agency multiple times.[7][8] While other writers pitched the story as a horror film in the vein of Bad Seed or The Omen, Alexander and Karaszewski thought it had potential as a comedy, envisioning a dark, adult satire of the then-popular trend in films where cute kids teach cynical adults how to love, as seen in Baby Boom, Parenthood (directly spoofed by the film's poster),[9][10] Look Who's Talking, Uncle Buck, Mr. Mom, Kindergarten Cop and Three Men and a Baby. However, the studio insisted upon turning it into a children's film, a conversion which necessitated numerous reshoots and rewrites, leading to a difficult production that left all involved disappointed and anticipating a box office failure. It defied these expectations, becoming a surprise hit and Universal's most profitable film of 1990 but was still so embarrassing for Alexander and Karaszewski (Alexander even cried after the cast and crew screening) that they tried to distance themselves from it, which proved difficult. Studios were initially reluctant to hire them or take them seriously based on their work on such a prominent disreputable film but, as the years went by, they would eventually come to work with executives who were children when it first came out, grew up watching its frequent TV airings, and were excited to be meeting its writers. Looking back, they still feel it's "a mess" but take some pride in being involved with one of the "very few [PG-rated] children's films that black and that crazy," citing the scene where Flo commits adultery with Martin while Ben is catatonic and contemplating murdering Junior in the next room as an example. They added, "And it's funny."[8]

In 2015 Dennis Dugan revealed that he was hired to direct the film, his first feature one (he'd previously directed episodes of the TV series Moonlighting, Wiseguy, and Hunter), after jumping on a coffee table in a meeting with Universal executives and saying, "You're looking at me like I'm fucking nuts, and this is what we want. We want this kind of chaos." Dugan suggested John Ritter, with whom he'd worked as an actor before turning to direct, for the role of Ben Healy. The studio was initially reluctant, feeling they needed a more famous actor, but eventually relented. Jack Warden turned down the role of "Big Ben" Healy before Dugan offered him half of his net points; he was so touched that he took the part, although he refused Dugan's offer. Amy Yasbeck was cast as Flo; she and Ritter fell in love during production, eventually marrying in 1999; Ritter died in 2003. Both Ritter and Gilbert Gottfried were allowed to ad lib while filming, but Universal reprimanded Dugan for shooting too much footage of the latter. The film's first test screening was disastrous, with 70 percent of the audience walking out, verbal complaints from viewers, and a score of only 30. The studio forced two weeks of reshoots, including a retooled ending and the addition of key scenes, such as Lucy's birthday party.[11]


Box office

The film debuted at third place.[12] It went on to be a commercial success at the box office, grossing $54 million domestically and $72 million worldwide.

Critical response

The film received negative reviews upon its release. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a rare approval rating of 0% based on 29 reviews, and an average rating of 2.27/10. The site's critical consensus reads: "Mean-spirited and hopelessly short on comic invention, Problem Child is a particularly unpleasant comedy, one that's loaded with manic scenery chewing and juvenile pranks".[13] On Metacritic, it has a score of 27 out of 100 based on reviews from 12 critics, indicating "generally unfavorable reviews".[14] Audiences surveyed by CinemaScore gave the film a grade "A-" on scale of A to F.[15]

The film is heavily censored when shown on television, due to the remarks made about adoption, which critics saw as insensitive.[16] It was not screened for critics prior to its release.[16]

Hal Hinson, writing for The Washington Post:

Dugan has a brisk, imaginative comic style; he sets up his gags well so that there's still some surprises in the punch lines when they come. Essentially, the problem here is the same as the problem in Gremlins 2. It's basically about tearing stuff up, and after a while you grow tired of seeing variations on the same joke of a cute kid committing horrible atrocities.[17]

Protests over posters

One of the posters for the film (shown above) showed a cat in a tumble dryer, with the implication being that Junior had put it inside.[16] A group named In Defence Of Animals organized protests against the posters, and some cinemas took them down in response.[16] Director Dennis Dugan later issued a disclaimer saying that "kitty in the dryer" was metaphorical and never an actual scene in the movie. The protests sparked the inspiration for the film's sequel, this time with a poster of John Ritter inside a dryer looking out, while the cat stands by the dryer.


For the film (as well as The Adventures of Ford Fairlane and Look Who's Talking Too), Gilbert Gottfried was nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Supporting Actor, but lost to Donald Trump in Ghosts Can't Do It.

Home media

The film was more successful on home video.[18] The VHS version adds an extra bit just before the closing credits, in which Junior interrupts it to tell the audience that he'll be back next summer for Problem Child 2. Then he disappears and a loud flatulent noise is heard, followed by Ben shouting "Junior!", him laughing, then the closing credits roll. The VHS version was released on January 31, 1991.

The first DVD release was released by GoodTimes Entertainment on May 1, 2001. It and Problem Child 2 were released together on DVD in the US on March 2, 2004, as a package entitled Problem Child Tantrum Pack. They were presented in open-matte full screen only.[19] However, no home video release thus far features the deleted footage shown on TV airings of it.

The film was re-released on the Family Comedy Pack Quadruple Feature DVD (with other comedy films like Kindergarten Cop, Kicking & Screaming, and Major Payne) in anamorphic widescreen (being its first widescreen Region 1 DVD release) on August 5, 2008.[20]

It was released on Blu-ray on October 10, 2017. Problem Child 2 was released on Blu-ray on May 15, 2018.

TV Version

Problem Child first aired on NBC-TV on September 15, 1991,[21] with 12 minutes of previously deleted scenes.



The film inspired two sequels: the first, Problem Child 2, was released theatrically in 1991; the second, Problem Child 3: Junior in Love, was a television film aired on NBC in 1995. The first one brought back the original cast in their original roles and picked up where the first film ended. However, Yasbeck was given a new role with a new dynamic opposite to her original character. In the third and final film, Ben and Junior were recast with William Katt and Justin Chapman, while Gottfried and Warden reprised their roles as Igor Peabody and Big Ben and does not follow the storyline of the first two films.

Television series

Main article: Problem Child (TV series)

The film was adapted into an animated television series that aired on USA Network for two seasons, from October 31, 1993, to December 4, 1994. Gottfried was the only original cast member to be featured as a voice-over actor, making him the only cast member involved in all three films as well as the cartoon (Warden was in all three films, but not the TV series).

In 2015, NBC ordered a pilot for a live-action TV series based on the film, produced by STXtelevision, Imagine TV, and NBCUniversal.[22] It was never produced.


  1. ^ "PROBLEM CHILD (PG)". British Board of Film Classification. August 22, 1990. Retrieved January 15, 2015.
  2. ^ "Box office / business for Problem Child (1990)". IMDb. Retrieved May 12, 2016.
  3. ^ "Search Box Office Mojo". Archived from the original on December 30, 2013. Retrieved December 6, 2012.
  4. ^ Daily Variety Magazine; February 26, 1990 Issue; Page 2
  5. ^ a b "Problem Child / Trivia". TV Tropes. Retrieved January 6, 2019.
  6. ^ O'Neil, Sean (March 23, 2015). "We got it all on UHF: An oral history of "Weird Al" Yankovic's cult classic". The A.V. Club. Retrieved January 6, 2019.
  7. ^ a b "An Adopted Boy-and Terror Begins". Los Angeles Times. January 4, 1988. Retrieved May 12, 2016.
  8. ^ a b "GILBERT GOTTFRIED'S AMAZING COLOSSAL PODCAST!". Archived from the original on December 29, 2014.
  9. ^ "Parenthood and Problem Child videocassette cover". Archived from the original on December 31, 2014. Retrieved November 25, 2019.
  10. ^ "Problem Child Is Coming Back In This Form". October 2, 2014. Retrieved May 12, 2016.
  11. ^ "'Problem Child' Turns 25: Director on John Ritter Ad-Libs, Test Audience Walkouts". The Hollywood Reporter. July 26, 2015. Retrieved May 12, 2016.
  12. ^ "'Ghost' Hovers Behind No. 1 'Presumed Innocent' : WEEKEND BOX OFFICE". Los Angeles Times. July 31, 1990. Retrieved January 13, 2011.
  13. ^ "Problem Child". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved July 2, 2019.
  14. ^ "Problem Child". Metacritic. Retrieved January 15, 2015.
  15. ^ "Cinemascore". Archived from the original on December 20, 2018. Retrieved July 28, 2019.
  16. ^ a b c d Mathews, Jack (August 11, 1990). "The Problem With Universal's 'Problem Child'". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved January 13, 2011.
  17. ^ Hal Hinson (July 28, 1990). "'Problem Child' (PG)". The Washington Post.
  18. ^ Hunt, Dennis (February 21, 1991). "VIDEO RENTALS : Three New Players Enter the Top Five". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved January 11, 2011.
  19. ^ " version 9". Retrieved May 12, 2016.
  20. ^ "Family Comedy Pack Quadruple Feature DVD (Widescreen) - Universal Studios Store". Archived from the original on September 30, 2011. Retrieved November 25, 2019.
  21. ^ "Sunday TV". NY Daily News. New York City, New York. September 15, 1991.
  22. ^ Nellie Andreeva (January 29, 2015). "Problem Child Comedy Based On Movie Gets NBC Pilot Order". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved March 23, 2017.