As Steven Speilberg looks into rebooting Animaniacs, Shaun Ponsonby pays tribute to one of his most beloved cartoons.
I do. I adored it – and still do. So much so that I forked out a lot of money to get all 99 episodes and the direct to video film on DVD from America. It appeared on Netflix recently, and apparently reached enough of an audience that this week it was announced that a reboot is seriously being considered.
For those who don’t remember, Animaniacs was one of Steven Speilberg’s forays into kids TV. The best remembered of these were Tiny Toon Adventures and Animaniacs, along with the latter’s spin-off Pinky and the Brain.
Tiny Toons came along first, in September of 1990. The show featured infant counterparts to the original Looney Tunes characters attending Acme Looniversity, where they are taught to be funny by classic the Warner Bros. stable, such as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Sylvester the Cat, Wile E. Coyote and Elmer Fudd.
The then-President of Warner Bros. wanted to breathe new life into the classic stable of characters, but also wanted to create something new rather than just reproduce the same ideas. At the time, there were shows such as Tom & Jerry Kids and A Pup Named Scooby Doo showcasing junior versions of beloved characters. On approaching Speilberg in 1987, the idea of young counterparts was more appealing to him than Young Bugs Bunny. He initially wanted to make a film based off the idea, but the idea was abandoned in favour of a series.
Tiny Toon Adventures was an immediate success, and work began on a new show that pushed the Tiny Toons ethos even further; Animaniacs, a name taken from an episode of Tiny Toons.
The programme was almost like a variety show. There were a number of short segments each week – be they sketches, short jokes or songs. It was headlined by Yakko, Wakko and Dot Warner – the Warner Brothers (and the Warner Sister). The premise that they were created in 1930 during the golden era of animation, with the studio desperate for cartoon stars. However, the Warners were totally out of control, and their films made no sense. As a consequence, they were locked in the studio vault, never to be released, while the Warner kids themselves were locked in the iconic water tower on the Warner Bros. studio lot, with all knowledge of them being denied to the public, until one day…they escaped.
Co-creator Tom Ruegger stated in an interview with Channel Awesome; “We’d had this success with Tiny Toons and Mr Speilberg and a bunch of people decided ‘Well, we have to make the sequel now’. We were looking for the lead characters for the show. Steven said ‘We need a billboard name, we can’t just go out with nobody’. That stuck in my head – billboard character – so I was walking across the lot one day. I saw the water tower, and thought that was sort of a billboard.”
Yakko, Wakko and Dot (full name: Princess Angelina Contessa Louisa Francesca Banana Fanna Bo Besca III) were anthropomorphic characters, though on which animal they were based was never made clear. Design wise, they appear to be based on Bosko, one of the early stars of Warner Bros. cartoons. He was pretty un-PC by today’s standards, with a characterisation based on blackface minstrel characters from vaudeville. It is no surprise that when the character appeared on Tiny Toons, he was depicted as a dog, with very few of his original character traits intact. This design was later used as the basis for the Warners.
The Warner‘s personalities, however, were based on Ruegger’s three children. Yakko was a smart aleck and leader of the group. Wakko spoke like a lobotomised Ringo Starr and ate everything he could find. Finally, Dot was cute and kind of sassy, constantly playing up her cuteness to her advantage. The children (or “Sibs”, as Yakko liked to say) acted as the anchors of the show, and would often be used to bridge the gap between segments.
The humour was off the wall and took pot shots and all manner of pop culture fare, including other kids shows. In one segment, the Warners found themselves on a show called Baloney The Dinosaur. Parodying Barney, Baloney was psychotically chirpy, giggling like a maniac throughout and insisted the reluctant Warners constantly sing. They were alone with him, as the other kids on the show had escaped. They end by singing The Anvil Song, and you can pretty much gather what happened to Baloney as a consequence.
Despite how destructive they were, the characters on Animaniacs adhered to the same rule as Bugs Bunny – they only became mean and conniving when they were pushed to it. They only knowingly destroyed complete and utter arseholes. That’s the only way you can root for them.
But the show featured a host of incredible characters that played out as Looney Tunes might have in the 90s.
One of the most popular was Slappy Squirrel – she was an old, washed up mid-level cartoon character who had been around the block had all the dirt on her more famous colleagues. They took the concept of Screwy Squirrel, a character from Tex Avery cartoons, switched the gender and became a cranky old timer. Slappy often complained that nobody understood comedy today, and fell back on the classic cartoon clichés of dynamite-laden slapstick.
Possibly the best remembered Slappy short, though, is altogether more adorable. In Bumbie’s Mom, Slappy takes her adoring nephew Skippy to a screening of Bumbie, a sickly sweet cartoon about a young deer called Bumbie and his friend Bumper (named as such because he constantly bumps his arse on a tree trunk) in an obvious reference to Bambi. When Bumbie’s mother is killed, Skippy goes into hysterics. Despite pleading from Slappy, her telling him that Bumbie’s mom was an actress and used to date George Jetson from The Jetsons, Skippy won’t let it go. They visit Bumbie’s mum at home, and all is well until the plane ride back when Skippy watches Old Yeller.
The Goodfeathers were a Goodfellas parody that followed the lives of three Italian-American pigeons; Bobby (DeNiro’s Jimmy), Pesto (Pesci’s Tommy) and Squit (Liotta’s Henry). They answered to the Godpigeon, modelled after Brando’s Don Corleone but even more inaudible. Pesto was short tempered and would misunderstand, then overreact to something the naïve and enthusiastic Squit would say. The following is a typical exchange.
Squit: “Whatever you say, Pesto, you’re the boss.”
Pesto: “What did you say?”
Squit: “I’m just saying you’re the boss.”
Pesto: “What? Are you saying I am Tony Danza, is that what you’re saying?”
Squit: “No, no, that’s not what I’m saying.”
Pesto: “Oh, so what you are saying is that I am Bruce Springsteen I am wearing a red bandana to sing Born In The USA for you. Is that what you’re saying?”
Squit: “No, I’m not saying that.”
Pesto: “You’re saying that I am the boss?”
Squit: “Yeah, yeah, that’s what I’m saying.”
Pesto: “That’s it!”
…and the two engage in a cartoonish fight.
Of the minor characters, my favourites were the more surreal. Chicken Boo was a giant chicken who longed to be a human. He would dress up in different disguises and take on human job roles. At various times he was a writer, a Hollywood star, a cowboy, Santa Claus. They tended to follow the same format – Boo would be introduced as the very best at his job, everybody would fawn over him, apart from one person who would say he was a chicken. Everybody would ridicule the person who said he was a chicken, before there was some inevitable calamity and it would be revealed that Boo was, indeed, a giant chicken. He would then get thrown out and walk off into the sunset to his theme song; “You wear a disguise to be like human guys/But you’re not a man, you’re a chicken, Boo”.
And then there were Pinky & the Brain; two lab mice who were hell bent on taking over the world – “One is a genius, the other’s insane”. The immortal catchphrase would open and close each segment. Pinky would ask “What are we going to do tonight?”, before Brain would answer “Same thing we do every night, Pinky. Try to take over the world.”
Pinky & the Brain were based on two of the studio’s animators, the dynamic between the two rodents supposedly being strikingly similar to that of the animators. Voice actor Maurice LaMarche based Brain’s voice on Orson Welles. This came about as LaMarche would warm up before takes using the infamous outtakes of a recording session where Welles became irate and went off copy – which was later used as word for word as possible in a Pinky & the Brain short called Yes Always.
Their popularity was such that they were spun off into their own shows twice – Pinky & The Brain debuted in 1995, and lasted for 65 episodes, before they joined with Tiny Toons’ Elmyra for the ill-conceived Pinky, Elmyra & The Brain.
The common misconception about cartoons from the golden age of animation is that they were made for kids. That might be true of the nicey-nicey Disney shorts, but Looney Tunes in particular were not specifically aimed at children. It is only decades of the shorts appearing in children’s block programming that has made this the case. Viewing some of those cartoons with a watchful eye reveals popular culture references and adult jokes that certainly went over young people’s heads, and were shown during adult screenings.
Animaniacs was by far the most obvious continuation of that philosophy. Every once in a while there was a joke or comment that I didn’t remotely understand as a kid, usually followed by Yakko blowing a kiss into the camera and uttering “Good night, everybody!” Looking back on these jokes now, it is unbelievable that they were broadcast on a Saturday morning kids show. This one in particular has gone down in infamy for being pure filth:
Even Ruegger was amazed that joke was in the show; “We put that in and we said we’d let the censor have a laugh and call us, and I guess the censor was away that week because that’s still in there. Amazing.”
It didn’t end there. In one episode, the Warners sang an ode to Lake Titicaca, emphasising the first two syllables of “Titicaca” because, as the song goes they “really like saying the name”. In another, the three are in an English class, when this exchange happens;
Teacher: “Yakko, can you conjugate?”
Yakko: “Me? But I’ve never even kissed a girl.”
Teacher: “It’s easy, I’ll show you.”
Yakko: “Goodnight, everybody.”
One of the characters – Minerva Mink – was considered too sexually suggestive and was eventually dropped from the show.
Animaniacs was cancelled in 1998, after 99 episodes. The cancellation was not down to low ratings, the show was one of the highest rated in its timeslot. The problem was, it totally missed its target audience. Most of Animaniacs’ audience were college students and adults, not children. Like The Simpsons, Animaniacs built a strong online audience in the early days of the internet, but the network couldn’t justify the cost for that reason when it was the wrong viewership for the wrong show (who are they going to sell the advertising to?). Instead, they imported Anime series such as Pokemon and Dragonball Z to fill the slots.
Speilberg didn’t give up on animation, and his next venture Freakazoid struggled in the ratings, but like Animaniacs, gained a cult following.
There was one last hurrah for Animaniacs, a direct-to-video film called Wakko’s Wish in 1999 which reunited all of the show’s characters one final time. After that, they disappeared. The show has barely even been repeated in the UK, and there is no way it would get commissioned today.
Animaniacs won a prestigious Peabody Award in 1993. The honour is explained on the Peabody website thus; “This series, with appeal to adults as well as children, reminds us of the glory days of Hollywood animation and brings that period up-to-date with sparkling characters, witty dialogue, and stunning production.” That pretty much sums it up. Personally, I’d have gone for “Looney Tunes on speed”.
We’re living in a world of reboots and 90s nostalgia is rife, but I never thought I would be seeing Animaniacs rebooted. According to reports, both Ruegger and Speilberg are on board. If it happens, it will undoubtedly go to Netflix. I would definitely put it down as my second favourite cartoon of the 90s, after The Simpsons. You can harp on all you want about South Park, but what Animaniacs managed to do with more limitations on content is truly extraordinary.
If it happens – its either going to be a return to childhood, or a destroying of it. Tread carefully Speilberg. We don’t want another Kingdom of the Crystal Skull on our hands.