For those Who Came in Late
I watched a lot of cartoons as a child. Like, a LOT. In general, there were two blocks – Saturday Morning Cartoons, and weekday afternoon cartoons. At some point in the late 1980s/early 1990s, Warner Brothers and Disney ended up facing off for those afternoon ratings. Disney had reinvigorated the animation department for movies (see The Little Mermaid) and decided to take that new attitude to television with likes of Ducktales, Gummi Bears, and Darkwing Duck. Disney also decided to reboot/reinterpret some of its older properties for the small screen and created Chip ‘n’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers and Tailspin.
At the same time WB did the same thing and used the success of Batman to bring DC superheroes to television. WB also tried to reinvigorate the old Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies properties (which may be the reason Space Jam exists). The first effort was almost a literal sequel in the form of Tiny Toon Adventures. This was a fine program in its own right featuring the next generation of Looney Toons being instructed by Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, etc. But following the success of “Tiny Toons” was the spiritual sequel, Animaniacs. This show was by the same creative team, but featured original characters not directly linked to any existing ones. Animaniacs was much more of a homage to old sketch comedy shows and often the segments had no link except cameos to show these characters did exist in the same world. It was amazing, but all good things have to come to an end. That is, until Netflix acquired the rights…
There was a lot of time, ground work, and talent involved to create the brilliance that is Animaniacs. Writing, direction, animation, voice acting, everything just came together. The few flaws in “Tiny Toons” had been almost completely eliminated when this show hit the air. The conceit was that by and large the world was the real world and cartoons lived in it (like in Who Framed Roger Rabbit). Only the characters identified as “cartoon characters” had the power of cartoon physics. The “real characters” could make cartoon expressions but they could not, for example, pull a giant rubber mallet out of thin air. Like the best of any Chuck Jones or Tex Avery short, there was slapstick humor, wordplay, and pop culture references. But Animaniacs added another layer – meta/genre awareness. The fourth wall was broken repeatedly, and in the case of Slappy the Squirrel (more on her later), the fourth wall never really existed.
I could go through and list all the characters and segments, but that’s what Wikipedia is for. When I was a kid, I liked the Warner Kids’ segments the best. Rita and Runt was probably my least favorite because I didn’t care for singing even though the Warner Kids sang a lot. But now that I’m older, Slappy the Squirrel is my favorite segment (followed very closely by Pinky and the Brain because Pinky and the Brain is amazing). Slappy is the most meta of all the characters. She is a retired cartoon star and has medium awareness (which is actually one of Deadpool’s superpowers). She teaches her hyper-active nephew Skippy the tricks of the trade, such as using wipe effects to get from scene to scene. She even knows she is still in a cartoon and looks directly at the audience when Skippy makes statements like, “but this is real life.” My least favorite segment is now Buttons and Mindy. I get that it’s a parody of Lassie, but the joke of Buttons being punished because Mindy’s mom doesn’t know what he went through to save her daughter gets thin quick.
All of the Pop Culture
The show does suffer a bit, but only bit, from being made in the ’90s. For example, Dot’s crush on Mel Gibson is now enormously awkward. However, as a kid I must have missed out on at least 50% of not much more of the pop culture references. Heck, I’m not sure an adult of the time would have gotten it. So what did I just catch on to?
1) Yakko Warner is basically Groucho Marx.
2) Wakko Warner has strong elements of Harpo Marx and Chico Marx.
3) Goodfeathers are the Goodfellas, and “Bobby” is short for Robert (de Niro) and “Pesto” sounds like (Joe) Pesci. And the Godpigeon is a parody of Marlon Brando’s Godfather.
4) The Brain’s voice is a parody of Orson Welles.
5) Runt is basically Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man.
There are websites dedicated to all of the references. Many of them (like the Marx Bros) are from the 1930s and 40s which makes sense because of the show’s premise, but again, no children and few adults are going to catch on to any of that. Many references, however, would only be caught by the adults watching the show, like in an early episode in which a piano player destroys his instrument and Yakko says, “very Pete Townsendesque” as a reference to the guitarist for the Who.
All of the Parodies
Likewise, I missed out on a lot of the parodies, particularly the musicals. I’d never seen nor heard of Gilbert and Sullivan, so the “HMS Pinafore” and “Pirates of Penzance” went right over my young head. Stephen Sondhiem? No idea who that was, but there’s Rita and Runt doing a good parody of a song from – “Sweeney Todd” (in a segment that was largely a “Les Miserables” parody, go figure that). “West Side Story?” Yeah, no, not on my radar that time (maybe if I’d been part of high school theater…). There were parodies of TV show theme songs (like Flipper and Gilligan’s Island). There were parodies of popular (although not necessarily recent) songs (Jan and Dean, anyone?). There were parodies of movies. There were parodies of famous comedy sketches and parodies of incidents that were so obscure no one outside of a Hollywood insider would have gotten it (“Yes, Always”).
Like an Onion:
This show has layers. Despite the appearance of chaos, nothing about the show is actually random. For example, in the intro song, if there is a unique line to end the song, it is relevant to one or more of the segments. One of the early episodes ends with, “the rain in Spain-y” which is a reference to My Fair Lady. The first segment featured Dr. Scratchnsniff trying to teach the Warners how to behave. No time is wasted, even for seeming throwaway segments like “the Wheel of the Morality.” Even the credits are played for laughs, as there’s a joke credit for Kathryn Page starting around episode 15. The more I watch the more I appreciate the effort that went into this show. It really is brilliant and wish more television was written to that high level.