I’ve written before about the malleable ages of the Warner siblings, which allows them to pinball between comedic sensibilities, from boingy-boingy-ing hyper kids to obnoxious adolescents to silent-film stars to aging Catskills comedians—whatever guise best facilitates a joke, really. But this week’s “Chalkboard Bungle” has them fully inhabiting the roles of bratty kids, providing legions of school-age viewers with an arsenal of teacher-torturing comedic devices. When faced with the strict discipline of the new Warner Bros. studio teacher, the “F”-loving Ms. Flamiel, they break out classic class-clown bits like the Copycat Game and the counting-avoidance tactic “1, 2, skip a few, 99, 100!” And while non-cartoon kids don’t have the ability to counter the ol’ “I have eyes in the back of my head” threat by physically moving their eyes to the back of their heads, or conjure a Pepsi Challenge spoof out of thin air in response to a “pop quiz” (good to know the Warners are apparently from the Midwest), the Warners’ overall sense of classroom anarchy should thrill and delight any kid who’s spent his vocabulary lesson doodling on his desk.
That said, and at risk of sounding all get-off-my-lawn about the whole thing, a lot of the gags in “Chalkboard Bungle” don’t translate that well to adulthood, particularly if you’re an adult who has been on the receiving end of the Copycat Game or tried to wrangle hyper children in any capacity. Yes, it’s charming when the Warners do it, but I admit to experiencing a little bit of babysitting PTSD as they parroted “If you don’t stop it right now I shall scream,” back at Ms. Flamiel. Not that the old bag doesn’t deserve it, being the mold from which all evil-teacher characters were cast, right down to the severe bun, intolerance of gum-chewing, and wicked glint in her eye at the prospect of disciplining the Warners. Plus, she apparently isn’t very good at what she does, judging by her insistence that Wakko define procrastination (“I’ll tell you tomorrow”) during her grammar lesson. Uh, that’s clearly vocabulary, not grammar, Ms. Flamiel. Now who gets an F?
“The Great Wakkorotti: The Master And His Music” is even more juvenile, perhaps as juvenile as Animaniacs gets, and that’s saying something; but damn if it’s not still a giggle-inducer all these years later, at least for those of us who are still susceptible to funny bodily noises. Looking over the Animaniacs episode list, I’m shocked to see how few Great Wakkorotti shorts were in the show’s entire run; it’s such a standout memory of the show for me, I was sure it had to be an oft-recurring gag, but it turns out Maurice LaMarche’s belching tour de force only appeared four times in 99 episodes. Yes, it’s a (literally) one-note gag, but it’s a memorable one, and a well-executed one at that. LaMarche’s eructation abilities aside, writer Tom Ruegger gooses the short bit with couple of supplementary gags—the haughty announcer and Dot spraying Wakko’s throat with soda during intermission—and the animation is pretty great for such a seemingly throwaway sketch, with Wakko pulling a lot of faces and physical humor to liven up the otherwise static scene. (TMS proves itself once again to be the A-student of the Animaniacs animation force, while Freelance, which did the sloppy, melty-looking “Chalkboard Bungle,” gets an “F!” Okay, fine, a C-.)
The gags in “Hurray For Slappy” aren’t exactly any fresher or more creative than those in “Chalkboard Bungle,” but they do seem a little brighter and shinier thanks to the veneer of cartoon self-awareness that coats any Slappy short. (Not that the Warners don’t have moments of self-awareness, but it’s not built into their DNA the way it is with Slappy.) The old dynamite-pen gag isn’t going to surprise anyone, but the sense of resignation and slight indignation with which Slappy deploys these stale bits is the real appeal, and “Hurray For Slappy” finds her especially curmudgeonly as she’s forced to face her old cartoon rivals while accepting a Farm Fresh Friar’s Club award for being a “former toon great.” She arrives in a stretch limo to the sound of clattering bowling pins, then bemoans the tired gag, punnily: “We’re stretching for the comedy here, folks.” She chastises Sid The Squid for trying put a dynamite cake over on her, then suggests he turn himself into a spinning TNT helicopter instead before concluding, “Come to think of it, that gag’s been done to death”… just as Sid explodes. Yes, that sort of commentary allows Slappy to have her dynamite-cake and eat it too, but it works by virtue of both familiarity (who else caught Sid The Squid channeling Daffy Duck when he says, “I despise you…”?) and subversion. (While Walter Wolf is a mostly straight-ahead homage, Beanie The Brain Dead Bison is a pretty inspired parody of Golden Era cartoon villains.)
There’s not much subversive about Rita And Runt, with the possible exception of the frequency with which they encounter people who want to kill cats. “The Cat And The Fiddle” follows the same dramatic beats as “Les Miseranimals,” with fewer musical interludes. This time it’s Maestro Stradivarius—voiced by an especially oily sounding Hector Elizondo and just barely avoiding direct reference to Antonio Stradivari—who’s wielding a knife at Rita, hoping to harvest the catgut of this particularly musical cat for use in his violins, and whom Runt eventually defeats with his intense commitment to the craft of Fetch. Bernadette Peters gets in a couple of choice Rita line-readings here—I particularly love the blasé “woof” that concludes the sketch—but “Cat In The Fiddle” is pretty standard top-to-bottom, with the exception of the song Rita sings, “Somewhere.” It’s a genuinely lovely ballad that’s set off with some nicely cinematic direction—dramatic lighting and spinning camera angles—and Peters of course sings the hell out of it. (“Yeah, that and the price of a token will get us a ride on the subway.”)
“The Cat And The Fiddle” continues the musical theme of Episode 17, which is established with the Warners short “Roll Over Beethoven,” in which Yakko, Wakko, and Dot don chimney-sweep guises in order to annoy their new friend Ludwig into accidentally composing his Fifth Symphony. The rhythms of this type of short should be very familiar by now, after our visits to Einstein, Michelangelo, and Picasso thus far in the series, but “Roll Over Beethoven” has some great details that make it stand out a bit. The incidental music provides a fun little game of name-that-tune, as the frustrated Beethoven cycles through aborted versions of “Chopsticks” and the themes to Merrie Melodies and Animaniacs on his piano, and the background music bounces between familiar-sounding variations on “Ode To Joy,” “Turkey In The Straw,” “Shortnin’ Bread,” and “Oh Du Lieber Augustin” (an Austrian folk tune that was adapted in many classical pieces, not to mention that preschool classic “The More We Get Together”). Plus, Dot busts out a pretty great rendition of “Moonlight Sonata” while sight-reading Beethoven’s “cute little spoons.” (“Just a little thing I do.”) Even subtler, and much weirder, is this Beethoven’s apparent fascination with Elvis, who appears in painting and bust form throughout his home. It’s never addressed, which makes it all the more delightful, the sort of non-sequitur that could only exit in the literally timeless, ageless universe of the Warners, who can end their adventure with Beethoven in 1811 Vienna by heading off to bring that grumpy Van Gough guy a sunflower in 1880s Paris.
- There’s never been a child Ms. Flamiel couldn’t get under control… “except Buddy Hackett, but that’s genetic.” Man, talk about kid-unfriendly references; I still barely get that.
- File under “Animaniacs References That Have Not Aged Well”: Wakko channeling Ray Charles’ Pepsi commercial during the “pop quiz.”
- “Yakko, can you conjugate?” “Me? I’ve never even kissed a girl!” “It’s easy, I’ll conjugate with you.” “Goodnight everybody!”
- In a similar vein, Yakko goes back to the same reaction to the word “pianist” he displayed in “Piano Rag”; but what’s he gonna do, not comment on the word pianist?
- Nice to see Slappy’s enemies Walter Wolf, Sid The Squid, and Beanie The Brain-Dead Bison in the cartoon flesh after getting name-checked in the first Slappy short, “Slappy Goes Walnuts.” Too bad they’ve all retired to the grungy-looking Hotel California (“Plenty Of Room!”), while Slappy and Skippy get to prepare for the banquet in the posh environs of the Walnut Astoria.
- “You remind me of a very young Betty Boop.”
- I find it somewhat upsetting that Dot suddenly sprouts breasts when she’s doing her Michelle Pfeiffer in The Fabulous Baker Boys impression. (“He’s uninspired / He’s very tired / He’s writing hooey.”)
- I’m not sure how the Warners plan to use a toothbrush and a rolling pin to clean a chimney, but I wouldn’t put it past them.
- “Good Idea, Bad Idea” makes its first appearance this week; for those of you keeping track, they are:
Good Idea: Playing the piccolo in a marching band. Bad Idea: Playing a piano in a marching band.
Good Idea: Feeding stray kittens in the park. Bad idea: Feeding stray kittens in the park… to a bear.