In the age of specialized Tumblrs, Buzzfeed lists, and long-form childhood-mining, it’s difficult to regard a re-visitation of a ’90s cartoon series as anything more than an exercise in nostalgia. And sure, a lot of you wouldn’t be reading this and I probably wouldn’t be writing this if not for some shared sense of nostalgia, and I’m certain the majority of the readers here will be my fellow children of the ’80s and ’90s. But while Animaniacs may be a series of the ’90s, it is most definitely not a product of the ’90s. Yes, it name-checks a saxophone-playing Bill Clinton in the theme song, but it’s just as likely to reference The Honeymooners, or Gilbert and Sullivan, or Abbot and Costello, or the freakin’ Bible. This universalism is an extension of Animaniacs’ roots in classic Looney Tunes, which took a similarly open approach to mining culture, be it classic, Classical, or contemporary. As a result, both series almost exist out of time; they’re neither retro nor modern, they just are.
Even though Tiny Toons was the literal descendent of Looney Tunes (and is a very good show in its own right), Animaniacs shares far more genetic material with Golden Age Warner Bros. than it does with Tiny Toons, or than Tiny Toons shares with the original Looney Tunes. Tiny Toons was the breakout hit, the success without which Animaniacs wouldn’t exist, but it was Animaniacs that really hoisted the torch high for madcap, sketch-based cartoons that appeal to kids and adults. It was an attempt to make new Looney Tunes with new characters that were wholly original, not an extension of classic Warner properties a la Buster Bunny or Plucky Duck. And while none of the Animaniacs characters are quite at the level of a Bugs or Daffy in the cartoon pantheon, there are several contenders for demi-cartoon-god status in the cast.
The most obvious are of course Yakko, Wakko, and Dot Warner, whose antics compose the majority of Animaniacs’ first episode (which I will henceforth refer to as Episode 1 rather than the cumbersome list of segment names you see up there). Most of the time, Animaniacs functions much like a short sketch show, with two to four segments per episode, sometimes broken up with a couple of short interstitial-type dealies—official term—but there’s usually not much in the way of thematic connective tissue between them, hence the awkward titling. But Episode 1 is one of the exceptions (there will be more, and soon), and with good reason: As the first episode, it’s tasked with introducing the wide, ranging world of Animaniacs. The Warner trio is the nucleus around which the show revolves—they frequently run through other characters’ segments for no reason—so Episode 1 essentially functions as their origin story, as well as a brief introduction to the extended cast.
The black-and-white “Newsreel Of The Stars” pre-credits sequence that opened several early Animaniacs episodes is the first bit of business, running down Yakko, Wakko, and Dot’s origins as a 1930s-era attempt by Warner Bros. animators to “come up with new cartoon stars”—a nice wink, considering that is what Animaniacs was trying to do in the ’90s—who turned out to be too wacky to control, even by cartoon standards, necessitating their capture and confinement in the Warner Bros. studio water tower. Cut to today, “when the Warners escaped,” and transition into that wonderful-to-this-day theme song.
Seriously, is there a better kids’ cartoon theme song than that of Animaniacs? It’s on the shortlist for sure, due to its perfect, instantly memorable encapsulation of the show’s concept, spirit, and characters—“But we break loose and then vamoose and now you know the plot!” and so on. Almost all of the recurring characters get specific shout-outs: (Sing along, you know you can) “There’s Pinky and The Brain who want to rule the universe, Goodfeathers flock together, Slappy whacks them with her purse,” etc. We’ll get a similar cast introduction in Episode 1’s third segment, “Nighty-Night Toons,” but the theme song ensures that when Pinky And The Brain are introduced in Episode 2, or Slappy The Squirrel in 3, viewers will already be familiar with them, allowing the writers to skip ahead and make with the funny-fun.
“De-Zanitized” extends the Warners’ plot, such as it is, a bit: After Yakko, Wakko, and Dot escape, Warner Bros.’ “psychiatrist to the stars” Otto Von Scratchansniff is tasked by the chairman with getting them under control. But it mostly serves as a primer on the trio’s Marxian dynamic. Check out Yakko arguing with the Doctor:
Scratchansniff: “I take umbrage at that!”
Yakko: “Oh sure, take all the umbrage!”
Scratchansniff: “No, I mean I take offense!”
Yakko: “And now you want our fence, too?”
That’s some straight-up Groucho shtick right there, and while the Ringo-voiced Wakko does actually talk, he’s definitely the Harpo-esque traditional “clown” of the group. Dot doesn’t have such an obvious surrogate; she’s sort of a mix of her brothers, with a dash of straight-woman thrown in—especially when it comes time to react to Yakko and Wakko’s boggle-eyed, Tex Avery-inspired reactions to Hello Nurse. But Scratchansniff undoubtedly is and will continue to be the Margaret Dumont of the series.
There’s a cacophony of zingers in “De-Zanitized,” from a Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead clunker to the first of the series’ many meta moments, when the Warners “plant” themselves on the couch in the form of flowers: Scratchansniff tells them “no more jokes,” to which Yakko replies, “This isn’t a joke; it’s a visual gag.” The highlight, though, may be the exchange between Scratchansniff and Yakko during a word-association therapy session: “No, we haven’t started.” “Begun.” “No, stop” “Yield.” “No, STOP!” “Cease.” “SILENCE!” “Quiet.” And so on, culminating in the Doctor yelling, “Get out, get out, get out!” (“Leave, leave, leave,” obviously.) These are oooolllld, vaudevillian jokes, but the breathless rate at which they’re deployed, combined with the obvious glee the writers take in them, make them seem as fresh as a Dot-faced daisy planted on a “P-sychiatrist’s” couch.
The rhythm of the next segment, “The Monkey Song,” is much different, and I’m not just talking about those sweet calypso steel drums played by The Hip Hippos. The first of Animaniacs’ many, many musical numbers, this Harry Belafonte parody further extends the “Those Warners sure are crazy!” narrative we’ve been getting since the opening newsreel, it just does it in song this time. It’s a pretty fun song on its own, and a harbinger of the excellent music to come on this show, but after the breathless “De-Zanitized,” it does feel like a bit of an energy dip. Which is actually a good thing, considering the literally sleepy nature of the third and final segment.
“Nighty-Night Toons” is basically the Animaniacs theme set to the cadence of Goodnight Moon, with narrator Jim Cummings (doing his Winnie The Pooh voice, somewhat oddly) bidding sweet dreams to Rita and Runt, Pinky and The Brain, the hippos, and the rest, along with the water tower’s log flume and Wakko’s underwear. It’s a nice capper on this introductory episode, but it’s not a particularly spectacular segment in and of itself. We won’t get Animaniacs’ first truly great segment until Episode 2, but by “pilot standards”—this isn’t exactly a traditional pilot per se, but fills the same role in the show’s history—Episode 1 does an extremely solid job of establishing the show’s world, even though much of it gets only a cursory glance. More importantly, it serves as a reminder that this is going to be freakin’ awesome, you guys! I haven’t watched most of these episodes since I was a pre-teen, but revisiting Episode 1—which it turns out I can still quote large chunks of—has me seriously pumped for us to make our way through Animaniacs this summer. It’ll be animane-y, totally insane-y, and hopefully quite entertain-y.
- From here on out I’ll be covering two episodes a week, so grab your Volume One DVDs and play along. I’ll try to link to YouTube when possible; or just reference your own memories, if you must.
- I’ll be talking about the show’s music a lot over the next 10 weeks, but I need to express my early love for the show’s orchestral score in addition to its original music. Check out the neat little “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen” motif that accompanies Scratchansniff in “De-Zanitized,” or the few bars of the Pinky And The Brain theme that drop in during their appearance in “The Monkey Song.”
- Best part of “The Monkey Song”? Hello Nurse’s tuneless “I don’t know what to say the monkeys won’t do.”
- “Call me Dottie and you die.”