Pop-culture references can be tricky. In my review of the first episode of Animaniacs, I praised the show’s aptitude for spanning the breadth of the cultural spectrum, “be it classic, Classical, or contemporary.” The problem with this, though, is that many of the then-contemporary, now 20-year-old references on Animaniacs are not yet old enough/good enough to be considered “classic,” rendering them simply outdated. Some still work by virtue of being actual, you know, jokes, but even Animaniacs was not immune to the sin of reference-as-joke, and Episode 5, “Taming Of The Screwy,” provides a gauntlet of stale early-’90s references to wade through: Wayne and Garth partying on, Truth Or Dare-era Madonna sporting her cone bra, Thelma and Louise crash-landing their car on the red carpet, and pretty much every major cast member of Batman Returns, in costume/character. (The appearance of Thing the hand gets a pass, due to his pre-Addams Family movie fame.) All appear as guests at a big Warner Bros. party that the studio chairman throws in order to impress some Japanese investors (the way studio heads do…?), and are a big reason “Taming Of The Screwy” doesn’t quite work in 2012.
The first half of this full-episode cartoon, however, is classic Warner brothers (and sister) zaniness, as Dr. Scratchnsniff attempts to get all Henry Higgins on his three Eliza Doolittles in preparation for the chairman’s big shindig. (Appropriately, the theme-song “Animane-y” rhyme for this episode is “The rain in Spain-y.”) Yes, there are pop-cultural references in this half—Yakko, Dot, and Wakko are excited to go to the party so they can meet Michelle Pfeiffer, Mel Gibson, and Don Knotts, respectively—but they’re part of an ongoing gag rather than the walk-on “cameos” that make up a lot of the party sequence. And yeah, Wakko makes a joke about a Bea Arthur swimsuit calendar, but that (just barely) works on a level beyond “Bea Arthur exists!,” and it gets a callback later on to boot, so I’m more willing to forgive that sort of gag than, say, Urkel whining “got any cheeeeese” for no real reason later on at the party.
Besides, there’s much, much better stuff in “The Taming Of The Screwy,” particularly the Warners’ delightful “Hello Dr. Scratchnsniff” song, which I’d completely forgotten about, and contains this nifty back-and-forth between Yakko (speaking as Dr. Scratchnsniff) and his siblings:
I want to know your psyche
There’s two inside our skull
And what would you call that?
Wordplay! This segment is particularly packed with puns and verbal jousting, which makes it very quotable, but also a little stagnant, with the Warners and Scratchansniff (and occasionally Hello Nurse) confined to an office where they make their way through a series of etiquette-based vignettes. Teaching the Warners elocution, table manners, and social graces result in plenty of great gags, but also a lot of so-so ones, and the “Scratchansniff tries to subdue the Warners” device is one Animaniacs would go back to again and again… hell, the show already did a version of it the very first segment of the series, “De-Zanitized.” If “Taming Of The Screwy” were a full-on Pygmalion parody, say, it might justify its extended runtime, but the familiar premise coupled with the ’90s-cameo-filled second half feels pretty thin when stretched over 22 minutes.
That said, there are some nice moments that are about as close to pathos as the Warners get: Their disappointment at not getting to go to the party; them showing Scratchansniff they’re actually perfectly capable of behaving, they just like messing with him, “because we love ya!”; and their feelings of betrayal when the chairman scoots them out of the party right after they arrive without incident. But these moments mostly serve to bridge two extended “the Warners cause chaos” sequences, one in Scratchansniff’s office, the other at the party. The beauty of the Warners as characters is that the writers could pretty much wind ’em up and let ’em loose in just about any situation, but keep them in one situation for more than 7 to 10 minutes, and they start to lose steam—especially when one of those situations is basically just them reacting to a parade of famous faces. If “Screwy” covered the same ground in the half the time, it could be a great, memorable short with a much higher hit-to-miss gag ratio; as is, it’s most notable as a time capsule from 1993.
“Hooked On A Ceiling” is a much better, tighter example of a Warners short: It’s credited solely to Tom Ruegger, compared to the three writers behind “Screwy”; the Warners interact with pretty much just one person throughout; and it clocks in at a svelte seven minutes. And while it’s also a retread of a standard Warners device we’ve already seen once at this point—the Warners go back in time to annoy, then accidentally assist a historical figure—Yakko, Wakko, and Dot frustrating a new character, like Einstein in “Cookies For Einstein” or Michelangelo here, is always going to feel a little fresher than them frustrating Dr. Scratchansniff once again. And, as in “Cookies For Einstein,” the pseudo-historical context allows for a neat payoff that both references history and subverts it. Where “Cookies For Einstein” turned the Warners into Einstein’s Nobel Prize co-winners, “Hooked On A Ceiling” not only credits them with the Sistine Chapel’s The Creation Of Adam, it recasts the iconic fresco of God and Adam with E.T. and Elliott from E.T. Even though Michelangelo (as played by a hilariously voiced Kirk Douglas caricature) is horrified, the revised tableau pleases “his eminence,” whose impending arrival is the source of Michelangelo’s stress throughout the short—and who just so happens to be Pope Steven Spielberg I. Now that’s a pop-culture reference that still works in 2012.
Another reference that works, almost despite itself: the animated Ninja Turtles that appear during the voiceover about painters of the Italian Renaissance that opens the short, which receives a curt “I’m afraid popular culture has successfully eradicated the actual identities of the true poets of art” from the snooty art-historian narrator. Nothing like a little self-awareness to extend the shelf life of a dated gag. There are a few other cultural nods sprinkled throughout “Ceiling,” but they’re mostly either of the more sturdy, historical variety—an irate Michelangelo yelling at a Quasimodo type to cut it out with that bell-ringing, for example—or the basis of some other pun or gag. (My favorite: When Dot tells Michelangelo to “go paint the Moaning Lisa,” he growls, “That’s da Vinci,” which receives a “That’s de-lightful” from Dot and then, inevitably, “That’s de-lovely!” from Yakko.) Not to mention the various insertions of the word “ceiling” by the Warners—who are conveniently obsessed with painting ceilings for the purposes of this episode—like when Dot croons “Ceilings, nothing more than ceilings” to the tune of Morris Albert’s “Feelings.”
The only non-Warners segment in this duo of episodes is the debut of The Goodfeathers, which is basically one big cultural reference. Well, two: Goodfellas and The Godfather, which together provide 98 percent of the DNA of Goodfeathers segments. Physical injury and recurring gags make up the remainder, and “The Beginning” doles out both in spades. The plot of “The Beginning” revolves around Squit—the Ray Liotta of the trio—trying to get in with the other Goodfeathers, Bobby and Pesto (or DeNiro and Pesci, if you prefer) by procuring a leftover bagel from the street at the behest of The Godpigeon, which provides plenty of opportunity for the three of them to get run over, trampled, and hit by various huge obstacles. It also provides plenty of opportunity for Pesto/Pesci to fly into his signature, misguided rage at some offhand compliment from Squit, a “you talkin’ to me”-type riff that gets trotted out a whopping three times in this segment alone, and about a million times in subsequent episodes. Throw in plenty of “coo” standing in for cuss words, and you have a Goodfeathers origin story that’s almost completely indistinguishable from any other Goodfeathers short—with one exception.
“The Beginning” is very overt in its Goodfellas homage, and has the cinematic stylings to prove it, courtesy of AKOM, one of the six animation studios that traded off Animaniacs drawing duties. (Up until now, we’ve mostly seen work from Animaniacs heavy-hitters TMS and Wang studios.) There are lots of “artistic” shots in “The Beginning,” such as when the camera focuses on the action through the hole of the target bagel, or a tracking shot that follows the Goodfeathers down and into the subway. The latter in particular is an achievement more in terms of ambition than execution: Things get a little warped-looking as the perspective swoops down from overhead, but it’s as about as striking an image as you’re going to see in a daily kids’ cartoon series. Personally, I find the Goodfeathers to be one of the more one-note Animaniacs characters, but at least “The Beginning” is hitting that note loud and clear.
- “You fools! I am the great Michelangelo, and this is the Sistine Chapel!” “Oh yeah? If you’re so great, what happened to the other 15 chapels?”
- “Hooked On A Ceiling” flat-out repeats a gag from “Cookies For Einstein” (and many, many, MANY other cartoons before it) when Michelangelo goes to throw the Warners out of the chapel and somehow ends up thrown out himself.
- Wheel Of Morality lesson No. 4: Never ask what hot dogs are made of.
- Episode 4 is padded out with three short Warners interstitials: two of them escaping from and returning to the water tower, and one of Wakko acting as a film projector for the next short.
- Lotta “dirty bits” in “Screwy”: The cameral lingering on Scratchansniff’s hand as he fondles a couple of those stress-ball things; Dot declining to “make a little curtsy” because “I did before I left home”; and Yakko’s first “goodnight everybody!” when Scratchansniff tells them to stop playing with his bust.
- Slappy would be talking to Jack Palance at the Warner Bros. party.
- Okay everyone, all together, let’s practice our vowel sounds: AAAAAAAEEEEEEIIIOOUUUUU…