It’s interesting watching Animaniacs in the order the episodes originally aired. Because the show is a collection of shorts, most people probably remember Animaniacs on a sketch-by-sketch basis rather than as complete episodes. (The exception of course being the handful of single-sketch episodes, like the upcoming “Taming Of The Screwy.”) But watching the first few episodes in order, it becomes very apparent there’s a method underneath that madness, a purposeful rolling-out of characters, themes, and recurring gags.
Now, I don’t want to overstate things; this is still a very fragmented series, and I’m by no means suggesting the Animaniacs writers were attempting anything approaching serialization. And it’s apparent when looking ahead at upcoming episodes that this pattern doesn’t sustain itself very far beyond the first handful of episodes. But the early episodes—the ones the show’s producers had the longest amount of time to work on, probably not coincidentally—feel very much like episodes, not just a collection of shorts.
The first three episodes are particularly cohesive. Whereas Episode 1 focused on introducing the Warner brothers (and the Warner sister) and their zany antics, Episodes 2 and 3 each feature the first non-theme-song, non-“Nighty Night Toons” appearances of a couple of major supporting players, Pinky & The Brain and Slappy The Squirrel, respectively. Not only that, but both episodes’ non-song pieces are loosely connected. Sure, it could be coincidence that the first appearance of The Brain is jammed up next to a Warners short featuring his fellow genius Einstein, or that the meta-slapstick of Slappy The Squirrel comes on the heels of the Warners singing about being “the very models of cartoon individuals” in “HMS Yakko”; but I’m a sucker for organization, and I like to think these loose thematic connections are purposeful.
These also happen to be the first two truly great Animaniacs episodes. Not that Episode 1 wasn’t a fine introduction the show in general and the Warners specifically; but these next two include “Cookies For Einstein,” one of the best Warners shorts, as well as excellent first outings from Pinky & The Brain and Slappy The Squirrel—not to mention two of the series’ best, most memorable songs, and an early example of an extended Animaniacs musical parody. There’s too much good stuff in these 45 or so minutes to hit it all, so let’s turn to the highlight reel.
“Yakko’s World” may be the single most famous, beloved of Animaniacs’ many, many, many memorable songs. (Rob Paulson, the voice of Yakko, still gets requests to sing it live, and does, because he is awesome.) It’s also the song that earned Animaniacs writer Randy Rogel his place on the show: He wrote it while working on Batman: The Animated Series, and brought it to Animaniacs creator Tom Ruegger, who hired Rogel shortly after. Though it’s arranged to the tune of the Mexican Hat Dance, “Yakko’s World” is in the spirit of Tom Lehrer’s “The Elements,” a cleverly arranged list song that ostensibly educates, but also serves as a pretty neat party trick. Animaniacs would go back to this over and over again—often in the hands of Rogel, who also wrote “The Presidents Song” and “Wakko’s America”… not to mention Episode 3’s “Yakko’s Universe.”
Even though “Yakko’s World” may be more technically impressive in its arrangement, “Yakko’s Universe” might actually be the better song—and not just because it probably served as many kids’ first introduction to the fact that someone named Mickey Rooney exists and that he is the size of a tiny little speck. (I know it was mine.) Not only is it a right bouncy little take on Monty Python’s “The Galaxy Song”—arranged by Animaniacs composer Rich Stone, who won an Emmy for the show’s theme song and did a consistently great job of making its musical parodies just different enough from their sources to avoid litigation—it also introduces kids to the idea that we’re all insignificant specks of dust floating around inside a huge machine we have absolutely no control over, which they gotta learn sometime.
Kids also gotta learn about Einstein, and while “Cookies For Einstein” (thankfully) doesn’t get into actual specifics, it does build an entire six-and-a-half-minute cartoon around his Theory Of Relativity, something not many kids’ shows would even attempt, much less succeed to the degree Animaniacs does. Written by Paul Rugg—who also voices Einstein and whose name consistently makes me do a double-take, thinking Paul Rudd was somehow involved in this show—“Cookies For Einstein” is filled with typical Warners antics: Wakko scat-yodeling, Dot performing a spontaneous monologue about her lost Kid Scout merit badge, Yakko insisting they’ll sell Einstein on their Kid Scout cookies “or die trying, or try dying, or do some tie-dying!” But Einstein pulls his weight in the silliness department too (much more so than Scratchansniff does in “De-Zanitized”), whether he’s measuring the speed of light with a stopwatch (“Boy, that’s quick!), trying to suss out a new formula (“If the sun is ‘P’ and gravity is ‘H,’ it makes a ‘pbbbth.’”), or self-pityingly calling himself “Stupid Einstein dummy-boy.”
But the real coup, what elevates this sketch above a series of silly gags, is the conclusion, in which the Warners attempt to cheer up the despondent Einstein with “The Acme Song,” which just so happens to bear a strong resemblance to a certain formula when reversed. Not only is it an exceedingly clever way to wrap up the segment, it also borders on being downright educational for the young’uns; it doesn’t quite explain the Theory Of Relativity, but it does introduce the idea that such a thing exists, that it’s associated with Albert Einstein, and what it looks like. Basically, it expands young viewers’ cultural vocabulary by a few references, something Animaniacs was exceptionally adept at; I think the only thing that influenced my pop-cultural vocabulary more as a kid was The Simpsons.
Another great example of such: “Win Big,” which closely traces the classic Honeymooners episode “The $99,000 Answer.” But writers Peter Hastings and Tom Ruegger are doing more than just paying homage or slipping in a sly reference for the parents watching along; they’re serving up a lesson in pop culture—specifically, in The Honeymooners. Early in the sketch, Pinky interrupts Brain’s taking-over-the-world planning by laughing at Ralph Kramden bang-zooming Alice on TV. Later, when Brain pulls a Ralph by blanking on the final answer on Gyp-parody, the answer in question is, “This TV character is known for saying ‘Bang! Zoom! Right in the kisser!’” (Also, while it’s not as overt, Brain makes a “Hi honey, I’m home” joke when he first appears in his giant mechanical man suit, a possible nod to the domestic sitcoms of the Honeymooners era.)
I was 10 when I saw this episode for the first time, and almost certainly knew nothing of The Honeymooners; yet thanks to “Win Big,” I learned that a) the show existed, b) a character named Ralph Kramden existed, and c) he had a catchphrase for threatening his wife with physical abuse. And then years later, when I saw “The $99,000 Answer” for the first time, the final Easter egg cracked open. So yes, segments like “Win Big” were writing to the adults in the audience; but they were also writing to the future adults in the audience, planting seeds of cultural reference that wouldn’t fully reveal themselves for years.
Yet another: “HMS Yakko,” a spot-on Gilbert & Sullivan pastiche that turns into a neat little meta-gag. There’s plenty in here for seasoned Gilbert & Sullivan-o-philes, who will surely delight in picking out the specific songs from HMS Pinafore and Pirates Of Penzance being parodied (once again, by Rugg), right down to the “What never? No never!” line sung by the Warners and the double-peg-legged Captain Mel/Corcoran. But even those who can’t tell a Mikado from a Pinafore probably recognize the segment’s highlight, a spot-on parody of Pirates’ “Modern Major General” that outlines the attributes of “the very model of a cartoon individual”: From animation to comedic theory to puns, Yakko knows his “cartoon etiquette,” as well as the cartoon canon (“From Daffy Duck to Tweety Bird to Babs and Buster Bunny”) and when to deploy a cartoon cannon. Up until this point, “HMS Yakko” is a little thin—not helped by the fact that most G&S songs sound very similar—but the ending is so solid it retroactively makes the rest of the sketch better.
It also segues beautifully into the first major appearance of Slappy The Squirrel, a model cartoon individual if there ever was one. “Slappy Goes Walnuts” isn’t the best Slappy short of all time, but it is a nice love letter to the classic cartoons that provided Animaniacs’ foundation. Like the Warners, Slappy is a cartoon character from the ’30s, though unlike them, she had a long cartoon career wrestling with characters like Walter The Wolf, Syd The Squid, and Beanie The Brain Dead Bison, and has now aged into a loveable old cartoon coot, yelling at the TV for cutting off her classic line—“Now that’s comedy”—to cut to “some razza-flabbin’ crumball commercial.”
Created and voiced by Sherri Stoner (a.k.a. the animation model for Ariel from The Little Mermaid), Slappy is a neat take on the Hollywood old-timer character. She knows the ins and outs of cartoon comedy and relishes the opportunity to impart them upon whippersnappers like her nephew Skippy—voiced by Tom Ruegger’s son, Nathan—or Dug The Dog, a neighboring canine Slappy and Skippy must outsmart in order to get walnuts for Slappy’s delicious-sounding Walnut Fig Dough Surprise. In doing so, Slappy provides Skippy—and the audience—with a crash course in classic cartoon gags, from the ol’ “dynamite enchirito” gag to a nearly note-for-note homage to a classic Looney Tunes bit. Nearly note-for-note; as Slappy herself says, “Old gag, new twist.” There are some seriously meta goings-on in “Slappy Goes Walnuts”—“Hold it there. You’re doing the ol’ frozen-take bit. Which means Dug The Dog… WAS right behind me.”—that feel like a natural extension of the Warners’ song in “HMS Yakko.” Whether this unity is purposeful, coincidental, or just a natural consequence of Animaniacs’ general agenda, it makes for a great series of sketches that also happen to work as great episodes.
- Episode 2 also features the first appearance of the Wheel Of Morality, featuring Moral No. 2: “If at first you don’t succeed, blame it on your parents.”
- Much has been made about Animaniacs’ censor-evading dirty bits, and “Slappy Goes Walnuts” features a doozy, from “The Wonderful World Of Walnuts” narration: “The squirrel likes to hide his nuts in many odd places, most of them where the sun doesn’t shine on ’em!”
- “Bern, Switzerland. Home of chocolate, cheese, clocks, and neutrality.”
- More fun with homophones in “Cookies For Einstein”: “You!” “No, this is a ewe. We’re just plain ol’ us.”
- Good to see the Acme Corporation is still pumping out stellar products like the Hair Magnet and Pocket Fisherman.
- More great orchestration: The big, clanging version of the “Pinky And The Brain” theme that accompanies Brain when he walks in his man-suit.
- “Hey bud, if you don’t mind me asking, what happened to your head?” “Nothing. I’m a mouse in a large, mechanical suit.” “Haha, okay, my fault for asking!”
- Among the signs seen on the deserted pirate’s beach in “HMS Yakko”: “Be ye warned!” “Pirate property!” and, “To advertise, call 555-R-MATEY.”
- Skippy: “Dug The Dog! But he hates you Aunt Slappy. He’s been trying to eat you for years!” Slappy: “Thank you Mr. Exposition!”
- Skippy: “Yeah, but those were cartoons and this is real life.” Slappy: “Don’t tell him, he might crack.”
- Now that’s comedy.