Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Animaniacs: “La La Law”/“Cat On A Hot Steel Beam” & “Space Probed”/“Battle For The Planet”

Illustration for article titled Animaniacs: “La La Law”/“Cat On A Hot Steel Beam” & “Space Probed”/“Battle For The Planet”

It’s hard to say for certain how much consideration went into the sequencing of the bits on Animaniacs. On the surface it seems like the two or three segments that compose a typical episode are unrelated, separate chunks of what’s essentially an animated sketch show. But once you start to overthink it a little—as one is bound to do when one has written thousands of words about an animated sketch show—little patterns start to emerge, broad themes or contrasting styles that make each 22-minute chunk seem just a little bit more like a purposeful, planned episode rather than just an installment. Again, I don’t know if the Animaniacs creators did this on purpose or if it’s just me going all Beautiful Mind on this silly cartoon show, but I like to think someone behind the scenes went, “Hey, let’s put ‘No Pain, No Painting’ and ‘Les Miseranimals’ together because they both take place in Paris,” or “Hey, ‘H.M.S. Wakko’ and ‘Slappy Goes Walnuts’ both center on the idea of ‘cartoon-ness,’ let’s pair them up!” If this is the case, it’s sort of neat and indicates a certain level of care and consideration, but for the most part it doesn’t really add or subtract anything from either element of the episode.

Episode 14 might be an exception to that, however, even though the combination of a Warners L.A. Law spoof and a standard Mindy and Buttons chase doesn’t seem particularly purposeful. But placing the nearly wordless Mindy and Buttons alongside the Warners does highlight the siblings’ delightful verbosity, and the “Mime Time” interstitials seem to exist only to drive that point home further. Well, and to drop an Acme safe on a mime, which is always funny.

The Warners and Mindy and Buttons exist on opposite sides of the cartoon spectrum, with the Warners holding it down on the pun-filled vaudevillian end and Mindy and Buttons representing nearly pure physical slapstick. Yes, Mindy has a couple of cutesy-boo catchphrases and there’s the recurring gag of Buttons’ heroic efforts being misunderstood as him being a bad dog, but for the most part those shorts exist to see Buttons get hit, smashed, stretched, or otherwise physically tortured for the sake of a laugh. The Warners certainly utilize slapstick from time to time, but they’re much more prone to the jokey-jokes, like the plethora of visual gags and puns seen in “La La Law.” There’s even a running joke about their proclivity for punnery, as the judge overseeing Dr. Scratchnsniff’s parking-ticket trial admonishes Yakko for saying he’ll prove Scratchy is “innocent beyond a shadow of a Dot” (cue Dot in shadow) or for “badgering” and “goat-ing” the witness.

As with most Warners shorts, the success of “La La Law” comes down to the jokes, with this one falling somewhere in the middle of the pack. (Your mileage may vary depending on your appreciation of/tolerance for puns.) The framing device of the Warners acting as Scratchansniff’s lawyers is a nice take on the dynamic between those two parties, with the judge serving as the Warners’ target more than Herr Doctor. But the concept also invites a bunch of L.A. Law gags that only barely work in 2012, including an opening “previously on” voiceover from Dot and a take-off on the series’ opening sequence that sees the Warners interacting with a bunch of L.A. Law characters to an approximation of the show’s theme. These elements don’t really work beyond the level of reference humor—“Hey, that’s Jimmy Smits!” is not a joke no matter how you slice it—and frankly pale in comparison to the straight-up silliness of the law firm of Warner, Warner, Warner, and Mime (he’s their silent partner), whether it’s Yakko deriding meter maid Gerty Bilchmoytner for letting the parking meters get dirty, Wakko asking her for candy during his questioning, or the various eyebrow-wiggling that occurs at the mention of terms like “subpoena” and “penal code.” It takes a little wiggling to incorporate the Warners into a staid, professional environment like a courtroom, but once they’re there, the disparity pays dividends.

Cat On A Hot Steel Beam” also has its share of references, which is somewhat odd for a Mindy and Buttons short, but it pulls it off by keeping things mostly in the cartoon universe. The framing device—Mindy chases a kitten to a construction site and up into the high steel girders—is one of the oldest cartoon setups ever; as a matter of fact, the very first Slappy short, “Slappy Goes Walnuts” nodded to the high-beam antics of cartoons past in its glimpse at a golden-age Slappy cartoon. While chasing Mindy through those high beams, Buttons encounters a few other familiarities, in the form of a some other cartoon pursuer/pursued combos: Look-alikes of Popeye and Swee’Pea and Tom and Jerry, plus the Warners being chased by the studio guard. (How Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote didn’t find their way into this short, I’ll never know. Maybe they only hang out in Slappy shorts.) Whether intentionally or not, it serves to comment on how cliché the Mindy and Buttons concept is, even if Buttons’ endless pursuit is in the name of protection rather than possession. The moldy, unchanging dynamic is much of the reason Mindy and Buttons shorts are pretty tiresome, though as with Episode 6’s “Operation Lollipop,” the animation by Akom Studios is top-notch in terms of staging and timing. (Though Mindy’s gravity-defying leash antics at the very beginning are puzzling even by cartoon-physics standards.)

The pairing of the two segments in Episode 15 is much more obvious than the compare/contrast of Episode 14: This one’s all about aliens, with the Warners facing abduction by UFOs and Brain fulfilling his vocal destiny by staging a War Of The Worlds-type alien-invasion hoax. The narrative of “Space Probed” is much more complicated than that of “La La Law”: The Warners are abducted by aliens who want to probe them for some unstated, probably nefarious purpose; the Warners escape, as they are wont to do, and end up staging a game of Tag on the ship; then eventually take over the cockpit and create chaos until the motion-sick aliens take them back home. Oh, and there’s also an alien overlord named Toe (“Good choice!”), who is a giant toe and does generally toe-like things. But like “La La Law,” “Space Probed” utilizes its chosen environment for plenty of related gags and references, which means lots of familiar faces from the sci-fi and sci-fi-adjacent worlds: the Alien from Alien, Darth Vader, Captain Picard, Marvin The Martian (making his second appearance this week, after showing up in “Cat On A Hot Steel Beam”), and Jane Jetson, who seems to be on board the ship for the sole purpose of facilitating a “Jane, stop this crazy thing!” gag. (The good news: It still works after all these years.) More satisfying than that, however, is the Warners interacting with the alien-language subtitles, shuffling the words of their captor’s announcement of “There are typical earth creatures” to read “Are these typical earth creatures?” and adding a “problem” to his answer of “no” when they ask to take a look around. And the whole Toe thing might be as sublimely weird as a Warners short gets; I particularly love the fact the none of the other aliens look remotely toe-like and seem sort of disgusted by Toe.


The aliens in “Battle For The Planet” aren’t remotely toe-like, nor are they real; it’s just Pinky in a rubber glove with some bug-fogger, the lynchpin of Brain’s latest, Welles-ian scheme to take over the world. “Battle For The Planet” goes beyond just spoofing War Of The Worlds to name-check it as well, with Brain explaining Orson Welles’ classic hoax to Pinky and explaining his plan to replicate it using “television, the great deceptor.” As Brain schemes go, this one is more puzzling than most: Upon hearing of the supposed alien invasion, people will flee the cities, leaving Brain to somehow levy that into world-domination. (Think you might be skipping over a few steps there, Brain.) But it’s still absolutely perfect, given the fact that Maurice LaMarche’s voice for Brain is unfiltered Orson Welles, and that the klutzy, sincere Pinky is the worst possible accomplice for pulling off an intricate ruse based on camera angles and acting. There’s no doubt how this one’s going to end, but having the world think the pair’s deception is actually a hot new comedy show is a nice button on a premise that works despite its obviousness.

Stray observations:

  • More episode through-lines: Mime shows up in “La La Law,” in the same episode with three “Mime Time” shorts, while Pinky and The Brain are seen under glass on the spaceship in “Space Probed.”
  • Freud’s Psychiatry shop, where Scratchnsniff is buying his couch when he gets the parking ticket, is having a “Goatee Blowout!” You know, in case you were in the market…
  • When the judge points his finger at Yakko demanding, “What’s the meaning of this?” Yakko replies, “That’s a finger. You have five of them on each hand. Unless you’re in the circus, then it’s negotiable.”
  • “Do you swear?” “Yes.” “Well you shouldn’t, it’s not nice.”
  • If the voice of the “Mime Time” announcer sounds familiar, that’s public radio darling Tom Bodett, who fills various “announcer” slots in the Animaniacs voice cast list.
  • Dot on the beautiful stars: “They make me want to write poetry. Or bake a ham, I forget which.”
  • Also on the spaceship with the Warners: Elvis, Amelia Earhart, Bigfoot, and Jimmy Hoffa, though only Elvis is considered recognizable enough to be there without a name tag.
  • “Three cameras, Brain?” “Yes, a technique pioneered by the great Desi Arnaz!” Pinky and The Brain are so educational!
  • “There is no cause for alarm. But there probably will be.”