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

Animaniacs: “Pavlov’s Mice/Chicken Boo-Ryshnikov/Nothing But The Tooth” & “Meatballs Or Consequences”/“A Moving Experience”

Illustration for article titled Animaniacs: “Pavlov’s Mice/Chicken Boo-Ryshnikov/Nothing But The Tooth” & “Meatballs Or Consequences”/“A Moving Experience”

Episode 18 marks the first time Animaniacs hasn’t kicked off with a Warners sketch, and it consequently feels a little… off. This will happen a couple more times before we’ve finished making our way through the first DVD volume—including a completely Warners-free episode, which is simultaneously exciting and terrifying—but it results in a particularly wonky first episode this week. Not only do Pinky and The Brain take the marquee spot with a somewhat slight entry, but the episode is packed to the gills beyond that, also featuring the first Chicken Boo sketch, a tower escape and re-entry gag from the Warners, a Wheel Of Morality, and a very odd, ugly-looking Warners short in which Yakko, Wakko, and Dot don’t appear until nearly a third of the way in. That’s a lot for an episode that clocks in at 21 minutes, and gives the 18th episode a sort of smorgasbord feel, consisting of warmed-over leftovers paired with weird bits and bites intended to round things out into a full meal. It’s not exactly satisfying, and it leaves a kind of weird taste behind, but there are still a handful of delightful moments to be had.

Helping cohere this unwieldy episode somewhat is the Russian backdrop that binds together the two main sketches (three if we assume that Chicken Boo-ryshnikov shares his namesake’s country of origin). In “Pavlov’s Mice,” the country’s crown jewels are the focus of Brain’s scheming, which has been conveniently moved to the year 1904 in order to accommodate the conceit that obtaining the crown jewels of Russia will somehow lead to world domination. (Brain’s vague plans always remind me of this classic Sidney Harris cartoon.) Also conveniently happening in Russia around 1904: Ivan Pavlov’s experiments with dogs that led to the concept of classical conditioning, a convoluted, complex series of developments that is winnowed down to its bare basics for the sake of some slapstick in this short. Rather than studying the gastric functions of dogs, the Pavlov of the “Pinky And The Brain” universe seems mainly concerned with getting mice to perform parlor tricks, having conditioned Brain to sing “I’m A Little Teapot” at the sound of a gong and Pinky to perform a wacky trepak whenever a bell rings. Factor in Brain’s newest invention, the Vacuuminator—a modified French horn that allows the mice to escape their cage and will theoretically suck up all the crown jewels the czar has carelessly left lying about—and a total lunar eclipse over St. Petersburg, and you have all the makings of a typical bungled Brain plot. It’s not bad, but it’s pretty obvious where this plan is headed from the first time Pinky starts wildly flailing about, and it’s never as satisfying to see Brain fail as a result of wacky slapstick as it is to see him become the victim of his own hubris, as in “Win Big” or “Battle For The Planet.”

“Nothing But The Tooth” also involves Russian czars and hubris, but it’s not clear that it involves the Warners for way too much of its short runtime. There are hints, of course: the tower-escape gag that precedes the short, the narrator stating the year and setting in the same sort of voiceover heard in the other history-based Warners shorts. But the first two-and-a-half minutes or so are devoted to a very cartoonish retelling of the supposed manipulation of Czar Nicholas by the “Mad Monk” Rasputin, who is cast here as a spoiled child using his psychic abilities to get Nicholas to give him a puppy and appoint people “the secretary of cheese” and “the keeper of the lint.” The lack of any familiar faces combined with the middling animation of Akom makes the first half of “Nothing But The Tooth” feel like a cast-off from ’80s-Saturday-Morning-Cartoonland, not a part of one of the best cartoon series of the ’90s. Once the Warners show up, playing professional Shriners/amateur dentists brought in to help Rasputin with a toothache, things settle into a more familiar rhythm, with sight gags and puns a plenty. (My favorite: Yakko offering to “deaden the pain with a little Anastasia,” prompting Dot to tell the camera, “Obscure joke, talk to your parents.”) But though they play a part in Rasputin’s demise, yanking his teeth out so he can no longer hypnotize the czar, the skit’s conclusion centers on… Rasputin’s puppy, who can talk now because he’s wearing the Rasputin’s old teeth? It’s a very weird ending to a very weird short, and not that good weirdness Animaniacs is capable of pulling off in its best moments.

Good weirdness like Chicken Boo, one of the best one-joke characters in the Animaniacs arsenal. There’s not much to say about Chicken Boo; either you dig the perpetual joke of people being fooled by a chicken in a wig or you don’t, but Boo’s blank expression pairs especially well with the emotive world of ballet in “Chicken Boo-ryshnikov.”

Episode 19’s “Meatballs Or Consequences” also has an air of weirdness about it, but it’s much more successful than “Nothing But The Tooth,” due to that weirdness being rooted in the incongruity of a children’s cartoon show doing a Seventh Seal parody. This might be the height of Animaniacs reference-dropping at levels way over the heads of its intended audience, but it’s tempered with lots of all-ages silliness as the Warners channel their irritating-adolescent sides in order to annoy Death into letting them all pass on to the other side along with the meatball-embolismed Wakko (a nice twist on the whole battling-Death trope). Yakko, Wakko, and Dot are seriously in whiny-brat mode here, which makes it all the more fun when they drop into a deadpan stylistic homage—“All is strange and vague.” “Are we dead?” “Or is this Ohio?”—or praise Death for putting up “a heck of a fight for the literary personification of the state of non-being!” But even with all the “daddoos” and swapping out chess for checkers, “Meatballs Or Consequences” seems to be operating more on the level of cinephiles than schoolchildren, right up to the concluding wink that “Spielberg eats this stuff up.” But hey, at least Death talks in a funny voice, right?

And in this week full of odd endings, we conclude with a strangely out-of-place Hip Hippos short. “A Moving Experience” is the “origin story,” such as it is, of Flavio and Marita, exploring the circumstances that led them to move their ranch rover to the city’s neon glow—which wouldn’t be that odd if

  1. their theme song didn’t lay it out so explicitly already and
  2. we hadn’t already had an introductory Flavio and Marita short a few episodes back.

This bit of backtracking highlights the repetitive nature of Hip Hippos shorts, which hinge on Flavio and Marita echoing the same sentiments back and forth to each other in increasingly dramatic fashion: “It’s true fudgemuffin: Nothing’s been as good as our jungle house.” “Oh poo! It’s true! Nothing is as trendy as our old house!” The basic joke of two trend-obsessed hippos is a good one, and Flavio and Marita’s overblown affectation lends itself well to the vocal talents of Frank Welker and Tress MacNeille, but Hip Hippos skits rarely do anything surprising with the conceit, instead recycling the same two jokes structures over and over: silly “trendy” gags like the beret-wearing “Guggenhip Museum” and “The Banana Republican Store,” and the sort of lazy fat jokes that are facilitated by having two hippos as main characters. The Hip Hippos are barely more sophisticated in premise than Chicken Boo—and have an equally maddening theme song—but drag it out much, much longer. Like a lot of this week’s episodes, it’s a bit baggy and ill-fitting, a suggestion of something much better.

Stray observations:

  • “What are you doing over there Brain?” “Contemplating your afterlife, Pinky.”
  • The people who come to Boo-ryshnikov’s performance sure do have a wide array of food ready for the throwing: Fruit, bread, whole chickens. Perhaps they were on their way to a picnic.
  • “Please control yourselves, I did not know he was poultry!”
  • This week’s Wheel Of Morality: “Brush your teeth after every meal. Brought to you by the ADA.” Says Dot: “That makes me feel all warm and squishy. Either that or I need to wear diapers.”
  • During Wakko’s meatball-eating feat, Death is reading Robert’s Rules Of Death.
  • Death hasn’t lost at checkers since time began—which was a Tuesday. Few people know that.
  • “The expression ‘do lunch’ is out. Now you say ‘meal.’ ‘Meal’ is a verb now.”