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

Animaniacs: “Temporary Insanity”/“Operation: Lollipop”/“What Are We?” & “Piano Rag”/“When Rita Met Runt”

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Much has been made about how Animaniacs is a cartoon both kids and adults can enjoy in equal measure. While much of that can be chalked up to the show’s combination of classic cartoon zaniness and smart references, in the case of the Warners, it boils down to something even simpler: The Warners are kids and adults. There are plenty of characters in the annals of cartoon history whose ages are kept purposely vague—many in the Looney Tunes and Disney universes in particular—but Yakko, Wakko, and Dot’s ages aren’t just undefined; they’re malleable. They can react to situations as kids or as adults, or as neither, depending on what the situation calls for and what has the highest potential for laughs. As the most frequent dropper of old-fashioned references and gags, oldest brother Yakko often seems more “adult” than the mispronunciation-prone Wakko or self-proclaimed cutie-pie Dot, but any of the three of them is just as likely to engage in a kidlike to-the-death scramble to answer the phone as they are to drop a double-entendre that would (hopefully) sail over the heads of most kids.

Temporary Insanity” sees the Warners boingy-boinging up and down the maturity spectrum as they fill in for Chairman Plotz’s sick secretary (or “scelecetary”), with all the mayhem that description implies. Dot’s a seasoned phone-call-wrangler one minute, a lusty teen mooning over Mel Gibson the next (careful, Dot…), and a kid wrestling her brothers for the privilege of answering a ringing phone the next. Above all, though, she’s a cartoon, which means she and her brothers’ personalities are not dictated by any previously established parameters (well, outside of their theme song descriptions as cute, yak-y, and snack-y, respectively), but rather by the situation facing them at that very moment. That ambiguity is key to maintaining the anarchic, anything-goes spirit of Warners sketches, where Yakko can be imitating a classic Jerry Lewis bit in the same frame as Wakko goofing off with the photocopier or Dot “filing” papers with a giant cartoon emery board.

A different aspect of the Warners’ ambiguity is addressed in one of this episode’s original songs, “What Are We?,” written, as many of the best Animaniacs songs are, by Randy Rogel. After a brief setup involving Scratchansniff trying and failing to hypnotize the Warners, they answer his frustrated “what are you?” query in song, as they are wont to do, eventually crescendoing to the conclusion that they’re not bees or cats or bugs or horses, but rather just “cute.” Yakko, Wakko, and Dot’s inkblot-like physical makeup lends itself to some great animation here (courtesy of TMS once again) as they morph into approximations of bunnies, skunks, and various other not-quite-Warner forms—but never a mouse, oddly. Or perhaps not, given the oft-repeated story of Warner Bros. studio head Bob Daly freaking out about seeing a giant promotional Yakko balloon he believed to be Mickey Mouse set atop the studio water tower, an event that necessitated the addition of the Warners’ side whiskers. (Episode 6 has another song that opens the episode, a Flipper parody that’s so unexceptional it’s just called “Flipper Parody” on the DVD menu. Hey, they can’t all be winners.)

But where the Warners are ambiguous, Mindy and Buttons are as distinct as it gets: They are what they are, a baby and a dog, respectively, and their protector-protectee relationship is obvious and unchanging. Judging by the comments here in previous weeks, Mindy and Buttons aren’t the biggest fan-favorites, and I admit before watching “Operation Lollipop” again I was prone to think of them as another one-note, catchphrase-dependent bit a la the Goodfeathers. And, yes, Mindy and Buttons are pretty one-note—Mindy gets into a jam, Buttons saves her, at great physical peril; repeat—and yes, Mindy has a couple of cutesy-poo catchphrases that I distinctly remember being incorporated into the vernacular of my fifth-grade-classroom: “Okay, I love you, bye-bye!” and “Silly puppy!” But viewed through a critical lens, “Operation Lollipop” at the very least a great piece of animation, with the mute Buttons serving as an object lesson in cartoon physical comedy. Akon Studios is responsible for this one, and it’s fascinating to watch the cartoon physics at work here as Mindy escapes her tether while stuck to the side of a mail truck or Buttons rides an landing gear up into the plane’s cramped wheelhouse. Buttons especially, as a non-anthropomorphized, four-legged, fairly rigid-looking dog, presents an interesting animation challenge, yet he looks totally realistic shimmying along the side of a plane and pulling the bay door open with his mouth… well, as realistic as that sort of thing can be. It’s obvious why Mindy and Buttons aren’t as memorable as other Animanaics characters—they’re lacking in both quotable bits and pop-culture references, and don’t have much in the way of adult-humor appeal—but I found myself appreciating them much more this time around, if mostly for aesthetic reasons.

Another sometimes-maligned Animaniacs duo I found myself appreciating much more than I remembered: Rita and Runt, who, like Mindy and Buttons, might just come across better in their debut appearance because they’re still new and fresh. But unlike “Operation Lollipop,” Episode 7’s “When Rita Met Runt” is an actual origin story, telling about how… well, you can figure it out from the title, can’t you? This one was written by Sherri Stoner, creator of Slappy The Squirrel, and while it lacks the cartoony self-referentialism of that character’s sketches, there’s a similar dynamic between the cynical, world-weary Rita and the happy-go-lucky Runt as between Slappy and her nephew Skippy, not to mention a certain affinity for old-timey Hollywood tropes—though in this case, it’s a slightly noir vibe. I was actually surprised how dark Rita gets during her jailhouse conversation with Runt: “What difference does it make anyway? Soon we’ll be sleeping the big sleep,” she moans, and then, in case you didn’t catch her drift, “They’re gonna gas us you buffoon! We’ll be dead!” Yikes.

Rita and Runt fall on the opposite end of the kid-adult appreciation spectrum from Mindy and Buttons: This is a pretty static, not particularly “cartoony” episode, with Rita and Runt confined to their cages in the pound for much of it, but there’s some pretty great dialogue: When the woman who brings in Rita complains she just wants “a pet who will come when I call and cuddle me when I have a bad day,” Rita mutters, “Have a kid, lady”; and later, when Runt asks her what she’s in for, Rita replies, “Same as always: being too hip for the room.” Of course, credit for much of those lines’ appeal goes to the great Bernadette Peters, who imbues Rita with just the right amount of sass, not to mention a highly pedigreed singing voice. (And speaking of pedigrees, that’s voice-acting legend Frank Welker as the Rainman-esque Runt.)


That Rita and Runt sketch might also play better because it’s quite short—well under 10 minutes. Episode 7’s other main sketch, “Piano Rag,” also clocks in shorter than usual, which means there’s a lot of padding in this episode: The “Newsreel Of The Stars” intro kicks things off for the first time in several episodes, and there’s watertower escape and re-entry gags bookending the sketches. I don’t mind these little interstitials per se, but they do highlight the fact that Episode 7 isn’t exactly a “classic” Animaniacs entry. I’d classify “Piano Rag” as one of the lesser Warners’ shorts, which isn’t to say it doesn’t have some great gags—I love the ridiculously pompous concert pianist Tympanini (voiced by John Rhys Davies!), and who doesn’t love a well-deployed Pete Townshend reference? But with the Warners busy running from butterfly-net-toting Scratchansniff, Guard, and Hello Nurse, and keeping Tympanini on his toes, their efforts feel a little diluted and scattered, and there are long (by Animaniacs standards) stretches without a solid laugh line. In fact, what’s most memorable about “Piano Rag” isn’t a joke at all, but rather the music, especially the neat chase scene scored by Tympanini’s performance of “Von Plotzburger’s pavan and dirge in C-minor, opus 7… and 11,” which rises and falls with perfect cartoon-soundtrack flourish. It’s impressive and well-executed more than laugh-out-loud funny, which can be said for a lot of this week’s shorts; but hey, that’s exactly the sort of thing that makes a show like Animaniacs worth revisiting as an adult.

Stray observations

  • Among the faked distractions the Warners use to try to distract their siblings from the ringing phone: Wayne Newton, “the horror,” and “a big fat fanny!”
  • When Plotz asks Yakko if he can take dictation, he responds, “Where do you want me to take it?” I could’ve sworn they were gonna go blue on that one…
  • “Are you still zany?” “Only our hairdresser knows for sure!”
  • Great moments in pomposity, courtesy of Tympanini: “I will perform this great work not as the composer wrote it, but as he intended to write it!”
  • After escaping the pound, Runt smells a cheese tree. I would like to know the location of this tree.