Lately there has been buzz in the animation industry over the reboot of Animaniacs that is premiering on Hulu this November. As someone who not only loved this show growing up but thinks it might be the greatest animated series ever made, I shared the enthusiasm surrounding the reboot’s announcement. The show’s return is something I wanted ever since it first ended in the nineties. It lasted from 1993 to 1998 but still feels like it left way too soon. Satire is ripe for any decade after all.
Seeing as how the moment has finally come and the show is returning with Steven Spielberg and Amblin back to produce it, I thought now would be a good time to explore the original series and explain why I love it so much.
In my three-part blog about the history of WB animation that I wrote earlier this year, I went into the history of Tiny Toon Adventures and how Spielberg and Tom Ruegger teamed up to create characters based on the Looney Tunes characters. Well in creating Animaniacs, they used the experience gained from Tiny Toon Adventures to create all new characters who were not connected to Looney Tunes, which gave them even more license for creative freedom. Although the series would still do a great job capturing the irreverent spirit of directors like Tex Avery and Chuck Jones.
Brainstorming for the creation of the characters and the premise of Animaniacs began shortly after Tiny Toon Adventures hit the air waves. Some ideas for the show that got discarded during this brainstorming period include the main characters being a trio of ducks and Rita and Runt being the show’s hosts. Amidst these sessions, Spielberg had final say on which characters would be put in the show. These included:
Rita and Runt, a singing cat voiced by Bernadette Peters and a dimwitted dog voiced by Frank Welker who are constantly on the search for a home.
Mindy and Buttons were a little girl voiced by Nancy Cartwright and her German Shepherd who is often tasked with watching her, although Buttons is usually the one getting into the most trouble protecting the calamity-prone Mindy.
Slappy Squirrel is a miserly old retired cartoon star voiced and created by show writer Sherri Stoner who lives in a treehouse in Burbank, California with her nephew Skippy voiced by Tom Ruegger’s son Nate Ruegger.
Stoner’s creation of Slappy was inspired by her friend and fellow writer John McCann making fun of her acting career where she had often portrayed troubled teenagers in TV movies by saying Stoner will still be playing teenagers when she’s 50, leading Stoner to have the idea of an older character acting like a teenager, which naturally led to the premise of an aging cartoon star. Slappy is one of my favorite characters in the series because her grouchy but mischievous attitude makes her feel like a long lost Looney Tunes star or even the forgotten Marx sister. Stoner brought the house down when she acted out the character’s dialogue so Spielberg suggested she voice Slappy herself.
The Goodfeathers are a trio of streetwise pigeons who are spot-on parodies of Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci’s gangster characters from Goodfellas featuring Maurice LaMarche as Squit, John Mariano as Bobby and Chick Vennera as Pesto doing their best Italian gangster impressions.
Pinky and the Brain were two lab mice voiced by Rob Paulsen and Maurice LaMarche who try to take over the world every night. While Brain is serious and methodical, Pinky is prone to sputtering nonsense (“Narf,” “Zort,” “Poit,” etc.)
The duo was created by Tom Ruegger and inspired by his Tiny Toon Adventures colleagues Eddie Fitzgerald and Tom Minton (Ruegger apparently thought it would be funny imagining what it would be like if Fitzgerald and Minton tried to take over the world). Ruegger’s instincts were on the money because Pinky and the Brain remain fan favorites, gaining enough popularity to even get their own spin-off in 1995.
And among these characters are the Warner Brothers Yakko and Wakko and the Warner sister Dot who cause havoc around the Warner movie lot and live in the WB water tower. Yakko (Rob Paulsen) is the oldest who wears the pants, Wakko (Jess Harnell) is the middle Warner and probably the wackiest character in the entire show, and the youngest Warner Dot (Tress MacNeille) is the vain one who will kill you if you tell her she isn’t cute.
The fictional history of the Warners is that they were originally created in the 1930s and caused so much mayhem around the Warner Bros. studio that they were captured and locked in the water tower until the 1990s when they escaped. The personalities of the Warners were originally based on Ruegger’s three sons and their humor was inspired by the Marx Brothers while their look has obvious inspiration from other cartoon characters from the 1930s including Felix the Cat, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and Mickey Mouse.
In addition to this main cast were a slew of side characters, many of which were just as hilarious.
Yakko, Wakko and Dot had many adversaries, including studio psychiatrist Dr. Scratchansniff, the attractive studio nurse Heloise Nerz (who the lovestruck Warner Brothers regularly greet with a “Hello Nurse”) Ralph the security guard and the short-tempered Warner Bros. CEO Thaddeus Plotz.
Other memorable characters who appeared regularly include Flavio and Marita (aka the Hip Hippos), Chicken Boo, Katie Ka-boom, Minerva Mink and more.
The series was a variety show featuring recurring characters and sketches, short skits and music. There was no set format, although most episodes consisted of three mini episodes, usually starring the Warner siblings and either Pinky and the Brain, the Goodfeathers, Slappy Squirrel, Buttons and Mindy or Rita and Runt, often bridged and bookended with even shorter mini segments such as “Mime Time” and “Good Idea, Bad Idea” (often the Warner siblings had cameos in other characters’ cartoons and functioned to tie the show together as the main three characters).
Just like the Looney Tunes, the show featured running gags, catchphrases, satire of celebrities and pop culture and a heavy emphasis on slapstick, but it also featured a sharp wit that adults could enjoy on a different level than kids.
The songs are some of my favorite parts of the show. Shows aimed at kids featuring educational songs was not a new idea but these were some of the best ever written, with subjects ranging from the countries of the world and the U.S. presidents to the solar system and even the Panama Canal. Not that there weren’t plenty of nonsensical songs as well, but they were all well-written.
The music score was original for each episode and following Spielberg’s suggestion the series utilized a full orchestra, which further gave it a classic Carl Stalling-esque Looney Tunes feel (Stalling actually composed in the Eastwood scoring stage where Animaniacs was also composed).
In addition to Steven Spielberg and Tom Ruegger, the producers included Peter Hastings, Sherri Stoner, Rusty Mills and Rich Arons. Along with showrunner Ruegger who led the production, this team contributed many of the show’s scripts and were very active in the writer’s room, which was full of writers with cartoon backgrounds as well as sketch comedy backgrounds, a blend that was perfect for the show’s tone.
Some of the stories in the show were even inspired by the writers’ own lives (such as the time Sherri Stoner cried as a child after watching Bambi, which led to one of Slappy Squirrel’s funniest cartoons).
Just like with Tiny Toon Adventures, the animation was farmed out to several different studios around the world, including Tokyo Movie Shinsha (Japan), Wang Film Productions (Taiwan), StarToons (Chicago) and AKOM (South Korea). Thanks to the talents of these studios, the animation quality on this show was higher than most animated series.
I can never stress enough how clever and well-written this show is (it even won a Peabody). I love how it fully embraces its silly tone, never afraid to be utterly low-brow while still being totally self-aware and witty enough for adults not to feel like they are being talked down to, similar to Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The freedom of the variety format allowed for the series to soar with creativity which made it the most entertaining kids’ show ever put on television in my mind. I do think there is a lighting-in-a-bottle element to how good the show was at the time and I know the writing team is different now and some characters like Slappy Squirrel are apparently not returning, but that doesn’t mean I am not excited to see this new version on Hulu. Seeing Yakko, Wakko and Dot again truly feels like a reunion with friends I haven’t seen since my childhood.