I've written before about the development of Animaniacs, so I'll make this short: it was developed in 1991-2 by the same team that was working on Tiny Toons. Tom Ruegger and Sherri Stoner were the producers; Rich Arons, Tiny Toons’ busiest director, was the animation producer. One of the few Animaniacs staffers who had not worked on Tiny Toons was Paul Rugg, a member of the ACME Theatre troupe (a L.A. improv group).
The main characters of the show were the Warner Brothers and their Sister Dot, three early "inkblot" characters of indeterminate specias who had been locked in the studio water tower for 65 years. (The name wasn't the only reference to the studio; the show was filled with references to WB, the WB logo, etc. It was a bit crass, but it was part of the smart corporate strategy that WB adopted around the mid-'80s, of celebrating its corporate legacy and emphasizing all the cool stuff it had done in the past -- this was the exact opposite of what WB did in the '70s, when it ditched everything connected with its past, including the WB logo.) They were vaguely based on Tom Ruegger's three mischievous sons, though they were mostly reminiscent of the Marx Brothers: three weirdos with differing personalities who came together to drive pompous people round the bend.
An interesting document from the development of the show is the Animaniacs "Bible", a description of the show for freelance contributors. Comparing the Bible to the show that finally premiered in September 1993, we see that the Warners' characters changed quite a bit by the time the show was actually produced: in the finished product, with their personalities shaped in large part by Paul Rugg (who wrote more scripts for them than anyone else), they were far less like hyperactive kids and more like old-style comedians, with many references to their past life as early cartoon characters, including a wonderful wraparound in one episode where they are shown working with various comedians of the past: Fanny Brice, George Burns, and Milton Berle, who didn't like their dropping anvils on his head.
The original intention was to have the Warners as the hosts of the show, but this was abandoned in favor of a totally flexible format: the producers created the first season of 65 episodes by making dozens of short cartoons along with dozens of Rocky and Bullwinkle-style filler segments (including one, "Good Idea/Bad Idea," that featured Mr. Skullhead, a character who originated on Tiny Toons), and then mixing and matching them into half-hour episodes. Some episodes would have just a couple of short cartoons; others would have up to a dozen different segments. It was possibly the loosest format ever used in a cartoon series, and it allowed for the creation of a wide variety of characters who could star in their own short cartoons. These included:
- Pinky and the Brain. The show's most successful supporting characters; you probably know about them. Their design was vaguely based on two WB staffers, writer Tom Minton (Brain) and Eddie Fitzgerald, who also inspired Pinky's trademark cry of "Narf!"
- Slappy Squirrel. Written by and starring the voice of Sherri Stoner, this series of cartoons was based around the idea that a cartoon star of the '30s had grown old; she still defeats cartoon villains, but with an air of world-weariness because she's seen every gag in the book, and she teaches the art of cartoon violence to her nephew Skippy. This concept, and the coloring of the two characters (she's grey, the kid is brown) was loosely inspired by the Robert McKimson Bugs Bunny cartoon "Rabbit's Kin," where Bugs teaches a young rabbit how to beat up on a villain.
- Mindy and Buttons. This was basically a knockoff of the Roger Rabbit/Baby Herman cartoons; when Disney decided -- due to rights squabbles between itself and Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment -- that it didn't want to make any more Roger Rabbit cartoons, Spielberg transferred the concept to Animaniacs. There were some good Mindy/Buttons cartoons, including one (written by Stoner) done entirely in French. But it was a limited concept that really would have needed more than a TV budget, even a big one, to make it work.
- Rita and Runt. The primary purpose of this series, about a stray cat and a dumb dog (who doesn't realize she's a cat) looking for a home, was to give Spielberg's friend Bernadette Peters a part. Unfortunately neither the songs nor the scripts were usually up to the standards of the series; it was just too sentimental for a show that usually didn't do sentiment. But there were some fine cartoons in this series, usually when they did an all-out musical ("Les Miseranimals," a visually spectacular cartoon) or just went for pure comedy ("Phranken-Runt," where every scene is stolen by the animation of a clumsy giant mouse named Mr. Squeak).
- Goodfeathers. Written by Deanna Oliver, this series re-cast the characters from Goodfellas as pigeons. It began promisingly, with a strong New York flavor to the stories and a funny spoof of the making of Hitchcock's The Birds, but it eventually became just a bunch of generic stories (a character has the hiccups, a character is in a bad mood) with mostly weak gags.
- Chicken Boo. Also written by Deanna Oliver, this series was unexpectedly successful; it was just the same thing over and over, but the sheer weirdness of it -- the fact that no one recognizes the great ballet dancer or general as just a clucking chicken in disguise -- made it work, and introduced "He's a chicken, I tell you, a giant chicken" as a popular catchphrase.
From the start, Animaniacs showed a harder edge than its predecessor. In place of prosocial messages, it had a recurring segment, “The Wheel of Morality,” that mocked the tacked-on public service announcements of shows like He-Man or Inspector Gadget. In place of characters who grew and learned, Animaniacs presented characters who never saw any need for self-examination. And, most importantly and controversially, Animaniacs made few attempts to make its characters conventionally likable. Unlike Tiny Toons and almost every kids’ cartoon show of the ‘80s (Ralph Bakshi’s Mighty Mouse being the most notable exception), Animaniacs almost never presented its characters with moral dilemmas or opportunities to Do The Right Thing. Its characters were almost completely amoral and self-centred; the Warners never helped anyone unless they could get some entertainment out of it (In the cartoon “Hooked on a Ceiling,” they explain their decision to help Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel: “We’re not doing it for the sake of art, and we’re not doing it for the sake of money. No. We’re doing it because we like painting naked people!”), Slappy Squirrel destroyed two film critics’ homes for giving her a bad review, and the Brain was the traditional villain of kids’ cartoondom - an evil genius with dreams of world domination - somehow transformed into the hero.
This was part of Animaniacs' break with the world of '80s Saturday Morning cartoons, a world to which even Tiny Toons had belonged to some extent. In the kiddie-cartoon world, there was an absolute dividing line between good guys and bad guys. The good guys could only behave badly if they were going to learn a lesson from it by the end of the episode. On Animaniacs, the good guys often behaved very badly indeed; Brain was an aspiring dictator and yet we were expected to root for him, while Slappy gleefully acted without provocation and was never chastized for this.
Yet to say, as some did, that the characters of Animaniacs were simply “mean” is to miss the point that they were almost always going up against people who were annoying, arrogant, or condescending, the kind of people who gave the Warners a hard time just because they're kids, and the Warners' adversaries were the kind of adults who like to flaunt their power over kids (the antagonists often called the Warners "snotty little children" or something like that). Part of the theme of Animaniacs, then, was that of characters banding together against a hostile world, a traditional theme in comedy and one that resonates very strongly with children. Because of this underlying theme, viewers didn’t need to see the Warners acting “morally” to know that they were worth rooting for; they were worth rooting for because of what they represented: Children fighting back against the things children hate having to put up with - condescention, authoritarian rules, stupid questions.
Some of this lack of redeeming social value can be traced to the influence of Ren and Stimpy, which was already very strongly felt in the later episodes of Tiny Toons. But in other ways, Animaniacs was a regressive show, and particularly in its visual style, which was even more heavily influenced than Tiny Toons by the cartoon sequences in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
One of the big talking points about Animaniacs was its unusually large number of “adult” references, but this wasn't really the key to its success. After all, one of the most frequent criticisms of Tiny Toons was that it depended on references, rather than humor; some scenes would consist mostly of celebrity caricatures, presented as though the sight of a celebrity on a kids’ show was funny in and of itself. And truth to tell, what made Animaniacs funny didn’t usually have much to do with the vaunted cultural references. There were exceptions, of course; Rugg’s “The Warners 65th Anniversary Special,” which told the story of the Warners from 1929 to 1994, derived much of its appeal from the satire of many years of entertainment and cultural history.
But much of the time, the references amounted to little more than name-dropping. The limitations of its time slot meant that Animaniacs couldn’t usually attack or satirize celebrities (Jerry Lewis, as re-imagined and voiced by Rugg, was an exception), so references to entertainers and politicians were usually just throwaways, or breathers in between the real jokes. The appeal of a line like Dot’s “who do you think should play me? Valerie Bertinelli?” has little to do with humor and much more to do with the incongruity of saying such a thing in a tough situation (the Warners have a way of changing the subject to pop culture at a time when anyone else would be worried at confronting Death or Satan or Ivan Boesky or the other villains they faced).
Every show has its detractors (except outright flops, which have nothing to detract from). But one thing about Animaniacs is that after it became a success, and a cult phenomenon -- as I've said, in that first year it may have had the biggest online cult I've ever seen for a "kids'" cartoon show -- it also got some of the nastiest denunciations from hardcore animation buffs.
Timing may have had something to do with this. Animaniacs debuted less than a year after Nickelodeon’s infamous firing of John Kricfalusi from Ren and Stimpy. Appearing when it did, Animaniacs looked like the ultimate example of bland corporate cartoon-making: Talky, script-dominated, heavy on pop-culture jokes. The symbol of the forces that were out to crush John K. or whoever. Indeed, an article in the now-defunct journal “Wild Cartoon Kingdom” denounced Animaniacs despite the upfront admission of the author (Kricfalusi, writing under the pen-name “Tom Paine”) that he hadn’t actually watched the show before sitting down to write.
Actually, a lot of criticisms of Animaniacs gave at least the impression that the writer hadn’t watched the show in advance; some of the negative descriptions of the show had only the vaguest resemblance to what actually happened onscreen. For example, the show was accused of being self-referential and conscious of its own wackines. But in fact, in those first 65 episodes, Animaniacs clearly made attempts to keep the characters talking to each other, rather than the audience. Several of the characters, notably Pinky and the Brain, never broke the fourth wall at all. The Warners might occasionally get a line like “Don’t you love it when we sing the plot?” but most of the time, they did not talk to the camera or comment on their own jokes. (This was to change in the later episodes, and would be a big part of why the later episodes weren't as good.)
But some of the faults were real enough. One of the most commonly-made charges against Animaniacs, that it simply ripped off classic humor while adding nothing original of its own, had its foundation in a number of Animaniacs cartoons that played more like ripoffs than homages. The earliest example of this was “Yakko’s Universe,” a Randy Rogel song that was well-liked enough to be used in two episodes - except that it was almost point-for-point the same song as the “Universe Song” in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. Sometimes Animaniacs could give the impression that the writers were taking the dubious route pioneered by Hanna-Barbera in The Flintstones or Top Cat, taking older comedy and rehashing it for an audience of children who hadn’t seen the originals.
On the other hand, this kind of rehashing was far less common on Animaniacs than some of its critics believed. A more typical example would be “King Yakko,” one of the show’s few full-length half-hour stories. This episode, written by Peter Hastings and directed by Alfred Gimeno, is quite patently based on the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, Yet having established the connection to Duck Soup, Hastings and Gimeno carefully avoid taking anything else from the movie; there are no gags or lines borrowed from Duck Soup in this episode (unless “This means war” counts as a direct quote), and only one explicitly Marxian moment, when Wakko imitates Harpo’s famous “leg hang.” Unlike Tiny Toons’ “A Night in Kokomo,” which paid dubious tribute to the Marx Brothers by re-using many of their famous routines, “King Yakko” is a genuine tribute: An attempt to capture the spirit of the Marx Brothers without slavishly copying them.
The show also matched the imagination of the writing with visual imagination, especially in the staging of the songs. (The show had a lot of songs, which supposedly started as a ploy to get more money -- a writer who got a song onto the show would get royalties for it -- but which soon became a central part of the show's appeal.) A song like "The Senses," the best song from the first season, doesn't look like it had a lot of "scripting"; it mostly takes place on a kind of "bare stage" with various props, and much of the fun of the sequence is the way it segues from one visual point to another without introducing many new backgrounds. The first song sequence, "The Monkey Song," does a superb job of introducing all the major characters by having them run in and out of the shot, do little things in the background, etc.; it's a dizzyingly fast, beautifully-staged cartoon.
Next time: Animaniacs, the WB years. (It'll be a lot shorter, I promise.)