Friday, October 24, 2008


In comments, John Panozzi asks if I have anything to say about the early '90s cartoon Taz-Mania. I've been meaning to get around to that, and probably should have mentioned it earlier, since I seem to have become an unofficial historian of '90s WB TV animation (I'm not claiming that's a good thing). I actually watched quite a few episodes when it was on Fox in the early '90s.

This was the first comedy cartoon Warners launched after Tiny Toons, and their first new show with a "classic" character. It was created by Art Vitello, who had been probably the top director on Tiny Toons. Vitello directed some of the early episodes and took a co-writing credit on virtually every episode. (Vitello was described to me once as "The man who wanted ALL the credit on Taz-Mania.") His directing crew was mostly made up of his best people from his Tiny Toons unit, like Doug McCarthy and Keith Baxter (but not Bruce Timm, who already had a little project of his own called Batman).

The idea behind the show seemed to be that since the Tasmanian Devil was a hugely popular and merchandisible character who didn't actually appear in that many cartoons, it would make sense to produce more cartoons with him as the star. He was the only classic character who appeared regularly; everybody else was new. Some episodes would have him as a predator in the original style, others would have him as the obnoxious big brother or the harried son, another episode cast him in the role of Sylvester from the Sylvester/Porky cartoons -- basically, it used him as an all-purpose straight man for all the new characters. You could call it a violation of the original character, but it was probably a better approach than, say, The Sylvester and Tweety Mysteries, which kept the original characters but placed them in an uncongenial format. This Taz clearly no longer was part of the old LT/MM universe, so you could at least accept the show on its own terms. Of the new characters, the best was probably Taz's dad (Maurice LaMarche), an insanely laid-back type who sounded kind of like Bing Crosby and was obsessed with orange juice.

This was also WB's attempt to do the Tiny Toons type of show on a lower budget. This meant keeping the same style of animation (mostly by Wang, sometimes by StarToons, which animated the main title and a few episodes) but cutting back on everything else, particularly music and backgrounds. Jon McClenahan, director of StarToons, explained in this interview:

The series used flat BG's, which meant they could be drawn, xeroxed, and painted just like an ordinary cel level. This shaved some numbers off the budget, which was important - these shows had to look good, but cost less than Tiny Toons. Another way they cut corners was in the musical score, using something like a 5-piece band, instead of a full orchestra like they did with Tiny Toons (and Animaniacs).

The flat backgrounds looked quite good a lot of the time, and gave the show its own style that set it apart from the more old-fashioned, sometimes a little drab backgrounds on Tiny Toons (to say nothing of the elaborate Art Deco backgrounds of Batman).

There were people who couldn't stand Tiny Toons, let alone Animaniacs, who were quite pleased with Taz-Mania. With Vitello supervising both the writing and the visuals, it had a more unified feel than those other shows. Vitello was so much in control of the show that -- unless I'm remembering wrong -- he even directed the voice recording sessions himself, rather than leaving it to Andrea Romano as all the other WB shows did. And with a lead character who didn't talk much (unlike the original Taz, who could actually talk in complete sentences when he needed to, the Taz on this show -- voiced by Jim Cummings -- mostly talked in grunts and slurps, with the occasional "Taz like this!" or "Taz like that!"), it could sometimes be more visual and less obviously writer-driven than the other shows.

I said "sometimes," because much of the time, this was a very writer-driven, dialogue-heavy show, and that was one of its weaknesses. While Taz didn't talk much, all the other characters talked. Constantly. It may actually have been the talkiest cartoon of its era, and the most self-referential; long stretches of dialogue would literally be devoted to analyzing the events of the episode, and the non-Taz characters couldn't do anything without commenting on what they were doing. Also, this show may have recycled more old cartoon plots than even Tiny Toons did.

And yet it was an entertaining show at its best. It wasn't the kind of show I would go out of my way to watch, but when I did watch it, I usually enjoyed it. It didn't have a lot of great episodes but it didn't have a lot of terrible ones either -- it was a good middle-of-the-road show, the kind of thing networks took for granted in the early '90s when decently-made cartoons were more plentiful than they are now.


Thad said...

This show is solid shit. Nobody shuts the fuck up, and it seemed like yellow was the only color the BG artists knew of. Greg Duffell considers his 'directing' job on this series one of the worst experiences of his career.

Anthony Strand said...


I'll give you that the show wasn't very good. But "the sky's always yellow in rain or shine" is right in the theme song. So it's not like they were trying to hide that.

Speedy Boris said...

Taz-Mania was never a big favorite of mine. I would watch it, but not religiously. And unlike TTA and Animaniacs, I don't remember a single plotline from the show years later.

Great opening theme, though.

Brent McKee said...

Taz's dad resembling Bing Crosby was quite deliberate, right down to the orange juice - Crosby had been the pitchman for Minute Maid Orange Juice (he had been one of the original investors in the company before it was sold to Coca-Cola). This was further reinforced by an appearance by Taz's uncle in one episode - a golfer who sounded very much like Bob Hope.

The show was never that great. I much preferred "Animaniacs" or even "Tiny Toons." That said, it did have its moments.

Anonymous said...

The Taz-Mania orchestra contained eight pieces, not five. This show should be on DVD, like all the others from that era.

Jeffrey said...

I know that Taz-Mania is subpar compared to the other Silver Age WB stuff, but I can't hate it, because of the feelings of nostalgia it invokes. (And keep in mind that I can recognize that other of my childhood favorites, like the DIC Mario cartoons were in fact total garbage.)