Thursday, July 01, 2004


I seem to have misplaced my Pinky and the Brain post, so instead I present another in my almost-nonexistent series on Warner Bros. TV cartoons of the '90s: Freakazoid!, which premiered on the WB network in 1995 and ran two short seasons, 24 episodes in all. It is still seen sometimes on the Cartoon Network in the U.S.

While I loved Freakazoid!, I don't have much room to actually talk about why I liked it, because there's so much background to give on the strange way the show came into being. Originally, Steven Spielberg and Warner Brothers decided that their next collaboration should be on an action-adventure show, something like Warners' Batman: the Animated Series. The idea for Freakazoid was pitched to WB and Spielberg by two key Batman: writer Paul Dini and director-designer Bruce Timm. Their idea was for an original superhero show with a more contemporary look and lighthearted tone than the dour Batman. The premise was that a mild-mannered teenager is sucked into the Internet -- whose existence the TV industry was only just then starting to acknowledge -- and transformed into a crazy, wisecracking superhero.

Spielberg liked the idea, as did Warner Brothers, and the show went into development; many of the Batman artists were assigned to work on designing and directing Freakazoid! But as development continued, Spielberg, who had enjoyed the nuttiness of Animaniacs, started pushing the new show in that direction, as Timm recalled:

It started out as an adventure show, but it ended up turning into more and more of a comedy show; every time we'd have a meeting with Steven, the concept would kinda change, and it kept leaning more &and more towards zany comedy. It really started out almost like Spider-Man, on that level of, like, a teenage superhero. And it reached a point where it became a comedy -- with the Tiny Toons/Animaniacs kind of humor. I don't have anything against that; I just don't have a flair for it, so I bailed — I just hung out here while my staff had to do the show.

Jean Macurdy asked Tom Ruegger, producer of Animaniacs and Tiny Toons (and who also, according to Dini, played an important role in the development of Batman) to try and come up with a new concept for the project that would fit in with Spielberg's desire for a comedy. In Ruegger's words:

I do recall it was pouring in LA in January, about eight months before the premier of Freakazoid, when I finally landed on an approach that felt like fun...a sort of 'Hellzapoppin'' of comedy superhero sketches and segments, some short, some long, some full stories, some blackouts, but all including this nutty teen superhero character, Freakazoid. I wrote a bunch of them up -- including the Senor Wences hand puppet girl friend bit ["Handman"], the retired super heroes deli sketch ["The Legends Who Lunch"], most of the 'Boron' material, all the alien attacks and Clinton material in Washington, almost all the blackouts that were used during the first season -- gave them as sort of absurdist order, then printed this batch of stuff up as one 85 page script, easily enough stuff for at least two episodes. Jean liked it very much, sent it along to Steven, and he was happy, but he did think it was a bit too wacky and far out. Maybe we needed to tone it down a bit.

By this time, Timm had quit the project, though some of his character designs remained on the show, including that of the title character. Paul Dini contributed a few scripts, including one with a chubby, obsessive "Fanboy" who was determined to become Freakazoid's sidekick ("To join the battle against crime, to uphold the truth, and most important, to handle the overflow babes!"). Most of the best material was written by two Animaniacs writers, Paul Rugg and John McCann, both originally recruited from L.A.'s ACME Theatre troupe; Rugg also became the voice of Freakazoid. Rugg and McCann eventually wound up running the show and writing or re-writing most of the scripts.

Because the show was changed so late in the development process, almost anything was thrown in to get the first 13 episodes ready in time. One of the best segments, "Toby Danger" (an elaborate, dead-on parody of Jonny Quest), had originally been written and storyboarded for Animaniacs. Nearly all the stuff from Ruegger's initial 85-page script was rushed into production, even when it didn't quite mesh with the style of the material that was written later, so straightforward superhero-parody cartoons alternated with segments influenced by Monty Python and Hellzapoppin'; some of the segments -- particularly those written by Rugg or McCann -- were extremely fresh and funny, while others were really just recycled Animaniacs bits (like a lame running gag with a "network censor" getting anvils dropped on her head). The visual style was never entirely consistent either, a result of the fact that the artists had been hired to work on an action-adventure show and then ordered to do a wacky comedy instead. Some of the artists hated the experience; Ronaldo Del Carmen, a Batman artist who directed a few Freakazoid! episodes, called it the worst experience of his professional life, and others had similar things to say (ironically, some of these directors would win an Emmy for Freakazoid!, which took home an "Outstanding Special Achievement in Animation" statuette after it was cancelled).

Freakazoid! did all right initially, well enough to get picked up for a second season, but it was not particularly well-liked at the network, as Ruegger recalled:

On Saturday morning it was the hightest rated cartoon show -- for guys over the age of 14. Very big with guys 18-34. Huge in prisons. But the little kids didn't tune in too much. ('Animaniacs' and 'Pinky and the Brain' had a similar problem -- older kids liked us. But the WB was selling commercials to advertisers promising that they'd deliver an audience of kids ages 2-11. I suggested they might promise to deliver the older kids, but the WB wasn't interested.) So the marketing/ratings people at the WB were very down on 'Freakazoid.' And Jamie Kellner, network prez, hated it, because of the demographics, I guess. He thought we were writing it too smart. We wound up making [24] episodes over the course of [two] seasons before they pulled the plug on us.

Kellner became one of the most-hated network execs on the internet for his cancellations of various cartoon shows, but in all fairness, he was in a tough spot: as I mentioned in another post, the WB had sold its kids' lineup to advertisers as being perfect for young children, and instead it was skewing to older children and teenagers, who had no interest in the products those advertisers were selling. The WB briefly considered moving Freakazoid! to prime time -- that's why most of the second-season episodes were full-length half-hour episodes, rather than collections of shorter segments -- but the idea was abandoned when Pinky and the Brain was removed from prime-time, and I doubt if it would have worked anyway (WB's cartoon shows weren't really for little kids, but they didn't appeal much to non-geeky adults either).

Ted Turner liked the show and brought the 24 extant episodes for Cartoon Network; there was talk of creating new episodes directly for Cartoon Network, but the high budget of the show made that impossible. Hopefully a DVD will come out someday -- as of yet, none of the Warner TV cartoons are available on DVD.

I leave you with some quotes from this show:

ANNOUNCER: But as Freakazoid bounds off to battle, certain questions remain unanswered. For instance: What part will this strange fellow play in our story? And what of the object he clutches so carefully? An ordinary watch, you say? Hardly. For it has a secret power. A bizarre power. The power to turn beavers into gold! Where did he come from? What did he want? And why was there a mint scene? Did it reveal character? How was the story advanced? We may never know.

(From the "Godfather" takeoff, "The Freakazoid"):
MR. FIZZIZZI: I believe in superheroes. I believe they are kind, righteous people who keep their word. I admire and I respect them. All except the Hulk fella, him I no like. He's got a bad smell. Anyway, a few weeks ago, my daughter, she started dating a boy... not a Shriner. When he come to da house for the first time, I take him to da garage, to show him my little putt-a-putt. That's what I call my little Shriner car, my little putt-a-putt. When we get to da garage, this boy, his name is "Snortz" or something, he takes one look at my little car, and he starts laughing and saying: "What a stupid little car! Hey mister, why you have such a stupid little dumb little stupid-car? This boy! He make fun of my little putt-a-putt in front of-a my daughter! I felt the fool!

FREAKAZOID: Cosgrove, how come you never got married?
COSGROVE: 'Cause I like meat too much.
FREAKAZOID: You could be married and still eat a lot of meat.
COSGROVE: I didn't know that.


Anonymous said...

Well, don't know if you'll check this but I would like to say thanks for clearing some things up. I used to watch this on cartoon network when I was around 4-6 (don't remeber what age I was) because I was so young I didn't get some of the jokes but the ones i did get I thought was funny. There is a sight called where I have found all the aired episodes and I still think they are funny. So do many people who leave comments on there. I hope they do come out with a dvd for freakazoid! Hope you read this comment. ^-^

Anonymous said...

Freakazoid was a great show! I always wondered why it got cancelled after two seasons, if it was too random for the general public, but now it makes more sense.

I'd like to have them all on DVD someday...