Hey, it counts! Yes, this is Disney blog, and the characters are not and never have been Disney characters, but Disney is the 67% stakeholder of Hulu, so HA!
I guess doing an overview is moot at this point, as Animaniacs was easily not just an integral part of most millenials’ childhoods, but it was revolutionary in terms of shifting cartoon television from being toyetic, vapid kid’s entertainment of the eighties to character-driven, commentary-laden, all-ages appropriate-ish entertainment. But…why not?
A brief overview
After the success of 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, both Disney (Owner of Touchstone, producer of the movie) and Amblin Entertainment (Spielberg’s studio, co-producer of the movie, who was also the executive producer) felt they knew what made it work. After the success of Spielberg’s first animated show, Tiny Toon Adventures, show creator Tom Ruegger adapted some of the elements of Roger Rabbit – the meta nature, use of various cinematic properties, and wacky slapstick – to create a variety show primarily starring the child-aged cartoon ducks (They were later changed to ambiguous dog-like animals reminiscent of 1920’s cartoon characters after realizing ducks were already overused). The writing process was kept free to allow pretty much any idea to flow, and as a variety show, that meant short skits for characters and opportunities to try new ones.
The diagetic backstory is in 1929, Yakko (Rob Paulsen), Wakko (Jess Harnell), and Dot (Tress Macnielle), AKA the Warner brothers (and the Warner sister) were created as animated stars, but their innate zaniness just wreaked havoc across the studio lot. Their cartoons were so nonsensical the studio sealed them away and locked the trio in the studio’s water tower, then in 1993, they escaped. As they put it in their theme song:
“Just for fun we run around the Warner movie lot!/They lock us in the tower/whenever we get caught!/But we break loose and then vamoose and now you know the plot!“
Despite the attempts to control their pandemonium, short-tempered CEO Thaddeus Plotz, studio psychiatrist and surrogate father Dr. Otto von Scrathensniff, blonde bombshell Hello Nurse, and dimwitted security guard Ralph all usually fail as the Warners cause chaos among Hollywood’s elite and fictional characters from Warner properties. Often times they transcend space and time and annoy the likes of Ludwig von Beethoven, Rasputin, Albert Einstein, Michelangelo, Abraham Lincoln, Pablo Picasso, the literal personification of Death, and even Satan himself, all with Yakko’s gift of gab, Wakko’s bottomless appetite, and Dot’s inherent cuteness.
But as a variety show, there was more than just the Warners. Pinky and the Brain were lab rodents bent on world domination who usually failed spectacularly. Slappy Squirrel was a cantankerous old lady from the golden age of cartoons. Goodfeathers were a parody of Goodfellas with pigeons. Buttons and Mindy were a parodic take on Lassie where the oblivious toddler often caused outlandishly dangerous situations for her canine rescuer. Rita and Runt were a stray cat and dog team forever in search of a home. Marita and Flavio were hippos who enjoyed the finer things in life and were very fat. Chicken Boo was a giant fowl who convinced everyone but one person he was human with his disguises. There were others, like Minerva Mink, Katie Ka-Boom, and the Randy Beaman kid who had repeated appearances but none nearly as prevalent as the others.
The show succeeded using clever writing and well-timed slapstick, unafraid to use subtle adult humor, references, and biting parody to mock anything and everything. Even public figures beyond celebrities like Bill Clinton, Saddam Hussein, and Ronald Reagan were not safe from mockery. I would even argue they excelled in actual educational value as they featured songs in the show like “Yakko’s World”, which listed all the countries of the world circa 1993, “Wakko’s America”, which listed all 50 U.S. States and capitals, and “The Presidents”, a chronological listing of all 42 presidents. No other show came close to what they accomplished.
The show ended in 1998 after 99 episodes and a DTV movie, but their influence lingered. Pinky and the Brain got their own solo spinoff (Two of them, in fact!), and other Spielberg cartoons like Freakazoid and Histeria! couldn’t quite hit the same levels of success. In 2018, it was announced that the show was to be rebooted and we braced ourselves.
So what are we looking at?
We know the OG voice actors are returning, but that really extends to just Paulsen, Harnell, Macnielle, and Maurice Lamarche (The Brain), as no indication has been presented that any characters beyond the Warners and Pinky and the Brain are returning. We know the original show writers were not asked back, which has been a point of contention for Tom Ruegger and son Nate, who was the voice of Slappy Squirrel’s nephew, Skippy. And we know the siblings find they’re now 20+ years removed from their last adventures, so 21st century culture is going to play a big part in their escapades.
On October 20th, a full trailer dropped, showcasing just what we can expect from the show. And here are my questions before it premieres:
The Warner Brothers studio is the last bastion of Hollywood not corrupted by Disney. It’s the home of the Looney Tunes, the classic stable of cartoons that were actually successful in rivaling Disney back in the thirties and forties. It’s the home of DC Comics, the classic stable of superheroes that were actually successful in rivaling Marvel in the thirties all the way through to the DCEU. It’s the home of Hanna-Barbera, that other classic stable of cartoons that were actually successful in rivaling Disney on television back in the sixties and seventies. It’s the home of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the modern stable of wizards that were actually successful in rivaling Disney theme parks back in the aughts through today. That’s not even including Lord of the Rings, Citizen Kane, Supernatural, The Matrix, The Lego Movie, Terminator, Mad Max, The Mask, The Conjuring, Ocean’s Eleven, and Austin Powers. They easily have the greatest well of IP’s available to rival Disney and all of these are ripe for the taking. Even non-WB films are available like Jurassic Park (Although its likely that’s mostly due to Spielberg’s approval rather than some deal with Universal or something). So the Warners can run amok in any of these properties. In the trailer, we get a snippet of Yakko and Wakko surrounded by a smorgasbord of obscure toons, but also Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear, Boo Boo and Yakky Doodle from Hanna-Barbera and Henry Chicken Hawk from the Foghorn Leghorn Looney Tunes. So obviously there’s going to be some crossover, but to what extent?
Yes, the Warners mocked everything from Barney the Dinosaur to William Shatner’s “Rocket Man” performance, but they mostly stayed away from even referencing WB’s other properties. And the writers should see the possibilities of being able to use them. I want to see the Warners mock the unbearable grittiness and darkness of the DCEU. I want to see them reenact the Harry Potter saga with Yakko as Harry, Wakko as Ron, and Dot as Hermione and annoy the crap out of Voldemort using magic. I want to see them use the one ring of power to prank Gandalf, Gollum, and Saruman, using Perry Coma to croon at sauron during the battle of Helm’s Deep. And yes, I want to see Wakko out-eat Scooby-Doo and Shaggy!
Crossovers are immensely popular when done right and given the meta nature of the show, it has no logical reason to hold back. Even if it were a public image thing, brand loyalty is critical, so self-referential jabs are an easy way to allow fans to humanize the studio and increase appeal.
2. Will they be woke and/or for kids?
Talk to anyone who grew up with nineties cartoons and earlier, and they’ll have undoubtedly noticed a shift in the comedy landscape. I would argue jokes in kid’s shows have gotten snappier and smarter (largely thanks to shows like Animaniacs, but I digress), but still others disagree, complaining about “PC culture” and “wokeness” supposedly “ruining my childhood”. To which I say…um, no?
Comedy ages poorly, but Animaniacs held on pretty darn well for nearly thirty years. They largely avoided making jokes about stereotypes and race and often aimed at targets who could take a slice of humble pie and were never mean-spirited enough to warrant outrage. That was the genius of the writing. Of all the skits I can recall, arguably the nastiest was their dig at nitpicking trolls in the Please Please Pleese Get a Life Foundation.
But some jokes simply don’t age well due to the evolving landscape. Case in point, Hello Nurse.
The sultry, buxom assistant to Dr. Scratchensniff was invariably a continuation in the legacy of a sexy animated women from Betty Boop to Jessica Rabbit whose sole/primary job was to be titillating eye candy. Sure, she was credited as a genius on a few occasions, but the joke was laughing at the idea that a hot woman could be anything more than that. Her canon name is in no way a proper name. And of course, she served as a prop for Yakko and Wakko to drool over or sexually assault with unwarranted kisses. Same with cult favorite Minerva Mink whose sole gimmick was – you guessed it – to be alluringly sexy and causing others to go nuts. In a post-#MeToo world, that joke just isn’t funny anymore.
Part of the reason characters like Marita and Flavio, the Hip Hippos, never did very well was the gags were largely based on the fact they were fat. Fat cracks were some of the last jokes to survive the PC holdouts, as obesity was considered a character flaw from gluttony, but over the past few decades, we’re learning even if that’s the case…maybe making fun of people’s weight…just shouldn’t be a thing? Given what I’ve seem so far, between cutting out sexual harassment and fat jokes, they’ll still manage to be just as funny as ever, so if you think being politically correct has ruined comedy…just do the world a favor and shut your Wakko hole.
Of course, no discussion of Animaniacs is complete without acknowledging their startlingly flagrant use of adult humor. Unlike its contemporaries like Ren and Stimpy that think “for adults” means farts, urine, fecal matter and other unseemly bodily functions, Animaniacs had sprinklings of adult comedy that most kids never would have caught. Everyone knows the most famous one: where Dot finds singer Prince, but when Yakko corrects her “No no no, fingerprints!”, she responds with “I don’t think so.” Wow.
Even among my super liberal circles, I don’t know anyone truly upset about that one. It’s shocking, yes, but as long as kids didn’t get the joke, what was there to be mad about? If the new series similarly dabbled in such clever jokes and kids are barely none the wiser, who really cares? Anyone can make a fart joke, but it takes real skill to craft a pun about a sexual act with Prince in a way only adults get it.
3. Poltics: everyone’s favorite minefield!
Okay, here we go.
I don’t know who said it, exactly, but some comedian I think I saw on Netflix related a story about how a friend remarked they must be happy about Donald Trump being president, implying that they now had a reliable source of material to mine for their standup routine. Their response was that a comedian in the Trump presidency is akin to being a grave digger during the plague: yeah, business is booming, that’s great…but it doesn’t change the fact the world has gone to complete crap. And for the past four years, there is NO shortage of material to lampoon Trump. And the writers know this.
There are invariably those upset over this. Not just the Trump supporters who think the Orange Generalissimo shouldn’t be mocked, but plenty of Americans just sick and tired of hearing about him on a daily basis. Or the segment of the population who thinks our cartoons should be apolitical, which is the most nonsensical thing. For one thing, the OG show did, in fact, get political. I mean, did you forget Bill Clinton was part of the show’s theme song for a few seasons? “Wakko packs away the snacks while Bill Clinton plays the sax”?
The original show took potshots at both parties and various politicians for various reasons. In the early days of Clinton’s presidency, Hillary was considered more aggressive than her husband, and as such, in the original lyrics to “The Presidents”, when Yakko sets up Dot with “But the one in charge is plain to see”, she responded with “It’s Clinton, first name Hillary!”. In subsequent releases, the line was changed to “But the ones in charge are plain to see, the Clintons, Bill and Hillary!” I honestly don’t see anything wrong using any political figure, Democrat, Republican, or otherwise, as long as the joke works. And let’s be honest…Trump has made things WAY too easy for his critics to make fun of him. In fact, he’s kind of the perfect foil for Yakko, Wakko, and Dot.
In some episodes, like “Plane Pals”, the kids found themselves being their normal, loopy selves aboard an airplane next to a temperamental, self-centered businessman who says he wants peace and quiet, but his rude attitude toward everyone around him earns him the title of “Special friend”, a person so nasty he pretty much deserves to be harassed with their affection and abuse.
I drew this not long after Trump’s inauguration, and marveled at just how easy it’d be for Trump to be harassed by the kids: Dot giving him an angry pussy cat to grab, Yakko hijacking his Twitter account, and Wakko…well, Wakko may not appreciate the appropriation of his his iconic red baseball cap to symbolize radical right wing politics, but he may indulge himself on Trump’s prevalent supply of fast food. All the while, the man who has clearly shown how he thinks everyone is so mean to him, and thinks he’s better than Abraham Lincoln, and wants to expand libel laws to make sure people can’t make fun of him…yeah, that’s kind of made him a prime target for the Warners.
So yeah, guys. Lampoon Trump. Lampoon Bernie Sanders and Mitch McConnell and Nancy Pelosi and whomever they can make a good joke from.
4. Music and melodies: What’s next?
The songs from Animaniacs are the stuff legends are made of. Thanks to the incredible musical stylings of Richard Stone and Randy Rogel, Animaniacs had incredibly fun, catchy, and often educational songs. I still love “The Hello Song”, “A Quake! A Quake!”, “I’m Mad”, and “The Ballad of Magellan” in addition to “Yakko’s World”, “Wakko’s America”, and “The Presidents”. It stands to reason we’ll see more musical shenanigans from the trio.
I’d wager actual money that because “Yakko’s World” was penned in 1993, and because the world had roughly 30 more countries declare sovereignty, well see an updated version of it in the reboot. That means Yakko’s bound for a reprise performance with the updated roster…oh wait, he already has.
I don’t doubt at some point we’ll see more parodies (Lord knows we’re all waiting for some parody of “WAP”) like when they did “Oy, Macadamia” to mock the bizarre and spontaneous popularity of the Macarena. I can’t possibly predict what they’ll sing about to educate or entertain us, but hearing the updated “Yakko’s World”? That’s probably a safe bet.
5. What does this mean for Disney?
Yeah, I was going to bring it back around to Disney sooner or later, wasn’t I?
The reason I ask is A) the Animaniacs are premiering on Disney-controlled Hulu and B) if there’s a single entity out there that has made themselves a bigger target for mockery and contempt than Donald Trump, it’s the Walt Disney company. Of course we remember back in the nineties, Disney was on top of the world, making bank on merchandise, theme parks, consumer goods, TV shows, video games, CD-ROMs, videocassette sales, and McDonald’s Happy Meals. And of course OG Animaniacs to a few shots at the Mouse House in skits like Cutie and the Beast and The Tiger King. So why not continue making fun at Disney for their soulless and abundant reboots, insane theme park ticket prices, their crushing grip on copyright law, the hypersuccessful social dominance of the superhero genre, the controversial reboot of Star Wars, and – lest we forget – their frightening extensive control over all of Hollywood?
So…would Disney allow Animaniacs to cheekily mock their conglomerate on one of their streaming services? Chances are they’d make up their own satire like the game show Geo-Parody Brain went on in the “Win Big” skit of Pinky and the Brain. I don’t want to see Yakko, Wakko, and Dot taking potshots at Walter Derpsney, super-mega-corporation and owner of Marvelous, Planet Wars, Michigan Jones, The Muffets, Pixel, and MAGICally expensive KINGDOM. I want them to call Disney out. I mean, if The Simpsons and Family Guy are allowed to bite the figurative hand that feeds them, why shouldn’t the Warners?
I mean, it’s pretty awesome they have access to all of Looney Tunes and stuff, but boy, does it open a can of confusing worms. Why did this show get picked up by Disney-owned Hulu and not Warner Brothers’ own streaming service, HBO Max, home of the new Looney Tunes shorts? We saw Henry Hawk, so does that mean we’ll be stuck with the C-tier cast? We just heard Tiny Toon Adventures is getting rebooted, too, but only on HBO Max, so does that means that’s a no-go on a Tiny Toons/Animaniacs crossover? Could this open the door to…dare I say it? No, I shouldn’t.
Ah, the smoo with it: FINALLY MAKING THAT F@$%ing ROGER RABBIT SEQUEL WE’VE BEEN PROMISED AND WHAT WE’VE PINED FOR OVER THIRTY YEARS?!? Like, I’m not even kidding: the cartoon that celebrated Hollywood and slapstick toon violence, produced by Spielberg on the Disney-owned streaming service? It’s like when Disney rebooted DuckTales but decided against reinvigorating Darkwing Duck! It’s more than a colossal missed opportunity: the foundation is there in ever conceivable way, and refusal for Mickey and Spielberg to come to terms to bring back the beloved bunny, his buxom bombshell bride, the brash baby, and Benny is nigh inconcievable.
In conclusion, I’m super excited about the revival of one of my favorite shows as a kid and I feel they will do right by them. I’m looking forward to it. And here’s hoping they’ll appeal to gen Zers from the United States to Canada, Mexico, Panama, Haiti, Jamaica, Peru…