There was once a commercial where a guy walking down the street with a chocolate bar happened to accidentally bump into a girl who was obviously having a bad pregnancy craving that led her to go for a walk and eat peanut butter out of the jar. This awkward moment didn’t lead to any violence or lawsuits as we might expect, but the creation of Reese’s peanut butter cups. Who knew two things so different could be so good together?
Now let’s take that same scenario, and imagine a Warner Bros. animator walking down the street, probably too busy looking up X-rated images of Petunia Pig on his cellphone to be paying any attention to where he’s going. And let’s say he turns the corner and bumps into world famous movie director Steven Spielberg. The typical result might be that the animator would never work in that town again, but that’s not what happened. Instead, we got two of the finest, highest quality, and most original animated series of our time out of this bizarre combination.
In 1990, Spielberg collaborated with Warner Bros. animation to create the groundbreaking animated series “Tiny Toon Adventures”, which took the classic characters of WB animation and created younger, hipper versions of them with the premise that they were being taught the ways of becoming a cartoon star by those original legends at Acme Looniversity. Airing on the booming Fox Kids after school cartoon block in the early 90’s, Tiny Toons not only provided plenty of fodder and slapstick to keep the kids entertained, but also culled from the classic WB cartoons the adult themes and pop culture references, which made it one of the first “kids” cartoons that adults also loved.
As great as Tiny Toons was, it was basically just the beta run that was used to create what would be the series that would be the crown jewel of the Spielberg/WB collaboration, and that was “Animaniacs”, which debuted on the Fox Kids block in September 1993. Animaniacs would take the boundaries of what a kids cartoon could be that Tiny Toons established, and absolutely obliterate them… making this a show that could be enjoyed by the naive kids who were entertained by the cuteness and cartoon slapstick, and the teens and adults who could laugh at the more mature humor that was successfully woven into each episode.
For today’s Flashback Friday, I’m going to look back at the wacky characters and skits that comprised this work of cartoon genius, which not only kept me entertained during my college years, but also provided me with a lot of the inspiration that went into creating my own characters you see on this blog…
The Warner siblings Yakko, Wakko and Dot were the main characters of Animaniacs, and the glue (or perhaps snot) that tied the show together. The designs for the brothers (and sister, as Dot would often have to interject) were based on the simple black and white characters of the early days of animation. Yakko was the eldest, a slick talking comedian who was inspired by the comedy of Groucho Marx. Wakko was the little brother who had an obsession with the grosser things in life (He’d often be featured in skits belching out entire monologues or songs). Dot was the cute little sister who was often underestimated by her enemies, and frequently seemed disgusted by the antics of her brothers. The trio usually starred in the first short skit of each episode, and the most common formula for a Warners sketch featured the trio being wronged by some cold hearted caricature of a figure from pop culture… only to have the kids have a blast getting their just desserts on the offender during the remainder of the skit. Here is my all time favorite… try to keep a straight face through this 7 and a half minute skit…
Pinky and the Brain are probably the Animaniacs most famous characters due to the fact that their schtik was so successful, it was spun off into its own cartoon series. Pinky and the Brain were lab rats, with the Brain being the serious, intelligent one who would constantly cook up schemes to not only escape the lab, but take over the world. Pinky was his dimwitted sidekick, who provided comic relief and usually wound up inadvertently sabotaging the Brain’s ideas. There was a bit of Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton to these two characters, and in no episode did that play out better than in “Win Big”, in which not only does The Honeymooners factor into the outcome of the plot, but the skit itself is actually a great takeoff of a classic Honeymooners episode where Ralph takes a fall on a game show for not knowing a tune that Ed was constantly whistling to his annoyance.
I’ve always considered it a remarkable coincidence that long before squirrels meant a thing in the world to me, that Slappy Squirrel was by far my favorite character on the series. Slappy was a crusty old squirrel who had been a big cartoon star back in the early days of animation. Most of Slappy’s episodes featured her butting heads with an old cartoon nemesis, who would still rely on the cheesy old gags of cartoon lore in an attempt to get back at Slappy. But this old broad knows all the tricks by now, and never falls for any of them. She lives with her naive young nephew Skippy, who idolizes her aunt Slappy and tries to learn the ways of cartoon street smarts from her. Slappy would typically end an episode with her trademark phrase which I borrowed as the title of this post.
As proof that the Animaniacs drew plenty of its inspiration from adult references, the Goodfeathers was a pigeonized version of the mob. The characters Bobby, Pesto and Squit were based on the characters Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, and Ray Liotta played in the movie “Goodfellas”, with Squit narrating each episode. The two main running gags in the Goodfeathers cartoons were Pesto getting upset at innocuous remarks made by Squit, which of course was inspired by the well known scene in Goodfellas where Pesci goes off after Liotta says he’s funny. And then there is the Godpigeon, the don of the boys who often swoops in to save the day, and speak in unintelligible gibberish that Bobby always has to translate.
The Mindy and Buttons skits literally drove me up the wall. The overly perky, cute, and thoroughly annoying toddler Mindy tugs at pretty much every single thing I hate about young kids. And to boot, she was constantly getting the family’s poor dog Buttons into trouble during her frequent escapes from the house (Back in an era where parents weren’t afraid to leave their kids to their own devices for a while), and it’s up to Buttons to keep her out of danger. The poor mutt ends up taking the brunt of the ills that were intended for Mindy, and then gets busted upside the head with the newspaper upon returning home safely with the little brat when the parents misinterpret the reason Buttons looks like hell after they left them alone for a few minutes. I always secretly hoped for the imp to get flattened by a steamroller, or shot into space by a stray rocket, but alas….
Even the best cartoon series ever created has its weak points, and the Rita and Runt sketches were my least favorite. Rita was a singing cat, and Runt a big buffoon of a dog, and the two of them were companions on an adventure looking for a new home. At some point in every cartoon, Rita would belt out a song, which was usually slow and sappy, and just ruined the whole feel of the show. These two disappeared entirely after the first season, largely due to the fact that Spielberg hired Bernadette Peters to voice Rita and do her singing, and her salary demands were a strain on the show’s budget.
Innuendo that went over the kiddies’ heads wasn’t quite edgy enough to satisfy the creative minds behind Animaniacs, so they created Minerva Mink. In my infamous early post XXX Marks the Spot (which is still the most popular post EVER on my blog), I discussed the role of sexuality in cartoons, and how artists loved adding as much sex appeal as they could to their female characters to tug at the pent up libido of much of their target audience. Minerva not only crossed that line, she had it for breakfast and used it to file her claws. Her skits were so overtly provocative and sexual in nature, that many of them got left on the cutting room floor even before the censors could tell the show’s producers “no”, as they undoubtedly wiped sweat from their brows and refused to get up from behind the table. Because she was too hot for kids TV, Minerva was barely a blip on the Animaniacs radar, yet she’s still considered to be one of the hottest cartoon vixens in history right up there with Cleo from Heathcliff, Cheetara from Thundercats, and of course Velma from Scooby Doo. Minerva was also definitely an influence when I created my character MBRS.
In between the main shorts that would make up an episode, Animaniacs had a lot of other interesting short features to to bridge the gaps and fill in empty time. Colin, who is better known as “The Randy Beaman kid”, would come outside and deliver a rambling monologue to the audience about the experiences of this kid he knows named Randy Beaman. Here’s a link to a YouTube of one of Colin’s finest performances. God, I loved this show….
But the best of the short features to appear on the show was the “Good Idea, Bad Idea” series, featuring the poor sap Mr. Skullhead. Below is a complete collection of all of these skits from the entire five year run of Animaniacs. My favorite one begins at about the 7:25 mark. By the way, the narrator’s voice should sound familiar to you…. it’s Tom Bodette, who’s better knows as the spokesman for Motel 6, who leaves the light on for you.
And finally, as a special tribute to my favorite cartoon series of all time, here is a compilation I found on YouTube of some of Animaniacs best adult innuendo scenes they managed to sneak by the censors. Remember, this was an after school cartoon that was technically aimed at entertaining kids!
And now’s the best time for Yakko’s signature line….. “Good night, everybody!”