Features and Columns · TV

‘Animaniacs’ was Designed Purposefully to Stir Chaotic Energy

The ’90s cartoon series behaved unlike any other cartoon series, chasing hysterical absurdity by any means necessary.
Animaniacs Cartoon
Warner Bros. Animation
By  · Published on October 24th, 2020

Welcome to Saturday Morning Cartoons, our weekly column where we continue the animated boob tube ritual of yesteryear. Our lives may no longer be scheduled around small screen programming, but that doesn’t mean we should forget the necessary sanctuary of Saturday ‘toons. In this entry, we get whacky with the animated species known as Cartoonus Characterus, the Animaniacs.

Children, despite their parents’ best effort, refuse to behave. They’re balls of frenzy and curiosity, let loose on a world that too often rejects logic regardless of the adults who would say otherwise. Where we struggle to stay sane, kids roll with it. To them, nothing makes sense, and there’s no point in trying.

Square peg, meet round hole. It’ll fit. The kids smash it so with their undeniable will. The confidence of their perspective tends to infuriate, and we erect institutions to manage their foolish expectations.

There are children’s programs that strive to explain the rules and regulations. They’re tricks designed to educate via muppets and soothing sweater-wrapped neighbors. Some kids fall for their schemes and sprout into well-rounded, empathetic, and swell human beings. Then there are the buds who rebel and spiral into a lifetime of distrust, anxiety, and anarchy.

For a long time, Looney Tunes was there to cuddle the kiddos who saw the cracks in the system. While Disney coddled the masses with their everyman Mickey Mouse, Warner Bros. Animation highlighted human nature’s absurdity via uncontainable rascals like Bugs Bunny and the utterly insane Daffy Duck. Feeling perhaps that their chaotic energy had diminished, or at least that their popularity had, Steven Spielberg entered the animation arena like a hopped-up Emeril Lagasse — “BAM!” — and kicked it up a notch.

Animaniacs was the second WB cartoon to fall under the banner of Steven Spielberg Presents. First came Tiny Toon Adventures, and even before that, for Universal Pictures, Speilberg willed life into Don Bluth’s An American Tail and The Land Before Time. By the late 1980s, Spielberg spent more time wearing his producer’s cap than his director’s hat.

The great bearded one hungered to explore unknown artistic spaces, and the creators touched by his light saw an immediate increase in budget and attention. With Spielberg’s name came a chance to get wild and experiment. No other production took this to heart as much as Animaniacs.

Spinning off the success of Tiny Toon Adventures, creator Tom Ruegger sought to free his team from the constraints of narrative. Everything was fair game within the Animaniacs universe as long as it made somebody in the room laugh. Fail there, then sit down, shut up, and let the next guy take a crack at something.

What if they supplanted the Goodfellas‘ code of conduct into a community of New York street pigeons? You bet, brilliant. What if staff writers Tom Minton and Eddie Fitzgerald were a pair of mice hellbent on taking over the world? Pinky and the Brain, that’s gold. No person, whether celebrity, family, friend, or otherwise, was excused from parody.

For the kids watching, references to Orson Welles, Ridley Scott’s Alien, and Godzilla flew under their radar. Or, more likely, they captured their audience’s imagination, forcing them down their first rabbit holes of geekdom. Certainly, Animaniacs was my first encounter with Groucho Marx and various other historical figures like Ludwig van Beethoven.

Revisiting the series decades later, nods to The Beatles’ Abbey Road, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Dr. Strangelove finally became clear. The nerds behind the scenes were happy to let their freak flag fly. In doing so, they offered an invitation for the similarily inflicted. These weirdos get us.

Animaniacs behaved more like a sketch comedy show than anything else. Each episode would be introduced and strung together by the Warner Siblings (Yakko, Wakko, and Dot), but between the first and final frames, segments could bounce between three and ten minutes in length. Their time determined by the joke. If the gag was a line, then it was a line. If the gag was an adventure, then it was an adventure.

Originally conceived as a trilogy of ducks a la Daffy and Plucky, Yakko, Wakko, and Dot were re-designed to emulate the most successful animated oddities of the 1930s. Ruegger coined their species as Cartoonus Characterus, a collection of simplistic line drawings reminiscent of Felix the Cat, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Minnie Mouse, and Mickey Mouse. Sure, there is some recognizable animal in their DNA, but locking it down proves impossible.

The Siblings cohabitate within the famous Warner Bros. Studio Tower, escaping every episode to belt out their theme song before tumbling into a whirlwind of hijinks. Where Pinky, the Brain, and Slappy the Squirrel are usually imprisoned within their specific skits, the Warners roam wherever their boundless energy takes them. They’re agents of chaos, promoting a good time over anything else.

Think of Animaniacs as a more mischievous Pixar product. Kids devoured the show because nothing else on TV contained such unbridled, reckless vivacity. Animaniacs dished silly for silly sake better than anyone.

Ruegger’s team was clearly aware of the occasional adult participant. Sexual innuendo sprung as frequently into an episode as an archaic film reference. Were the creators pleasing a second adult market, or was it merely a case of pleasing themselves? Animaniacs offers an impression of the latter. It’s the mad product of goofsters first and foremost.

Goofsters backed by Spielberg’s perceived infallibility. If the man who birthed E.T. and Indiana Jones chuckled, the world would chuckle with him. He was the Pope of pop culture. Is he still? That’s an article for another day.

Of course, Spielberg is advocating Animaniacs once more. The series is set to return to screens via Hulu on November 20th. Tom Minton is also back to spearhead the show alongside Family Guy‘s Wellesley Wild. Since the 1990s, the animation landscape has altered radically, embracing absurdity and in-your-face silliness on a whole new scale. Will Yakko, Wakko, and Dot maintain their youthful comedic zealotry, or have they already gone the way of their 30s-era likenesses?

What is certain is that children still refuse to behave, and while some will always gravitate toward good-natured PBS programming, many more crave demonic expulsion. There’s gotta be room out there for three more cartoon exorcists. Warner Siblings, go kick out the jams.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)