The totally insane awardwinning animaniacs cartoon debuted in the fall of 1993. According to the Chinese zodiac, it was the Year of the Water Rooster, characterized as outspoken, flamboyant, clever, colorful, and energetic—fitting descriptors for Looney Tunes’ Foghorn Leghorn—so it seemed like a good time for the brainchild of Steven Spielberg and writer/producer Tom Ruegger to make its debut.

Let’s set the mood with a quick refresher on the 1990s. The music, if you please: Cypress Hill’s “Insane in the Brain” was an earworm. Sir Mix-a-Lot had us all singing, “I like big butts and I cannot lie.” Beck joked about being a monkey in the time of chimpanzees, a loser. Blind Melon told us it wasn’t sane. We were all jumping up and getting down to House of Pain’s party anthem, “Jump Around.” We swallowed the Jagged Little Pill with one hand in our pocket. Grunge. Counterculture became mainstream and we were right there with the 4 Non Blondes in feeling peculiar, wondering what was going on.

Television programs were heartfelt, goofy, real. The highly rated sitcom Home Improvement was a show within a show showing home unimprovement as a parody of This Old House. The World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment) was rapidly expanding their drop-kicking, clotheslining, chair-throwing empire and making names like Yokozuna, The Undertaker, and Steve Austin household. Blossom’s flower hats and high-waisted pleated pants.

TGIF on ABC. The pedantic humor of Seinfeld. Beverly Hills 90210. My So-Called Life. The X-Files. It was the last decade before the rise of digital devices. The vibe was pensive, eccentric, and eclectic. The irreverent Animaniacs fit right in.

The inaugural Animaniacs episode lays the series foundation, starting with an action-packed theme song deftly summarizing the show and opening on the origin of the Warner siblings. They were introduced as cartoon creations from the 1930s whose zaniness was so uncontrollable, they had to be banished forever to the Warner Bros. studio lot water tower. Well. The cheeky trio boingy boingy boingy-ed

their way out of that water tower and rained ruckus, alongside a diverse ensemble cast of anthropomorphic creatures and humans, their unique humor tickling us through ninetynine episodes of multi-layered fun from 1993 to 1998.

Yakko Warner wears the pants literally and figuratively in the group. He is the shot calling elder sibling. His tan high-waisted pleated paper bag pants were trendy then and now; paper bag pants say, “I’ve got some flair but I’m comfortable in my skin and ready for anything because my pants are cinched on.” The tan color is classic and signifies stability, strength, flexibility, loyalty, trustworthiness. It is straightforward and complements every other color. Yakko completes the look by going topless. The younger Warner brother, Wakko, wears a slouchy blue turtleneck and his trademark red baseball cap. Turtlenecks originated as practical protection from the elements.

This functional aesthetic grew to be beloved by philosophers, artists, and intellectuals. Turtlenecks became a staple in the ‘70s wardrobe and were further elevated by early feminists, the Black Panthers, Steve Jobs, and Beat poets. Wakko’s masterful concerts as “The Great Wakkorotti” do make him turtleneckworthy.

The other piece of Wakko’s wardrobe, a red backward-facing cap, is not without controversy. This polarizing look rose to popularity in the ‘90s with the The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air leading the pack. The look says, “I’m unconventional and going against the status quo.” The contrast between his fiery red hat and calming blue turtleneck reflects the duality of Wakko. While generally a mellow character, he is also quick to explosively whip out the mallet concealed in his back pocket. Wakko has an appetite for destruction and the diet of a goat.

Their sister Dot, short for Princess Angelina Contessa Louisa Francesca Banana Fanna Bobesca III, is the youngest Warner and frequently referred to (by others and herself) as “the cute one”—this is reinforced by her pink swing skirt and yellow flower in her hair. Pink typically conveys a soft, sweet innocence. Yellow is a color of creativity and brilliance. Sitting atop Dot’s head, it’s like her light bulb. Dot twirls and curtsies her way through conflict. Though she may be small, she happily introduces her mighty pet monster to her adversaries. The Warners themselves are not as defined as their clothing. The Wally Llama in “Wally Llama” (season 1, episode 9) describes them as puppychildren with long ears, beady black eyes, and white faces like a spooky clown, and we wonder along, “What exactly are the Warners? Are they dogs? Cats? Monkeys?” In “Draculee, Draculaa” (season 1, episode 29), the Warners rationalize that since they are cartoons and drawn by pencils, their parents must be pencils and Pencil-vania their homeland.

Safe to say that whatever they are, pencils they are not. At least, not conventional, standardly-defined pencils. The mystery behind their binomial nomenclature may be a running gag but not knowing their genus turns out to be genius.

This ambiguity frees them from the shackling constraints of preconceived notions and allows Yakko, Wakko, and Dot Warner to swing their comedic bats boldly. The first skit opens on the Warner Bros. studio lot’s psychiatry building —a not-so-subtle commentary about the business. And it’s on! Questions about sanity right off the bat. We meet resident psychoanalyst to the stars, Dr. Scratchansniff, as a patient on the couch recalling his first session with the Warners.

After their escape from the water tower, Dr. Scratchansniff is called to speak with the Chairman of the Board for Warner Bros. Studios. The tune of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” plays softly in the background as he approaches the boardroom. Tasked with reigning in the zaniness, Dr. Scratchansniff attempts to speak with the Warners. When he asks the Warners to plant themselves on the couch, they sprout as flowers on the couch. This sets off a relentless chain of visual and literal gags that unhinge Dr. Scratchansniff, causing him to tear out all of his hair and blast himself off to Mars. We experience subtle and extremely overt humor in the “De-Zanitized” skit, with the hilarious hijinks setting the tone for the series.

The cartoon Warners were spawned from the DNA of the original Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes and Spielberg’s more contemporaneous Tiny Toon Adventures. There are frequent nods to their ancestry via passive and active cameos from both throughout the series. Porky Pig has the honor of making the first of many Loony Tunes cameos. Giant portraits of Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny are in the board room, Granny is seen lining up for a meal at the Royal Banquet in season 2, episode 10’s “Windsor Hassle” skit, Buster and Babs Bunny are mentioned in “Noah’s Lark” (season 1, episode 33). For exaggerated jokes, their bottomless gag bag is filled with Acme-made ammo like cannons, anvils, and dynamite.

Another great Warner Bros. tradition upheld by Animaniacs is the skillful use of music. Five of the show’s eight Emmy awards are in music categories. Musical score in cartoons is so powerful and influential to the mood that it becomes a character in itself (in fact, early Looney Tunes began, in part, as a way for Warner Bros. to showcase their vast musical library). Who can forget Bugs Bunny massaging Elmer Fudd’s head at the barbershop and snake charming an electric razor to the tune of Gioachino Rossini’s comic opera Il barbiere di Siviglia, aka The Barber of Seville (1816), in “The Rabbit of Seville” (1950)? Legions of people first took notice of classical music via Looney Tunes (thank you, Carl Stalling). During the Animaniacs’ “Piano Rag” (season 1, episode 7), the Warners are
hiding at a piano concert to escape capture and their antics are scored perfectly, thanks to Spielberg’s decision to use a full orchestra to perform the music for each episode.

In “Roll Over Beethoven” (season 1, episode 17) the Warners help (ahem) Beethoven compose his powerful Fifth Symphony. To hear “Lake Titicaca” (season 2, episode 13) is to never forget it. Other notable original musical numbers like “Yakko’s World,” “The Senses,” “The Ballad of Magellan,” “A Quake, A Quake,” and “Wakko’s America” have enjoyed fandom outside of the cartoon series. Season three is packed with memorable jams if you had to pick a season to sing along with.

Educational content balanced the zaniness. Animaniacs devoted episodes to moments in American history, such as season 3, episode 8, with “The Presidents Song” (sung to Rossini’s popular William Tell Overture finale), “Don’t Tread on Us,” featuring a Declaration of Independence hijack attempt by Pinky and the Brain, and the writing of poem “Paul Revere’s Ride,” told from the point of view of a candle flame voiced by Luke Ruegger in “The Flame Returns.” They help Albert Einstein come up with the theory of relativity in “Cookies for Einstein” (season 1, episode 2). “Little Drummer Warners” (season 2, episode 14) is a straight musical of Christmas classics. The attempt to cram all the nations of the world in one song in “Yakko’s World” will live forever.

Some of the most memorable Animaniacs sketches were the simplest. The Great Wakkorotti dressed in a tuxedo to perform rousing eructation concerts in an amphitheater, set first to “The Blue Danube” waltz and in his later summer concert to Amilcare Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours.” In “Fake” (season 2, episode 34), the Warners sit ringside at the Quarrelmania Pro Wrestling Championship of the World with wrestling superfan Dr. Scratchansniff. Dr. Scratchansniff is wearing a white “I <3 Wrestling” t-shirt and is giddy with excitement, while the Warners hide in embarrassment under Groucho Marx masks. Wakko proclaims the wrestling action to be fake. This takes me back to my childhood… I similarly dropped that f-bomb on my mom and she never enjoyed wrestling the same way again. I miss the way she shrieked and yelled at the TV. Anyway, Lordo the World Champion overhears the end of Dr. Scratchansniff yelling at the Warners that “It’s… not… FAKE!” in one of those embarrassing roomgoes-silent-while-you’re-sayingsomething-damning moments, and questions who uttered such blasphemy. Lordo drags Dr. Scratchansniff into the ring to teach him a lesson and the rest of the gag is spent watching Yakko, Wakko, and Dot react viscerally as we hear Dr. Scratchansniff being pummeled in the ring offscreen. We finally see Dr. Scratchansniff front-kicked back to his seat. As he lays broken and flattened on the floor, Yakko closes out with a sheepish, smirky grin saying, “Hey, I guess it’s not fake after all.”

Dr. Scratchansniff is just one in an ensemble of characters in Animaniacs. A murine megalomaniac and his unwitting sidekick, Pinky and the Brain, plotted to take over the world (and eventually got their own show). There were the two Hip Hippos, the curious toddler Mindy and her faithful dog Buttons, the veteran toon Slappy Squirrel, the gangster wise-cracking Goodfeathers pigeons, the singing shelter cat Rita (because, Bernadette Peters) and dog Runt. A roulette of shorts added to the variety. There was Collin, the adorable rambling blue-capped, red-headed boy who delivers dead pan stories about Randy Beaman (“One time…. Ok bye”). Randy Beaman by proxy. I mean, once you know someone has laughed bologna out of their nose you feel like you know them. Mr. Skull Head/”Good Idea, Bad Idea.” “Mime Time.” “Dot’s Poetry Corner.” “Katie Kaboom.” “Useless Facts” (Starfish have no brains). The stochastic flow of the sketches was part of the show’s charm. The expected variety in the sketches gave us something to look forward to every episode. These random segments were the sprinkles on the show’s giant sundae of fun.

When Warner Bros. Animation announced a reboot of Animaniacs with Hulu, it was hard not to be both thrilled and terrified. Would it be faithful to the original, or an unpleasant derivative? Certain things from the ‘90s should never make a comeback (car window hand cranks and skipping Discmans need to stay buried). But Animaniacs? They suffered an inglorious fate after switching to the then-new WB network which intended for the show to live under kids programming—how it was sold to advertisers—which it wasn’t exactly suited for. Animaniacs languished in limbo for a couple of years, cobbling together a few episodes from unused content before being cast aside for Pokémon.

The revival debuted in the fall of 2020. A second Jurassic Park spoof opens the new episode. A bright beaming sunrise appears behind a hilltop and casts a shadow from a figure emerging on the horizon. The shadow takes the shape of a brontosaurus, then quickly separates into three distinct figures. We see the numinous hilltop figures fill with color and sharpen into our favorite hyperactive trio. Yakko, Wakko, and Dot leap and prance their way down the grassy hilltop, frisky in their new clean vector lines. Cartoon Steven Spielberg walks through with an introduction, saying he has reanimated the previously thought tobe extinct cartoons and assures the audience that the Warners are still zany to the max.

This new thirteen episode season (versus the 35 episodes in the original season 1) retains the bitingly satirical, referential slapstick cartoon humor. The updated theme song is characteristically meta in reflecting on the resurrection and new contracts. Significantly, “Dot is cute,” has been changed to, “Dot has wit.” This seems less about her growth for didn’t she always have wit? and more about the writers’ attempts to remove objectification. Noting current cultural paradigms, Dot more accurately represents the perception of females in the 2020s.

FIRST, THE GOOD:

The heart of Animaniacs beats strongly. There’s definitely still baloney in their slacks. Yakko catches up on their missed twentytwo years by downloading information— literally. He swallows the proverbial pill in the form of a tablet device (metallic gray, neither blue nor red) containing “the sum of all human knowledge.” Pinky and the Brain, who enjoyed their own spin-off series for four seasons, join the revival, still bent on trying to take over the world. We learn that Brain has been busy during his time off screen inventing the internet, while Pinky gets woke with “rigorous psychotherapy” for his codependent and abusive relationship with Brain. Original voice actors Rob Paulsen (Yakko, Pinky, Dr. Scratchansniff), Jess Harnell (Wakko), Tress MacNeille (Dot), and Maurice LaMarche (Brain) have returned. They sound a bit different with age, particularly MacNeille, but hearing the same voices is a big relief for those of us who knew the original.

The Animaniacs riff on topical issues as expected. Internet addiction, political corruption (“In politics, lies are just facts that haven’t been repeated enough,” says Brain. “Ain’t that the truth”, replies Pinky), blackmail via nose-picking photos (“Wait until they see where you wiped it”), Monsanto, Fox News, the American healthcare system.

The Warners continue their role as slapstick superheroes by attacking offensive people and behaviors like Nickelwise, a parody of Stephen King’s terrifying It clown Pennywise, and manspreading. They continue to direct their mayhem on crude, boorish meanies and genuinely unacceptable behavior, bullies and corrupt politicians, and defeat them with their unstoppable humor. Brain sings about Brownian motion while he and Pinky are suspended in a tornado created by a child who swallows a quantum meteorite. “Math-terpiece Theater.” Anvils. The fates of the non-returning characters are acknowledged.

THE CHANGES:

Visually, the Warners have been simplified. Now there’s only one black dot under their feet instead of two. Yakko’s pants have lost their pleats above the waist. The fifth petal of the yellow flower on Dot’s head has dropped off. There is loss of joints and overall softness. The result is they look a little flatter and a little more 2D.

The Acme Labs home of Pinky and the Brain has also been given a subtle facelift. Sleek glass panels replace paneled windows and a visual treatment has been added to the Acme Labs sign.

Stout and surly chairman Thaddeus Plotz (T.P.) has been replaced by Nora Rita Norita, a choker wearing (edgy ‘90s accessory!) female of color who “believes in pulling the ladder up after her.” There are less big smooches.

THE NOT-SO-GOOD:

The music. The musical score in the reboot is less synchronized to the action and often in discord. The “First Ladies” song is flat, unmemorable, and rushed (as Dot states).

The reduced ensemble cast detracts from the fun of the original variety show format; it’s like ordering a veggie pizza that only has broccoli and onions on it. Or a meat supreme pie that only has pepperoni and a sprinkle of sausage.

Gnome in the mouth. Too much screaming. We don’t need more screaming. A few preachy non-partisan parodies. The original Animaniacs episodes were so successful in balancing the tone between providing commentary without lecturing that the moments it goes over give pause here.

Ultimately, there’s no bad. The revival is a success. The unfettered comedy is still there and we get the same feels. The Animaniacs themselves have a contagious joie de vivre. They burst like freshly dropped Alka-Seltzer tablets with jokes bubbling here, there, and everywhere. Their effusive candor is still obscenely honest and selfaware. It’s over-the-top served matter-of-factly. It gives us that sort of fall back, kick-your-legs-in-theair-and-clutch-your-sides laughter. There’s a euphoric freedom in the falderal that is non-offensive; it is a relief to soak in such comedy. These satirical off-the-wall cartoons are soup for the soul.

While a release date for season 2 has yet to be revealed, the season 3 renewal of ten episodes has already been announced. Stay tuned! That’s all, folks.

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