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.