Many say that the late ’80s and early ’90s was a renaissance for the animation industry. Part of it was due to the great Disney movies of the age, such as The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, and my personal favorite, Pocahontas. Part of it was the greater proliferation of cartoons from Cartoon Network (home of the great “Cartoon Cartoon” age of Dexter’s Laboratory and Johnny Bravo) and Nickelodeon (home to Rugrats, Ren & Stimpy, Rocko’s Modern Life, and Real Live Monsters!) But another large part was due to a daily afternoon block of cartoons on the dearly departed WB network, Kids WB!, of which the Steven Spielberg cartoons were the flagship. Tiny Toon Adventures and Freakazoid! were incredible series that harkened back to the great Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies of yore and got the ball rolling for the Amblin/WB joint-venture, but Animaniacs was, in my opinion, the greatest of them all.
One great part of the show were the many sets of characters. The “Bugs Bunny” of the show were the three ‘Animaniacs,’ The Warners – Yakko (who was famous for being the ringleader of the Warners, his word-reading ability, and wearing pants), Wakko (who was famous for his “googies”, classical performances – see The Great Wakkarotti – and not wearing pants), and Dot (who was famous for, among other things, being cute). But there were side characters, too – Rita and Runt, the much more docile and collegial versions of Sylvester and Tweety; Slappy and Skippy, the aunt and nephew of comedy yore; Mindy and Buttons, basically a Lassie parody of a girl and her hapless dog; and, of course, the tales of Pinky and the Brain, which led to not one but two spin-offs (Pinky and the Brain and the very, very ill-fated Pinky, Elmyra and the Brain). Throw in the Tom Bodett-narrated “Mime Time” and “Good Idea, Bad Idea” sketches (such as the following), and you have a show catering to everyone:
Another great part about Animaniacs was its emphasis on education through comedy. From geography…
…to the Warners’ escapades through history (meeting Lincoln going to Gettysburg, Beethoven writing his 9th Symphony, and, in this clip below, “the Ballad of Magellan”), Animaniacs made all efforts to make skits and songs both educational and fun.
Even Pinky and the Brain got in on the act, such as in this video:
It eventually led to Histeria!, an unfortunately short-lived series of travels and tribulations through history (directed by Tom Ruegger, who did Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs and Pinky), which did a lot of zany stuff in song:
The songs were a huge part of the show, with every episode featuring at least one song and the scores generally performed by entire orchestras. (Of course, with Bernadette Peters on your payroll as Rita, wouldn’t you have a song each episode?) Further, Animaniacs had humor that was hilarious for adults, but flew over the heads of kids (of course, much of it came along with slapstick):
I don’t think any grade-school students know Perry Como, The Who, or Abbott and Costello, but it’s hilarious if you’re older. Then again, some were just plain slapstick (such as these editions of “Mime Time”):
Finally, Animaniacs and its ilk wasn’t afraid to take shots at other cartoons, such as in these concluding videos:
All around, Animaniacs was a fantastic show, not just in animation, nor just in children’s television, but a milestone of all comedy.
Join me next weeek for a special installment of Saturday Night Stuff I Like, when I review Jamie Cullum’s new album, The Pursuit.