The second of the Warner Bros.-Amblin co-pros made in response to Disney’s success with Ducktales, Animaniacs (1993-8), opens with a bold declaration of intent. Just as the placement of the titular Tiny Toons as students of the classic Looney Tunes characters sets the show up as an heir to the cartoons of the Golden Age, the claim that Yakko, Wakko, and Dot are “lost” characters from the Golden Age brought into the present equates Animaniacs to those same cartoons, announcing its characters as equals to such icons as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Wile E. Coyote.
This ambition pays off almost immediately: one of the most beloved and well-remembered Animaniacs shorts, “Yakko’s World,” is in the second episode. Almost all of the newly introduced characters feel immediately like classics. The Warner siblings are tricksters in the Bugs Bunny mode, sowing chaos and bringing their unique energy to boring and staid settings institutions throughout time and space, though most often the office of their psychiatrist foil, Dr. Scratchensniff. The two duos of Pinky and the Brain and Buttons and Mindy are simple premises with nigh-infinite variations, with especially the former managing to feel incredibly fresh despite their fundamentally formulaic episodes. Meanwhile, the Goodfeathers and Rita and Runt allow the show to riff on movies about the mob or set in New York and musicals, respectively–more limited than the other characters, but still quite usable. The simplest and most formulaic premise of all is Chicken Boo, the giant chicken who (badly) disguises himself as a human only to be found out by the end of the episode, but the sheer absurdity of the concept sustains it. Ultimately, the only segments that really don’t work at all are the (thankfully rare) segments involving Flavia and Marita Hippo, which never quite settle on what exactly is supposed to be funny. In a show which (like the classic Looney Tunes) relies on collisions between programmatic characters who are either comically incompatible with each other or with their surroundings, the hippos never quite settle on a program, and thus are merely flat and uninteresting. Finally, Slappy Squirrel represents the purest expression of the show’s ambition, depicted as a retired Golden Age cartoon character who, in the hands of the show’s writers and animators, is delightfully, unconquerably curmudgeonly.
Overall, the show stands up remarkably well, though the creators’ determination to prove they can do everything the original Looney Tunes did sometimes has unfortunate results, mostly involving uncritically repeating sexist gags in which stereotypically attractive women are harassed by male characters or treated as objects, this being the entire purpose of the character Hello Nurse. But these instances are fortunately brief, and the show does occasionally invert them by having Dot or another female character react the same way to a male celebrity or one-off character depicted as a male sex object.
And of course there is the character of Minerva Mink, who straddles the line between being a straightforward example of the same problem as Hello Nurse, and a satirical subversion of it. On the one hand, her two segments are both plagued with the male gaze, as camera and soundtrack both drool over her nearly as much as her unwanted suitors, and she is depicted as provoking the “hello nurse” response from every male she encounters, as if such behavior were a helpless reflex–which, of course, is one of the most common real-life excuses for sexual harassment and assault, despite its transparent absurdity. On the other hand, both segments are about her life being essentially miserable because of the unwanted and boorish attentions of men, and end with her acting the same way towards a large, muscular man (well, anthropomorphized male animal) as she has been subjected to all episode.
That kind of subversion is where the show works best, especially where the Warners themselves are concerned. They are true tricksters, baffling and humiliating the representatives of authority like Warner CEO Thaddeus Plotz and Ralph the security guard, wreaking comic revenge on people who wrong them or bully others (the candy store owner in “The Big Candy Store,” for instance, or the cheating, greedy garage sale holder in “Garage Sale of the Century”), and providing unexpected inspiration to historical figures like Einstein and Beethoven. They are forces of chaos, which is to say change; they destroy and overturn excessive, oppressive order, but also spark positive change here and there.
In this respect they are, as I said, clearly positioned as the show’s answer to Bugs Bunny, a venerable trickster god himself. The show reaches back into the roots of animation itself to establish the Warners’ pedigree: not only are they lost stars of the Golden Age of Warner Bros., but the segment “Testimonials” presents them as active members of the vaudeville circuit and rivals of Milton Berle. Vaudeville, of course, is the source of that blend of satirical, slapstick, raunchy, and silly humor that characterized Golden Age cartoons, especially Looney Tunes, as well as arguably the birthplace of the cartoon itself: while animation existed and had been publicly presented previously, Windsor McCay’s Little Nemo (based on his pioneering newspaper comic of the same name), How a Mosquito Operates, and Gertie the Dinosaur, all presented as part of his traveling vaudeville act, were the first animated works with defined characters and a plot.
This subversive love of chaos extends to the structure of the show itself. Characters frequently cross over into each others’ segments, consult their scripts, or address the audience, and one episode (episode 35, specifically) subverts the show’s own formulas by mixing and matching the usual character groups, so for example it contains a Mindy and the Brain segment rather than Pinkie and the Brain or Mindy and Buttons. Since the bulk of the show, as already stated, consists of programmatic characters interacting with each other or their settings, this allows new mixes of programs. None of the characters change, because it is the nature of programmatic characters to be unchanging, but putting them in new environments makes them feel fresh–Slappy is still Slappy when placed in Dot’s role, which shifts the dynamics of a typical Warner siblings segment. The episode even subverts its own premise: while it is stated repeatedly to be mixing established characters in new segments, “Katie Ka-Boo,” the mashup of Katie Ka-Boom and Chicken Boo, is actually the introduction of the Katie Ka-Boom character! Katie is, of course, no less programmatic than the rest of the cast–her particular schtick is that she’s a seemingly sweet teenage girl who throws tantrums in which she turns into a terrifying monster–but she had never appeared prior to “Katie Ka-Boo,” sneakily turning the premise of episode 35 on its head.
Despite many such clever ideas, the show never quite sheds a degree of anxiety about its ambition. In the first season finale, “The Warners’ 65th Anniversary Special,” the Warners’ origin is given more detail, as they are tied to the (more or less real) obscure character of Buddy, having been added to his very boring shorts to make them more interesting. On the one hand, this is a pretty straightforward statement that Animaniacs is at least better than bad Looney Tunes; on the other, the plot of the episode involves Buddy coming back to avenge himself on the Warners for ruining his career. For all their ambitions, the animators seem to question whether they will be accepted by their forebears.
This same anxiety animates (if you’ll pardon the pun) the bulk of the Slappy Squirrel segments, since those are similarly built around old cartoon characters seeking revenge, coupled with Slappy’s judgmental dismissal of modern cartoons as overly sentimental, moralizing, and unfunny. (A judgment which is largely justified, given the astounding drop in quality when Animaniacs is forced to do educational episodes, such as episodes 20 and 23, two collections of painfully earnest, unfunny segments lionizing American history or discussing junk food and environmental issues, respectively.) Perhaps no segment represents this anxiety as well as “Critical Condition,” in which thinly veiled parodies of Siskel and Ebert review a collection of Looney Tunes shorts, praising such classics as “What’s Opera, Doc” and “Duck Amuck,” but visiting nothing but scorn on the (entirely fictitious) Slappy Squirrel segments. Slappy of course exacts brutal revenge, but nonetheless the underlying anxiety remains: Animaniacs just isn’t quite as good as the best of Looney Tunes. It never reaches the hilarity of the famous “Rabbit Season”/”Duck Season” bit, never stretches the possibilities of the medium the way “Duck Amuck” did.
But it stands nonetheless as a massive work, and if it doesn’t quite transcend the Golden Age of the 1930s and 40s, it quite clearly declares the wasteland years to be over. It has no qualms about placing itself above the cartoons of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, with the segment “Back in Style” inserting the Warners into scathing parodies of the limited animation, repetitive stories, and lack of humor of Yogi Bear, Scooby-Doo, and Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, among others. Even if Animaniacs itself doesn’t quite reach its goal, it nonetheless points the way forward: Television animation doesn’t have to be bad and it doesn’t have to repackage the past. There is room for new works, works that surpass the so-called Golden Age.
We’ve talked before, and will talk again, about the 1990s as an era characterized by the question “Now what?” In that sense, for cartoons, the 1990s ended in 1993, because Animaniacs answered the question. Now what? Now we surpass the greats of the past, and reach for new heights undreamt of. Ducktales was the beginning, but a beginning by itself is not an age. It is Animaniacs that, retroactively, establishes 1987 as the beginning of a second, better Golden Age of short-form animation.
Thirty years later, that Golden Age is still going strong.
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