Saturday, July 4, 2020

Animaniacs (1995-99): A Retrospective

It all happened a long time ago.  The way it started was more like something out the corner of the eye.  All I knew at first is that I was watching TV.  The channel must have been tuned to one of those old children's television networks such as Nickelodeon, or something like it.  I know that was the station I watched most often back during the year 1994.  I can't remember what show I was watching, however, which probably says something about its quality (or lack thereof), unless it doesn't.  At one point during a commercial break, this very odd cartoon promo pops up.  I remember it was the Warner Bros. logo, and that there something off about it.  It's colors were muted and somewhat distorted.  There was this trio of strange, grinning, black and white animal characters that poked their heads out of the logo.  From there the commercials was a blur of almost surreal looking images.  I saw a series of shots of the characters as they capered around the screen.  I can't recall exactly what those actions were now, except to call them the standard basic tropes you'd associate with a cartoon character.  What I remember most of all is the strange shades of dark reds and blues that the characters and the whole background scenery were drawn in.

I hadn't a clue what I was looking at.  All I was told is that it was a TV spot for a new theatrical short.  It had the simple title of I'm Mad.  I think I also remember the commercial telling me it was produced by Steven Spielberg, or something like that.  Anyway, it came and went.  I was left puzzled for a few brief moments, and that was it.  I never saw it in theaters and it's possible the whole thing would have slipped my memory, except as one of those vague and ill-defined images of some lost event that either may have happened to you, or else you just imagined it.  It occurs to me now that the second run in I had with the figures in that commercial happened perhaps less than a year later.  Enough time had gone by so that it was no longer on my mind.  However, the event was still fresh enough so that when the second encounter happened, there was just enough memory left over to give things an air of familiarity.  It was a sense of, "Oh yeah, I've seen you before.  Who are you again"?

I encountered the figures from I'm Mad for the second time as illustrations decorating a Happy Meal box.  There were the same three figures, still looking as if they'd strolled right out of a 1930s Max Fleischer cartoon.  The difference was that now I slowly began to learn their names.  They were about what could expect from characters drawn the way they were.  In addition to this, I was also shown a number of other characters I hadn't seen before.  There were a duo of mice who claimed they were bent on world domination.  Also I recall a trio of pigeons known as the "Goodfeathers".  The complete and total irony of that discovery means that I knew the parody of a Martin Scorsese film long before I even knew it existed.  Hell, I didn't even know who Scorsese was at this point in my then very young life.  It is just possible I learned about one of the best filmmakers of the modern age from that Happy Meal box.

They say that third time's the charm, and I guess that must have happened in my case.  Because the third encounter I had with these figures was the one that reeled me in.  The theatrical short was the hook, and the Happy Meal was the line.  The sinker came in the form of channel surfing out of pure boredom and running into the same three figures again.  This time they were busy giving the Queen of England a headache as she tried to re-build Windsor Castle.  It sounds like something out of an old Looney Tunes feature and that's pretty much what it was.  These three characters (who I then learned were siblings), all displayed actions that hearkened back to an entire era of filmmaking.  From there, I started to track down where I could watch more of the show they were in.  I got lucky in finding out which channel carried them, and the rest is more or less what I'm here to talk about.

The Setup.

Hollywood has never been normal, let's get that straight right off the bat.  To be honest, maybe the real truth is that there really is nothing normal about wanting to invent characters and situations from whole cloth, and then try and see if you can either put on the page or else up on some kind of stage.  When you put it like that, it does sound kind of odd.  Then again maybe art itself is outside the norm, even (especially if?) it's trying to uphold it.  At the end of the day, art is just an impulse somewhere in the Mind.  That's all Hollywood was made up of to begin with, just that desire to create and see if those creations could be brought to some kind of life.  I suppose that's one of the reasons the whole place got stuck with being described as a "dream factory".  The catch is that trying to place dreams down on paper or up on the screen takes not just hard work, but also a kind of crazy-insane level of commitment.  That's a truth a studio like Warner Bros. knows more than any other.  Back in the 30s they used to be called the working man's studio.  They specialized in gritty gangster pictures and social dramas.  To lighten the load they also had an animation division.  That was where the trouble started.

It's possible to explain the Warner Bros., and the Warner sister, sort of.  Of course, in order to do that, you got to be at least a few bats shy of a full belfry.  The details are a bit sketchy, even when a reasonable list of suspects can be drawn up.  What can be said with any degree of certainty is that the trio got their start at or around the year 1933.  Perhaps it was happenstance that the trio emerged on the scene just as Hollywood was entering the start of its Golden Age.  History has been kind and cruel to those times in equal measure.  Though on the whole, they got by with not too much to be ashamed of.  The Warner sibs were not a black spot on those glory days, so much as an anomaly that never really got an explanation.  The span of their "official career" in showbiz seems to have been to just under a more or less exact 365 day time span.  They made an appearance as cameo characters in a series of studio short cartoon subjects.  Then they had a number roles starring in less than a handful of their own vehicles.  In an industry where celebrity stars can rise and fall at the drop of a hat, or an innovation in the tech sector, the career of the Warner's is best described as meteoric.

After a brief span of time, the Warner Bros., Yakko and Wakko, along with their little sister, Dot, just seemed to vanish off the face of the earth, as if they never existed.  Hollywood likes to bill itself as a legacy town.  That's a polite short-hand way of saying it at least tries to honor its past, even if the memory itself doesn't get much past the state lines.  However, what's curious about the Warner affair is that the whole thing is treated like the one exception to the rule.  Not only are any of the Warner sibling cartoons very hard to find, the studio that gave them their name seems very reluctant to even acknowledge their very existence.  Their screen efforts are always missing from the roster or lists of greatest animated short subjects for the year 1933.  The Internet Animation Database has nothing to offer about them.  They exist, if at all, as a kind of urban legend in lost media circles.  There have been rumors on some conspiracy sites that the studio has been doing all it can for decades to keep the Warner sibs out of the spotlight.

There have also been rumblings going on of late.  There are rumors spreading around a number of communities.  At first it started out as just a number of comments in chat forums, and Reddit threads.  In other words it was the kind of thing you didn't pay much attention to under normal circumstances.  What made it stop being normal was not just how the noise continued to grow, but also just who was helping to increase the volume.  It's one thing for an anonymous name tag to share two cents online.  It's something else when a famous celebrity or notable studio insiders start to share, agree, and help to verify the same basic idea.  What all the noise amounted to was just this.  A water tower on the Warner studio lot was discovered unlocked.  It's the kind of news that doesn't make a damn bit of sense, until you do some digging and realize that for the longest time it was believed the Warner's disappearance from showbiz is because they were said to have been locked up in a secure facility for the safety of the studio and its personnel.  It was long thought the studio water tower was the location of the Warner's cell.  If that tower has been found unlocked, then there is just the slightest chance they may have escaped.

The Humor.

In some ways, I guess I was lucky.  I was one of the show's first run generational audience.  That placed me somewhere in the aisles of the show's original 90s audience.  It was one of those shows I would try and arrange my schedule around.  I'm not sure I remember now just how I managed to pull it off.  I was in school at the time, and If I recall, the show came on at 3 PM.  Then again, it could have aired at 4 in the afternoon, and I was usually home by that time.  So perhaps that explains why I was able to cram such a goodish amount of episodes into my life.  I suppose that's got to make me lucky in some way.  At the time, all I could have told you was that it's just this neat show that I really like, and I don't want to miss out.  That's perhaps as far as my thinking went on the matter.

One of the great lessons life teaches as you grow-up is just how much difference an expanded horizon or frame of reference can make to the sort of things you liked as a kid.  Sometimes this can be a mixed blessing.  Blessed be he or she that can go back and visit the places they were as kids and discover that most of it hold up.  That's how it's been for me to trace down bits and pieces of misspent youth (even if I never had the ability to spend it all that much).  A lot of memory lane for me is a kind of rediscovery process.  In that sense, certain jokes that flew past the radar as a kid (like a simple throwaway line such as "That's our weed!") can spark a greater response as an adult.  And then there are simple sight gags (such as punchline involving Winston Churchill, of all people) that are able to surprise you by their simple ability to wrench a genuine laugh out of the depths.  A lot of it is explained by the show's style of humor.

One of the first things that strikes a mature viewer is just how almost free-form and improvisational the show's material tends to be.  This seems to have been a very deliberate choice on the part of the show's creators.  "In an interview, the writers explained how Animaniacs allowed for non-restrictive and open writing.  (Peter) Hastings said that the format of the series had the atmosphere of a sketch comedy show because Animaniacs segments could widely vary in both time and subject, while (producer Sheri) Stoner described how the Animaniacs writing staff worked well as a team in that writers could consult other writers on how to write or finish a story, as was the case in the episode "The Three Muska-Warners".  (Lead Producer Paul) Rugg, Hastings and Stoner also mentioned how the Animaniacs writing was free in that the writers were allowed to write about parody subjects that would not be touched on other series (web)".

It all explains the one facet of the show that I'll admit I was kind of confused about at first, the fact that its format never seemed to want to sit still.  When Hastings likens the show to a half-hour variety series, he's not incorrect, though I think he doesn't tell quite as much as there is to know.  I think what threw me off for a long while was the fact that the show's writers really didn't seem to mind ignoring all of what were then considered the typical structures of children's programming.  I may be one of the last 80s kids who can recall what kid's shows were like in a Pre-Animaniacs world.  The shows I grew up with all adhered to what might be called the typical format.  Each show was a self-contained episode with a clear-cut beginning, middle, and end.  The only real deviation was when the filmmakers decided to stretch a story out in order to make it a multiple episode narrative.

Animaniacs stands out in my mind for perhaps being the first show I can remember seeing where all those rules were deliberately ignored.  That's not say that stories weren't told.  Many installments of the show would see multiple stories handled, all within the space of a single half-hour.  However, it did seem that for every one or two episodes where you were allowed to follow a linear narrative, there would be three or four more where the content could sometimes amount to little more than a series of blackout skits or else to a one minute display of a single gag.  The best example of the latter that I can recall is a segment known as "Good Idea/Bad Idea".  A typical play-out of this concept would go as follows: "Good Idea: Stopping to smell the roses.  Bad Idea: Stopping to feel the roses".

The most surreal example of this sort of blackout skit came from whoever had the idea of chronicling the exploits of Randy Beaman.  Randy was someone you never saw as a character.  Instead, what would happen is the segment would always open on the same scene.  It's a typical suburban household.  The front door would open and this unassuming looking tow-headed kid in blue shorts, a red and white striped t-shirt and blue baseball cap would walk out and look directly at the audience.  Then he would relate a story, second-hand, about an event that was supposed to have happened to the anonymous Randy.  These incidents could range from the general and innocuous (one time in school Randy's friend made him laugh so hard baloney squirted out of his nose) to the bizarre (Randy's mom's press on nails somehow come to life and come after him), to the outright "spooky, huh (a run-in with a vanishing hitchhiker)"?  What happened in these segments seems to be the writers drawing on old urban legends and finding ways to spin them for a child audience.  It's an act which almost sounds like a modern suburbs version of the Brother's Grimm.

It's an element of the show that stood out the most to me growing up.  I was often expecting something along the lines of what I'd come to expect from a children's show.  And yet Animaniacs kept surprising me in way that I never went in expecting.  I suppose these were the show's idea of grace notes or icing on the cake.  I'll have more to say about this choice of formatting later on.  For the moment, it's enough to state that these elements are recalled and remembered with fondness by legions of fans.  However, even these elements always managed to take a back seat to the star features of the series.  It is these elements that the show seems have garnered the most recognition for from its loyal viewers.  However, when it comes to defining the exact nature of the show's humor, there seems to be a regrettable shortage of intense examination of the subject.

For instance, I've read one article where a fan claims that the humor in the show was ahead of its time.  He then goes on to list the reasons for why this should be.  In doing so, all the writer has done is present a catalogue of what he likes about his favorite episode.  Now, perhaps something needs to be stressed.  There should be no doubt that the writer means what he says.  He is, in every way, a genuine fan of the series.  Perhaps he's even more devoted to it than me.  I wish him all the best.  I also wish he'd just gone a little further in his analysis.  What's left out is an exact definition of the Animaniacs style of humor; not just what it is, but where it comes from and why.

The first thing to note about the humor is that it is far from original.  In fact, it's so old that it can almost trace its roots back to the very beginnings of Hollywood.  It's certain enough that it's a product of the industry's Golden Age.  In fact, the show-runners themselves would probably be the first to admit they have invented nothing themselves as far the comedy they have to work with.  The nature of their jokes is a compilation from a variety of sources.  The most noticeable comes from way back in the history of the Warner Bros. Looney Tunes theatrical shorts.  It's a subject big enough that it would need an exploration all its own.  For now it's enough to note that the animators and writers of an old animation department known as Termite Terrace were able to pull off an artistic feat that's gets too little attention these days.  They found a way to pack as much humor and satire as possible into a few simple (and in some cases literal) brushstrokes.

A lot of the humor is summed up in the show's three main cast members, Yakko, Wakko, and Dot Warner.  To understand the Warner sibs, I think it really does help to examine the motivations underlying their closest artistic model.  That means we have to look at the history of another animated character.  The good or bad news, depending on whose reading this, is that it means we have to do a character profile of Bugs Bunny.  To quote an old movie, "Strap yourselves in, it's gonna be a bumpy ride".  The single greatest resource on the figure voted the best cartoon character of all time be TV Guide is Joe Adamson's Fifty Years and Only One Grey Hare.  Aside from providing a competent and as near complete history of the Rabbit as we're ever likely to get, Adamson goes the extra mile of allowing reader's a look into the creative thought processes that went to make up the building of the character that we all know and love (mileage may vary).   If you want to understand who the Warners are as characters, then you have to know where ideas like Bugs Bunny came from

"If Bugs Bunny is only incidentally a rabbit, and more fundamentally a larger than life personality who delighted children and adults both in a series of theatrical short subjects, who related to us as much as to the other characters on the screen, a comic hero who was in control of his physical environment, who enjoyed assuming new characterizations, "an inhabitant of the Garden who also has smarts," then it's clear that some of his roots stretch back into Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp - and beyond into the history of the comedy short subject, into the days when they tended to be live action rather than animated, but the rest of the ground rules were still the same.

"Certainly the most common explanation for a fan's devotion to the Heckling Hare is that "I grew up with him."  Most of Bugs' current fans did, and certainly that's a big part of his personal appeal: catch 'em in childhood with something they never outgrow, and you've got 'em for life.  Then you've got their kids.  The question is, who was it that Freleng, Jones, McKimson, Clampett, and all the others "grew up with"?   The magic we saw as children in Bugs Bunny was a reflection of the magic that his creators knew at the hands of the silent comedians.

"As Chuck Jones has commented, "There is a point at which life is breathed into a character, when it really begins to function, and that has to come about through as series, and that's why the series were so important to us.  That was true of Chaplin, too.  The golden age of comedy, believe me, is one of the animator's primary sources of inspiration.  We rework it without even being aware of it - I suppose you could call it subliminal plagiarism (41)".

Adamson lists the ground rules for Bugs (and by the extension, of creative influence to the Warners) as being defined by the exploits and examples set by at least 4 comic talents.  The first was Mack Sennett, the inventor of the Slapstick style of comedy.  "Sennett made a million dollars in his first year of business marketing chaos, violence, marital infidelity, and the kind of unspecified irreverence that has been grist for the comedians' mill since Aristophanes (42)".  Charlie Chaplin is listed by Adamson as the second and biggest influence.  Chaplin's great insight was that a pratfall, or sight gag, taken in isolation, is not enough.  The audience must be given a reason to care about a pie in the face.  What's needed is a reason to care about the face that gets hit with the pie.  That's where the comedic effect comes in (43).  Buster Keaton was the one who helped perfect the slapstick gag as a form of physical comedy.  Basically he's the one who taught the Tunes how to take an anvil to the head and then still be able to pick themselves up off the floor (45).  Finally, Harold Loyd was able to help imbue the characterization of Bugs with this sense of an underdog, or Everyman figure (ibid).

Stick all of that into the metaphorical blender that is the human imagination, let the compost dissolve and coagulate, then pretty soon (if there's any inspiration to be had) what pops out can be a modern incarnation of an archetype from the world of ancient myth.  This is an aspect of the character that Adamson is able to hint at during certain moments in his text.  For instance, he compares Chaplin's Tramp as something of a compound mixture.  "The Tramp was really a composite personality, put together from bits and pieces of Charlie himself, the English music-hall comedian Fred Kitchen, and more traditional figures like Puck and Harlequin.  Chaplin sometimes referred to his character as "a shabby Pierrot".  The commedia dell'arte was not a distant memory in Chaplin's lifetime, but a tradition of great clowning that was seeing its last days in the music halls and pantomimes of nineteenth-century London.  "I used to watch the clown in the pantomimes breathlessly," Chaplin remembered later.  "Every move they made registered on my young brain like a photograph.  I used to try is all over when I got home."  Great clowning, and the expression of a Personality through movement, was something Chaplin "grew up with (44-5)".

If all this sounds like one big off-topic diversion, then it's one of those cases where I'm gonna have to beg to differ.  It's clear enough to me that tying all these strands together is the only way to a peak under the collective lid of all three characters at the center of Animaniacs.  Like Bugs, the Warner's off-the-wall personalities are a compound composite drawn from several sources at once.  Since the Hair-Brained Hare is one of their chief models, it just makes sense that both he and they would share the same creative genetics.  Like Bugs, Yakko and his sibs conform to the trope of prank pulling brats with a madcap sense of humor, and something like actual hearts of gold underlying it all.  If the configuration of these characters sounds at all familiar, that's sort of because it is.  What lies underneath all these incarnations is just one character.  Hiding beneath all these layers of masks is none other than our old friend the Trickster.

The nature of this archetype is interesting.  Stephen King once talked of an Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy or opposition that defines the nature of human cultures.  If you were to place the Trickster anywhere on this binary cartography, then his spot in the map would be telling.  He would have to go somewhere in the middle.  What makes a Trickster character (or a group of them, like Dot and her brothers) so interesting is that while they do seem to have one foot in the Dionysian camp, their overall actions and inclinations seems to place whatever loyalty they might be capable of expressing somewhere along the lines of the Apollonian.  Believe it or not, the literary use of the Trickster archetype always tends to place a positive spin on his or her actions more often than not.  This is what differentiates the figure from that of Dionysus.  A Dionysian character's motivation is the simple unleashing of unchecked chaos on the stage.  The goal is almost always one of pure and unadulterated disorder and noise.  In that sense, a figure like Pennywise from the novel It forms a perfect encapsulation of a Dionysian agent.

A Trickster, by contrast, is interesting in how the archetype will start out with the appearance of the Dionysian, however sooner or later it will take control of the reins and steer a course into a situation which is more or less compatible with that of a civilized Apollonian setting.  This singles out the Trickster archetype as that of an ordering agent.  It is also the chief description of the dramatic motivations of any character that emerges out of this particular well of inspiration.  Hence, you've got the Warner Bros. (and the Warner Sister).  They look like rejects from Termite Terrace, and act the part too.  They're a trio of wild cards who are mercurial to their core.  They like to explore the world, have fun while doing it and, if necessary, shake the cage every now and then.  The trio have two ways of doing this.  One is through means of the usual slapstick that forms the sort of house style for the group in general.  The second means is a bit different, and brings us to the second main inspiration for the characters.

An insight into this second strand of inspiration is provided by none other than Rob Paulsen, the actor who provided the voice for the series lead character, Yakko Warner.  He discussed the nature of this influence in an article for Vice magazine.  Paulsen recalls workshopping Yakko’s character alongside the rest of the cast: “We had a grand piano, all sorts of drawings of all the characters, and the cast was told to go nuts. It really was a giant sand box.” Yakko came into sharp focus for Paulsen after Ruegger told him to think of Groucho Marx, somebody who “might eviscerate a person who mightn’t realize they were being eviscerated (web)".  The name Paulsen references as an inspiration for his character used to be something like a big deal back in the 30s.  However, so much time has passed since then that I kind of worried if the world at large didn't have clue who he was.  That's why it's sort of gratifying to log into Google Trends and discover that his popularity remains at about the 75 percent mark, and sometimes keeps skyrocketing to 100.

And why not?  If anyone was able to earn such long lasting fame, it was the de facto leader of one of the greatest comedy acts of all time.  Groucho Marx and his brothers began as a staple of the old Vaudeville theater circuit back during the early 20th century.  They specialized in a very peculiar and illusive style of humor.  Thomas Greylees argues that the appeal of the Brothers' "lies in the difficulty of defining their brand of comedy. Most critics simply label them as ‘anarchic’, which is a true but very broad summation of their style. Put on any Marx Brothers film – yes, even the poor ones – and you will be hit by a gag rate so high its closest match is the Airplane! and Naked Gun masterpieces by Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker; who freely admit to being inspired by and occasionally ripping off the Marx Brothers. If their art is best compared to the fans inspired by them, you know there is something unique about what they do (web)".

I think Evan Saathof is closer to the mark in an essay that does a decent job of demarcating the individual stage personas of each familiar member of the group.  While it may give a sense of who the characters are, it still doesn't go far enough in giving us a working definition of the kind of humor that Animaniacs is inspired by and does its best to emulate.  The one shared detail that the critics seem to agree on is that the Marx's style of humor is satirical.  Their targets seem to include all that was either stuck up or oppressive in the society of their day.  This could run the gamut from the artificiality of the ruling classes (Animal Crackers, A Night at the Opera), the tyranny of governments (Duck Soup, A Night in Casablanca), and the common, garden variety bullies in everyday life (A Day at the Races).  In the strictest sense, there is nothing out of the ordinary about the basic concept behind the group's attack on their targets.  What makes their approach unique, and singles it out for a continued critical and popular attention, is the nature of their comedic method.

The Marx Brothers style of comedy seems to rest on a method of attack that blends the slapstick with the sophisticated.  Unlike the similar Three Stooges comedy troupe, the Marxes relied on a more verbal and indirect approach to delivering gags to their audiences.  What makes this approach a blended combination is the way each character has to make a contribution in order to complete the punchline.  Groucho supplies the acerbic wit, while Chico and Harpo supply a combination of wordplay and slapstick.  The combination of each of these styles in one setting results in a humor that manages to come off as straightforward, while also being a multi-faceted collection of the surreal and the abstract and absurd.  It's one thing to witness an act of physical comedy.  It's something else when that same type of comedy is wedded to a point that makes the audience think about a lot of the institutions and  social customs that govern our lives.  The constant motivation for the humor of the Marx Brothers seems to be to point out a lot of the absurdity underlying modern life, with the potential hope of making some kind of better situation.   

What's interesting to note about this second strand of creative influence is that it is also somewhat literary, as well as being cinematic.  The humor of the Marxes takes a lot of its inspiration from the Algonquin Round Table.  I've already written about this group of authors and creative talents at length in an earlier post on this site.  It can be found here, so there's not as much to talk about except in how this all relates to the exploits of their cartoon counterparts.  Like the Marxes, the Algonquins had this shared sense of the absurdity of a great deal of modern life.  Also like the Brothers, the Tablers liked to lampoon this absurdity with surrealistic flourishes of humor that could sometimes transition all the way into the fantastic.  We see the Warner sibs appropriate this very same approach in an episode entitled King Yakko, which is really just one long half-hour riff on Duck Soup.

Like that movie, Yakko is installed as a the monarch of a far off, Princess Bride, style kingdom, and soon finds himself embroiled in a conflict with the neighborhood next door.  The main difference is that in Yakko's case, all the major threat is relegated to the episode's villain, with the Warners being largely passive and unobtrusive with how they handle things on their own end.  They indulge in sight gags, and jokes from one second to the next.  However, these all turn out to be mild and harmless for the most part.  Other than this, the main cast of Animaniacs can be found utilizing the same shared approach of the Marxes and Algonquins.  Their usual premise is one familiar to any of the original Looney Tunes shorts.  The brothers and sister will either find themselves in a situation where they are confronted with either a bully or a challenge that they proceed to solve by both mocking and joking the situation into submission.  There's very few problems the kids run into that can't be solved by the simple application of an anvil to the head.  In this sense, there is very little in the show's approach that can be labeled as original.  This in itself does not have to be any kind of deal breaker, however.  If there's any criticism I can have for the series, then it would have to go as follows.
Some Minor Critiques.

"In an interview, the writers explained how Animaniacs allowed for non-restrictive and open writing.  Hastings said that the format of the series had the atmosphere of a sketch comedy show because Animaniacs segments could widely vary in both time and subject, while Stoner described how the Animaniacs writing staff worked well as a team in that writers could consult other writers on how to write or finish a Hastings remarked: "We weren't really there to tell compelling stories ... [As a writer] you could do a real story, you could recite the Star-Spangled Banner, or you could parody a commercial ... you could do all these kinds of things, and we had this tremendous freedom and a talent to back it up (ibid)".

The creative setup for the show described above sounds unique for a number of reasons.  On the one hand, it's clear the creators of the show were able to look back on that time with a certain fondness.  A big part of the reason for this has to do with the second important aspect of the writing room layout.  There seems to have been an almost total freedom of creative control.  It's the kind of offer most writers dream of.  There is also this much to be said for it.  If the proper conditions for such an ideal setting are in place, then perhaps it really is best to just stand back and allow the writers to let the story get on with its work.  In a way, that's part of the standard operating procedure of most creative writing.  All the  best writers have conducted their business in just such a setting.  It's easy to understand why the general rule is that if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

I also said that in order for it to work, certain proper conditions had to be in place for that basic setup to work.  One of them is the condition that the writer have an actual functioning creative imagination to work with.  Please don't get me wrong on this.  For the record, it's pretty clear to me that each of the staff in the Animaniacs writer's room had a great deal of talent to offer.   The trouble is sometimes I'm left with a sense that it didn't get channeled to the right idea all the time.  Looking back to my childhood experiences with this show, I can recall having to put up with what felt like just a bunch of filler material, while waiting for something more interesting to happen during the half-hour.  This is true of a lot of the interstitial segments, such as a blackout sketch involving a character known as Katie, and all the ways she could lose her temper.  It's amusing in a vague, distracting sort of way, yet I'm not sure I can bring myself to call it a good example of comedy at its height.

Other examples of this same sense of filler used to pass or pad out the time involved a number of one-shot characters like a cartoon mink named Minerva, or the exploits of a family of hippos.  Looking back, I'd have to say the best of the secondary characters was the Pinky and the Brain segments.  They were the pair I found the most entertaining outside the Warners.  I remember the first episode of theirs that I ever saw just involved them creating pretty solid comedy out of what was no more than a long car drive up to Fort Knox.  Another was a pretty clever attempt to recreate the same level of national panic that Orson Welles inspired by performing an updated version of The War of the Worlds broadcast.  Those were pretty good, and yet they also seemed like one among few exceptions that proved the rule.  For most of the other time, I just couldn't shake a feeling of restless boredom.

Now, to be as fair as possible, it can be pointed out that what I'm describing is little more than the same style of complaint that could be lobbed at any popular TV series.  Stephen King once observed that a showed he enjoyed when he was a kid had "become slightly flabby in the second season" following the departure of one of its head writers.  However, he went on to make another observation.  "Still, a good many programs have been able to endure a flabby stretch without cancellation (224)".  King posits this as an all-encompassing maxim for TV in general.  I'm more than willing to admit there's good point to be made there.  My trouble is that it doesn't get rid of an inability of mine to get bored real quick when it comes to flab and padding.  The fact that there are times, looking at Animaniacs now, where you can tell the show-runners really did have to pad things out in order to meet the required runtime just serves to highlight all the moments when inspiration was flagging.

To top it all off, I can't shake the idea that the writing room's hands-off approach to any rules might have done more harm than help when it came to cooking up entertaining scenarios.  What I mean is that a lack of rules may sometimes have lead to a concomitant lack of artistic discipline that made the show suffer when it didn't have to.  The sense I get from listening to how the show's creators went about their job is that things were mostly easy, wild, and somewhat free-wheeling in the writer's room.  This amounted to a scenario where the writers were free to indulge in whatever concept made them laugh from moment to moment.  With no kind of set rules, or show bible in place, this meant that the staff's sense of humor could turn on a dime.  It wouldn't surprise me to learn that sometimes one of the staff would be in the middle of entertaining an idea that made them laugh, only for another one to crop up in their mind, making them discard their previous thought like a child that's hasn't outgrown a favorite toy, so much as it is too easily distracted to learn how to enjoy it in the first place.

Such a practice may have suited the Animaniacs writers, however my concern is that it all might have encouraged a kind of creeping imaginative laziness.  I don't know how that must sound to anyone reading this.  I also can't deny it's the direction where some of the show's lesser moments send my more critical thinking in.  I'm also not prepared to just it dismiss as a minor issue or a case of imaginative weakness on my own part.  If I didn't care about the show, or about the making of good art in general, then odds are this whole damn blog wouldn't exist.  Instead, I sometimes find myself thinking, you know, you guys could have done a little bit more with this or that scenario.  Let the characters be interesting by taking them into more narrative driven directions, or don't be afraid of a certain amount of genuine human sentiment here and there.  Learn to make the laughs count be giving us reasons to care about them.  Just 'cause the mandate is to write for kid's doesn't mean you need to talk down to them every now and then.  In fact, if you do the opposite, you might just get a pleasant surprise.

It's to their credit that some episodes make me think the writing staff was in or near this frame of mind.  There are more than a few instances where the show is trying to let the audience know it cares about its characters.  The best example I recall was in another full-length episode parody of Dickens's Christmas Carol where the Warners teach Frank Welker's studio executive the meaning of good cheer on the holidays after the old desert pirate loses his temper and fires Ralph the Security Guard.  The episode does a surprisingly good job of hitting all of Dickens's major thematic plot points, while also allowing the show to maintain its own identity and style of comedy.

I suppose the real difficulty I'm trying to address with this series can best be explained by comparing them to the  80s films of John Hughes, or even the work of their own inspirations, the Marx Brothers.  Like Animaniacs, Hughes was a filmmaker who was capable of making audiences share in a good laugh.  This was mainly down to his sharpened sense of humor, combined with an almost uncanny ability to pull it off in a dramatic setting.  Animaniacs does this too, and it can even be argued that there are elements of overlap between the two.  The major difference comes in when you realize that in his best work, Hughes was always willing to take the laughs a step further.  He would either find a comedic narrative that audiences could care enough about to want to revisit over and again.  Or else he would find ways of almost grounding the humor in characters and situations that had enough heart to draw the viewers in.  I get the sense that the writers on Animaniacs are capable of reaching these kind of heights.  That's why it's kind of frustrating for me when they just settle for a cheap laugh, or a phoned-in gag.

Now one of the replies that can be directed at this criticism is that it's unfair to compare a kids show to work from a creator of adult comedies.  It is also possible to lob the charge that the Warners embody a different style of humor.  They aren't here to tell stories, their main function is just to be a delivery service for a bunch of gags.  If that is all the main cast is, however, then its sort of a wonder that I still have any fondness for them.  A gag, or series of jokes, isolated by themselves stops short by being just that.  Jokes can work in isolation in a real life setting.  However, once you take humor into a dramatic format, it often requires at least some sort of narrative through-line in order for the joke to come off.  Another potential reply is that the Warners are meant to be satirical characters.  All they are meant to do is to poke fun at pop culture and the movies of the past.  As long as they do that, who cares how well developed they are as characters?

That's a bit more of a serious contention, so I'll have to give it a better consideration.  In the first place, the charge itself begs a number of questions.  Namely, what is satire, and how is it supposed to relate toward the past?  The most common definition of satire I know of is that of attacking a chosen target, or series of targets, through an expression of criticism in an artistic medium.  Often this criticism comes with a moral or ethical concern attached.  The general goal of satire seems to be defined as criticism with the intent or hope of improvement in either a person, persons, or situation.  If we take this working definition and apply it to Yakko, Wakko, and Dot, then you make it sound as if they were against the past in general, and of old Hollywood in particular.  That in turn begs another question.  What is the show's ethical stance toward films and TV shows from roughly the 90s and back beyond the decade?

I think best answer to that question is given from another episode that I can recall quite well.  It's title was Video Review.  It's something of a time capsule now in that it's setting is the aisles and shelves of an old video rental store.  The story itself takes place after hours, when the store is locked up.  Once the lights are out, the characters whose lives have been ingrained forever on celluloid start to come to life.  Figures like The Last Boy Scout, the Three Men and a Baby, and even The Princess Bride, Hook, Unforgiven (and, of course, The Marx Brothers) come off the covers of their video cassette boxes to frolic and play, for lack of a better word.  Naturally enough, the Warners have their own video rental somewhere up on the shelves, and they emerge from their Water Tower and join in the festivities, which includes unleashing the T-Rex from Jurassic Park and almost being rescued by A Few Good Men.

According to the show's wiki page, the episode is a "cartoon patterned after the Looney Tunes "bookstore come to life" cartoons (web)".  What they are talking about is a reference to a trilogy of short cartoons made under the Looney Tunes banner.  Their titles were Have You Got Any Castles?, A Coy Decoy, and the final one, Book Revue.  Each cartoon is linked by the shared premise of books coming to life once the store is locked down.  I can't help thinking the very trope itself wasn't inspired by someone like the Brother's Grimm.  It just sounds like such a fairy tale scenario.  Anyhow, what matters is the way the Warners are allowed to approach the past in their own cartoon.  There are two notable aspects about this episode.  The first is that the Warners are allowed to take a satirical approach to the movies of the past surrounding them.  The second is that this satire is not disrespectful.  In other words, the show's writers are not looking back in anger or scorn on figures like "Hepburn and Tracy".

Instead, the approach is an interesting blend or mix of respectful irreverence.  The characters are allowed to poke fun at the past.  However, they never once suggest that it is either a dead thing, something with no intrinsic value for the present, nor is it an outright evil to be rejected.  The episode seems to show too much of a mature understanding for such abstract simplifications.  Instead, the best description of the Warner's satirical approach is one that I've heard attributed to Mel Brooks.  He's supposed to have said words to the effect that, "You have to love the things you make fun of".  The implication of those words being that there's a difference between satire with a heart, and just angry hectoring that produces a hollow shell.  The show's writers bear no ill will to the Looney Tunes or the Marx Brothers.  If they did, they couldn't even bring themselves to model an entire episode after what's come before.  Instead, they take the clever tactic of using it in a joke in the hopes that their fans will be inspired to discover the past for themselves.  It's one of the show's little known strengths, and it goes a long way toward making up for occasional weaknesses.      

Conclusion: A Decent Idea that Holds Together. 

On the whole, I have to give this show a passing grade.  The writers were able to let the main cast and storyline hold itself up, despite whatever occasional weak spots might crop up here and there.  And even the weak points were too infrequent to be a detriment to anything vital.  The show set out to do what it accomplished, and in that sense, it can be counted as a success.  I think I've listed a lot of my favorite episodes from the series already.  The few others I could add to that list would be the installment where the sibs help Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel.  Other than that, there are just two more items left to talk about.  The first is about the upcoming reboot, and the closest thing the entire series had to a worldview.

As for the relaunch of the show, well, my basic take is one of caution mixed with perhaps just a bit of reluctance.  If life had happened in a different way, my reaction would perhaps be one of open-minded curiosity.  What makes me cautious instead is just the way Hollywood seems to be mishandling all of its most popular franchises from years past.  If we're not treated to lifeless remakes which are little more than empty vessels with no animating spirit in them, we are instead treated to scenarios in which all the original scenarios, characters, and themes that gave it value in the first place are either occluded or else just plain erased for various reasons that always remain a mystery to the fans.  We've seen it with Star Wars.  It's been happening to Star Trek for some time now.  I can't say I was ever a fan of shows like Dr. Who or Thundercats, however even I non-fan like me seems to have known enough that if you're going to bring a show like the latter back, then you've got to treat both it and the fanbase with a lot more respect than what they've been given.  I'd hate to see the denizens of the Warner Water Tower meet the same fate as all the others.

Still, Hollywood is a business, like any other.  Even the most talented artist is another sort of number cruncher when you get right down to it.  And business must make its money.  I'm just wondering "on what meat doth this our Caesar feed"?  The reason I ask is because so far every creative choice made in recent years seems to just drive the industry further into the ground.  I mean I don't know how others might feel about this, yet I'd hate to see any final nail driven in.  Hollywood has never been normal, yet at least there was a time when you could say it showed flashes of genuine inspiration.  I think there's still a chance to let that talent lighten up the screens if you just let the unheard voices with new and original stories have their chance.  Either way, another die has been cast.  All that remains now is to view the results, and see if anyone drops the ball or the final product is able to hold onto to something of value.

To be fair, there is no intrinsic reason why the reboot should be a miserable failure.  Of all the shows and films I've talked about, Animaniacs is one of the simplest in terms of story, format, and characterization.  How much out of the way do you have to go to screw that up, for gosh sake?  I think there are a number of ways to bring the show back and keep it a winner, more or less.  The first and most important is to avoid the mistakes the other guys made.  In other words, let the characters be themselves, don't write them out or kill them off, or reshuffle their personalities beyond recognition.  There's a neat little extra that can go along with such an artistic demand.  As long as the writers let the characters be themselves, the same one's we've grown up with and still cherish to this day, then there can be a certain amount of room in which to get creative.  Why not put more of a focus on story, rather than just gags and pop cultural references the second time around.

One of the ways in which the original Animaniacs was a product of its time is that it came about during a kind transitional period in the history of a lot of programming.  There was a kind of shift going on from the more straightforward approach of shows like Thundercats, where the main goal was to tell a more or less traditional narrative setup, to one that was more ironic and self-aware.  I think the reason for this transition was down to the success of shows like Seinfeld and The Simpsons.  When their sense of humor became the next big thing, it seemed like every artist or artwork that wanted to survive in the kind of charged hothouse environment generated from those series had to do their best to match them in style and content just in order to make it past the first season.  Everything had to be ironic and detached, no story was allowed to take itself seriously, and everything under the pop-culture sun had to be brought into the spotlight for referencing and skewering.  Animaniacs was very much in the same wheelhouse as all the rest from that decade.

What's remarkable in hindsight is for just how long this strain of aesthetic thinking was able to last.  I don't think there is a single aspect of modern entertainment that hasn't been effected by what guys like Matt and Jerry were able to accomplish.  At the same time, I do wonder if this particular self-aware and self-parodying style of art and humor might be somewhere close to running its course.  The reason for saying that is because as the years have gone by, particularly in recent times, I think we're starting to see what happens when the format begins to get old or the well is just plain wrung dry.  It is just possible for a trend to wear itself out, even in the department of modern humor and satire.  I think the first warning sign was the ascent of Family Guy.  I know what I have to say next is nothing original, yet it bears repeating that Seth McFarlane's gimmick of a program is very much a complete distillation of all the tropes associated with the postmodern self-aware form of satire.

The trick is I can't help thinking it was the beginning of the cautionary tale portion of the story.  Ever since that time, we've seen a kind of unconscious game of one-upmanship at work.  Each new comedy show that's come along has been in a kind of competitive race to see who can be more biting in their satire, who can prove they are more self-aware in their parody than the others.  Did it ever occur to any of these show-runners to ask themselves whether there was any kind of cost or price tag attached to this kind of exercise?  What happens when the race for the most self-aware humorist just turns into another race to the bottom of the barrel and beyond?  As uncomfortable as it may sound, I am beginning to wonder if that's accounts for a lot of what we are seeing in shows like Roseanne and Rick and Morty.  If that's the case, then the answer to all these questions seems to be that we are now seeing what happens when you try to take postmodern humor too far.  The joke doesn't just become stale, but also the focus begins to get lost.  Pretty soon, if there's no necessary kind of course correction, you get the situation we are in now.  It's the point where humor and satire dissolve away in the drive for simple recrimination, and backlash.  Perhaps this is what happens when the sense of humor becomes corrupted and turns in on itself.  It begins to regard itself as an enemy to be devoured, and the format starts to cancel itself out.  If that's that's the case, pretty all that's left is a blank stage with a confused audience and artist.

I think current history is showing us that even the best satire can lose its purpose if it begins to lose its sense of self.  Pop-culture seems to have reached a point where it needs to do a bit of soul-searching in terms of what are the right ways of telling a story.  In particular, I think the humorists out there need to take stock and find a better way of getting a laugh.  I don't say this means you have to look far an away for something that's different.  All you need to do is look for something like any kind of good or decent enough reason to make the audience care about a simple punchline once again.  My own experience is that the best way to do that it remember ways of telling a story that the audience can sink its teeth into.  That in turn would require finding character and situations that an audience can care about once more.  In the drive to be more self-aware in our satire, we seem to have forgotten or misplaced these simplest yet most essential of building blocks.  It was a mistake that even guys like John Hughes and Bill Murray knew enough to avoid.

I think Animaniacs can succeed so long as it can take stock of the situation around it enough to know what to avoid and how to expand on its concept in a way that genuinely honors what has come before.  I think one good way to start in that direction is to recall something that was said by the guy who made it all possible in the first place.  In researching for this article I came across an old TV Guide interview with Steven Spielberg.  He devoted most of the time to discussing various aspects of the show.  It's pretty enlightening for the insights the director is able to give about a lot of the philosophy undergirding the series. For instance, Spielberg's idea of what makes for good children's television is "a combination of things, but the best shows are those that leave some substance behind in the wake of flamboyant entertainment".

He's willing to call any kid's TV series good if he can "walk away from with some kind of social insight.  They fool me: I think I'm being entertained for half an hour, and I wind up taking something away - and, more important, remembering it".  He also observed that, in terms of animation, "the negatives from 50s years ago are the same negatives that are plaguing us today - mindless mayhem".  The whole entire thing is very much worth a read, and it can be found here.  Perhaps I should hasten to add that I'm not asking anyone to start preaching here.  I think the moment a writer starts down that path is when they fall into the other form of the same kind of trap that happened with an entire decade of post-Simpsons satire.  The correct approach calls more for a balancing act between irony and the heart.  Treat it like a unity of opposites were each element compliments the other.  At least that's the best advice I can give at the moment.

What can't be denied, however, is that old Steven had a definite vision for the kind of cartoon he wanted his little kid's show to be.  It seems a lot more plotted out and thoughtful in some ways.  I don't know whether to say it was better than the Simpsons (which sounds a bit too harsh to me).  However, I am willing to say the director had a measured sense of approach to the material that ultimately did more good than harm.  I bring all this up because I think the interview above is the closest we're ever likely to get to any kind of extensive explanation of the kind of philosophy that undergirds the Warners series.  It's possible to debate whether or not Spielberg succeeded in his goals for the show.  Whatever the answer is, what I don't think can be disputed is that he did the best he could.  The fact that people are still talking about Animaniacs a whole decade after it left the airwaves means he at least did something right. 

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