To anyone on the outside, it’s a little hard to explain what Animaniacs even is. In the simplest of terms, it’s an animated sketch comedy, but that makes you think of a cartoon version of Saturday Night Live, a description more apt for Robot Chicken than Animaniacs. The best way I can describe the cartoon is that it’s a variety show filled with musical numbers, sketches, edutainment, recurring jokes, a whole variety of characters each with their own respective stories, and pretty much anything and everything the writers could come up with.
Some stood the test of time better than others, which is why most people usually think of the Warner siblings before any other character when Animaniacs is brought up — and why certain characters like Chicken Boo and Katie Kaboom either never appear or only have guest appearances in the 2020 reboot. Not only did some of them run their course in terms of comedic opportunity, but the sexualization of characters like Minerva Mink and Hello Nurse (and Yakko and Wakko’s constant chasing of the latter character) really wouldn’t fly in a kid’s show of today. This shift in a more feminist direction might even be why the theme song now has the lyrics, “Dot has wit” instead of the original, “Dot is cute.”
More often than not, however, its freedom of creativity was what made Animaniacs so memorable. In what other show, animated or not, would you get two uninterrupted minutes of a character singing the names of every capital of every American state, to the tune of the folk song Turkey in the Straw? Or a little kid excitedly telling you about how his friend Randy Beaman’s little brother had his head explode because he ate pop rocks and drank a can of soda? Or a song about Lake Titicaca whose entire punchline is that it has a funny name?
“The format of the show was so free,” Animaniacs writer Peter Hastings says. “You could do all these kinds of things, and we had this tremendous freedom and the talent to back it up.” He’s absolutely right regarding talent — Animaniacs overflows with talent from both its cast and crew. When the writing was at its best (and it frequently was), it made us laugh ‘til we collapsed, and the main trio especially were a cornucopia of memorable jokes.
Yakko, Wakko, and Dot constantly came out with puns, adult innuendos, pop culture references, and juvenile jokes that would give the Airplane films a run for their money. “Citizens of Anvilania, I stand before you,” Yakko proudly proclaims, “because if I was behind you, you couldn’t see me.”
For 99 episodes and 274 segments, the Animaniacs would give us joke after terrific joke based on a concept you wouldn’t think could produce such memorable humor. “I would say, ‘Gosh, well I think I have this idea where Yakko, Wakko, Dot, they help Einstein…or something?’” writer Paul Rugg says (that idea became the segment Cookies For Einstein, where they try to sell cookies to Einstein). “It was that loose.”
The comedic writing worked fantastically together with the songwriting, too, because so many of the musical numbers boasted tunes that were catchy and funny at the same time. Every Animaniacs fan has their favorites: the theme song is an obvious pick, but there’s also the joyfully nonsensical song about the senses, the absolute earworm The Monkey Song where nearly every Animaniac shows up, the I’m Mad song that every Dot fan adores, and even one particular song where Yakko sings about having an existential crisis.
“It’s a great big universe, and we’re all really puny!” he sings to a contrastingly upbeat tune. “We’re just tiny little specks, about the size of Mickey Rooney!”
But of course, there’s the king of them all, Yakko’s World, arguably the most famous song sung by the Animaniacs next to their theme song. As Yakko voice actor Rob Paulsen writes in his autobiography, “Everybody doesn’t like something, but nobody doesn’t like Yakko’s World.”
It’s an odd case as the song doesn’t have a punchline at all — it’s literally just Yakko singing nearly all the nations in the world, but the fun here is the grand scale of it all, the buoyant attempt to even do such a thing with no discernible reason other than it’s something Yakko can do. Add to that the catchiness of the song and how this could only be possible in a show as random as Animaniacs, and it’s no surprise Rob Paulsen still gets asked to sing it all the time.
“[Yakko’s World is] a song I will probably still be singing when they put the last nail in my coffin,” Paulsen writes. “[…] People often ask me if I’m sick of singing that song. Not at all, man. It’s when people don’t want to hear it that I will get worried.”
Paulsen’s effervescent singing performance also boosts the number’s appeal, but Paulsen was always on top of his game when it came to voicing Yakko Warner. This superlative level of commitment and showmanship was gleefully matched by Dot Warner’s voice Tress MacNeille, and Wakko Warner’s voice Jess Harnell. The way these three breathe life into the main trio cannot be understated — with so much energy in every word uttered by the three rascals, the Warner siblings wouldn’t be half as memorable as they are without these voice actors.
Paulsen, MacNeille, and Harnell perfectly nail it with their comedic timing, singing vocals, inflating the main trio’s eccentric personalities to rapturous proportions. The Warner siblings were so much fun, people frequently forget they weren’t the only protagonists of the show: the theme song itself mentions Pinky and the Brain, Goodfeathers, Slappy, Buttons and Mindy, and Rita.
Slappy’s skits get referenced now and then and Pinky and the Brain were popular enough to get their own spin-off show, but that’s just it — the rat and mouse duo are better known as their own thing rather than a part of the Animaniacs crew. The Goodfeathers, being a Goodfellas parody, were a serious product of their time, Buttons and Mindy’s antics of Buttons constantly saving Mindy from danger got repetitive fast, and Rita’s schtick of singing in every segment paled in comparison to the tunes sung by Yakko, Wakko, and Dot.
Despite all the bits that didn’t work, though, Animaniacs was so full of energy, it couldn’t help but be a joy to watch. This energy was so infectious that so many of their songs have gotten millions of views on YouTube, and Animaniacs reunions are always a riot. As cartoons are usually a kid’s introduction to narrative and visual comedy, Animaniacs helped shape the humor of so many millennials today through witty and clever jokes that they could still find funny no matter how old they became.
“The edict from the top was ‘don’t condescend to the audience’,” Paulsen says. “They’ll get it at 8 or they’ll get it at 38.” Of course, the Animaniacs would hate me for using “jokes” as an umbrella term. As Yakko Warner said when he turned into a flower after being told to plant himself on the couch, “This isn’t a joke, it’s a visual gag.”
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