'Animaniacs': The '90s cartoon for the adult in every child
At some point in your childhood, you start to develop your own personal taste in pop culture. I didn’t know it at the time, but 1993 was a pivotal year for me in that regard. It was the year The Nightmare Before Christmas hit theaters, marking the first time I became so obsessed with a film that I wanted to learn how it was actually made. The year was also the first time I walked out of a movie — despite being raised on the Ninja Turtles, the third Turtles flick just wasn’t doing it for me, so I asked my dad if we could leave. (I imagine he didn’t mind.)
And 1993 was when two new shows — Animaniacs and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers — premiered on Fox Kids. The two programs were instant hits, and it was perfectly fine to be a fan of both. But for some reason, the 8-year-old me took a stand. He decided that only one of these shows deserved his utmost attention, opting for the zany comedy of Animaniacs. In retrospect, I’m glad he did.
Animaniacs distinguished itself by aiming a little higher. That translated into impressive production values, including sleek animation by TV standards and a full orchestral score. And it meant humor that was edgy, occasionally suggestive, and frequently too Hollywood-savvy for a child to fully understand. As a result, Animaniacs had a fair share of adult viewers during its original run — the show even poked fun at its more-obsessive Internet followers.
For me, part of the thrill of watching Animaniacs as a kid was that I didn’t understand it all. I didn’t realize that the Goodfeathers were an extended parody of Goodfellas. Or that the trade paper Variety even existed, let alone deserved its own musical number. Animaniacs acted as a pop-culture primer, preparing me for everything from Les Misérables to The Seventh Seal to my internship at Variety. Only as I grew older did I begin to appreciate just how much of the show initially flew over my head, making Animaniacs just as enjoyable to watch now as it was 18 years ago. How many other childhood programs can make that claim?
There are so many characters and segments worth mentioning. When executive producer Steven Spielberg visited one of my college classes, he stated that Dot Warner — despite her cuteness — was one of the strongest female characters he’s ever been involved in creating. Then there’s the lab mice Pinky and the Brain, whose repeated attempts to take over the world were so amusing that the characters received their own spin-off show. And those flat-out bizarre shorts featuring Chicken Boo, the giant mutant chicken who simply wanted to belong in the human world.
Yet what I’ll remember the most are the songs. I’ll never forget Yakko breathlessly reciting the countries of the world. Or the sense of wonder in “Yakko’s Universe,” which manages to be as humbling as the creation sequence from The Tree of Life. Also: the melancholic melodies of Rita the cat, which were beautifully sung by Broadway legend Bernadette Peters, and the Maria von Trapp-related Prunella Flundergust extolling the beauty of Burbank.
But my favorite has to be “A Quake, a Quake,” a cheerful (and very politically incorrect) number about the 1994 Northridge earthquake. Folks, it contains the line: “Whose fault? Whose fault? / The San Andreas’ fault! / Cause Mr. Richter can’t predict her / Kicking our asphalt.” And the sound you’re hearing is the 8-year-old me laughing right beside the 26-year-old me. That, in a nutshell, is what makes Animaniacs great.