Animaniacs Review : Pop Culture Happy Hour Because everything in Hollywood must be revived these days, the Animaniacs are back after being locked in that Warner studio water tower for more than 20 years. Led by the fictional siblings Yakko, Wakko and Dot, the super-meta cartoon featured slapstick humor and cultural references that appealed to both kids and adults alike. Hulu has released a new batch of Animaniacs episodes and much of the original voice cast returns — though this time around you should expect fewer Goodfellas jokes and more cracks about presidential elections.
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Is The Rebooted 'Animaniacs' Still Zany To The Max?

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Is The Rebooted 'Animaniacs' Still Zany To The Max?

Is The Rebooted 'Animaniacs' Still Zany To The Max?

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AISHA HARRIS, HOST:

Because everything in Hollywood must be revived these days, the Animaniacs are back after being locked in that Warner studio water tower for more than 20 years. Led by the fictional siblings Takko, Wakko and Dot, the super meta cartoon featured slapstick humor and cultural references that appealed to both kids and adults alike. Hulu has released a new batch of episodes, and much of the original voice cast returns, though this time around you should expect fewer "Goodfellas" jokes and more cracks about presidential elections.

I'm Aisha Harris, and it's time for "Animaniacs" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. Here with me from her home in Boston is Margaret H. Willison, who is one-half of the Two Bossy Dames newsletter and one-third of the "Appointment Television" podcast. Welcome back, Margaret. It's great to see you.

MARGARET H WILLISON, BYLINE: Hi, Aisha. It's great to be here.

HARRIS: And also here from his home in Washington, D.C., we have J.C. Howard, a producer of NPR's TED Radio Hour and How I Built This. Welcome, J.C.

J C HOWARD, BYLINE: Hello. Good to be here.

HARRIS: Yes, it's awesome to have you here. So in 1993, the cartoon "Animaniacs" premiered on Fox, and it was zany to the max.

WILLISON: (Laughter).

HOWARD: Yes.

HARRIS: The very loose premise of the original "Animaniacs" is that Yakko, Wakko and Dot - voiced by Rob Paulsen, Jess Harnell and Tress MacNeille are cartoon siblings of an undetermined species. They are created by animators in the 1930s. They're a little too wild for this world and are kept locked in a water tower on the Warner Bros. studio lot. And in each episode, they manage to break free and appear in sketches and segments alongside other recurring characters like Pinky and the Brain and Slappy the squirrel.

Now, the show is a spiritual successor to the "Looney Tunes" and was executive produced by Steven Spielberg, and it ran a total of five seasons in its original incarnation. Now, for the Hulu reboot, Spielberg is on board again, though in place of creator Tom Ruegger, this new version is being led by Wellesley Wild, a frequent collaborator of Seth MacFarlane and Tom Minton, whose resume includes work on the '80s cartoon "Alvin And The Chipmunks," which was a show I loved when I was a kid.

HOWARD: (Laughter) Yeah.

HARRIS: So, J.C., let's actually start with you.

HOWARD: Sure.

HARRIS: What do you think of this new reboot of "Animaniacs?"

HOWARD: Well, first of all, I liked it. I mean, I have to imagine I'm just one of many millennials that watched "Animaniacs" every day after school, as well as its sister show "Tiny Toons" (ph). It's another one that I loved. So to prepare for our conversation, I did something that was, honestly, not at all a chore.

HARRIS: (Laughter).

HOWARD: I watched some of the episodes from the old '90s series 'cause, as you said, in the age of reboots, which we are in now, I think comparison is always the elephant in the room, and it has to be addressed. So thinking back to the old show and having to rewatch some of the episodes, that version always struck me as kind of - I guess I'd describe it as, like, sneakily educational, if that makes sense.

WILLISON: (Laughter).

HOWARD: Like, you had geography lessons peppered in, Einstein's theory of relativity, like Clinton jokes - all kinds of just random trivia that kids might have been exposed to at that time. And overall, I think both the original and the reboot - the show has always had this kind of quality, as you've said, of mixing silly slapstick humor with really adult humor. And by adult, I don't mean dirty or anything.

WILLISON: (Laughter).

HOWARD: Just, you know, a little bit more complex than a kid would usually be used to getting from a cartoon. But in the old show, it really was kind of a mix of those things - a quick joke for the parent, and then, like, right behind that, Wakko takes a pie in the face for the 7-year-old in the family.

WILLISON: (Laughter).

HARRIS: Very Three Stooges, yeah.

HOWARD: Very Three Stooges. That's right. But in this reboot, I felt like it leans pretty heavily on the more complex stuff, which I personally kind of appreciate because it feels like the show isn't just stuck in, like, just a new version of the '90s show, but it's actually - in the 20-some odd years it's been off the air, it's grown up with me and can keep me, as a 30-year-old saying, OK, now that's funny.

WILLISON: (Laughter).

HOWARD: You know, for folks like myself, I think it definitely has that nostalgia feel. But it isn't all nostalgia. It has some, like, truly up-to-the-minute political humor. So for the people who were around in the '90s, I think there's a ton to enjoy about it. But I wonder, honestly, if - you know, millennial parents introducing the show to their kids, will the children lose interest even sooner than the parents?

(LAUGHTER)

HOWARD: Like, how many of these jokes will actually land with a kid of today?

HARRIS: That's a very good question. Margaret, what do you think about the show? Do you agree with J.C. or do you land a little bit more on the other side of things?

WILLISON: I think J.C. made a ton of points that I agree with very wholeheartedly and especially the question of, like, is this going to work with kids? The first scene that we have is a spoof of "Jurassic Park."

HOWARD: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLISON: Complete with animated Steven Spielberg himself rolling through. And I was like, OK, so this is talking to me, a 35-year-old woman...

HOWARD: Yeah.

WILLISON: ...Very directly.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLISON: It's like, hi, I am watching your show. Thank you.

HOWARD: Yeah. Right.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLISON: And appropriately enough, given that meta humor is a real focal point and trademark of the show, there is something meta in that because very shortly after that, they have one of the Warner brothers swallow, like, an iPad. I think they have to call it a tablet.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLISON: So that we get that fun pun situation.

HOWARD: Yes.

WILLISON: And then, you know, suddenly have modern pop culture references. So it's thoughtful in that respect. But I do think it is leaning a little hard on the referential humor and not delivering as much of the just, like, zany, fun slapstick that I remember. And I couldn't tell watching this. It felt like a very loyal recreation of the original show's whole vibe and aesthetic, and I couldn't tell if it wasn't quite working for me because I'm not a child anymore - right? - or if it wasn't quite working for me because it wasn't quite as good.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLISON: And then one more thing I'll say is that I don't know that I have the capacity to have as full a critical opinion of this as I'd like to because the only non-Animaniacs recurring segments our preview bundle showed were ones of Pinky and the Brain. And I understand why they made that choice - because Pinky and the Brain is one of the most standout of their sort of rotating cast of extra segments.

HOWARD: Right.

WILLISON: But I would have loved to see if they were bringing any of the other ones back or what they had created that was new because some of those segments were a little bit more pure slapstick comedy.

HOWARD: Yeah.

WILLISON: And it would have been fun to kind of see if that was part of the package they wanted to present.

HARRIS: Well, I'm so glad you brought that up...

WILLISON: (Laughter).

HARRIS: ...Because that was one of the things that really struck me about watching this new version of the show, which is that Pinky and the Brain, for me at least, can only do so much. And I was...

HOWARD: Yeah.

HARRIS: It was probably one of my least favorite segments of the original "Animaniacs."

WILLISON: (Laughter).

HARRIS: I was way more of a Goodfeathers segment lover.

HOWARD: Yeah.

WILLISON: Rita and Runt were really big for me (laughter).

HOWARD: Yeah.

HARRIS: Rita and Runt.

HOWARD: I love Buttons and Mindy.

HARRIS: Yes. And Slappy the squirrel, the elderly squirrel who's, like, sassy.

WILLISON: Yeah, iconic (laughter).

HARRIS: Like, I loved all of those characters.

HOWARD: (Laughter).

HARRIS: So I think, like, it's interesting to make that choice. If I recall correctly, Pinky and the Brain actually was so popular at the time that it got its own spinoff show.

HOWARD: Yeah. Yeah.

HARRIS: So, yes, I understand why they did that. But to me, that lack of variety combined with so much heavy politics - and I understand. They do maintain that meta air that they always had from the beginning of the show.

HOWARD: Yeah.

HARRIS: I, like J.C., went back and rewatched some of the earlier episodes, and it was just so smart in the way they satirized things that went completely over my head as a kid

HOWARD: Right. Yep, yep.

WILLISON: (Laughter).

HARRIS: And rewatching it now, I think I actually appreciate the show more.

HOWARD: Yeah.

HARRIS: I rewatched one episode where Wakko, Yakko and Dot were trying to help Michelangelo, who's, like, playing, like, basically this, like, beefy Schwarzenegger-type guy, repaint the Sistine Chapel.

WILLISON: (Laughter).

HARRIS: And there's, like, an entire 30 seconds of just Cole Porter jokes that, like, as a 5-year-old...

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: ...I would never have gotten them. But then, you know, now that I'm watching it, I'm like, oh, they just did an entire, like, pun on Cole Porter lyrics.

HOWARD: Yeah.

WILLISON: (Laughter).

HARRIS: And I love that. And here we just get a lot of, like, OK, we've been locked in the vault for 20 years. The world has changed significantly. Now, how do we deal with that? And how we deal with that is a lot of Clinton jokes, which...

HOWARD: Yeah, yeah.

WILLISON: (Laughter).

HARRIS: ...You know, this time around, it's Hillary; it's not Bill.

HOWARD: Right.

HARRIS: But there's lots of Clinton jokes, a lot of Trump jokes. There's an entire segment about the election season.

HOWARD: Yeah.

HARRIS: And there was way less politics in the original version. And I understand the conundrum of, like, how do you not address this moment? It's hard to do that. But what made "Animaniacs" so special, I think, and kind of predated the era that we're in now is that they were unabashed in just, like, going for everything, like, covering every sort of genre and culture, whether it's Broadway or old movies, and satirizing Warner Bros. cartoons. All of that seems to be missing here in favor of just, like, really focusing on just politics.

WILLISON: Yeah.

HARRIS: And I wish it was a little bit more than that.

HOWARD: Yeah.

WILLISON: I have a niche but vicious burn...

HARRIS: (Laughter).

WILLISON: ...Which is that while watching these episodes, the thing that was coming to mind for me the most was the premiere of "Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip," where, like, the wildly funny thing these incredibly accomplished comedy writers decide to do is, like, a Gilbert and Sullivan rewritten song.

HOWARD: Yeah.

WILLISON: It's just like, oh, my God, the greatest comedy writers in the world have come up with this brilliant satire. It had that same sort of, like, musty educational and, like, we're not quite getting there with the funny. We've got all of the references. I see all of your references. I don't know if what you've created with them is doing very much for me (laughter).

HOWARD: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, there is certainly no shortage of pointed social commentary in the "Animaniacs."

WILLISON: (Laughter).

HOWARD: And, you know, that's something that was there from the beginning as well. But it really does take it to a whole new level. Like, there's this whole cartoon metaphor about gun control...

(LAUGHTER)

HOWARD: ...Which is like - you know, it takes over an entire segment of the show.

HARRIS: With bunnies.

HOWARD: Yes, with bunnies. Yes, it's...

(LAUGHTER)

HOWARD: It is pretty on the nose, I will say. But I will say, one of the episodes where I kind of especially enjoyed that was - Episode 10 of the series has this Russian spoof called Animaniette (ph). To me, it's just, like, chef's kiss - 2020 funny.

(LAUGHTER)

HOWARD: Like, it jumps right into today's conversations about surveillance and geopolitics in a way that is just masterfully reflective of the moment. And that episode actually ends with this press conference spoof that's just so good. I mean, that is a sketch that took me twice as long to watch because the whole time there's this ticker at the bottom that's just scrolling spoofy headlines.

WILLISON: (Laughter).

HOWARD: So I kept pausing and rewinding just to make sure I could catch them and read them all. And, I mean, just the way that they so easily reflect where we are - I felt this way kind of even as a kid, like, looking back at "Animaniacs," and I feel it today - that Animaniacs is kind of like "SNL" but for a younger demographic. It's really spot on as a way to look at where we are.

HARRIS: I will say, I did appreciate when it kind of went back to its roots of a-mile-a-minute jokes, like, you can barely keep up. There's one sequence where Dot is determined to make everything cute.

(LAUGHTER)

HOWARD: Yeah.

HARRIS: And the animation is just really, really fun to watch. You know, it's kind of a commentary on this need to make everything cute in this horrible...

HOWARD: Yeah.

HARRIS: ...Drab world that we're living in.

HOWARD: Yeah.

HARRIS: I just thought it was really fun to watch things get progressively just more over the top. So I loved it when it kind of took, like, a cultural reference that felt a little bit less specific to, like, 2020...

HOWARD: Yeah. Right.

HARRIS: ...Politics and more just, like, this is our culture now because, to me, I think that's when "Animaniacs" was always at its best. Even the original version suffered sometimes from lots of, really, super timely (laughter) jokes that if you were to watch it as a kid now, you'd have no idea what they are.

WILLISON: (Laughter).

HOWARD: Right.

HARRIS: And some of them are a little bit more timeless. But when it goes to that place of just being super over-the-top in a more general way, I think, is when it excels the most.

WILLISON: And, I mean, I've always loved Dot. As someone who profoundly identifies with Louise Belcher from "Bob's Burgers"...

HARRIS: Ooh, yes (laughter). Same.

(LAUGHTER)

HOWARD: Yes. Yeah.

WILLISON: ...I also looked at Dot. And I was like, oh...

(LAUGHTER)

WILLISON: I was like, this is the seeds of Louise Belcher....

HOWARD: Yeah.

WILLISON: ...They come from here, because Dot is such an interesting character. And she's such a mix of, like, adult and child. And, like, I really appreciate that they let Dot be, like, thirsty as hell.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLISON: I'm like, yeah, Dot.

HOWARD: That's right. Yeah. Yeah. That's right.

WILLISON: Like, go for Chris Pine. I'm into this for you.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLISON: It's just, like, a model of female thirst.

HOWARD: Yes.

WILLISON: I didn't even realize that she was that for me at the time. And now, looking back, I'm like, bless you, Dot - so important to me.

HOWARD: Yeah.

WILLISON: (Laughter).

HARRIS: I have to admit, I had a kind of complicated relationship with some of the side characters because my mom, who I've mentioned on the show before, her actual, God-given name is Pinky.

WILLISON: (Laughter).

HARRIS: I had a Pinky in my family, too, for the record.

HOWARD: Yes, right?

HARRIS: I feel like it's a Black people thing.

(LAUGHTER)

HOWARD: You know, and so - but in the '90s when she would introduce herself, like, 1-in-10 people would be like, oh, you're Pinky? Where's the Brain? You know, thinking...

(LAUGHTER)

HOWARD: ...They were just the most clever person and they were so original...

WILLISON: (Laughter).

HOWARD: ...That has, like, always kind of stuck with me is having a complicated relationship with them. But I will say, in this reboot, from what we've seen, you know, we only have really seen Pinky and the Brain as some of the few characters to have made it into this version. I mean, they do try to introduce some new side characters. There's this Starbox and Cindy sketch, which I was just like, meh.

WILLISON: (Laughter).

HOWARD: It did not work for me. There was not much there. I didn't really understand what they were trying to do with that. But it makes me miss Buttons and Mindy and the Goodfeathers. And I'm not sure if there are plans to include them at some point. But I will say, some branching out and some investment in other characters other than the Warner siblings, but can I have a crumb more of nostalgia? That's all I'm asking for.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: Well, on that note, I think we can all agree - justice for...

WILLISON: (Laughter).

HARRIS: ...All the other characters who have - we have not yet seen on these episodes of "Animaniacs." But they could be there. We've only seen five. They've...

HOWARD: That's right.

HARRIS: ...Given five to critics beforehand. So tell us what you think about "Animaniacs." Find us on Facebook at facebook.com/pchh. Or tweet us at @PCHH. When we come back, it'll be time to talk about what's making us happy this week, so come right back.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HARRIS: Welcome back to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR. It's time for our favorite segment of this week and every week - what's making us happy? Margaret, tell us what is making you happy this week.

WILLISON: So what is making me happy this week is Karina Longworth's podcast "You Must Remember This," which is this incredibly well-produced and deeply researched podcast about Hollywood history from the 20th century. This summer, she ran a remarkable series on a woman named Polly Platt, who she deems Hollywood's invisible woman. And she is not necessarily someone you would have heard about. But what you have heard about are movies that she had an absolutely monumental role in making excellent.

She was Peter Bogdanovich's first wife. And as a creative team, they made his three best pictures. They made "The Last Picture Show," "What's Up, Doc?" and "Paper Moon." And they did that as a creative team despite the fact that after "The Last Picture Show," Peter Bogdanovich left Polly Platt for Cybill Shepherd, whom she had cast in "The Last Picture Show." If you know of Polly Platt, that part is well-known because it's this focal point of such classic Hollywood gossip. After that, Polly Platt went on to be a similar kind of creative partner for many, many other noteworthy Hollywood directors and writers, most prominently James L. Brooks. And then, she actually played a really important role in Wes Anderson's early career.

And this podcast looks at both the work that she did with those men and this weird middle point where she came to Hollywood, where she got where she was without the help of feminism and therefore sort of didn't think feminism was for her or necessary. But you can also see how, in the life that she led in those spaces, because there was no narrative for female creative auteurs, there was no space for the kind of expertise and vision she was bringing to all of these projects to really be recognized and understood. So it's incredibly interesting, and your brain will be blown. It's so, so good and so well done.

HARRIS: Thank you, Margaret. I'm always here for a "You Must Remember This" endorsement. So thank you (laughter).

WILLISON: It's the best show.

HARRIS: J.C., what is making you happy this week?

HOWARD: So I have six words for you - gave me cookie, got you cookie.

(LAUGHTER)

HOWARD: Which is my favorite line so far from a show that I fully admit I am incredibly late to, but I have just started watching "New Girl." And I am so surprised by how incredibly delightful and funny this show is.

WILLISON: (Laughter).

HOWARD: I'm the kind of person who doesn't really audibly laugh at television shows. I just kind of politely acknowledge, like, that is funny, and then I move on.

(LAUGHTER)

HOWARD: There are moments of "New Girl" where I am, like, literally laughing out loud. I'm in the fourth season currently. And well, I - again, I admit I was completely late to this party. But I'm kind of glad that I was late because now, being in my 30s, as most of the characters are, I find it relatable on a whole different level than I think I would have if I were in my 20s when I watched it.

WILLISON: (Laughter).

HOWARD: Not only does it hold up in a way that not all shows from the early 2010s do, but the more I watch it, the more I realize I am Nick Miller.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: Oh. OK.

HOWARD: Like, I'm - yeah. You know, I mean, I'm here to be vulnerable with you guys. I hope you will still accept me. But I feel like I'm a tiny bit of a curmudgeon but, like, mostly a lovable oaf.

WILLISON: (Laughter).

HOWARD: I just identify with him so much. So now, I mean, as we are all kind of stuck in the places where we are for an extended period of time, having a ton of "New Girls" to discover for me for the first time is just making me incredibly happy.

WILLISON: I identify as a Jess Day sun but a Nick Miller moon, astrologically speaking.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLISON: He has that box of receipts that he just hides in his closet.

HOWARD: That's right, yes.

WILLISON: And I identify with that too much.

HOWARD: At this point, I have two shoe boxes. So, like, you know - yes.

WILLISON: Too representative, absolutely.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: I can't say I identify with any of them, but I did enjoy that show when it was on.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: So what's making me happy this week is an offshoot of what we were talking about earlier. And, J.C., you mentioned this briefly. It is "Tiny Toon Adventures."

HOWARD: Yes.

HARRIS: Which, for me, was an even more informative show than "Animaniacs" was as a kid. I mean, it's also zany, also wacky. It shares a lot of DNA with "Animaniacs."

HOWARD: Yeah.

HARRIS: And some of the creators of that show also created "Animaniacs." And what I love about the show is just - it's similar to "Muppet Babies," where...

HOWARD: Yeah, yeah.

HARRIS: ...They are the younger versions...

HOWARD: Right.

HARRIS: ...Of these well-known entities. Although unlike the "Muppet Babies," it's not like a young Kermit and a young Miss Piggy.

HOWARD: Right.

HARRIS: It's Buster Bunny, who is basically the sort of doppelganger of Bugs Bunny. And you also have, like, Hamton J. Pig, who's like Porky.

HOWARD: Yes.

WILLISON: (Laughter).

HARRIS: It's fun. It's weird. There's so many pop culture references, many of which I think still hold up today. There's - Steven Spielberg also shows up several times in animated form. And like the old "Animaniacs," it is also on Hulu streaming now. So you can go back if it's been a while since you've watched it. Go enjoy it. The one I was just rewatching recently was an episode that was all about the '90s. And it was a Season 1 episode, so the '90s had just started. The show premiered in 1990. And there's one segment about, like, not smoking.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: It's like, smoking's bad.

HOWARD: Wow. Yeah.

HARRIS: But it's done in a really funny way and, like, a non-preachy way, I think.

HOWARD: Yeah.

HARRIS: So "Tiny Toon Adventures" - making me happy. Check it out on Hulu.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: So that's what's making me happy this week. If you want links for what we recommended, plus some more recommendations exclusive to the newsletter, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/popculturenewsletter.

And that brings us to the end of our show. You can find all of us on Twitter. You can find me at @craftingmystyle. Follow J.C. at @thejchoward. And you can follow Margaret at @mrsfridaynext. You can follow editor Jessica Reedy at @jessica_reedy and producer Candice Lim at @thecandicelim. You can follow producer Mike Katzif at @mikekatzif - that's K-A-T-Z-I-F. And Mike's band Hello Come In provides the music you are bobbing your head to right now. Thanks to you all for being here.

WILLISON: Thank you for having me.

HOWARD: Thanks for having me. It's a lot of fun.

HARRIS: (Laughter) And thanks for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. We will see you all next week, when we'll be talking about the new album from Megan Thee Stallion.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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