January 24, 2021

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The “Animaniacs” Reboot Revives the Zany and Regurgitates the Meta

7 min read

The Warner brothers and their sister Dot, the “Animaniacs” origin story goes, were cartooned to life in a squat shack on a Burbank lot in the days of golden-age Hollywood. No sooner were the characters christened, with a daub of siren red on each nose, than their reign of holy hell began. They boingy-boingy-boingy-ed throughout their namesake studio, harassing employees, and worse, executives; the footage they produced was no better than a waste. When it was clear that their buffoonery far exceeded their usefulness as talent, the Warners were seized and entombed within the studio’s iconic tower for a sentence of, presumably, forever—or at least till the nineties, when they made their escape. Thus was born “Animaniacs,” a show about three cartoon characters stuck in showbiz, which went off the air more than twenty years ago and, after finding new popularity on Netflix, was recently rebooted for Hulu.

Yakko, Wakko, and Dot were essentially fugitives, out-of-place and reluctant Warner Bros. property. Their silhouettes, vaguely animal, hailed from a time before the Mickey Mouse empire, when plushly drawn figures such as Bosko and Felix the Cat still danced onscreen as blacked-up fools. Along with their appearance, the time warp of the siblings’ fictive origins was integral to the show’s charm. These alleged relics of the Hollywood studio system personified a shuffling, vintage humor, like three put-to-pasture elders squeezed back into fighting shape. In a Season 1 sketch called “Testimonials,” old interview footage and graying reels added dimension to the trio’s mythology, placing the Warners in the silent times of vaudeville and the Ziegfeld Follies. Yakko beefed with Milton Berle; Dot and Fanny Brice were besties. “Put your hand in a bowl a’ nuts, pull out three—that’s the Warner brothers and their sister Dot. Nuts! Crazy!” one holdover from the borscht belt exclaims.

The original series, which ran from 1993 to 1998 (a direct-to-video movie was released in 1999), was the brainchild of Tom Ruegger, who had previously worked with Warner Bros. and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment in creating the “Looney Tunes” revival series “Tiny Toon Adventures.” That show, following the by-then tested formula of “What if X but babies?,” starred diminutive reincarnations of Warner intellectual property, attendees of an Acme educational institution who learn how to be ’toons from their now professorial predecessors. To my memory, it was one of those always-on kind of shows whose run felt longer than it was, owing to a robust afterlife in syndication. In fact, “Tiny Toons” ended shortly after its second birthday, in 1992, by which time Ruegger and his collaborators were “about cooked on” the characters, as he recalled in a recent interview with Rolling Stone. Instead of an asked-for spinoff, the team careened in another direction, with a more impudent heir of the old ways. “Tiny Toons” was adorable, but “Animaniacs” was truly daffy.

Ruegger declined to participate in the reboot, but the new showrunner—Wellesley Wild, of Seth MacFarlane’s “Family Guy”—has revived much of what the original writers set in motion. (The core voice cast has returned, too, reprising their original roles.) To each sib his or her own schtick: Yakko, the tall one and garrulous by way of Groucho Marx; Dot, tiny but wily, whose own lust takes her by surprise; and Wakko, who would damn himself to Hell, literally, rather than forfeit the chance to eat another meatball. Libidinal and oral, with a child’s sense of moderation, the Warners are constantly shoving things into and out of themselves. Bodily functions abound. One reverie midway through the new season renders the trio too cute for their own good; they remedy this by making themselves sick, and their vomit restores the world as they like it: a quagmire. All of this wackiness makes the “animated maniacs” ripe for psychoanalyzing, but do so at your peril. Their 1993 début, in a segment titled “De-Zanitized,” landed them in the office of Dr. Otto von Scratchansniff, a psychiatrist for movie stars. Not unfamiliar with celebrity behavior—a session with Clint Eastwood leaves him plastered against the wall—he is promptly driven manic by his new patients’ literalism. (“What’s on your mind?” the good shrink asks. “My hat,” Wakko replies.) Dr. Scratchansniff returns in the reboot, in a revenge of sorts on the siblings who will pirouette on the nose of anything resembling an institution.

Where the original series found its delights in bridging the gap between stardom of then and now, the new one makes known its writers’ anxieties about more recent leaps in American culture, including in the time between the reboot’s production and release. “You see the writers are writing this in 2018,” Yakko warns mid-ditty, a critics’ service announcement. Yet anyone as American as the Warners must know how often change means more of the same. In their present, as in ours, there is Kanye West, Tesla, and Amazon. (Pinky and the Brain, who were popular enough for a spinoff in their heyday, are also back, time-travelling on occasion but mostly bent on conquering the world Bezos built.) There is a girl-boss: in fact, the former Warner Bros. head, Thaddeus Plotz, who happens to have the same initials as toilet paper, has been replaced by, as Dot exclaims, “a female C.E.O.!” Named only in the credits, Nora Rita Norita is a brown, micro-and-macro-dosing hippie powerhouse who plays by the corporate feminist playbook. “I’m a firm believer in pulling up the ladder behind me,” she says, tossing Dot aside. (In real life, Warner Bros. Entertainment has its first woman C.E.O., Ann Sarnoff, though it was a previous female executive, Jean MacCurdy, the president of Warner Bros. Animation from 1989 to 2001, who assembled the talent behind “Animaniacs.”) Dot finds herself alternately coerced and expelled by girl power. An educational—or something—ditty on First Ladies turns harried, with animatronic white women face-planting atop each other while Dot babbles and scrambles a “behind every man” message. In the rush, I felt something like relief: nobody needs yet another dutiful history of present politics—and especially not from characters who would only ever be profound by accident.

“We did meta first,” the Warners boast in the updated “Animaniacs” theme song, and the show’s constant knowingness occasionally irritates. The wink-and-nod approach is by now nearly the default in the world of American animation, from Wild’s “Family Guy” to a newer, socially conscious gambit like “Big Mouth,” which repeatedly reminds viewers of its hipness to the fourth wall. The new Animaniacs refer to “thinly veiled allegories” and “physical comedy”; in one episode, a throaty demon deducts a point for “meta-humor”—and, in case you didn’t catch that, utters the phrase three times. The first episode concludes with a musical number on reboots; a collapsed and burning Hollywood sign gives way to renovated favorites such as “Melrose Place” (2009-10), “Murphy Brown” (2018), and “Gilmore Girls” (2016): “Reshoot it, redo it / And reuse it, retool it / Abuse it, just do it.” In another segment, as the Warners answer a blitz of questions at a post-episode press conference, a suited exec bursts in and shoos the siblings away. Journalists, from their various local Heralds and Weeklys, are promptly jailed. “Do you think the show’s audience will respond to this dark portrayal of the current state of journalism?” one of the prisoners asks, and the hand has been tipped too far. Piercing asides can so soon become dull.

The show’s more endearing, and distinctive, quality is the one named in the second line of its theme: they’re zany to max! The zany “has a stressed-out, even desperate quality that immediately sets it apart from its more lighthearted comedic cousins, the goofy or the silly,” the scholar Sianne Ngai argues in her book-length study of late capitalist aesthetics, which includes the original “Animaniacs” within an archive encompassing Lucille Ball, Richard Pryor, and Nietzsche’s “The Gay Science.” Zaniness is ultimately about work and other forms of “incessant activity,” and the stylized precarity of the worker (or performer) therein. It ain’t easy being zany: the rebooted, spit-shined Warners—“clean vectored outlines,” a Sam-Neill-as-Dr.-Alan-Grant type notes admiringly—nevertheless suffer the tolls of showbiz. The segment “Here Comes Treble” shows the Warners on set, taking and retaking the same five-or-so steps at the top of a scene—musicians in the merry and melodic orchestral accompaniment keep screwing up, and so it’s back to the top. The siblings, burned out and elsewhere grumbling about “repetitive stress injuries,” grow indignant: Aren’t they due for a lunch break? They are liberated, in the end, by the spotless execution of their own reproductions, many Yakkos and Wakkos and Dots making music while the originals stand and watch. You would think that the replication would only forestall, even multiply, the original labor problem—a lesson certainly lost on the obedient duplicates. I’d venture that there’s a lesson in the sequence for reboots as well, many of which would rather belabor strung-out material than risk deviation from the routine. Impiety about the old gave the now elder show its buoyancy—in 2-D, at least, a little more irreverence never hurt anyone.

Lauren Michele Jackson


2021-01-12 06:00:00


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