totally insane-y

“It Spoiled Us”: The Mad Minds Behind Tiny Toon Adventures and Animaniacs

“I remember, early on, a Warner Bros. executive saying to me that my songs were too hip,” says one. “I told him that kids are a lot smarter than he thinks.”
© Warner Bros/Everett Collection.

It was the early ’90s, and voice actor Rob Paulsen was in the midst of preparations for a lead role in a new cartoon. He put his headphones on and pressed ‘play’ on his Walkman. He was checking out a demo for a musical number he would end up singing.

What he heard left him flabbergasted. “I thought to myself, Man, did you win the lottery, if this is what we’re starting with? Are you kidding me?” he says. (Despite the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike, the National Association of Voice Actors says voice actors are not prohibited from doing press and other work.)

Whatever Paulsen was expecting, he certainly didn’t anticipate a rapid-fire musical recitation of the names of the nations of the world to the tune of “The Mexican Hat Dance.” “United States, Canada, Mexico, Panama / Haiti, Jamaica, Peru / Republic Dominican, Cuba, Caribbean / Greenland, El Salvador too…”

Nearly 30 years after it first aired in September 1993, “Yakko’s World” from Animaniacs reliably hits elder millennials where they live, triggering Proustian flashbacks to golden post-school-day afternoons. It remains something to behold—an encapsulation of its show’s excess of energy, intelligence, and humor, probably marking the moment that Animaniacs earned the devotion of countless young viewers.

For a time in the mid-’90s, Animaniacs and its predecessor, Tiny Toon Adventures, both produced by Warner Bros. Animation, were the two most popular weekday cartoons on TV, a one-two punch in Fox’s afternoon lineup. Both shows have also made recent comebacks: In February, the third and final season of the Animaniacs reboot was released on Hulu. In September, a reboot of Tiny Toon Adventures called Tiny Toons Looniversity will premiere on Max and Cartoon Network, with Steven Spielberg returning as executive producer.

Tom Ruegger, the creator of both Tiny Toon Adventures and Animaniacs, was not invited to be involved with either show. For the Tiny Toon reboot, he doesn’t mind that much—though he’s confused, he admits, about Buster and Babs Bunny being recast as siblings. (On Tiny Toon, “Babs and Buster Bunny, no relation” was a recurring joke.) Animaniacs is another story. “I had trouble processing the Animaniacs reboot,” he admits. “After seeing what they’ve done with it… it was not what I would’ve done with it.”

He adds, “I thought it was ethically, morally, and professionally wrong for Warner to make the reboot without me and the rest of the original creative team involved in a significant role. The reboot didn’t work.”

In broader terms, it’s hard to imagine that the reboot—or any new animated show, really—would feel as electrifying as Animaniacs did in 1993. After all, we’re living in a world that both Tiny Toon and Animaniacs helped create.

Television animation was at its absolute worst in the decade before Ruegger’s shows premiered. In the ’80s, Saturday morning schedules were crammed with glorified toy commercials (G.I. Joe, Transformers, My Little Pony, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe), often with preachy prosocial messaging shoehorned in.

From the beginning, Ruegger swore Tiny Toon Adventures would be different. “I said, ‘Let’s really make this the way it needs to be made. Let’s give each cartoon some love and care.’”

© Warner Bros/Everett Collection.

Premiering in 1990, Tiny Toons revived the great lost tradition of animation at Warner Bros. A youthful refresh of the old Looney Tunes shorts, it was exuberantly funny, pop culture savvy, occasionally meta, and populated with cute, colorful, well-designed characters. After the resounding success of Tiny Toon, however, Spielberg put Ruegger in charge of coming up with something entirely new.

Ruegger found his inspiration while wandering the Warner Bros. Studios lot. A 133-foot, 100,000-gallon water tower had stood on the studio grounds since 1927, an emergency water supply in case of fire. Emblazoned with the Warner Bros. shield logo, it was a familiar icon of the studio—a utilitarian riposte to Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle.

Ruegger had the brain wave to make “the Warner Brothers” (and their Warner sister) his stars. Loosely inspired by old-school characters like Felix the Cat and Warner Bros.’ own Bosko and Foxy, Yakko, Wakko, and Dot were characters of indeterminate species with rubber-hose limbs and no respect for the earthly laws of physics. They were toons, in other words, reveling in their tooniness.

Animaniacs would also be a variety show. Ruegger and his team pitched an ensemble cast of supporting characters to Spielberg at his home, on a Saturday morning, over milk and cookies: Pinky and the Brain, would-be world-dominating lab mice; a trio of mobbed-up Italian American pigeons; Slappy Squirrel, an aged cartoon star; and more. Characters that didn’t make the cut included a kleptomaniac kangaroo, a beaver who said “dam!” a lot, and a rhyming raccoon duo named Nipsey and Russell. (Later, the team realized that the best time to run Animaniacs ideas by Spielberg was when his son Max, from his marriage to first wife Amy Irving, was staying with him.)

With Spielberg’s enthusiastic support, no expense was spared to make Animaniacs as good as it could possibly be. There was wall-to-wall music from a 25-to-40-piece orchestra, with composer Richard Stone performing on the same piano used by Looney Tunes maestro Carl Stalling. There was gorgeous artwork of crisply drawn characters, some of it from the Japanese animation studio behind the Akira anime. There was powerhouse vocal talent, firing on all cylinders and all recording in the same room.

Most of all, though, there were the gags.

Ruegger assembled a crack team of writers, many hailing from Los Angeles’s live-comedy scene. Sherri Stoner, Peter Hastings, and Deanna Oliver performed with the Groundlings; Paul Rugg and John McCann at the ACME Comedy Theatre. (After giving improv lessons to animators at Disney, Stoner had also served as the animation reference model for Ariel in The Little Mermaid and Belle in Beauty and the Beast.)

The sardonic bite of The Simpsons had its origins in its writers’ experience at The Harvard Lampoon and late-night television. Animaniacs’ comedy was more like a big sloppy kiss, with the “yes, and” energy of live improv. Even more than Tiny Toon, it was inspired by the rambunctious Looney Tunes shorts of Bob Clampett, Tex Avery, and Chuck Jones, as well as the comedy of the Marx Brothers, Jack Benny, Jerry Lewis, and Monty Python.

“Zany to the max” wasn’t just a convenient rhyme for the title theme; it was a mission statement. “In live comedy, you have very little time to set up the premise and get going,” says Rugg. “There’s very little real estate, so you have to fill every nook and cranny with comedy. Same with the Animaniacs shorts.”

The shorts didn’t entirely do away with narrative. On a few occasions, Animaniacs even drifted into pathos and sincerity. But there was less drive to craft compelling dramatic plots than there was to land jokes.

Stoner describes her writing process as “improv on paper.” “I think, often for children’s television, sometimes we don’t look at the laugh,” she says. “We try to be more pathos and heart, which is great. But I think laughter is a really important thing in kids television.”

The life-affirming importance of laughter was not lost on Spielberg; while shooting Schindler’s List in Poland, he would play Pinky and the Brain recording sessions to lift the spirits of the crew. Spielberg protected Ruegger and the team from the watchdog execs on the lot, at the network, and at Broadcast Standards and Practices. “We had no one telling us what we could do or not do,” says Ruegger. (Spielberg did not respond to a request for comment.)

What they wanted was to deploy a barrage of cultural references to Ingmar Bergman, Alfred Hitchcock, musical theater (Les Misérables with cats and dogs, an avian West Side Story), Orson Welles’s frozen-peas commercial, and whatever else the writers were into at any given moment. Rugg himself was behind perhaps the most esoteric episode of the show, an extended riff on both Hearts of Darkness, the Apocalypse Now making-of documentary, and Jerry Lewis’s The Day the Clown Cried, with the installment culminating in the Warners accidentally running over Jim Morrison of the Doors.

Much of this, obviously, flew over kids’ heads. “We never actually sat down and said, ‘Okay, what do kids want and what will they understand?’” says Rugg. “We just wrote what we thought would be funny. We were writing things that made us laugh and referencing things, no matter how obscure, that we got a kick out of.”)

That hyper-referentiality contributed to the show’s astonishing afterlife.Comedic seeds planted in 1993 would take years and years to flower in the minds of fans. (This writer, for instance, realized, 30 years after the fact, that the name “Dot” comes from the dot at the end of “Warner Bros.”)

For receptive young viewers, Animaniacs wasn’t just an education in comedy—it was an education in general. In the first batch of episodes, the Warners have run-ins with Michelangelo, Einstein, Picasso, Beethoven, Ivan Pavlov, Rasputin, Abraham Lincoln, King Arthur, Noah (who looks and sounds a lot like Richard Lewis), King Henry III, and Queen Elizabeth II. They interpret A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, and Macbeth.

Then, of course, there was “Yakko’s World,” whose playful intellectualism set the tone for many, many more witty musical numbers—patter songs listing US states and capitals and US presidents, as well as reflecting on the nature of the cosmos, time zones (“When You're Traveling From Nantucket”), multiplication, the skeletal system, candy bar ingredients, and the headlines of Variety magazine.

“I remember, early on, a Warner Bros executive saying to me that my songs were too hip for the room and that I should be writing more in the style of Barney,” says Animaniacs songwriter Randy Rogel. “I told him that kids are a lot smarter than he thinks. Fortunately, Steven Spielberg agreed with that.”

Tiny Toon Adventures and Animaniacs turned out to be part of a glorious rebirth of creator-driven, quality television animation that included The Simpsons, Darkwing Duck, The Ren & Stimpy Show, Doug, Rugrats, and Rocko’s Modern Life. Animaniacs in particular, though, seems to have paved the way for a legion of fast, zany, and meta shows: cartoons like SpongeBob SquarePants, The Fairly OddParents, Phineas and Ferb, Regular Show, Rick and Morty, and Family Guy, but also such live-action cartoons as 30 Rock and Community. It’s not a stretch to imagine that some of the funniest showrunners of today were raised on Animaniacs and shaped by its refusal to talk down to its audience.

According to multiple interviewees for this story, the worst thing about having worked on Animaniacs was getting the wrong idea of what a career in animation would be like. “It spoiled us,” says Stoner. “It’s a very different world today. Back then, we were just making each other laugh, with minimal interference from anybody.”

Ruegger agrees. “It was the quintessential creative experience,” he says. “I didn't want to reinvent cartoons. I just wanted to bring back the joy.”