Welcome to Way Back Wednesday, a regular column at The Longfellow Bridge that focuses on the magic of the not-so-distant past of the 80s and 90s. Music, movies, video games, television shows and more are all fair game for the enjoyment of hindsight.At the start of the ’90s, Warner Bros. revived their long-dormant animation department…At the start of the ’90s, Warner Bros. revived their long-dormant animation department to produce series for TV. Their first two hits were Tiny Toon Adventures (1990-92) and Batman: The Animated Series (1992-95). Batman: TAS launched a successful DC animated universe that lasted all the way up until the cancellation of Justice League Unlimited (2004-06) (if DC wants to compete with Marvel in developing a successful cinematic universe, they’d be wise to get their animation producer Bruce Timm involved), and WB still produces superhero series and direct-to-DVD movies of a similarly high quality. The continuing legacy of Batman: TAS is not the focus of this article, though. Rather, what I’m concerned with is the legacy of Tiny Toons (and by extension, the legacy of the classic Looney Tunes), which seems to have died around the end of the ’90s.
I never watched much of Tiny Toons. It certainly raised standards for TV animation and must have been far ahead of its Saturday morning contemporaries back in 1990, but by sticking so close to the classic Looney Tunes with its characters and many of its skits, it gets easily overshadowed by the much funnier originals. What Tiny Toons was was a great practice run for the crew at Warner Bros Animation and their partners at Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment for the series which may be the Looney Tunes’ most worthy successor: Animaniacs (1993-98)!Animaniacs really embraced the old Looney Tunes method of entertaining viewers of all ages.Animaniacs did what I imagine the folks at Termite Terrace would have done had they not closed shop in the 1960s: creating new characters in the style and spirit of Bugs, Daffy, and company instead of merely repeating their old successes. Like the classic Looney Tunes, Yakko, Wakko, and Dot were such strong personalities that they could be placed in any scenario, from helping Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel to pestering Saddam Hussein in his war room to beaming up onto the Enterprise, and make hilarity out of it. To paraphrase their Gilbert and Sullivan episode, they were the very model of cartoon individuals. Tiny Toons worked in some adult humor, but Animaniacs really embraced the old Looney Tunes method of entertaining viewers of all ages, mixing broad slapstick with a wide variety of historical and pop cultural references and some sly innuendo (even the writers don’t know how they got away with that “finger Prince” gag). The variety show format produced some clunkers (did anyone find the Hip Hippos funny?), but some segments found gold. Slappy Squirrel provided wonderful meta-humor on the whole animation business (“Bumbie’s Mom” might be one of the show’s funniest episodes ever), the Goodfeathers were a clever tribute to Scorcese’s gangster films (this in a kids’ show!?!), and Rita and Runt took advantage of Bernadette Peters’ casting and the show’s musical strengths with several Broadway tributes (their version of Les Mis is still more entertaining than last year’s movie). The most successful of the show’s supporting cast, of course, were Pinky and the Brain.The most successful of the show’s supporting cast, of course, were Pinky and the Brain, the world domination-seeking lab mice who received their own spin-off series from 1995-99. With less an emphasis on slapstick and a more politically satirical bent (both Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich were frequent targets of mockery), Pinky and the Brain would seem to be made more with the adult fans of Animaniacs in mind, and Warner Bros. actually tried airing the show in primetime on their fledgling WB network.Two problems: nobody watched The WB, and even less people watched at 7PM on Sundays, up against football and 60 Minutes, so the show was pushed onto Saturday mornings and faced extensive executive meddling. The writers fought off the meddling as long as they could, often making fun of their own network within the show, but the last season the network got what they wanted, and what nobody else did: the world domination premise was removed to turn the show into a sitcom featuring Elmyra from Tiny Toons. Even the show’s own theme song stated this was a terrible idea (“It’s what the network wants/Why bother to complain?”), and the show died a quick and painful death.
The last Spielberg-Warner Bros co-production, Freakazoid (1995-97), had a truly strange course of production. It was actually created as an original superhero action series from Bruce Timm, but it wasn’t working, so at the last minute Spielberg and Ruegger reworked the show into a comedy, cobbling the basic plots and characters together with improvised dialogue, frequent use of stock footage, and unused ideas from Animaniacs. The results were gleefully immature, incredibly geeky, occasionally annoying, and frequently quite funny. It was too obscure for kids but too weird to work in primetime, and didn’t last very long. Predating the rise of the internet and “geek chic”, it may have been a show ahead of its time; add in a few cuss words and it would blend in perfectly with Adult Swim’s more experimental comedy.I don’t need new Animaniacs, but I do wish Warner Bros. had kept making shows in that vein.Being fairly young, I didn’t watch any of these shows while they were airing on TV, discovering them later through VHS rentals, cable reruns, and eventually their DVD releases. As a kid discovering Animaniacs only to find it had been canceled, I was pretty angry and wanted them to bring the show back. Now, I don’t need new Animaniacs, necessarily (99 episodes is a damn good run for a TV show), but I do wish Warner Bros. had kept making shows in that vein. Why didn’t they? Spielberg’s connection with WB was severed when he went off to form Dreamworks. Ruegger and MacCurdy had one last comedy cartoon without Spielberg, Histeria (1998-2000), but The WB soon lost interest in comedy animation when they got the rights to Pokemon and made that the focus of their childrens’ block. The death of Richard Stone, the musical composer of the ’90s shows, in 2001 was a nail in the coffin. Today, TV’s not lacking in funny cartoons (nothing beats the Fleischer Bros-meets-Dungeons and Dragons surrealism of Adventure Time), but there’s nothing in the style of the classic Looney Tunes and their ’90s successors (the closest match is probably Spongebob, which stopped being funny when its creator retired in 2004). WB’s MAD cartoon has the pop culture humor down but by its nature isn’t creating new memorable characters, and The Looney Tunes Show, while not atrocious like other attempts at reviving the characters, is lacking in the looniness department. Is that all, folks?