Saturday Theme Songs: Animaniacs

Continuing my new series on theme songs from ’90s cartoons, I come to a hilariously anarchic, idiosyncratic show: Animaniacs. Produced by Steven Spielberg in coordination with a wide variety of writing and voice talent, it lacked the coherent narratives and respectability of its less manic peers. You could call it a sort of Monty Python, Jr. – just as the Flying Circus riffed on everything that 1960s British TV had to offer, Animaniacs took on every assumption children had about what cartoons were “supposed” to be. It followed in the hallowed footsteps of Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng, using borderline-sociopathic characters to assault and delight the viewer. All of these qualities are at work in this opening.

One important aspect of Animaniacs that the opening gets across is how scattershot and fractured it was. It resembled a string of vaudeville routines more than a conventionally plotted children’s show. Granted, it had main characters – “the Warner Brothers, and the Warner sister, Dot” – but they were more like self-aware hosts, delivering fourth-wall-breaking jokes in a detached, Groucho-like tone. The meat of the show was in the numerous recurring segments, like “The Goodfeathers,” “Slappy Squirrel,” and of course the beloved “Pinky and the Brain.” However, there weren’t solid borders between segments either, as the stories would occasionally slide together. It was a cartoon free-for-all, where all logical concerns were subordinated to the characters and jokes.

Alongside this intentional lack of structure came Animaniacs‘ love of self-reference. Starting from the title, it was a cartoon about cartoons, and the opening demonstrates this repeatedly, telling the audience that “now you know the plot,” and later exclaiming, “the writers flipped, why bother to rehearse?” Even the characters’ identities (the Warner Bros.) are rooted in the series’ real-life origins, as well as the history of animation itself. This is a show where characters drew attention to jokes as they were making them. They also regularly mocked other shows’ “morals of the week” with their “Wheel of Morality,” which would churn out an arbitrary (and absurd) lesson. Yakko, Wakko, and Dot seemed to take great pleasure in tearing down any pretense of straightforward fictional storytelling, just as they did with the niceties of TV programming. If not ideologically, it was at least a very formally subversive series.

It’s also a great text to examine when trying to determine the zeitgeists that drove ’90s cartoons. Animaniacs was a stand-out, but it was by no means alone in its innovations, and this might hint at a strange cultural moment when adult animation was just entering the mainstream (see: Beavis and Butthead, Ren and Stimpy, or of course The Simpsons). Perhaps “children’s” cartoons were able to piggyback on their newly acceptable levels of topical sophistication, a stark contrast to the many ultra-toyetic ’80s cartoons with little to offer the adult viewer. Whatever the case, Animaniacs was decidedly a product of its time, with an original run (1993-98) tucked neatly within the Clinton years (and, indeed, Clinton himself is featured in the opening). This may have been the only time in history when cartoon theme songs have used the phrase “pay-or-play contracts.” Those are the facts.

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