Thursday, August 03, 2006


Animaniacs, Volume 1*

“We were quite aware that this was going to be a big deal,” recalls one of the voice actors on Animaniacs, Volume 1, finally released on DVD this week. That became a startlingly accurate prediction when the first episode aired on Fox in 1993 (it moved to the WB network two seasons later and lasted until 1998), bursting with epic intentions of absurdity that became quickly and painlessly realized. Animaniacs was essentially an animated variety show, which explains its ageless appeal and acerbic humor.

Anchored by the omniscient presence of dog-like Warner brothers Yakko and Wacko with accompaniment by their sister Dot, the show adhered to a loose structure loaded with inventive, winking send-ups of
Hollywood musicals and other cultural treasures. As they zipped about a semi-fictional studio lot with sugary, surrealistic energy, the Warners introduced a host of diverse regulars, highlighted in unforgettable vignettes— from the jaded recollections of classic movie star Scrappy the Squirrel to Pinky and the Brain, the lab mice with eternally flawed aspirations of global domination (whose terrific spin-off show has also just received a worthy DVD treatment). The Warners were probably not based on the studio’s founding siblings Jack and Harry (their comedic repertoire is actually derived from the Marx brothers), but the show’s creators gave them similar stature at the literal center of the WB universe.

Animaniacs only pretended to satirize narrative art, recreating instantly recognizable scenes ranging from West Side Story to The Seventh Seal while unabashedly adding to them. (When two species of birds choose to rumble in “West Side Pigeon,” the jazzy drama is palpable.) These clear-cut references were less send-ups than they were deconstructions, which was a key to the intellectual wit at work. In an early episode, a conniving, befuddled pirate asks the Warners how they manage to continually elude him, and they respond by opening up a textbook on “Acme Comedy Theory.” That wry, self-aware approach brought in a significant older audience in addition to the expected tween viewers. The memorable “Yakko’s World,” a tune from the second episode that breathlessly recited every country in verse, was a far more effective mnemonic device for geography students than any conventional classroom strategy. But even supposedly obligatory canned messages contained a subversive edge, as when the Warners spun their “Wheel of Morality” and read its pronouncement: “If at first you don’t succeed, blame it on your parents.”

It was a combination of the show’s mainstream appeal and consistently topical cynicism that resulted in a Peabody Award at the conclusion of the first season. The honor officially went to Steven Spielberg, as the show’s executive producer, one week after he cleaned up the Academy Awards with Schindler’s List. Education, as it were, comes in many forms.

*A version of this review appears this week in the New York Press.


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