With the success of Tiny Toon Adventures, Steven Spielberg and Jean MacCurdy, then-president of Warner Bros. Animation, turned to showrunner Tom Ruegger to create the next collaboration between Spielberg and Warner Bros. Reugger wanted to make a show with new characters, but Spielberg wanted a marquee name. Gaining inspiration from the water tower on the Warner Bros. lot, Ruegger found his marquee name—assuming Warner Bros. would approve the use of it (spoiler alert: they did)—and Animaniacs began to take shape.
|The Warners' newsreel introduction.|
Where Tiny Toons was more of a standard show with relatively focused stories and plots, Animaniacs was approached as more of a sketch comedy show starring a variety of independent characters where anything could happen. The process for writing for the series was non-restrictive and open, meaning that any of the characters could appear at any time period doing anything, and largely inspired by the Looney Tunes theatrical shorts, the works of Chuck Jones and Tex Avery, and The Marx Brothers. Each episode of the series was broken up into several segments, many with their own theme music and opening sequences making them shows unto themselves. While the segments generally had a set cast of standard characters, characters from other segments could (and frequently did) cross over.
|The original proposed duck forms for the Warners.|
The primary segments starred the Warner brothers (and the Warner sister). Yakko (Rob Paulsen), Wakko (Jess Harnell, impersonating John Lennon at a higher pitch) and Dot (Tress McNeille) were three (scaled down from four) anthropomorphic animal characters who were given the fictional backstory of having been created back in the 1930s. A black and white (except for their noses) faux newsreel opened up the series and many season one episodes detailing how the Warners’ crazy antics made their movies so incomprehensible that the studio (the actual Warner Bros.) locked them away in the water tower on their studio lot until they eventually escaped in the present. Although the Warners continued to live out of the tower, they would often be punished by being ordered locked up back in it for however brief a time (the tower also served as the inspiration for their family name).
|Revised concept for the Warners, including a 4th sibling.|
The Warners’ personalities were based on Ruegger’s three sons (all of whom had roles in the series) who were “at an age where they could really be annoying.” Their basic black and white designs were inspired by the cartoon characters of the 1920s and 30s. While their final species was unspecified (sometimes referred to as “ink-blot characters”), initially they were imagined as platypuses taken from Ruegger’s student film at Dartmouth College, The Premiere of Platypus Duck. However, given that ducks had been done before, they were gradually revised and shifted to the characters they would become. The Warners were often used to bridge between segments in brief minute-long gags, and tended to end episodes by spinning the “Wheel of Morality” to decide what nonsensical lesson they learned in that episode (a satire of the FCC mandate for moral and educational value in children’s programming, and a way to fill up any remaining episode space with mostly stock animation).
|The brothers go ga-ga over Hello Nurse while Dot and Dr. Scratchansniff's portrait look on in annoyance.|
While the Warners were equal-opportunity annoyances, they most often proved thorns in the sides of Thaddeus Plotz (Frank Welker), the diminutively short-tempered, money-grubbing CEO of the studio; Dr. Otto Scratchansniff (Paulsen, inspired by Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove), a psychiatrist hired by the studio to attempt to curb the Warners’ antics; and Ralph (named for one of Ruegger’s childhood friends, and voiced by Welker reprising the role from Tiny Toons), the dim-witted studio guard often tasked with recapturing and locking up the Warners. Another frequent character was Hello Nurse (MacNeille), a buxom blonde studio nurse that often turned Yakko and Wakko’s heads, prompting the greeting “Hellooooooooooooooooooo, Nurse!” (Dot, despite rolling her eyes at her brothers when they did that, often did the same when she saw an attractive man). The joke behind her was that despite her looking like a stereotypical airheaded bombshell, she was actually an incredibly intelligent and competent individual (Ruegger would later reveal her real name: Heloise Nerz). There was also Dot’s pet: a giant, monstrous creature who lived in a small box kept in Dot’s pocket.
One of the more popular segments was Pinky and the Brain. Pinky (Paulsen, using what he called “a goofy whack job” of a British accent) and the Brain (Maurice LaMarche, impersonating Orson Welles, which won him the role for the character) were two mice who lived in Acme Labs and were transformed as part of the lab’s experimentation. Pinky was dim-witted, often making noises such as “Narf!” or “Poit!”. Brain was given hyper-intelligence with a cranium to match, and a strong desire to conquer the world. Each segment focused on Brain’s insanely elaborate plots to take over the Earth; including becoming a singer to use hypnotic songs, becoming a stand-up comic to hypnotize audiences with his false teeth, infiltrating Santa’s workshop to get hypnotizing dolls out to the populace (hypnotism was his big thing). No matter how well thought-out the plot, or how well it seemed to succeed, something would always happen to derail it and put the mice back where they started with Brain undauntingly plotting for the next attempt. The segment proved so popular that it was eventually spun off into its own show, Pinky and the Brain, and continued to appear on Animaniacs. Their theme song was written by Richard Stone with lyrics by Ruegger, and was initially sung by the Warners with animation by AKOM. A second version was sung by a male and female chorus with animation by Tokyo Movie Shinsha (now TMS Entertainment). Ruegger modeled the characters after Tiny Toons producers Eddie Fitzgerald and Tom Minton, looking at them and pondering what would happen if they decided to get together and take over the world. Producer Peter Hastings served as the primary writer for their segments, coming up with all of the running gags and conventions that would continue on in all their appearances. In early concepts for the show, there was a segment called Bossy Beaver & Doyle that was cut because it was too similar to Pinky and the Brain; except this time Bossy was trying to make the “best damn dam ever” but was constantly foiled by Doyle.
The next frequent segment was that of Slappy Squirrel (Sherri Stoner). Slappy was a grumpy cartoon veteran who lived in a tree with her contrastingly chipper nephew, Skippy (Nathan Ruegger). Slappy would often have to deal with everyday things that irked her or disturbed her trying to relax, old villains she frequently humiliated in her cartoons looking for revenge, or just begrudgingly joining in Skippy’s interests. Three versions of her theme were used, all sung by the Warners. The first, animated by StarToons International, LLC, featured the Warners outside her house, with Slappy poking her head out to shut them up. The second had the Warners off-camera and Slappy staying inside. The third was longer and mentioned Skippy, who got to sing a line at the end. Stoner created Slappy when fellow writer John McCann made fun of her career in TV movies playing troubled teenagers by saying she’d be playing those roles well into her 50s. She liked the idea of an older cartoon character who would “have the dirt” on other characters from having been around so long.
The Goodfeathers followed a trio of pigeons: Squit (originally named Gary, voiced by LaMarche), Bobby (originally named Frankie, voiced by John Mariano) and Pesto (originally named Joey Z, voiced by Chick Vennera), each influenced by the characters portrayed by Ray Liotta, Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci from Goodfellas. In fact, their segments tended to parody various mafia movies such as The Godfather or the works of Martin Scorsese (a statue of whom served as the trio’s home). Pesto was the leader of the group; however, he was short-tempered and often took Bobby’s harmless remarks as insults and proceeded to beat him to a pulp. Other characters who popped up included their boss, the Godpigeon (resembling Marlon Brando from The Godfather, impersonated by LaMarche in a raspy mumble only Bobby could translate), and the Girlfeathers comprised of their girlfriends Sasha (MacNeille), Lana (a parody of Cathy Moriarty’s character from Raging Bull, voiced by Gail Matthius) and Kiki (also MacNeille). Their theme song was sung using a Dean Martin impression to the tune of his song, “That’s Amore.”
Rita and Runt starred Rita (Bernadette Peters, with vocal effects by Welker) and Runt (Welker, taking inspiration from Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man), a stray singing cat and dim-witted dog who traveled together in an effort to find a home. Because Peters was the highest-profile star of the show, she received a special credit at the end of her episodes (“and Bernadette Peters as Rita”). After the first season, the segment was dropped from the show as it became difficult to create a new song for Rita to perform in each of their appearances. The characters did make non-speaking cameos in other shorts from time to time. In the earliest stages of production, Rita and Runt were set to be the hosts of the show instead of the Warners.
Buttons and Mindy featured Buttons (Welker), a Rough Collie, who was tasked with taking care of his owners’ toddler, Mindy (Nancy Cartwright). Mindy was mischievous and often unknowingly got into trouble, which Buttons had to rescue her from and ending up being hurt in the process. All but one of their shorts ended with Buttons being scolded by Mindy’s mom (who was never seen from the neck up, voiced by MacNeille) for allowing Mindy to get into mischief. The Buttons and Mindy segments were almost cut from the show during development until one of Spielberg’s daughters saw a drawing of them and loved them. The segment’s opening was a parody of the opening of Lassie.
Other segments featured a collection of one-joke characters. Chicken-Boo followed the adventures of a man-sized chicken who wore unconvincing disguises that would fool everyone into believing he was actually a man. Everyone would love Chicken in whatever occupation he was in until the discovery of his true nature. The Flame showed an anthropomorphic candle flame (Luke Ruegger) who bore witness to significant events in American history: such as Thomas Jefferson drafting the Declaration of Independence and Francis Scott Key writing what would become “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The Hip Hippos showcased the wealthy and snobby married couple Flavio (originally John, voiced by Welker) and Marita (originally Martha, voiced by MacNeille) as they tried to keep abreast of the latest trends and new ways to keep entertained. Katie Ka-Boom centered on teenager Katie (Laura Mooney) who would grow angry over trivial things, turning into a monster (in a parody of Marvel Comics’ Hulk) and subsequently exploding; leaving her family’s house in ruins. Producer Nicholas Hollander based Katie on his stepdaughter, who tended to explode (though not quite as literally) over every little thing that went wrong. Good Idea, Bad Idea showed Mr. Skullhead from Tiny Toons taking part in an activity that was a good idea (such as doing your own yard work), followed by a comically exaggerated bad idea (such as doing your own dental work). Mime Time showed a mime performing a described action before he would be hurt by something, such as a falling anvil or a swarm of bees. Both segments were narrated by Tom Bodett. Colin shorts starred a boy named Colin (Colin Wells, son of writer Deanna Oliver) who told the audience quick tall tales about his unseen friend, Randy Beaman.
|Minerva character study.|
The final segment, and the first one discontinued, starred Minerva Mink (Julie Brown). Minerva, originally named Marilyn after Marilyn Monroe, was an extremely sexy anthropomorphic mink created by writer Paul Dini and Stoner. Minerva’s shorts were centered around her attractiveness and the Tex Avery-styled reactions of males who encountered her, while she would have no interest in them (although, when she spotted an attractive male, the opposite would happen). She borrowed elements from a variety of famous sex symbols; in particular Veronica Lake, who inspired Minerva’s hairstyle. Minerva was originally designed to be “naked” like Slappy, but given her human-like form it was decided it would be better if she were clothed. Minerva’s shorts ended up being dropped from the show due to their overtly sexual nature not really being appropriate for the intended audience, and attempting to “flip the script” on the cartoon male wolf characterization didn’t come through as planned with Minerva being portrayed as gold-digging and vapid.
|Spielberg and his favorite creations.|
Ruegger supervised the overall production and the writer’s room, while Stoner, Hastings, Rusty Mills and Rich Arons contributed scripts while serving as series producers. Other writers included Oliver, Paul Rugg, Liz Holzman, Nicholas Hollander, Charlie Howell, Gordon Bressack, Jeff Kwitny, Earl Kress and Randy Rogel, as well as McCann and Minton. The writers all came from a combination of cartoon and sketch comedy backgrounds. Extremely loose ideas were pitched and given the go-ahead, with the goal to make each other—especially Ruegger—laugh. Ruegger would also test jokes out on his children, using their reactions as a gauge.
|The hard-working animators.|
As with Tiny Toons, Spielberg insisted that Animiancs display the highest production quality possible. As a result, each episode used almost double the cel count of a standard cartoon in order to produce fluid and constant movement. To keep up with those requirements and a demanding schedule, the animation duties were farmed out to several different studios including TMS, StarToons, Wang Film Productions, Freelance Animators New Zealand and AKOM. A standard episode could contain work from different studios in each of the segments.
|Wakko belching out the classics.|
Spielberg also insisted on using a full orchestra to create the music for the series. While it was an expensive proposition, MacCurdy noted that the sound set them apart from other shows. Animaniacs employed a 35-piece orchestra and utilized an original score for each episode. Composers Richard Stone, Julie and Steve Bernstein, Carl Johnson, J. Eric Schmidt, Gordon Goodwin and Tim Kelly were contracted to compose the series’ music. Ruegger, Rogel, Hollander and Oliver also contributed a lot of music to the show. Not only was the music done in a similar style to that of Looney Tunes composer Carl Stalling, but the orchestra used the same studio and piano that Stalling used. However, not all music was completely original; many times parodies of classical or folk music were used with new lyrics, such as Wakko singing about all the states and their capitals to “Turkey in the Straw” or the segment “Slippin’ on the Ice” to the tune of “Singin’ in the Rain.”
Animaniacs debuted on FOX’s Fox Kids programming block on September 13, 1993. The series’ theme was composed by Stone with lyrics from Ruegger. FOX ordered a 65-episode first season up front due to the success they found with the earlier Tiny Toons effort. Animaniacs became a ratings success, falling second only to FOX’s Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Animaniacs and Tiny Toons almost doubled the ratings of rival shows Darkwing Duck and Goof Troop.
The series relied on slapstick, parodies, caricatures of celebrities (the show did take place on a studio lot, after all) and cartoon violence that was balanced by educational segments. A lot of the humor, while enjoyable for children, was also targeted for adults and attracted a large following in that demographic. The large adult fanbase led to one of the first internet-based fandom cultures: the internet newsgroup alt.tv.animaniacs was highly active with fans showcasing reference guides, fan fiction and fan art about the show. The show’s producers invited twenty of the newsgroup’s most active participants out to the studios in August of 1995 for a gathering the fans dubbed “Animania IV.” Still, a greater attempt was made to give the show more exposure with the production of the theatrical short “I’m Mad” starring the Warners. It aired before Thumbelina and was intended to be the first of many, but ended up being the only short produced and was later incorporated as part of the 69th episode.
New episodes aired on FOX weekdays and Saturdays until the 1994 season. Such was the series’ popularity that Warner Bros. Animation was willing to invest in more new episodes of the show beyond the 65 they already had for syndication. However, they planned to bring Animaniacs over to their own network, The WB, launching the following year and, knowing this, FOX chose to just play the series in another year of reruns instead of ordering more episodes. The production did cobble together a short four-episode second season during this time, comprised of unused scripts, which were integrated into the FOX run. Once the FOX contract officially ended, the series moved over to the new network and become one of the launch programs for their new Kids’ WB programming block on September 9, 1995. New episodes debuted alongside its spin-off, Pinky and the Brain, and other Warner Bros. Animation series, Freakazoid!
While the series continued to be successful on The WB, it wasn’t with the intended demographic that The WB and their advertisers were looking for. They wanted young children they could sell toys to, but instead the majority of the viewers ended up being adults. The WB expressed their dissatisfaction at this turn of events by gradually reducing their order for new episodes. Warner Bros. laid off over 100 artists at this time, choosing to rely on the backlog of Animaniacs episodes unless fans demanded more. After two final abbreviated seasons, Animaniacs aired its final episode on November 14, 1998 alongside Pinky and the Brain’s as part of the Ultimate Animaniacs Super Special. The final original Animaniacs production came with the direct-to-video film Wakko’s Wish.
Animaniacs continued to air on Kids’ WB as part of The Cat & Birdy Warneroonie Pinky Brainy Big Cartoonie Show; a compilation program that aired segments from various episodes of Animaniacs, The Sylvester & Tweety Mysteries, Pinky and the Brain and Pinky, Elmyra & the Brain. Initially the show also aired reruns of classic Looney Tunes shorts with new title cards until its hour and a half format was chopped down to half an hour to accommodate WB’s acquisition of anime series Pokémon. In 2016, Ruegger stated on his Reddit AMA account that the decline of original programming by Warner Bros. came about due to their ability to cheaply acquire and air other programs. Meanwhile, Animaniacs continued to air in syndicated reruns on various networks and was even released in its entirety on the Netflix streaming service where it gained a newfound popularity.
|Hello Nurse keeps track of the show's awards.|
During its run the series was nominated for and won multiple awards for its music, stars and content. The series’ first major award was a Peabody Award during its first season. The show was nominated for multiple Annie Awards, although it never won one, and took home eight Daytime Emmy Awards. With the Emmys came a record as the series was the most consistently nominated in the category of “Outstanding Achievement in Music Direction and Composition.”
|Splash page to a Minerva story in the comics.|
Coinciding with the series’ move to The WB, DC Comics began publishing an ongoing Animaniacs comic book series and two specials which followed a similar format to the show. Minerva got a second life in the comics, appearing in several issues and without as many restrictions as television imposed. Pinky and the Brain made cameo appearances due to the concurrent publication of their own comic series, but once it was cancelled they were merged into the Animaniacs book and took over half of the pages. The book was renamed Animaniacs Featuring Pinky and the Brain with #43 until the series was cancelled with #59.
Animaniacs was adapted into several video games. Konami and Factor 5 released Animaniacs for the Super NES, Sega Genesis and Nintendo Game Boy in 1994 and 1995. The SNES version featured the Warners assigned by Plotz to retrieve the script to a new film from the Brain. The Genesis and Game Boy versions had the Warners going around the studio to collect memorabilia to sell in their new store and then retrieve them from the Brain. In 1997 Funnybone Interactive and Warner Bros. Interactive released Animaniacs Game Pack, which featured the characters in five arcade games. Saffire and ASC Games released a sequel to their bowling game, Ten Pin Alley, in 1998 for the Sony PlayStation starring the Warners, Pinky and the Brain. In 1999, EAI Interactive and SouthPeak Interactive released A Gigantic Adventure for the PC, which followed the Warners as they try to retrieve all of their films Plotz ordered Ralph to collect and hide. That same year, they also released Splat Ball! For the PC, which had the Warners participating in a giant paintball competition against other characters from the show. The Great Edgar Hunt was developed by Warthog and published by Ignition Entertainment in 2005 for the Nintendo GameCube, Xbox and PlayStation 2. The Warners had to collect 44 of 45 Edgars (a parody of the Oscars) stolen by frustrated director C.C. Deville. Lights, Camera, Action!, also by Warthog and Ignition, was released for the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS and has the Warners obligated to make three films to pay for damage they caused the studio. This was the last new appearance of the Animaniacs cast. In 1994, Tiger Electronics released Hollywood Hi-Jinx as part of their LCD handheld game line.
As the show began during the early years of the Warner Bros. Studio Store, a wide variety of merchandise was made with the characters; including plush dolls, apparel, mugs, and other items. After Warner Bros. acquired the Hanna-Barbera library in 1998, merchandise related to the show gradually began to be phased out in favor of the new acquisitions. McDonald’s also included toys of the characters in their happy meals. In 2016, Funko released a collection of Animaniacs POP! figures. Warner Home Video released a random selection of episodes and bonus skits across several VHS volumes in the United States, United Kingdom and Australia between 1993 and 1994. In 1998, three volumes were released in Poland, the Czech Republic and Central Europe. The following year, Wakko’s Wish saw its first release onto VHS. In July of 2006, Warner released the first 25 episodes to DVD. Within the first week of its release, over half of the sets released sold, making it the fastest selling animation DVD sets that Warner ever released. It was quickly followed by the next volume that December. June 2007 saw the release of the third volume. It wouldn’t be until 2013 that the fourth and final volume with the remaining episodes would be released; however unlike the previous sets it contained no special features. Wakko’s Wish came to DVD the following year. In 2018, a complete series collection was released that included the film. Rhino Entertainment and Time Warner Kids released several albums collecting the various songs from the series between 1993 and 2003. The series was made available for streaming on Hulu.
|Animaniacs Live tour logo.|
In 2014, Paulsen, MacNeille and Harnell reunited and performed the Animaniacs theme live with accompaniment by the Colorado Symphony in Denver’s Boettcher Concert Hall. In 2016, they reunited once again to announce a tour called Animaniacs Live!, where they would perform the various original songs from the series’ run. The most noteworthy one was a revamp of the show’s most memorable toon, “Yakko’s World,” where changes in the global landscape in the 20 years since its first airing would be incorporated. The accompanying orchestra was led by Rogel.
Because of the response to the show when it was on Netflix, Amblin and Warner Bros. decided to produce a revival of the series in 2017. Hulu became the official home, ordering two seasons up front to begin airing in 2020 with Wellesley Wild taking over as showrunner. Spielberg was heavily involved in the production phase, wanting to ensure the series was heading in the right direction and maintained as many elements of the original as possible. The focus of the revival was scaled down to just focus on the Warners and Pinky and the Brain with their respective actors all returning. The other characters were jettisoned in favor of creating new characters in line with modern sensibilities and audiences, such as new studio head Nora Rita Norita (Stephanie Escajeda). The Bernsteins returned to score the series with a 30-piece orchestra along with composers trained by Stone and Rogel.