What came first, the parody or the original? That may seem like a stupid question but for those of us who watched Animaniacs for the first time as young children, it’s not so cut-and-dried. Like many viewers in my age bracket, “King Yakko” and “Les Miseranimals” were my first exposure to Duck Soup and Les Miserables, respectively, experienced well before I knew the properties they were spoofing—or even knew they were spoofs. We’ve talked here before about how much the show contributed to the pop-cultural literacy of the children of the ’90s; but being that Animaniacs trafficked in homage, parody, and reference, it was really only contributing vocabulary, bits and phrases that wouldn’t really make sense until age, experience, and a Netflix subscription filled in the sentences. Animaniacs made its young viewers aware, but not conversant.
That’s why it’s such a joy to go back and re-watch as an adult who’s since become more fluent in the language Animaniacs was speaking: Not only do we get to experience the bits we were too young and dumb to understand the first time around, but we also get to see the fertile ground in which that understanding took root. As much as I’m sure then-adult viewers got out of Animaniacs the first time around, I’d argue that it’s more fun to re-watch it as a former kid, if only to see how the show influenced our impressionable young minds. Watching “King Yakko” for the first time since I was 9, I now get to chuckle knowingly when Wakko makes a Harpo Marx-esque offer of his leg in lieu of a handshake and I totally get that now; but I also get to go, “Ooooh, this is probably why I used to shout ‘this means war!’ so much as a kid…”
“King Yakko” (part one here, part two here) is the second full-length Warners entry, and it’s much stronger than the spotty “Taming Of The Screwy” from a couple weeks back. This can be attributed to many factors: that it’s penned by a single writer, Peter Hastings, who was one of the three credited scribes on “Screwy”; that it takes place in a non-modern setting, which keeps the contemporary-reference bombs somewhat in check; or that, as a parody, it has a distinct, established story to draft off of. But really it boils down to the fact that it’s just funnier, probably because the Warners’ Marxian humor just so happens to play really well in a Marx Brothers homage. The jokes mostly aren’t direct lifts of Marx bits (Wakko’s leg excluded), but they certainly retain the spirit, whether it’s Yakko telling his new Anvilanian subjects, “I stand before you because if I stood behind you you couldn’t see me,” the siblings writhing in exaggerated agony as Perry Como—sorry, Perry Coma—launches once again into the lugubrious Anvilanian national anthem, or Dot (Yakko’s Minister Of Girly Things I Don’t Understand) being repeatedly propositioned to dance every time she whips out her rack of polka-dot dresses.
But there’s more to “King Yakko” than just Marxian wordplay and authority-flouting. The plot, involving the dictator of neighboring burg Dunlinkus trying to take Anvilania’s vast anvil fortune as his own, allows for plenty of cartoon slapstick—most of it unsurprisingly centering on that ol’ Acme standby, the anvil. Then there’s the meta humor: Yakko saying their Trojan-anvil plan better work, because they’re all out of commercial breaks, or telling Mr. Dick Tater, “Being an evil villain you are contractually obligated to explain your plan before you get rid of us.” There are funny songs a-plenty, including a short but fun take on the signature Animaniacs “list song” that establishes the ancestry that landed Yakko on the Anvilanian throne. And of course there are pop-cultural references, from the Bob Hope doppelganger who serves as the Anvilanian court jester (“Take my anvil, please!”) to the Disney-esque Belle and The Beast who waltz through the frame during the umpteenth rendition of “Let The Anvils Ring.” There are more than enough solid-to-great jokes to keep the Warners gag-a-second machine chugging along throughout “King Yakko”’s 22-minute runtime.
As a Rita and Runt short, “Les Miseranimals” obviously has a lower gag-per-minute ratio, but as a full-on musical parody executed in under 11 minutes, it earns back a few points for difficulty. Set during the French Revolution, the story itself mashes up Les Miserables with Sweeney Todd—fugitive dog Runt Valrunt helps imprisoned Rita escape the clutches of a shady cook in need of cheap source of meat for his pies—but most of the songs are very overt in their Les Mis inspiration. Bernadette Peters as Rita pining for her cat-loving vegetarian owner in the “Castle On A Cloud” homage “Not In My Gay Paree” may be the most effective (and affecting), but I love the silliness of songs like “Bitten In The Butt” (“Master Of The House”) and “Do You Hear The Poodles Bark.” Unlike “King Yakko,” which leans more toward the “inspired by” end of the parody spectrum, “Les Miseranimals” hews so close to its source material (musically speaking, anyway) that it serves as a sort of mini-primer to the musical.
“No Pain, No Painting,” on the other hand, isn’t the best primer on the works of Picasso. (Get it? Primer? Because he’s a painter?? Oh, shut up.) Falling under the now-familiar category of “The Warners annoy/aid a historical figure,” it wins no points for accuracy as far as Picasso’s legacy goes: Yes, Pablo Picasso spent the early 1900s in Paris—“Home to the Eifel Tower, the Arc De Triumph, and lots of French people”—but that probably wasn’t enough time for the Spanish artist to develop the overblown French accent he has here. (Though the inaccuracy is worth it just to hear Picasso tell Wakko to stop eating his “w-hax froot!”) And while it’s admirable that “No Pain, No Painting” makes an effort to establish some of Picasso’s famed periods—the Blue Period and Rose Period, specifically—it’s a little off on the chronology, having the Warners “help” the artist “invent” Cubism in 1905, roughly a half-decade too early and minus the contributions of Georges Braque. Oh, and there’s that whole thing where Picasso is just passing the Warners’ works off as his own after paying them in “franks”—but considering Yakko, Wakko, and Dot also have the Sistine Chapel and half of Einstein’s Nobel Prize under their belt, I think we can grantthe show a little leeway in terms of historical accuracy at this point.
Besides, Animaniacs was never trying to be an educational show, at least in the traditional sense. Yes, a few particularly attentive kids might know the state capitals and countries of the world thanks to those songs, but “funny” was always the watchword on Animaniacs. That the show sometimes imparted knowledge as a byproduct of that funny is what made it outstanding then and makes it enduring now—whether you’ve seen Duck Soup or not.
- Hello Nurse would be Anvilania’s chief military strategist.
- “Boys! Do they get better as they get older?” Not really, Dot.
- In a nice touch, the castle guards’ armor is still vibrating from the preceding round of “Let The Anvils Ring” when Yakko walks by them later.
- “Of course you know, this means waaaaar-ners!”
- Dot gets some choice lines in “King Yakko.” My favorite: “I think this uniform needs something. Something that says ‘I am here to destroy you,’ but with a sense of fun!” but “Poor lil’ evil fella who asked for it…” is a close second.
- Yakko has a punishment for Dick Tater that's "fair, just and clever… or maybe just fairly clever."
- “Dogs Playing Poker,” previously seen on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, makes another appearance in “No Pain, No Painting.”
- Picasso is a fount of urine-based humor, what with the “P.P.” on his smock and his habit of saying “oui oui!” (Maybe that’s why he’s suddenly French!)
- Runt Valrunt is wanted for being a “Bad dog. Bad bad dog.”