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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Animaniacs: “King Yakko” & “No Pain, No Painting”/“Les Miseranimals”

Illustration for article titled Animaniacs: “King Yakko” & “No Pain, No Painting”/“Les Miseranimals”
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Like most daily series, animated or otherwise, Animaniacs was not above recycling ideas. Hell, it often seems like cartoon shorts have been operating off the same few dozen basic storylines for decades. And that’s not a criticism; the success of cartoons in general and Animaniacs in particular boils down to how many laughs can be squeezed from a situation, not the originality of that situation. Animaniacs had plenty of plug-and-play episodes that utilized familiar structures in service of big laugh dividends, most notably the “Warners annoy a historical figure” device, which we’ve seen three times already at this early juncture. Last week’s “Les Miseranimals” was the first in a long succession of musical parodies on the show—another of which we have this week, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

As Warners shorts go, the historical ones tend to bear the most fruit, followed by the Dr. Scratchansniff/Warner Bros. Lot outings. This week’s Garage Sale Of The Century,” though, follows a structure much like that of the middle-of-the-road The Big Candy Store from episode eight: A shady business proprietor mocks/takes advantage of an innocent; the Warners arrive under unrelated circumstances and torment the proprietor; the innocent returns with backup to seek revenge; the Warners take advantage of the fallout. While the duplicitous ursine seller of  “The Garage Sale” is notable for being voiced by Ed Asner, he’s not that funny in and of himself, outside of trying to sell some poor dupe a “gribble-refiner.” And while the Warners’ desire to pay anywhere from 26 to 28 cents for his garage so they can place it atop the water tower is perfectly silly, their cartoon hijinks are pretty minimal: They use Wakko’s tongue and neck to measure the garage, break and repair the door-opener so it flips things over at Wakko’s discretion, and try to auction off the garage to each other. And, just like when the nun from “The Big Candy Store” swooped in at the end with a football team for comic retribution, Bear Asner’s comeuppance arriving via a cop and angry mob isn’t very satisfying compared to whatever the Warners could have done to him if they weren’t so focused on getting that garage—though it does look quite nice on top of the tower like that.

Of course, there is some irony in me picking apart a Warners short in the same week another Warners short mocks the very idea of appraising comedy. Episode 13’s Hello Nice Warners not only wiggles outside the established Warners tropes a bit, it also features the first appearance of Mr. Director, a seemingly bipolar comedy aficionado with some very Jerry Lewis-esque tics. Voiced by Paul Rugg, who also wrote “Hello Nice Warners,” Mr. Director is prone to tossing off lofty pronouncements like, “The key to humor is the bucolic propensity of the known against the universal backdrop of universal truths,” which would make him ideally suited to reviewing Animaniacs on a weekly basis were he not so flummoxed by the Warners’ sense of humor, which is more “funny ho-ho” (or “uh-oh”) than his preferred “funny ha-ha.” Alas, I’ll have to pick up the slack and say the “Hello Nice Warners” is very funny (of both the ha-ha and ho-ho variety), due in large part to the fact that it plays with the established relationship between Yakko, Wakko, and Dot and the target of their insanity: Yes, Mr. Director is flummoxed by the Warners, but they’re just as put off by him, at least at first. (“Be afraid, be very afraid,” says Yakko.) Any character the Warners think is too out-there has got to be really out-there, and Mr. Director is suitably insane in both of his modes, whether he’s taking a “Stanislavski moment” to prepare for a scene or jabbering to a megaphone-toting Yakko to “Don’t with the loudmaker talk.” Of course, the Warners eventually drive him even deeper off the deep end through their violence-prone direction of familiar-looking films like Illinois Smith And The Bowl Of Surprise and Old Screamer (which itself might be a rip-off of Skippy Squirrel’s least-favorite film, Old Yellow). Hmm, come to think of it, this is starting to sound a lot like “Wally Llama”…

It’s somewhat unfortunate that West Side Pigeons appears in the episode directly following “Les Miseranimals,” as it’s bound to suffer by comparison. West Side Story is an appropriate milieu for Bobby, Squit, and Pesto to go crazy Broadway style in, and the score pays quite reverent homage to Leonard Bernstein’s, but the song parodies lack a certain Sondheimian flair, not to mention the benefit of being sung by Bernadette Peters. (Though “West Side Pigeons” does bring in Tony winner Brian Stokes Mitchell for the role of Noodles, head of the Goodfeathers’ rival Sparrow gang.) It also tries to cram the entire plot of West Side Story—well, minus all that icky Romeo And Juliet stuff—into roughly 12 minutes, rather than just going the “inspired by” route, which is fun for those who like to play spot-the-reference, but feels rushed, especially when Squit’s Maria, Carloota, responds to his pleas to migrate with him with a blasé “Okaaaay.” Admittedly, that is sort of funny, and sets up Carloota’s quick retreat back into the arms of Johnny Sparrow at story’s end. There are other nice details to “West Side Pigeons”—the pigeons and sparrows feuding over the “turf” of a statue of Martin Scorsese, the Godpigeon asking Squit to go to the car lot with him to play “poo-poo bombardiers,” the birds escaping the belly of Officer Krup-kitty by creating musical indigestion—but most of the humor stems from recognizing the subject being parodied, rather than the jokes themselves.

In a similar vein, we have the first appearance of the Hip Hippos, Flavio and Marita, in “La Behemoth,” an opera pastiche that takes its name from La Boheme and at least a couple of its tunes from Carmen. (Those better-versed in opera than me will have to fill in the other numbers being parodied.) But while the commitment to the opera shtick is admirable—and more than a little reminiscent of “What’s Opera Doc,” with a dash of Fantasia’s “Dance Of The Hours” thrown in—it’s all centered on a one-note joke: Well-heeled hippopotami Flavio and Marita are terrible at housework, which they discover after scaring off their giraffe maid. Broken artwork, burned clothing, and ruined meals abound in a parade of predictable slapstick set to an unpredictable score. It’s more admirably weird than laugh-out-loud funny, though the stinger at the end—“There’s a twist: an opera with a happy ending”—is a nice touch.

Little Old Slappy From Pasadena is even less ambitious, not even bothering to parody the Jan And Dean song “The Little Old Lady From Pasadena,” instead just letting it serve as the soundtrack to Slappy wreaking vehicular chaos. (“And I never even took a lesson.”) It’s more interstitial than stand-alone segment, akin to the Warners tower escape/reentry gags. There are cameos from Mindy and Buttons and Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote (they really like hanging out in Slappy shorts), but it really doesn’t amount to much beyond an animated music video—and not even that good of one, thanks to the typically dull contributions of Wang Studios. [Insert Yakko looking suggestively at the camera here.] Considering this show’s way with song parody, it seems a little odd that this segment goes a different route; but hey, even Animaniacs had to switch things up from time to time.


Stray observations:

  • Try as I might, I couldn’t find a clip of “La Behemoth,” which might say something about the enduring appeal of the Hip Hippos.
  • Wakko will have to sell his Don Knotts videos to afford the extra cent Yakko offers on the garage.
  • Officer Krup-kitty upon expelling Noodles from his stomach: “That’s it. I’m sticking to a crescendo-free diet of mute mice”
  • “Come. I have found luxurious nesting grounds in Cleveland.” That Johnny Sparrow always knows just what to say.
  • After the Goodfeathers destroy the Scorsese statue with their attempts at harmony, they’re forced to move to the Francis Ford Coppola statue down the street.
  • More sage advice from Mr. Director: “Take the word ‘animal,’ transpose the letters ‘m’ and ‘n,’ and you get ‘aminal.’ That, in a nutshell, is comedy.”
  • The shoe store in Mr. Director’s film is called Imelda’s Schoes. Ho-ho. Sorry, I mean ha-ha.
  • Marita does get one good dig in at her giraffe maid: “Can’t you clean without being seen? You are skinny, very skinny, and it is confusing to my pulse rate!”
  • In the immortal words of Mr. Director: “Leave I should, bye I go!”