When I think of Bill Clinton, 42nd president of the United States of America, I think of a cartoon character in sunglasses that’s playing the saxophone.
Not saying that’s ideal. Just real talk.
Imagine my delight when the animated former POTUS appeared early on in the reboot of "Animaniacs," a show I devoured growing up. Produced by Steven Spielberg, the cartoon originally ran from 1993 to 1998, first on Fox Kids and then on Kids WB. Now it’s back, courtesy of Hulu, with the first new season of 13 episodes premiering Nov. 20.
That’s good news for nostalgia seekers (hola), but also, the absurdities and indignities of life in 2020 deserve a thorough and exacting skewer right through their gross lil’ hearts. The world’s upside down. The president is threatening the democratic transfer of power. The public seems to be in denial about a deadly, worsening pandemic. In times like these, we turn to great satirists and smart alecks to make sense of it all: Jon Stewart and Molly Ivins at the turn of the century, Sarah Cooper and Alexandra Petri today.
Thankfully, the right people for the job have arrived — take a beat — and they aren’t even people at all, but three cartoon characters of indeterminate species who live in a movie studio’s water tower. Yes, the great "Animaniacs" humorists Yakko (tall, sarcastic and girl-crazy), Wakko (short, hungry and sounds like Ringo Starr) and Dot Warner (a stick of dynamite with a flower on her head) have returned to us in our time of need. That cartoon Clinton cameo symbolically passes the torch, because the Warner Brothers (and the Warner sister) don’t miss a beat in finding zany irreverence in the signs o’ the times.
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In case you are not a 31-year-old who built his childhood personality around cartoons (bonjour), a primer: "Animaniacs" was the linchpin of a 1990s wave of new Warner Bros. cartoons, directly preceded by Spielberg’s "Tiny Toon Adventures." That cartoon was a literal continuation of the old "Looney Tunes" that began in the 1930s, featuring younger, successor versions of characters like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. By the way, I do feel absurd writing that sentence with both authority and a straight face. Bugs, Daffy and the gang also got a reboot at HBO Max this year — those new toons are fun, but there’s a notable lack of vinegar in the sauce.
"Animaniacs" wasn’t a direct adaptation of the "Looney Tunes," but it better captured their spirit than the still-great "Tiny Toon Adventures." Yakko, Wakko and Dot sometimes cavorted around a Burbank backlot, and sometimes they popped up in the Renaissance or biblical times. Wherever they went, they wrought slapstick mayhem, bedeviling authority figures, pulling giant props out of thin air and dishing out pop culture references without a worry about how they might age.
For someone who grew up watching the "Looney Tunes" characters make World War II-era jokes about nylon stockings and Humphrey Bogart (aloha), "Animaniacs" felt keenly relevant, a contemporary source of pop cultural currency and a barometer for current events that even a kid could understand. That’s not to say that a kid could understand all of it, a trait of most great animated programs. Look up a YouTube supercut of innuendos from the original series; in one cartoon, Yakko cracks a joke about fingerprints while Dot is carrying rock star Prince in her arms, and it’s hard to believe that got past censors.
Rush Limbaugh, Madonna, Hillary Clinton, Howard Stern: No one escaped the giant boxing glove punchlines of "Animaniacs" in the ’90s. Thankfully, the reboot hasn’t lost its bite, its slyness or its pre-Wikipedia penchant for name-dropping. Based on the Hulu episodes made available to screen before the new season’s debut, Yakko, Wakko and Dot are as kinetic and fearless as ever, lampooning everything from "Fox and Friends" and Seth Meyers to Russian disinformation and endless movie reboots. That last one comes packaged in a genuinely catchy educational song from Yakko, a hallmark of the original series. If any millennial tells you they did not learn the names of the nations of the world from "Animaniacs," they are straight lying to your face.
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From what I’ve seen, the show’s writers have calibrated their joke meters for more dire times. (At least the times feel that way; things have always been awful in one way or another, and any rose-colored hindsight is probably a privileged lens.) There’s one animated segment skewering gun nuts that’s so overt in its metaphor, I continually gasped that the show was going there. It’s also about as blunt an instrument as an ACME anvil, but let’s remember that this is a slapstick cartoon. Dot even says as an aside at one point, "After this, I’m not doing any more thinly veiled allegories."
Outgoing President Donald Trump gets the "Animaniacs" treatment, of course, but mostly from the sidelines in the episodes screened for review. His looming shadow literally heralds his arrival in the first episode’s big musical number, a cheeky touch. The show’s animators deserve credit for their approach to a Trump caricature. How do you render with exaggeration a man who already spray- tans his skin past the limits of natural shading, and whose hair does … that thing it does? "Animaniacs" conjures Trump in a notably different style from the rest of its cast, owing more to fellow ’90s toon "The Ren & Stimpy Show" than to the "Looney Tunes"-loyal house style. It’s a savvy way to render a figure who’s worked hard to create an alternate reality.
The show’s weathered some of the winds of time a little rougher. The iconic theme song has the same rhythm, with some adjustments: Dot’s no longer "cute" but "has wit," and we’re promised new supporting characters that are "pronoun neutral" and "ethnically diverse," an elbow-nudger of a line that’s "Mallard Fillmore" levels of tired.
Oh, and yes, the old supporting characters from the 1990s show seem to have been jettisoned, save world domination-plotting laboratory mice Pinky and the Brain, who were breakout spinoff characters back in the day. Mostly, we do not mourn these losses (the Goodfeathers, a trio of pigeons who imitate the cast of "Goodfellas," are not farm fresh in 2020), but I do hope cranky senior citizen Slappy the Squirrel still shows up eventually.
One does wonder if "Fantasy Island" and "dingoes ate my baby" lines are worth escaping the modern cutting room floor. But then there’s a gag about EDM star Deadmau5 in a "Pinky and the Brain" short, and you start to appreciate the reboot’s "big tent" approach to references.
Perhaps the new season’s biggest success, though: prescience. As the Warners helpfully explain while they catch up on things like iPads and the paleo diet after being dormant for a couple of decades, the new episodes were produced in 2018. In guessing what else might happen in the ensuing two years, the characters throw out a few options like hunkering down in bunkers, wearing (gas) masks and battling climate disasters.
So … let’s hope there are some lottery numbers in one of the new episodes, too.