Steven Spielberg’s 1990s animated series, Animaniacs, mixed high and low-brow humor in a way that appealed to a broad audience. It was, in essence, a cartoon variety show for kids that their parents and guardians could stand to watch, too… one they might even appreciate more than the target demographic.
That variety-show construct meant that much of the series’ distinctive comedy stylings came in the form of original songs (or at least original lyrics to songs whose melodies were in the public domain). Now, with Hulu’s revival of Animaniacs on the horizon, let’s look back at the original series’ 99 episodes and two albums’ worth of excellent songs, and crown the 10 best.
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All the Words in the English Language
This number is sung in three parts throughout Episode 74. As the title suggests, Yakko is attempting to sing every single word in the English language, and Dot and broadcaster Dick Button deliver hushed, tense commentary as if they’re covering a gymnast’s routine. The conceit is clever (there are about 300,000 English words and more are added every year, which makes the task ridiculous), and a few of the words featured in the lyrics are funny in their own right (abreast, flambé). But even with Yakko’s deduction for yada-yadaing, “All the Words in the English Language” is a bit one-note compared to some of the show’s better earworms.
Animaniacs was popular, but never really penetrated the zeitgeist the way Spielberg’s movies do. If it had, ‘I’m Mad” would be the anthem of frustrated and exhausted parents everywhere. The bit, which first ran as a theatrical short, follows Dr. Scratchansniff as he tries to rouse and ready the Warners for the day. Along the way, he encounters every obstacle a parent faces. The three siblings fight over the bathroom, complain about breakfast, threaten violence over minor annoyances and ask how much longer a car ride will be. The song is an impressively complex composition, but the point is simply made: trying to have a fun day with kids can be a real pain.
“Hello Nurse,” the musical biography of one of the show’s most popular recurring characters, is a product of its time. Animaniacs is quintessentially ’90s, and so is the brand of humor in which the song trades. Yakko and Wakko recite a litany of Hello Nurse’s accomplishments. Her IQ is 157, she won a Pulitzer and recently became ambassador to China. Some of the mentions of feathers in her cap are especially woke. She played King Lear, she doesn’t drink or smoke. Hello Nurse is clearly a wonderful role model. But in the end, Yakko and Wakko are still ogling her for her buxom physique more than her brain, which is both the joke and the problem.
A good theme song should make an impression and set the tone for the show to come. “Animaniacs Theme” does both as well as any show could hope for. It has a bouncy, fast-paced energy that perfectly encapsulates the series’ zany, vaudeville style. The lyrics are smart but self-aware and self-effacing, which lets the audience know Animaniacs will be as much about slapstick comedy as it will about high-brow sociological observation. And it’s so catchy, anyone who watched more than a few episodes likely can remember it word for word nearly three decades later (depending upon which variable lyric at the end they like best). Those are the facts.
Animaniacs is probably best remembered for the way it gently poked fun at the very institution of Hollywood. Executive Producer Steven Spielberg even targeted himself in songs like “Variety Speak.” But the cartoon’s core audience was kids, and for them, writers crafted several songs that were not only hilarious but extremely educationally ambitious. Among them is “Yakko’s World” from Episode 2, set to the tune of the traditional Mexican Hat Dance, in which Yakko sings the names of every nation on the planet (well, circa 1993). Inspiration struck writer Randy Rogel when his son was studying for a geography test and he realized several countries’ names rhymed. And apparently, voice actor Rob Paulson can still rattle off “Yakko’s World” without error today.
The Presidents Song
“The Presidents Song” builds on the delightful nerdiness of “Yakko’s World,” but adds another layer of context. Sung to the melody of “The William Tell Overture,” this sketch from Episode 75 lists the then-42 Presidents of the United States in chronological order, providing just a bit of irreverent nuance to each one. History buffs will laugh at “four long years with James Buchanan” or the idea of Andrew Johnson’s “slight defects,” while social-studies students will just have an easier time remembering the names and dates.
The most memorable (and helpful) of Animaniacs‘ many educational musical numbers is “Wakko’s America.” The premise of this piece is that Wakko is a contestant on a Jeopardy-like game show hosted by his teacher. His prompt requires him to name all fifty states and their capitols. Wakko’s reply comes in the form of an impossibly well-rhymed rendition of those states and capitols, made all the funnier by his Ringo Starr-esque tenor. There are some minor mistakes (Wakko names Jefferson and not Jefferson City as the capitol of Missouri), but despite his stunning performance, he ultimately loses the points because his reply didn’t come in the form of a question.
The Ballad of Magellan
Before kids learn about state capitols and presidents, they often learn about explorers. Of all Animaniacs‘ songs, “The Ballad of Magellan” was the most ahead of its time. Today, the heroism of colonizing Europeans is starting to be called into question, even in classrooms, but such scrutiny wasn’t commonplace in the ’90s. “The Ballad of Magellan,” which plays to the tune of “Git Along, Little Doggies,” tells the story of an arrogant and overly emotional buffoon who lands in the wrong place three times before being murdered by spears at the hands of self-defending indigenous peoples. It’s wonderfully dark yet goofy
Pinky and the Brain Theme
Animaniacs‘ episodes were comprised of three to five loosely or even unrelated skits, meaning that the show needed a large and diverse cast of characters. Of the dozens that appeared over the show’s six-year run, only two got their own spinoff, maybe because their theme was as effective as the show proper’s. As it explains, fan favorites Pinky and the Brain were genetically-altered lab mice whose scientific modifications produced inconsistent results. The Brain (an evil genius) plots to take over the world every night. His associate, Pinky (affable but intellectually inferior), goes along with the Brain but gets in the way of his sinister plans. It’s a brilliant concept for animated comedy shorts, and the music that accompanies it is perfectly sinister and brilliant, too.
Animaniacs was always as smart as it was silly, but it was rarely earnest. “Yakko’s Universe” was reportedly inspired by “Galaxy Song” from Month Python’s The Meaning of Life. It contains too-cute jibes at Mickey Rooney’s height, but otherwise, “Yakko’s Universe” distinguishes itself by working on not just two, but three levels. Like “Yakko’s World” and “Wakko’s America,” it’s both entertaining and academic. But with lyrics that muse about how very small we are in comparison to infinite space, it’s also pretty deep! A minor word swap is easy to miss, but carries the whole meaning of the endeavor. After the first chorus, the Warner siblings sing, “it’s a big universe and we’re not,” but after the last chorus, they sing, “it’s a big universe and it’s ours.”
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