If I was to choose a childhood moment where it became clear that I was on the spectrum, it would be the first time I heard the Animaniacs song “Yakko’s World”. In the song, Yakko Warner, an ambiguous dog-like cartoon character, rhymes the nations of the world to the melody of "The Mexican Hat Dance".
It ran a certain groove in my head that felt immensely right in its wacky blend of comic nonsense and obsessive ordering. It has been playing in the back of my skull at a varying frequency for over 20 years.
Animaniacs, for the uninitiated, was a 90s cartoon that brought the post-modernism of Chuck Jones era Loony Toons into the embittered self-regurgitating cultural landscape of the late 20th century. Its creator Richard Stone cooked up a world of hypomanic shit-stirrers who critiqued children’s broadcasting and the pop-culture at large, while offering up a genuinely witty street-smart educational alternative to the pedantic ‘2 + 2 is 4’ pedagogy of Barny the Dinosaur and co.
Key to Animaniacs (Groucho) Marxist punkery was its music. Composer Richard Stone channeled classic Merry Melodies composer Carl Stalling to create a symphonic soundscape of slapstick punctuation and musical pun alliteration. Stone, who died tragically young (47) of pancreatic cancer in 2001, was behind the themes to Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain (an Animaniacs spin-off), Freakazoid! – all of which he won Emmys for – amongst others.
Coupled with the sharp lyrics of Ruegger and writers such as Randy Rogel (who was behind "Yakko’s World"), and the voice work of Rob Paulson (Yakko, Maurice LaMarche (Brain), Billy West (Pinky) and the rest of the cast, Animaniacs offered up a jamboree of tongue-in-cheek showtunes that were as subversive as they were informative.
Let’s start with a classic, "Be Careful What You Eat":
The 90s Cartoon Renaissance that Animaniacs heralded alongside Ren and Stimpy and The Simpsons etc was in part due to Ronald Reagan deregulating children’s broadcasting laws to allow companies like Mattel to make shows that were essentially 30-minute advertisements. The pendulum also swung the other way, and a bevvy of heretical creator driven animated programs came up to counter the corporate hackery.
This song, so atypical of Animaniacs' pisstake approach to the idea of ‘ethical’ children’s television (see their ‘wheel of morality’ segments) is a brutal run down of the toxic additives in the snacks sold to children during ad-breaks: “hooray for sugar ‘cause we love it/chocolate chips; we want more of it/cakes and ice cream; watch us shove it/down our throats real fast.’
Another anarchic ear-worm was the "Ballad of Magellan," a glib summary of the trials and woes of the Spanish explorer as he searches for the East Indies Islands. The song sardonically riffs on the blind ego of European colonialism, suggesting that Magellan and his like were stuck-up aristocrats blows by greed around the globe, until being rightfully killed by ‘natives’:
They sailed due West to the Philippine Islands, Magellan was pleased as the natives grew near. But then someone shouted, "I think they're attacking".
Magellan said, "What?" and got hit by a spear.
Pinky and the Brain’s segments were similarly satiric takes on capitalism, politics, and history at large. In "A Meticulous Analysis of History" Brain sings like a think-tank wonk explaining Western hierarchies and imperialism and the benefit of learning from historic cataclysms to forge your own global domination plot. Pinky, offers his innocent counterpoints:
Brain: From Ghengis Khan to Charlemagne, From Alexander down to Tamburlaine. I find a ruler's tragic flaw, And gain a little wisdom out of each faux pas.
Pinky: Don't forget the former Governor of Arkansas.
Brain: That concludes my little rhyme, I hope this lesson wasn't just a waste of time.
Pinky: Well Brain, I've learned that one thing's true, Every one of them has failed, and so have you.
Animaniacs was part of a comic-musical tradition with dissidence baked into its core. Its songs were a continuation of Groucho Marx’s "Lydia The Tattooed Lady," Tom Lehrer’s "Poisoning Pigeons In The Park," Springtime For Hitler, and Buggs Bunny’s screwball operatics.
Yakko, Wakko (voiced like Ringo Starr), and Dot talked in a sing-song manner because they knew that if they were going to have to match the didactic tedium of lesser kid’s shows, they’d have to be entertaining. Each episode was a Brecht like ‘Three-Penny Opera’ – radical politics hidden behind pun-heavy ditties.
It’s all in the Emmy winning opening theme, which lays out the show’s discursive post-modern bent explicitly:
The writers flipped,
we have no script!
why bother to rehearse?
we have pay-or-play contracts!
The song lays it out in cartoon simplicity: Dot is cute and Yakko yacks, Wakko packs away the snacks while Bill Clinton plays the sax (or ‘we pay tons of income tax’). The theme is a mockery of the show itself, and the show is a mockery of the zeitgeist. That, and it can get stuck in your head for over two decades.
Oh! If we’re mentioning music in Animaniacs, it’d be amiss of me not to shoehorn in the infamous ‘finger Prince’ line:
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