In the early 1990s two popular animated shows came out that were created by Tom Ruegger, “presented by” Steven Spielberg, had some of the same voice actors*, and which tried to bring back the same style of slapstick comedy that classic Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons were famous for. These two shows were Tiny Toon Adventures and Animaniacs. As we can see, these two shows are extremely similar in their production alone and had similar themes, and even similar theme songs. They both were nominated for and won numerous awards during their run. As a child, I really enjoyed these shows, but I distinctly recall preferring Tiny Toons to Animaniacs. I recently gave both shows a re-watch to see how they hold up viewing them as adult. In short, I was surprised to find that after growing up, my preference for the shows had reversed, and I believe that Animaniacs mirrored the classic cartoons of the past much more accurately than Tiny Toons.
Despite the two shows having many similarities in premise and origin, they managed to remain distinct in how they presented themselves. Out of the following categories of storytelling, animation, music, and humor, I will try to line up the significant differences between the two shows in terms of style and quality.
As said before, the premise of both shows was to revive the basic structure of classic Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons. In Tiny Toons the characters are literal recreations of classic older characters. The series involves its characters going to school at “Acme Looniversity” where they are under the tutelage of characters like Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd and so on. The main characters, Buster Bunny and Babs Bunny (no relation) are the Bugs Bunny characters of this show. Plucky Duck is this series’s version of Daffy Duck. Hampton Pig for Porky Pig, Elmyra Duff, for Elmer Fudd, and so on. Its episodes ranged from anthologies wrapped under a similar theme, to singular full 20-minute episodes that were more adventure/story oriented. In this way, the characters were able to inhabit a wider range of roles and interact a lot more with each other in a school context.
In Animaniacs we have much more of a purely anthological way of storytelling, with smatterings of common gags and wrap-ups to connect each individual cartoon. The main characters of this show are the Warner brothers, Yakko and Wakko, and the Warner sister, Dot. Their origin story describes them as having been created in the black and white era of cartoons of the 1930s. Because they were “totally out of control” they were locked away in the studio’s water tower never to be released… That is until they escaped to bring us this show. The series also has a variety of other cartoons attached to it including “The Goodfeathers”, “Slappy the Squirrel”, and the infamous “Pinky and the Brain” (this last one eventually gaining enough popularity to become its own series).
Though Tiny Toons had a wider range of stories it could tell, as it could sometimes showed more standard stories rather than pure comedy, it also somewhat suffered from this. Because the show ranged from slap-stick to comedy-adventure so often, it was hard to tell how seriously or not one was supposed to take certain episodes. Not only that, but it made the show’s pacing absolutely terrible. I felt often, while re-watching it that the show was just throwing stuff at the screen and it almost never calmed down. Even its punchlines were often delivered very abruptly and there was very little wrap-up at the end of an episode, so when the credits rolled I often said “Oh, I guess it’s over now”. Animaniacs on the other hand did a much better job with its pacing and the cartoons had a much more easy-to-follow arc of beginning-middle-end. It also made sure to never waste a punchline, and finished off its cartoons at a place that made sense. This also made Animaniacs a lot more consistent, because it knew to keep things simple and slap-stick, just like its 1930s predecessors.
A lot of work went into both shows regarding their animation. Steven Spielberg wanted to up the ante with regards to how the medium was portrayed and so during production a lot more frames of animation were added per episode. More frames means more drawings in each episode making the movement more fluid and natural. Unfortunately, this meant a lot more work had to be put into each episode, and with over 60 episodes ordered for the first season of both shows, this meant that the work had to be split up into multiple animation studios. Tiny Toons had about seven different studios working on it, and Animaniacs had eight, with similar studios employed for both cartoons. Add to the fact that many of these studios were placed in different parts of the world, from Japan, to South Korea, to the US, this meant that the quality and even the art style between each studio was different. To get an idea of how the character designs differed in Tiny Toons see below. For the differing Animaniacs animation styles, check out this video.
I feel like Tiny Toons suffered from this variable quality more than Animaniacs simply because the difference in the style of the characters was more noticeable. With Animaniacs having more of the “rubberhose” style, the animators had more flexibility, if you’ll pardon the pun, with how the characters looked. Not only that, but Animaniacs benefited from coming out a couple of years after Tiny Toons, giving the studios more time to improve. With both shows the overall picture quality and movement style were only slightly different, but I felt that when Tiny Toons had its bad days, they were really bad, whereas lower quality instances of Animaniacs cartoons were more easily overlooked.
Not only did Spielberg want to work on improving the animation medium of the 90s, he also wanted to improve on the music. A full orchestra was employed and several composers created original music for both shows. In the case of Animaniacs, according to two of its music composers, the studio and even the piano that was used to create the music, was the same studio and piano that famous composer Carl Stalling used to create the music for Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. The result in both cases, was bringing new life to the animation medium and hearkening back to the classic cartoons that inspired these two shows.
Whereas the background musical scores of both shows were near perfect, the songs sung by the characters in the foreground were quite different. In both series the characters would sometimes randomly break into song to set up a scene or tell a story. In Tiny Toons there were moments where they parodied Disney’s music, including a Peter and the Wolf type of episode called “Buster and the Wolverine”. The show also had a couple of MTV style countdowns that had entirely musical cartoons. In a majority of these cartoons, the original recordings of famous songs such as “Respect” by Aretha Franklin, “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” by They Might Be Giants, and “Do You Love Me?” by The Contours were added alongside one-off story-lines starring the Tiny Toon cast. I remember loving these episodes in particular. Looking back at these episodes, I find myself thankful that for a majority of the songs, they used the original music, because other than its marvelous opening song, when the show tried to make its own original songs that the characters themselves sang they were rather awful.
Take “Toon Out, Toon In” for example, which was fit in between some of the above mentioned classic songs during its musical episodes and included a cringe-worthy parody of Vanilla Ice, called Vanilla Lice. It was… well… just watch:
This sort of brings me to a major problem with Tiny Toons – the show was so obviously made in the 90s; almost embarrassingly so. Two episodes pushed this detail even in their title – “Life in the 90’s” and “Fairy Tales for the 90’s”. The series was rather adorably trying to pull in its child audience by showing that they were being “hip and cool”, and of course, have cartoon versions of Vanilla Ice rap for its audience. Admittedly, this tactic very much worked on me as a kid, because I did like these episodes and I loved this show. Then again, I was a child in the 90’s, so it was probably inevitable. Watching the show now and seeing such misguided attempts at connecting to its audience, almost makes me embarrassed for the show, yet at the same time, there is a twinge of nostalgic sentiment and added humor that comes with revisiting 90’s cheese.
Animaniacs on the other hand used its musical numbers very differently. A large number of the songs sung by the Warner siblings were catchy and rather educational. It’s because of them that I remember all of the US Presidents in order, and the famous “Yakko’s World” helped me on several map tests I had to take in school. Beyond that, the songs were filled with much humor and a ton of fun visuals, and often went in directions you weren’t expecting (like The Senses Song). Each “Rita and Runt” cartoon, which were about the titular stray cat and dog trying to find a home, had a song sung by Rita, voiced by Tony Award winning Broadway actress Bernadette Peters. One particular cartoon starring the two strays was “Les Miseranimals” which was a beautifully hilarious parody on the musical Les Miserables.
Looking at one of the Animaniacs‘ original songs, we can see how much better the show was with its music than Tiny Toons:
“I’m Mad” was not only placed in the show, but it originally featured as a theatrical short. The song and cartoon that goes with it work well on their own. Unlike “Toon Out, Toon In”, which was three minutes of awkward 90s spilling over the screen, “I’m Mad” is rather timeless.** It is a much more complex song with clever lyrics, good humor, and tells a story. It wasn’t trying to be cool nor was it trying to parody a popular-at-the-time singer, and instead did its own thing, and its own thing was brilliant! Though “I’m Mad” isn’t as singable as some of the Animaniacs‘ other songs, it is certainly my favorite musical sequence from the show.
Storytelling, animation, and music were all very important in the creation of these shows. But what do we remember them most for? Their humor, of course. In a slap-stick comedy genre cartoon, it is the humor that is perhaps the most important, and also probably the hardest to get right. What one finds funny depends on who is watching, what background they come from, and what humor is preferred, and all of these things can change depending on the time period. What makes the Looney Tunes cartoons so funny, even today, is that in many ways, they are timeless and many don’t even need dialogue to be funny. This is where I think Tiny Toons fails and Animaniacs succeeds.
In both cartoons puns abounded of both the verbal and visual kind, they included mischievous characters, they broke the fourth wall, caricatures of famous people or political figures made cameos regularly, and both even had some similar gags and borrowed heavily from Looney Tunes comedy. In the case of Tiny Toons, they literally re-did several classic Looney Tunes cartoons. But though this seems like it would be a good way to bring back such classic comedy, they only served to point out that the original was the better one. One example is the classic “One Froggy Evening” which Spielberg himself called “the Citizen Kane of animated film.” The Tiny Toons version of this short has Hampton Pig tote around a singing frog that only he ever witnesses singing. It doesn’t work at all! This is primarily because the original had no dialogue, except for the singing frog. In the remake, there is way too much talking! This can be said for their attempts at bringing back the Bugs Bunny vs hunter gags that occurs occasionally in Tiny Toons. Again, there is too much talking, giving the audience no time to get the joke themselves. It’s like someone trying to over-explain their joke – the show was trying too hard to do the exact same thing that Looney Tunes did. The show worked so much better when it was doing its own gags or when it did fun things like explaining the process of animation.
Animaniacs on the other hand knew it was better to do its own thing. It compartmentalized all its commentary on classic cartoon gags into one character – Slappy Squirrel, who acts like an old actor reliving and also complaining about her old days as a cartoon star. This allowed the creators to channel its homages into one character, while also doing something new with old formulas.*** With all of the other cartoons, they had something new to work with, and new gags to explore. In this way, they could turn to themselves for inspiration, rather than just re-doing past jokes. They created their own bits and made them self-contained rather than always pointing backwards to where they got it from. Furthermore, Animaniacs wasn’t afraid to add in jokes for adults. Ho boy did this series have a bunch of innuendo that I did not catch at all as a kid! Yakko’s classic quote “Goodnight Everybody” would punctuate such moments, almost as if they expected to be cancelled after they finished the line. It is probably largely due to this reason, and finally understanding such jokes that I ended up enjoying the series much more as an adult than as a kid.
Tiny Toons had very dated parts to it and basically screamed at the camera (often literally) that it was a product of the 90s. Its flow was a bit all over the place, but by changing its pacing and storytelling format from episode to episode it had the ability to keep things fresh. This also resulted in some inconsistency in quality, as some episodes were hilarious, memorable, and great, while others were either forgettable, or memorable for negative reasons, such as its PSA-heavy episodes.**** I liked most all cartoons that focused on the various characters rather equally and there was a lot of decent character interaction.***** Though at the same time I thought that some of episodes were somewhat mean-spirited rather than funny. Overall, a colorful and energetic show, leading it to be much more fun for kids. I definitely liked Tiny Toons better as a child, but some of it honestly felt kind of a like a chore to watch as an adult.
Animaniacs is pretty timeless in its humor and has aged much better than Tiny Toons. It was very consistent in quality and flow, and rarely did any of their running gags get old. The appeal of the different cartoons in Animaniacs varied a bit more for me – the best part for me in the show were the shenanigans involving the Warner siblings, and I could take or leave the “Goodfeathers” and “Mindy & Buttons” cartoons. But the ones I liked – the Warners, Pinky and the Brain, Slappy Squirrel – I REALLY liked. I may not have been as much of a fan of this show as a kid, but it has definitely grown as one of my favorite cartoon shows ever as an adult.
Looking at both series, I would have to say that Animaniacs is the better show, but I give Tiny Toons a lot of credit. If it weren’t for its predecessor’s success, Animaniacs would never have existed, nor would it have been as developed and as fine tuned of a program without the initial tinkering that was done with Tiny Toons. The creators took what they learned from the antics of Babs and Buster Bunny (no relation) and put that into perfecting those of the Warner siblings and their peers. In the end, both shows hold a special place in my memory, and I was really happy to revisit both series after so many years. I suggest that you also take a look back at these awesome 90s cartoons, maybe you’ll glean something new from them as I had.
*Most notably Tress McNielle, Rob Paulsen, Maurice Lamarche, and Frank Welker.
**There is one big similarity between the two songs, and that is that Rob Paulsen voices Vanilla Lice, and Yakko Warner and Dr. Scratchansniff, and so is a singer in both of the songs.
****In particular “One Beer” was rather terrible. It was an episode in which they “show the evils of alcohol” by having Buster, Plucky, and Hampton get drunk on one bottle of beer (not even one each; one between the three of them), steal a police car, drive drunk, and kill themselves by accidentally driving the car off of a mountain road.
*****Except Elmyra. Fuck Elmyra. Hated her as a kid, hate her now. She’s like the Scrappy Doo of this show for me. I could easily go on a rant about why her episodes don’t work, but I’ll reel it in for the sake of brevity. Not that writing nearly 3000 words on these shows could be considered “brief”.