There have been, by my rough count, approximately 789 TV reboots, revivals, reimaginations—however Hollywood types want to sheepishly spin it—that have been unleashed in recent years. It’s an oppressive assault on creative originality and manipulation of nostalgia that, outside of a select few (wonderful) examples, rarely pans out beyond the pre-release press and excitement, or a well-thought out premiere episode.
So it’s no small praise, then, to say that Hulu’s reboot of Animaniacs—yes, of all shows, that kids’ cartoon from the ’90s—may have pulled off one of the most successful reboot openings yet. And it did so by leaning more aggressively into the complicated nightmare of the reboot trend more heavily and directly than pretty much any other resuscitated series, all of which have weighed questions about how meta and how referential to the original to be.
Like any revival, the longevity behind the premiere’s cleverness remains to be seen. But the first episode, released along with the first season on Hulu on Friday, is a shrewd wrecking ball to the fourth wall that ends up being hugely gratifying in how directly it acknowledges the corporate politics of a Hollywood money grab. Yet, still, it’s for kids!
It’s been 22 years since Yakko, Wakko, and Dot—the Warner Brothers, “and sister!”—have boingy-boingy’d around the Warner Brothers lot, wreaking havoc and mayhem in a showbiz satire that deconstructs the biz through the absurdist lens of the central trio. There is commentary on the misogyny in Hollywood boardrooms, but also: here’s some cartoon critters shoving bologna down their pants.
There’s an updated rendition of the earworm theme song with new lyrics: “Meet Pinky and the Brain, who want to rule the universe / our brand new cast who tested well in focus group research / gender-balanced, pronoun neutral, and ethnically diverse / the trolls will say we’re so passé but we did meta first.” Then the Warner siblings have a, as the song teases, meta discussion about how to open the episode.
“There’s a lot of pressure on our first lines,” Yakko says. “They gotta be funny. They gotta be irreverent. And most of all, they gotta be carefully crafted.”
He and Wakko debate the right approach. “Something reminiscent of the first season?” “But modern to show that we’re not your dad’s Animaniacs.” “But not so modern that you’ll alienate the dads because they’re a key part of our demographic.”
The solution: Dot squashes them with an oversized anvil and the episode begins.
In a recent interview with showrunner Wellesley Wild and his co-executive producer Gabe Swarr—who, along with original executive producer Steven Spielberg (yep, that Spielberg) brought back Animaniacs after more than two decades—the duo told The Daily Beast that the only way they felt the show would work as a revival is if they embraced not only that pressure, but the litany of reboot attempts that came (and largely failed) before it.
“The show is known for its self-awareness,” Wild says. “If we had tiptoed around it, it would have not been Animaniacs.”
It might seem odd, if you’re unfamiliar with the series, to witness makers of a children’s cartoon concerned about how to address the creative considerations of relaunching a television program. But that’s always been the calling card that earned Animaniacs its celebrated status as one of the best animated series there’s been—even still, two decades later.
There were always Easter eggs and asides that would go way over kids’ heads and appeal to the adults who stumbled upon it. But the generation who was the target age when they first watched in the ’90s are now full-blown adults. They certainly enjoyed the series then, but now they’re hip to the intelligence they missed the first time around when they were laughing at Pinky and the Brain’s funny voices. (Both of those characters are back in the reboot, too.)
“I had a similar experience with The Simpsons,” Wild says. “You watched it once as a kid, and you took a lot from it. And then you watch it again as an adult and you’re like, ‘Whoa, there’s more stuff here! They didn’t add anything. It’s the same damn thing I watched and was laughing at, but now I’m laughing at something for a different reason.’”
The premiere episode alone references the toxicity of Facebook, Russian troll farms, Hillary Clinton’s election loss, and, um, the late Golden Girls star Bea Arthur—hardly child-friendly callouts, but in line with a series that would routinely send-up R-rated movies like The Godfather or would make pop-culture references to The Beatles and the Three Tenors.
“We worked really hard to maintain that extra layer,” Wild says. “So there’s reference to Russian performance artist Marina Abramovich. I mean, kids have no fucking idea—I mean a lot of adults don’t know who that is. And that’s fine. But the jokes, you know, still work, even if you don’t know who it is.”
From the showbiz parody aspect, too, there’s a plethora of humor that seems more for us (grown-ups) than for them (the kids.) Take, for example, the premiere’s big production number, a sung-through recap of the dozens of TV series that have been rebooted since Animaniacs went off the air—everything from Murphy Brown to The X-Files to the cultural appropriation of Oldboy gets a name check.
It ends with Yakko delivering a sincere monologue to the audience: “All joking aside, reboots are symptomatic of a fundamental lack of originality in Hollywood, an originality crisis fueled by terrified executives clinging to the past like rats to the debris of a sinking ship.” Then he happily grabs the check a studio exec is handing him as a pile of cash that spells out “Hulu” appears in the background. Enter Wakko: “When we sell out, we know we’re selling out. So it’s cool.”
Does an elementary schooler watching Animaniacs understand the concept of selling out in Hollywood? That balance Yakko and Wakko discuss between appealing to now-adult fans and kids who would be brand-new to the series was a real thing behind the scenes.
Wild compares it to his family’s experience going to see Jurassic World. He was young when he first saw Jurassic Park, and when the sequel Jurassic World came out 23 years later, he was ecstatic to take his kids, who were going into the franchise sans decades of nostalgia, but enjoyed it just as much.
(To wit, the cold open of the entire reboot before the theme music plays is a brilliant satire of Jurassic Park, complete with a cameo from an animated Spielberg himself.)
Wild has also had the experience of watching an untold number of cartoons with his two sons as they grew up and realizing that, by the time they were six or seven, they could anticipate punchlines.
“When I saw my kids doing this, I was like, this [reboot] needs to have a little more spice to it, a little more edge for these guys,” Wild says. “They’re a little more sophisticated than I was at that age. It worked on two kids: mine. So we’re hoping that it will translate.” He laughs: “I took the risk of that being the population sample.”
As much as the spirit of the original still runs throughout the new Animaniacs, there were adjustments that needed to be made for a modern, more woke era.
Even in the ’90s, Animaniacs was criticized by parents’ groups for humor that was, especially in hindsight, shockingly suggestive and age inappropriate. Who else can recall being a nine-year-old child trained by the series to react to the entrance of the va-va-voom sexpot assistant to the studio psychologist by crooning, “Hellooooooo, nurse!”?
“A lot’s happened in 22 years,” Wild says. In addition to scrapping Hello Nurse and a swath of other characters from the original that might seem problematic today, there are slight evolutions. Dot, for example, relies more on her intellect than her cuteness, and is far more assertive.
“We changed with the times,” he says. “It’s almost as if the show never went off the air. It just kept going; it would have to change with the times. That’s how we looked at it that way a little bit.”
In the end, the idea was to ensure that things still felt like the same Animani…, totally insane-y, but lightly updated for the times-y Animaniacs. Those are the facts.