Watching the original Animaniacs today is probably the closest you can get to scrolling through a TikTok feed from the mid-’90s. The madcap variety show was like Looney Tunes by way of golden-age Saturday Night Live, a pre-social media era meme factory that seemed more interested in parodying show business and celebrity than actually entertaining children. (The first episode is about a dang psychiatrist to the stars!) Funny thing is, kids loved the antics of the Warner brothers and sister as they guffawed and rampaged their way across studio lots. Adults, on the other hand, were laughing at the jokes actually taking place on said studio lots — jokes full of innuendo and references meant for avid consumers of celeb gossip, alongside deep-cut jokes about animation history. It was uncommonly clever, and bewildering in hindsight.
The new Animaniacs, rebooted and now streaming on Hulu, replicates the manic energy of the original but not really in the service of anything that feels as transgressive or groundbreaking. The premise is simple: after the show’s cancellation in 1998, the Warner siblings Yakko, Wakko, and Dot, have spent the intervening years roaming some forgotten land until cartoon Steven Spielberg — in a Jurassic Park pastiche alongside cartoon Laura Dern, Sam Neill, and Jeff Goldblum — finds them. And then they’re brought back to the Warner Bros. studio lot.
That Jurassic Park mashup is a good teaser for what you can expect from said antics: Looney Tunes-esque characters riffing on pop culture and current events. In one episode, the Warners recreate The Odyssey, posing as Greek deities who help and hinder Odysseus on his journey, while also sprinkling in some pop culture satire (the story’s cyclops is Trump). There are a lot of jokes about reboots and the creative bankruptcy they signify, and the ways Hollywood has or has not changed since the ‘90s. When Dot meets a top female executive, she asks for advice, only to be told “I believe in pulling the ladder up after I climb it!”
There are also segments featuring songs (both satirical and semi-educational), while stories featuring other characters are mostly limited to Pinky and the Brain. The wide roster of players that the original show had are largely absent in the reboot. Some of this is for good reason — Hello Nurse, a pinup throwback mainly there to drive the Warner brothers wild, is an astoundingly sexist character for a ‘90s kids cartoon — but otherwise don’t expect any segments solely dedicated to Slappy Squirrel or the mobster pigeons The Goodfeathers.
Mostly, the new Animaniacs seems to be attempting to succeed using the old formula. Trouble is, there have been other shows doing excellent showbiz satire in the Animaniacs’ absence, like BoJack Horseman, which managed to skewer Hollywood and the new media ecosystem that now covers it. Rick and Morty is a genre-hopping adventure that lampoons genre tropes while also having plenty to say about the entertainment landscape. And Family Guy has created a whole genre of television where the whole point is in self-aware asides to the audience. (It’s worth noting that the showrunner of the Animaniacs reboot is a Family Guy alum.) Animaniacs, meanwhile, spends a whole Pinky and the Brain segment lambasting Seth Meyers and cute animal memes. It’s an odd segment that makes fun of a version of Seth Meyers with no basis in reality — Meyers being the late-night host most openly interested in giving airtime to unusual topics and more incisive political commentary. Applying the same joke to a more frivolous host, like Jimmy Fallon, would not be much funnier, but at least it would kind of make sense.
The problems with the show partially lie in the changes in the industry around it. The original Animaniacs existed in an era where the monoculture reigned; the presumed audiences watched the same shows and movies, which kids picked up on. (A recent GQ profile of George Clooney has the star stressing how different that industry was at a time when a TV show could have 40 million viewers watching.) Parodying celebrities was dependable fun at a time where no one had the easy access of perusing a celebrity’s Instagram account, and it was even funnier to see a “children’s” cartoon doing those parodies. Things are different now than they were when Yakko, Wakko, and Dot were first making a mess of the Warner lot. The reboot seems stuck just pointing that out.
BoJack Horseman’s comedy succeeded because it was specific. The show was made by people who knew exactly the kind of person who’d watch it, and it lampooned their tastes almost exclusively while also being a work of uncommon emotional honesty. It makes Animaniacs feel like a relic from another time. It might as well be a dinosaur.