A ringing bell on a weekday afternoon meant the same thing for all school-aged children in the ’90s — closing time. Some of us went home, while others endured the after-school programs and daycare centers their parents enrolled them in. No matter where we went, if any of these places had a television set, then it was a sure bet that every single one of us kids was watching it when Animaniacs came on.
The syndicated cartoon show was quite popular on Fox and, later, the now-defunct WB network, where it moved in 1995. Along with Tiny Toon Adventures and Taz-Mania, it attracted 10 million viewers every weekday. At least a quarter of these were over the age of 18 since, as creator Tom Ruegger once put it, “We wanted to make ourselves laugh more than we had.” It was also successful because, despite the innuendos, it was heavy on education. Besides, where else were ’90s kids going to learn the names of every country in the world? School?
After five seasons and 99 episodes, the Steven Spielberg-produced animated series came to an end 17 years ago on Saturday, Nov. 14, 1998. To celebrate its many contributions to schooling kids after school, let’s review the eight best Animaniacs lessons in geography, history, anatomy, morality and current events. We even made sure to satisfy Miss Flamiel’s requirement that all responses be put in the form of question.
What is “Wakko’s America?”
While nowhere near as long as “Yakko’s World,” covered below, “Wakko’s America” pulled double-duty by introducing the show’s target American audience to two very important curricular subjects: U.S. geography, and advanced subjects reserved for the then-mysterious realm of college. The latter came in the form of Jeopardy-like subjects Miss Flamiel offered to unknowing pupils Yakko, Wakko and Dot. “Astrophysics,” “Chaucer,” “Latin” and “Nuclear Fission?” Nope.
Even “TV Movies” was a bit of a stretch (no middle schoolers know who Lindsay Wagner and Valerie Bertinelli are), but the “United States?” Every kid in the country knew at least a few of the states and their capitals. Some had even learned them all by rote. Hence younger Warner brother Wakko’s performance, violin and all, which used the tune of “Do Your Ears Hang Low?” to teach Animaniacs‘ viewers all 100 city and state names.
What is “Brainstem?”
Even for a bunch of kids reading Redwall, The Cat Who… and Nancy Drew books, the irony of Brain singing “The Parts of the Brain” wasn’t lost on Animaniacs‘ target demographic. Even Pinky — whose sole responsibility in the sketch was to repeat the word “brainstem” eight times — got the joke. Hence the short “Pinky and the Brain” segment in which the titular characters sang about the brain’s many parts via “Camptown Races.”
“That ought to keep the little squirts happy,” Brain concluded the tune before exiting the stage. The song is barely a minute-and-a-half long, but it contains the two things fans of these lab mice had come to expect: intelligence, and violence towards Pinky. Did anyone remember the parts of the brain and where they were on the various graphics used throughout the number? Probably not, but at least the music was catchy.
What is “Yakko’s World?”
Oldest Warner brother Yakko’s attempt to fit every single country into less than two minutes’ worth of music is the most famous, if not the best remembered attempt by Animaniacs to educate its audience. Besides, “Jarabe Tapatío” — or the “Mexican Hat Dance,” as the rest of the world knows it — is a ridiculously catchy song and dance routine. Yakko simply cut out the dance part and named every single sovereign nation that existed in the world of 1993.
On the one hand, this 22-year-old attempt to summarize the world in song seems futile — especially because a few of the countries named no longer exist. That, or they have much different connotations today than they did in ’93. (Ahem, “Syria,” ahem.) Still, Yakko knew what he was doing when he took on the literal globe and won. Not only was he teaching kids about world geography, but he was gifting drunk college students with one of the best drinking songs of the last century.
What is “Good Idea, Bad Idea?”
What happens when you mix humorist Tom Bodett’s voice with children’s television? “Good Idea, Bad Idea” is what happens. The American radio personality and TV commercial narrator’s voice was already familiar to adults and anyone who’d stayed at a Motel 6, but for Animaniacs viewers, Bodett was the moral compass of Mr. Skullhead’s recurring segment about good and not so good life choices.
From everyday behavior (“kissing a loved one” vs. “kissing a total stranger”) to word play (“visiting the circus” vs. “having the circus visit you”), these 30-second bits used to fill excess time in episodes were short enough to make kids laugh once before moving on. Yet its brevity was also its strength, as it made “Good Idea, Bad Idea” easy to remember. That is, if anyone ever needed to remember not to invite the circus into their home.
What is “A Meticulous Analysis of History?”
One of the more interesting attempts at bridging the gap between younger and older audiences was “A Meticulous Analysis of History,” Brain’s attempt to explain his plans for world domination to Pinky. Brain was trying to plot in a manner that wouldn’t repeat the mistakes of the past, and because Pinky barely grasped the English language, the former put a brief history lesson on civilization’s conquerors to Gilbert and Sullivan’s “When I Was a Lad.”
Yes, it was another song, but this particular “Pinky and the Brain” lesson on history also included some rather prescient jabs at modern politics. Like when Brain sang about why his plan would make use of the media instead of Hannibal’s elephants (“An elephant is not required / If I can use the media to be admired”), and Pinky inadvertently spotted the flaw (“The TV viewers you delight / Unless the network puts your show on Sunday night”).
What is “Baghdad Cafe?”
It was weird enough that President Bill Clinton was a regular in the opening credits, but Saddam Hussein? As in the President of Iraq, that country in the Middle East occupied most televisions during the early ’90s? Surely a few kids watching Animaniacs at the time knew the reference, but they didn’t really know any of the details — other than Hussein was a bad man.
Yet the show tackled the defeated dictator three years after the hostilities encountered during the First Gulf War by comparing him to a waiter in the “Baghdad Cafe,” a restaurant Yakko and Wakko wanted to visit. What they called a “restaurant” was actually Hussein’s palace, which was under siege by unknown (but presumably coalition) forces. In the end, Dot stand-in Slappy Squirrel grew tired of the sketch, stuffed dynamite into Hussein’s pants and left. Okay, kids, can you say “propaganda?”
What is “All the Words in the English Language?”
If one rendition of the “Mexican Hat Dance” wasn’t enough, the cartoon decided to gift kids with a second iteration in the form of “All the Words in the English Language.” Sure, Yakko did a very good job of reciting the names of every country in the world (of 1993) in “Yakko’s World,” but what about every word in the English dictionary? Was such a feat even possible?
The oldest Warner brother gave it a shot, and his sister Dot and American Olympic figure skater Dick Button even provided commentary throughout the entire ordeal. The segment itself is only four minutes long, as it skips over dozens of letters covered in the song. Dot and Button even spend some time discussing whether or not a “mistake” in the F’s could have ruing on Yakko’s attempt. Fear not, for he made it all the way to the end of the dictionary and exclaimed the word “Zaire” before passing out on stage.
What is “The Presidents Song?”
Recalling the names of every state and capital city in the United States is one thing, but what about the nation’s 42 presidents (ending with Bill Clinton)? “The Presidents Song” was set to Gioachino Rossini’s “William Tell Overture.” All ’90s kids who were conscious in 1991 remembered it from An American Tail: Fievel Goes West, as well as the popular “Beef, It’s What’s For Dinner” commercials.
Dot, Wakko and Yakko simply named some of the presidents in passing. Others, like George Washington, had famous myths like his chopping down the cherry tree repeated. Certain details like Abraham Lincoln’s assassination were glossed over, but hey — despite all the innuendos, Animaniacs was still a children’s television program. The three-and-a-half-minute long song poignantly ended with some advice for future presidents: “The next president to lead the way / Well, it just might be yourself one day / Then the press will distort everything you say.”