How The ‘Animaniacs’ Dream Team Crafted Songs That Still Get Stuck In Your Head 20 Years Later

When Tom Ruegger first teamed with Steven Spielberg on Tiny Toon Adventures in 1990 he had his heart set on eventually doing something that didn’t involve the classic Warner Bros. characters. “My goal was to make something that was original on its own,” he tells us. His idea started with three ducks, but of course, Warner already had a legendary duck named Daffy and Tiny Toons had Plucky Duck.

Spielberg argued that if Ruegger wanted to create a series about a duck he should just use Plucky because he was a “marquee name.” But the animator declined and took a walk across the Warner lot to consider his options. When he spotted the famed Warner Bros. water tower, he had a moment of inspiration. Instead of three ducks, he’d develop a show featuring “generic cartoon characters from the ’30s” and they’d have been locked away in the tower because of their rambunctious nature. “Suddenly they became the Warner Brothers and their sister Dot,” he says, and eventually they’d be joined by more than 20 other characters.

Aside from aiding in inspiration, Spielberg brought the ability to do whatever he wanted. And what Spielberg wanted from Animaniacs was a great cartoon. To accomplish this, Ruegger assembled not only an amazing voice cast but also a musical “Dream Team” that could give Animaniacs a truly memorable collection of sounds and songs. More than 20 years later, fans still love the show and the music enough that some of the original voice actors, writers, and musicians are making plans to hit the road for a live tour. Before they do, they were kind enough to share the origin story of some of Animaniacs‘ greatest musical numbers.

The Music Makers

The music for Animaniacs was recorded at the Warner Stage where composer Carl Stalling produced his Looney Tunes scores for 22 years, a location whose symbolic importance was not lost on Ruegger. Composer Richard Stone, who passed away in 2001, assembled an orchestra that featured as many as 40 musicians creating the songs and sounds of Animaniacs. The show’s crew even referred to him as “The Great Stontini.” “Richard Stone and crew, really their job was daunting,” Ruegger says. “They basically had 22-minute wall-to-wall music to write for every half hour but they sure came through. The show may not have looked perfect, but it always sounded fabulous.”

A strong mutual respect developed between writers and musicians, to the point that the writers couldn’t wait to hear the music that Stone’s orchestra created for their lyrics, and the musicians couldn’t wait to hear each episode’s jokes. As writer Randy Rogel recalls, recording a cartoon in the ‘90s was a far more elaborate process, especially with the involvement of a large orchestra. Being able to watch Stone finish the songs from his podium was a truly magical experience for everyone.

“In those days these musicians came in, they sat down, the music was in front of them. Rich would drop the baton and everybody would play, and that was the first time we ever heard it and knew what it sounded like,” Rogel says. “Then Rich would stop and it was just incredible, he’d say, ‘Okay woodwinds, that’s a B natural.’ And I’m like, how the hell did you hear that in all of that? But these guys are really fine, fine musicians so it was an exciting process to see that level of talent and ability. And then you had the actors doing their singing and all that, it was a pretty remarkable time.”

Steve and Julie Bernstein were two of the musicians who made up Stone’s composing team for the series and part of their jobs included saving the show money in legal fees. As Steve explains, “Julie worked on a ton of the songs, there were a zillion of them and a lot of them were parodies of other songs, of other existing material. Julie became a specialist in kind of turning them upside down and sideways so nobody got sued.”

“As a writer I want to make sure it’s a good song,” Julie adds. “That’s what’s really difficult. I’m taking something that was already really good. I’m taking something that was usually a great song, like ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow.’ Perfect song, gorgeous song, beautiful song. And now we have to write something, I guess you could call it a sound-alike. Because everyone will recognize it when they hear it. But it can’t be the same. Plus, I want to write something that is going to be really good in and of itself. So, I would study the song, figure why it is that it works, where the notes fall exactly. I really look at the real song and why it worked so well, then try to write one. But it has to be different or we could be sued for writing, for imitating it. I would go farther than just write different notes — six notes are the same and the seventh goes off because there’s a law that if seven notes in a row are the same then you can get sued.”

Composer Carl Johnson also worked under Stone and refers to that time as a “mentorship relationship.” Johnson would work on seven minutes of an episode, as would the five other composers, and then Stone would gather his team to look at what they had so they could piece everything together. Stone ultimately defined the style of the show, sitting with his composers and reviewing their music to see what worked and what didn’t.

The Lyricists

Rogel was working as a writer for Batman: The Animated Series when he heard about Animaniacs. “It wasn’t necessarily a music show,” he recalls, but his creations, “I’m Mad” and “Yakko’s World,” are two of the show’s defining songs. The latter caught Spielberg’s attention and defined Rogel’s role.

“My son Ryan, his grandmother bought him a globe for his birthday,” Rogel says. “I was showing him the countries of the world. I said, ‘Well, here’s United States, Canada, Mexico, Panama…’ and I thought, that would make a good song. I sat down one day and just on a whim — nobody had hired me to write this song — began to play with it. And as I developed it and thought, wow, maybe that would fit there. So, I crafted the song so that it has internal lines. I had to go, ‘United States, Canada, Mexico, Panama, Haiti, Jamaica, Peru. Republic Dominican, Cuba, Caribbean, Greenland…’ so the rhymes had to be internal as well as the end of each line. The other challenge was I was now thinking, I’ll do this for animation, the audience is going to be looking at it on the screen, so I needed the countries close to each other. I couldn’t have him jumping all over the map, it had to flow. Notice the song stays in North American, Central America, and South America. Then the globe turns and we go to Europe and do that. And then we go to Asia, then Africa, so it flows visually and that was the tricky part. By the end of it I was running out of countries!”

Though Yakko did jump around a bit at the end because of the leftover countries being so hard to work with, Rogel credits the late director Rusty Mills with making it all look so great. It sounded great, too, with Spielberg so enamored with the song that he sent Rogel a piano with a note that read: “You’re going to be my little Gershwin.”

While Rogel was Spielberg’s Gershwin, writer Nicholas Hollander came from a musical family and so he was constantly coming up with new songs in his head. In fact, he came up with so many songs that he had to keep an old cassette recorder in his car to keep track of his ideas because he kept losing them before he could get to the office. He wrote “Dot’s Quiet Time” while driving around Los Angeles. He came up with “A Place Called Home” for Rita and Runt while he was lost in a parking garage, but was able to keep singing it to himself until he got back to the office to record it. Hollander also drew inspiration from the arts as well.

“The hippos, I wrote a small opera for them called ‘La Behemoth,’ and that was just because I went to the opera a few times in L.A. and found it bizarre, which at the time was quite high-brow and went over my head,” he admits. “But at the time, I thought it was a little bit pompous and the hippos were pompous and so it seemed like the perfect idea for the hippos. There’s that magical fit again.”

The Voices

Other songs didn’t rely on musicians as much as they relied on vocal talents. Maurice LaMarche is a giant in the field of voice acting, and while he didn’t provide the voice for Wakko, he did deliver the most important aspect of one of Wakko’s most memorable performances: “The Great Wakkorotti.”

“We did three or four of those,” Ruegger recalls. “They were these songs where Wakko would take the stage at the Hollywood Bowl and he would play ‘The Blue Danube’ or some other tune and he would burp the melody. They were really beautifully rendered. Maurice was an expert burper, so we literally had Maurice burp, burp, burp, and burp links of notes. We had him do the musical scale in burps and then Russell Brower, who was our sound effects engineer who is now the composer of World of Warcraft at Blizzard, took all of Maurice’s burps and basically auto-tuned songs out of them.”

When it came to the voices for Yakko and Dot, there was little question as to who would be singing the names of countries and planets or playing the cute one. As Rob Paulsen puts it, he and Tress MacNeille already had “a good foot in the door” because of their work on Tiny Toon Adventures, and MacNeille’s ability to do a variety of voices and impressions certainly made casting director Andrea Romano’s job easier. Jess Harnell, the eventual voice of Wakko, on the other hand, had gone from singing in rock bands and creating jingles for commercials to performing character voices on the Splash Mountain ride at Disneyland.

At his audition for Animaniacs, Harnell was asked by Romano to offer some impressions, beginning with Elvis Presley, which still makes the actor laugh when he thinks of The King saying, “Hello nurse!” Then Romano asked, “Why don’t we try one like The Beatles?”

“I said, ‘Which Beatle do you want?’ And she was like, ‘Don’t they all sound the same?’ I said, ‘No they don’t all sound the same, that’s ridiculous.’” he explains. Harnell then proceeded to put on a clinic, explaining the subtle differences between the voices of John, Paul, George, and Ringo before asking once more which one Romano wanted. “Let’s do John,” she said, prompting Harnell to start talking like John, uttering eventual signature phrases like, ‘Hello nurse!’ and ‘Mr. Baboo’ before a picture of the character caused him to make a slight adjustment. “He was very small, he was a little guy. I was like, a little guy can’t sound like an older man, that would be weird. So, I made his voice smaller and next thing you know that was Wakko.”

Don’t bother wondering why Wakko has a British accent while Yakko and Dot do not, though. Harnell says it’s all part of what made this series so ridiculous and fun.

“We Weren’t Making Teletubbies”

There may have been a lot of demands of the musicians, but they still loved recording. They couldn’t wait to cram into the control booth to not only see how the songs fit the animation, but they also wanted to hear the jokes.

“I think the directors were also silently polling to see what jokes got the most laughs in the control room,” Johnson says. “But one of the things that has given the show lasting appeal is that the humor was not written for kids. It was pretty topical and clever and didn’t play down to the kids, which I think kids pick up on very quickly — that if you talk to them like they’re little kids they’re going to get out.”

“We weren’t making Teletubbies,” Paulsen adds. “There were things that we did that we had to put the kibosh on because Mr. Spielberg felt it pushed the envelope or the censors. But there were a number of them that got through, one of them which was the ‘Finger Prince’ joke and that’s a really clever but very subversive joke. And there were other ones. We would lampoon famous people all through history. And then we even encountered the Devil, played oddly enough by Ron Perlman, and we would encounter him and take the piss out of him. But often we would do it in music and all sorts of innuendo. But that’s absolutely evident and we were cognizant of that always. Oh my God, the recording sessions, we had many times people went, ‘Are you freakin’ kidding me? There’s no way we’re going to get away with this.’ But it was absolutely by design.”

“We got away with things that clearly should not have been okay,” Ruegger laughs. “The thing about ‘Finger Prince,’ it’s not my understanding how that got through. It did. I don’t think we were intentionally trying to be too blue, really we weren’t, it was just odd what the network would come down on. At one point we did a show called ‘Little Drummer Warners’ and that’s an example of a show where we got the rights to use, monetarily, the rights to ‘Little Drummer Boy,’ and we did a jazz version of that, which I think was incredibly successful because you tend not to mess around with Christmas carols. That thing worked beautifully as a little jazz number, I thought. Now, there were people who thought that’s sacrilegious. So, we got a couple letters and the fact is it isn’t sacrilegious, it’s just celebratory.”

Most importantly, Ruegger and his writers were entertaining themselves, and they knew that their own kids liked the show, so it didn’t matter to them if people (or the network) questioned the adult content. Kids had the vivid characters and catchy songs to keep them captivated, while adults had, well, “Finger Prince.” Not every aspect was meant for kids, and as such Ruegger quips, “Our joke was that we were very popular with the prison population.” Even Spielberg wanted in on the adult humor, as he urged Rogel to write a song that lampooned Hollywood trade publication clichés.

“’Variety Speak‘ is just a wacky song,” Rogel explains. “That was actually Spielberg’s idea. He said, ‘I want the Warner Brothers, they’re making a movie in Hollywood and they don’t know how to do that so they have to learn how to read the Variety magazine.’”

An unintentional byproduct of the adult humor and musical brilliance, however, was that the show also became educational, something that Ruegger claims was not his intention. “I can promise you our goal was to not teach anybody anything,” he laughs. Rogel’s songs, in particular, contain a lot of facts about geography (even though some people have pointed out the mistakes) and Ruegger knew that, but he insists that there was no external pressure to make Animaniacs educational. The songs helped in that respect anyway, however. In 1990, three years before Animaniacs debuted, the Federal Communications Commission enacted the Children’s Television Act, which required networks that aired children’s programming to include more educational content. Rogel recalls a conversation he had with Warner Bros. Animation President Jean MacCurdy around 1994 in which she thanked him for making her job easier.

“You had all the superhero shows and playground shows, and people started getting called on the carpet for it so they started racing to do educational programming,” he remembers. “Jean MacCurdy told me, ‘I went to Washington and I played all those songs and they went, ‘Oh yeah, you guys are doing a great job.’ So, I was a little bit of a hero for her. I thought, well great, I wasn’t trying to do that but it certainly had that educational component.”

Hitting The Road

Despite the enviable collection of talent behind-the-scenes, the refusal to talk down to their audience, the show’s unintentional educational value, a Peabody award, and eight total Daytime Emmys, once Animaniacs hit 100 episodes and the film Wakko’s Wish was released on video, Warner Bros. pulled the plug. Apparently, the studio realized it could save a ton of money by airing the Japanese hit Pokémon, and so there was no point in making Animaniacs episodes that cost a lot of money. But that wasn’t the only reason the show ended. As with any successful enterprise, other companies were trying to poach Ruegger’s top talent. Some, including Rogel, went along with Ruegger to Histeria!, another Warner Bros. show, which carried over the Animaniacs spirit in some ways.

“When we went to Histeria!, I wrote some really fun songs about history and one of them was all the plays of Shakespeare, in a funny way,” says Rogel. “That won an Emmy Award. I remember I got a couple of letters from some college students saying, ‘Hey thanks, this one really helped me get through my Shakespeare course.’”

Earlier this year, Netflix added Animaniacs, and original fans, all grown up with kids of their own, welcomed the news. Seizing on the renewed interest, some of the original stars, writers, and musicians are taking Animaniacs Live on the road for a U.S. tour, playing the show’s best hits with massive orchestras. Rogel, Paulsen, Harnell, and MacNeille have already performed live, with the first show taking place with the 87-piece Colorado Orchestra in 2014, but now fans across the country will be able to sing along with “Yakko’s World” and hear hilarious stories.

Naturally, this nostalgia begs the question: Is there room for the new adventures of Yakko, Wakko, and Dot?

“It’s a good time for Animaniacs to come back,” says Paulsen, who calls Animaniacs Live a “labor of love” that he sees going strong for at least the next 10 years. “People who are in their late 20s, mid-30s who enjoyed Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain now often have children, or if nothing else they have this nostalgia and they want to have a couple of beers and watch these great cartoons. And the truth is they hold up really well and again, that’s a credit to Tom Ruegger and Steven Spielberg and their ability to know that you don’t condescend to the audience if you want to have something that lasts.”

Even if Animaniacs is done for good and relegated to streaming and a live road show, its impact is clear and measured in lessons (unintentionally) learned, laughs had, and in songs that are still getting stuck in people’s heads 20 years later.

Update: Apparently, it really is a good time for more Animaniacs. According to reports, the show is set to return with new episodes.