From the moment they were introduced in the Animaniacs story, “Win Big,” Pinky and the Brain became the most important laboratory mice in television history. It was the first time that the lovable, dimwitted Pinky would ask his best friend Brain, “What do you want to do tonight?” The reply, as any ‘90s junkie can still readily tell you: “The same thing we do every night, Pinky. Try to take over the world.” They’re laboratory mice, their genes have been spliced, and they would become so popular over Animaniacs’ early run that in 1995 The WB wanted Pinky and the Brain to not only be its own series, but also a cornerstone of the new network’s primetime schedule.
Unfortunately, the two cartoon mice who wanted to take over the world couldn’t even conquer their time slot. After four years, a move to the Kids WB Saturday morning lineup, and some network tinkering, the quest to take over the world fizzled out. Perhaps the adult humor was too ahead of its time and simply too smart, or maybe the WB executives should have just stuck to counting the beans. Whatever the reason, Pinky and the Brain left a void in the hearts of both fans and cast members, as the actors who provided the voices for these mice and their cohorts still hold the series in high regard today.
Meet Pinky and the Brain who want to rule the universe…
When it came to picking the right voice actor for the role of Brain, there was only one man for the job: Maurice LaMarche. In fact, as LaMarche recalls, he was the first and only man to audition for the role, because he had a lot of experience and his Orson Welles frozen peas rant impression was already a thing of legend. “I saw the model sheet for Brain, with that furrowed brow and dour expression and pudgy cheeks, I thought immediately, ‘Oh, this is Orson Welles,’” he tells us. “I did Welles with the dialogue and they went, ‘Oh my God, that’s genius. We didn’t think of that!’ They cast me on the spot. I was the first and last person to read for Brain.”
Except, as LaMarche later learned, showrunner Tom Ruegger wasn’t thinking about Welles at all. After previously creating Tiny Toon Adventures and Animaniacs, Ruegger worked with a writer and artist named Tom Minton, whose credits also include Phineas and Ferb, Freakazoid!, and Duck Dodgers, among others. Minton’s writing partner at the time was a man named Eddie Fitzgerald, who was known to say things like “Narf” and “Egad,” and they were the actual inspirations for Pinky and Brain.
It’s pretty self-explanatory.
According to LaMarche, the exact idea for the characters came from Ruegger observing “this odd couple” that was always together, and asking, “What if Eddie and Tom tried to take over the world? What if they were lab mice?” With Brain’s voice taken care of, all they needed was Pinky and they could get to work answering Ruegger’s question.
Like LaMarche, Rob Paulsen already had a lot of experience in animation voice work, including Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Disney’s afternoon cartoons DuckTales, Darkwing Duck, and Gummi Bears, among others. But his work on Tiny Toons Adventures landed him the Animaniacs gig, and the voices for Pinky and the Brain were set. While LaMarche had “the perfect fit” for Brain, though, Paulsen’s idea for Pinky came from a different place.
“I was a huge fan of the Pythons, Peter Sellers, and The Goon Show, and a huge fan of British comedy when I was growing up,” he explains. “I just had a thought that it would be fun to do a British accent for Pinky, just a goofy whack job. For some reason Steven [Spielberg] seemed to like it and they went together.”
The executive producer of Tiny Toons Adventures, Animaniacs, and Pinky and the Brain, in fact, loved everything about LaMarche and Paulsen’s performances. Spielberg kept (and perhaps still keeps) Pinky and Brain figurines on his desk and even turned to them for inspiration. “Jean McCurdy [former head of Warner Bros. animation – ed.] told this story about having had a meeting with Steven and there was a small lull in the conversation,” LaMarche recalls. “He just picked up the Pinky and the Brain figures and kinda sang the theme song for a few seconds, dancing them around on his desk, stopped, looked at Jean and said, ‘I just love these guys.’ It was a surreal thing, imagining our greatest modern film director singing, ‘We’re Pinky and the Brain, we’re Pinky and The Brain…’ But apparently he did. He loved Pinky and The Brain.”
To prove their mousey worth, they’ll overthrow the Earth
There’s a joke in “A Pinky and the Brain Christmas,” which aired on December 13, 1995, that perhaps best sums up the adult appeal of this cartoon. Pinky says, “Look, Brain, the reindeer are inviting the elves to a party at Donner’s house,” to which Brain replies, “For some reason, the idea of joining the Donner party is unappealing.” It’s safe to assume that cannibal humor flew right over the heads of any children watching, while parents either chuckled with delight or shook their heads in disgust. Either way, a goal was achieved.
“We knew as we were recording the first one, that’s when we wondered if the kids were going to get it, and that’s when Tom [Ruegger] explained, ‘I want this to be a show, and Steven wants this to be a show, that adults and kids can enjoy together and doesn’t talk down to one group or pander to the other,’” LaMarche says. “Just like the Warner Bros. cartoons, which used to play in front of major feature films, so they wrote them so that everyone in the audience could enjoy the different levels of humor. It was a real treat to work on something that didn’t talk down to anybody. In fact, at the end of every Pinky and the Brain episode, once it became its own show, there was always a gag credit that was a $1,500 word, with its definition underneath it. It was the kind of show that dared to be smart.”
The show didn’t just take shots at failed pioneer expeditions from the 1840s. The humor was surprisingly topical, as Ruegger and co. pulled headlines right from the news and even poked a little fun at Hollywood’s biggest stars in the process.
“We had episodes that referenced sexual harassment, workplace comedic themes, we parodied the O.J. Simpson trial, and I believe we were the first to poke fun at Christopher Walken’s odd speech patterns, simply because the writers knew Jeff Bennett did him so well, so they wrote it into one of the episodes,” LaMarche explains. “Heck, one episode even had the word ‘damn’ in it. Brain actually said, ‘Damn,’ which was when we were trying to be a bit more Simpsons-like.”
Compared to the era’s other revolutionary cartoons, like The Ren & Stimpy Show and Beavis and Butt-head, “damn” doesn’t seem like much. But this was a network television series, so “damn” was about as risqué as they could get. The cable toons were pushing the envelope, but Pinky and the Brain was paying tribute to the classics that set the standard for a perfect balance of humor aimed at adults and children.
“Those were the best cartoons,” says voice actor Billy West, who joined Pinky and the Brain later in its run. “Rocky and Bullwinkle, there was something in it for adults to have a good laugh on and then it was for kids, too. I thought the best cartoons were the ones that were able to do that. The cartoons that I did like Ren & Stimpy and Doug, they were part of that renaissance. It was a revival.”
Same thing we do every night: try to take over the world
After two years as arguably the most beloved secondary characters on Animaniacs, Pinky and Brain made their move to the big time. When the spinoff, Pinky and the Brain, debuted in prime time on September 9, 1995, the writing remained impressively intelligent. The show’s stars knew it, too.
“When they started talking about spinning off Pinky and the Brain, we thought, ‘Wow! We’re the flagship show on this new network called The WB!’ and it still amazes me,” says LaMarche. The goal was for Pinky and the Brain to be The WB’s Simpsons, which kicked off its seventh season a week after the mice debuted in primetime. But there would never be much of a comparison because the new series was going up against a television titan of another kind.
“We thought it had an adult sensibility,” LaMarche remembers. “We thought, we’re going to be more or less The WB’s answer to The Simpsons, although we were on an hour earlier than them and got completely drubbed by 60 Minutes. We thought we’d be an alternative to people who may not want to watch a news magazine at 7 p.m. But it turned out practically everybody wanted a news magazine on Sunday at 7 p.m! 60 minutes was a juggernaut. It’s been around a long time, and it’s still a top-rated show! So, we realized there was no way to beat it, or even come close, but we were just delighted at the time that this was going to be a primetime show. It felt great.”
The decision to go all-in with Pinky and the Brain was made by Jamie Kellner, who was an executive at Fox during the rebellious network’s first years, when The Simpsons debuted. In Kellner’s seven-year run as the president of The WB, plenty of shows found success, including Gilmore Girls and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. However, Paulsen believes that Pinky and the Brain was ultimately just a hope and a prayer, and the only people who would miss it in primetime would be the most loyal of fans.
“Even though you’re a small network and you’re not going to get huge numbers, anybody opposite 60 Minutes is going to get killed,” he says. “It’s been there for 100 years. I think they did it to try it and see what would happen.”
After one season running in primetime and Saturday mornings, the show moved exclusively to Saturday mornings. And then the tinkering began.
It’s Pinky and the Brain… and Larry! And Elmyra!
One of the flaws that the network saw in Pinky and the Brain was that it was simply a show about two characters. Sure, plenty of other characters showed up in the adventures, but in 1997 the Kids WB brass suggested to showrunner Ruegger and his writers that they add a third character to shake things up a little. Obviously, the creative team didn’t care for this recommendation at all, so they responded by adding a third character to one episode to mock the unwanted input. That character was Larry and his presence had one purpose.
“One day Gordon Bressack, a writer, wrote an episode called ‘Pinky and the Brain and Larry,’ and it was with this mouse who looked like Larry Fine from The Three Stooges and it sounded like him,” offers West, who provided the voice of Larry. “He was there for no apparent reason when they were singing, ‘We’re Pinky and the Brain!’ and I’d go, ‘And Larry!’ They finally realized there was a third person with them who kept announcing his name. It was just so beautiful and abstract, and I don’t know, I was very lucky because I admired the show so much.”
West’s timing in moving to Los Angeles was perfect, because the show needed a Larry and he just so happened to do a perfect Larry Fine impression. Larry’s presence was a reminder to the network that this was a show about two mice. As LaMarche tells us, “The episode shows just how useless even a third talking mouse character would be, let alone a family or society of them, because every time Pinky and the Brain do a Pinky and the Brain kind of thing, Larry would just stick his head in and say, ‘And I’m Larry!’ And when his plan fails at the end Brain says, ‘I don’t know why the plan failed, Pinky, but I do know one thing — he is definitely the Larry.’ The Larry sort of became short form for ‘unnecessary third character for Pinky and the Brain to deal with.’ So the network suits relented and let it be simply Pinky and the Brain and their plans for taking over the world.”
In Larry, the cast and writers found happiness because it reaffirmed their strong chemistry and dedication to the show. Their victory, however, was short-lived, because in 1998 the network once again insisted that the show have a “broader cast of regular characters,” according to LaMarche, and this time it was set. Pinky and Brain were soon joined by Tiny Toons character Elmyra and fans were not pleased at all.
“I get the question all the time,” Paulsen says, “what was the idea with Pinky, Elmyra and the Brain? Why did they do that? Because most people didn’t like that and I understand why. It was essentially trying to squeeze more life out of this franchise. So had Pinky, Elmyra, and the Brain not been made, nobody would have missed it, including Maurice and me, even though we loved Cree Summer, Elmyra, a marvelous actress. It was an interesting idea on paper but just didn’t work.”
It certainly wasn’t Summer’s fault that Elmyra was forced into the big picture, essentially breaking Spielberg’s rule that Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain take place in “an entirely different universe” from Tiny Toons. When the show became Pinky, Elmyra, and the Brain in 1998, the opening theme song even included the line, “It’s what the network wants, why bother to complain?” The end was clearly at hand.
“These characters all vibrated at a different level,” LaMarche admits. “To bring in Elmyra, who was a Tiny Toons character, seemed odd and it also seemed that, here we were, in the Larry predicament again. As great a character as Elmyra was, she was now more annoying and clueless than Pinky, and that left Pinky as… well, the Larry. Brain was the extreme, the intelligent, the obsessed. Elmyra was the annoying and stupid, and Pinky became the voice of reason, heaven help us, and that was not the chemistry that made those two guys work. So we kind of knew that this was about it. This was the end of Pinky and the Brain because this was, clearly, not the original show.”
The Earth remains a goal, some things they can’t control
LaMarche, Paulsen, and West have undoubtedly had amazing careers in animation, still providing the voices in cartoons that are enjoyed by both kids and adults today. But they never stopped thinking about Pinky and the Brain, because Paulsen has had a movie on his mind for quite some time. He says he’s not alone either, but that’s not necessarily a reason for fans to get their hopes up.
“Peter Hastings, myself, and Tom Ruegger have talked about going to Steven to pitch a Pinky and the Brain movie,” Paulsen reveals. “I don’t know because I’m just an actor, but I believe that if there is such a thing as a stumbling block, it might be that it and Animaniacs are both co-owned by Warner Bros. or Steven or Amblin, I guess it would be Dreamworks or whatever, but they both have equal shares and ownership and creativity. So to that extent, for lack of a better word, the hassle of getting it made, it’s camaraderie because it’s owned by two entities.”
LaMarche is also reluctant to spread hope for a new plan for world domination, but for a different industry reason.
“I used to hope they’d make a Pinky and the Brain movie,” he says. “That was my dearest hope about five years ago. Then I realized, as the studios began rebooting everything ever made, that if they remade it they’d have to reinvent it, which means Rob and I would be out. And you’d hear celebrities in the voice of Pinky and Brain, and if we were lucky we might get to do some weird on-camera cameo somewhere in the pic so we could be a trivia question: ‘Which janitors at Acme Labs are played by the ORIGINAL Pinky and the Brain actors?’ I’m not in any rush to watch anybody else play the Brain or Pinky. And I don’t think it’s going to happen. So leave it as it is. Leave it on the pedestal it belongs on, unaltered. In my opinion, it’s great the way it was. And I’m not talking only about my performance or even Rob’s. It’s all of it — writing, terrific animation, the music, it stands alone as it is.”
Movie or no movie, Pinky and the Brain should at least find its way back to television. Today’s kids could definitely use a smarter, more adorable cartoon supervillain.