Last year I reminded you about Animaniacs, the prime-time cartoon series from the 1990s. It was a minor hit at the time but really hit a sweet spot with the now-forgotten Generation X. If you want to know why, look no further than this video:
Animaniacs wasn’t just smart, it was insidious. The show was so packed with pop culture references that it’s a wonder there was any plot. Not only that, but those references reached back not just a few years but decades.
Animaniacs as a mirror of a generation
The baby boomers were clearly the first television generation. TV grew from almost nothing at the end of World War II to total ubiquity a decade later, and those kids born in the 1950s lapped it up. But, I will suggest that no one had the same relationship with television as Generation X.
For baby boomers, television was a window into a new world of wonder. For Generation X, it was a pacifier, a babysitter, and a constant reminder of safety. While baby boomers enjoyed new television programming every day, Gen X’s relationship with television was shaped by the rerun.
TV channels in the 1970s and 1980s were filled with reruns of older shows. It wasn’t just the 15th airing of The Brady Bunch; it was the 100th airing (or more) of old Warner Brothers cartoons from the 1940s.
Those old Warner Brothers films taught a whole generation about culture. Many a “slacker” learned opera from Bugs Bunny and nihilism from Daffy Duck. To them, the world of the past was defined by the tracks it had left in television programs.
Animaniacs understood this. It should have made no sense to fill a childrens’ cartoon with references to 1930s Hollywood residents. But remember this was a prime-time show, and appealed to younger adults as much or more than it appealed to children. Those younger adults grew up on classic television and movies. This new cartoon was designed to reward all of their television viewing.
Why isn’t anyone else talking about this show?
With the current nostalgia for the 1990s, you would think everyone would be talking about Animaniacs. Yet, it’s not known as well as a lot of other pillars of pop culture. No, the show wasn’t as well rated as other TV shows of the time. But its heavy focus on pop culture should have made it a prime candidate for 90s nostalgia.
Do you remember this show? Do you still watch it? It’s on Hulu right now but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it moving to HBO Max in the coming months, as part of the overall migration of WB properties to HBO Max. It would be great to see this show remastered in high definition. As an animated show it was probably produced on film so it’s a great candidate for remastering. Even if the only surviving materials are on video tape or digital, it could still be remastered. Because animation has hard lines, algorithms can be used to give it more sharpness and more quality than it ever had.
Wakko, Jakko, and Dot in 4K. Imagine that for a second!