NARF! An Oral History of ‘A Pinky and the Brain Christmas’

The show’s creator Tom Ruegger, writer Peter Hastings and the voices of Pinky and the Brain themselves reflect on the making of an Emmy-winning Christmas classic
NARF! An Oral History of ‘A Pinky and the Brain Christmas’

A few days before Christmas in 1995, the megalomaniacal mouse known as the Brain outlined his latest attempt at global domination for his dim-witted roommate Pinky. “My plan,” he explained, “is to get a Noodle Noggin doll into every home on the planet. And then, on Christmas day, we broadcast my hypnotic suggestion to the world (via the dolls) — that I shall be their ruler!” 

To get Brain’s mind-controlling dolls into all of those homes, he and Pinky took jobs as elves at the North Pole, tricked the elves into making a billion Noodle Noggins and used Santa Claus to distribute them. For once, Brain’s plan was actually successful, and global domination was within his grasp — if just for a moment. Moreover, the episode, “A Pinky and the Brain Christmas,” contained maybe the most heartfelt scene in the entire series when Brain reads Pinky’s letter to Santa: 

Dear Santa, 

Hello, haha, NARF! This year Santa, I ask for nothing, but I wish to tell you about my dear friend, the Brain. He is honest and very hard working, and only wants what’s best for the world. But he gets no reward. He is only greeted with defeat. He never gives up, but I know it must be very hard. So please, take anything that you have for me and give it to my best friend in the whole world, the Brain. 

Love, Pinky 

P.S. By any chance, do you have in that big old bag of yours, the world?

It’s a sequence that brought a tear to the eye of both Rob Paulsen and Maurice LaMarche  — the voices of Pinky and the Brain respectively — as well as fans at home, many of whom have made watching “A Pinky and the Brain Christmas” an annual tradition. 

Here to reflect on the making of a tale that will warm even the most diabolical of hearts are Paulsen and LaMarche, as well as Pinky and the Brain creator Tom Ruegger and writer Peter Hastings.

Peter Hastings, writer of “A Pinky and the Brain Christmas”: The very first Pinky and the Brain short, “Win Big,” was something I wrote on Animaniacs, and it ended up establishing a lot of Pinky and the Brain norms, like “Are you pondering what I’m pondering?” and “What do you want to do tomorrow night?” Many of us ended up with a specialty on Animaniacs, and I wrote most of the Pinky and the Brain shorts. 

At some point, Tom Ruegger and (president of WB Animation) Jean MacCurdy said they wanted me to write a Pinky and the Brain Christmas special. We didn’t discuss anything about it, I just went off and came up with two separate stories. One was that Brain saw the emotional value of Christmas specials, so he was going to make one with Pinky to manipulate people through their televisions. The other was a Santa story with Pinky and the Brain going to the North Pole. I took them both to Tom, and he said, “I think we’ve got to do Santa.”

Then I went to figure out the rest of it, and it was total torture. I just couldn’t figure the episode out. Still, there were some good jokes in there, my favorite being when Pinky mentions that the reindeer, Donner, is throwing a party and Brain says, “Somehow the idea of joining the Donner party is unappealing.”

Maurice LaMarche, the voice of the Brain: That was a joke just for the kids.

Hastings: We had a tremendous amount of freedom when we were writing that stuff. Part of it was Warner Bros. letting things slide, but another part of it was that the shows were all “Steven Spielberg Presents.” If Steven liked something, we knew it was in. We even had a rubber stamp made up that said, “Approved by Spielberg.” Once that stamp was on there, nobody was going to mess with the script.

From left to right, Tom Ruegger, Jean MacCurdy, Steven Spielberg, composer Richard Stone and Peter Hastings. (Courtesy of Peter Hastings)

As for the Christmas special, like I said, I was having a really tough time with it. I was sitting at my table at two in the morning, hoping they would cancel it or that I’d get fired — anything to be released from trying to figure out this story. Then I took out a notebook and started freewriting. Finally, I kind of stumbled into what is the money part of the whole episode — Pinky’s letter to Santa Claus

Rob Paulsen, the voice of Pinky: I remember reading this episode at home and thinking the ending with Pinky’s letter was very sweet. I showed it to my wife, and we both got a little misty.

LaMarche: The very touching ending took me entirely by surprise. During the rehearsal, there was a very real break in my voice when I ran through it. Unfortunately, it wasn’t recorded. After that, (voice director) Andrea Romano said we were always going to record the rehearsals, just in case there’s magic that you can’t perfectly recapture. 

Paulsen: Pinky and the Brain is essentially a love story. These two critters really do love and respect one another. It’s more obvious that Pinky loves and respects Brain, but the Brain loves and respects Pinky, too, and you can especially see it in the Christmas episode. That lovely scene at the end where Brain reads the letter and just comes apart — it’s beautiful. Pinky really is his best friend, and that’s the most important aspect of the show.

Tom Ruegger, creator of Pinky and the Brain: Pinky’s always been the heart and soul of the series, but with the Brain — when the unemotional character shows emotion, that's the power of storytelling come to life.

LaMarche: Brain’s veneer cracking in this episode was so real, in the moment and sincere. He realizes that he has this wonderful friend that would do anything for him. It’s clear from this episode that the Brain does have sweet feelings for Pinky, he just can’t show it. To admit that this goofball is the best friend he could ever hope for, it’s too much vulnerability for him to deal with.

In fact, Brain is so touched by Pinky’s letter that it supplants his desire to take over the world. I’m always surprised more people don’t mention it, but the Brain succeeds in this episode. He does take over the world for about 20 seconds. He’s got everyone in his sway with his hypnotic dolls, but he’s so moved by the goodness of Pinky that he decides to use his power to have everyone treat each other well on Christmas. He chooses to give everyone a merry Christmas. Then he smashes the machine that controlled all of his hypnotic dolls.

I asked Peter Hastings once why Brain had to smash the machine. Couldn’t he just wait until tomorrow when he wasn’t so overcome with emotion? Peter explained to me that it was important to the Brain not to take over the world in this way. 

Ruegger: “A Pinky and the Brain Christmas” was beautifully animated, beautifully directed by the late Rusty Mills, beautifully written by Peter and it genuinely makes people cry at the end — it’s so sweet. It aired as a special in primetime, and it won an Emmy for Best Animated Show that year, even beating out The Simpsons. Aside from a few technical Emmys, this was also the only series to ever win a primetime Emmy in the history of the WB channel. 

Hastings: From Tiny Toons to Animaniacs to even Pinky and the Brain, we writers often scoffed at heart. We were sarcastic jokers, and we were there to be funny — that was it. But over time, I’ve embraced being legitimately emotional in these stories, and it was perfectly appropriate for a Christmas story.

Paulsen: “A Pinky and the Brain Christmas” ticks all the boxes: It does exactly what you want in a Christmas episode; it reminds everyone of the spirit of Christmas and the spirit of giving; and it does so without proselytizing. Not to mention, it’s also really funny.

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