5 Brilliant Meta Jokes ‘Tiny Toons,’ ‘Animaniacs’ and ‘Pinky and the Brain’ Made at the Expense of Their Networks
During the 1990s, Steven Spielberg got into the cartoon business with Warner Bros., giving us three clever series that were simultaneously fresh and a throwback to the classic days of the Warner Bros. theatrical shorts. Like Looney Tunes before them, Tiny Toons Adventures, Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain reveled in meta jokes, many of which were at the expense of the given network they appeared on.
While they were all WB properties, Tiny Toons, which launched first, began in syndication before moving to the Fox Kids lineup. Meanwhile, Animaniacs premiered on Fox but moved to Kids WB once Warner Bros. started its own network in 1995. It was later joined by Pinky and the Brain.
But again, regardless of who was in charge, characters on each series mocked their network, as any good animated anarchist would do...
After Tiny Toon Adventures moved to Fox, they immediately welcomed their new network overlords with the following bit: Babs and Buster Bunny are running for their lives to escape a pair of foxes. As they hid behind a tree, they started talking directly to the audience. “As you know, we’re on the Fox Network now,” Buster explained, “and to honor the occasion, Babs and I are proud to introduce you to some brand new characters: our enemies…” Which is when Babs chimed in with, “The Fox network executives!” The foxes then caught up with the bunnies, causing Babs to smash them with a mallet.
As soon as Animaniacs debuted, they declared themselves an enemy of the state. Their central antagonist was Thaddeus Plotz, Warner Bros.’ surly CEO who hates Yakko, Wakko and Dot. The siblings were most often seen tangling with Ralph, the security guard, but he was imprisoning them at Plotz’s behest.
The Wheel of Morality
Often used to pad out time when episodes were short, Animaniacs had a recurring sketch centered around “The Wheel of Morality.” The trio would spin the wheel, assigning a random, nonsensical moral to the entire episode. The wheel’s entire existence was a meta joke about how networks often want to assign deeper meaning to kids cartoons.
However, Yakko once hit the nail directly on the head. In one episode, Wakko and Dot protest Yakko spinning the Wheel of Morality, with Dot asking, “Who came up with this stupid Wheel of Morality idea anyway?” To which Yakko replied, “The execs at the Fox Kids Network.”
In Animaniacs’ Season Four premiere, the titular trio ends the episode by waving goodbye to the audience. As the credits roll, a “hot mic” joke captures what we assume was their typical post-episode banter. As soon as the lights die, Dot says, “Am I glad that’s over,” before they read the credits, calling everyone “overpaid, credit-grabbing do-nothings.” While they poke fun at Spielberg’s name and the writing staff’s skills, the best line goes to Yakko, who declares, “I’ve got a headache this big, and it’s got ‘Warner Bros.’ written all over it.”
Throughout Pinky and the Brain’s production, the WB constantly demanded more recurring characters than just the two mice. The writers regularly pushed back on this request and even dedicated an entire episode, “Pinky and the Brain… And Larry,” to criticizing the note.
In it, a third mouse, Larry, shows up without explanation. He just sat there in scenes, saying generic things like “Hi, there” and “I’m Larry” over and over again. The character looked and sounded like Larry Fine of The Three Stooges, and though the implication that Larry was a superfluous Stooge is clearly wrong, the meta joke of Larry, a mouse serving no purpose, was a fantastic gag at the network’s expense. The episode hilariously ends with Larry quitting and changing his name to “Art” before joining Paul Simon in a musical duo.
Sadly, the network got the last laugh as Pinky and the Brain only got one more season before getting canceled and restructured as Pinky, Elmyra & the Brain, a derided spin-off that saw the mice adopted by Elymyra from Tiny Toons.
The Wheel of Morality lesson here: The suits always win in the end, especially when you have too much fun at their expense.