‘Freaka-Me, Freaka-You’: An Oral History of ‘Freakazoid!’
During the 1990s, one of the most prolific producers of Saturday morning cartoons was none other than Steven Spielberg. He started producing animated films in the 1980s, including the beloved classics An American Tail and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, before turning his attention to television with Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain. While those three cartoons were unqualified successes, a fourth Spielberg show struggled to find an audience but has since become a cult classic.
Freakazoid! was an irreverent superhero parody that began with Batman: The Animated Series alumni Bruce Timm and Paul Dini but was soon handed off to Tom Ruegger, the man responsible for overseeing Spielberg’s other animated series. It centered on computer nerd Dexter Douglas, who is zapped into the then-vaguely-understood “internet” and turned into a mentally deranged, Jerry Lewis-like do-gooder named Freakazoid.
Packed with fantastic animation, sharp gag writing and a stellar vocal cast that included legends like Ed Asner and David Warner, Freakazoid! had the makings of a success. However, it never quite found an audience, lasting just 24 episodes before being pulled from the airwaves. Nevertheless, it retained a dedicated fanbase, and the titular character was revived recently on an episode of the much-loved Teen Titans Go!.
To discuss the making of this cult cartoon, we’ve gathered Ruegger, along with series writers John P. McCann and Paul Rugg, the latter of whom also supplied the voice for the freakiest superhero ever to invade Saturday mornings…
Tom Ruegger, executive producer and showrunner of Freakazoid!: In January of 1995, I was called in by Jean MacCurdy and Steven Spielberg. Bruce Timm and Paul Dini were developing something with Steven called Freakazoid!, and Steven said, “It’s just not working out the way I want it. I need it to be funny, and I want your sense of humor on it.” Of course, I was flattered by that and told him I’d give it a shot.
Paul and Bruce had already dropped out of Freakazoid! before Steven even talked to me. All I really know of what happened with Paul and Bruce were the drawings that existed — that’s it. I was handed some of those drawings and headed home. From Friday until Monday, over a very rainy weekend, I just sat down and wrote superhero comedy stuff. I didn’t even know who Freakazoid was yet; I just knew he was nuts. The concept I had was that he defeated villains by being super zany and driving them crazy.
Now, again, this was January of 1995, and Steven told me that it needed to premiere in the fall, so there wasn’t a lot of time. That weekend, I wrote 90 pages of craziness. I didn’t stop to think. I just wrote any notion of an idea regarding a superhero who was nutty. When I sent that to Steven, he said, “This is good. Full speed ahead on this show.” Although he did say that he’d like to see more story substance because it was all short little bits.
Then I went to Paul Rugg and John McCann and said, “I’m doing this superhero show called Freakazoid! Would you guys like to be involved?” They asked what it was, and I told them, “I don’t know what it is.” They’re both very good comedians, and my brilliant move was getting them involved.
Paul Rugg, writer on Freakazoid! and the voice of Freakazoid: My forte wasn’t superheroes, nor was John’s, so both of us were like, “Uh, okay” when Tom brought us on. I think, ultimately, that’s why it worked. We did what we thought Monty Python would do if they did a superhero show, with some Animaniacs thrown in.
When it came to writing, there were really three different versions of Freakazoid! Tom was writing sort of Looney Tunes stuff that was crazy, while John did more cerebral stuff, and I was sort of playing the middle ground, trying to have fun with each page. When we combined all of that, we had a direction.
John P. McCann, writer on Freakazoid!: We had each written scripts on who we thought Freakazoid should be. We were mostly guided by the artwork. We knew he was a maniacal crime fighter, but we had to figure out what that meant, and we had to figure it out quickly. Ultimately, we found it through experimentation because we had to begin writing right away. It came gradually, but it seemed funner to play him against type. There were superheroes awash at that time, and we thought it might be good to play him for laughs.
Ruegger: We had huge trouble casting Freakazoid.
Rugg: Tom, John, and I were all kind of writing a feeling, not a specific voice. When it came to casting him, we told people, “Freakazoid is this crazy lunatic,” and we quickly realized those were the wrong words to use.
Ruegger: Everyone came in with this wacky voice — it was brutal. I just hated every one of them more than the last. I thought, “This will be the worst show of all time. If Freakzoid is talking for more than three seconds, you’ll want to kill yourself.”
Rugg: After a lot of bad auditions, Tom told me, “Paul, why don’t you get in the booth, and we’ll do a little recording to play for the actors that come in?” When I got in there, we discovered that Freakazoid was normal at moments, then sort of bizarre at other moments. Freakazoid’s voice is just my voice, really. Then there’s just heightened moments of me.
Ruegger: While everyone else did these crazy voices, Rugg had a home base of normal. He’d do some zany things and this Jerry Lewis voice, but he gave a straight performance overall. I also had him go off-script, and that’s when we really found it. After that, we sent in all those auditions, along with Rugg, to Steven. I said, “I think this is the voice,” and Steven said, “I think you’re right.”
Rugg: That was the sort of unceremonious way I became the voice of Freakazoid. Thing is, I had no idea that Tom was going to send that to Steven. I wasn’t thrilled, to be honest. It was a lot of pressure to write and be the voice of this character. I was also a little afraid that I might be cut out of the loop with the notes during recording, but we figured that all out, and after a couple of episodes, I really began to enjoy it.
Even after figuring Freakazoid himself out, we still struggled with what the show was. But when we brought in the cast like Ed Asner and David Warner, things started to make sense.
Ruegger: Many of the characters existed from the drawings, but we didn’t use all of them — there was a villainous nun that we skipped for religious reasons. We also developed new characters, like The Lobe, who became his biggest villain.
The character of Cosgrove, Freakazoid’s cop friend, was only going to be in that first episode, “The Dance of Doom.” We wanted to have a cop tell Freakazoid that the villain, Cave Guy, was doing a Carrie at the prom and creating havoc. John McCann’s writing was so funny and idiosyncratic that Cosgrove turned into this guy who was barely there: “Hey, uh, Freakazoid, there’s a guy wrecking the prom.” Then Freakazoid says, “Gee, should I go stop him?” and Cosgrove says, “Well, I would if I were you. But that’s me.” He’s this cop who’s supposed to be helping, but he’s really not. He just sends the superhero instead.
He wasn’t supposed to be a regular, but then we got Ed Asner, and when you get Ed Asner in a show, you make him a regular.
Rugg: If you want to know what Freakazoid! is about, really, it’s the friendship with Cosgrove and Freakazoid and all the weird stuff they’re into.
Ed Asner was a lot of fun to record with. When he came in to do Cosgrove in the very first script, he began reading the lines aloud to himself. He wasn’t acting; he wasn’t doing anything. John McCann heard that and said, “That’s it right there.” We said, “Ed, you see what you’re doing now?” He replied, “I’m just reading it,” and we said, “There’s Cosgrove.” We then began writing in that very matter-of-fact way. Asner understood it, too. He never really needed direction.
We always had our recording sessions at 2 p.m., but we told everyone that, before that, we were going to have pizza from Barone’s in the break room. Ed was always there at 1 p.m., and pretty soon, all the actors were coming at 1 p.m. We’d just sit around this table telling jokes and stories. Then our voice director, Andrea Romano, would come in and say it’s time to record and we’d groan and head in.
Ruegger: Lord Bravery was another good character, which has a lot to do with that John Cleese-like voice provided by Jeff Bennett. The design of him was a spot-on caricature of John McCann wearing some weird Roman helmet garbage can lid. I loved Lord Bravery’s living conditions, which were so horrible. He was living with his mother-in-law and his wife, who are just crones.
I’m also fond of Candle… Well, the joke on the show was that you’re not supposed to say his name, so I won’t say his whole name, but he was very funny, and that was Bennett doing a Jack Palance impression.
Rugg: The Lobe was my favorite villain. He thought he was so brilliant, but he was so insecure. David Warner played it perfectly. He played it very serious, which made a lot of sense for the character.
Tim Curry was great as Dr. Mystico because it was so friggin’ bizarre. Also, anything with Ricardo Montalbán was such an experience. Like Ed Asner and David Warner, he was another one brought in by Andrea Romano. She suggested him for a part, and we were like, “Yeah, okay,” and next thing you know, Ricardo Montalbán is playing Armando Guitierrez.
I should also mention Joe Leahy, who played the narrator. We were only going to use him for the first episode, “Dance of Doom,” and quickly realized that he had to be in all of them.
Ruegger: The beauty of working on Freakazoid! was that anything we liked and found funny just made its way into the show. There was this funny weather report by Marty Feldman from the 1960s that always stuck in my head, so that made its way in there, and Paul Rugg did this very funny impression of radio star Paul Harvey, so that made it in, too. That’s why Freakazoid! was so bizarre and so hilarious.
McCann: I always liked “Dance of Doom,” which was the first one I wrote. “Mission: Freakazoid” from Season Two was also fun. I had a great time, I’ll tell you that. And they paid me too! That’s rarer than you’d think.
Ruegger: Freakazoid’s ongoing search for a sidekick was always funny, like Foamy the Freakadog and Expendable Lad, who would not survive the episode. Fanboy was another one, who we took to a Comic-Con and had attack Mark Hamill, who played himself. The Handman bit, where Freakazoid’s new sidekick is just his right hand with eyes painted on it, was just so funny. I remember Steven telling me, “I love Handman! That’s perfect!”
This reminds me — my very favorite episode of the ones I wrote was “Next Time, Phone Ahead” because it was very meta and very inside baseball. It opened like E.T., and these aliens had used Earth for a potty break. This one alien gets left behind and ends up rummaging through Dexter Douglas’ trash. Then we see this big looming shadow come out of the trash, and it says, “The End.”
Then we cut to an animated Steven Spielberg with all of the show’s writers and producers, and Steven says to us, “Freakazoid wasn’t even in that one; what are you guys doing?” We reply, “Well, we thought we could end this one early and show an episode of Animaniacs instead.” Steven says, “Okay, let’s do it,” and we cut to the opening of Animaniacs.
Then Steven breaks back in and says we can’t do that, so Steven tells us what the rest should be. It fades back into the story, and it’s this alien called Moron — later “Boron” because the real Steven didn’t like the name Moron — and Freakazoid shows Moron the ways of Earth, just like in E.T. Eventually, Moron phones home and gets picked up, and Dexter is left with this phone bill for the call. Then it cuts back to Steven, and he says, “What was that other idea you had? More Animaniacs? Let’s do that!”
From that episode, I got a note from Steven that read: “Dear Tom, Imagine my surprise when I popped in Freakazoid! ‘Next Time, Phone Ahead’ and got to watch Dexter as Elliott in Moron’s E.T. Now, complicate that thought with my further surprise to see me anchoring a story meeting with you and Jean and Paul et al, in the Amblin conference room perfectly rendered. Anyway, I love the chances you’re taking with this show, and furthermore, it gave me a little more insight into your commercial career dementia. I loved it. All my best, Steven.”
The End — and Renaissance — of ‘Freakazoid!’
Ruegger: For that first season, we had an order for 13 half hours and did okay, even though we got bounced around a lot. Still, we managed to get an order for another season. For the second season, the WB decided “Big kids go first” to try to optimize their ratings and beat FOX, so Freakazoid! was put on at 7 a.m. That did not help us at all in the ratings. We did so poorly they didn’t even run all of Season Two. The rest ran on cable (Cartoon Network).
McCann: In the spring of 1997, we had three episodes still in production, and they told us they were going to sell those to the Cartoon Network. We were done. We weren’t getting picked up. I think that’s what inspired Rugg to do the song “We’ll Meet Again” at the end of the final episode. It was nice to at least get that.
Rugg: That last episode made everyone cry. When we recorded “We’ll Meet Again,” we knew we’d been canceled, and I quickly wrote this segment with this song. Originally, they told us “no” because it wasn’t public domain, but I pleaded. “That’s how we have to go out. That’s how Kubrick went out with Dr. Strangelove, and that’s how we had to go out, too.” Finally, Jean MacCurdy let us do it.
Ruegger: After it was canceled, it popped up on different services like Cartoon Network, and I’ve learned over the years that people have fond memories of it. It’s been a slow build, but those who know it love it.
McCann: Over time, I started seeing more episodes and clips of Freakazoid! popping up on YouTube, and they had some healthy numbers behind them. I thought, “Better late than never.” Also, on Twitter, the sheer number of people who say to me, “Thanks a lot, Freakazoid! was a big part of my childhood,” is wonderful to hear.
Rugg: It’s been interesting to see the fanbase grow over time. After the first season, John and I had a panel at Comic-Con, and there were maybe 11 people who showed up. Then, 15 years later, when the Freakazoid! DVD came out, we were in Hall H of Comic-Con, and every seat was full. I told them, “Where the heck were you people?” In hindsight, though, I can’t imagine it going any other way. Twenty-four episodes was great, let Freakazoid! live in that weird little world he was in.
That being said, in 2019, the producer of Teen Titans Go! called me and was like, “Hey, we’d love to do a Freakazoid episode. We’ve already checked with Steven, and he’s okay with it.” I said, “Oh, great, yeah.” He also told me, “We’re going to write it, but do you want us to run the script by you for a punch-up?” I thought that was great of them, but I didn’t have to do much. They really understood Freakazoid. I only noodled with it a little bit.
It was a very pleasant experience. My only regret was that David Warner, Ed Asner and I all recorded separately. Those guys both passed recently, and it would have been nice to have us record together like we used to do on Freakazoid! Still, it was an honor, and they really got Freakazoid, so it was a nice experience.