Sunday, May 03, 2015

The Unsweetened History of Animaniacs and the First Looney Tunes Star

(Discussed herein: the history of Warner Bros. animation, race in cartoons, the relative lack of female cartoon stars, the awesomeness of Sherri Stoner, the overlooked merits of Tiny Toons.)

If I were asked to compare Tiny Toons and Animaniacs (and I’m apparently asking myself to do that now), I would say that the former was more of a kids’ show and the latter got smarter, weirder, bigger and better. The jokes on Animaniacs stand up today, and the show plays more with the the nature of cartoons, the history of pop culture and Hollywood in general. But Tiny Toons laid all that groundwork, and a lot of the elements that I like so much about Animaniacs — goofing on cartoons, outdated cultural reference, and weird perspectives on show business — also appear in Tiny Toons, just to a lesser degree.

There is one Tiny Toons episode that does these things especially well, and in a way, works as a spiritual predecessor to Animaniacs: “Fields of Honey,” which first aired Nov. 2, 1990. In it, Babs becomes depressed because she has no female Looney Tunes legends to look up to. (She apparently has never heard of Granny or doesn’t consider her a star. Take that, Granny.) While in her school’s film vault, however, she discovers Honey, the female half of a cartoon pair that predates Bugs Bunny, and Babs sets out to find her.

The whole episode plays out as an homage to Field of Dreams, with a mysterious voice directing Babs make Honey’s films known in order to bring her out of hiding. She does this, and the laughter of the audience restores the youth of an old lady in attendance. She turns out to be Honey. And the voice telling her “If you build it…” turns out to be her old partner, Bosko, who had been working in the film vault. Finally reunited, Honey and Bosko dance off together.

It didn’t occur to me until recently how similar the episode is to the premise for Animaniacs, which has Yakko, Wakko and Dot being created in 1930 but deemed too crazy for cartoon audiences. They and their films are locked away, never to be seen again until they escape in modern day (or 1993, which was the modern day twenty-two years ago).

One of the recurring jokes on Animaniacs is that people aren’t sure what the Warner brothers (and sister) are supposed to be. They usually guess that they’re dogs — to which the siblings reply “We’re Warners” — and according to the official series bible, they’re members of the species Cartoonus characterus. But they also look a hell of a lot like Honey and Bosko in that Tiny Toons epsiode: They’re (mostly) black and white in the way that Honey and Bosko are, which is also the way a lot of early “funny animal” cartoons like Mickey Mouse looked too. Dot especially reminds me of Honey. And they’re dog-like, but not explicitly dogs.

There’s even a quick joke in “Fields of Honey” in which Plucky points out that he’s not quite sure what the hell Honey is supposed to be.

The way Buster shushes Plucky may be more significant than it appears to be. Here’s the thing: Honey and Bosko were not initially animals. In his first cartoon in 1929, “Bosko the Talk-Ink Kid,” Bosko is a caricature of an African-American boy and speaks in what Leonard Maltin terms “a southern Negro dialect” in his book Of Mice and Magic.

Here is that cartoon, which is also notable in the way it merges live action, animation and speech.

In Bosko’s second cartoon, “Sinkin’ in the Bathtub,” he’s given a less deep voice, but the accent is still there. Also, this short introduces Honey.

The Wikipedia section on Bosko’s Looney Tunes career goes back and forth about how race figures into into the character. “Congo Jazz” may be the short that seems most offensive by today’s standards because it plays up the similarity between Bosko and monkeys living in the African forest.

However, “Bosko in Person” — the short that Babs watches a Tiny Toons-friendly version of in “Fields of Honey — features Honey singing in the style of Billie Holiday, and that’s notable because, as Kevin Sandler writes in Reading the Rabbit: Explorations in in Warner Bros. Animation, it marks a “nonracist racial tribute to a real person.”

In Bosko’s last Warner Bros. short, he looks like how he did in most of the Bosko shorts, but when his creators left Warner Bros. and moved to MGM in shortly thereafter, Bosko underwent a redesign that made him explicitly black and human.

Only seven of these shorts were produced, and then character was subsequently retired. I’m not clear how Warner Bros. was able to retain the rights to Bosko, but he didn’t show up again until “Fields of Honey,” in which he sported a new, non-human look.

Bosko also appeared in 1996’s Space Jam, but in his human form and as a portrait hanging in the background.

via toonzone
And he also appeared in a 1996 Animaniacs short that makes fun of Betty Boop cartoons. (I can only find the French version, however. My deepest apologies.) He’s parking his car around the 36-second mark, and it’s the non-dog version of him once again.

I’m not sure why Warner Bros. reverted to the human Bosko after “Fields of Honey.” I guess with that version of Bosko and Honey making the connection between the old cartoons, Tiny Toons and Animaniacs, Warner Bros. didn’t feel the need to hide him by making him an animal anymore, but that is what I feel the Tiny Toons version was doing — consciously polishing out aspects of old cartoons that seem controversial by the early ’90s.

There’s even this line in the episode where Elmer Fudd talks about how some of the things they could get away with back in the day are no longer acceptable.

I love Animanics, and I think if you do too, it’s worth appreciating the decades of animation history that had to happen so we could get that show. And even today, I’m surprised by how much pop culture and Hollywood history I learned by watching — even if it took me a few decades to make all the connections.

Miscellaneous notes:
  • In case you’re wondering if Bosko is named after the Bosco brand of chocolate syrup — you know, because he’s black, but also because that pairs nicely with his girlfriend being named Honey — I’m not sure he is. Hugh Harman apparently created the character in 1927 and copyrighted the character in 1928. The chocolate product was first produced in 1928, so the similar names might just be a coincidence.
  • “Fields of Honey” was co-written by Sherri Stoner, who actually helped shape 1990s animation in a few major ways. In addition to writing for Tiny Toons and Animaniacs, she was also the live-action model for Ariel in The Little Mermaid and Belle in Beauty and the Beast. On Animaniacs, she also voiced Slappy the Squirrel, who in the world of the show was an original Looney Tunes star and the kind of female character that Babs bemoans the absence of in “Fields of Honey.” She is also credited in IMDb with created the Animaniacs character Minerva Mink, a very feminine, very sexy character who explodes into horny “wild take” facial expressions when she sees an attractive male character, something male characters had been doing in reaction to female characters for years.
  • It’s neither here nor there, but I wanted to say that the sequence from the Tiny Toons episode showing the audiences members cracking up to Honey’s old cartoons features some of the most oddly revolting designs I’ve seen in a kids cartoon.

  • Babs gives really good crazy face.
  • Tiny Toons eventually did introduce an explicitly human, black character: Mary Melody. Voiced by Cree Summer, who also voiced Elmyra, Mary is cute and very normal-seeming and perhaps because of that she doesn’t ever get that much to do. She’s basically the Tiny Toons equivalent of one of the less zany human friends the Muppets have in their movies.
  • There’s actually a long-standing history of vague human-dog hybrids in cartoons — think of the Beagle Boys and Duck Worth on DuckTales, and in making Bosko and Honey dogs in Tiny Toons, the creators did a reverse Betty Boop, since that character initially was a dog before she became a human.

Cartoon weirdness, previously:


  1. Anonymous4:45 PM

    Witch Hazel is another Looney Toons female character that Babs apparently doesn't give 2 shits about.

  2. A couple of thoughts:

    1) Funny that Animaniacs shows Ralph looking exactly the same back then as today. I mean, he's not supposed to be a toon in-universe, is he?

    2) I really don't remember Honey being anywhere near as zany and interesting as Tiny Toons made her. Not when Nickelodeon was sandwiching Bosko cartoons between two other somewhat more recent cartoons and you just kind of dealt with it, anyway.

  3. Well, Granny and Witch Hazel were both old ladies, perhaps not people Babs thought of as appropriate role models. Apparently Bugs did have a girlfriend, Honey Bunny, in some of the comics and merchandise from the 1960s on, but I don't think she appeared in any cartoons. Still, she might have been a potential inspiration for Babs in the first place.

    I also recall an episode of Tiny Toons where Buster and Babs visited Two-Tone Town, a black-and-white neighborhood where the inhabitants resembled old Warner Bros. characters.

  4. The premise of the episode has a sad future effect. Now that WB seems to keep these characters out of new productions, the Spielberg characters might fade just as Hoey did, and how she will again.