Title: “Hooked on a Ceiling/Goodfeathers: The Beginning”
Hellooooooo, Nurse! I feel like the last couple weeks I’ve had my foot pretty strongly pressing on the “hipster douchebag” pedal, so we’re going to ease off the gas a bit this time and talk about something simple and fun. I’m going back to fond childhood memories of catching reruns of a really smart and funny animated show, and then re-watching that same show years later on DVD, only to realize how many more jokes it had been hiding under my nose this whole time. The show I’m talking about is the Spielberg-produced Animaniacs, an animated series with wit well before its time. It’s one of the few shows that one can honestly say appeals to all ages, since it blends ribald innuendo and cultural allusions with classic, Looney Tunes-style slapstick and visual gags. It centers on the Warner siblings (Yakko, Wakko, and their sister, Dot), three irreverent animated characters from Warner Bros. years gone by who have escaped from their water tower home to wreak havoc and mischief. The show also features a cast of other colorful characters, ranging from megalomaniacal lab mice Pinky and The Brain, to the Warners’ psychiatrist Dr. Otto von Scratchansniff.
Oftentimes, the Warners will meet famous historical or fictional figures, giving them ample opportunities for antics. Some of the better historical run-ins have involved people like Einstein (wherein the Warners accidentally devise the mass-energy conversion formula), Beethoven (wherein the Warners accidentally write the 9th Symphony), and the one I’m going to focus on today: Michelangelo. I picked this particular cartoon, “Hooked on a Ceiling,” because I feel like it’s the best representation of the range of humor present in the Warners segments of Animaniacs. It begins with a stuffy narrator talking about the art of the Italian Renaissance (throwing in a Ninja Turtles reference for good measure), and then gives a taste of how Michelangelo (portrayed by Maurice LaMarche in a Kirk Douglas impression) is beginning to feel the pressure of having to finish the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in time for the Pope’s arrival. Suddenly, the Warners bust in and sing a short ditty about painting ceilings, then launch into a full-fledged, infomercial style pitch advertising their skills as ceiling painters (“We paint ceilings, ceilings, and only ceilings! We don’t paint floors, ‘cause they’re beneath us.”). They then have a bit of banter with Michelangelo (who Yakko affectionately calls “Mike”), which spawns one of my favorite Animaniacs jokes of all time: Yakko reprimands Michelangelo, saying “Oh yeah? If you’re so great, what’d you do with the other fifteen chapels?”
That joke is such a perfect representation of the tone of the entire cartoon. It takes a respected cultural work and pokes fun at it with a silly, dumb pun, while still managing to invoke legendary humorists of days gone by, like Chaplin or the Marx brothers. The fun continues as the Warners mock “Mike” a bit more, ultimately agreeing to help him because “We like painting naked people!” This episode also exhibits a great moment of self-awareness and meta humor. Just as “His Eminence” is about to enter the chapel, Michelangelo panics that he still has one segment to complete (the one which in real life is filled in with Adam and God touching tips). The Warners assure him that they’ve got it, and they fill it in with a picture of E.T. and Elliot touching fingers. Michelangelo is distraught, but the camera pans up to reveal that “His Eminence” is actually Stephen Spielberg, clad in papal robes and an E.T. baseball cap. The cartoon closes with the Warners noting that good art is all about knowing your audience.
That’s an odd note to end on, especially since Animaniacs is a show that seems to struggle with knowing who its audience is. After all, all of the elements seem sophisticated and mature, comedy-wise: historical and cultural allusions, old-fashioned wit and eyebrow raising, and sexual innuendo. And yet, it’s ostensibly a children’s cartoon. This dissonance is accentuated by the second segment in the episode, “Goodfeathers: The Beginning,” which is the first appearance of the “Goodfeathers” side-cartoon in the show. One of the main reasons I picked this episode is this segment, for one because it’s a good example of the strange breadth of humor in Animaniacs, but also because it’s one of the few non-Warners cartoons I actually like. I also like Pinky and The Brain (who are so interesting that they got their own spin-off), but I’ve never been able to stand Slappy Squirrel, or the Hippos, or Rita and Runt. For some reason, though, even as a kid I was always entertained by The Goodfeathers.
Which is especially odd, considering that most of the humor of The Goodfeathers consists of allusions to gangster films, which for the most part would go over a child’s head. This segment actually starts with the lines “As far back as I could remember, I always wanted to be a Goodfeather…” in clear homage to Scorsese’s Goodfellas. The three main characters are caricatures of Liotta, Pesci, and DeNiro’s characters from that movie. Except, they’re all pigeons. Anthropomorphic pigeons. It’s a mobster cartoon about pigeons who say stuff like “Badda bing” and “Hey, coo, I’m walkin’ here!” and “Are you walkin’ with me? Are you walkin’ with me?” Right out of the gate, the segment pays homage to a half dozen gangster films in quick succession, complete with an overweight Godpigeon and a Pesci-style freak-out on the part of Pesto, one of the pigeons. Upon being called “tough” Pesto rants “You’re sayin’ I’m an overdone piece of meat, is that what you’re sayin’? What am I, a plate of dry steak butt-meat, here to amuse you?” in reference to the “Funny how?” rant that Pesci’s character has in Goodfellas.
And that was a recurring gag in the show! Pretty much every time there’s a “Goodfeathers” sketch, Pesto gets angry and flies off the handle. As a kid I thought that was hilarious, and I didn’t even know it was a reference to anything. It’s fascinating to me that this show can work on so many levels at once. As a kid watching this episode, I was amused by the pigeons getting hit by a truck or stepped on by marathon runners. Nowadays, while that basic cartoon slapstick may be a little slow to me, I can still be entertained by the Godpigeons incomprehensible, Brando-esque mutterings or the dozens of film riffs going on. So you can understand why it’s hard for a show like this to know its audience, when it appeals to so many.
Rather than try and tie this all up neatly, I’m going to let the show speak for itself and leave you with the moral printed out by the Warners’ “Wheel of Morality,” which they often turn to at the end of episodes to make sense of it all:
“And the moral of the story is: ‘Never ask what hot dogs are made of!’”
Here’s a YouTube link to “Hooked on a Ceiling”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HURMPtfNjLo
And here’s “Goodfeathers: The Beginning”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_X7FVL4Fo-U
This is a master-cut of Pesto’s rants: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H6M9nriFoqI
And here’s a master-cut of adult innuendo in Animaniacs: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CG9-SCVc-E0