As a guest on the late Tom Snyder’s talk show, Chuck Jones (a founding father of the Looney Tunes and the modern animation industry as we recognize it) was asked to comment on the new Warner Bros animated series, “Tiny Toon Adventures“; a successor to the classic Looney Tunes franchise. Chuck Jones replied, “If you had a retarded stepchild in your family, would you comment on it publically?”
Revisiting the series twenty years later, perhaps “retarded” is a bit extreme. I’d definitely say that the series has a crippling learning disability, though.
Tiny Toon Adventures had a pretty simple premise: A hip new generation of budding animation stars attend school, learning how to be good cartoon characters from the original Looney Tunes cast. Of course, the fatal flaw in that outline is that the cast was still learning how to become good cartoon characters; meaning they weren’t good yet. Whether that was series creator Tom Ruegger’s brilliant scheme from the get-go, I don’t know, but he certainly pulled that aspect off without a hitch.
You all probably thought this asshole created the series, but all he did was put his name at the beginning of each episode and collect a paycheck.
While the plot of the series dealt with a seasoned old guard trying to understand the young blood and their dangerous new ideas, art wound up imitating life (as that douchebag Art is so apt to do) and the very production of the show suffers from the exact same zany set-up: Modern sensibilities that children’s cartoons could be written on multiple levels with lots of challenging and intelligent jokes and stories, clashing with the classic fundamental belief that children are stupid, cartoons need to be bland, interchangeable slop with no appeal outside a specific target demographic and that kids will watch the same show with the same jokes over and over again and never crave anything better.
The result is a show that is constantly at war with itself. It desperately wants to be smarter and sharper and more risqué than it is, with flashes of absolute brilliance beaming through every now and then, and being so genuinely funny that these flashes tend to be the only part of the show that sticks with you into adulthood. Which is probably why you recall it being so much better than it ever was; you only remember the good times. The reality, though, was that for every gut-bustingly hilarious “Batduck” episode, you had to suffer through some out of touch, cynical old hack recycling scripts from 30 year-old Auggie Doggie shorts; shoveling the same boring, tired, clichéd garbage that Hanna Barbara was passing off as “funny” in the ‘60s. And with three stories per episode, the series is absolutely packed with this kind of paint-by-numbers, dull-witted and predictable “humor”. If even one of the three stories turned out to be clever, you were about as close as you’d ever be to walking away from an episode on top.
The best episode of the series was the NES game.
But the blame shouldn’t rest entirely on the creative team. The landscape of the television animation industry in 1990 was radically different than what it is today. Shows were created right out of the gate for syndication, meaning a minimum of 65 episodes had to be produced in under a year. You try getting ten people to come up with 65 fresh and original scripts in a couple months to meet the voice recording and storyboarding deadlines. What the fuck is a “second draft”? “Story editing”? Now you’re just making words up.
And to meet such insane deadlines, multiple overseas animation studios had to be retained to churn out the episodes in rapid-fire succession for the Fall season. And in the pre-internet days, when production staff in Hollywood couldn’t quality check animation through webcam chat and e-mail attachments, but had to have every episode overnighted via airmail back and forth across the Pacific until shit was done right… you can forget about anything approaching consistency. Tiny Toon Adventures, all on its lonesome, had no less than six different animation studios doing the episodes (Tokyo Movie Shinsha, Startoons, AKOM, Wang Film, Freelance Animation and Kennedy Cartoons).
And each studio had its own way of interpreting the control art for each character. Here’s a chart showing the differences between each studio. I’d link back to the source (Tiny Toons Image Gallery Plus), but it just so happens to be the last Fortune City website on the face of the whole internet and you’d have to be Indiana Jones to dodge all the malware, spyware and pop-ups lurking within it.
Startoons was the only studio to go through puberty.
So basically, between ridiculous deadlines, cheap outsourced Asian labor, hack writers and radical young upstarts nobody wanted to listen to, if a cartoon animated between the years 1983 and 1995 managed to produce a single moment of genuine quality… you can rest assured that it was a complete accident.
Getting back to the show-itself, Tiny Toons, like the original Looney Tunes, was an entirely character-based series. There was a stable of candy-colored counterparts to every classic WB character and each story would star them doing something typical, like learn how to dance before the prom or go on a Hawaiin vacation or teach each other why drinking and smoking isn’t cool or enlist a psychic to channel the ghost of Einstein in order to cheat on a math test only to discover that Einstein was dyslexic and thus fail the exam. You know, standard stuff like that.
The stars were Buster (Charlie Adler) and Babs Bunny (Tres MacNeil), a brother and sister pair who thought it was okay to date for some reason. Just kidding; they shared no relation. I mean, how could I forget such a thing? They only reminded audiences three or four times an episode. Buster and Babs were both dual-protégés to Bugs Bunny, splitting his characteristics down the middle: Buster got the nonchalant, easy-going attitude while Babs got the outrageous, screwball disguises and impressions shtick. The end result was that both only felt like half a character and by having only a single trait played up to the extreme, they rubbed off as irritating (Babs especially).
Charlie Adler was cast as Buster, but according to this interview with Tom Ruegger, Spielberg hated his guts and after 5 episodes wanted him fired and the part recast. Ruegger and voice director Andrea Romano fought to keep Adler, who stuck around for most of the series, but apparently under an unpleasant atmosphere where he felt as though he was being treated unfairly. In a massive “fuck you” to the two people who fought to keep him his job, Adler walked off the series toward the end of the last season, sending out an angry letter citing Ruegger and Romano as partially responsible for his departure.
Buster was recast with this guy:
You think I’m joking but I’m not.
The primary sidekick characters were Hamton Pig (voiced by Don Messick in one of his last major roles before his death) and Plucky Duck (Joe Alaskay). Hamton was the doormat character while Plucky acted and sounded so identical to Daffy Duck that he had no real personality or characteristics of his own save green feathers and a wifebeater.
And annoying episodes where a baby version voiced by Tom Ruegger’s larvae would flush stuff down the toilet.
The primary villains of the show were Montana Max (Danny Cooksey), a substitute Yosemite Sam, and Elmyra Duff (Cree Summer), a substitute Elmer Fudd and the most soul-crushingly horrific thing to come out of the 1990s (just narrowly beating out the Gulf War). She was voiced by Cree Summer, otherwise known as “the only black woman in the entire voice acting industry”, and if you didn’t want to reach into your TV and strangle her while watching Tiny Toons, then you most assuredly did while watching the last season of Pinky & the Brain, where it was rebranded Pinky, Elmyra & the Brain.
Montana Max, meanwhile, was voiced by Budnick from “Salute Your Shorts”, so he gets a pass.
There were more robots in Salute Your Shorts than I remember.
Other supporting characters included the likes of (try and guess who they’re successors of) Dizzy Devil, Furrball Cat, Calamity Coyote, Little Beeper, Sweetie and it only gets worse the deeper you dig, trust me. I’ve braved the black hole of literary talent that is Fanfiction.net and the maelstrom of fetishes that is Deviant Art to bring you news that the only character anybody seems to care about anymore is Fifi La Fume, the female skunk. We’ll never be permitted to forget about terrible cartoons from the ‘90s so long as furries exist.
She’s why you get a boner whenever you see the color purple.
She’s why you get a boner whenever you see “The Color Purple”.
Three pages into my Word program and I can see I’m trashing this series pretty hard. While it deserves much of the flak it gets, I should be fair; those flashes of brilliance I mentioned a few paragraphs back? Yeah, when the stars aligned and this show actually wanted to be funny, it could be pretty damn funny.
While even the talented Paul Dini produced some garbage (anything starring Elmyra or the wretched Li’l Sneezer was doomed from the start), most of his work is excellent, especially the parodies, which were absolutely spot-on. Many episodes are set in Hollywood and revolve around characters (typically Plucky and Hamton) trying to sneak past gaggles of celebrity caricatures in order to infiltrate a studio and sell an idea; kinda like a proto-Animaniacs (Ralph the Guard even makes his first appearance in this series).
And like the original Looney Tunes, there’s a great sense of self-awareness amongst the characters that they’re all just actors in a TV show and they completely stop giving a shit once they think the cameras have finished rolling. One episode, “Kon Ducki”, had two segments on the A-plot (a sea voyage parodying “Kon-Tiki”), while the third segment was a “making of” story behind the previous segments. The “Ahh, mango juice” segment alone was worth the half hour of your life.
Other episodes didn’t need parodies or self awareness to be funny; they just were. The segment where Buster tries to help a bleep-prone chicken named Fowl Mouth overcome his swearing problem in order to get a date is one of the series highlights (though, again, it’s packed into an episode with two shitty segments just to make sure you weren’t having too much fun).
The DVD sets released a few years back can be pretty rough to sit through, as you have to endure a lot of generic cartoon plots and some agonizingly God awful animation from Kennedy Cartoons (if the characters look like bowls of pudding having epileptic seizures while Katherine Hepburn holds the camera; you’re watching a Kennedy Cartoons episode). BUT, if you were to pare the show down to just the essentials, I’d say there were enough quality episodes to fill-out a solid if abridged series.
Or, what you really ought to do is just go watch the straight-to-video movie, “How I Spent my Vacation.” Animated by Tokyo Movie Shinsha, known throughout the 80s and the 90s as “the only good animation studio on the face of the planet”, it’s on the visual high end of things with lots of energy and excitement and exaggerated expressions. Every primary character gets a subplot and the writing is some of the strongest in the entire series. “How I Spent my Vacation” is basically everything that was good about “Tiny Toon Adventures” conveniently condensed into an 80-minute film.
And it’s not available on DVD. So fuck all ya’ll.
You can hit up Amazon to check out Tiny Toon Adventures: How I Spent My Vacation if you haven’t already, or for those wanting to invoke nostalgia and see how the show has aged for themselves, Amazon also has all the seasons on DVD or for just $1.99 for single episodes on InstantVideo.