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Warner Bros.

A Guided Tour of Animaniacs: Volume 4

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Warner Bros.

This past May, Rob Lammle told you more than you ever wanted to know about Animaniacs. Now, we’re back to tell you even more about Yakko, Wakko, Dot, and the rest of the animated crew. The show's remaining episodes hit DVD tomorrow in Animaniacs: Volume 4, so we sat down with Animaniacs creator Tom Ruegger and Rob Paulsen, the voice of Yakko, Pinky and many others, to get behind-the-scenes details about the show’s final episodes. Enjoy the show!


“This Pun for Hire”

TOM RUEGGER: This was written and executed about the time that Steven [Spielberg] was partnering up with Jeffrey [Katzenberg] to make DreamWorks. After the first season, I’d say this was Steven’s number one favorite cartoon because it was jam-packed with jokes and puns non-stop. It never stopped with its play on words and it also ended with “the stuff that DreamWorks are made of.” A very cute ending. I think it’s one of our best.

“Star Truck”

ROB PAULSEN: That was Maurice LaMarche doing a spot-on impression of William Shatner, which he’s been known to do quite often. As a matter of fact, he created on his own something called International Talk Like William Shatner Day, which Bill Shatner has sort of embraced.

“Multiplication Song”

RP: Yet another of Randy Rogel’s amazing nuggets. Every time Randy came up with another song, the bar was raised higher and higher. It wasn’t like he was [giving us harder songs] to throw us a curve. He would just come up with something more and more and more spectacular. In fact, there may even be something in the works with me and Randy doing his music live. We did a few live shows in Los Angeles and people really loved it. We’ll see what happens.


“The Sound of Warners”

RB: Tress MacNeille played “Julie Andrews” and one of the songs included the lyrics “the hills are alive in the town of Burbank.” How can you not enjoy that? Tress really did a great impression of Julie Andrews with that super sweet take on how she would phrase lyrics. Everyone knows how great [Tress] is playing Dot, but it’s nice to see her do some other characters in the show as well.


TR: This is the only half-hour of Animaniacs that all three of my sons perform in. “Oh! Say Can You See” is with The Flame and my middle son Luke did the voice for The Flame in all the cartoons. On “My Mother The Squirrel” my oldest son Nathan did Skippy and my youngest son Cody did the bird.

“The Party”

RP: If I’m not mistaken, that’s the one with the parody of Christopher Walken. “Why won’t anyone talk to me? I’m Christopher Walken. Why won’t anyone say hello?" It’s really funny because, since then, we’ve all had the pleasure of at least knowing someone who has worked with Christopher Walken and, as much as we love him, they do say he’s kind of an eccentric fellow. [Laughs]

“The Twelve Days of Christmas Song”

TR: This is a little obscure bit of trivia that I don’t think anyone but the people working on the show would know. This song is where the little blue bird comes out and sings “The Twelve Days of Christmas” in this very bizarre way where everything was turtle doves and the last one is a gigantic, king-sized turtle dove. So, one day, my little son Cody comes home from school and he says, “I learned a Christmas carol today.” So I say, “Oh, let’s hear it.” And he sings it exactly the way it is in this cartoon. I immediately said, “Well, I’m picking you up from school tomorrow because we have a recording session.” So the next day I picked him up and brought him into the recording booth, put him in front of the mic and said, “Sing me that song you sang.” There was no thinking or writing or any intellectual exercise. We just said, “Let’s just record this and do it.” And that’s how the episode came about.


“Dot’s Entertainment”

RP: Just the fact that they came up with Andy Lloyd Webby is hilarious to me. This was right during the time that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s plays were all doing amazing business. I mean, every time he came out with a musical, it was a hit. Mr. Webber’s predisposition to being a bit of a diva, I think, was brought to bear in that cartoon with, arguably, pretty hysterical results.

“The Girl with the Googily Goop”

RP: Part of the charm of the show was that, often, Tom Ruegger and Steven Spielberg and the rest of the bunch would pay homage to these wonderful old cartoons, and that gave Animaniacs the sort of vibe that the Warners had been around for a long time. They created this mythology around the Animaniacs that they were created years and years ago and were locked up in the water tower. It was fun that they did these little tips of the hat, which served two purposes. They gave the old cartoons the credit they deserved, but they brought another air of authenticity to the ethos and the mythology of the Warner brothers. It really gives the cartoons a timelessness that doesn’t go away.

TR: Desiree Goyette played Googily Goop in this, and she was, in fact, the same actress who, at that time, was playing the voice of Betty Boop in some cartoons. We didn’t have to work too strenuously to cast that one.


“Soccer Coach Slappy”

TR: A year or two before this cartoon, we had made “Bumbi’s Mom,” where Skippy Squirrel is brought to the movie theater by Slappy to watch Bumbi and [is] traumatized by the death of Bumbi’s mom and wails and cries. So, my son Nate had been performing Skippy, and a lot of “Soccer Coach Slappy” has to do with Skippy taking a soccer ball in the face repeatedly and wailing afterward. He’s crying like a baby.

The day before my son Nate was recording, he basically said, “I refuse to play this role!” I said, “What?” He was pulling a total prima donna, Redd Foxx in a sitcom routine. “I’m not reading this crap!” [Laughs] He said, “I don’t want Skippy to cry. He’s older. He’s grown up and he shouldn’t be crying anymore.” So it was quite the negotiation to get him to do it. I think I even pulled some crying from another episode because he really, really balked at it.


“The Ballad of Magellan”

RP: I think this was John McCann and Paul Rugg who put the lyrics to this song. That was the genius of those two guys taking this innocuous American folk song and putting these fantastic goofball lyrics to it. It was also one of the times Jess, Tress, and myself got to do a really nice three-part harmony on a song. Really fun little piece.

Music was an integral part of the whole show, which is one of the reasons that when the show was coming along and auditioning, I was really excited. Not only were there going to be all new characters, there was going to be all brand new fresh music. You know, 35, 40 pieces for every half-hour, which is absolutely never done anymore because it’s so expensive. And it paid off.

To this day, one of the reasons people love Animaniacs, in large part, is because of the music.

“The Big Wrap Party Tonight”

TR:This is one that I wrote and it definitely is… I wouldn’t really say it’s a parody, but I would say that it’s inspired by a Cab Calloway song. I was listening to a lot of Cab Calloway at that time. There was something called “Everybody Eats When They Come to My House” that was one of his songs that I think, melodically and music-wise, this has something similar to that.


“One Flew Over the Cuckoo Clock”

TR: The inspiration behind “One Flew Over the Cuckoo Clock” came from when I was a little kid. My Aunt K was in a retirement home. She wasn’t addled the way that Slappy gets addled here, but we definitely pushed the envelope here. We went for some heart and some emotion, which we had never done with Slappy. Some people didn’t want us to do that, but I thought it was worth at least exploring and, ultimately, it turns into kind of fun and slapstick. There are some moments, though, where Skippy is put through the wringer emotionally.


“Cutie and the Beast”

RP: The Tasmanian Devil is voiced by Jim Cummings. To this day I believe, whenever they use the Tasmanian Devil, they use Jim. One of the great things about Jim, that many people know, is that he’s also the voice of Tigger and Winnie the Pooh. The guy’s got incredible range.

Jim, Maurice LaMarche, and I worked together on a show called Taz-Mania, about a year before Animaniacs hit the airwaves. So, by that time, Jim was really well established at the Tasmanian Devil.

I love the fact that Warner Bros. can lampoon a Disney show with characters that they have in their catalog and it’s totally believable as a parody. I really dig that.


RP: Another genius Randy Rogel song. It opened on Wakko writing a letter to Santa and he misspells Santa by writing S-A-N-T-L-A. Incredible stuff.

The episode’s ending is also funny as it’s done in silhouette with Yakko, Wakko, and Dot looking at the credits. It was very Mystery Science Theater 3000 with the three of us going, “Rob Paulsen? Who’s that jerk? Tress MacNielle? Oh my God. Diva diva diva. She needs her own limo.” All that kind of stuff. We just took the piss out of everybody on the show, including ourselves.


“A Very Very Very Very Special Show”

RP: I remember that because we had won the George Foster Peabody Award, in real life, which of course is a very prestigious award for any cartoon to win—or really anybody to win. I think, as a result of that, they tried to do something that was way over the top and very saccharin and maudlin. Funny stuff—but that was a big deal for us to win that award.


“When You’re Traveling From Nantucket”

RP: Another Randy Rogel masterpiece. When Randy and I did our little show, people freaked out because it’s not only stuff that they’d already heard but then they hear it again twenty years later and they go, “Oh my God. This is brilliant!” We even do some songs that never made it to the air that are every bit as amazing, but we basically ran out of shows. Randy wrote a song about the spice trade and the history of warfare. It’s really spectacular.

Randy could do anything. The bones in the body. Countries of the world. You know, he’s actually written a new verse now that includes all of the new countries of the world and the way the world has shifted since he wrote that twenty years ago. He’s got Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and Macedonia and Ivory Coast. Absolutely incredible. We perform it together. It’s great.


“The Boo Network”

RP: I worked on Chicken Boo. That was a very odd cartoon. Really strange and fun. It was Deanna Oliver who came up with this really bizarre, probably medication-induced, idea about a giant talking chicken.


“Bones in the Body"

RP: More Randy Rogel. I run out of superlatives. The guy is not only an incredible songwriter, but he’s also won seven or eight Emmy Awards. He was originally at Warner Bros. because of his writing skills on Batman: The Animated Series. He wrote some really incredible drama and I think he won an Emmy for some of those. Then, when Animaniacs was coming along, he knew he had this musical skill, but he had to convince Warner Bros. to hire him. They thought he was just the guy that could write drama. They weren’t sure he could do musical comedy. He said, “I can do that.” So his audition piece was“Yakko’s World”—the song about all the countries of the world. Crazy. And then he won a pile of Emmys for writing all those songs. He is the consummate overachiever.


TR: I felt that we really got back in the groove and hit a home run with episode 92. This entire half-hour was completely animated in Chicago by a company called StarToons led by a fellow named John McClenahan and it’s a beautiful half-hour.

“Dot – The Macadamia Nut”

RP: It was a pretty close parody of “Macarena” and it was pretty cute. I remember when that “Macarena” song came out and I got sick of it in about 30 seconds, so it was lovely that the Warner Bros. folks were able to come up with a really cute parody.

TR: We got Warner Bros. to get us a license for the music and I rewrote all the lyrics so it would just be a nutty Animaniacs version of “Macarena.”

“Bully for Skippy”

TR: This one was, maybe, the most political thing I ever wrote. It was in reaction to the FCC mandating that there be a very specific and heavy amount of hours per day in the TV schedule that’s educational for children, which ultimately impacted the kind of cartoons that channels could put on the air. The head of the FCC at that point was a fellow named Reed Hundt so we came up with this character named Reef Blunt. We animated him and had our characters at some Washington, DC hearing and Reef Blunt basically said, “We’re going to have educational cartoons and I’m going to be watching you!” He pointed at the Animaniacs characters and says, “Especially you, Miss Squirrel!” [Laughs] It’s really one of my favorites of the whole series. It’s a really funny cartoon.



RP: I was playing hockey at that time. One of my teammates was Matthew Perry from Friends, and I remember telling him that we were lampooning his show and he said, “Oh my God, I love [Animaniacs]! I really want to do it.” Unfortunately, we never did get him on the show because we were done before he got a chance to do it. I don’t think he missed anything because he was making a million dollars a week, so I think he was okay. [Laughs]


“The Brain’s Apprentice”

TR: This was our Sorcerer’s Apprentice cartoon and, again, animated by StarToons in Chicago.

RP: That was the last “Pinky and The Brain” segment in the context of the show, but then we got a spinoff. From Tiny Toon Adventures in the late 1980s to Taz-Mania to Animaniacs to Pinky and The Brain to Histeria! to Freakazoid—all these things that I got to work on [at Warner Bros.]—it was like an 11-year love fest. I was there two or three days every single week. The people that I worked with are still my friends to this day. We won Emmys. We had a great time. We all found our footing on that show and the stars really aligned for us.

I remember telling Tress MacNielle, “You’re going to want to take a picture of this because, unless you’re on The Simpsons, it just doesn’t get any better than this. You’re working with the best people on both sides of the glass and Steven Spielberg and the giant orchestra, Richard Stone, Randy Rogel, and all these great people. It’s career defining.

I tell people in interviews that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles really changed my career, but Animaniacs really changed my life. I’m incredibly grateful.


“Hooray for North Hollywood”

RP: I remember that Mr. Plotz was let go a couple of times on the show. He was even fired by his son at one point in a segment called “A Christmas Plotz” which was our take on A Christmas Carol. Interestingly, the guys who were the heads of the studio at the time, Bob Daly and Terry Semel, really used to get a kick out of the fact that the Warner brothers would lampoon the studio heads. It’s kind of cool when you have the people that are signing the checks every week to do these very expensive cartoons, are willing to let you take the piss out of them. [Laugh] That just shows you how their egos didn’t get in the way.


“The Sunshine Squirrels”

TR: Phyllis Diller was in this one. It wasn’t one of her last performances, but I’m really glad that I had a chance to work with her.


“The Christmas Tree”

TR: [This is] the last Slappy cartoon. One of the things I’ve noticed in watching some of these over the past few weeks—they did this sort of Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting ceremony in the cartoon back in the mid 90s, which is 15 or 16 years ago now. Al Roker was doing the ceremony back then, and he’s still doing it. So you think some of these references are going to be dated really quickly and, certainly some of them are, but in that case it’s not.


“The Scoring Session” and “The Animaniacs Suite”

TR: These two cartoons are all about the music and Richard Stone. “The Scoring Session” was basically Richard having a much-needed rest at Camarillo, which was a mental institution out here in California at the time. [Laughs] So he’s being filled in at the scoring session by a composer named Nevel Nosenest (voiced by Michael McKean), a rhinoceros. The entire cast is in this and the Warners come and ruin the scoring session.

Here’s a very obscure tidbit: Nevel Nosenest’s name was created the night that my kids and I watched, and then were driving home from, the Spielberg cartoon An American Tail: Fievel Goes West. Nievel Nose Nest. That’s where we got the name from.

RP: I remember Richard Stone, God rest his soul, who called me and said, “Hey, we’re doing the last scoring session.” They were always held at the Clint Eastwood Scoring Stage over on the Warner Bros. lot, which is the same stage that Carl Stalling and Milt Franklyn and all those guys used to do the original Warner Bros. cartoons. They even used the same piano that Carl Stalling used. The ghosts in that studio are amazing.

For some reason, though, they had to switch to the really big scoring studio at 20th Century Fox and Richard called me and said, “Hey, just so you know, we know the show is ending and I’m doing this Animaniacs Suite. Do you want to come and see it?” And I’m telling you what, man. I was in tears because Richard did this beautiful rendition of a medley of the Animaniacs theme with different styles and it was just beautiful. I was in tears watching it.

It was really interesting because, not long after that, Richard developed pancreatic cancer and passed away far too young. I remember at his memorial service, which was held on the scoring stage at Warner Bros., we were all there singing our praises of this great man. The word “genius” gets thrown around a lot, but in his case it’s not hyperbole. He really was a genius and an amazing guy. It was almost as if he knew that he had to get all this stuff done because he knew he wasn’t going to live very long. Richard’s untimely death put a really profound, sweet period at the end of this whole thing. We knew it would never happen again with this group. It was very sad, but very sweet and a very appropriate way for the whole series to end.

Animaniacs: Volume 4 arrives on DVD February 5.

All images from Animaniacs: Volume 4.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Creative Bar Owners in India Build Maze to Skirt New Liquor Laws
June 20, 2017
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Facing a complicated legal maze, a bar in the southern Indian state of Kerala decided to construct a real one to stay in business, according to The Times of India. Aiswarya Bar, a watering hole that sits around 500 feet from a national highway, was threatened in 2016 after India's Supreme Court banned alcohol sales within 1640 feet of state and country-wide expressways to curb drunk driving. Instead of moving or ceasing operation, Aiswarya Bar's proprietors got creative: They used prefabricated concrete to construct a convoluted pathway outside the entrance, which more than tripled the distance from car to bar.

Aiswarya Bar's unorthodox solution technically adhered to the law, so members of the State Excise Administration—which regulates commodities including alcohol—initially seemed to accept the plan.

"We do [not] measure the aerial distance but only the walking distance," a representative told The Times of India. "However, they will be fined for altering the entrance."

Follow-up reports, though, indicate that the bar isn't in the clear quite yet. Other officials reportedly want to measure the distance between the bar and the highway, and not the length of the road to the bar itself.

Amid all the bureaucratic drama, Aiswarya Bar has gained global fame for both metaphorically and literally circumnavigating the law. But as a whole, liquor-serving establishments in India are facing tough times: As Quartz reports, the alcohol ban—which ordered bars, hotels, and pubs along highways to cancel their liquor licenses by April 1, 2017—has resulted in heavy financial losses, and the estimated loss of over 1 million jobs. Aiswarya Bar's owner, who until recently operated as many as nine local bars, is just one of many afflicted entrepreneurs.

Some state governments, which receive a large portion of their total revenue from liquor sales, are now attempting to downgrade the status of their state and national highways. To continue selling liquor in roadside establishments, they're rechristening thoroughfares as "urban roads," "district roads," and "local authority roads." So far, the jury's still out on whether Kerala—the notoriously heavy-drinking state in which Aiswarya Bar is located—will become one of them.

[h/t The Times of India]