Mickey Mouse debuted to the world in the 1928 animated short Steamboat Willie, and has since transformed into an icon recognized around the world. But the mouse’s status as Disney's exclusive property is under threat. As Ars Technica reports, Steamboat Willie is set to enter the public domain in 2024, and unlike in previous years, there have been no moves from Congress to stop that from happening. Once it does, in theory, anyone could use Mickey's image for free.
This is the third time the cartoon has been on the verge of losing its copyright protection. The first came in the 1970s, back when copyright terms only lasted 56 years. That meant every book, song, and movie made in 1923 was scheduled to lose its protected status in 1979, and Steamboat Willie would follow on its 56th anniversary in 1984. But in 1976, under pressure from companies like Disney, Congress extended the statute to 75 years, keeping all works made after 1923 from becoming public domain until 1998 or later. Mickey remained safely out of the public domain for another two decades. Then, when copyright terms were again scheduled to expire in 1998, Congress extended them a second time, this time to 95 years.
Now, the clock is ticking down for these older works once again as the 2018 expiration date of that copyright extension nears. Only this time, it looks like Congress may let them become public property without a fight.
Today’s constituents tend to care more about copyright law now than they did in 1976 or even in 1998. The rise of online streaming and easily accessible pirated content has made the issue more relevant to the life of the average person than ever before. The defeat of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in 2012 made this clear to legislators. That bill, which would have empowered law enforcement to punish or block sites sharing pirated content, was so controversial that it sparked protests across the web. Because of the sheer scale of that public response, lawmakers are now hesitant to change any existing copyright protections, including those set to expire on January 1, 2019.
But even if those protections expire, Disney could still find a way to prevent rival studios from using Mickey’s image when 2024 rolls around. While copyrights are designed to be temporary, trademarks have the potential for serious lasting power. That’s because copyrights only protect a single work of artistic expression (in this case, the film Steamboat Willie), while trademarks are attached to images and logos that represent a brand (so Mickey Mouse, the character). As long as Disney can prove that Mickey has evolved beyond his first screen appearance into a symbol that’s synonymous with its corporation, he’ll remain a protected property. And if you take a look at their theme parks, cruise ships, media, and the dozens of Hidden Mickeys they've hidden in their movies, you’ll see that they can easily make that case.
But few works of art made in the 1920s have taken the same path to corporate dominance as Mickey Mouse, even other works made famous by Disney (like Winnie the Pooh, first introduced in A.A. Milne's stories in 1926). Even if Disney manages to protect Mickey, the public should have a big new batch of copyright-free content to access in the next few years.
[h/t Ars Technica]
When I started researching the history of Animaniacs, I contacted creator Tom Ruegger to see if he could fill in some gaps. I expected a few sentences in response to my questions, but Mr. Ruegger sent back seven pages of awesomeness instead. So if you happen to be searching for the real story behind Animaniacs—which is getting a reboot on Hulu—you're in the right place.
IN THE BEGINNING
The history of Animaniacs actually begins with Tiny Toon Adventures, another animated show from Warner Bros. and executive producer Steven Spielberg. After Tiny Toons became a huge success, Spielberg asked producer Tom Ruegger and his team to work on a follow-up cartoon.
One idea Spielberg suggested was to make the popular Tiny Toons character Plucky Duck the star of the new show. Meanwhile, Ruegger had been developing characters based on the personalities of his three young sons. These two concepts were combined to create three brother ducks. However, the team soon realized that, between Disney’s Donald Duck, DuckTales, Darkwing Duck, and Warner Bros.' own Daffy Duck, there were already plenty of animated waterfowl on the market. Spielberg agreed, but said they needed to come up with “a big marquee name” to help sell the show.
Ruegger was inspired by the large “WB” logo on the water tower at the Warner Bros. studio. He proposed a group of siblings drawn in an animation style reminiscent of anthropomorphized animal characters from the 1930s, and called them the Warner Brothers. Although they have dog-like characteristics, the exact type of animal the Warners are meant to be is unknown. According to the show bible – a book filled with background information for the creative team on a TV show - their species is labeled as “Cartoonus Characterus.”
For a brief period, there were four Warner siblings—Yakky, Smakky, Wakky, and little sister, Dot. As the studio artists honed the designs, Yakky became Yakko, and Smakky and Wakky were melded into Wakko. After getting clearance from the Warner estate to use the family name, the show was off and running.
THE WARNER BROTHERS (AND THE WARNER SISTER)
In episode #65, "The Warners 65th Anniversary Special," we learn that the Warners were created in 1929 to be the sidekicks for Buddy, a real character from the early days of Warner Bros. Animation. Their only role in the Buddy cartoons was to pop out of unexpected places and use giant mallets to make a pancake out of the star. The Warners were soon given their own series of cartoons, but the resulting shorts were considered too incomprehensible for public consumption. The films were locked away in the Warner Bros. vault, and the Warner Brothers were locked inside the water tower at the Warner Bros. studio. Until the present day, when the Warners escaped.
In the Animaniacs comic book published by DC Comics, issue #33 reveals a long lost Warner sibling named Sakko Warner. The character's design was almost a carbon copy of glitter-throwing celebrity Rip Taylor. Sakko was only ever mentioned in the comic book, which was not written by the same team as the cartoon, so he's not considered part of the Animaniacs canon.
Animaniacs writer Paul Rugg did come up with an official fourth Warner as part of the story for the never-produced feature film, Wandering Warners We. Lakko Warner, as his name implies, is the untalented member of the family, who would have been fired by his own siblings during the course of the film.
Although she goes by Dot, producer/writer Sherri Stoner came up with the Warner Sister's full name: Princess Angelina Contessa Louisa Francesca Banana Fanna Bo Besca the Third. Dot was voiced by Tress MacNeille, who had previously played Babs Bunny on Tiny Toons and Gadget on Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers. MacNeille’s extensive voice acting career includes many characters on The Simpsons, most notably Agnes Skinner, Principal Skinner’s mother.
Yakko was voiced by Rob Paulsen, a veteran voice actor best known before Animaniacs for playing Raphael on the wildly popular Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon. Paulsen had previously voiced a handful of bit characters on Tiny Toons, and Ruegger thought he’d be perfect for Yakko on the new show. As part of the audition process, it wasn’t unusual for the same actor to try different voices for the same character, and with Paulsen this was no exception. Once auditions were completed for a role, Ruegger and casting director Andrea Romano would select the best five voices, and these five would be sent to Spielberg for the final decision. In Paulsen’s case, the Yakko deck was stacked in his favor as three of the final five voices were him. Not surprisingly, he got the job, and also went on to voice Dr. Otto von Scratchansniff, the studio psychologist, and the beloved, simpleton rodent, Pinky.
Of the Warners, the voice of Wakko was the most difficult to cast. During auditions, the producers said they were looking for “wacky,” so all the actors delivered a voice that was over-the-top crazy, but none were the right fit. On the last day of auditions, Ruegger brought his 1990 Almanac to the office, hoping to find some inspiration that might shake things up. Many wacky Wakko's later, they still didn't have the right voice. So during their last appointment of the morning, with voice actor Jess Harnell, Ruegger opened the almanac to a list of celebrities and asked Harnell to do his best impression of Elvis, Rodney Dangerfield, Jackie Gleason, Frank Sinatra, and other notable names. When the Beatles came up, Harnell proceeded to do every one of the Fab Four so well you could actually tell which individual band member he was mimicking at the moment. However, it was Harnell's Ringo that struck a chord with the producers, so after a few tweaks, that became the voice of Wakko.
WHAT'S MICKEY DOING UP THERE?
To promote Animaniacs before the show's premiere, a giant balloon in the shape of Yakko was placed on top of the water tower on the Warner Bros. lot. Unfortunately, no one told Bob Daley, who ran the studio. When he pulled into work that morning, he thought someone had put a bad Mickey Mouse balloon on the tower and ordered it removed. The inflatable Yakko was in place for less than 12 hours, and then popped shortly after he came down. Writer Paul Rugg was able to snap a photo to prove it happened.
After the balloon incident, Daley worked to ensure no one else would mistake the Warners for Mickey. Daley decided that Yakko and Wakko were too smooth and rounded. So while he watched, he had Ruegger add side whiskers to the drawings, which he felt would prevent confusion - and potential legal action. Ruegger and Warner Bros. Animation president Jean MacCurdy had to rush back to the animation studio with the changes, because the cartoon was already being drawn, with some segments in the can.
While Animaniacs was being developed, there were many potential supporting characters that didn't make it on the show. One idea was to bring over The Flea Family, who appeared in a few episodes of Tiny Toons, but they were cut out pretty quickly. There was also Bossy Beaver, a workaholic beaver that just wanted to build “the best damn dam ever,” but his dim-witted sidekick, Doyle, would always screw things up. Bossy was based on Ken Boyer, an artist and director on Tiny Toons who was well known and respected for his strong work ethic. Spielberg thought the idea was too close to Pinky and the Brain, though, so the beavers got trimmed.
Nipsey and Russell, a pair of con-men raccoons that prowled the neighborhood at night, also got bagged after Spielberg felt there were already enough comedic duos on the show.
Another segment that never quite worked was As the Petri Dish Turns, a soap opera melodrama played out between single-cell organisms, all viewed through the lens of a microscope.
A CARTOON FOR ADULTS
Animaniacs premiered on Fox on September 13, 1993, and quickly became one of the highest-rated kids' shows on TV. Part of the appeal was that it was funny on two levels: Kids loved the slapstick, while their parents - and a very loyal following of college students - appreciated the wordplay and more “adult” humor peppered throughout the show. Whenever one of these risqué moments would come up, Yakko would often say, “Good night, everybody!”—almost as if he expected the show to be yanked off the air as soon as network execs heard the joke.
Here are some of the more “adult” moments in the show, including the infamous “fingerprints” joke (at 2:15):
Animaniacs moved to The WB beginning with episode 70. The Kids' WB block was aimed at a much younger audience, so even though ratings were still high, it wasn't doing well in the age group advertisers were trying to target. Orders for new episodes began to dwindle. The 99th and final episode aired on November 14, 1998.
THE SUPPORTING CAST
Slappy Squirrel, the cynical, retired cartoon squirrel who has no problem airing the dirty laundry of old Hollywood, was created and voiced by Sherri Stoner. Stoner got into show business as an actress, with bit parts on Little House on the Prairie, Knots Landing, and T.J. Hooker, while studying comedy with the famous improv group, The Groundlings. She was also hired to perform live-action scenes as a reference for Disney animators drawing Ariel in The Little Mermaid and Belle in Beauty and the Beast.
Skippy Squirrel, Slappy’s young nephew, was voiced by Nathan Ruegger, the eldest son of Tom Ruegger, and the inspiration for Yakko Warner. He was also the voice of baby Plucky Duck on Tiny Toons, who was famous for flushing various items in the toilet and watching the “water go down the hooooole.” He has since become an accomplished filmmaker with a handful of independent movies under his belt.
Mr. Skullhead was a simplified skeleton character based on a sketch Sherri Stoner had been drawing since childhood. The character first appeared as the skull-shaped barrette worn in Elmyra's hair in Tiny Toons. In Animaniacs, he became the star of the “Good Idea, Bad Idea” sketches. The narrator for the sketches was Tom Bodett, the spokesman for Motel 6 who promises to “leave the light on for you.” He also narrated Mime Time, a segment that showed a mime performer getting pummeled just for being a mime.
Mindy and Buttons were initially cut from the show until Spielberg's kids saw a drawing of the characters and loved them. Mindy's catchphrases, including “Ok. I love you! Bye-bye!”, were written by another Groundling alumna, Deanna Oliver, and the role was performed by Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart Simpson.
Although they were strays, cat Rita and sweet-but-dumb dog Runt were voiced by two actors with quite a pedigree. Rita was voiced by Bernadette Peters, who has won two Tonys and been nominated for three Grammys. Runt was played by Frank Welker, whose prolific voice acting career has made him one of the biggest Hollywood stars you've never heard of. Since 1980, the 97 movies Welker has worked on – including the Transformers sequels, Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? - have grossed more than $12.9 billion worldwide.
Les Miseranimals, an animal-centric version of Les Miserables, was a highlight of the Rita and Runt segments. Here's one of Rita's solos from the episode:
Minerva Mink — originally called Marilyn Mink — was voiced by comedian and actor Julie Brown. Minerva only appeared in a few segments, though, because she was thought to be too sexual for the young audience. In fact, upon the request of Jean MacCurdy, one Minvera segment was recalled, redrawn, and re-shot to decrease the mink's cleavage.
Colin, better known to fans as “The Randy Beaman Kid”, was a little boy who came out of his house to tell us all about the crazy misadventures of his friend, Randy Beaman. Colin was voiced by young Colin Wells, son of one of the show’s writers, Deanna Oliver. You can check out a compilation of Colin’s tall tales on YouTube:
At the sight of the Warner Bros. studio’s buxom, blond nurse, Yakko and Wakko would always exclaim, “Helloooo, Nurse!” The catchphrase was written by Tom Ruegger for Buster Bunny on Tiny Toons. Since Buster never used it on the show, Ruegger gave it to the Warners instead. Because of the recurring gag, the nurse, who previously had no name, became known as Hello Nurse.
Here are Yakko and Wakko singing about their favorite health care professional:
PINKY AND THE BRAIN
Ruegger modeled Pinky after Warner Bros. Animation director and artist Eddie Fitzgerald, who had the same sunny disposition, and often said two of Pinky’s catch phrases - “Narf!” and “Egad!” In fact, the character of Pinky was so similar to Fitzgerald that he auditioned for the voice of Pinky. Another notable name up for the part was John Astin, also known as Gomez on the original Addams Family TV show. But when Rob Paulsen auditioned, he gave Pinky a loose Cockney accent, and the producers knew they'd found what they were looking for.
Brain is based on another Warner Bros. Animation artist and writer named Tom Minton. The original designs of the two mice were taken from caricatures of Eddie and Tom drawn by Batman: The Animated Series producer and designer Bruce Timm. So even though the resemblance is uncanny, the look of Brain was not modeled after Orson Welles. The Wellesian voice, however, was no coincidence, and can be attributed to Maurice LaMarche.
An experienced voice actor, LaMarche would often warm up by quoting a legendary recording of a very frustrated Orson Welles trying to lay down a voice-over track for a frozen peas commercial. When LaMarche saw the concept art for Brain, he immediately thought of Welles, and so he just did the impression he’d been honing over the years. The episode “Yes, Always” has a rather extensive, nearly word-for-word reenactment of the Welles outtake.
Pinky and the Brain got their own spin-off show that ran for 65 episodes from 1995-1998 on The WB. The show followed the two mice as they continued to try to take over the world, but they also had to occasionally save the world from the evil schemes of Snowball, a hamster from the same lab, who was voiced by renowned actor Roddy McDowall.
Eventually, the studio wanted the show to be a little more conventional, so they suggested turning it into a domestic sitcom. They even cast Dick Clark as the voice of a Kramer-esque quirky neighbor. Upset about the move, the writers instead took the opportunity to make fun of the old sitcom cliches, which didn't make the Warner Bros. execs very happy. Soon after, P&B was shuffled to Saturday mornings.
From there, the show was reworked as Pinky, Elmyra, & the Brain, borrowing a character from Tiny Toons to act as the duo's new owner. While 13 episodes were created, only six were shown under that title; the rest were dispersed as part of a clip show that featured many different segments from Warner Bros. cartoons, called The Cat & Birdy Warneroonie PinkyBrainy Big Cartoonie Show, which later became The Cat & Bunny Warnernoonie SuperLooney Big Cartoonie Show. That show lasted until 2000.
Pinky and the Brain are famous for their bevy of quotable catchphrases. One of Ruegger's favorites:
Brain: “Pinky, are you pondering what I'm pondering?”
Pinky: “I think so, Brain, but if they called them sad meals, kids wouldn't buy them.”
One of the highlights of the show was the music. Almost every episode featured original songs, which kept a team of composers, led by Richard Stone, very busy. But their hard work paid off with five Daytime Emmys for various musical categories.
One of the difficult tasks Stone faced on the show was coming up with music that matched the lyrics penned by the writing staff. For example, the words to the Pinky and the Brain theme song were written by Ruegger to the tune of “Singing in the Rain” from the 1952 musical. If you sing along in your head, it’s amazing how well it matches up:
They're Pinky and the Brain / I'm singin' in the rain
They're Pinky and the Brain / Just singin' in the rain
One is a genius / What a glorious feeling
The other's insane / I'm happy again
They're laboratory mice / I walk down the lane
Their genes have been spliced / With a happy refrain
They're dinky / I'm singin'
They're Pinky and the Brain / I'm singin' in the rain
Naturally they couldn’t use the film’s music due to licensing issues, so it was up to Stone to compose a song that worked. And the fact that we can all sing the Pinky and the Brain song today is a testament to his talent.
Perhaps the most famous song from the show, "Yakko's World," was written by Randy Rogel, a screenwriter working on Warner's Batman: The Animated Series at the time.
While helping his son with geography homework, Rogel started going over a globe and naming all the countries. When he noticed that “United States, Canada, Mexico, Panama” rhymed, he thought it sounded like the beginning of a song. So Rogel wrote out the lyrics set to the The Mexican Hat Dance Song, and gave it to Ruegger because he thought it might be a good fit for Animaniacs. Ruegger and Spielberg loved it, and shortly after, Rogel became a staff writer for the show.
Rob Paulsen, the voice of Yakko, can still sing "Yakko’s World" perfectly nearly 20 years later.
(While you’re at it, check out Paulsen’s weekly podcast where he often has some of his old friends from Animaniacs stop by for a visit.)
FEATURE FILM FOLLIES
In 1999, Warner Bros. released Wakko's Wish, a 90-minute film starring the Warner siblings and most of the cast from the show. The original title for the film was It's a Wakko, Wakko, Wakko, Wakko Wish, an homage to the classic road movie, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. However, the studio’s marketing team insisted the title be shorter, so Ruegger knocked it down to Wakko's Wacko Wish. The marketing team cut it even further.
The movie was considered for theatrical release after it was well received by test audiences, but Warner Bros. opted to release it unceremoniously on VHS instead. The movie has yet to have a wide release DVD, though you can buy it through Amazon.
Ruegger’s website features quite a few concept posters drawn by Bob Doucette for Animaniacs films that never were. For example, the World War II epic, This Means Warners, Revolutionary Warners set during 1776, a play on Oliver Twist called Little Orphan Warners, and Winter Warner Land, which would have seen the siblings go to the North Pole to harass Santa and his elves.
Some ideas from the unproduced film Hooray for Hollywood were used in Hooray for North Hollywood, a two-part episode of the show that aired in 1998. And The Road to Bohemia had many plot points that were integrated into Wakko's Wish.
A special thanks to Tom Ruegger for providing me with amazing information and access to the Animaniacs story. Go check out his website for even more great Warner Bros. Animation memories. This post originally appeared in 2012.