If the past 365 days haven’t made me wish for the simpler times I had growing up in the ‘90s, I don’t know what will. That hunger for some nostalgic television and a way to make sense of the harrowing images of insurrectionists storming the Capitol building earlier this month combined in what has to be one of the darker but thoroughly on-point memes to emerge from the past year: Elizabeth from Knoxville, edited into the popular Animaniacs theme song.
User @schmoyoho’s Twitter video [Ed note: Which has been taken down due to copyright claims] of Elizabeth’s tearful realization that “They pushed me out and maced me” intercut with the Animaniacs theme song amassed over four million views. While the video itself has been retweeted thousands of times, @schmoyoho’s comment that “Animaniacs is the key to all of this” is at once valid context for his joke as well as the absurd timeline of events Americans seem to be living through.
A subsequent tweet from @schmoyoho featuring President Trump’s now-infamous request for “11,780” on a leaked phone call with Georgia election officials interspersed with the theme song has received less attention on Twitter, but further illustrates the potency of the meme. As an absurd joke and a commentary on current events, the meme succeeds, in part, because it sticks to a winning formula characteristic of the source material it uses as a container for the joke. Bleak as the joke may read to some viewers, Elizabeth from Knoxville is exactly the kind of cultural moment you could see lampooned in an episode of Animaniacs. This juxtaposition of absurdity and current events is an important part of the series’ recipe for success that Hulu’s recent November reboot gets right time and again.
Originally released in 1993, and running through 1998, one of the winning aspects of Animaniacs when it hit the airwaves (remember those times?) was that it was one of the first children’s cartoons aimed at kids that adults could enjoy, too.
Centered around the absurd antics of Yakko, Wakko, and Dot as they ran amok on the Warner Brothers lot, Animaniacs was full of outlandish, absurdist, slapstick humor, all of which harkened back to other classic series like Looney Tunes and appealed to kids. Where it scored major points with adults was when it also spent a significant amount of time caricaturing everyday life and pop culture through its singularly-chaotic lens. From a saxophone-playing Bill Clinton to appearances from a host of other celebrities and nods to Scorsese’s mob films (characterized in “Goodfeathers” segments involving pigeons), there were plenty of references that would go straight over kids’ heads but appeal to the adults in the room watching.
From Family Guy to South Park, many animated shows from the late ‘90s and early 2000s employ similar referential humor, parody, and satire—they also crop up frequently in memes and GIF responses. However, they only look like they’re aimed at children because they’re animated series. Animaniacs truly is aimed at children, and you could argue that some of its more complex, adult-targeted humor is strengthened by being filtered through its cartoony worldview.
Particularly following 2020’s divisive election and the insurrection at the Capitol this January, this mixture can simultaneously be a welcome respite from and nagging reminder of the events of the past four years. At the same time, there are definitely moments where you feel like even Animaniacs’ “zany to the max” worldview (which is 100 percent present in the reboot episodes) pales in comparison to some of the zaniness we’ve all experienced as of late. It’s not that Animaniacs hasn’t aged well; it’s just that there’s no way the writers could have anticipated the rollercoaster of fiery dumpsters that’s been 2020, much less their theme song forming the basis for a meme about radical domestic terrorists marching on the capital. Even recognizing that limitation, Animaniacs still does a hilarious and admirable job addressing Trump—the Republican elephant in the room, if you will.
When Trump and Russian bots show up in the first episode’s song, you laugh, even as you shake your head at how much deeper the joke truly goes. When a cyclopean Trump appears in the second episode boasting about his tiny island being the “greatest” and “biggest” and lying about his “two eyes,” you’ll sigh through your smirk. Props to the animators for this segment: there’s a truly perverse pleasure in seeing Trump rendered as a big, dumb baby and referred to as a “wrinkled circus peanut” by Odysseus. Dot’s last jab—“Is it demi-god, or demagogue?”—is emblematic of the wordplay and wit that makes Animaniacs so perfect for adults, and, viewed through the events of January 6, 2021, becomes even more of a zinger.
Sketches about the Suffragettes movement and wild third-party candidates make even more apt points than the writers could have ever hoped for after a divisive election year fraught with so many states actively working to disenfranchise and suppress voters. You could argue that it’s “too soon” to make some of these jokes after the year we’ve had; however, when you consider that the writers were scripting these episodes in 2018 and the cackle you likely experienced watching @schmoyoho’s meme, I think it’s worth noting that humor, no matter how absurd or dark, is a crucial coping mechanism for processing the horror show that was January 6. By the time you get to the fourth episode’s sketch, “Bun Control,” (which tackles gun control, the always-relevant-why-the-hell-can’t-we-do-something-about-it issue of the past 50 years) you’ll likely be along for the rest of the ride.
Many of these political and pop-culture references throughout the reboot are fast-paced, just like the original, and often used as one-offs. Trump gets turned into a pig in a kawaii-centric episode and appearances by figures like Tucker Carlson and Wayne LaPierre are quick and make a point while capturing the spirit of the original. It’s worth noting that the songs are also as clever and beautifully-orchestrated as ever, including a number about all the things that could have happened since the series was produced and released (oh, if you only knew…).
Of course, Animaniacs’ hallmark absurdity and humor isn’t just focused on politics. A frat-boy Odysseus saying "Goat me!" before milking a goat's udders straight into his mouth and crushing it on his forehead like a beer can is delightful. If part of the comfort you’ll experience watching Animaniacs right now centers on it delivering ‘90s nostalgia, you’ll be happy to know that in that department the reboot succeeds with flying colors, too. Even when jokes don’t quite land, the show still feels like the original. The animation is crisp and looks great, and from the first time you hear the show’s theme song again, it’ll stay stuck in your head for weeks—disappearing for a while only to return when it gets meme-ified on Twitter. There’s a familiar comfort to Hulu’s Animaniacs that sometimes gets lost in translation when shows reboot. It’s clear that Spielberg and company did take a lot of care in crafting the series, even if nothing could have appropriately prepared them for just how wild the past year would truly get.
Finally, it must be said: the sketches with Pinky and The Brain are clutch. It’s a testament to these segments having just enough of a formula to play within (Brain tries to take over the world) that they really showcase the absurdity and joy that can be mined in the Animaniacs spirit. While an episode involving Brain disguising himself as a politician to infiltrate the government is certainly the most topical episode of the reboot, a storyline involving Brain’s robot creation usurping him and pointing out all the flaws in his plans is an even bigger highlight—and lets Pinky save the day with a nonsensical question that causes the robot to explode.
Whether you watched the reboot when episodes first dropped or are considering it now after seeing the memes online, it’s worth revisiting Animaniacs in this current moment. Being able to find comfort in ‘90s nostalgia, familiar characters, ludicrous antics, and satire feels totally of-the-moment, as frightening as current events have been as of late. In fact, thanks to the winning formula Animaniacs pioneered three decades ago, you’ll find yourself reflecting on the state of our country even as the show assuredly qualifies as escapist—to a certain degree.
By the time Season 2 drops on Hulu, perhaps we’ll all be in enough of a “new normal” that “zany to the max” won’t feel like just a regular day in America. While we continue to tackle issues at their breaking point, Wakko, Yakko, and Dot will be there to help us make sense of the nonsense.