NEW YORK — The idea, says Tom Ruegger, was to bring back the spirit of the old Warner Bros. cartoons--"to carry on their irreverence, to make Looney Tunes for the '90s."
Did they succeed?
Just ask the 10 million people--perhaps a quarter of them over 18--who are glued to the tube on weekday afternoons to watch "Tiny Toons Adventures," "Taz-Mania" and "Animaniacs," which air on Fox stations in Southern California.
The three shows have been hugely successful for Fox Children's Network. Ruegger, the 40-year-old senior producer of "Tiny Toons" and "Animaniacs," credits Steven Spielberg with their success--and their very existence.
Spielberg used the momentum from his 1988 hit "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," a mix of cartoons and live action, to sell his vision of the short cartoon to Warner Bros.
"Steven had that clout to make them at a time when everybody was saying, 'Don't even bother making shorts,' " Ruegger says. "He wanted to emulate the classics. He had a decent budget to do the animation here."
Like the old Warner cartoons, the newer versions use more cels--the single-frame paintings that combine for the illusion of animation--than conventional TV animation. Each show is scored with a 30-piece orchestra.
The Tiny Toons--smaller, younger versions of the old favorites--came first. Buster and Babs Bunny succeeded Bugs; Plucky Duck is Daffy's green-feathered heir, and Hamton is an even more neurotic descendant of Porky Pig.
"Taz-Mania" and "Animaniacs," which followed, went after an older crowd. "We were raising stakes," recalls Ruegger. "We wanted to make ourselves laugh more than we had."
It fell to Art Vitello, a producer on the 65 original "Tiny Toons" episodes, to create 65 half-hours based on the Tasmanian Devil, a spinning, spitting, voracious character who appeared in only about five original shorts.
Vitello made Taz an 18-year-old with a nuclear family: a Dad who sounds like Bing Crosby and is always pitching orange juice; a Mom; a younger sister; a kid brother and, of course, a pet turtle raised by dingoes who act like a dog.
Otherwise, "that would be an awful lot of spitting and grunting," Vitello says.
Taz hasn't lost any of his spitting, spinning, uncouth ways, but his family is as straight as the Cleavers. They are joined by characters like the Foghorn Leghorn-inspired Bushwhacker Bob and Frances X. Bushlad.
"If the Monty Python crew made a cartoon, it would come out like this," says Jim Cummings, the new voice of Taz, Bushwhacker Bob and the Woody Allen-sounding Wendel T. Wolf.
"Animaniacs" have three central characters: the Warner Bros., Yakko and Wakko, and their sister Dot.
Other stars are man-sized Chicken Boo, who never says a word but almost passes for human, and three pigeons--the "Goodfeathers"--whose exploits are narrated by a Ray Liotta-sounding bird named Squit.
The breakout characters of "Animaniacs," however, are Pinky and the Brain, two lab mice who spend each episode plotting to take over the world.
"You could show any one of the Pinky and the Brain episodes and they'd stand up as a theatrical short," says Maurice LaMarche, the voice of Brain, Taz's dad and Squit, among others.
Some of the new characters are among Warner's most popular.
The studio won't release sales figures, but Karine Joret, Warner's vice president of retail marketing, says Taz is second in popularity among items sold in the company's 107 retail stores. Pinky and Brain are in the top 10.
Rob Paulsen, voice of the simple Pinky and wacky Wakko, gets fan letters from across the country, including some Tennessee college students who are running Pinky and the Brain for class president and VP.
"When we go on promotional stops at the Warner Studio stores, there will be 200 to 400 people lined up," Paulsen says.
Pinky and Brain have become so popular, in fact, they'll get their own Saturday morning show this fall on the WB network. The 90 "Animaniacs" episodes and 10 new ones also will migrate to the WB.
"It's a little frightening when you create something and it takes on a life of its own," Ruegger says. "I thought I'd get about five or six hours out of these guys."
"Taz-Mania," the only one of the original series not produced by Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment, will remain on Fox and "Tiny Toons" will jump to Nickelodeon come autumn.
"Tiny Toons" and "Taz-Mania" are out of production and "Animaniacs" is near the end of its original run, but Ruegger envisions a few more "Animaniacs," some "Tiny Toons" specials, and maybe even a feature film. "I could see a Chicken Boo movie at some point!"