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How to Make an Animaniacs Song That Truly Captures Life in 2020

2020 chic Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Hulu

“Yakko’s World.” “Wakko’s America.” And, of course, that earworm of a main theme. When Animaniacs first burst out from the Warner Bros. movie lot water tower and onto television screens in 1993, there was plenty to make it stand out among the cartoons of its day. The classic gags, so reminiscent of Looney Tunes! The pop-culture references, skewering everything from Slick Willie’s scandals to Martin Scorsese films! The occasionally shocking innuendos! But the show’s most memorable showstoppers were its beloved musical numbers. That’s exactly why the premiere of the show’s 2020 revival, which hits Hulu today, debuts a particularly ambitious tune in its very first segment: a song that sums up the 22 years since Animaniacs went off air in a tight two minutes. Here’s a clip:

“We needed to address the last 22 years — we couldn’t just start with the Warners suddenly being aware of TikTok,” says Wellesley Wild, the revival’s showrunner and executive producer. “After throwing around a few ideas, we realized that the most efficient and fun way to do that was through a song.”

The result is “Catch Up Song,” a Yakko Warner number. It has a vintage Animaniacs feel to it, and a whole lot of work went into making it feel that way. Wild and Gabe Swarr, a co-executive producer on the series who oversaw the show’s animation process, estimate that, when all was said and done, it took a team of well over 100 people roughly 240 hours total to produce just this two minutes of the show.

“We have a sound designer, a sound-effects person, four or so people who touch up sound at the end; we have all the musicians, and we have the composers; and then we have the animation team,” Swarr says over the phone as he and Wild spend a solid two minutes just trying to remember everyone who made “Catch Up Song” what it is. Eight members of that enormous team, including Wild and Swarr, spoke with Vulture about how they summed up a little less than a quarter-century in roughly two minutes — and how, exactly, to make an Animaniacs song in 2020.

The Lyrics

“We were 8 years old when we were watching Animaniacs, and we were huge fans,” the Australian screenwriter Lucas Crandles says, speaking for himself and writing partner Timothy Nash. “And the thing that stuck with us all the way through, and when it came to auditioning for the job as well, was that this show’s music is central.”

Indeed, pretty much everyone who worked on the show’s original run has sung the praises of its principal songwriter, Randy Rogel, who returned to work on the revival as well. “It’s kind of intimidating, following in the footsteps of writers like Randy, who wrote some of the best songs in animation ever,” Nash says. “But we’ve gotten to work alongside people like Randy now, and they’re all so approachable and wonderful and share their knowledge so freely.”

Musical comedy was a lot more common in the 1990s television landscape than it is today, and not something that Crandles and Nash were especially familiar with. So, in addition to asking Rogel and others for their advice, they studied the works of the old masters for clues. “Tom Ruegger and Richard Stone wrote the original Pinky and the Brain song — the one that we’re still using now — to the tune of ‘Singin’ in the Rain,’” he says. “It’s a trick that we applied across a lot of the songs.”

Crandles and Nash have written the lyrics to more than two dozen songs for the announced two seasons of the Animaniacs revival, but “Catch Up Song” was the first. In fact, they auditioned with a draft of it. But Crandles explains that that draft was just the beginning of a lengthy finalization process that involves asking yourself a lot of questions as a songwriter: Is this song part of a sketch, or is it the whole short? Which character is singing the song, and how do we make the lyrics fit the character? Is it an educational song, and if so, what information needs to be packed into it? How do you convey that information in two minutes, and with humor and clever rhymes to boot?

Once the writers have a handle on a song’s direction, they run sample lyrics past Wild (and, eventually, a bunch of other folks in the writers’ room; Crandles mentions writer Jess Lacher as pivotal to the rewriting process for “Catch Up Song”), then look for a song to “use as a coat hanger.” For “Catch Up Song,” Crandles says, they chose, of all things, “The Mexican Hat Dance” — the tune to which Yakko famously sang the names of all the countries in the world. From there, the pair breaks down the song’s length and meter and starts finding ways to work its subject matter into the verses.

“If it’s a historical song, we’ll find the main beats we need to cover and break it into that,” Crandles says. In this case, that means finding a way to pack in references to the gig economy and the rise of social media and still make it rhyme — a task, the duo agreed, made easier considering that, for this song, the eldest Warner sibling is the star of the show. “Yakko is the smart one and the smart aleck,” Nash says. “He gets more million-dollar words, so he’s one of the most fun characters to write for. The number of syllables you can get [Yakko and Pinky voice actor] Rob Paulsen to cram into a line if you need to — I mean, he’s just fantastic.” The results speak for themselves: “Taxis are Ubers, the stars are YouTubers, Neil Tyson gave Pluto the ax. / Cell phones got smarter, the oceans got hotter, the global economy collapsed.” And so on.

From there, Crandles says, “once we’ve got this sort of roughly fleshed-out idea, it will go to the composers.”

The Music

The Animaniacs revival is as lousy with composers as it is with writers, and at first, the plan was to have “Catch Up Song” composed by Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly, a duo affectionately referred to by Wild and his team as “the Scots.” That resulted in what Wild called a “Weezer punk style” for the song, which, while fun and different, wasn’t quite what he had in mind.

Enter Clyde Lawrence and Jordan Cohen, of the soul-pop band Lawrence, based in Brooklyn. Recruited by the show’s music supervisor, they were sent some excerpts from the episode’s initial script, including early lyrics for “Catch Up Song” and the premiere’s other musical number, and composed music for both “on spec,” Lawrence says.

Cohen adds that “since this project is so collaborative, part of the first step is reading through the lyrics and seeing what the writers are trying to do.” While working, the duo would say to themselves: “This part is an American politics portion, so let’s try to be referential to the Colonial-times sound of an orchestra,” or “This part seems to read as though it’s the chorus, so let’s make sure that this feels like a chorus.”

The composition, in other words, is meant to be illustrative. To get it right, Lawrence and Cohen had to brainstorm whether to approach the song as a big, showy, classic Animaniacs instructional song with a full orchestra, or to attempt something a little different or more subdued.

In the end, Lawrence says, they aimed for a middle ground, attempting to evoke the feel of the original show’s beloved numbers while keeping the song feeling fresh. “From there, it was just about how to find a good melody and set of chords to go with that, and figuring out how it builds over the course of the song. If you’ve ever seen an episode of The Animaniacs or heard one of the songs, you know that you’re going to end in a different place than you started — it’s going to get faster or slower, it’s going to change keys, the instrumentation is going to massively change.”

The Direction

The composition may be illustrative, but in the end, the song still has to actually be illustrated. That means it needs to be storyboarded, and then, after a long and complex process, animated. Swarr says this song was the hardest part of the premiere to storyboard — and also the last thing the artists boarded.

That made for a very tight deadline for the storyboard artists, who had to finish their work on the sequence before the first animatic screening, scheduled for a week later. But the harrowing schedule, Swarr says, helped keep everyone focused. “We couldn’t overthink the storyboards or be too clever, because the lyrics are so fast,” he says. “We had to just illustrate what’s in the lyric in whatever way allowed for the fastest, easiest read.”

The episode was directed by Scott O’Brien and Katie Rice, with Rice’s team taking the lead on “Catch Up Song” in particular. The team — storyboard artists Zoë Moss, Nick Sumida, and Matthew Yang, and storyboard revisionist Sara Jerzykowski — worked collaboratively, which Rice said comes naturally to them. “We would just sit in my office around my coffee table on the floor and sketch ideas, talk things through, make jokes, have conversations, get distracted, talk about other stuff, then get back to work,” she says. “We divided it up into three parts — one for each of my main board artists, and Sarah helped me piece it all together. I did a few poses here and there, but really, I just let the artists run with it, and a lot of what they did ended up on the screen.”

The songs in Animaniacs, Rice says, are particularly fun to board because they’re so jam-packed with jokes that provide the artists with plenty of low-hanging fruit in terms of visual inspiration. Still, storyboarding songs comes with its own challenges.

“When you’re storyboarding a regular part of a cartoon, there’s more room for nuance and acting, which is actually a really fun thing,” Rice said. “But with a song, you’re locked into a rhythm, and you can’t break it. You have to be a little smarter about what you’re going to show, all while making sure there’s enough time for audiences to register it. The visual storytelling has to be really snappy and specific, because you might only have two seconds to explain something if a lyric is particularly quick and clever.”

The Singing

This, of course, is a Yakko Warner song, so quick and clever was the name of the game. Paulsen was well-prepared to jump right back into singing as a character he first voiced nearly three decades ago, especially since he and his castmates have been performing songs from the show’s original run as part of a live show, Animaniacs in Concert, over the past few years.

Singing in character is different from just plain singing, and voice actors are often brought in to sing for actors who can’t sing in character (or sing at all). But even for experienced voice actors, there are challenges. To voice Yakko, Paulsen has to squeeze his throat in a particular way, and “in terms of the way my throat is built, it can limit the notes I can hit,” he explains.

Then there’s concerns of character. When singing as Pinky, for instance, Paulsen will sing a bit off-key or off the beat deliberately, “because Pinky is, by nature and by design, a little dim, albeit lovable.” But as Yakko, he sings right in the middle of a note. “We don’t want Yakko to miss it by a quarter tone,” Paulsen explains. “We want Yakko to sing really well. He’s a smart-ass, and he gets the joke. And he doesn’t mind being the butt of the joke. But he can sing rapid fire, and he has to sing well.”

Paulsen had another challenge to contend with this time around, as well. In 2016, at 60, he was diagnosed with stage-three metastatic squamous cell carcinoma, a form of throat cancer — a terrifying diagnosis for anyone, but especially someone who makes his living using his voice. “It was a little bit disconcerting, but nobody gets out of here without a couple of dings,” he says, “and as a result of this wonderful medical technology I’ve been able to avail myself of, I’m fine.” Regardless, before he recorded anything for the revival, Paulsen says, “I had to make sure that my chops were at the level that allowed me to do this.”

The verdict, Paulsen says, was that he “probably did lose a couple of notes on the top of my register from the radiation,” which “really beat the daylights out of me, but it worked.” However, he continues, “the cool thing about character work is that you can tweak it and fudge stuff.” (This is exactly why voice tracks are recorded before animating; the last thing an animator needs is to reanimate a scene after the fact.) “So if Yakko finds a note that he can’t hit, I still have a little leeway, because I can act a lyric versus sing it. Being able to sing in character actually frees me up from having to worry about not hitting a note.” Paulsen had more good news on that front too: He hasn’t had to rely on this technique at all yet in the revival.

As soon as he received the demo for “Catch Up Song,” Paulsen says, he knew that the writers had caught lightning in a bottle once more. The whole scenario reminded him of “Yakko’s World,” the first song he recorded for the show’s original run. In fact, the story behind “Catch Up Song” gave him a bit of déjà vu: “Yakko’s World,” he says, dumbfounded, had been Randy Rogel’s audition song too.

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How to Make an Animaniacs Song That Truly Captures 2020