Johnny Caps 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, 2010s, A Pup Named Scooby-Doo, Animaniacs, Animation, Batman: The Animated Series, Cartoons, disney, hanna-barbera, Histeria, The 7D, Tiny Toon Adventures, Tom Ruegger, Warner Brothers 0
My newest interview subject, Tom Ruegger, is an animation legend. Whether at Warner Brothers, Hanna-Barbera or Disney, Tom Ruegger has worked on some of the most memorable cartoons of the last 4 decades. On August 28th, I had the chance to speak to Mr. Ruegger about some of his most noted work, including three series that are celebrating anniversaries this year. 2018 marks the 30th anniversary of “A Pup Named Scooby-Doo”, which was produced at Hanna-Barbera as shown in the cover photo of Tom, William and Joe, the 25th anniversary of “Animaniacs”, e, and the 20th anniversary of “Histeria”. We discussed all that and more, so get set to spend some time with an animation superstar.
Note: The images in this article all came from Tom Ruegger’s blog Cartoonatics. Check it out for even more amazing stories from this animation icon.
Say hello to Tom Ruegger!
Johnny: Three of your most notable productions are celebrating anniversaries this year, and to start off with, you produced the series A Pup Named Scooby-Doo, which celebrates its’ 30th anniversary this year. It was one of the earliest examples of a Scooby-Doo follow-up that played around with the show’s premise. Was that playing around intentional?
Tom: Definitely. “Scooby” had been on TV at that point for almost 20 years. Everyone knew it by heart. So with “Pup,” we went into a little bit of self-parody, and we let the characters expand and become self-referential.
I first came to Scooby when I arrived as a writer at Hanna-Barbera in 1982. The show was new to me then in that I hadn’t watched it much at all. My first week on the job, they said, “You’re going to write Scooby.” So I grabbed these gigantic 3/4″ videos and a video player that Hanna-Barbera had. I brought them home and watched season after season of “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You” and really got into a groove of knowing what the routines were for the series: The food gags. The scared routines. The “Let’s split up, gangs.” The song/dance “romps.” The unmaskings. The “I would’ve gotten away with it too if it hadn’t been for those meddling kids and their dog” bits. The “Jinkies.” The “Zoinks.” The Scooby snacks. It had a definite formula.
By the time “Pup” came around, I had been working on “Scooby” for about 5 or 6 years. Over that period, I had analyzed the characters and got to know them pretty well. So, for me, with “Pup,” it felt comfortable to take the unique quirks of each character and stretch them.
For instance, Freddy always seemed very square to me. I mean, he actually wore an ascot. Who wears an ascot? Nobody!! So in”Pup,” we made Freddy super-square and sort of a dunderhead, a conspiracy-theorist whack-job. As for Daphne, she always seemed pretty prim and proper, so we expanded her personality by making her sort of pushy and a little stuck-up. That’s when we decided she was going to be wealthy. I don’t think she had ever been declared a wealthy person prior to “A Pup Named Scooby-Doo.” She became a little like Veronica in the Archie comics in that she was the rich girl in school.
When I was developing “A Pup Named Scooby-Doo,” I was really excited about Velma. I loved the drawing we had of Velma as a little kid. So cute and so much younger than the others. (Scott Jeralds did the initial sketches on all the young versions of the characters. Of course, Iwao Takamoto, who designed the original Scooby series, pitched in as well.) My original goal was to have Velma only say the word “Jinkies” throughout the entire series. Just “Jinkies.” That’s it. If I had been the story editor on the series, I’m pretty sure she never would’ve said anything but “Jinkies”. She would’ve pointed out things and the other characters would react and say, “Oh, of course! Velma has solved the crime again. But ABC thought that producing the show would be enough for me to have on my plate. They said: “Let some other people do the writing.”
So, with the first episode, the pilot written by Charlie Howell, Jim Ryan and me, Velma said “Jinkies” and almost nothing else. Then, with the subsequent episodes, written by the new story editors, suddenly Velma was just blabbing away. I debated the issue with the story editors, and resisted having her talk, but eventually it became too exhausting a battle. Ultimately, Velma did say a few things, but she would be a bigger, better and more memorable character today if all she ever said had been “Jinkies.”
In “Pup,” Shaggy and Scooby, of course, were pretty much the same characters, just a little bit cuter. We learned a lot more about Shaggy and his family in the series, and we learned that Scooby and Shaggy have been pals together for years and years.
I liked that we had Don Messick and Casey Kasem doing their original voices for Scooby and Shaggy in the show. We just pitched them a little bit higher after to give them a slightly more youthful sound.
By that point, 1988, Casey had become a vegan, so whenever we talked about the toppings on Shaggy’s pizza, meats were never mentioned. Never pepperoni. It had to be some kind of veggie.
Johnny: Of all the episodes of “A Pup Named Scooby-Doo” that you worked on, which was your favorite?
Tom: The first one — the pilot. I really lived and breathed the pilot, wrote and edited it and worked on the storyboard with Scott Jeralds and the crew. The villain was played by one of my all-time favorite comedic actors: Chuck McCann. When I was a kid, Chuck McCann was the number one kid show host in the New York/New Jersey area with his three-hour Sunday morning program entitled “Let’s Have Fun.” He was hilarious! I loved Chuck McCann, so getting him to be the villain in the first episode of the first show I produced was a home run as far as I was concerned.
The beauty of that first episode is that Bill Hanna himself directed it. As I mentioned, it was my first producing job, and I really wanted the first episode to be great, so I went to him. He was very busy running the studio, running all the productions in-house, and I asked him, “Is there any chance I can get you to direct this thing? I mean, here’s this character that you know and love and helped create, and here’s a new incarnation. Can you make sure this first episode is a winner?” He thought about it and finally said, “Sure.”. One of the reasons he agreed: He told me no one had asked him to direct a cartoon in over a decade!
There was an office on the roof of the Hanna-Barbera building, almost like a crow’s nest of an office. It was Bill’s private haven. He didn’t go up there a lot. He had his own office downstairs, but when he wanted to be left alone, he would go up to this perch. It was a small little building on top of the roof. To direct the first episode of “A
Pup Named Scooby-Doo,” he went in there with the storyboard and the soundtrack, a metronome and blank exposure sheets, and he spent a week doing the sheets, directing it, acting it out, jotting additional poses, sketches and expressions on the sheets and board pages, just making the whole thing work. I really think that Bill Hanna’s direction on the first episode had a lot to do with the show’s success because he timed it fast and funny. As they say, you only have one chance to make a good first impression, and that first episode did its job.
There are only 27 half-hour episodes of “A Pup Named Scooby-Doo,” butit’s still rerunning after 30 years. It’s currently airing twice a day on Boomerang. So apparently, we made a good first impression that has lasted for a long time!
Johnny: It certainly did. The Scooby-Doo franchise, in all of its’ incarnations, has been celebrated by the scientific community for encouraging skepticism, as practically all the supernatural elements were found to be actual people (Tom laughs). As I’ve asked several people who have worked on fantasy and horror projects, do you think
there are such things as ghosts, or are you a skeptic about them?
Tom: I’m a skeptic about UFOs because I feel like we’d be getting really good footage on cell phones if they were real. As for ghosts, I’ve had some sort of weird, spooky experiences now and then, like when you turn a corner and see something out of the corner of your eye and you’re like, “What was that?” So I’m not completely
skeptical on the spirit front.
Johnny: Alright. To serve as a branch into Warner Brothers, several episodes of A Pup Named Scooby-Doo were directed by famed Warner Brothers animator Art Davis. As Hanna-Barbera was still an independent studio in the late 80s, and wouldn’t be a corporate sibling with Warner Brothers for another decade or so, did working with Mr. Davis inspire you to join Warner Brothers?
Tom: Art was great but he did most of his work away from the studio, so my interactions with him were very limited. Ray Patterson was doling out a lot of the animation, so Ray dealt with Art and others.
I was a huge Warner Brothers cartoon fan my whole life. There are a handful of the best of Bugs and Daffy and Porky that are just about the funniest things ever made. I also loved Hanna-Barbera cartoons when I was growing up. Still love them. I was a huge fan of Huck, Yogi, and Quick Draw, and those particular series were a major part of my young life. I enjoyed The Flintstones and The Jetsons, too. But when it came to delivering laughs, I was aware that the Warner Bros. cartoons were the gold standard.
After I graduated from college, I became the head of the Dartmouth Film Society for a year and, on occasion, we’d run animation film festivals at the college movie theater. For one of these events, we wanted to show “Duck Amuck,” but we couldn’t find a print. We couldn’t rent one. It wasn’t available from the regular rental places, so I figured, “I’ll write to Chuck Jones and see if he has a print!”
He did, and he sent it to us and let us show it at the screening. At that point I thought, “Wow. You can actually access legendary animators! You can contact the people who made these great cartoons!” I found this to be amazing and fascinating. (I soon learned that Chuck Jones had worked with Ted Geisel — Dr. Seuss — on a bunch of different projects over the years, “The Grinch” and other things, and “Dr. Seuss” had gone to Dartmouth, so I think Chuck had a good feeling about lending us his print.) So, my (tenuous) connection to Warner Bros existed before I ever worked with Art Davis.
At the start of my career, I worked as an assistant animator at Hanna-Barbera from 1978 to 1980, and assisted some true animation legends like Dave Tendlar, who was one of the great animators of the Fleischer “Popeye” cartoons. I also assisted Volus Jones, one of the greatest people I ever met in the business. For years, he had been one of Disney’s top Donald Duck animators. Volus taught me how to animate bee swarms, among many other lessons. And I worked with Abe Levitow’s daughter Judy. Abe Levitow had worked with Chuck Jones for a long time and directed “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol,” among other classics.
Back in ’78, when I arrived in Los Angeles, I tried to meet as many of the legends as I could. When I first started out at Hanna-Barbera as an assistant animator, Tex Avery was there working on “Kwicky Koala.” I got to meet him, but I didn’t work with him.
When the opportunity came along to move to Warner Brothers Animation in 1989, it was a no-brainer.
At that time, my ex-boss from Hanna-Barbera, Jean MacCurdy, was the executive in charge over there at Warner Bros. Animation. She came to me one afternoon in January 1989 and said, “Hey, Steven Spielberg wants to make a cartoon series over here at Warner Brothers. It’s called ‘Tiny Tunes’ (the spelling would be changed later) and other than that, we really don’t know much about it except that it willprobably feature junior versions of Bugs and Daffy. Would you want to come over and produce it?”
I said, “Never!” (Laughing) No, I immediately said, “Yes.”That was a Monday. On Tuesday, I went into Hanna-Barbera. I went to Bill and Joe separately and said, “There’s an opportunity to make a show with Spielberg,” and they were great and supportive. I was under contract and, so they could’ve said no, but they let me out of my contract and I was gone that day.
So, instantly, I was without a job at Hanna-Barbera, and now I was going into the unknown. Warner Bros. Animation hadn’t made an animated TV series in years, and I hadn’t yet met Steven. I had no idea how that was going to pan out. It suddenly felt like a big error (laughing). It could’ve gone horribly wrong, but fortunately, it did not.
Johnny: Tiny Toon Adventures was definitely one of my favorite cartoons growing up and still remains.
Tom: Now, how old are you?
Johnny: I myself am 35. I was born in 1982.
Tom: Oh, you’re a kid. 1982? So you were 8 or 9 when it went on the air.
Johnny: Actually 7. I was born near the end of 1982, December 22nd, to be exact. I can recall watching the premiere of Tiny Toon Adventures on CBS…
Tom: It was a Friday night. That’s right.
Johnny: Although Tiny Toon Adventures was a big success, the bigger success came with the next project celebrating an anniversary this year, “Animaniacs,” which, of course, will be turning 25. Of all the comedically-oriented shows of Warner Brothers’ Silver Age, what would you say has made this show, and by extension, the spin-off Pinky And The Brain, stand out?
Tom: Well, I think when you let creative people do what they want to do, when you really take off the shackles and let go of the reins and let funny, creative people do their best, it makes a huge difference.
With “Tiny Toons,” there were some restrictions. The first restriction was that Steven didn’t know us, so he didn’t have complete faith in our ability to accomplish this ambitious project. The higher-ups at Warner Bros. told me that my number one job was to keep Steven happy, so whenever he was unhappy with some aspect of the production, that presented a problem.
I know he became concerned a few times when we had animation that was a little clunky, not top-quality or maybe the line quality became too thick for his taste, or he wanted a core shadow that wasn’t there, and he would be clearly disappointed. He was concerned that if the series didn’t work great and wasn’t successful, it could hurt his reputation. So, on “Tiny Toons,” we were restricted in a sense by that, and by the fact that we were creating stories about junior versions of the classic Looney Tunes characters, so while they weren’t really the same characters, they all had attributes similar to their original characters like Bugs, Daffy and Porky.
There were restrictions creatively on “Tiny Toons” because of the actual premise of the series, so we had our hands tied a little bit. But we had a great budget and we assembled a very talented team, so there was a big upside. It was still creatively enjoyable because we had smart funny people making the shows and everybody seemed to enjoy our sense of humor.
After we had the success of “Tiny Toons,” I remember the day Jean MacCurdy and Steven met with me. Steven turned to me and said, “So what’s next?” He wanted to know, “What are we going to do after Tiny Toons?” Both Jean and Steven wanted to follow up with something even better. That’s what they wanted me to think about and start working on. Steven added: “But here’s the thing. This show has to have a marquee name.”
I said, “Well, you’re the marquee name, Steven. ‘Steven Spielberg.'”
He said, “No, no, no. Not me. I mean the show itself needs a marqueename. You should think about a spin-off from “Tiny Toons,” maybe ‘The Plucky Duck Show.'” But, the fact of the matter was, I really didn’t want to do a spin-off of Tiny Toons. I didn’t just want to do more of the same thing.” They said, “Well, those are your marching orders. Come up with a great new concept, but you need a marquee name.”
I was stumped by the marquee name request, so I ignored it for a while and went about working on show ideas that ultimately resulted in “Animaniacs” — a variety show of all-new cartoon franchises.
I came up with the series title “Animaniacs” and the overall concept and character groups and worked with the writers and artists from the “Tiny Toons” crew to develop a fresh new series. Among the crew: Sherri Stoner, Deanna Oliver, Rich Arons, Alfred Gimeno, Nick Hollander, Rusty Mills, Peter Hastings, Earl Kress, and so many others. Really talented people.
Johnny: Definitely. They definitely were talented and are talented.
Tom: Ultimately, I went with MacCurdy and Stoner to Steven’s house in Pacific Palisades, and pitched the new show. As we showed him the designs for “Pinky and the Brain,” I sang their theme song (“They’re Pinky and the Brain, yes, Pinky and the Brain”) and he bought it on the spot. “Sold!” Sherri Stoner did her impression of Slappy Squirrel and he bought that on the spot as well. He also loved “The Goodfeathers” and knew that his pal Marty Scorcese would love it. At that point, we had drawn three wacky ducks as our lead characters, because Steven seemed to be very enamored with Plucky Duck. These duck designs were based on three duck-billed platypus characters I had featured in the first animated cartoon I ever made back in college. Steven liked them, but he felt there were too many cartoon ducks at the moment, with “DuckTales” and other shows. So our ducks would need to be revised. Steven liked the overall concept of the “Animaniacs” show, but he still wanted a marquee name to headline the series. So that challenge still remained.
I solved the marquee riddle a week or two later. I was visiting the Warner Bros. Studio movie lot for a screening. After I parked my car, I was walking across the lot and I saw the huge water tower with the big WB logo on it. Then it struck me! That was our marquee and that was our marquee name! That tower with the Warner Bros. logo has been there for years. It’s like an ad for Warner Brothers. People drive past it every day in Burbank, and they see that water tower. It’s like a marquee for the studio.
Suddenly, it all clicked for me. The water tower with the Warner Bros. logo was our marquee. Living inside the water tower were our stars — three cartoon characters who were first animated in the early 30’s and who were so zany that they had to be locked away in the tower. Their names: the Warner Brothers — and the Warner sister. Now, sixty years later, they escape from the tower and go on adventures around the lot and beyond. These three characters — named Yakko, Wakko and Dot — are the heart and soul and comic center of “Animaniacs.”
So we took the duck designs that we already had and made the beaks more like muzzles, put little red noses on them, put generic cartoon ears sticking out of the tops of their heads, and turned the ducks into Yakko, Wakko and Dot Warner, sibling cartoon stars who run wild, question authority, and burst the bubble of the self-important and the pompous.
We met with Steven again and I pitched the new concept for the leads of “Animaniacs” — the Warner Bros. and their sister Dot — and their home inside the “marquee” water tower. Steven started laughing almost immediately because he realized he had basically given me an unsolvable puzzle, and he greatly appreciated that I went to great lengths to solve the puzzle. He loved the show. He loved the whole concept. He loved the Warner siblings, and the way they served as a sort of tribute to the olden days of animation and the studio. And he loved the designs. Then the Warner Bros. legal department went to the estates of the original Warner Bros. — Jack, Harry, et. al. — and got the okay to use the family name for our new cartoon characters. We were green-lit and underway!
Creatively, the show started off differently in comparison to “Tiny Toons.” With “Tiny Toons,” we all walked in knowing we were making reconstituted Looney Tunes with junior versions. With “Animaniacs,” we were now making a brand-new series with brand-new characters reflecting what’s going on today. In general, the entire series had an anti-establishment attitude, especially the Warner cartoons, in which the three siblings went up against bloated bureaucrats and all sorts of enemies. We were stoked. We had an order for a 65-episode series packed with new and different franchises. It didn’t feel like Looney Tunes. It wasn’t Bugs and Daffy. We had a brand new crop of characters, each with his or her own sassy attitude. We had some great pairings like Pinky And The Brain, who were really in their own “world-view” universe, and Slappy and Skippy, who were in their own “Hollywood/neighborhood” universe. And the overall title, “Animaniacs,” seemed to promise what we delivered: a batch of beautiful, nutty characters with wild agendas, all working without a net.
Right out of the gate, the main title captured the premise of the show. For the main title, Richard Stone wrote the music, I wrote the lyrics, and Rich Arons drew and directed the visuals. And the voices of the Warners — Rob Paulsen as Yakko, Tress MacNeille as Dot, and Jess Harnell as Wakko — sang the song.
Near the end of the “Animaniacs” main title, there’s a tribute to the old “Bugs Bunny Show.” We see the Animaniacs cast marching/dancing across the stage with Yakko, Wakko and Dot out in front. In the “Bugs Bunny Show” main title, from the 60’s, the cast of that show did a similar march/dance across stage with Bugs and Daffy out front.
Johnny: The pay-or-play contracts they mentioned that they all hold up while they’re walking across the stage. That’s definitely a standout. So you’re saying that Animaniacs excelled thanks to the freedom of the creative process?.
Tom: Without a doubt. It was a unique situation. We were allowed to run with the ball. The fact is, we flourished in the freedom given to us to make cartoons that we thought were funny and worth making. Unfortunately, that’s just not what happens very often. Often, with shows that are made today, there’s some sort of licensed product that’s involved, or a character or agenda you have to address. But there was none of that with “Animaniacs.” With this show, all of the writers and artists could put a lot of themselves into each episode. Some of the episodes had completely original characters. While Paul Rugg wrote many of the very best and funniest Warners cartoons, on occasion he’d go write a one-off, like the one starring a brand new bitter character named Charlton the Woodchuck. “Animaniacs” allowed writers and artists to flex their creative muscles. As far as stories were concerned, you could go on your own creative journey — and hopefully some of your thoughts and ideas would pertain to an Animaniacs franchise — maybe a Yakko, Wakko and Dot cartoon, or a Slappy and Skippy, or a Pinky And The Brain, or a Mindy and Buttons or a Goodfeathers cartoon. The only restraints were keeping the show’s stars in mind.
Few would argue that our show had the best voice cast, I think, ever put together for an animated series. Just awesome. Rob, Jess, Tress, Maurice LaMarche, Frank Welker, Sherri Stoner, Nate Ruegger, Nancy Cartwright, Bernadette Peters, John Mariano, Chick Vennera, Luke Ruegger, Julie Bernstein, Cody Ruegger, Arte Johnson, Andrea Romano. Awesome! Add in the writing by Rugg, Peter Hastings, John McCann, Nick Hollander, Randy Rogel, Stoner, Oliver, Howell, Gordon Bressack, Earl Kress and many more. And directors and storyboard artists like Rusty Mills, Rich Arons, Audu Paden, Alfred Gimeno, Liz Holzman, Barry Caldwell and so many others who used their artistry and timing to create genuinely funny episodes. And then there’s the incredible music by Richard Stone, Julie and Steve Bernstein and their entire team.
What a collective of talent!
And the show was a hit!
Johnny: Alright. Of all the episodes of Animaniacs that you were involved in, if the Television Academy had a Hall Of Fame like the Grammys do, which would be the episodes of Animaniacs that you would submit as the ones that defined what made it such a special show?
Tom: I love “Clown and Out,” “Cookies for Einstein,” “H.M.S. Yakko” and “Dezanitized,” all written by Paul Rugg. I think “Hooked On A Ceiling” (directed by Rusty Mills, written by Charlie Howell, Gordon Bressack and me) would be right up there as well. That’s the cartoon where the Warners help Michelangelo, who is painting the Sistine Chapel It starts with a John Houseman impression talking about the Sistine Chapel. He mentions Michelangelo, and then suddenly a bunch of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles jump out of a sewer hole. Right there, we are definitely mixing up cultural references pretty severely. I think that’s a wonderful way to look at “Animaniacs.” It really takes cultural references and presents them in a new, unique style.
“Hooked on a Ceiling” is packed with innuendo. The Warners think Michaelangelo is painting naked pictures on the ceiling (laughing). But the Warnersare glad to help stating: “We like painting naked people!” So the show had some double entendres that might make parents say, “Oh, jeez, is this really for kids?” Which is the beauty of it. It was for kids. Kids would laugh and the parents might wonder about it, but I don’t think it ever hurt anyone.
Now, a great cartoon has a great punchline. Not every cartoon we made has a great one, but this cartoon did. In the end, instead of the painting of God’s hand reaching out to Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, we have E.T with his finger reaching out to Elliot’s hand. That’s the punchline. But then there’s a topper: The Pope turns out to be Steven Spielberg dressed up as the Pope, who declares that he loves the painting of E.T. on the ceiling. Yakko, Wakko and Dot smile with satisfaction to the camera as Yakko explains: “You’ve got to know your audience.” Iris out.
My favorite Bugs Bunny cartoon is “Long-Haired Hare”, where Bugs goes against an opera singer at the Hollywood Bowl. From the beginning, this opera star has been rude to Bugs and busted Bugs’ banjo. Ultimately, Bugs declares, “Of course you know this means war!” At the very end, Bugs defeats the opera singer. Then, out of nowhere, Bugs pulls out his banjo and plays “Good evening, friends!”. That, to me, is a perfect Bugs Bunny cartoon with a perfect ending. And “Hooked On A Ceiling” is a perfect Warner Brothers cartoon.
Johnny: I was laughing as you were recounting “Hooked On A Ceiling”. It was definitely a highlight. I apologize for interrupting.
Tom: It’s difficult to pick my favorite “Animaniacs cartoon.” I suppose if I needed to pick three cartoons for a half-hour, I might pick “Bumbie’s Mom” for one of the slots. That’s a beautiful cartoon that Sherri Stoner wrote and Jon McClenahan directed. Just very funny. All of Paul Rugg’s cartoons are brilliant. All are funny. Some of them are funny and bizarre, like the short where the Warners go against Jerry Lewis in a sort of “Apocalypse Now” parody.
Johnny: That was another hilarious one. I’m still amazed, looking back on it, that not only were they able to spoof both Apocalypse Now and Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, but also get in a reference to The Day The Clown Cried.
Tom: (Laughing) Paul Rugg is *that* brilliant, and all those things are rattling around in his head. The same thing with Sherri, with Deanna Oliver, with Peter Hastings. Deanna’s “Les Miseranimals” (directed by Gary Hartle and Rich Arons) is one of the greatest cartoon musicals ever! Peter Hastings wrote the lyrics, music and script for the “Tiger Prince” opening, which is a parody of the opening of “The Lion King'” In Peter’s version, Yakko holds up the Tiger Prince and then accidentally drops him off a cliff. SPLAT! Yakko grimaces and says: “Oops! I thought cats were suppose to land on their feet.” The song is performed by Cree Summer and a chorus. It’s a beautiful cartoon. Also, Peter wrote “King Yakko”, which is a one of our very best half-hours. It’ssort of like the Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup.” The dialog is hilarious!
Of course, Sherri wrote a bunch of great stuff. One of my faves is Pinky and The Brain in “Bubba Bo Bob Brain.”
Johnny: Yeah. I can still recall the line where Brain says to the Dolly Parton spoof, “Puberty was inordinately kind to you.”
Tom: (Laughing with Johnny) Yeah, that is a great line. I also love “Woodstock Slappy.” John McCann and I wrote that one, and it had Slappy and Skippy’s “Who’s On Stage?” thing.
Johnny: So many great writers involved, and that leads me to my next question: Although most of the original voice cast has been announced to return for Hulu’s Animaniacs revival according to IMDB, the original writers have not been asked back as of yet. Speaking hypothetically, if you were to get a phone call tomorrow from either Warner Brothers or Amblin Television, and they said, “We realize now that the Animaniacs revival needs the original writers”,would you join the revival or would you tell them to jump in a lake?
Tom: I probably would volunteer to gather the group together. Honestly, I’ve been hoping for that to happen, but I don’t know if it will. I don’t know what the folks at Warner Bros. are planning to do with it. I really don’t. I did make every effort to tell them of my interest in being involved, but the response has been white noise. Nothing. Nada. Zippo.
Johnny: I’m sorry to hear that.
Tom: The fact that they didn’t invite back the original creative staff — It just seems wrong. “Animaniacs” exists today as the beloved show that it is thanks to the creative team who worked on it. The series truly reflects our comic personalities and senses of humor.
I can’t really imagine how Warner Bros. and Amblin and Steven would even want to make the show without the original minds and senses of humor and voices that made it happen. I feel they’re making a big mistake to cut the creator of the show out of the reboot. For them to neglect the original team, to cut us out of the show we created, well, in my opinion, it’s just wrong. Wrong on a lot of levels — creatively, ethically and professionally. I’m still hoping they’ll come around.
Johnny: Well, to kind of keep with that, for my final Animaniacs question before moving on to Histeria!, as Mel Gibson has changed quite a lot since the 1990s, who do you think Dot Warner would have a massive crush on in 2018?
Tom: Today, Dot would probably go for Ryan Reynolds. Also, I think she’d want to dress up as Wonder Woman and tell Gal Gadot to take a hike.
Johnny: That leads us to “Histeria,” which is celebrating its’ 20th anniversary this year. What historical events or personages discussed on Histeria were you most surprised at being allowed to cover?
Tom: Well, the two shows that we got in trouble for the most were “My Buddy Stalin,” where Stalin was big brother to Froggo, who doesn’t have a dad. They go on a camping trip, and whoever crosses Big Brother Stalin gets the gulag. Still makes me laugh. We also did something on the Spanish Inquisition with Torquemada. It only aired once, because some people associated with the Catholic Church angrily protested.
We did some very funny things on “Histeria.” We had a therapy group led by Joan Of Arc, and one of the characters in it was Lizzie Borden, played by Julia Duffy. We covered a lot of ground, and honestly, if some child out there watched the show pretty carefully, and was a decent judge of what was a joke and what was true, I think they’d learn a ton from that show. And I loved any time we had Paul Rugg come in and do Nostradamus. A riot!
Johnny: That leads me to another Histeria question. Animaniacs had songs like “The Nations Of The World” and “Wakko’s America”, which were both catchy and educational and helped many students from the 90s onward.
Have you heard any Silver Age fans tell you that certain songs from Histeria have helped them with their studies?
Tom: One of my favorites was Randy Rogel’s “The Invasion Song”. You know, “Germany invaded Poland. Germany invaded France”. It’s about all the invasions that happened in Europe. He also wrote a very funny Shakespeare song that, I suspect, people studying Shakespeare in school might memorize because it names all the major plays, but the answer to your question is no. I don’t know of any particular song from “Histeria” that people have memorized like Randy’s “Nations of the World” from “Animaniacs.”
Johnny: Alright. Had Kids’ WB not gone crazy from Pokemon (Tom laughs) and allowed Histeria to continue to a third season, what would you like to have done with the show?
Tom: Good question. We had another 20 episodes in the works when they pulled the plug. I know I wanted to do more with the presidents. I wanted to narrow the cast down a little bit. By the end, Loud Kiddington was becoming a star. But the cast was just too big, too sprawling. We needed to thin it down to a handful and have them take us through time and history, sort of like Mr. Peabody and Sherman, but without the help of a WABAC Machine.
Towards the end of the series, among the final episodes we made, there were meaningful episodes where our hosts went to Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington, D.C., and we did a Rosa Parks segment. We didn’t shy away from pretty big stories.
Johnny: Alright. One more Histeria question before moving into some miscellaneous stuff. Histeria had some pretty interesting guest stars playing historical figures. Of those actors and actresses, who came across most naturally with the material you wrote?
Tom: Well, like I said, Julia Duffy was very funny as Lizzie Borden. Just nuts. We had a great cast. We had Laraine Newman as Miss Information. She brought a great deal of comedy and bite to the material. She also played Joan Of Arc with the teenage Valley Girl voice she had perfected on “Saturday Night Live.”
When it comes to guest stars, we had Buddy Hackett come in to play one of the Wright Brothers. We wanted to play the brothers like Abbott and Costello, and we wanted Buddy to do his Lou Costello impression that he had
done in the TV movie “Bud And Lou.”
Johnny: I’m very familiar with that movie, mainly from Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast, which often makes reference to the scene where Costello is supposedly killed by drinking a strawberry malted, and his last words before dying are something like, “That’s thebest-tasting strawberry malted I ever had”, or something like that.
Tom: Yep. Those were truly his final words. Now, I loved Buddy Hackett from “The Music Man” and his “Tonight Show” appearances. So funny. So Buddy came in to record. He seemed like he was in a great mood, but then, and this happens now and then, when you get a funny person in front of the mic. Sometimes the funny goes away. Whether it’s a day that they’re just not feeling it, or perhaps it’s the material, or maybe they’re just in a bad mood, sometimes it just doesn’t work. Whatever it was that day, Buddy just wasn’t feeling it and he did not want to be funny. He did not want to do anything close to his Lou Costello impression. He didn’t even want to do anything close to *Buddy Hackett*. He wanted to just read the lines and get out. But the material was written like it was for Lou Costello. So we recorded some of the stuff, and it was not coming off as even remotely amusing. So we said, “Hey, Buddy, can we put some more energy into this? Let’s have him be a little more whacked-out, you know?” Basically, Buddy said, “No. This is what I want to do.” And that’s what he did. Ultimately, we couldn’t keep it because the show is a kids’ comedy. We needed it to be silly and funny. We got Rob Paulsen to play the role instead and he was fantastic.
Maurice LaMarche did his Johnny Carson voice for Abe Lincoln, and he did his Bob Hope for George Washington. Father Guido Sarducci came in and played Leonardo DaVinci. Billy West did a bunch of great voices. He played Confucius as George Jessel, a comedian from the 40s.
Of course, Tress MacNeille voiced The World’s Oldest Woman, and created some of the funniest stuff we had in the whole show. The World’s Oldest Woman would be interviewed by Bill Straitman, and Tress would occasionally improvise her answers. One of her improvs regarding tyrants was: “Hitler…Not a morning person”. (Johnny laughing) Funny stuff. Frank Welker held it all together as Father Time. A great performance by him, which started out a little but like a Bill Cosby’s voice. By the time we went on the air, there was no Cosby in it. He had
perfected it into Frank Welker doing a golden voiced avuncular pal. He’s the best.
Johnny: …Which is probably for the best, considering what we know now about Cosby.
Tom: Yeah. Who knew? Brutal.
Johnny: Yeah. I know you worked at Filmation for a period of time in the early 80s. Did you ever cross paths with Cosby as he was working on Fat Albert And The Cosby Kids?
Tom: My boss, Art Nadel, who was the story editor at Filmation and had been a movie director (he directed the Elvis movie “Clambake”) supervised all the live-action Cosby segments from “The Fat Albert Show.” I would occasionally go to those shoots and watch from the wings. They were filmed in a warehouse where they set up the junkyard set. Cosby was remarkable. He didn’t seem to have cue cards. He would just glance at the script for a few seconds and say, “Let’s do it,” and BOOM! He would become friendly Bill Cosby, talking to the camera. The scene would end — CUT! — and he’d go back to being serious “Let’s get this job done” Bill Cosby.
Johnny: Well, let’s move on to a lighter subject in a way. It’s a project not celebrating an anniversary this year, but a miscellaneous question. Although much of your writing has been comedic, some of it has been dramatic, and a great example of that would be the Batman: The Animated Series episode “Beware The Gray Ghost”, which gave 60s Batman actor Adam West a chance to play a dramatic role in the Batman universe. As I’m sure you watched the 60’s Batman growing up, what was it like to work with Mr. West on a role like that?
Tom: He was one of the most generous and enjoyable people on the planet. I had the privilege of meeting him. That was a real treat, and I certainly made it clear to him that his Batman was definitive for me, that it was an important part of my childhood. When I was writing this particular episode, it clicked in my mind that the Gray Ghost needed to be Adam West, and the Toymaker needed to be our series producer who had lots of toys in his
office, Bruce Timm. Of course, Batman would have to be played by our Batman. It was just perfect synchronicity to get these elements together, and Adam West’s voice work on the show is just perfect. I think all the voice work on the Batman series was just brilliant.
Johnny: It definitely was. I actually interviewed Kimmy Robertson a couple of years ago, and she did voice work on Batman: The Animated Series, playing Alice in the episode Mad As A Hatter. She did great voice work in it.
Tom: Yes. And Kevin Conroy as Batman. When you think about it, the guy doesn’t make any false moves as Batman. It’s not like he’s going in there and doing 40 takes for each line. He went in there and did one or two takes. He just knew it. As far as the animated version of Batman goes, Kevin Conroy is IT.
Johnny: Definitely. To move into more recent work, I’d like to mention The 7D, the Disney XD comedy which I wish had lasted longer. What was your favorite part of working on that show, and do you think it could’ve
Tom: Yeah. We had anticipated that it would last longer, and were surprised when it ended as soon as it did. It had to do with the company having priorities in different directions. The folks running Disney XD had a certain kind of programming they were broadcasting, and I’m not sure “The 7D” fit into their thinking.
As for the production, I really enjoyed working with the crews led by Alfred Gimeno and Charlie Visser. Really wonderful artists. Frank Montagna was our art director. Incredible talent. Brad Rozman was our awesome film editor. These people worked so well together, and they created such beautiful stuff. The writing was fun and what a writing team we had — some of the same people with whom I worked on Animaniacs. Sherri Stoner and Deanna Oliver were story editors on The 7D. We also had Paul Rugg, Paul Dini, Randy Rogel.
Johnny: That leads me to ask: Was there any hesitancy about working for Disney after all the shots that had been taken at the company in Warner Brothers’ Silver Age?
Tom: The folks at Disney Junior were great. Emily Hart, Nancy Kanter. The best. They wanted me there. They wanted me doing the show, and it was a pleasure working with them.
Next to working on scripts with the writers, I think my favorite part of producing “The 7D” was getting together with voice director Kelly Ward and the voice actors at L.A Studios and recording the shows. We had great scripts, but sometimes magic happens at the recording session and a great script gets even better in the hands and mouths of these incredible actors. The performers would often add things that were unexpected and hilarious. The more I work on animation, the more I realize that shows are greatly improved by improvisation that fits within the framework of the story, improvisation that reflects the personalities of the characters. Again, we had an awesome cast on The 7D — Maurice LaMarche, Kevin Michael Richardson, Scott Menville, Kelly Osbourne, Billy West, ee Baker, Leigh-Allyn Baker, Bill Farmer, Stephen Stanton and Paul Rugg — plus some great guest voices like Jim Belushi, Jay Leno, Whoopi Goldberg and the inimitable Phil Hendrie.
Johnny: This leads me to my final question: Shout! Factory recently licensed Gravity Falls from Disney for a massive DVD and Blu-Ray set loaded with extras. Has Shout! Factory reached out to Disney about a complete series set for The 7D, and if so, would you participate in extras?
Tom: I would love to participate, and I hope it happens.
Johnny: Alright. That about does it for my questions. I again thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to speak to me.
Tom: Alright, Johnny. A pleasure talking to you, and stay in touch.
Johnny: Fantastic. Thank you very much. I’ll be in touch.
Tom: Thanks a lot. See you later.
Johnny: See you later. Bye.
I would again like to thank Tom Ruegger for taking the time out of his schedule to speak with me. I hope you all enjoyed reading this interview. Coming soon to the Flashback Interview will be conversations with actress/author/artist Ami Dolenz and one of Tom Ruegger’s fellow Warner Brothers and Disney veterans, as well as a talent I’ve been wanting to interview since I first started doing interviews back in 2006. That veteran? Sherri Stoner.
Keep your eyes peeled for those interviews, and thank you as always for reading.