Warner Brothers shut down their animation studio in 1969, choosing to outsource the work to other studios instead of continuing the costs of having a full time animation studio that was producing fewer and fewer cartoons each year. For nearly 20 years, the classic LOONEY TUNES characters, along with the Hanna-Barbera hits, were done for as little money as possible. Occasional specials would be created, using previously existing cartoons to fill in between wraparounds, like DAFFY DUCK’S QUACKBUSTERS.
In 1986, Warner Brothers decided to restart their animation department and, seeing the success Disney was having with THE ADVENTURES OF THE GUMMI BEARS and DUCK TALES, decided to focus on creating animated series. At the same time, Steven Spielberg, who had produced a number of animated films with Sullivan Bluth Studios, including AN AMERICAN TALE, was looking for a new home to play in the animation space after Sullivan Bluth ended their deal with the director. Spielberg ended up at Warner Brothers, and the first show he would create with the studio became an almost instant classic, TINY TOONS.
The concept was simple enough – new, young versions of the LOONEY TUNES characters who are all buddies and go to school together (where the teachers are the classic characters). TINY TOONS took the elements that made Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck such mainstays in American culture and updated it for a modern audience – but not too much, there were still plenty of jokes about Bob Hope.
With the success of TINY TOONS, Spielberg and WB looked for their next project and turned to Tom Ruegger, the man who came up with TINY TOONS, to see what else he had. Ruegger came up with the concept of three siblings who live in the water tower on the Warner Brothers lot. These siblings, Yakko, Wakko, and Dot, would be forgotten characters from the golden age of animation who were locked up because, unlike Bugs, they couldn’t be controlled. Now free again, they would get into wacky Marx Brothers-style adventures. Once again, Spielberg and WB had a hit – ANIMANIACS would introduce viewers not only to the Warner Brothers and Sister, but to Pinky and the Brain, a duo of mice who worked to rule the world. Pinky and the Brain would become so popular that they received their own show.
Spielberg liked these cartoons that were so close to the ones he grew up with, but he wanted to do something different for the third show. He looked at what other cartoons were popular at the time and found one that stuck with him, BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES. Lucky for him, BATMAN was also a WB animation series, so getting a meeting with the people behind it wouldn’t be tough.
Spielberg met with the two men who created BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES, Bruce Timm and Paul Dini. Timm and Dini quickly worked up an idea for an erratic hero with some serious edge and Timm came up with the name…
Together, the two men who had so perfectly captured Batman, began building the mythology of a serious hero who went on serious superhero adventures. Freakazoid would be a teen who got his powers from the internet. He would be kind of wacky, but never overly comedic. He would be serious but fun.
It didn’t work. The name and idea were too ripe with comedy for the concept to stay straight, and before long Timm left the project to put his attention back on Batman. Tom Ruegger replaced him, and with Dini they took FREAKAZOID and let it become the comedy that was so clearly hidden within it.
Keep in mind that this was 1995, and think about how well Ruegger and Dini captured not what the internet was then, but what it would become: 16-year-old Dexter Douglas is a shy nerd at school, when he uses his power – becoming the living embodiment of the internet – he is outspoken, loud, funny, annoying, and overly self confident. Hell, the show even had Emmitt Nervend, a recurring character who was little more than a meme. Well before George Takei became an internet icon, he was almost killed by Freakazoid’s sidekick, Fanboy, who chased the STAR TREK actor into traffic.
Along with Freakazoid, the show featured characters like The Lawn Gnomes – a team of gnome statues that came to life at night – a direct parody of Disney’s GARGOYLES. There was Toby Danger – an homage to JOHNNY QUEST that went so far as to use the same voice actors as the 1964 series. Lord Bravery was a British superhero who, for some reason, dressed like a Roman centurion and refused to actually do any superhero work. And then there was The Hunstman, who is like Green Arrow by the way of Charlton Heston – an angry conspiracy theorist filled with grit and a love of weapons.
FREAKAZOID is the definition of “ahead of its time”. The show’s pacing was unlike any other cartoon, quickly moving from one scene to the next, sometimes only being in a scene as long as it took to make a joke. It goofed on superhero culture to a level that 90% of viewers would never get. It also wasn’t clear who the audience for the show was. It looked more like ANIMANIACS than BATMAN, but the humor was more mature, relying less on slapstick and more on wordplay and metaphor (though there is plenty of slapstick too. Everyone of every age loves slapstick).
With its random cuts to stock footage, references to movies and comic book characters most people had never heard of, and consistent use of prominent political figures like Bill and Hillary Clinton, no one could figure out how to sell the show to the audience. Unlike TINY TOONS, which ran for 100 episodes, and ANIMANIACS, which made it to 99 episodes, FREAKAZOID ended with just 24 episodes. When the show began to run on Cartoon Network, FREAKAZOID found an audience, though still not a large one. In the twenty years since it was cancelled, a small but dedicated following has kept the internet’s first hero around in some form. Go to a comic convention and there’s a good chance you’ll run into someone cosplaying as Freakazoid or Fanboy.
Not every joke on the show worked, and to be honest, I don’t think they were all supposed to work. Like MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000, FREAKAZOID was a show where the humor came from connection – you either got the joke or you didn’t, and the people working on it weren’t concerned about explaining it to you. Sure, that’s a pretty good way to end up getting cancelled real fast, but it is also a way to create something very different. Something unlike any show before or after. And when it works… when the joke hit home… when you catch the odd reference to a Hammer film in the middle of a cartoon that aired at 8:30 on Saturday mornings… that is when you know that you’re not alone; That out there in the mess of the world are other people who would laugh with you, because we’re all a little bit Freakazoid.