A talk with Jon McClenahan
Caps 2.0 interviews animator Jon McClenahan of "Tiny Toon Adventures" and "Animaniacs".
Jon McClenahan was a prolific & fun-loving animator who was lucky enough to work with brilliant writers like Sherri Stoner and Paul Dini and others at Warner Bros, during the so-called "Silver Age" of animation in the '90's. He got his start with Hanna-Barbera and is currently keeping the spirit of fun animation alive with Star Farm Productions in Chicago.
He has consented to do an interview with me. So, without any further ado-
The RetroJunk Interview With Jon McClenahan
Caps 2.0: What were your favorite cartoons growing up, and did any of them affect your decision to become an animator?
Jon: My favorite cartoons were definitely 'Bugs Bunny' and 'Roadrunner' cartoons. The feel of the Warner Bros cartoons of the '40's and '50's were really wonderful to me. As it happens, the ones that really appealed to me were usually done either by Friz Freleng or Chuck Jones. Of course, I loved Disney films when they came out. Not that I was a critic, but those films really held your attention. 'Bambi', 'Dumbo', 'The Sword in the Stone', 'Cinderella', '101 Dalmations' ... I still think 'Pinocchio' is the best animated film ever made. They worked for me as a kid. Mind you, I wasn't crazy about Disney shorts, for the most part. Donald Duck could be fun, because he always lost his temper, but Mickey Mouse was about the most boring animated character I ever saw. Like an animated straight man. But I could put up with him. There was an episode of Disney's Wonderful World of Color, which was on every Sunday after dinner when I was a kid in the '60's. In that series, Walt was like an affectionate uncle and he would guide you through the show - sometimes just introducing it, and sometimes interacting. I vividly remember Walt showing us how animation was made, having a little discussion with Donald Duck who was hanging out on the camera stand. It was fascinating to me. I remember thinking, wow, that would be like a dream-come-true to work on animation. So when I got the chance, I jumped and held on tight.
Caps 2.0: By the same token, what live-action shows from your youth do you feel best captured the comedic spirit of animation?
Jon: I wouldn't say that there were many live-action shows that captured the spirit of animation. 'The Flintstones', for instance, tried to capture the comedic spirit of the popular live-action sitcom,
'The Honeymooners.' But I do remember watching old 'Three Stooges' and Buster Keaton and Laurel & Hardy shorts and really enjoying the physical, slapstick humor. But I think there's a big differences in the universe of live-action slapstick comedy and cartoon comedy. I also remember the mannerisms of Dick Van Dyke in his sit-com. He was a great physical actor and a great comedian. His mastery of crazy poses and facial expressions undoubtedly engrained themselves in my mind as a young TV viewer.
Caps 2.0: You came of age in the mid-70s. Who were your favorite bands/singers of the era, and had you been able to, which ones would you have wanted to design album covers?
Jon: I was never into album cover designs. I do remember in '90 when I had just returned from Australia and I was setting up my brand new studio (StarToons) and I had my Volkswagen packed with drawing equipment, etc. that I was going to move from my home to the office in Chicago.
I stopped to fuel up at a dusty little gas station in Blue Island and the attendant, who was this kind of dopey-eyed teenager, looked into my car and said, "So what's all that stuff?"
"Animation equipment," I said.
"Yeah? Cool!" he said, and then he scratched his head and said, "So, is that like drawing?"
"Yeah," I said, "It's a lot like drawing."
"Yeah?" he said, and he started laughing like that was the coolest thing on earth, like he had just met Michael Jordan or something.
"Hey," he said, "So, like, could you draw me a Jimi Hendrix poster?"
I paid for my gas and got back in my car, and said, "Yeah maybe. I'll get back to you." And I drove away.
Sorry, but hey, like I said, I'm just not into album covers. Or Jimi Hendrix posters. So what bands did I dig? The Beatles, The Doors, The Temptations, The Four Seasons, Marvin Gaye, Talking Heads, Sarah McLachlan, Annie Lennox, James Taylor, The Supremes, Enya, Mozart, Israel Kamakawiwoole, Beethoven. Lotta different eras there, I guess.
Caps 2.0: Which movie comedies have been your favorites from the 70s up until now?
Jon: As a young kid I remember enjoying "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" (unbelievable all-star cast, 1963) and "The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming!" (1966). About all I remember from the '70's or '80's that were moderately funny were "Monty Python & The Holy Grail," and Woody Allen's "Sleeper" (which, when I saw it again recently, wasn't at all funny). More recently I loved, "Tommy Boy," the first two "Austin Powers" movies, "Napoleon Dynamite," "Spinal Tap," "A Mighty Wind," "Best of Show," "Waiting for Guffman," "The Royal Tenenbaums," and "Rushmore."
Caps 2.0: In relation to question 3, a noted album cover artist of the 70s was the much-missed actor/voice-over star Phil Hartman. He got his start in the Groundlings comedy troupe in California, which would also serve as a breeding ground for many of the vocal and writing talents of the Silver Age of Warner Brothers Animation. Had you seen any of the Groundlings' work which involved talents like writers Sherri Stoner and Deanna Oliver?
Jon: What I don't know would probably amaze you. About all I could say about Hartman was that I lived a few blocks away from his home in Encino for the short time that I lived in LA. That was unfortunately a year after he met his demise in 1998. He was truly one of the most gifted comic performers of the 20th century (IMHO).
Caps 2.0: A lot of criticism was hurled at the Spielberg shows by people like John Kricfalusi. How did the people at Warner react?
Jon: Pretty much the same way most people react to John Kricfalusi's statements, i.e. ignoring them. Nobody except John K's fans cared what John K thought. The thing about John K is, he's a really really talented guy who is also pretty good at hurling criticisms at others but unfortunately won't collaborate with anyone. He prefers being the King of Kricsfalusi World. It's a pretty good gig if you can get it. Basically if you live in his world, you worship him. If you don't, you don't. Very few people at WB were Kricsfalusi worshippers. Certainly none of the decision-makers.
Caps 2.0: What was the funniest thing you ever heard one of the writers say?
Jon: At (Tom) Ruegger's wedding recently, Paul Rugg did a comedy routine where he played this crazy psychic from Russia and he could turn your signature into any animal that the audience could name. Sorry, no quotes, but a really hilarious routine. The thing you probably need to know about writers is that they are intense craftsmen, but not necessarily outstanding performers. You'd probably be disappointed to know how shy and retiring most of them are. They can sit and devise wonderfully clever lines when they get the chance to sit down and put their minds to it, but you generally won't catch them writing good lines on the spot. Still, they look like High Society compared to animators, who are generally best kept chained in a tower far from civilized people.
Caps 2.0: Here's a question about a short. I don't know whether you worked on it or not. It's been a while since I've seen any episodes of "Animaniacs", but I could've sworn that I saw a reference to/spoof of the classic Al Pacino movie "Scarface" in the first "Variety Speak" short.
Jon: I wouldn't be surprised if "Scarface" was referenced in 'Animaniacs' but I really couldn't name which cartoon it was. It certainly wasn't in any of the episodes I worked on.
Caps 2.0: Why did it take so long for "Animaniacs" and "Pinky And The Brain" to come to DVD?
Jon: I can't answer that. I can speculate, however, that the longer they waited, the more anticipation would be built up. Plus, viewers who were kids in the '90's are now mostly employed and making enough money to spend buying cherished childhood memories. So as far as that goes, it's probably good timing.
Caps 2.0: What was Sherri Stoner like to work with? How about Paul Rugg or Paul Dini?
Jon: Sherri is really a charming lady and very talented and intelligent, but, as I said about writers, she was pretty quiet and reserved whenever I met her, which was maybe four or five times. When I had my first story meeting with Tom Ruegger on 'Henny Youngman Day,' Sherri was there. She and Tom obviously had a good energy together that was fun to watch. Later that week a group of writers and I had lunch with Jean MacCurdy on 'The Lot' and among other things we talked about her pregnancy. It was her (Sherri's) first, and I had four children, so I asked whether she had been experiencing a lot of morning sickness, and she was like, "Oh yeah, unbelievable, barfing all the time" and so based on that I made the prediction that she'd be having a girl. I guess I had a 50% chance of being right, but usually baby girls cause the really bad morning sickness. A couple of years later I attended the recording session on "Bully for Skippy," which was awesome because I was a huge fan of her voice characterization of Slappy. She even recorded a line I suggested to Andrea Romano (the voice director) so I guess I can say I was the only animator to write a line for her. I got to see her at a couple of the Emmy Awards ceremonies, and then again at Ruegger's wedding in July of this year. As I said, Rugg is hilarious (and a really nice guy as far as I can tell). I never met Dini.
Caps 2.0: Was there ever really a rivalry between Warner Brothers and Walt Disney? I ask this because there were a lot of jokes aimed at Disney in the various Silver Age cartoons.
Jon: Disney was so easy to poke fun of, because at the time they were at the top of the industry and they took themselves way too seriously. Secretly I think most of the Disney artists wish they worked for Warners, because the atmosphere at Warners was so fresh and fun, and at Disney everything was corporate and sacred. Poor bastards. I don't think anybody really hated anybody. When WB poked fun at Disney in their cartoons, they were poking fun at the Disney Corporation, not any of the individuals there.
Caps 2.0: What do you suppose "Animaniacs" and "Pinky And The Brain" would be spoofing if they were still on the air?
Jon: Terrorists, anti-terrorists, the global economy, popular internet sites, The Osbournes, American Idol, Tom Cruise, and, of course, Disney.
Caps 2.0: A lot of "Tiny Toon Adventures" episodes had rather preachy subjects (Don't litter, don't smoke, ad nauseam). Did any of the creative talents buy into these messages or were they inserted by Steven Spielberg and/or lobbying groups?
Jon: Back then the FCC was making up all kinds of laws about how much educational content and how much public service content had to be in various shows. I didn't know much about it nor did I want to, because generally it just meant adding lame content to otherwise entertaining shows. Although I didn't see any of the so-called preachy episodes, they were probably done to appease the FCC, not Spielberg.
Caps 2.0: What songs would you like to have seen included in either of the "Tiny Toon Adventures" music video episodes?
Jon: Talking Heads' "Life During Wartime" or James Taylor's "Steamroller Blues." Or The Beatles' "Helter Skelter." I think those would've made nice cartoons.
Caps 2.0: To cap it off, do you feel that shows like "Animaniacs" and "Pinky And The Brain" could survive in today's world?
Jon: Absolutely. These cartoons created a huge market ... and when markets grow, lawyers and accountants get involved. The trouble is, lawyers and accountants tend not to get along well with writers and artists. More and more, animation has been strangled by starry-eyed numbers-punchers who've tried to pretend they were big-time cartoon makers. As a result we've been getting lame, formulaic shows, and the audiences have fallen off. But of course, what happens when an industry goes a little sour? The lawyers & accountants lose interest. That's started to happen already, and we're beginning to see some cool looking shows come back. I can't imagine Animaniacs NOT making a comeback. But beyond that, we'll see some new, even better properties rise to the surface. You can't keep good cartoons down.
In a post-script, Jon mentioned another movie comedy that he liked:
One funny eighties movie I forgot: "The Blues Brothers." How I could forget that, I don't know. I remember actually seeing one of the scenes filmed at the Cook County Courthouse in downtown Chicago - the scene where they drove through the courthouse in their Bluesmobile.
That movie played every Saturday for three years at a popular downtown Sydney, Australia, theatre when I lived there throughout the eighties.
For me, most of the eighties phenomena were experienced through the filter of being in Australia.*
I would like to thank Mr. McClenahan for agreeing to do this interview. Don't forget that both "Animaniacs" and "Pinky And The Brain" are available on DVD now.
*McClenahan worked in Australia as an animator during the 80s.