Sunday, August 24, 2014

Nostalgia Theater: Freaking Out Over Freakazoid!

We talked about Steven Spielberg's Tiny Toon Adventures last week, and I thought I'd follow up by looking back at another Spielberg-produced 'toon from the same era -- one that's been almost entirely overlooked since its brief time on the airwaves: Freakazoid! After producer Bruce Timm found a significant degree of success from his creation of Batman: The Animated Series in '92, he was approached by Spielberg to develop a superhero skein that could fit in alongside both Tiny Toons and Animaniacs (which had premiered in 1993).

While Timm envisioned a serious superhero series with a comedic hero at its center, Spielberg imagined a comedy show that happened to be about a superhero, and since Spielberg was the bigger name on the bill, Timm gracefully handed the baton over to Tiny Toons impresario Tom Ruegger, who sure ran with it. While it's a tantalizing mystery for the ages what a Timm-produced Freakazoid! might have looked like, there's no doubting that what we did get was a madcap mix of animated insanity. Here, just watch the intro to see what I mean:

The premise, about an Internet-created superhero, is right there in the theme song, but what made Freakazoid! such a joy when it began its run on the then-new Kids' WB in fall of '95 (at the start of my junior year in high school) was the way it gleefully thumbed its nose at kidvid conventions of the time, anticipating by several years the kind of off-kilter, non sequitur humor that would become the hallmark of Cartoon Network's entire Adult Swim lineup. To wit, here's Freakazoid (voiced by Paul Rugg, also a writer) telling off a creepy bad guy:

And to see just how far they were willing to go for a bit, check out this clip from the one-off sketch "Toby Danger," an absolutely spot-on parody of Hanna Barbera's Jonny Quest that predated the similar Adult Swim's Venture Brothers by several years:

Unfortunately for Freakazoid! (and the world), the audience it was reaching (teens and man-children) was far different from the audience it needed to reach (pre-teens and kiddies). And in those dark days before the web became what it is today, the cult possibilities of the show went sadly unrealized. As a result, despite some of the sharpest writing in all of animation brought to life by some of the most eclectic voice actors in all of animation (Ed Asner, Ricardo Montalban, etc.), it quietly ended after two seasons and twenty-four eps.

For shame, world.

Luckily for Freakazoid! (and the world), in the seventeen years since it went off the air a new audience has been able to discover it via reruns, online clips, and Warner Bros.' DVD releases. Certainly for my part, as someone who championed it right from the jump, I consider that a well-deserved validation of my impeccable tastemaking abilities. If you haven't seen it, you've got a terrific little show waiting for you that's subversive, hilarious, and totally new to you. Check it out, and get ready to freak out!

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