When Tiny Toons first hit the airwaves in the year 1990, nobody expected it to become one of television’s most relevant cartoons. In fact, nobody knew what to expect from this strange Warner Bros. spinoff of Looney Toons. Combining wacky gags with teen drama and a healthy dose of Wonder Years-style life lessons was a fresh idea at the time, and opened the doors for how syndicated kids' shows could tell stories. Calling it an underrated 90s cartoon is more than just an understatement.
Over the years, Tiny Toons disappeared from television, and is still impossible to find streaming online. What happened to one of the greatest cartoons of the 90s? And what’s going on with the impending reboot? Let’s get looney and dive into just how nuts this toon got.
They’re All A Little Loony!
Babs and Buster Bunny (no apparent relation) are the stars of Tiny Toons, students at Acme Looniversity. This high school in scenic Acme Acres is where aspiring cartoon characters learn the tricks of the trade from animation royalty. They’re joined by familiar yet different faces inspired by classic Warner regulars, like self-absorbed Plucky Duck, the reserved and loyal Hamton J. Pig, amorous Fifi La Fume, and Fowlmouth, a rooster who doesn’t stutter like Foghorn Leghorn, but instead can’t stop swearing. Really! (But the swearing is bleeped out.)
There are also a handful of human-looking toons, like Mary Melody, the school’s only Black student, money-hungry Montana Max, and obsessive animal lover and bane of all furry toons, Elmyra (both of whom took inspiration from Elmer Fudd, but inherited none of his other traits). In between zany pop-culture parodies and cartoon hijinx, the kids face challenges similar to what all children at that age contend with, whether it be relationships, homework, or social issues.
Can’t Go Wrong with Rabbits
By 1986, children’s cartoons were reveling in the post-Reagan deregulated era of advertising. Transformers, My Little Pony, and G.I. Joe reigned supreme among a cavalcade of other shows that were keener on selling products than having fun. A cartoon simply couldn’t be on the air if it weren’t tied to a lucrative merchandising deal. Despite once being the king of cartoons, Warner Bros. Animation was running on empty. Sure, they had Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, but Warner was outmatched by their flashier competition, compounded by zero visibility on toy store shelves.
The studio was desperate for something fresh to relaunch their ailing animation division. Following the path laid down by contemporaries like Muppet Babies and The Flintstone Kids, the plan was going to be junior versions of their classic characters.
Steven Spielberg, who was then working on Who Framed Roger Rabbit? teamed up with Warner to help produce this new project. Since the superstar director had such a great respect for animation, Spielberg didn’t want to step on the toes of luminaries like Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng and simply reshape their characters into banal kids. Instead, the decision was made to create new ones inspired by the classics, and the first class at Acme Loo was born.
Invading our TVs
Very few cartoons debut primetime on a Friday evening, but Tiny Toons did just that when they premiered on September 14, 1990. A few days later, it began its syndicated run during weekdays.
This show wasn’t afraid to break the fourth wall with a mallet to the screen or an aside directly to the viewer, something unseen in animation from that period. Pop culture references were sprinkled liberally into every plot, along with Babs’ penchant for celebrity impersonations. These were all tools for the show to cover topics like why it’s wrong to talk behind people’s backs in “Riled Up,” or comedically dealing with the passing of a loved one.
Tiny Toons loved to showcase parodies of famous films and shows, like The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, and Indiana Jones spoofs, among others. “Fields of Honey” was a heartfelt parody of Field of Dreams, where Babs hears the voice of an old forgotten cartoon character of the past and is inspired to revive recognition for this faded star. “Citizen Max” ranks exceptionally high among these, introducing kids to one of the most important classic films of all time, Citizen Kane.
The cast had something for everyone, but there was one standout who is still quoted to this day. Find a person who doesn’t know Baby Plucky, and you’ll find someone who wasn’t a 90’s kid! The infant version of Plucky made us laugh till our sides hurt, driving his parents insane whether he was in an elevator (“Ele-lator go up!”) or learning to be potty-trained (“Diaper go down the hoooole!”).
Tiny Toons was one of the first, and most effective, animated series to incorporate real pop music into their shows. Parodying MTV, these special episodes featured music videos with songs from well-known artists like Aretha Franklin, Betty Everett, and Barrett Strong.
The show also introduced a generation to They Might Be Giants through their pro-wrestling-inspired rendition of “Particle Man” and a wild night with Plucky and Hamton in “Istanbul, Not Constantinople.” Both quirky songs were from TMBG’s latest album at the time, “Flood,” distributed through the Warner Music label. Debate continues over whether this was a studio mandate, or if someone on the writing team was simply a fan. This question has never been answered, but it doesn’t matter, because the songs were rocking then, and still are today!
One Beer Too Many
Tiny Toons offered unbridled silliness with some weighty topics of the time. It felt like nothing was off-limits, including an episode about gangs and stealing, and an anti-smoking story where Babs battles a chain-smoking rat from a rival school who resembles another famous animated rodent. The one talked about the most is an episode that only aired once, and unlike the theme song indicates, didn’t “crack up all the censors.”
“One Beer” was the last segment from the second season's “Elephant Issues,” a mostly light-hearted episode about the consequences of different topics which suddenly takes a turn for the very dark. Buster, Plucky, and Hamton share a bottle of beer, and instantly become wasted from their first sips. Transforming into smelly hobos and growing more intoxicated with every nursed slurp from their endless bottle, the kids steal a car and drive off a cliff, plummeting to a fatal end. No, really! Three main characters met their end in a fatal car crash!
Even though the episode ends with their ghosts floating up to heaven, and revealing it was all fake as they remove their angel costumes to say “Drinking is uncool,” this was still incredibly traumatizing for viewers back in 1991. The rumors about this episode claim executives wanted a public service announcement about drinking, but the writers weren’t hot on the idea. So, they wrote a plot that parodied real PSAs (which has credence when Buster breaks the fourth wall early in the short to say they’re breaking character purely for this tale), and purposely went over the top, including how inebriated they became from that one lonesome IPA.
The episode never returned to TV after the initial airing, but it was part of Hulu when the streaming rights for Tiny Toons were under their umbrella. It’s easy to understand why it was taken off TV, but the question now is whether it was banned for the message, or because the execs realized they became the punchline to a joke.
School’s Out For Summer
After three seasons and two original specials, Tiny Toons came to an end so Warner Bros. could focus on their next big thing, Animaniacs. In a prescient episode from the final season, Babs and Buster meet a trio of vintage black-and-white toons from Two-Tone Town, including Foxy and Roxy, who become more popular than the Tiny Toons crew by the end of the story. These old-school characters seem like prototypes for Yakko and Dot, especially with Rob Paulsen providing voices for both male characters.
Plucky Duck spun off into his own series, flopping after one 13-episode season comprised primarily of reused skits from Tiny Toons. The character who survived the longest was Elmyra, earning a backdoor pilot in season 2 titled “Take Elmyra Please.” Not only did she return to annoy the Warner brothers and their sister Dot in the Animaniacs episode “Lookit the Fuzzyheads,” she later became a main cast member in a spin-off of a spin-off.
After four seasons of Pinky and The Brain, the Animaniacs spin-off was retooled as Pinky, Elmyra and The Brain in 1998. Here, the hyper-intelligent Orson Wellesian mouse and his dimwitted assistant became pets of the animal-hugging redhead, focusing more on the domestic antics of this trio and less on world domination. This follow-up wasn’t even a footnote in the Animaniacs reboot, which retconned this peculiar entry in the franchise out of existence.
Tiny Toons Class Is Back In Session
It’s a mystery why Tiny Toons has become difficult to find, with no streaming platforms currently offering it. The series is available to buy on Apple TV, and a single episode can be purchased on Amazon, but outside of that the only way to watch it is the archaic DVD sets.
Three decades after the original premiered, Tiny Toons is finally returning, but with a modern twist.
Hitting Max on September 8, 2023, a new reboot will debut called Tiny Toons Looniversity.
The premise sends the classic characters out for a college education at Acme Looniversity, where they also now dorm together. Not only that, the signature Buster and Babs “No relation” gag is out the window, as the bunnies are now twins! There are bound to be other changes as well, but the spirit of the show seems intact based on footage revealed in trailers and teasers. We’ll see?
Tiny Toons was always about being with the times, and the changes to this updated iteration of it might be just what it needs to be relevant with today's kids, the same way it was for many of us in the 90s who are now parents.