Lost Cels Entry #4: Histeria!

“So prepare-ia, for hilar-ia!  We dare i-ya to watch Histeria!

In “Lost Cels,” we take an in-depth look at the animated films and TV shows that failed or have been somewhat forgotten by time in order to see if they deserve their less-than-stellar reputation.

Histeria!04] Histeria!

Original Air Date: 14th September 1998 – 31st March 2000

Original Network: Kids’ WB

No. of Series: 2

No. of Episodes: 52

Question: why do kids watch cartoons?  There are a lot of reasons.  Many of them are external.  Live-action kids’ programming is hard to find (in Britain) nowadays, we non-children believe that they’d find most non-primetime television to be actively repellent, there’s the false notion that all animation is inherently just for children, and most of us grew up watching cartoons and we are all about trying to mould our children into being tinier versions of us at the earliest available opportunity.  Several pertain to quality, but why do kids watch them?  For my part, I watched cartoons because they were really entertaining, and fun, and many of them spoke to me specifically as a child without talking down, and the medium of animation allowed for so many wonderful ideas and premises that my imagination was fired off like a rocket as a result.

Education is not really one of those reasons.  Sure, cartoons can have educational value, but basically no child actively sits down in front of a television after school or on a Saturday morning in order to explicitly watch a cartoon for its educational content.  Most cartoons don’t even set out to feature any educational value whatsoever, especially today – this was excellently mocked on a recent episode of Teen Titans Go! devoted entirely to the business of property leasing.  When education does come, it’s in the form of a story’s moral where, in the worst instances, a character will monologue exactly the life lesson a child has to learn from this particular episode of otherwise entertaining escapades.  Nobody likes these segments, best epitomised by “The Wheel of Morality” on Animaniacs.

Of course, the problem is that cartoons fall under the purview of “Children’s Programming” and that means at least some of them have to come under the classification of “Educational and Informational” by federal law.  That’s what the “E/I” bug in the (often) top-right of the screen during certain shows is all about.  Because children spend so long in front of the television – with former FCC Commissioner Gloria Tristani once claiming that they spent as much as 25 hours a week watching television, far longer than they spend in a classroom, which just sounds like really half-assed parenting if you ask me – it is television and the various networks’ responsibility to ensure that children get a balanced televisual diet with a healthy mix of mindless violence and genuine educational value.  And because this was the 90s, when the world was only an insidiously awful horror show instead of an openly awful horror show, and American politics really didn’t have anything better to do other than fret about the threats that any kind of popular media would have on THE CHILDREN, the FCC enacted such a rule in 1990 called “The Children’s Television Act.”

However, this was the 90s and no-one had time for that shit.  This was the decade of Darkwing Duck, Doug, Batman: The Animated Series, Re-Boot, the rise of Nickelodeon, and this is all before we bring up The Ren & Stimpy Show and Animaniacs!  Kids’ Animation had very little time for “Aesop’s” and “education” and “non-forced-in morals,” so they practically laughed off the regulations.  As did the networks themselves, brazenly sticking that “E/I” bug on everything from daytime talk shows to re-runs of The Jetsons and calling it a job well-done, correctly guessing that they’d receive no real push-back from doing so.  After all, in their defence, the initial regulations were decidedly unclear as to what served “serve[d] the educational and informational needs of children.”  With guidelines as open as that, no wonder Leave it to Beaver got slapped with the “E/I” bug.

But this was the 90s and an American political activist landscape insistent that rap music was going to corrupt their poor impressionable youth would not stand for such mockery!  So, in 1996, the FCC finally amended the Act, specifying that “core programmes” (ones that expressly intend to serve as Children’s education) must primarily be educational in value, at least 30 minutes long, air at least once a week between 7am and 10pm, and that there must be at least 3 hours of this kind of content on air per channel per week.  Broadcast networks, for the most part, were not impressed.  In 1996, Nickelodeon was in the middle of its stride of pre-emptively filling up Buzzfeed with content until the end of time, whilst Cartoon Network had debuted Dexter’s Laboratory and was about to begin its ascendency.  They feared that adhering to the regulations would drive kids away to these specialist cable channels who were under no obligation to follow these rules.  After all, you can’t make a kids’ cartoon that was both entertaining and genuinely educational.  Can’t you?

Get used to the name “Tom Ruegger” cos you are most likely going to be seeing it a lot throughout this series.  Ruegger got his start in the animation industry in the mid-80s at Hanna-Barbara, providing writing duties for shows like Snorks, The 13 Ghosts of Scooby Doo, and Pound Puppies before being poached from Hanna-Barbara by one Jean MacCurdy.  Jean had also been working at Hanna-Barbara, but in 1989 she was appointed the Executive in Charge of Production for Warner Bros. Animation as that studio wanted to make a genuine effort in creating original content for television.  She poached Ruegger, Paul Dini, brought Steven Spielberg and his production company Amblin Entertainment into the fold, and the team together created a little cartoon called Tiny Toon Adventures.

Histeria!From there, Warner Television Animation exploded, moving Saturday morning cartoons away from glorified toy commercials into something wackier, zanier, loonier, and often older with their masterful handling of double-coding.  And at the forefront of it all was Tom Ruegger who, thanks to being part of that initial brain trust, had a hand in or an overseeing role on most every show to come out of the studio at that point in time.  Animaniacs was his creation, likewise its spin-offs Pinky and the Brain and Pinky, Elmyra & The Brain (although “creator” is a real stretching of the term since that implies an agency in the creation of that thing).  He developed Freakazoid! from Dini and Bruce Timm’s original idea, co-developed Taz-Mania with MacCurdy, and, yes, was an Executive Producer on Batman: The Animated Series.  You can basically thank Ruegger and MacCurdy for that first wave of the great 90s television animation renaissance.

So, when those FCC regulations finally started to be enforced in 1996, who else would come to Kids’ WB’s rescue from potential federal pushback than Tom Ruegger?  His new show was to be one of the most ambitious in the history of Warner Television Animation.  Its two aims were specifically set out in The Children’s Television Act: “to produce a great, entertaining show and to impart information.”  Its approach to history would be Animaniacs in flavour, “with very fast-paced, short-segmented bits on various topics in history,” but it would also be extensively researched and therefore filled with educational value.  It would be expensive, due to the sheer amount of unique backgrounds and character designs required for a sketch show that takes place over all of recorded history up to that point, but it also planned to appeal to the broadest demographics possible, mixing silly physical comedy for the youngest viewers with topics that appeared on many Third Grade-and-up history courses.  It would be the flagship bearer of this new wave of FCC-approved children’s shows and it would be called Histeria!

Histeria!  Histeria!  Histeria!  Histeria!  A-bloo-boo-ga-ga-gi (that means Histeria!)!  His-ter-ia!

Sorry, I just wanted to try and give off an impression of how little that word means to me now.  Not counting the title sequence – which, in that most Warner Bros. cartoon of Warner Bros. cartoon moves, consists almost entirely of painful attempts at rhyming the show’s title, yet still ends up being irritatingly catchy – I’m pretty sure that every episode of this show says the word Histeria! at least 15 times, and frequently more.  The characters of Histeria! cannot just say the title the once, they have to say it at least thrice, every single time, multiple times an episode.  Histeria!  Histeria!  Histeria!  Over and over and over again, it makes watching multiple episodes back-to-back of this thing feel like a secret exercise in indoctrination.  That, or suspiciously like each episode ran out of budget for 20 minutes-worth of television.  Or it can be two things.  That works.

I think that’s just given the game away, hasn’t it?  Look, I tried to like Histeria!, I really did.  I grew up loving those Tom Ruegger/Warner Bros. cartoons and those shows (mostly) hold up when viewed with older eyes today, on both a grown-up appreciation level and an inner-child who likes silly nonsense level.  I am somebody who has always enjoyed and been fascinated by history, even taking it at both GCSE and A-Level, err, levels.  Plus, I was somebody whose eyes never automatically glazed over the second that the words “EDUCATIONAL PROGRAMMING” openly or subliminally made themselves known.  So a show like Histeria! should have been right up my street, but instead I mostly just sat there rather unengaged whenever my brain wasn’t having the word Histeria! drilled into it like it’s the only word that human beings can now communicate with each other via.

The primary issue that I have with Histeria!, besides the egregious time-filling repetition of its title, is the fact that the show never quite manages to find a successful balance between the educational part of the show and the comedy part of the show, especially in the early going.  Most segments will feature a brief exposition dump where all of the necessary facts are hurled at the viewer before the comedy starts.  There’s often a strict segmenting of the two halves of the show in the early going, where any overlap feels very awkwardly tacked on, an educational fact clunkily appearing before an unrelated punchline.  For example, the second episode of the series, on The American Civil War – not to be confused with the second episode of the series on The American Civil War – imagines President Abraham Lincoln’s life at the time of The Civil War as a Seinfeld homage.  The comedy aspect of playing up one trait of each character and flanderising it to hell and back – Pinkerton is paranoid, McLellen is a whiney coward, Lincoln is the snarky straight-man – ends up undercutting and minimising the educational aspect by straining too hard to be funny for kids.

Later episodes get a better handle on that balance, but all too often there’s a didactic element to the show’s approach to communicating its historical facts that means that the humour never properly fits.  Semi-inspired ideas like a sketch involving various explorers holding a poker night become nothing more than having each of the historical figures yelling their accomplishments at each other in voices inspired by modern celebrities, with no real punchline other than “LOUD NOISES!” and physical violence.  A sketch involving Edgar Allen Poe trying to pitch The Raven to a clueless publisher technically has jokes, with the publisher insisting that the poem is too macabre for the public and suggesting lighter changes like a bunny instead of a raven, but in practice the sketch is more of a heavily-simplified lecture on what The Raven is about rather than a sequence of comedy.

Histeria!Admittedly, sometimes that approach does work.  There’s a sketch in the final episode of the first “Season” based around how a slight technical glitch during the moon-landing transmission caused Neal Armstrong’s famous “It’s one small step for man…” to miss an “a” when listened to by the public.  The sketch itself isn’t funny, revolving around Armstrong redoing the line 10 separate times due to various errors, but I will admit to having learnt something by the time it wrapped up.  For another example, a duet by Socrates and Julius Caesar over the similarities and differences between the Ancient Greek Gods and the Ancient Roman Gods lacks much in the way of jokes, but the song is catchy and it’s an entertaining way to deliver information.  Whilst on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, as in sketches primarily designed around entertainment rather than education, a two-part sketch involving two teams of arbitrarily-designated good and evil writers battling over great works of literature wrings a couple of decent laughs in between dropping facts like anvils.

The show’s best sketches, however, often find a justifiable framework for presenting facts in a way that is inherently humorous, and allows the room for the historical figures to self-mythologise whilst the rest of the cast break down their inaccuracies.  “Showdown at Yorktown” from the first of two episodes based on The American Revolution depicts that pivotal skirmish in the style of a modern American Football game, complete with John Madden and Pat Summerall parodies, cheerleaders, and a callback to a prior gag involving Molly Pitcher.  Almost any sketch based around a game or quiz show of some description is likely to guarantee at least some laughs to go along with the facts, most especially “Name Thy Cure!” from the Tudors episode.  Sketches revolving around a “My Buddy Stalin” sitcom and a false witch trial go to genuinely dark places for their laughs, in a rare example of the show not shying away from the less savoury elements of its subject matter.  A mid-run sketch entitled “Theme from Taft” is hilarious whilst still putting forward the argument that some history isn’t taught for a reason – namely, not everything is significant – whilst “Alexander the Great meets Sigmund Freud” provides a sort of ideal for what the series could do when everything came together correctly.

Unfortunately, much of Histeria! never manages to strike that balance.  Whenever the requirement to educate as well as entertain isn’t stopping sketches dead in their tracks, the recurring cast of characters alternate between reading off factoids in as dry a manner as possible, or pressing their one trait upon the sketch with maddening flat frequency.  This is the other major problem with Histeria!  The cast outside of its celebrity-influenced historical figures – Freud and several others being in the style of Woody Allen, Julius Caesar in the style of Frank Sinatra for some reason, and so on – are just annoying, one-note, and wholly-unmemorable.  It’s most likely a side-effect of requiring that balance between “factual” and “entertainment” programming, where a character like Miss Information (a tour guide who keeps giving out misinformation) pops up just as often to relate the correct facts required to set up the sketch as she does getting to be a sketch character in her own right.  But, unfair a comparison as it may be to invoke, think back to Animaniacs.  Think of how every character in that show was well-defined, served a specific purpose but didn’t end up feeling or being one-note, where they had their own specific niches but you could still do different stuff with them without betraying their prior characterisation.

That kind of dimension is lost on the cast of Histeria!, even if we set aside the constant cliff-notes set-ups and bellowings of the title, most of which you can know everything about from just their names.  World’s Oldest Woman is an old woman who is also sexually voracious towards any men.  Big Fat Baby is a big fat baby who poops its pants on frequent occasions, falls off of stuff, and carries date-lines for each sketch for some reason.  Loud Kiddington is loud, very much so, with his every line of dialogue being screamed at the top of his lungs.  Pepper Mills screeches through all of her dialogue to an ear-splitting degree and demands the autographs of historical figures whose names slightly resemble modern celebrities.  Toast is dumb, Froggo has a frog-like voice, Lucky Bob speaks almost exclusively in Ed McMahon catchphrases, and Aka Pella is the Cree Summer character that all 90s cartoons were required to have by law.

As you may have been able to intuit, there’s not a lot of room to manoeuvre these characters outside of their tiny pigeonholes and that, crucially, is quite killer for a sketch comedy show.  Characters in sketch comedy have relatively little to them outside of their initial joke anyway, but dragging them out every single week with their personalities unchanging and the joke never really varying is a very fast way to make one want to batter the cast into a gloopy pulp with a television, and no amount of Jerry Seinfeld Abraham Lincoln is going to be able to offset that.  Even one of the few characters I actually liked – Lydia Karaoke, Network Censor, both because it’s a good joke at the expense of the entire concept of trying to teach history to children without touching on anything “offensive” in some way, and because I like seeing Standards and Practices being run over by a steamroller – eventually wore out her welcome because the joke never changes.  Near the end of the show’s run, she starts hosting a game show and becomes just yet another adult who gets exasperated by The Kid Chorus’s legendary dumbness.

It’s a shame that Histeria! doesn’t really work outside of the occasional fits and starts, because the concept is one that deserved to be far better realised than it was here.  More than just trying to make the best of a relatively bad situation, historical sketch comedy as an idea really is inspired, opening up endless possibilities for both joke fodder and topics that one may not have learned otherwise.  Histeria! would occasionally make usage of that potential, dedicating two episodes to Chinese history for just one example, but oftentimes played it too safe, instead pitching a very American-centric and reductive view of history that most likely would have been covered in school.  The episode on Russian communism goes no deeper into its topic than jokes about re-branding the image of Stalin and a sketch where Senator Joseph McCarthy tries to indict Lucky Bob as a communist.  Admittedly, this is somewhat to be expected and, what’s more, I can actually see myself rather enjoying this show if I’d first seen it when I was a kid.  Maybe not majorly, it’s far too one-note, but far more than I do today.

Histeria!Then again, it’s unlikely any kids were watching Histeria! when it first debuted.  Remember way back in the pre-amble when I mentioned that this was the 90s and nobody had time to listen to the FCC’s rules, maaaan, because they were too busy programming TV that kids would actually want to watch?  Well, in the exact same year that Kids’ WB launched their flagship and very expensive new educational kids’ television show… the Pokémon anime debuted in syndication.  The exact same year.  It was a bloodbath, particularly once Pokémon moved to network television the following year… on Kids’ WB.  Whilst Histeria! was still finishing out its inaugural season.  The show was shunted around the schedule, unable to find a consistent audience, before eventually going way over budget; unsubstantiated reports put it as much as $10 million over.  The writing was on the wall – Season 1 even ends with a song pleading with viewers to tell their friends to watch the show otherwise the fictional cast will have to take a pay cut – and the show’s nominal second season was unceremoniously canned after just 6 episodes dispersed at random over 6 months.

After that, Histeria! mostly faded off the map.  It was re-ran on Kids’ WB for three seasons before disappearing entirely, being one of the few Warner Television Animation shows to not pop up in syndication on either Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon.  The show would resurface as one of the first shows on the now-defunct In2TV – a web-only ad-supported streaming service for shows that Warner Bros. Television had laying around in the archives – in 2006, where it stayed until the service fell apart with the splitting off of AOL and Time Warner in 2009.  In the years since, it has survived purely on file-sharing services thanks to some genius recording the versions off of In2TV for posterity, which is how I was able to watch the whole series.  Except that, because I’ve taken so long to get this entry out the door, committing prosecutable offenses is now no longer the only way to get a hold of Histeria! yourself!  Warner Bros., in June of this year, announced a full-series DVD boxset release of Histeria! through their Manufacture On Demand service, which you could start buying as of this past July!

So, Histeria! improbably lives on after so long, but what of the rest of the players of this story?  Pokémon, as you may have already figured out for yourself, went on to conquer the whole goddamn globe, remaining steadfast on Kids’ WB until 2006 when it jumped ship to Cartoon Network.  Tom Ruegger, who was also working on Pinky, Elmyra & the Brain at the time that Histeria! was running, disappeared from the spotlight for a while post-both shows.  He first reappeared in 2004 as the head of his own animation studio, then dove headfirst back into television in 2007 as one of the primary creative forces behind Sushi Pack and the television adaptation of Animalia (both shows we may look at at some point in the future).  More prominently, he also helped bring Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures to your tellybox and was an Executive Producer on the sadly-underrated The 7D.  He’s also expressed an off-handed interest in trying Histeria! again in a Reddit AMA, so take that for whatever it’s worth.

And as for the FCC and the E/I requirement?  Well, it’s still there, you just don’t hear much about it anymore.  As feared back in the mid-90s, children’s television picked up sticks and moved to specialised cable networks dedicated almost entirely to that demographic instead, and it’s never really looked back.  Why would it need to when Disney Channel and Nickelodeon have live-action kid sitcoms down on lock, or when Cartoon Network and Disney XD are The places to go for budding new animated television, or when channels like Boomerang are your one-stop shop for re-runs of the shows former members of the target audience used to love?  Network television eventually ditched Saturday Morning Cartoons altogether, settling for adhering to the guidelines with morning news programmes and the occasional nature show of some kind.  The FCC modified its guidelines in 2005 to encompass digital channels, and amended them again in 2007 (paragraph 18 is what you’re looking for), but nobody bats much of an eye given how digital scheduling works.

The concept of a history-focussed sketch comedy series that balanced fun and educational value, meanwhile, eventually got another shot in the form of the BBC’s adaptation of Horrible Histories.  And the rest, if you’ll pardon the pun, was history.

Callie Petch’s oratory fills their foes with fear.

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