I know that most of you are probably too young to remember this, but in the 90’s, Warner Brothers was the all-mighty cartoon factory. They knocked everything they tried right out of the park: Tiny Toon Adventures, Pinky and The Brain, Pinky, Elmyra and the Brain, Batman: The Animated Series, Taz-Mania, and Animaniacs! just to name a few... it was all really good, and some of those shows are still very popular today, due to their superb material, great amount of pop-culture references and just the pure genius of their scripts. Warner Brothers really had a reputation amongst viewers and for that reason, nobody really questioned anything when, in 1998, they released “Histeria!”, a fully-educational show created by some of the people that was already involved in the shows mentioned above and that borrowed some pages from the Animaniacs! scrapbook.
Honestly, there was no reason to believe that that was going to be bad (and there’s still no reason to justify such thought) but the idea seemed to be doomed from the very start. Not only the cartoon never really could escape from its external influences (it sometimes felt like a cheap Animaniacs! knock off), but it had all sorts of problems of its very own. The cartoon was heavily over-budget (for more than ten million dollars!) and the original contract for 65 episodes was reduced to 52 due to this... even worst, the number wasn’t even on the tables and was a direct result of the (sudden?) cancellation of the show, in March 21, 2000. That is annoying because, despite all its problems, Histeria! was a pretty good show with a lot of charm and personality (when it wasn’t ripping off Animaniacs!, that is). It definitely had potential, but I feel like a lot of it went to a waste because it tried SO HARD to force cheap humor and wordplay in a setting that wasn’t quite appropriated for that... but when it really tried and took advantage of what it had to work with, the show made me laugh hard.
Still, maybe its cancellation was for the better; it might not look like it, but they had to pull off all sorts of tricks to keep the boat afloat: some of the footage was reused more than a few times and the editing was kind of a lost art at some point, plus the new dialogue being played over old scenes was a really unsettling experience (with only 52 episodes to take material from, you could spot those “shortcuts” painfully easy).
Sometimes, all it takes for me to like a show it’s a quick line like this one. Gotta love an educational show that features a character named “Miss Information".
...But that’s really weird.
And this girl is my favorite character on the show, even though pretty much all she does is speak in a monotone, unenthusiastic tone and say that she's not happy. I don't know what her purpose nor what her problem is, but she's just great.
So, as you might have predicted, Histeria’s main goal is to make fun of history as well as teaching it, and the show largely success at this... most of the time, anyway. But for some bizarre reason, even the strangest of ideas seem to work just fine here... like, what if I tell you that one segment actually reprises Franklin’s and Jefferson’s life and achievements... in a rap number? You would think I’m crazy, but it is not only enjoyable, but pretty informative as well (I didn’t know half of that stuff). There’s also a short segment named “History Blunders”, where a host with a ridiculously long name tells the story of some of the biggest mistakes on history... it is actually not bad, and some of those are very funny. Unfortunately, not every idea was hit: there’s another segment called “Ask me if I care”, where a character named Toast invites all kinds of historical celebrities, listens to them for a while, and, if he gets bored of their life and stories, he just ejects them from the studio using a lever. I get that it was supposed to be funny, but it just isn’t... it drags on for too long and you know what’s gonna happen way before the segment is over, so it doesn’t really add up to the show’s quality.
Also, I should probably mention that Histeria! isn’t a show you should watch if continuity is a mayor concern for you. I have already talked about how the editing was getting worse and worse as the series progressed, but even on the early episodes of its existence there were severe problems regarding that subject, with a lot of unrelated skits being shown in rapid succession one after another. My guess for that is that, since the show has a fairly huge cast (at least 24 characters), the writers felt obligated to use them all, and that’s why so many segments were crammed into every single episode. This is not particularly good or bad as a practice, it is just kind of dizzying.
The Kids Chorus was one of the most clever ideas that this show pulled off. Not only all its members were part of the regular cast, but they were also a very ethnically diverse group. Their participation on the musical numbers might not have been that great, but they were still pretty entertaining to watch.
But aside for all those problems (and as I mentioned before) when real time and effort went into the Histeria! cartoons, the results would be amongst the best entries of ANY of the Warner Brothers’ cartoons.
For example, there’s this one episode about the US Civil War that is just mind-blowingly good. The way they introduced Lincoln’s life -focusing almost exclusively on his failures on life, but being careful not to say his name until the moment they mention that he became president of the United States- is just pure genius. And so is the way they talk about the problems that ultimately ended up causing the Civil War... they do this by showing a game show named “UNcivil War”, where three of the maximum representatives of each side of the conflict were playing some sort of Jeopardy game, naming all the possible causes for such conflict. Ridiculous as it sounds, it really works, because some of the categories were so unbelievably stupid that it is impossible not to laugh at them (“Name calling” has to be my personal favorite of them all). But it doesn’t stop there, now does it? There’s also a great musical number paying homage to Johnny Shiloh; the song covers almost every important aspect of his life, but it doesn’t get tedious nor does it feel like a history lesson being forced down your throat because there’s a lot of humor put into the number, with lyrics like “after the war he went to West Point, wanting to serve his nation, but he was turned down, because he had... a third grade education!” -to which he replies- “Eh, I was busy!”. There’s also a cool remark pointing out that he was so passionate for what he did, that he wouldn’t stop playing the drum (making all the troops go crazy).
All of that is great, but if there’s something that REALLY made that cartoon stand out among the broader elements of the series, that’s the direction they went after the colorful, upbeat and kind of sugary first part... because, after that, the cartoon went into a darker tone, with still shots showing exactly what war is all about. That’s a pretty impressive display of rawness for kid’s shows standards and they went as far as to describe things like hunger, deceases, and the one-liners that they dared to call “letters from home”, explaining how their relatives were living the good life, safe at home, while they were getting crazy for all the fighting and perishing to exhaustion and the like. Combine that with lots of great humor and you have the perfect episode. In fact, that’s precisely the case, this IS the perfect episode of Histeria! and the kind of cartoon that those characters should have been appearing in. It really left an impression on me and it also made me look up some names and learn some facts after I was done watching it... unfortunately, “The U.S Civil War” is the exception rather than the rule and almost every other entry on the series just went thru the motions, delivering emotionless, plain and kind of boring cartoons. That’s a shame, because this show had a lot of potential and it was clear that the people behind it really knew what they were doing.
This is a really strong drawing with a lot of emotion to it. I wish that every episode could evoke such feelings.
Now, there’s one last thing I’d like to mention before wrapping this up: it might not look like it, but Histeria’s animation is actually pretty amazing. It might not sound like something too remarkable, but trust me that it is (even for a big-budget production like this one). Because, you see... as I said at the beginning of this article, Warner Brothers was working on a LOT of cartoons at the time, and that made them sign contracts with a bunch of animation studios to keep things going (you simply can’t rely on one or two when you have all these series airing new episodes all the time... that would be crazy). They weren’t exactly stingy with the studios they hired, seeing how at least three of them were top-notch (Tokio Movie Shinsa, Wang and StarToons come immediately to mind) but not every single one of them meet that criteria, and some of the other studios they hired to keep production going weren’t as good (Akom and Freelance were especially “bad” at what they did, but only by comparison). Having all those studios working on the different shows allowed the writers and directors to keep creating content without worrying too much about the air dates, but it also made most of the shows of the time look terribly inconsistent in terms of animation... it wasn’t rare to see a Pinky and the Brain cartoon being shipped over to TMS one week and to Akom the very next one. It was actually kind of hilarious, seeing how all those studios had their “signature” styles and even as kids we were able to point out who was animating the episodes due to this. For that reason, it results almost incredible that Koko, StarToons and Wang were the companies who provided the animation services for Histeria!, seeing how the show was never a priority for the WB.
Those three studios were given the responsibility and they turned great work after great work, “printing” their own distinctive styles into the episodes they animated (with Koko’s detailed backgrounds, Wang’s careful lighting and StarToons' strong drawings taking up the scene). Whatever else I might say about the show, they really cared about the looks (and sounds) of things.
This image speaks by itself, doesn’t it?
So, what are my final thoughts on this show? Well... I can’t say that I’m a big fan of it (because I’m clearly not) but when I was actually able to enjoy it, I enjoyed it very much. I mean, SURE, it was INCREDIBLY tedious at times, and the jokes were mostly forgettable, but every so often they did something that really impressed me, and that was enough for me to keep going thru the entire series (and they almost always did that when I wasn’t expecting it anymore and was ready to quit watching... which only added to the universal delight I got from those highlights).
Still, the show has some really great problems that are very hard to ignore and the price you might pay for getting to a really good episode the first time you watch this cartoon as a whole would most certainly include having to sit thru four or five average ones. But if you like history and you want to see it being portrayed in a very unique and hilarious way, this is the show I’d recommend to you (just don’t set your expectations too high).
First posted here: http://redwallabbey.com/forum/index.php?topic=7944.0