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‘Animaniacs’ Composers Julie and Steven Bernstein Talk Scoring A Fan Favorite

Hulu

Over the course of the last few years, 90s nostalgia has hit in a huge way resulting in half a dozen reboots. However, the beloved Warner Bros cartoon Animaniacs is rare in that it feels like the characters of Yakko, Wakko, and Dot never left audiences, even though the original viewers of the 1993 hit are all grown up.

Hulu’s Animaniacs, which made its way into homes this past November, feels more like a continuation than anything else. The three characters have been unleashed from the Warner Bros tower 22-years later and they are as zany as ever with their punchy gags and satirical comedy beats on everything ranging from Hollywood-meta moments to pushing the envelope politically speaking. They move and look the same way, their comical gags are familiar but fresh, and the chemistry between the voice actors (Jess Harnell, Tress MacNeille, Rob Paulsen) fit right into place. These three siblings still have that same ’tude and have songs for seemingly every pop-cultural moment in our zeitgeist — they even have a song about Hollywood’s stale take on reboots.

There’s a reason why this old favorite feels like a scoop of comfort food, and it’s because most of those who worked on it 22-years ago are back for more. Award-winning composers Steven Bernstein and Julie Bernstein scored the original series and have happily returned to the reboot. The husband and wife duo have won multiple Emmy awards and might be up for some Daytime Emmys in the future.  

The pair sat down with Awards Radar to talk about their Animaniacs legacy and finding a fresh perspective within a fan favorite.

Niki Cruz: When you work, do you ever have it in the back of your mind a certain piece or score will get awards attention? 

Steven Bernstein: I think when I see a particularly strong episode just before we do anything to it. In the far recesses in my mind, there’s something that says, ‘Oh this might be a good thing to score or might get some recognition, but I don’t know.’

Julie Bernstein: [Laughs] Maybe Steve thinks about it somewhere, but I’m usually so worried that we’re not going to get everything done in time. Then of course, when award season starts to happen, we start to think, ‘Oh wouldn’t that be nice if we submit?’ We’re fortunate in that we did win a couple of awards last time around, and that was very exciting, so we would love for that to happen again.

NC: That must have been such a great experience. 

JB: It was amazing. It’s so amazing that it’s here again, and back then, the quality was great all around, and that’s why it won awards. We had some years where each year we won an Emmy, and that was incredible. Not that we expect it at all, but we worked so hard, and the quality was just so good in every aspect. Everybody is putting their all into it once again.

SB: Yeah, every aspect of the show gave it their all and I think the quality came through and was evident so that when it came time for awards season, the show was on the radar. 

Julie & Steven BERNSTEIN at their studio in West Hills, CA. Oct.28, 2020

NC: And now, 22 years later, we’re going through this experience where we’re all functioning online.

JB: Everything is different. We have an orchestra that we’ve been using and when we began this show, we had a couple of live sessions, and then we got shut down. Since then, we’ve been recording our orchestra remotely. It’s a completely different thing. When you’re listening to those episodes, some of it might have been live but most of it has been done with the musicians sending us their audio files. 

SB: For the remote recording sessions, we have 30 musicians, and each musician is sending us their individual recording to us, and then we have to assemble it, and then we get our mixer involved.  

NC: It’s probably helped that technology has skyrocketed over time.

JB: Oh yes, thank goodness. Back when we started with the original Animaniacs, none of this existed, not even in the mocking up on the score on the computer, it was all pencil to paper, and nobody could listen beforehand. You had to come to the studio to hear the music.

NC: What were those initial conversations like when you were scoring Animaniacs for the new generation? I imagine it might have felt like putting on your favorite old pair of shoes.

SB: That’s exactly it for me. We were very familiar. In keeping with what it was, we knew what to do because we had done it before.

JB: We didn’t know what the picture was going to be like until we saw it. We knew it was going to be basically Animaniacs, but we also knew that 20-plus years have gone by, so it would have evolved, but when we saw it, we thought, ‘Oh of course! It’s exactly what it needed to be.” The music is a little different in that it’s evolved, and it’s evolving as we go because we’re writing to the picture. 

NC: Exactly. They didn’t reinvent the wheel with the animation. Yakko, Wakko, and Dot looked like the same characters from the 90s. They were completely recognizable, which made it a fun watch.

SB: Yeah, it was a relief.

JB: That was the only thing that would make sense. The Animaniacs has such a huge following in every regard — the characters had to be familiar right down to the voices, so it seemed sensible that certain things would carry on.

NC: I’m sure the kids who watched it in the 90s are now showing their children. That must be a wild thought. 

Julie & Steven BERNSTEIN at their studio in West Hills, CA. Oct.28, 2020

JB: It was really fun when we were at the live session because after the first session the musicians came up to us and said, ‘This has been my dream. I grew up with this show and to actually be playing in the orchestra has been my dream.’ That was really neat to hear. It’s the type of thing that, if it can continue, then there always will be the people who grew up with it and then their kids. Hopefully, it continues. 

SB: Luckily it still works on several different levels, so I think that parents can still watch it with their kids and still get something out of it that their kids what get until they grow up.

NC: It’s true. When I was watching the new Animaniacs I realized that it was political in a really gutsy way, aside from the great Hollywood-meta bits, and I wondered if all of those jokes just flew over my head as a kid.

JB: Yeah, that’s maybe different from the other one because of the time we happen to be in. It’s a cartoon that has brought back something and is putting it in this time and in this era.

SB: I don’t think it was quite as political back then. It made more fun of Hollywood at the time but the Warner siblings were always about taking on authority figures. If there’s a big target, they’ll go for it.

NC: The music highlights those great beats of humor. How do you craft that within the score? Is it a little bit of watching the characters and playing up to those moments? 

SB: It’s all in the timing. We have the computers to help, but we have to know how to set the moment up and when to stop the music so the joke can play. The animation and direction are so clear that it really helps us in what we do because the cuts are timed in a way, and the characters are performed in a way that it’s really clear what needs to be there. 

JB: We have to really look carefully and see what is the humor and what is the scene so that we don’t step on it with the music and that we bring the humor out…it’s really important when we’re looking at it to get the humor. We have to do that to be able to write a single note. 

NC: I imagine it’s a challenge to work during COVID when you don’t have a live session with musicians. 

SB: When we first started the remote recordings, I’d say it took a week or more to do the preparations. Thankfully because we have this help and we’ve done it for 13 episodes now, by the end of the season, we’ve got it down to one or two days of prep. It’s a lot more work for the players because they’re not really trained as sound engineers. We’re all looking forward to a return to whatever it’s going to be. We used to be able to go to the party and record, and now there’s no party, but we’re grateful to have this technology to allow us to do what we do.

Season 1 of Animaniacs is out on Hulu

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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Written by Niki Cruz

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