They’re Tiny, They’re Toony, They’re Packing Off to Uni

First-year college students everywhere are now adjusting to campus life. Few, however, have to choose between classes like Banana Peel Placement and Whoopie Cushion Alternatives. Or suffer the crash of anvils on their heads when they give wrong answers. Or petition for a change in roommates by arm-wrestling the dean.

These experiences belong exclusively to the incoming freshmen of “Tiny Toons Looniversity,” a new animated series that begins streaming on Friday on Max and airing on Saturday on Cartoon Network. With Steven Spielberg as an executive producer, the show revives the characters and setting of the Emmy Award-winning early-’90s series “Tiny Toon Adventures,” whose own comic DNA descended from the “Looney Tunes” short films of the 1930s-60s.

When “Adventures” debuted in 1990, it had a rich conceit: A fresh generation of young toons was enrolling at Acme Looniversity, a kind of Hogwarts of hilarity, where they would learn from distinguished professors like Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Wile E. Coyote. Now Warner Bros. and Spielberg’s Amblin Television — the same partners that revived the “Looney Tunes”-inspired “Animaniacs” series three years ago — are escorting the core freshman five of Babs and Buster Bunny, Plucky Duck, Hamton J. Pig and Sweetie Bird back to campus. They haven’t aged, but they’ve acquired more dimensions.

Buster Bunny, left, and Babs Bunny, right, with Bugs Bunny in the original “Tiny Toons.” Bugs is another instructor at Acme Looniversity, where the Tiny Toons learn comedy.Credit…Warner Bros. Animation

The successfully reimagined “Animaniacs” “helped us get the momentum to do our show, but also do it in a different way,” Nate Cash, a showrunner of “Looniversity” whose main focus is animation and production, said in a video call. The new series is not “as referential and adult as ‘Animaniacs,’” he added. “We’re going just for the straight, fun wackiness of old cartoons.”

Spielberg, long a fan of the “Looney Tunes” repertory, set a high bar, Cash said, even requesting that Plucky Duck spew more spittle during his motormouth lisping. The goal of such silliness is to draw in children ages 6 to 11, though the showrunners also hope that the series appeals “to their parents, or just adults who grew up on the original show that are looking for a nostalgia fix,” Cash said.

“Looniversity,” however, which has already been ordered for two seasons, aims to be more than just a reboot of a reboot. Instead of featuring short comic sketches like “Adventures” or “Animaniacs,” the new series devotes each half-hour episode to one central story. This format has allowed the writers to introduce more inter-toon dynamics and complicated plots. And in choosing to focus more on the five central characters than on the huge population of “Adventures,” the “Tiny Toons Looniversity” creative team brought in a new cast of lead voice actors — all fans, the stars said, of the original series.

The new series goes all in on the mayhem. Voice actors mentioned taking every opportunity to dial up their characters’ reactions to emotional stress.Credit…Warner Bros. Animation

Cash said that the comedian Erin Gibson, the series’s other showrunner, also wanted “Looniversity” to be more grounded in the toons’ classes and campus than its predecessor. The “Adventures” theme song now has new lyrics, and the episodes explore relationship and identity struggles that are familiar to children but places those conflicts in an educational environment that parents will recognize. (Gibson, who oversees the writers’ room, declined to be interviewed because of the continuing writers’ strike.)

“Erin pitched it as ‘the Harvard of stupid,’” Sam Register, president of Warner Bros. Animation and Cartoon Network Studios, said of “Looniversity.” And that, he added, “has been our mantra throughout.”

The college emphasis allows “Looniversity” to mine an inherent tension as well, Register said. Following something of a trend — witness Xavier’s school in the X-Men movies, Wednesday Addams’s Nevermore Academy and Godolkin University in the coming series “Gen V” — the show proves that trying to educate supernaturally gifted beings offers plenty of dramatic (and comic) potential.

“How do you put structure around the zany antics of animated characters?” Register said. “There’s something about those things playing against each other that we love.”

Hamton J. Pig, right, wants to become a doctor to treat toons with a genetic anomaly that does not allow them to bounce back into shape after sustaining cartoon violence.Credit…Warner Bros. Animation

The longer stories and retooled setting have also allowed the series’s creators to focus on something rare in the classic cartoon universe: character arcs. “Looniversity” puts the five main toons in situations that lead to self-awareness and changed perspectives. In another shift, it has transformed Babs and Buster from a 1990s flirty couple into close-knit contemporary twins.

“I think maybe a younger audience doesn’t want to see cartoons making out,” Cash said. But, more important, he added, giving these characters a family history lets the show’s developers — the writer and actress Alison Becker (“Parks and Recreation”) is a story editor — delve into more facets of their lives.

It means “more adventure for Babs and Buster while they’re going off to college,” said Ashleigh Hairston, who voices Babs. She added that young viewers could expect “sibling moments all throughout the series.”

Gibson also gave “Looniversity” a feminist spin. Whereas Babs in “Adventures” lamented the lack of a faculty role model — the original “Looney Tunes” world is decidedly masculine — Gibson has introduced Lola Bunny (from the film “Space Jam”) as the university’s prizewinning chef and has anointed the Looney character Granny, a nurse in “Adventures,” as the motorcycle mama who is the university dean.

Several of the voice actors from the 1990s series are back for the reboot, including Jeff Bergman as Bugs Bunny, pictured here in the original. Credit…Warner Bros. Animation

And Sweetie Bird has gone from what Cash called “a one-note character” in “Adventures” to a diminutive dynamo with a punk attitude and a determination to destroy the patriarchy.

“Erin pitched the reboot of her character as being a mix of Ronda Rousey” — the mixed-martial-arts fighter — “and Gloria Steinem,” he said.

Hamton J. Pig has also evolved, but not to subvert sexism. He has gained a Porky Pig-type stutter (a show writer who had grown up stammering insisted on this, Cash said) and an ambition to transfer to medical school. (Toons apparently don’t need a college degree first.)

A sensitive soul, Hamton wants to become a doctor to treat all the toons who have been born with a genetic anomaly: Their DNA does not allow them to bounce back into shape after being crushed by an anvil, blown to smithereens, run off a cliff, etc.

“I think it’s a really neat take on an element of the mythology, right?” said David Errigo Jr., who voices Hamton and the narcissistic Plucky Duck. “You pick it out, and you go: ‘OK, why can toons do this? And what happens if they can’t?’”

The new series’s approach, though, hasn’t caused the characters to lose their essential Looniness. “Looniversity” features several “Adventures” voice actors reprising their original faculty roles, including Bob Bergen as Porky Pig, Candi Milo as Granny and Jeff Bergman as Bugs Bunny. It leans unabashedly into its cartoon violence, and more than one actor mentioned taking every opportunity to dial up a character’s reactions to emotional stress.

The new series features longer stories, more complexity and a notably feminist spin. Viewers watch the characters learn and grow. Credit…Warner Bros. Animation

Eric Bauza, who voices Buster Bunny and Daffy Duck, explained that if he gave Gibson three deliveries of a line, she would usually choose “the loud, obnoxious crazy take.” (He demonstrated gleefully in his Buster persona.)

“It makes sense,” Bauza added, because this Looniversity class is trying to uphold the standards of “their wacky mentors, that being the Looney Tunes.”

But if “Looniversity” favors cartoon mayhem over the educational curriculums and developmental goals of so many animated children’s series, it still offers its young audience guidance in the tricky world of relationships.

“Compared to the original ‘Tiny Toons,’ the biggest difference to me with this show is that it really focuses on friendship,” said Tessa Netting, who voices Sweetie Bird. In the midst of campus antics, she added, “there’s something special about, like, finding your people, about, like, not being afraid to be yourself. There’s this joy there. And I really think that the show captures that joy.”

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