Pinky and the Brain must be one of the most outlandish cartoons ever made and in one particularly memorable episode, dishes up a superbly wacky homage to The War of the Worlds radio broadcast, though it’s fair to say that Pinky and the Brain is really nothing less than one huge homage to Orson Welles.
The voice of Brain, the super-intelligent mouse with designs on world domination was provided by Maurice LaMarche, an avowed fan of Welles who has described Brain’s voice as “65% Orson Welles, 35% Vincent Price”. Saddled with his half wit companion Pinky, (quarter wit would be more apt), he plots each night to take over the world, devising ever more ingenious ways to overcome the one crucial impediment to his desires, the fact that he and Pinky are six inches tall and mice.
The story of these two genetically engineered lab mice and their nightly plots to take over the world began life as a segment of Animaniacs, an anarchic and freewheeling cartoon series that modelled itself on old variety shows, with a large ensemble cast of characters starring each week in short skits. The show was the creation of Steven’ Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment and aired on the Warner Brothers network from 1993 to 1998. Such was their popularity, that In 1995 Pinky and the Brain were awarded their own series, which ran through to 1998.
The episode that spoofs The War of the Worlds aired during the period that Pinky and the Brain were still part of Animaniacs and is called Battle for the Planet. In this episode, Brain recounts to Pinky the story of the Orson Welles panic broadcast, and observes that what radio could do well in 1938, television could today do even better. To this end he devises his own invasion story, building sets from scrap cardboard and dressing Pinky up as a conquering Martian invader.
Tapping into TV broadcast signals, Brain takes the roll of a reporter covering the Invasion, hoping that cities will empty as people flee the Martians, leaving him and Pinky to assume control in the power vacuum. Things appear to go well, with Brain covering the invasion and Pinky enthusiastically kicking down buildings and blasting anything that moves with his ray gun.
But with the broadcast over, Brain emerges from the Acme labs where he and Pinky live to find newspaper headlines rejoicing in the hilarious events of the previous evening.
People actually enjoyed it! With his plans in tatters, Brain can only conclude the evening’s adventure with the same determined exchange that closes every episode. “Come Pinky, we must prepare for tomorrow night.” “Gee, Brain, what are we doing tomorrow night?” “The same thing we do every night, Pinky ” Try to take over the world!”
Battle for the Planet was not the only time Pinky and the Brain made clear the connection to Orson Welles. An entire episode “Yes, Always” was based on an infamous incident in which Welles railed at the poor quality of a script he was reading for a frozen peas commercial; LaMarche apparently regularly used lines from this debacle as warm up material and writer Peter Hastings was inspired to write an entire episode on the theme. In another episode, Brain became “The Fog”, a reference to the time Welles voiced the radio crimebuster The Shadow. There was even an episode that spoofed The Third Man, with Brain taking on the Harry Lime role made famous by Orson Welles.
Cartoons that pack in cultural references for adult viewers are nowadays commonplace, but most are not half as smart as they’d like to believe. Pinky and the Brain is that rare animal, a series that was every bit as clever as it thought it was.
The Battle for the Planet episode is a must see for any War of the Worlds fan, lovingly and intelligently sending up the 1938 broadcast. At one point, Brain even declares “oh the humanity”, words which were never actually spoken in the Orson Welles broadcast, but which do have an important resonance for any student of the event.
“Oh the humanity” were the horrified words uttered by Herbert Morrison of Chicago station WLS when he witnessed the crash of the airship Hindenburg in 1937. It was a recording of this terrible disaster that Mercury Theatre actor Frank Readick used to hone his performance as the reporter Carl Philips, the terrified witness to the first Martian attack at Grover’s Mill, and a scene recreated in Battle for the Planet.
In a hugely varied career as a voice artist, Maurice LaMarche has shown something of an affinity for Orson Welles, having played him in a number of different productions. Aside from Battle for the Planet, he was the voice of Welles in the film Ed Wood, appeared as Welles in the cartoon series The Critic, and most recently, LaMarche again spoofed The War of the Worlds, this time playing Welles in The Simpsons Halloween Special XVII.