Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Animaniacs

warner bros
warner bros

When I started researching the history of Animaniacs, I contacted creator Tom Ruegger to see if he could fill in some gaps. I expected a few sentences in response to my questions, but Mr. Ruegger sent back seven pages of awesomeness instead. So if you happen to be searching for the real story behind Animaniacs—which is getting a reboot on Hulu—you're in the right place.

IN THE BEGINNING

The history of Animaniacs actually begins with Tiny Toon Adventures, another animated show from Warner Bros. and executive producer Steven Spielberg. After Tiny Toons became a huge success, Spielberg asked producer Tom Ruegger and his team to work on a follow-up cartoon.

One idea Spielberg suggested was to make the popular Tiny Toons character Plucky Duck the star of the new show. Meanwhile, Ruegger had been developing characters based on the personalities of his three young sons. These two concepts were combined to create three brother ducks. However, the team soon realized that, between Disney’s Donald Duck, DuckTales, Darkwing Duck, and Warner Bros.' own Daffy Duck, there were already plenty of animated waterfowl on the market. Spielberg agreed, but said they needed to come up with “a big marquee name” to help sell the show.

Ruegger was inspired by the large “WB” logo on the water tower at the Warner Bros. studio. He proposed a group of siblings drawn in an animation style reminiscent of anthropomorphized animal characters from the 1930s, and called them the Warner Brothers. Although they have dog-like characteristics, the exact type of animal the Warners are meant to be is unknown. According to the show bible – a book filled with background information for the creative team on a TV show - their species is labeled as “Cartoonus Characterus.”

For a brief period, there were four Warner siblings—Yakky, Smakky, Wakky, and little sister, Dot. As the studio artists honed the designs, Yakky became Yakko, and Smakky and Wakky were melded into Wakko. After getting clearance from the Warner estate to use the family name, the show was off and running.

THE WARNER BROTHERS (AND THE WARNER SISTER)


Warner Bros.

In episode #65, "The Warners 65th Anniversary Special," we learn that the Warners were created in 1929 to be the sidekicks for Buddy, a real character from the early days of Warner Bros. Animation. Their only role in the Buddy cartoons was to pop out of unexpected places and use giant mallets to make a pancake out of the star. The Warners were soon given their own series of cartoons, but the resulting shorts were considered too incomprehensible for public consumption. The films were locked away in the Warner Bros. vault, and the Warner Brothers were locked inside the water tower at the Warner Bros. studio. Until the present day, when the Warners escaped.

In the Animaniacs comic book published by DC Comics, issue #33 reveals a long lost Warner sibling named Sakko Warner. The character's design was almost a carbon copy of glitter-throwing celebrity Rip Taylor. Sakko was only ever mentioned in the comic book, which was not written by the same team as the cartoon, so he's not considered part of the Animaniacs canon.

Animaniacs writer Paul Rugg did come up with an official fourth Warner as part of the story for the never-produced feature film, Wandering Warners We. Lakko Warner, as his name implies, is the untalented member of the family, who would have been fired by his own siblings during the course of the film.

Although she goes by Dot, producer/writer Sherri Stoner came up with the Warner Sister's full name: Princess Angelina Contessa Louisa Francesca Banana Fanna Bo Besca the Third. Dot was voiced by Tress MacNeille, who had previously played Babs Bunny on Tiny Toons and Gadget on Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers. MacNeille’s extensive voice acting career includes many characters on The Simpsons, most notably Agnes Skinner, Principal Skinner’s mother.

Yakko was voiced by Rob Paulsen, a veteran voice actor best known before Animaniacs for playing Raphael on the wildly popular Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon. Paulsen had previously voiced a handful of bit characters on Tiny Toons, and Ruegger thought he’d be perfect for Yakko on the new show. As part of the audition process, it wasn’t unusual for the same actor to try different voices for the same character, and with Paulsen this was no exception. Once auditions were completed for a role, Ruegger and casting director Andrea Romano would select the best five voices, and these five would be sent to Spielberg for the final decision. In Paulsen’s case, the Yakko deck was stacked in his favor as three of the final five voices were him. Not surprisingly, he got the job, and also went on to voice Dr. Otto von Scratchansniff, the studio psychologist, and the beloved, simpleton rodent, Pinky.

Of the Warners, the voice of Wakko was the most difficult to cast. During auditions, the producers said they were looking for “wacky,” so all the actors delivered a voice that was over-the-top crazy, but none were the right fit. On the last day of auditions, Ruegger brought his 1990 Almanac to the office, hoping to find some inspiration that might shake things up. Many wacky Wakko's later, they still didn't have the right voice. So during their last appointment of the morning, with voice actor Jess Harnell, Ruegger opened the almanac to a list of celebrities and asked Harnell to do his best impression of Elvis, Rodney Dangerfield, Jackie Gleason, Frank Sinatra, and other notable names. When the Beatles came up, Harnell proceeded to do every one of the Fab Four so well you could actually tell which individual band member he was mimicking at the moment. However, it was Harnell's Ringo that struck a chord with the producers, so after a few tweaks, that became the voice of Wakko.

WHAT'S MICKEY DOING UP THERE?

To promote Animaniacs before the show's premiere, a giant balloon in the shape of Yakko was placed on top of the water tower on the Warner Bros. lot. Unfortunately, no one told Bob Daley, who ran the studio. When he pulled into work that morning, he thought someone had put a bad Mickey Mouse balloon on the tower and ordered it removed. The inflatable Yakko was in place for less than 12 hours, and then popped shortly after he came down. Writer Paul Rugg was able to snap a photo to prove it happened.

After the balloon incident, Daley worked to ensure no one else would mistake the Warners for Mickey. Daley decided that Yakko and Wakko were too smooth and rounded. So while he watched, he had Ruegger add side whiskers to the drawings, which he felt would prevent confusion - and potential legal action. Ruegger and Warner Bros. Animation president Jean MacCurdy had to rush back to the animation studio with the changes, because the cartoon was already being drawn, with some segments in the can.

RETRACT-IMANIACS


Warner Bros.

While Animaniacs was being developed, there were many potential supporting characters that didn't make it on the show. One idea was to bring over The Flea Family, who appeared in a few episodes of Tiny Toons, but they were cut out pretty quickly. There was also Bossy Beaver, a workaholic beaver that just wanted to build “the best damn dam ever,” but his dim-witted sidekick, Doyle, would always screw things up. Bossy was based on Ken Boyer, an artist and director on Tiny Toons who was well known and respected for his strong work ethic. Spielberg thought the idea was too close to Pinky and the Brain, though, so the beavers got trimmed.

Nipsey and Russell, a pair of con-men raccoons that prowled the neighborhood at night, also got bagged after Spielberg felt there were already enough comedic duos on the show.

Another segment that never quite worked was As the Petri Dish Turns, a soap opera melodrama played out between single-cell organisms, all viewed through the lens of a microscope.

A CARTOON FOR ADULTS

Animaniacs premiered on Fox on September 13, 1993, and quickly became one of the highest-rated kids' shows on TV. Part of the appeal was that it was funny on two levels: Kids loved the slapstick, while their parents - and a very loyal following of college students - appreciated the wordplay and more “adult” humor peppered throughout the show. Whenever one of these risqué moments would come up, Yakko would often say, “Good night, everybody!”—almost as if he expected the show to be yanked off the air as soon as network execs heard the joke.

Here are some of the more “adult” moments in the show, including the infamous “fingerprints” joke (at 2:15):

Animaniacs moved to The WB beginning with episode 70. The Kids' WB block was aimed at a much younger audience, so even though ratings were still high, it wasn't doing well in the age group advertisers were trying to target. Orders for new episodes began to dwindle. The 99th and final episode aired on November 14, 1998.

THE SUPPORTING CAST

Slappy Squirrel, the cynical, retired cartoon squirrel who has no problem airing the dirty laundry of old Hollywood, was created and voiced by Sherri Stoner. Stoner got into show business as an actress, with bit parts on Little House on the Prairie, Knots Landing, and T.J. Hooker, while studying comedy with the famous improv group, The Groundlings. She was also hired to perform live-action scenes as a reference for Disney animators drawing Ariel in The Little Mermaid and Belle in Beauty and the Beast.

Skippy Squirrel, Slappy’s young nephew, was voiced by Nathan Ruegger, the eldest son of Tom Ruegger, and the inspiration for Yakko Warner. He was also the voice of baby Plucky Duck on Tiny Toons, who was famous for flushing various items in the toilet and watching the “water go down the hooooole.” He has since become an accomplished filmmaker with a handful of independent movies under his belt.

Mr. Skullhead was a simplified skeleton character based on a sketch Sherri Stoner had been drawing since childhood. The character first appeared as the skull-shaped barrette worn in Elmyra's hair in Tiny Toons. In Animaniacs, he became the star of the “Good Idea, Bad Idea” sketches. The narrator for the sketches was Tom Bodett, the spokesman for Motel 6 who promises to “leave the light on for you.” He also narrated Mime Time, a segment that showed a mime performer getting pummeled just for being a mime.

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Mindy and Buttons were initially cut from the show until Spielberg's kids saw a drawing of the characters and loved them. Mindy's catchphrases, including “Ok. I love you! Bye-bye!”, were written by another Groundling alumna, Deanna Oliver, and the role was performed by Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart Simpson.

Although they were strays, cat Rita and sweet-but-dumb dog Runt were voiced by two actors with quite a pedigree. Rita was voiced by Bernadette Peters, who has won two Tonys and been nominated for three Grammys. Runt was played by Frank Welker, whose prolific voice acting career has made him one of the biggest Hollywood stars you've never heard of. Since 1980, the 97 movies Welker has worked on – including the Transformers sequels, Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? - have grossed more than $12.9 billion worldwide.

Les Miseranimals, an animal-centric version of Les Miserables, was a highlight of the Rita and Runt segments. Here's one of Rita's solos from the episode:

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Minerva Mink — originally called Marilyn Mink — was voiced by comedian and actor Julie Brown. Minerva only appeared in a few segments, though, because she was thought to be too sexual for the young audience. In fact, upon the request of Jean MacCurdy, one Minvera segment was recalled, redrawn, and re-shot to decrease the mink's cleavage.

Colin, better known to fans as “The Randy Beaman Kid”, was a little boy who came out of his house to tell us all about the crazy misadventures of his friend, Randy Beaman. Colin was voiced by young Colin Wells, son of one of the show’s writers, Deanna Oliver. You can check out a compilation of Colin’s tall tales on YouTube:

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At the sight of the Warner Bros. studio’s buxom, blond nurse, Yakko and Wakko would always exclaim, “Helloooo, Nurse!” The catchphrase was written by Tom Ruegger for Buster Bunny on Tiny Toons. Since Buster never used it on the show, Ruegger gave it to the Warners instead. Because of the recurring gag, the nurse, who previously had no name, became known as Hello Nurse.

Here are Yakko and Wakko singing about their favorite health care professional:

PINKY AND THE BRAIN

Ruegger modeled Pinky after Warner Bros. Animation director and artist Eddie Fitzgerald, who had the same sunny disposition, and often said two of Pinky’s catch phrases - “Narf!” and “Egad!” In fact, the character of Pinky was so similar to Fitzgerald that he auditioned for the voice of Pinky. Another notable name up for the part was John Astin, also known as Gomez on the original Addams Family TV show. But when Rob Paulsen auditioned, he gave Pinky a loose Cockney accent, and the producers knew they'd found what they were looking for.

Brain is based on another Warner Bros. Animation artist and writer named Tom Minton. The original designs of the two mice were taken from caricatures of Eddie and Tom drawn by Batman: The Animated Series producer and designer Bruce Timm. So even though the resemblance is uncanny, the look of Brain was not modeled after Orson Welles. The Wellesian voice, however, was no coincidence, and can be attributed to Maurice LaMarche.


Warner Bros.

An experienced voice actor, LaMarche would often warm up by quoting a legendary recording of a very frustrated Orson Welles trying to lay down a voice-over track for a frozen peas commercial. When LaMarche saw the concept art for Brain, he immediately thought of Welles, and so he just did the impression he’d been honing over the years. The episode “Yes, Always” has a rather extensive, nearly word-for-word reenactment of the Welles outtake.

Pinky and the Brain got their own spin-off show that ran for 65 episodes from 1995-1998 on The WB. The show followed the two mice as they continued to try to take over the world, but they also had to occasionally save the world from the evil schemes of Snowball, a hamster from the same lab, who was voiced by renowned actor Roddy McDowall.

Eventually, the studio wanted the show to be a little more conventional, so they suggested turning it into a domestic sitcom. They even cast Dick Clark as the voice of a Kramer-esque quirky neighbor. Upset about the move, the writers instead took the opportunity to make fun of the old sitcom cliches, which didn't make the Warner Bros. execs very happy. Soon after, P&B was shuffled to Saturday mornings.

From there, the show was reworked as Pinky, Elmyra, & the Brain, borrowing a character from Tiny Toons to act as the duo's new owner. While 13 episodes were created, only six were shown under that title; the rest were dispersed as part of a clip show that featured many different segments from Warner Bros. cartoons, called The Cat & Birdy Warneroonie PinkyBrainy Big Cartoonie Show, which later became The Cat & Bunny Warnernoonie SuperLooney Big Cartoonie Show. That show lasted until 2000.

Pinky and the Brain are famous for their bevy of quotable catchphrases. One of Ruegger's favorites:

Brain: “Pinky, are you pondering what I'm pondering?”
Pinky: “I think so, Brain, but if they called them sad meals, kids wouldn't buy them.”

THE MUSIC

One of the highlights of the show was the music. Almost every episode featured original songs, which kept a team of composers, led by Richard Stone, very busy. But their hard work paid off with five Daytime Emmys for various musical categories.

One of the difficult tasks Stone faced on the show was coming up with music that matched the lyrics penned by the writing staff. For example, the words to the Pinky and the Brain theme song were written by Ruegger to the tune of “Singing in the Rain” from the 1952 musical. If you sing along in your head, it’s amazing how well it matches up:

They're Pinky and the Brain / I'm singin' in the rain
They're Pinky and the Brain / Just singin' in the rain
One is a genius / What a glorious feeling
The other's insane / I'm happy again
They're laboratory mice / I walk down the lane
Their genes have been spliced / With a happy refrain
They're dinky / I'm singin'
They're Pinky and the Brain / I'm singin' in the rain

Naturally they couldn’t use the film’s music due to licensing issues, so it was up to Stone to compose a song that worked. And the fact that we can all sing the Pinky and the Brain song today is a testament to his talent.

Perhaps the most famous song from the show, "Yakko's World," was written by Randy Rogel, a screenwriter working on Warner's Batman: The Animated Series at the time.

While helping his son with geography homework, Rogel started going over a globe and naming all the countries. When he noticed that “United States, Canada, Mexico, Panama” rhymed, he thought it sounded like the beginning of a song. So Rogel wrote out the lyrics set to the The Mexican Hat Dance Song, and gave it to Ruegger because he thought it might be a good fit for Animaniacs. Ruegger and Spielberg loved it, and shortly after, Rogel became a staff writer for the show.

Rob Paulsen, the voice of Yakko, can still sing "Yakko’s World" perfectly nearly 20 years later.

(While you’re at it, check out Paulsen’s weekly podcast where he often has some of his old friends from Animaniacs stop by for a visit.)

FEATURE FILM FOLLIES

In 1999, Warner Bros. released Wakko's Wish, a 90-minute film starring the Warner siblings and most of the cast from the show. The original title for the film was It's a Wakko, Wakko, Wakko, Wakko Wish, an homage to the classic road movie, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. However, the studio’s marketing team insisted the title be shorter, so Ruegger knocked it down to Wakko's Wacko Wish. The marketing team cut it even further.

The movie was considered for theatrical release after it was well received by test audiences, but Warner Bros. opted to release it unceremoniously on VHS instead. The movie has yet to have a wide release DVD, though you can buy it through Amazon.

Ruegger’s website features quite a few concept posters drawn by Bob Doucette for Animaniacs films that never were. For example, the World War II epic, This Means Warners, Revolutionary Warners set during 1776, a play on Oliver Twist called Little Orphan Warners, and Winter Warner Land, which would have seen the siblings go to the North Pole to harass Santa and his elves.

Some ideas from the unproduced film Hooray for Hollywood were used in Hooray for North Hollywood, a two-part episode of the show that aired in 1998. And The Road to Bohemia had many plot points that were integrated into Wakko's Wish.

A special thanks to Tom Ruegger for providing me with amazing information and access to the Animaniacs story. Go check out his website for even more great Warner Bros. Animation memories. This post originally appeared in 2012.

15 Clever Breaking Bad Easter Eggs Hiding in Better Call Saul

Patrick Fabian, Rhea Seehorn, Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, Michael Mando, Giancarlo Esposito, and Tony Dalton in Better Call Saul.
Patrick Fabian, Rhea Seehorn, Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, Michael Mando, Giancarlo Esposito, and Tony Dalton in Better Call Saul.
James Minchin/AMC

As evidenced by Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan and his cohorts have an eye for detail that’s nearly unrivaled. If anything, Better Call Saul—which is originally set several years before the events of Breaking Bad—only proves the point. The series, which is about to kick off its fifth season, focuses on Jimmy McGill (soon to become Saul Goodman) and is full of references to its progenitor, some of which are pure fun, and some of which add a deeper meaning to what we already know. Here are 15 clever Breaking Bad Easter eggs hiding in Better Call Saul.

**Warning: Plenty of spoilers ahead for both series.**

1. Being Kevin Costner

In a throwaway moment in Breaking Bad, Saul mentions to Walt that he once convinced a woman he was Kevin Costner (“If you’re committed enough, you can make any story work”), and in the finale of the first season of Better Call Saul, we see the exact moment he was referring to. In case we thought that Saul was just making the story up for the sake of a pep talk, here’s the proof otherwise.

2. Neighborhood mainstay

If the diner where Jimmy first meets with the Kettlemans looked familiar to you, it’s for good reason. Loyola’s Diner featured in Breaking Bad as a mainstay of Mike’s—he met with Jesse there, as well as Lydia. It’s also, incidentally, a very real restaurant in Albuquerque. And while we’re on the subject of Mike and food, he’s been shown to be fond of pimento cheese sandwiches in both series.

3. Address unknown

David Costabile as Gale Boetticher in 'Breaking Bad'
Ursula Coyote, AMC

In Better Call Saul, it’s shown that Jimmy's office is at 160 Juan Tabo Boulevard (which is a real nail salon). Those of you with a head for directions might also recall that that’s the same street that the ill-fated chemist Gale Boetticher lives on, at 6353 Juan Tabo Boulevard. Breaking Bad fans were thrilled when the karaoke-loving chemist appeared in Season 4 of Better Call Saul (with hopefully more to come).

4. The Ignacio connection

Michael Mando as Nacho Varga in Better Call Saul
Michael Mando as Nacho Varga in Better Call Saul.
Michele K. Short/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

When he’s kidnapped by Walt and Jesse after refusing to help a busted Badger, Saul spits out a variety of nonsense in an attempt to stay alive. He also drops a name: Ignacio. So who is he talking about? As we learn in Better Call Saul, this refers to Nacho, who’s become one of the secondary leads on the show. “Nacho” is a nickname, short for Ignacio, which makes sense as a connection given how closely he’s been working with Jimmy/Saul.

5. Cheap tricks

Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn in 'Better Call Saul'
Michele K. Short, AMC/Sony Pictures

There’s another callback to the first time that Walt, Jesse, and Saul meet. Despite still having his hands tied behind his back, when Saul agrees to help Walt and Jesse, he tells them to each put a dollar in his pocket in order to secure attorney-client privilege. It seems that Saul got that idea from Kim, who, when she decides to help Jimmy after discovering he’s falsified evidence, tells him to give her a dollar for exactly the same reason.

6. Old afflictions

Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill and Mel Rodriguez as Marco Pasternak in 'Better Call Saul'
Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill and Mel Rodriguez as Marco Pasternak in Better Call Saul.
Michele K. Short/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

In yet another reference to that fateful first meeting, we learn that Saul isn’t bluffing when he tells Walt and Jesse that he has bad knees. He says the same thing when cops apprehend him in the first season of Better Call Saul. As to why he’s got bad knees to begin with, it all comes from his time as “Slippin’ Jimmy,” when he used to stage falls in order to earn a little bit of money.

7. Car talk

Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul in 'Breaking Bad'
Ursula Coyote, AMC

Saul Goodman drives a white 1997 Cadillac DeVille with the vanity plate “LWYRUP.” Jimmy McGill’s ride is much more modest: a yellow Suzuki Esteem with a red door. That said, in the pilot of Better Call Saul, we very briefly see a white Cadillac DeVille—Jimmy parks his car next to it, in a truly blink-and-you-miss-it allusion to what’s to come. (Gus, notably, is driving the same blue Volvo in both shows.)

8. Home sweet home

In Better Call Saul, one of the retirement homes that Jimmy visits in his quest to find new clients for his growing elder law business is Casa Tranquila. If it sounds familiar, that's because it's a key location in Breaking Bad as the home of Hector Salamanca, and the place where he kills his longtime nemesis Gus Fring. It’s a nice touch to revisit the location, especially given the fact that Better Call Saul gives us the story as to how Hector wound up in a wheelchair in the first place.

9. What's your poison?

There’s also a nice bit of brand continuity with the made-up tequila Zafiro Añejo. Gus poisons a bottle to get back at Don Eladio in Breaking Bad, and we see the same blue bottle pop up in Better Call Saul when Jimmy and Kim scam a cocky stock broker named Ken. Ken, for his part, seems to be reaping a constant stream of bad karma, as he’s also in Breaking Bad as a victim of Heisenberg’s wrath. He swipes Walt’s parking spot—and has his car set on fire for his trouble.

10. The little piggy

Though Mike is hard as nails, he’s got a soft spot the size of Texas for his granddaughter Kaylee. He gifts her a pink pig plush in Better Call Saul, which crops up again in Breaking Bad under slightly less cute circumstances. He uses the doll as a distraction when an assassination attempt is made on his life.

11. Word games

Giancarlo Esposito as Gus Fring in 'Breaking Bad'
Ursula Coyote, AMC

The first letters of the episode titles of the second season of Better Call Saul are an anagram for “FRING’S BACK.” It’s a granular sort of trick that the creators have pulled off before: four of the episodes of season two of Breaking Bad spell out “Seven Thirty-Seven Down Over ABQ.” In the season finale, a 737 plane does indeed go down over Albuquerque, or ABQ.

12. Sentimental value

Given that Saul’s Breaking Bad office has a lot of strange objects in it, it’d be easy to miss the octagonal desk. As it turns out, the offices of Saul Goodman aren’t the desk’s first home: it’s seen in the background of Kim’s office in Better Call Saul. It’s retroactive, sure, but it’s still nice to know that Saul has some mementos around.

13. Movie night

Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn in 'Better Call Saul'
Ursula Coyote, AMC/Sony Pictures Television

There’s also a little sentimental value in the name of Saul’s holding company, Ice Station Zebra Associates, which he uses to help Walt launder money in Breaking Bad. As we discover in Better Call Saul, Ice Station Zebra is Kim’s favorite movie, due to her father’s affection for it. Though Kim is physically absent from Breaking Bad, small details seem to tie back to her all the time.

14. Set dressing

Krazy-8, may he rest in peace, also shows up in Better Call Saul. The van that he drives has the logo for Tampico Furniture on it, and he’s wearing a uniform with the logo as well. Tampico is where Walt, as he recalls in Breaking Bad, bought Walter Jr.’s crib. Unfortunately, those fond memories aren’t quite enough to save Krazy-8’s skin.

15. Beware of bugs

Before Mike leaves Philly for Albuquerque, a bartender tells him to be mindful of tarantulas. The spider plays a key role in Breaking Bad later on, as a young boy’s pursuit of the bug puts him in Walt’s path—and Todd’s path, by proxy. Determined to make a good impression on Walt, and knowing that there can’t be any witnesses to what they’re doing, Todd shoots the boy in one of the most shocking and cold-blooded moments in the entire series.

An earlier version of this story ran in 2018.

This Land Is Your Land: The Story Behind America's Best-Known Protest Song

American singer Woody Guthrie, circa 1960.
American singer Woody Guthrie, circa 1960.
Woody Guthrie: Getty Images. Landscape: iStock/mammuth

Few songs are more ingrained in the American psyche than "This Land Is Your Land," the greatest and best-known work by folk icon Woody Guthrie. For decades, it's been a staple of kindergarten classrooms "from California to the New York island," as the lyrics go. It's the musical equivalent of apple pie, though the flavor varies wildly depending on who's doing the singing.

On its most basic level, "This Land Is Your Land" is a song about inclusion and equality—the American ideal broken down into simple, eloquent language and set to a melody you memorize on first listen. The underlying message, repeated throughout the song, makes the heart swell: "This land was made for you and me."

But there's more to "This Land Is Your Land" than many people realize—two verses more, in fact. Guthrie's original 1940 draft of the song contains six verses, two of which carry progressive political messages that add nuance to the song's overt patriotism. These controversial verses are generally omitted from children's songbooks and the like, but they speak volumes about Guthrie's mindset when he put pen to paper 80 years ago.

 

Guthrie wrote "This Land Is Your Land" in a divey hotel room in New York City. He'd just landed in Manhattan after years of rambling across the country and meeting impoverished people affected by the Dust Bowl and Great Depression. Throughout his travels in the late '30s, Guthrie was haunted by Kate Smith's hit recording of Irving Berlin's "God Bless America." Guthrie found Berlin's song to be jingoistic and out of touch with the reality facing many of his fellow citizens. So he set about writing a response.

Guthrie originally titled his rejoinder "God Blessed America"—emphasis on the past tense—but eventually changed his tone. Instead of doing a sarcastic parody, he wrote a song that pulls double-duty, celebrating America's natural splendor while criticizing the nation for falling short of its promise. In the "lost" fourth verse, Guthrie decries the notion of private property, suggesting America is being carved up by the wealthy:

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me.
The sign was painted, said: 'Private Property.'
But on the backside, it didn't say nothing.
This land was made for you and me.

The sixth and final verse in the original manuscript references the poor folks Guthrie saw living on government assistance during the Great Depression:

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple,
By the relief office I saw my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there wondering if
God blessed America for me?

When Guthrie first recorded the song in 1944, he included the verse about private property but left out the one about the relief office. That original recording was lost until the '90s, however, so for years, all anyone knew was the version Guthrie recorded for 1951's Songs to Grow On. Guthrie's rendition on that album features neither the "no trespassing" verse nor the one about the relief office, which he never actually recorded.

It's unclear why the 1944 recording with the "private property" verse was never released, or why Guthrie edited out the radical stuff for the 1951 version. (He also chopped out both controversial verses when he first published the lyrics in the 1945 pamphlet Ten of Woody Guthrie's Songs.) It may have had something to do with the mounting anti-communist furor that would lead to the Red Scare of the late '40s and early '50s. As a pro-union communist sympathizer, Guthrie and his fellow rabble-rousing folky buddy Pete Seeger had already faced industry blacklisting in the early '40s.

"We did one program on CBS Radio, and a newspaper reported out, said, 'Red minstrels try to get on the networks,'" Seeger told NPR. "And that was the last job we got."

Woody Guthrie, circa March 1943.
Woody Guthrie, circa March 1943.
Penn State, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Regardless of which verses are included, "This Land Is Your Land" is terrific for singing. That was by design. Guthrie likely stole the melody from the Carter Family's 1935 tune "Little Darling, Pal of Mine," which itself was patterned after an old gospel hymn titled "When the World's On Fire" (sometimes called "Oh, My Loving Brother"). "This Land" was a perfect fit for classrooms and campsites, where the song would take on new life.

 

In the early '50s, famed American folklorist Alan Lomax came up with a nifty plan for preserving the nation's musical heritage. He approached legendary music publisher Howie Richmond with the idea of including rural folk songs—the kind he'd been documenting for the Library of Congress—in school music textbooks. Richmond, who had become Guthrie's publisher in 1950, loved the idea, and to sweeten the deal for textbook publishers, he lowered his usual licensing rates and offered "This Land Is Your Land" for just $1.

That's how "This Land Is Your Land" went viral and became nearly as ubiquitous as the national anthem, even without the radio play and jukebox real estate of Smith's "God Bless America." While the versions distributed to America's impressionable youth lacked "no trespassing" and "relief office" verses, the song's original lyrics were never forgotten. Following Guthrie's death in 1967, artists like Seeger continued performing the "lost verses," lest people forget the anger that inspired the song.

But regardless of Guthrie's intentions, "This Land Is Your Land" has come to mean different things to different people. That's part of what makes it so timeless. When President Ronald Reagan used the song at his victory party in 1984, after it had been used by Walter Mondale's campaign, both sides were probably trying to evoke feel-good patriotism. The same goes for Reagan's advisors and allies who were invoking Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." during rallies and in newspaper articles. Reagan himself name-checked Springsteen and his "message of hope" during a rally in Hammonton, New Jersey. The president either didn't know or didn't care that "Born in the U.S.A." was another song about loving your country but hating how poorly it treats some of its citizens.

Ironically, the Boss had begun performing "This Land Is Your Land" in the early '80s. On the version included on the Live 1975–85 box set, Springsteen gives his audience the backstory about Irving Berlin and refers to "This Land" as "just about one of the most beautiful songs ever written." And, when given the opportunity to perform the song with Pete Seeger at Barack Obama's pre-inauguration concert in 2009, he readily agreed to sing all the verses at Seeger's insistence.

Over the years, "This Land Is Your Land" has been covered by everyone from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to former Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, who performed the song in Zuccotti Park during an Occupy Wall Street protest in 2011. Lady Gaga sang a snippet to open her Super Bowl halftime show in 2017, causing fans and critics to speculate about whether she was making a political statement. She mashed it up with "God Bless America," so it's a safe bet she knew the history of the song.

 

There may be even more officially recorded versions in years to come. Much like what has been done with ubiquitous songs like "Happy Birthday" and "We Shall Overcome" (which Seeger toured with and taught across the country at rallies and protests throughout the '50s and '60s), there is a push to have "This Land Is Your Land" enter the public domain. The Brooklyn rock band Satorii filed a lawsuit in 2016 challenging the copyrights held by the Richmond Organization and its subsidiary, Ludlow Music, and maintain that since Guthrie only wrote the lyrics and not that pilfered melody, he shouldn't have been able to register the song in the first place, nor should Ludlow have been able to own the copyright. The suit is ongoing.

Whether it enters the public domain, as one imagines Guthrie would have wanted, or doesn't, "This Land Is Your Land" isn't going anywhere. The song has been adopted and modified by Native Americans, Swedish anti-Nazi troubadours, and people all over the globe who find truth and comfort in Guthrie's words, however they choose to interpret them.

"The whole idea of a land is your spot on Earth, you know," Woody's daughter Nora told NPR. "A spot where you can claim safety, sanity."

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