Tom Lehrer, Animaniacs, Gilbert & Sullivan, Cultural Illiteracy and my son...

I was reminded of this by the recent Tom Lehrer thread…

I happen to love Animaniacs. It’s one of those rare cartoons that’s witty and appeals to children and adults on different levels. There’s plenty of in-jokes that a parent would get but that would go right over a kid’s head.

One of the great things about Animaniacs is that they rely heavily on music and musical parody. One of the parodies that they did was of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance. The tune from “I Am The Very Model Of A Modern Major General” was applied to “I Am The Very Model Of A Cartoon Individual.” My kids have seen this episode numerous times and have heard the song even more often (since we’ve owned the CD for years).

One Friday, I was cleaning the house with my son. Tom Lehrer was playing on the CD. One of Lehrer’s songs is “The Elements” which is simply a list of all the chemical elements (known at the time) set to the tune of “I Am The Very Model…” When Lehrer introduces the song he states that it is set to " a possibly recognizable tune."

My son then turns to me and asks: “Is it possible that it’s recognizable because he copied it from Animaniacs?”

Zev Steinhardt

Has he ever actually heard the G&S version? Have you ever rented, say, the Kevin Kline movie to watch? How old is he anyway?

No, he’s never seen it – that’s why he made the mistake.

Needless to say, my wife and I were laughing quite a bit on this one.

Zev Steinhardt

I have to admit, when Slappy said she once celebrated the fourth of July by throwing a firecracker down Sonny Tufts’ pants, I was amused.

I’ve heard tales of people complaining that Tolkien ripped off Terry Brooks.

When I saw Fellowship of the Ring in the theater, there were these thuggy teenagers who said at the end “Yo man, that shit ripped off Willow!”

I’ve heard both the Lehrer element song and the Animaniacs version, and I think they were probably both ostensibly ripped from the same source. The difference in the two is that the Animaniacs song is more or less a carefully reworded parody of the G&S version, whereas the Lehrer song is just a list of the elements and uses the tune of the song only. But Gilbert and Sullivan ditties are quite popular in their own right and have “inspired” quite a few parodies and homages. IIRC, Geordi LaForge attempted to sing "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General"on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

What I REALLY want to know is: as the alma maters (materae?) of both UNC-Chapel Hill and Cornell are set to the same tune, which school was the first to use said tune? And are there other schools who used that tune as well?

That reminds me of my cousin’s son. He had been to Vegas many times and saw, among other things, the replica of the Eiffel Tower. Then he went to Paris, and complained that the French had “this bogus copy.” Nothing could convince him that that was the original.

I watched Animaniacs back when it was first broadcast (I guess I was about 10-12 at the time.) Some of the parodies I knew for sure even then, especially the ones that were of things already aimed at children: Skippy and Slappy’s version of “Who’s On First?” at Woodstock, Star Wars and Star Trek, the various Wizard of Oz parodies, the Beauty and the Beast and Lion King parodies, and the Barney parody. A lot I didn’t get until high school when I was watching them when they were being rebroadcasted on WB. The Apocalypse Now reference hit me in the middle of having to watch the movie in class as a senior. I was too young to have seen a movie like Goodfellas or Spartacus (Michelangelo is voiced like Kirk Douglas) or Rocky or The Birds. I didn’t watch any Marx Bros. movies until high school either, so I didn’t get the Duck Soup references. I didn’t, and still don’t, like musicals, so the Les Miserables, West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, H.M.S. Pinafore, and Pirates of Penzance all passed me by. Similarly, I didn’t/don’t care about celebrities, so I missed almost all of those as well.

I think a lot of people my age learned the cultural references, more or less, before they actually ever saw the thing being referenced. The Simpsons has done that for years–I still haven’t seen a lot of what they’ve referenced/parodied over the years. Almost everything I know about 80s pop culture I know from Family Guy (and looking up the references on Wikipedia so I have some idea what the joke was.) Even South Park, to some degree–I posted somewhere else once a long list of movies they’ve parodied that I haven’t (and generally don’t want to) see.

I’d love to post an amusing anecdote about my kids here, but the only one I can think of involves me!

When I finally saw The Godfather, sometime in the late '90’s, I knew intellectually that it was a ground-breaking film, but it felt like the most boring, godawful derivative piece of schlock I’d ever seen - because so many films, from *Goodfellas *to *Heat *to Miller’s Crossing, had done it better and, in my viewing order, “first”! By the time I got around to The Godfather, it was its own parody.

Are you thinking of Marcus on Babylon 5 (with Dr. Franklin as his captive audience)?

And before either, (but not before G&S) Anna Russell had Claude Billy Bunion sing about how he was rich tycoon in her “How to Write a Gilbert and Sullivan Operette” piece on the same album with the Ring parody. (Wagner, not Tolkien.)

And it’s very, very funny,
when you’ve lots and lots of money,
to be horrible to those with none.

Did you guys know there was a straight to video movie of the Tiny Tunes which involved a parody of, of all things, the movie Deliverance?

Hand on the bible swear.


It was sort of on topic.

Would you believe both?

Yeah, I’ve seen it. A little creepy.

I was at a party several months ago when someone put on “The Elements”. I, in all my youthful wisdom, asked in the middle of the song if it was from the Animaniacs.

Still a bit embarrassed about that…


I was cursing G & S yesterday as the first verse kept running through my mind working in the garage without music. I really wish I’d never heard the song in my life.

Leading to a hilarious outtake that they (I think) ran over the credits - or possibly during a “making of” special in which Marcus says “quote the facts historical” and someone waits till he gets near the end before telling him they have to reshoot.

Jason Carter: [bleep!]