The Warner Brothers (and the Warner Sister) did a good deal to chart what it means to be irreverently funny in television animation. Before Comedy Central’s “South Park” and FOX’s “Family Guy” took the post-Al Bundy television cue of crudeness and sacrilege to new heights (er, depths?), the Animaniacs gave viewers a full helping of sketch comedy that was happy to tread zanily on religious grounds. Some would say this was all in good fun; others would say such mockery is a dangerous game.
Now re-run in syndication on The Hub (a cable network from the folks at the game company Hasbro, Inc.), “Steven Spielberg Presents Animaniacs” is an animated television program first aired on Fox Kids from 1993 to 1995 with new episodes on The WB from 1995 to 1998. A modern slapstick version of Warner Brothers classic toons, the show features Wakko, Yakko, and Dot (the Warner Brothers and the Warner Sister) in a slew of bits filled with literary and popular culture references and more than sufficient “happy violence.” It even includes the occasional religious reference.
In the sketch “Hot, Bothered, and Bedeviled” (view it HERE), the trio inadvertently tunnel their way to Hell. A robust and vicious Satan presides, roaring at the Warners, “I am Beelzebub, Lucifer, the reaper of souls… the really angry one. I am Satan!” Not to be outdone, Dot proclaims with her own ferocity, “That’s nothing. I’m Princess Angelina Contesa Louisa Francesca Banana-Fanna Bo Besca the Third! Mwhahahahaha!”
The bit continues with the three comically challenging and disregarding the ruler of Hades as they try to make their way out. Wacko even runs up top-side and brings back a snowball (as it melts, he says, “Boy, they were right. It didn’t have a chance.”) while a growling voice of Satan threatens indescribable torment. They even trick Satan into participating in a few comedic bits, Star Trek’s “Bones” has a quick cameo (as does a condemned Saddam Hussein) before an annoyed Satan finally boots them out and up to St. Peter in Heaven (Yakko’s TV remote “freeze frame” had forced the fed-up Satan to have to relight Hell’s tricky pilot light).
The theology/mythology is a little messy (Cerberus is there, as is the river Styx, while Satan calls himself Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness…), but the broad strokes are clear – this is Hell, Satan is dangerous and evil, promising an “eternity of terror,” … and the Warners couldn’t care much less.
This approach to religious reference (pretty explicit as far as television goes, especially younger viewer TV) is certainly humorous (Animaniacs humor is routinely well-played). But what of the theological perspective? Is it okay that the Warners don’t care that they’re confronting the Prince of Darkness? Is it okay to mock the notion of Satan? To toy with the idea of Hell?
From a perspective of faith, one might argue that ridiculing the devil is a sign of religious victory – “Oh Death, where is your sting? Oh Hades, where is your victory?” the Apostle Paul writes to the early church in Corinth in AD 56.
Or perhaps religious TV comedy makes too light of a serious concept. If hell is a real place, (which 59% of adult Americans believe), then perhaps it’s not a laughing matter to be trivialized out of consideration. One can find in the Bible (Jude 1:8-9) such anecdotal warning: “Likewise also these dreamers defile the flesh, reject authority, and speak evil of dignitaries. Yet Michael the archangel, in contending with the devil, when he disputed about the body of Moses, dared not bring against him a reviling accusation, but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you!’”
The Animaniacs episode has an odd balance to it, treating hell as an unquestioned reality but choosing to scoff at the notion that Satan has unmitigated power. Perhaps that is a robustly theological statement, perhaps it’s just a good gag. For the willing viewer, it offers plenty to think about.
But what do you think? Is the episode’s mockery dangerous? Are we becoming an increasingly post-hell society where the actual place is becoming less important in our theology (now that the fire-and-brimstone approach to preaching is largely on the back-burner)? Is it refreshing to see the idea of a real or imagined Satan mocked? Or is this just another example of TV not taking religion seriously enough?
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