“Pinky and the Brain,” a cartoon that aired for half of the 1990s 1, is a three-chord kind of show, as bound by formal constraints as they come. Before spinning off into its own half-hour slot 2, the series began life as the best thing about “Animaniacs,” an exuberantly unhinged variety cartoon executive-produced by Steven Spielberg and packed with non-sequitur punch lines, meta-level laughs and so many showbiz in-jokes that you could forget this was a show nominally made for kids 3. “Pinky and the Brain” stood out for its ingenuity and extreme economy. The show has only two recurring characters to speak of — the talking lab mice of the title — 4 and precisely one plot, set into motion in the opening moments of each installment with the same 23 words: “Gee, Brain, what do you want to do tonight?” “The same thing we do every night, Pinky. Try to take over the world.”
That the mice will deploy some scheme for world domination is the lone narrative motor, and that their failure is guaranteed provides not only the inevitable third-act kicker but also the condition of the show’s continued existence: a reset button that returns the mice to the lab to plot again. The pair is at once idiosyncratic and archetypal, in a vaudevillian kind of way. Brain is a hyperintelligent, short-tempered straight man voiced by a guy doing a stentorian Orson Welles impression; Pinky is daffy and sweet and speaks in an over-the-top Cockney accent 5.
They are given no back story beyond a stray line in the theme song (“Their genes have been spliced”), and they learn no lessons by episode’s end. Characterization takes the form, instead, of kid-friendly, broken-record repetition 6. In every episode, while unveiling the plan at hand, Brain will ask Pinky, “Are you pondering what I’m pondering?”–a question so ritualized that fans refer to it by “AYPWIP”–to which Pinky will offer a reliably outré response. “I think so, Brain, but I can’t memorize a whole opera in Yiddish.” “I think so, Brain, but Pete Rose? I mean, can we trust him?” “I think so, but Kevin Costner with an English accent?”