Written by Andy Connelly. First published in The Journal Autumn 2017. Published here 27th November 2017.
It was the decade of the first genetically modified food, of genetic sequencing, and of Dolly the sheep. A decade of hype and fear about a genetically modified future, a decade primed for a cartoon about two laboratory mice whose genes, as the theme song went, “have been spliced.” Created by Tom Ruegger and Steven Spielberg, Pinky and the Brain featured two talking, walking, scheming white lab rodents; one short megalomaniac called Brain and his tall goofy assistant, Pinky. As a child, I loved watching the show for the ridiculous plans and bizarre catchphrases. Looking back now, I see a clever and witty social commentary, at the centre of which was the relationship between a mouse-sized scientist and his technician.
It is Pinky we see first in the opening credits, running on a hamster wheel attached to the side of a small cage. Pinky’s whiny pseudo-Cockney accent asks a simple question, “Gee, Brain, what do you want to do tonight?” The reply comes in a voice that is “two-thirds Orson Welles and one third Vincent Price”1, “The same thing we do every night, Pinky—try to take over the world!” Between 1995 and 1998 this exchange appeared in sixty-five madcap episodes. When the sad day arrived of Pinky and the Brain’s final episode, the world lost a cartoon that had so much to teach us.
From their cage in the Acme Labs Research Facility each episode starts with the ever-eloquent Brain setting out his plan for world domination. It might be as simple as becoming a mousy President of the USA, or something more complex, like stopping Big Ben at 4pm to create a perpetual tea-time that would give Brain the opportunity to take over the British Empire.2 Simple or convoluted—and it was usually convoluted—each plan ultimately ends in failure…a failure that is often blamed on Pinky.
Presented as good-natured but feeble-minded, Pinky is often shown ruining Brain’s carefully laid plans by making a mistake such as saying the wrong thing or unplugging the wrong device. Brain certainly believes Pinky is at fault and consistently victimises Pinky with snarky deadpan humour and occasional violence. He is constantly putting Pinky down with insults like, “Stop auditioning Pinky, no one is hiring village idiots anymore” and “Scientifically speaking, it’s because you are a beetle headed doofus, with the intellect of a mule hoof.” 3-4. Despite the bad treatment, Pinky loves Brain; he is ever-generous, in one Halloween special even selling his soul in an attempt to get Brain the world 5.
Pinky is hyperactive – he has strange verbal tics, such as “narf”, “zort”, and “poit” and is constantly going off on bizarre non-sequiturs. By contrast, Brain is the archetypal mad scientist, a Napoleon Bonaparte type figure 6 who tries, over and over again, to conquer the world with completely unworkable schemes. He is miserable, lonely, and deeply frustrated. Pinky is happy, enjoys life and finds love–even if it is with a race horse called Phar Fignewton 7. Of the two of them, over 65 episodes, it is only Pinky whose plans work; he takes over the world three times 8-10.
I have watched many episodes as part of my…ahem…research for writing this piece. I have realised two things: one is that, as a child, I only understood about 20% of the jokes. Even as an adult, I still only get about 70%. The other thing is that Pinky is neither an idiot nor feeble-minded. He is just badly managed.
Pinky does not want to take over the world himself, but he does want to help. Pinky’s desire to help is never realised because he is operating in the dark. He is never properly included in the plan and so he bumps into things and makes mistakes. For example, in the Episode “Pinky POV”, how was Pinky to know that turning down the music to hear Brain’s instructions would ruin Brain’s grunge-band-based-plan to take over the world?11
Pinky has skills and knowledge that Brain can only hope for. For example, in the episode, ”Welcome to the Jungle”, when cast into the wild, Pinky lives on his instincts and thrives, looking after Brain, who doesn’t know what to do 12. In the episode “All you need is Nark”, Pinky uses his special form of wisdom to become a famous guru 13 More than once Pinky’s knowledge of popular culture could have aided Brain’s plans 14 but these are not skills that Brain recognises as helpful; in fact, he sees such knowledge as a slight, as being beneath his genius. In the episode “Pinky’s Plan”, for Brain’s birthday, Pinky organises a surprise party and persuades various world leaders to hand their countries over to Brain with an emotional speech in which he describes Brain as his “selfless, smart, pudgy friend”. Brain arrives at the party but his own insecurities lead him to assume that Pinky is plotting behind his back. The resulting scene is so unpleasant that the world leaders take a dislike to Brain, take back their countries and walk out.8
It is not that Brain doesn’t want to involve Pinky and show him love. Brain is aware that Pinky is his only real friend. After Pinky sells his soul, Brain ends up saving Pinky because he misses him and he realised that the world wasn’t worth ruling without him. Of course, Brain cannot admit this. If Brain had trusted his technician throughout it would have been a very different cartoon, and one in which Brain would, I believe, have achieved his aim of world domination.
Pinky is a technician’s technician; ever-generous, selflessly trying to help the project—and Brain—succeed. It is a shame that Brain so rarely sees it.
Pinky: Egad, Brain! I wish I was as smart as you.
Brain: I wish you were as smart as a tree stump, Pinky. 15
1 A. Arseneau, Pinky And The Brain: Volume 1, DVD Verdict, 25-07-2006
2 http://snowballville,tripod,com/labnotes/wd_plans,html (accessed 25-8-2017)
3 Das Mouse, Pinky and the Brain, Season 1, Episode 1, 9-9-1995
4 That Smarts, Pinky and the Brain, Season 1, Episode 3b, 17-9-1995
5 A Pinky and the Brain Halloween, Pinky and the Brain, Season 3, Episode 17, 19-10-1997
6 Napoleon Brainaparte, Pinky and the Brain, Season 1, Episode 7, 26-11-1995
7 Jockey for Position, Animaniacs, Season 1, Episode 27, 25-10-1993
8 Pinky’s Plan, Pinky and the Brain, Season 3, Episode 6b, 17-9-1997
9 Pinky’s Turn, Pinky and the Brain, Season 3, Episode 29a, 28-2-1998
10 The Pink Candidate, Pinky and the Brain, Season 2, Episode 4, 2-11-1996
11 Pinky POV, Pinky and the Brain, Season 3, Episode 33a, 6-5-1998
12 Welcome to the Jungle, Pinky and the Brain, Season 2, Episode 6, 16-9-1996,
13 All You Need Is Narf, Pinky and the Brain, Series 3, Episode 6a, 17-9-1997
14 Big Win, Animaniacs, Season 1, Episode 2, 14-9-1993
15 The Megalomaniacal Adventures of Brainie the Poo, Pinky and the Brain, Season 3, Episode 25, 7-2-1998