After over 20 years locked in the water tower on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, California, Yakko, Wakko, and Dot Warner — better known as the Animaniacs — are about to be unleashed (or re-unleashed) on to unsuspecting audiences everywhere. The classic animated comedy series Animaniacs, an afternoon TV staple in the mid-1990s, will return this fall as a Hulu original, and original voice actor Rob Paulsen promises that the characters haven’t changed a bit.
During a recent episode of our interview series, Hey, Fandom!, Paulsen (who voiced not just Yakko, but also the show’s zany lab mouse, Pinky, before also starring in the Animaniacs spinoff Pinky & The Brain ) told us about the intense pressure to make the transition from classic to new Animaniacs as seamless as possible.
“This is a unique challenge that I have never experienced in my life,” Paulsen said. “You will be able to sit down and watch your favorite episode of Animaniacs and literally punch a button and watch a brand new episode you’ve never seen of Animaniacs, and you’re gonna be the one to go ‘I want to see more’ or ‘Oh no.'”
Great pains were apparently taken behind-the-scenes to retain all of the show’s original magic, an effort that, Paulsen explained, came right from the top: original Animaniacs producer Steven Spielberg.
“Mr. Spielberg is like us,” Paulsen explained. “He knows that the very reason that fandom exists is because people connect with these characters… It’s not about having Ryan Reynolds – whom I adore as an actor – but it’s not about Ryan Reynolds being Yakko and it’s not about Cate Blanchett being Dot. That has nothing to do with their relative genius. They’re magnificent. But in this realm, Mr. Spielberg understands that… you’d be an idiot to screw with that chemistry on a show that has now spanned 2 generations of fans. What we can do is keep Pinky and the Brain and Yakko, Wakko, and Dot utterly authentic. That was a smart move. I’ll tell you what: don’t bet against Steven Spielberg.”
Paulsen told us he enjoyed getting back into the recording studio with his original co-stars, including Tress MacNeille (who voices Dot) and Maurice LaMarche (aka The Brain), but that the real highlight was seeing the reactions behind the glass from his the young writing staff.
“A lot of them were informed by Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain,” Paulsen observed. “When you see them, and Maurice says ‘Pinky, are you pondering what I’m pondering,’ and I go, ‘I think so, Brain, but if Jack’s Black, and Betty’s White, is Marvin Gay? NARF!,’ then the people on the other side of the glass, these young writers, go ‘I wrote those words, and they’re coming out of Pinky and the Brain. Those are the characters.’ It is mind-blowing.” [Of course he said this in the actual Pinky voice. Just watch the video above.]
Ultimately, Paulsen feels confident that the new perspective will please both fans of the original series and a new generation of Warner obsessives.
“I really think we’re up to the challenge,” he said. “It’s tweaked a little bit but appropriately. They’re very aware that they’ve been locked down for 25 years.”
Among the most celebrated aspects of the classic Animaniacs series are the memorable songs, many of which were originally performed by Paulsen himself. With some accompaniment from a fan, he even treated us to a brief performance of the Yakko classic “A Quake! A Quake!” (inspired by the very real Northridge earthquake of 1994).
“I knew it was gonna be music-driven, and that’s one of the reasons I was hired,” Paulsen said. “I had worked on Tiny Toons with [Animaniacs creator] Tom Ruegger and Steven Spielberg and the whole group, and kind of did my homework, and then they hired me for this.”
Paulsen also reminisced about the recording of the musical geography lesson Yakko’s World, the very first song he performed for the entire series.
“It was written by Randy Rogel, whom I’d never met,” Paulsen recalled. “I live in Hollywood. The truth is, you can throw a dart and hit a good singer. There are a lot of good singers who could have done that song. What you can’t do is throw a dart and hit somebody who can write that stuff. But here’s the kicker: Randy Rogel is really a genius.”
Rogel, who had recently won an Emmy for his dramatic writing on Batman: The Animated Series, got hired on Animaniacs based on Yakko’s “nations of the world” ditty.
“That was the song he played for them as his audition,” Paulsen told us. “That song was in his back pocket. That’s how good people are who come to LA whom you’ve never met, they don’t know anybody. It’s remarkable that a guy like that shows up… He wrote A Quake. He wrote the state capitals song. He wrote ‘It’s a great big universe and we’re all really puny.’ [This one’s called Yakko’s Universe Song.] That’s the level of talent we’re dealing with here.”
Connecting with Animaniacs fans was also a key inspiration behind Paulsen’s memoir, 2019’s Voice Lessons: How a Couple of Ninja Turtles, Pinky, and an Animaniac Saved My Life. For years, he had resisted the idea of writing a book about his life.
“I’m good at my job, and I should be after all these years, but it is such a deeply collaborative effort,” Paulsen told us. “So many more talented people than I make this happen. I thought the last thing the world needs is another celebrity memoir, especially from a non-celebrity. The characters are famous. I’m an integral part, to be sure, but it’s the characters who are famous.”
But his perspective changed after being diagnosed with throat cancer, which thankfully eventually went into remission, and he recognized that describing his experiences might help to inspire or motivate others.
“Somebody could say, ‘This guy was literally the voice of my childhood and he got throat cancer in the last third of his life, and the guy got through it and he’s back doing it. You know what? I can handle my stuff,'” Paulsen said. “That happens all the time. It’s happened to me, by people who were very inspirational to me. So it turns out that, for me, cancer had not even a silver lining. It has a platinum lining. Because I’m able to help.”
It was one very special visit from his Animaniacs and Pinky & The Brain co-star Maurice LaMarche that directly inspired Paulsen’s decision to write the book.
“He came up and sat down and physically held my hand, and we started laughing,” Paulsen recalled. “So we started riffing and before you know it, the guy next door pulls back his curtain and goes ‘Oh my God! I shared this show with my grandkids!’ That really crystallized, like, ‘Rob, how dare you feel sorry for yourself? Look what you’ve got, right inside your head. And you can access this like that. Not only can you make a difference but shut up and be grateful.'”
COMING OUT OF HIS SHELL
Of course, Rob Paulsen’s not only known for his work on Animaniacs. He’s been voicing many of your favorite cartoon characters since the glory days of GI Joe and Transformers in the 1980s. (It’s true! He was Joe team members Snow Job and Tripwire, Autobots Air Raid and Slingshot, and more!) His resume even includes appearances as multiple Ninja Turtles: Paulsen voiced Raphael in the classic 1987 TMNT series and more recently appeared as Donatello in the 2012 reboot – and these days is the voice director on Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He told us that the difficulty in moving between turtles had a lot less to do with changing his voice, and more with figuring out who the characters really were inside.
“My job was not to be afraid that Donatello sounded too much like Raphael,” Paulsen explained. “His sensibilities, his thoughts, what gets him through a day, what makes him laugh and cry, what makes him happy, are different than Raphael. When the animation works, it’s magical, cause it’s not about the way I look. I did my job well, so I imbued Donatello with his own characteristics. That’s what acting is about and that’s why it works. If I just relied on the tone of the voice, I wouldn’t be a very good actor.”
In response to a particularly tough question from a big-time Turtle fan, Paulsen confessed that Raphael is his personal favorite of the four brothers.
“He’s pretty similar to my demeanor,” Paulsen told us. “I’m kind of a smart ass. I have a very wicked sense of humor, which has helped me an awful lot in my lifetime to keep perspective on things. The ethos of what is behind Raphael is pretty much me, just without the shell. Sean Astin did Raph in the 2012 series… he was a bit more of a hothead. I’m not a hothead. I’m just kind of a smartass.”
WEARING THE MASK
Paulsen faced an entirely different challenge when he signed on to star in the animated spin-off of the wildly popular 1994 movie The Mask: how to follow in the footsteps of a global icon like Jim Carrey? At first, he and the show’s producers had some trouble finding the right approach.
“They’d say, ‘Rob, that was really good, but you know in the movie, when Jim does…’ I’d do another take. ‘Great, Rob, that was right on, but later on in the movie, there’s a part in which Jim…’ It was making me a little anxious,” Paulsen confessed. Ultimately, he received some helpful advice from a co-star and friend, the iconic actor Tim Curry. “It was Tim Curry who said, ‘You know, Rob, I can tell that this is making you anxious. You need to have a chat with them.’ The upshot was, they were delightful. They said, ‘You know what, Rob, you’re right. We need to turn you loose and let you do what you do for a few episodes and see what happens.’ And they did and we never looked back. I was grateful for Tim.”
Paulsen still looks back fondly on his The Mask experience, even though it didn’t become a classic on the level of the Ninja Turtles or Animaniacs.
“I don’t think it was a culturally significant show,” Paulsen confessed. “But I think it was a good show, and I got to do a lot of cool stuff that I got to create on my own.”
Check out our full Hey, Fandom! chat with Rob Paulsen below!