How The Animaniacs Reboot Will Be Both Fresh and Timeless

We had the pleasure of talking to Rob Paulsen about his voice acting, his autobiography, and the big return of Animaniacs.

Photo: Warner Bros. / Hulu

Ever since getting the role of Snow Job in the ’80s GI Joe animated series, Rob Paulsen realized that his future was not in a local rock band or appearing in commercials, but in the realm of voice acting. Through the decades, Paulsen has taken on many iconic roles, such as Raphael from the ’80s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Donatello from the 2012 reboot, Carl Wheezer from Jimmy Neutron, Mighty Max, Major Glory from Dexter’s Lab, PJ from Goof Troop, Steelbeak from Darkwing Duck, Buck Tuddrussel from Time Squad, and hundreds more.

He’s also a survivor of throat cancer and recently wrote a book about it called Voice Lessons.

Of course, three of his biggest roles that come to mind are Yakko Warner, Pinky, and Dr. Scratchansniff, characters from the beloved animated series Animaniacs. Wouldn’t you know it, that series will be coming back this November!

We got an opportunity to talk with Rob about the show’s big return, his book, and what it’s like to be the voice of so many childhoods.

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Den of Geek: My first question is about the Animaniacs reboot. So it’s on its way back, which I think we all collectively need right now.

Rob Paulsen: Amen, my friend.

The characters are, by design, timeless. But it’s been a couple decades, so it’s a new show. What is new to the table? What’s being brought in that’s kind of like, “This is the new show.”

Well, it’s… Here’s a little inside baseball. I saw the opening title scene yesterday for the first time. The “It’s time for Animaniacs…” the little song, right?

Never heard of it.

Right. And it’s so cool because it starts out with what everybody knows. You will watch it. As soon as you hear the first downbeat, you’ll go, “Oh my God. I’m 11. I’m 15,” whatever you were. And then it morphs into this appropriate acknowledgement of the zeitgeist, that is to say, the lyrics already tell you right off the bat that we’re in a different time. The lyrics… and it will take people a few times to listen to because we blow through them pretty quick. I’m not going to give it away because I want you to be surprised, but the lyrics in the opening title scene, they let you know that they’re self-aware. They get that the time we’re in is now, and the Animaniacs understand that.

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So right away, it, in my view, dispels any fears of them not being hip or getting it. Right away. It’s just, “Okay. Here’s where we are. We know this was a while ago, but here’s… this is the time it is now, and off we go.” And so you already know, and the episodes do not deviate from that. They are appropriately lampooning with currently sacred cows. And it’s a freaking hoot. I was telling folks yesterday that I’m a little bit concerned when things go so well. It’s crazy how humans react. We’re always… And I understand why, because of the nature of what we’re going through. But that show, when we did it, from a clean sheet of paper, turned out to be what you and I are talking about 25 years later and there are, I don’t even know, tens of millions of fans of Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain. I know how important this is to Spielberg, which alone makes it a big deal.

I’m used to things where whatever you’re working on was a big deal, was a lot of money, lot of music. Well, we got some things back, and they got to tweak them, and they might push the release back. You’re used to that. Doesn’t mean the shows going to be a piece of junk.

We got the first stuff back, and everybody’s flipping out.

“What did Steven say?”

“Oh, he couldn’t stop laughing.”

“Are you kidding?”

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“No. Look at the video.”

I mean, it’s just… It’s going SO WELL. Everybody, from Steven on down… And trust me, these guys are spending a lot of money, pal. And so if they want to have their input, and they’re going “Oh, no, no, no, no. I don’t really like the way Yakko’s head looks.” Trust me. They’ll stop you. Because it’s a shit ton of money! Not mine, but you’re talking about spending 60 million or whatever. It’s a lot of money, and so they’re not going to just say-

“Good enough.”

Right? None of that is happening. Everybody gets it. I think it’s because the people who are making it are your age, within a few years, and they know how high the bar is. And they were inspired to do this gig because of Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain. So now in the studio, I’ve got to tell you, I’ve seen more than once, men and women writers on the show who will come in and be there when we’re recording, and they sort of get tearful because they think, “Oh my God. I wrote those words, and I hear them coming out of Pinky and the Brain.” That blows my mind, and it’s really cool to watch because it just doesn’t get a representation of how seminal this show was to so many people who are now in creative arts. It’s a wonderful thing to be a part of.

We haven’t seen any of the real footage of the show’s return, so in the meantime, can you give us any completely fake spoilers? Stuff that’s absolutely not going to happen on the show?

Yes. It is absolutely not going to happen that Dolly Parton will sing in the opening title.

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That will not happen. Dolly Parton, as much as a lovely woman she seems to be, has nothing to do with the opening theme song of Animaniacs. I can guarantee you that. Let’s see. I can tell you this, that so far, there don’t appear to be as many of the secondary characters as there were in the original show. The original show is a variety/magazine type show, which is where Pinky and the Brain obviously got their foothold and turned out to be their own franchise. So right now, we don’t have Rita and Runt, Mindy and Buttons, Katie Ka-Boom, all those other secondary characters. But there are new ones and other ones.

The ethos that Mr. Spielberg and Tom Ruegger created 25 years ago remains, and that is that Yakko, Wakko, and Dot are the ringleaders. Pinky and the Brain, one could argue, could have their own show without Yakko, Wakko, and Dot. They’re a big deal on their own. And so it wouldn’t have made sense to exclude Pinky and the Brain and Yakko, Wakko, and Dot. In other words, they couldn’t redo the whole thing and say, “We’re going to have Gakko, Kakko, and Smakko,” or whatever. It had to be Yakko, Wakko, and Dot. And frankly, it had to be all three voice actors according to Steven because this is Hollywood, and often in animated shows, you’ll see now that they’ll bring in celebrity talent for their celebrity.

And I mean, I’m an old dog in Hollywood. I know how celebrity works. I accept it. All of that. But it is yet another testament to the experience and the heart of a guy like Steven Spielberg who literally can call any actor in the world and say, “We’re redoing Animaniacs.”

“Oh God, I love that show.”

“Yeah. Me too. We just thought that Liam Neeson should be—”

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Hahahaha! Oh God. Can you in the Yakko voice say the line, “I have certain skills…”

(Yakko voice) “Oh, yeah. I have certain skills. Yeah, that’s right. I have… ‘certain’ ‘skills’.”

But you see my point. You’re laughing about it, and it’s true. We laugh about it all the time. Check this out. Maurice’s take on it, because he’s been having dreams at night, because there had been rumors for a reboot for a couple years before it happened. And it’s Hollywood. Shit happens and does happen all the time. And so Maurice said, “My worst fear is that they’re going to hire Peter Dinklage as the Brain and Russell Brand as Pinky.”

*cracks up*

Yeah. And I did what you’re doing. I couldn’t stop laughing. I just thought, (Pinky voice) “Egad! You really are a short fellow!”

I’m just imagining the two of them doing live-action cosplay.

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Oh, yeah. Right?! No kidding! It’d be fantastic! But again– Isn’t it great that all we’re talking about is making us laugh? That the bottom line is that the unchallenged King of Hollywood chose, and he said it was never a question, never a question of, “How can we make this here work? Should we hire…” I don’t know, give me a famous young female popstar, “to be the voice of Dot. Cross-promote. She’s already got eight million Twitter followers.” All that stuff. That never entered into the equation. It was all about the reason these characters are beloved is for many reasons, and not the least of which are the actors who all can still do it at the same level, and they want to. And so, okay, that’s taken care of. That’s a big deal. Do you know what I mean?

That in and of itself tells you a lot about how important Steven views this property because it was not about who can sell the most merchandise, who’s got the most Twitter followers. It was about this show is a show that’s successful for its own sake. You’re talking to 50% of the Ninja Turtles, pal. I know all about action figures. And I’m very proud of that show still. It will go on and inspire artists for decades to come. But Animaniacs is not about that. And when you have a piece of art for the sake of the art, and Mr. Spielberg utterly gets that, it’s being done for the right reasons. Obviously, there’ll be merchandise. Great. But it’s not about who’s famous enough to bring 10 million extra followers to the show. It’s not about that. And I’m so proud of the whole experience, man. It’s really something.

So “Yakko’s World” is a “Stairway to Heaven” of Animaniacs songs.

Right. And I’ve used that line my own self. You’ve got excellent taste. That’s exactly what I say. When we do Animaniacs Live with orchestras and stuff around the country, it’s just incredible. Really fun.

Around where I live, there’s a rock station that always does the best classic rock songs, but the joke is, “We all know what number one is.”

Right. It’s got to be “Stairway.” It’s got to be. Yeah. And so I tell people all the time, it’s like, “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much. It’s been a wonderful evening, and before we finish tonight, we just want to let you know that to the extent that you spent this money and waited an hour and a half for this song, here’s our ‘Stairway to Heaven.’” Everybody flips out, and it’s fantastic. And that song… And again, I’m good at my job, but in Hollywood, you could throw a dart and hit a good singer. They may not like getting hit with a dart, but you see my point. I’m really good at my job, but Jesus Christ, I ought to be. I’ve been doing it for 40 years. But what you cannot do in Hollywood or New York or Nashville is hit someone who could write that type of music over and over and over again. And Randy Rogel is a uniquely gifted individual and profoundly overachieving. I mean, the guy is… He’s a West Point grad. He’s a graduate of Boston University. He was a huge success in corporate American. Then he thought, “No. I’m really about music and comedy,” and got a gig on Batman: The Animated Series and won an Emmy. And then he heard about this fun cartoon music show called Animaniacs. He banged on that door. And check this out:

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His audition piece to get the gig on Animaniacs, which ultimately won him three more Emmy’s because he’d already won one on Batman… But the song that he wrote and he had in his back pocket to get him the gig was “Yakko’s World.” Now, that’s pretty freaking remarkable, that you’re going like, “Wait a minute. This is where we’re STARTING? This is what you got to say what do you think?” That’s just outrageous. And he has not disappointed. He’s written a bunch of new songs for the new show. But I have to tell you that every single time we do “Yakko’s World,” it gets a standing ovation. And people have heard it. I mean I can do it backwards and forwards and all that. But I’ve don’t it a zillion times. And it’s not… Randy and I are the ones getting the accolades. It’s very wonderful, but it’s not about us. And we know that. It’s that fucking song. It’s so wonderful and so unique and it’s just a privilege to be able to perform it. It’s wonderful.

But what’s the second place? What’s you’re second favorite of all of all time?

Favorite of Randy’s? Oh God. That’s a tough call. But we do, in the show, the live show, we do probably 20 songs, 25 songs including songs that didn’t make it and a bunch of songs from a follow-up show with that crew called Histeria!. There was some brilliant songs in that. But my second favorite I think has to be… Well, there are two that really come to mind. One is called “I’m Mad” in which Yakko, Wakko, and Dot go on a day trip with Dr. Scratchansniff, who I also played that character as well. And the kids get into a fight in the car, and it’s a really wonderful song and an excellent cartoon pattern, back and forth. It’s just great. I love “I’m Mad.”

And also, Randy wrote a song. He was charged with responsibility of trying to teach young folks the concept of time, and he wrote a song called “When You’re Traveling from Nantucket.” And I love that song. Just a little bit of it goes,

“When you’re traveling from Nantucket through Chicago to St. Paul,
And you’re standing at an airport and you look upon the wall,
There’s a clock for every city and a different time for all,
From Asia through Malaysia to Peru.
Did you ever wonder why that when it’s six o’clock in Maine,
At precisely the same moment it is eight AM in Spain?
When it’s breakfast time in Rome, they’re having lunch in the Ukraine,
And it’s supper up in upper Kathmandu.
If the Earth is spinning faster while the sun is moving past her, then a day might only be an hour long.
And school, when they begin it, would only last a minute, and everybody’d have to run along.
If the Earth were the planet that was closest to the sun,
A year would be much shorter, and you’d have a lot of fun.
Because the time you’re in first grade, you’d be over 21,
And you’d live to be 903 or 4.”

I mean, that’s genius!

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I think I just went cross-eyed right there…

Right? And what he’s saying is true. But it’s presented in such a way that it’s whimsical, it’s entertaining, it’s a little mind-blowing. It makes you go, “Whoa, whoa, wait, what?” And it’s all true because it’s all physics. It’s all science. We know that all of that stuff is true. We just look at a clock. But he explains in two minutes and change about the concept of why that works.

He says,

“The international date line is an imaginary cleft.
Today is on the right side, tomorrow on the left.
So when you cross it, do you then arrive the day before you left?
That’s how it’d work. It’s quite berserk, you see?
So if you were born in China, while I’m born in Carolina,
Then you’re ahead of me, you see?
But the way I’ve got it reckoned, if we’re born in the same second,
Then why should you be a day older than me?”

And it’s exactly the sort of thing that you go how does he… What the… Wow. Wait a minute. I’m going to Australia, and it’s tomorrow? What? So that’s my second favorite song for precisely the same rambling reason I gave you. I know I have a tendency to talk too much, but hell, I’m Yakko, so that’s what I do.

About a year ago, you released your autobiography Voice Lessons where you discuss some of your biggest roles, your bout with throat cancer, Bob Seger being awesome, Mel Brooks being less than awesome, and so on. What was the impetus that made you want to write the book?

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Thank you for asking and mentioning the book. It was a big deal for me.

I had had many very well meaning fans, very kind, generous fans say to me, “Dude, you should write a book,” kind of in the same thing of what you were so kind to say at the beginning of our chat, my prodigious IMDB page, whatever. Well, look at Frank Welker’s, look at Maurice’s, look at Tress MacNeille. Jesus. All of them. Danny Castellaneta, Hank Azaria, all of us, because of animation can knock out two or three episodes in a day, and after 20, 30 years, it looks a lot more impressive than it is. Nonetheless, I had a lot of characters in my wheelhouse that had a profound effect on millions of people. And I started to meet these fans, and they were very kindly suggesting, “Oh my God, Mr. Paulsen. You really should write a book.” And I accepted the compliment and the spirit in which it was delivered, and I’m very grateful. But I honest to God…

Look, I’ve grown up in Hollywood. I was 22 when I moved here. And I understand celebrity, and I understand the relative nature of celebrity and it’s power. But again, like I said, I didn’t really understand the power of the characters because I’m not recognized walking down the street. Now, I get it. But in those days, this is probably 8, 10 years ago, I said, “Man, that’s really sweet, but the last thing the world needs is another celebrity memoir from a non-celebrity.” And it’s not false modesty. I am not Brad Pitt. I am not George Clooney. I am not George Hamilton. I’m Rob Paulsen. I’m good at my job, but the characters are famous. I don’t draw them. I don’t write them. And I could never do that. It is a deeply collaborative effort that makes me come across like a freaking rockstar. So there was no reason for me to write a self-aggrandizing book. My ego doesn’t work that way.

BUT, a big giant but, then I got throat cancer. And while I never freaked out, I never said, “Oh my God! I have throat cancer! I’m a voice actor! Why couldn’t it be hair cancer?!” I didn’t do that because what I had learned in the interim between when nice people said I should write a book and my cancer was, as I had mentioned, the extent to which these characters have. Their words sometimes saved their lives. Their words. Over and over again. That’s at the… the most powerful end. At the very least, it’s, “You have no idea how much joy this brought to me and my father,” or, “I didn’t get along with my dad on anything. In fact, we hated each other. Then he introduced me to Pinky and the Brain, and we bonded. My dad passed away a year ago. I’m fine with it. But you have got to know…” Okay. So all that stuff, and it was countless times that it happened.

And when I got diagnosed with throat cancer and people found out after the fact, because my wife and I didn’t put it out there. We didn’t want sympathy, we didn’t need… I was 59 years old when I was diagnosed. Even if the doctors had said, “Dude, you’re on your way out. You better go home and get your shit in order,” I had nothing, nothing about which to be sad. Nothing. But what happened was, I made it. The treatment was absolutely brutal for obvious reasons. Mouth, throat, can’t eat, can’t swallow. It’s rough. It is for everybody. But you know what? It’s not as rough as your eight year old boy not making it through leukemia or your six year old girl who talked to Pinky and then six days later, parents call and say, “Tiffany passed away, but thank God she got to talk to Pinky.” And that stuff happens all the time. All the time. I have boxes of letters that are personally just unbelievable compelling.

That is the story, that my experience with throat cancer taught me through these characters and hundreds of children that Yakko, Raphael, Donatello, Carl, you name it have spoken to. And we all do it, not just me. But in my case, I had a very unique cancer because of what I do. And that story was powerful because not only did I make it through, but I learned the real power of those characters. They helped me get through THE most difficult year of my life. I mean, it was rough. But the people out there whose children passed away years before I got my cancer, they got ahold of me and said, “Hey, here’s the last picture of you talking to Jordan before he died of lung disease. Remember this? We heard about your struggle, Mr. Paulsen. Please know how much those characters meant to our son who’s been gone now for 10 years. But we have this picture on our wall, and it’s you talking to him. And you probably don’t remember.” And often I didn’t.

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But they sought me out to tell me how powerful these characters were. Then I thought, now the book is worth it. I’m not going to sell a million copies of that book. Doesn’t matter. It was an appropriate thing to do, and it’s a clear example and a compendium of how powerful joy is, how powerful laughter is, and that courage, empathy, kindness, joy, laughter, like love, often come from the most unexpected places. And in my case, it was from a bunch of freaking cartoon characters that people say saved their lives in some respects or made their children’s deaths more tolerable. And if they say that to me, it’s got to be the same for Kevin Conroy. It’s got to be the same for Mark Hamill. It’s got to be the same for Maurice, Tom Kenny. So that’s what this was about. It’s just, I’ve learned so much about all of them from these parents and their children. And that’s why the book is important to me.

Well, for the last question, going back to the book, I want to take something from it and just kind of flip it around back at you. You got to work with Russell Johnson, the Professor from Gilligan’s Island. And the question you asked him is the question I’m going to ask you right now:

What’s it like to be part of television history?

Oh, bless your heart. It is a bigger privilege than I could have ever imagined. Thank you very much, firstly, for suggesting that I am. And I’m not going to be so coy and so silly as to suggest that I am not because I am. And it doesn’t have to be… It’s one of those things. I am. When you’ve done this much work, you are, like it or not. I love it because it means that I’ve fulfilled my dream. I’ve made it. I’ve been rich, and I’ve been poor. Rich is better. I am not independently wealthy. I am still going to try to make as much money as I can. But if I die at this moment, apart from the fact that it would be inconvenient for you and probably leave my car stranded in the middle of the street, I’ve made it. I’ve done what I set out to do. And I don’t have a star on the Walk of Fame. I don’t have an Oscar. I have an Emmy and a couple of Peabody’s and a bunch of other things, and I’m very proud of those. But I really do know, especially because I’m not a celebrity, that that is not what it’s about. The Emmy and five bucks will get you a Frappuccino. I’m not going to give it back, but it’s not about that. It’s about the relationships. It’s about the characters, their timelessness.

Russell Johnson, I don’t know if it’s in the book because I frankly don’t remember, but what Mr. Johnson told me when I… I asked him that question. You’re right. And he could not have been more gracious, though he’d probably been asked a zillion times. I mean, Jesus Christ. He’s the freaking Professor! And you don’t even have to qualify him. You go, “The Professor? Oh, yeah. Gilligan’s Island. Okay.” Pop culture icon. And he said essentially the same thing I’m saying, “You know. Didn’t make a lot of money on the show. I made 1500 bucks a week at the top of the show.” Now, 1500 bucks a week in the 60s was a good living, but not even close to… Okay.

But he said, “You know what, Rob? My wife and I had a six weeks tour of Europe, and even when we were staying at monasteries with brothers who were almost sworn to silence, celibacy and silence, every single person knew who I was. And every single time, they wanted to hug me, embrace me, show me that they once dressed up like the Professor for Halloween.” And he said, “I don’t even… When I’m dead, that will still be going on.” And he’s right. Gilligan’s Island is playing all over the world.

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And when I’m dead and gone, hopefully a little later because I’m definitely closer to the end than the beginning, but because of my incredible good fortune, working with the best of the best… All of them, by the way, are lovely people. That’s what this is about. The joy of the people to create joy that translates to hundreds of millions of others is what it’s all about. We were paid well, and that’s all true. But you spend the money, and ultimately, as they say, you can’t take it with you. And what I’m leaving behind, and what all these… Seriously. I’m dead freaking serious. I would have to work really hard to come up with one person who you would know and their work, who is anything but not only professional but just delightful, including celebrities with whom I know with work and know very well. Really nice, nice, nice people. That’s what it’s about. Nice people, talented people with the best of the best.

And I got to work with Steven… Now, this my sixth time. And as a result of all of that, my legacy is nothing but joy. Period. How much better can one’s life be? I don’t know. Maybe things will change, but I’m not going to be able to write a check for eight million bucks to open a hospital wing. But I don’t need to. I got paid to do what used to get me in trouble in high school, and after 40 years of it, and maybe another 10 or 12 to go, I will have fulfilled my dream way, way, way more than I ever could have imagined. And when I’m dust, you will be talking to maybe you’re grandkids, “I talked to, oh what was his name? Ron? Ron Paulmen? Yeah. He seemed like a pretty decent guy. He didn’t shut up for a whole freaking hour, but he seemed like a decent guy. Oh, yeah. Oh my God. This is the second version of Pinky and the Brain. Yeah this is from 2021. Yeah check this out.” And that’s what it’ll be. Bugs is 80 years old, and people still love Bugs. So anyway. That’s my story, and I sadly am not able to be more concise. But I hope you understand how much I appreciate my circumstances, moreover, nice people like you giving me so much time to talk about it.

It’s been nothing but a pleasure.

Thank you, buddy.

And that was a hell of an answer.

Thank you. It’s the freaking truth. It happens every day. Every day. Now it’s because I’m wearing a mask that a fan might have made for me of Ninja Turtles or Raphael or whatever. I’ve got a bunch of them, and they’re really sending them to me. So I’ll wear a mask. I had an Animaniacs one on the other day at Trader Joe’s. And a person said, “Oh my God. I love your mask. Where did you buy that?” And I explained what I did, who I was. The blood drained out of the guy’s face. He said, “Are you kidding me?” He said, “Wait a minute. Are you Rob?”

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And I said, (Yakko voice) “Yes I am. Here’s my driver’s license.” And the guy started shaking. I mean, it was… You would have thought he met one of the Beatles. But it was just happy. It was just joy.

And I know he’s going to call his buddies, and it’s going to be, “Oh my God. This old guy walked into and he’s got gray hair, but as soon as he said, (Pinky voice) ‘Egad! Poit! Narf!’ it didn’t matter!”

And that’s what this is about.