Rob Paulsen lives for the laughs, and he nearly died for them, too. But we’ll get to that in a bit. First, it’s time to celebrate. Paulsen, a voiceover icon whose many characters include Yakko Warner, Pinky and Dr. Otto von Scratchansniff from Animaniacs! and Pinky & The Brain, Raphael and Donatello from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Carl Wheezer from Jimmy Neutron, and Mark Chang from The Fairly Odd Parents, is back in action. Steven Spielberg, the very hands-on executive producer of the original Animaniacs! series, called on Paulsen, Tress MacNeille (as Dot), Jess Harnell (as Wakko), and Maurice LaMarche (as the Brain) to reprise their respective roles for a revival that debuted November 20 on Hulu. Fans can immerse themselves in 13 episodes of pure irreverence, shtick, and music that’s a combination of freshness and déjà vu all over again.
“It’d be 22 years since Animaniacs! ended,” Paulsen said during a recent phone chat with Fatherly. “We didn’t have any clue. My mouth was just agape and I was thinking, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ That’s the short version of the story. The long version is… Let me put it this way: We’d heard some rumblings, and now that it’s actually happened, I can look back and see a bit of a chronology. I’d been doing my own podcast for years, where I talked with people who do what I do, and musicians and writers, and it became clear how many people love this animation art form in general, and how many people loved Animaniacs!, specifically the music. I’d started doing my podcast live at The Improv, and the gentleman who wrote most of the songs that people remember from the original show, Randy Rogel, said, ‘Why don’t we just get a piano and you and me do a couple of nights of Animaniacs! music?’ And people flipped. They just loved it.”
Warner Brothers then signed off on a licensing deal that let Paulsen and Rogel use the music and animation they needed to craft their own live production. And thus was born Animaniacs Live!, a touring show that started in 2016 and featured Paulsen, Harnell, and MacNeille performing Animaniacs! songs accompanied by a full orchestra. Later, during a business dinner at the swanky Morton’s in Hollywood, Paulsen received word that Spielberg wanted to reboot Animaniacs! as a series. The upshot: Hulu greenlit two seasons of 13 episodes each, with each episode comprised of several segments.
So what was it like to be back in a studio that first day working again with MacNeille, Harnell, and Maurice LaMarche? “I have a perfect anecdote,” Paulsen replies excitedly. “One of the great things that age seems to give us, if we’re really lucky, is we have things that we can call back to and say, ‘Oh my God, I really knew what I was talking about when I said, blah, blah, blah,’ or ‘I’m so glad I said, blah, blah, blah.’ There was a point during the original show where we’re really hitting our stride, about the third year in, recording a bunch of new episodes. One particular day, we had the whole crew together. I always sat next to Tress MacNeille. We had more actors than microphones, so we were playing musical mics, and I was sitting next to Tress, as usual. We had everybody who was anybody in this realm on the other side of the glass, like Steven Spielberg, Tom Ruegger, the creator. I said to Tress, ‘Oh my God, honey, take a picture of this because unless you have a Simpsons, it just doesn’t get any better.’ Cut to a year and a half ago, the first day Tress and are back in the studio. And, this is the honest to God truth, I was sitting next to Tress again. I held her hand and said, ‘Honey, do you remember 20-something years ago when I said…’ She stopped me and she said, “…It doesn’t get any better.’ I said, ‘Are you kidding me? You remember that?’ She said, ‘Oh yeah, it does, doesn’t it?’”
The timing of the show’s return couldn’t be better. Everyone needs a laugh. And there’s not much better than laughing again with something that entertained you years ago, especially when that something retains its energy, zaniness, and sense of fun, and lets dads and even young grandads share the Animaniacs! experience with their pandemic-sequestered kids and grandkids.
“2020 has delivered an unbelievable pile of stinking, nasty lemons to the world and yours truly,” Paulsen notes. “My friends are in the position, the privileged position of making a giant vat of Acme lemonade to dole out. We’re not going to change the world with this show, but I’ll tell you what we’re going to make. We’re going to make a lot of people happy, and the timing could not be better. So truly this is better the second time around, and that’s not taking anything away from the first batch.”
Now, we mentioned up top that Paulsen lives for laughs and nearly died for them, too. And that was no hyperbole. Paulsen, in 2016, was diagnosed with Stage III throat cancer. It was both ironically cruel and cruelly ironic that cancer would strike what amounted to his moneymaker. Paulsen ultimately beat the disease and remains in remission, and he addressed his diagnosis, treatment, and how it forever changed him in his 2019 memoir, Voice Lessons: How a Couple of Ninja Turtles, Pinky, and an Animaniac Saved My Life.
“I’m going to die someday, but not from throat cancer,” Paulsen says. “In the context of all this joy we’re talking about – the unfettered joy I take in doing what I do, and the joy people take in these shows and characters, of which I’m just a part of creating — my cancer experience really ended up with a platinum lining. I wasn’t sure, after the treatments, if I’d still be able to perform. The doctors basically told me, ‘Before we cure you, we almost have to kill you.’ I didn’t want people saying, ‘Well, he sounds pretty good for a 64-year-old geezer with throat cancer.’ And they’re not, thankfully.
“So, now, when people say, ‘You guys haven’t missed a beat,’ or, ‘I just heard Rob sing, and he sounds like he did 22 years ago,’ I love it,” Paulsen concludes. “That’s the most glorious compliment I can get.”