Interview: Rob Paulsen on the ANIMANIACS Reboot & Finding the Joy

'Animaniacs' makes its triumphant return on Friday, November 20th - this time streaming on Hulu. 

By: Nov. 16, 2020
Interview: Rob Paulsen on the ANIMANIACS Reboot & Finding the Joy

After 22 years locked in the Warner Brothers water tower, 'Animaniacs' will make its triumphant return on Friday, November 20th - this time streaming on Hulu.

Ahead of the premiere, BroadwayWorld had the opportunity to speak to Rob Paulsen - the voice of Yakko and Pinky, one-third of the mischievous Warner siblings and half of the world's most famous pair of laboratory mice scheming to take over the world.

Paulsen, a throat cancer survivor and the celebrity spokesperson for the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance, told us all about what it feels like when Steven Spielberg goest to bat for you, working with your friends, and releasing his memoir, "Voice Lessons: How a Couple of Ninja Turtles, Pinky, and an Animaniac Saved My Life." He even shares a story about working alongside Broadway legend George Hearn.

Read the whole interview below!

I got to watch a couple episodes of the 'Animaniacs' reboot, which was so exciting. It's a show that's meant so much to my family - to the point where when I was a baby, my parents nicknamed me The Brain because I was bald with big stick-out ears - and so much to my own sense of humor. So, thank you.

You know, you've already - really - the gist of our lovely conversation you've been kind enough to initiate is exactly what you've already told me. We've been on the phone for a minute, and honestly, I cannot tell you what that means to me, and - by extension - all of us. We're lucky enough to do this gig for a long time.

What you've told me is something that I hear over and over. I never get tired of it. I never take it for granted. none of us do. But I know what happens when I start (as Yakko from 'Animaniacs') doing this, and say, "Hellooooo, Sarah!"


(As himself) Isn't that something? Now, it happens to everybody who happened to like that show, or 'Ninja Turtles,' or 'Jimmy Neutron,' or any of the things I've worked on. And I'm still working every day.

This, 'Animaniacs' or 'Pinky and the Brain,' that obviously is the focal point, but I'm still working on so many things. And the cool thing about this gig is nobody cares what I look like. I've been lucky enough to make a very lovely living doing essentially what got me in trouble in high school.

But this part - to be able to do this show again, with the dearest friends I have in the world - people with whom I've shared births of our kids. Tress MacNeille still has my son's birth picture on her refrigerator, and he's 36! I've known Tress for 41 years, Maurice, 30 years, Jess, 25 years. You know, we've gone to each other's parents' funerals.

To be able to do it again knowing that the audience is exponentially larger, knowing that it has the same effect when they hear Yakko, Wakko, Dot, Pinky, and The Brain. Exactly like you.

It's amazing to hear that the sense of a family reunion the fans are all feeling is what you're also feeling as a cast.

Oh, absolutely.

Let me back up a little bit - I grew up in Michigan, and my brother works for Broadway Cares. My brother lives in Manhattan, and he was an actor for years in New York. Now he's retired. He made his living in the insurance business, ultimately, on Wall Street. But he trod the boards, as it were. I came out here and did the TV, music thing, and he went to New York and did Broadway. And now he works for Broadway Cares.

So, my background is stage, music. And I'm telling you, I still get the same excitement when I go to work, or I drive on the Warner Brothers lot, or when I go to Paramount, that I did when I was 22, when I moved down here. And then I look around and I see - Jesus, those two trailers that Hulu dropped! They got, like, eight million views in the last couple of weeks! And it's not a bunch of ten-year-olds, as you know. It could be ten-year-olds, but it could be 40-year-olds, 30-year-olds, people ten years older than I am. They all get a kick out of this smart, wonderful show that brings so many people and their families together.

Mr. Spielberg has done it again! This excitement that you hear is utterly authentic, and it's shared by everybody else. Firstly, we know how lucky we are to do this gig, but to be able to do it again 25 years later, when the cultural landscape has shifted and changed so much, just technologically. The phrase both for good and for bad, that we're all in this together, has never been more true. Between COVID, the political landscape, social issues. The fact that we're all connected by cell phones, the internet, TikTok, Hulu, Apple TV, Netflix, Amazon - new ways to enjoy, the way we shot. Everything has changed so much. And to be able to literally get the band back together - and moreover, with Mr. Spielberg, the unquestioned and unchallenged mighty king of Hollywood. For him to say, "Hey, Tress, Rob, Jess, Mo, do you guys want to do this again?"

Firstly, are you blanking kidding me? Secondly, look - I'm just a regular actor. Everything I have in my life - braces, dog food, toilet paper, TVs, tuition - everything has been paid for earning money that I got paid well to do something that I would do for free, because I just love to perform. But I'm not a movie star, I'm not a celebrity - it's the characters that are famous. I don't draw them, I don't write them. But there is to be sure something that is so deeply connective with a voice. All I have to do is say, (as Pinky from 'Pinky and the Brain') "Narf!" and look what happens! You can't help it. It's remarkable.

Whether it's 'Spongebob,' or 'Flinstones,' or 'Simpsons.' So, to be in a position in which the king of Hollywood does not resort to what happens often in animation - getting Ryan Reynolds to be Yakko, or whatever. And I love Ryan Reynolds! But that's not the point.

Steven says, no, no, no. If we're gonna do this, I know that Rob can still sing 'Yakko's World' backwards and forwards. I know Tress can do this like falling off a log. I know Maurice and Rob can knock out 'Pinky and the Brain' all day long. And why on Earth would I do that to literally tens of millions of fans who grew up and now share it with their own children, and often their grandchildren? I mean, to have that guy come to bat for us and say, "Oh, Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, Apple? Whichever one of you buys this, just so you know, it's Tress, Jess, Maurice, and Rob. They're in. And who's gonna pony up the 50 million bucks?"

So, that coupled with how you react is something that I never in a million years would have thought that I'd be able to enjoy. And I'm paid very well, I've been rich and I've been poor - rich is better - however, your reaction and the excitement and the anticipation that millions of people feel as a result of 'Animaniacs' and 'Pinky and the Brain' is not about money, it's not about an action figure, it's not about a rating point. It is about a pure, deep connection, often that brings people to tears because it's so joyful. And I cannot tell you how excited I am to be part of it. It's beyond something I ever would have thought.

I feel like some of the most joyous moments on 'Animanics' come through music. I just think you have a great singing voice, but do you have a favorite character to sing as, or a favorite song you've sung in character?

Well, my standard answer for that is my favorite character's the next one, because it means I'm working. It's funny, isn't it? I'm sure you talk to a lot of actors, and it never stops. The hustle never stops.

Obviously, I love it. I'm one of those fortunate actors that's been able to, like I said, to make a living. But when you talk to Broadway actors - I'll tell you a very quick story I heard at the beginning, how it really is about enjoying the hustle. It's about enjoying the ride. It's about enjoying all those things - those aphorisms you hear growing up, it's really true. When you get to be a little older and you look back and say, "Holy s**t, I did really well, financially, but I did it doing something that I would have done for free."

I remember years ago I was working at Hanna Barbera, and I walked through the studio, and here's George Hearn. And I am a HUGE George Hearn fan. He happened to be very close to Gordon Hunt, who was directing the cartoons in those days at Hanna Barbera. He was Helen Hunt's father, and a wonderful director, acting coach, et cetera. And he said, "Rob, do you know George?" And I said, (laughs sarcastically) "No!"

I said, "Hi, Mr. Hearn," and he said, "No, no, please call me George." Okay. Right away, disarmingly charming. Just delightful. So we worked together for the morning, and he was really nice. He was so nice that I really felt like I could talk to him as a peer, but as a guy who, you know. Won a pile of Tonys. You know, he's George freakin' Hearn!

So, I said, "Mr. Hearn." And he said, "George!" And I said, "George, I gotta tell you, man. This is so cool that you're here doing," Smurfs, or Johnny Quest, or whatever we were doing. And he let me say my piece. And he said, "Let me tell you something, Rob. I'm so grateful that Gordon called me and said, 'Hey, do you want to do a few cartoons?'" He said, "Rob, I'm out here doing a three-episode arc on 'Murder, She Wrote' because Angela Lansbury," of course, they did 'Sweeney Todd' together, for which she won a Tony!

He said, "Angie says, 'Hey, George, we've got this role for you. Do you want to come out and do three episodes? So I called Gordon and I said, 'Hey, I'm gonna be there doing 'Murder, She Wrote,' is there anything happening? And he said, 'Sure! Wanna come and do the Smurfs?'" He said, "Rob, I need the money. I've got to work." And I said, "Wow," and he said, "Don't get me wrong - I'm doing great. But I still need to work. I have an apartment in the city, I have a home in Connecticut, and the fact that I've won Tonys is great, but I can't just take any job on Broadway. My position has put me in an interesting conundrum. If somebody says, 'Hey, we want you to be THE HEAD spear carrier, but we'll pay you five grand a week,' I can't do that. I now am a Broadway star, and - let me tell you something - it's not like being a movie star."

It was a stark but important reminder that everybody worries about the next gig! So, I learned that at a relatively early age.

Cut to now. I have the luxury of looking back, and having had much, much more than my share of known characters - between two Ninja Turtles, Yakko, Pinky, Dr. Scratchansniff, Carl [from Jimmy Neutron], 'Rick and Morty,' I mean, I'm still working every day. It's virtually impossible for me to pick one, because there's always secondary ones - 'Biker Mice from Mars,' 'The Tick,' which is a genius show. 'Mighty Max,' 'Tiny Toon Adventures,' 'Goof Troop,' 'The Goofy Movie,' 'Darkwing Duck,' 'Fairly Odd Parents,' 'Danny Phantom.' On and on. All the 'Tinkerbell' movies, all the 'Land Before Time' movies.

If somebody said I had to pick one show, it would be pretty tough to not go with 'Animaniacs,' because I was a singer first. And - you hit the nail on THE HEAD - how good was that music?

It's incredible.

Oh, my God. Here's a little 'Inside Baseball.'

People love - and rightfully so - 'Yakko's World.' It's a genius piece. And I believe that little two-and-a-half minute cartoon is pretty much inarguably an iconic piece of American animation. It just is. You don't even have to know 'Animaniacs' - if someone says they came from Mars, you say, "Hey, watch this," and the person would go, "Jesus Christ, how did they - what?" And it's beautifully directed, it's clever, it's smart, and it is standalone a great piece.

It was the first song I recorded for 'Animaniacs,' so the bar was high right from the get-go. But the story - people often say, "Oh my God, Rob, you did that in one take?" I did! That's all true. We recorded two, but the first one is what you grew up listening to and watching.

But the real story - you deal with actors, and I live in L.A. You can throw a dart and hit a good singer out here. What you can't do is throw a dart and hit somebody who writes that stuff. And Randy Rogel, who wrote that, 'Wakko's America,' the Presidents, (sings), "It's a great big universe, and we're all really puny," I mean, come on. "I'm Cute," "I'm Mad," so many of those songs.

Randy - who, by the way, is writing a lot of songs for the new show, and he and I take 'Animaniacs' in concert around the country when we don't have COVID-Con, we'll get back at it. We've been doing it for years. We take the music around, and we do it with orchestras. It's unbelievably cool.

So, Randy and I didn't know each other. I'd gotten cast on 'Animaniacs' after working on 'Tiny Toons' for years. I knew the whole group, I got the job. Okay. So, the first song I get is this song that blew my mind. I'm looking at it - I read music, I'm singing it, and my wife's going, "What the hell is that?" I said, "Check this out!"

And this is 25 years ago, 26 years ago. But Randy Rogel - he's a West Point grad, then he went to Boston University for another degree in international finance. Then he serves the country after being a lieutenant, leaves the service as a captain. Graduating from West Point is a big deal. Graduating from Boston University after going to West Point is a big deal. Then, he's working in corporate America, making a nice 6-figure income at 29, 30 years old. But he grew up in the theatre. He grew up writing, singing, dancing, acting. And he said, "Goddammit, this really is not what I'm not about."

So he leaves his cushy gig, drives to L.A., bangs on the doors in Hollywood, gets a job at Warner Brothers writing for the iconic 'Batman' animated series, in which Mark Hamill played the Joker for 20 years, Kevin Conroy was Batman. Randy won an Emmy for writing 'Batman.'

Then he hears about 'Animaniacs' across the hall, with the same crew who did 'Tiny Toons' with Steven Spielberg AND a 35-piece orchestra. It's gonna be music-driven. Randy says, "Oh my God, that's my jones! That's my vibe!" And he bangs on that door.

They said, "Wait a minute, dude. You just won an Emmy for 'Batman,' go win another one." He says, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I can do both. Please, please!"

He keeps banging on the door - so the desire to create, and get better, and expand your horizons, regardless of what you're accomplishing, doesn't ever stop. He had just won an Emmy! And they finally say, "Okay, Randy. Here's a piano. What have you got?" The song he had in his back pocket was 'Yakko's World.'

That's what he wrote as his audition piece!

That's an amazing story.

It is! So, I am very grateful - and, yeah, I'm really good at my job, but s**t, I ought to be, I've been doing it for 40 years. But the story is that a person who knew nobody, just like you and me. We go to try a gig, try our hand at THE TRADE we want to do often, at the risk of losing the affection of people who love us. Personally, no one's shoving the gun at my head to be an actor! How many people break up relationships, or run the risk of angering their parents and the people who love them by saying, "Yeah, I know I got an 8 million on the SATs, but I just really want to be a journalist!"

Generally, in what you do and what I do, we do it because we can't not do it. But the story about Randy - I mean, the guy was set up to make money, but it wasn't about that. Now he's making lots of money AND he's won a half dozen Emmys, AND he followed his muse, AND he's writing stuff better than he did 20 years ago. AND he's working with Steven Spielberg again!

That's the story for people who get to be my age and older, is that - never underestimate that power of following your joy, following your passion. It will ultimately pay off in ways that may or may not involve money, but I'm telling you what - the joy that you hear is completely authentic. And I can't wait - I'll be dead and gone and dust, but I can't wait for you to get to a place in your career where you can look back and say, "Jesus Christ, I now know what Rob was talking about." You will have that experience, and it is vindicating, and gratifying - all the things that you want to achieve in your soul ultimately bear themselves out down the road. And the truth is, if I had had what to me is pretty significant success - as I've said, I'm not Brad Pitt, I'm not a movie star, but I have, in my view, a true success - because I have the respect of the people who I respect.

If the people that I look at every day and think, "Oh my God, Billy West! Maurice LaMarche, Tress MacNeille, Randy Rogel, Steven Spielberg!" On and on and on. All these people say, "Oh, yeah. Let's get Rob.' 'I've got a song, let's get Rob.'" I've made it. It's not about the bank account. It's about the fact that the people I would go anywhere to work with are my friends. And - honest to God - I'm so excited for people like you that have so much to look forward to.

And I look back at what I learned from George Hearn, who's probably 20 years older than I am. But it was joyful when he said, "Dude, I've got to work. Moreover, I want to work." It's great.

That's why I love having these discussions with young people, because it's so exciting to get to a place where you can talk about something we all share, which is this deep, human desire, a deeply human component to our lives - and that's just to laugh! It's about the joy. Period. And I love that. It's great.

So, you just released your memoir - I wonder what the process was like writing that, and what surprised you, and if it was a similar kind of joy that fueled your work on that.

I had many, very well-meaning fans for years. By the time I was 50, I had 'Ninja Turtles,' I had 'Animaniacs,' I had 'Pinky and the Brain,' I had all the other stuff we talked about before this reboot - an Emmy, a bunch of Annie Awards, a bunch of Emmy nominations, a Peabody. You know, ALL THAT cool hardware. Everything that an actor could want. Certainly not walking-down-the-street recognizability, but if anybody in any circumstance found out what I did and who I was, forgive me - they lost their s**t! People want to show me their Ninja Turtles tattoo! Every single time.

So they would say, "Oh my God, dude. You should write a book! Look at this career." And while I certainly accepted the compliment in the spirit in which it was given, I thought, you know, the last thing the world needs is another celebrity memoir from a non-celebrity. And it's not false modesty. I'm really good at my job. But I don't draw 'em and I don't write 'em. It is a deeply collaborative effort. I can't even draw stick figures. I don't even know how to turn on a mixing board when people make me sound better than I have a right to. So, you see my point. It's a deeply collaborative effort.

And my personal story is pretty unremarkable. I have a loving family. My parents were married for 54 years. I have a brother and two sisters. We all love each other. I have not been to rehab - yet. I have an unremarkable life, except that I was an actor. Well, a lot of people are actors.

But then I got throat cancer. And that changed the game. I got throat cancer at an age where, even if THE DOCTORS had said, "Hey, man, you'd better go home and get your stuff in order, because we've done all we can, but you're on your way out." I had nothing, nothing about which to be sad. It was more I felt badly FOR THE PEOPLE - my wife, my son, people like that. But I had insurance, and if I checked out and moved to the next stage - that big stage in the sky - my wife would have a pile of money, and she'd get over it.

But that's not what they said. They said, "Look, we're virtually sure we can cure you. Not remission, cure. But, before we do, we almost have to kill you." And that's the verbatim quote. Because it's brutal treatment - it's your mouth, your throat, your tongue. It's really tough, but it works.

Now, when I got through the treatment, it was a little bit disconcerting, as you can imagine, because of what I do. But not once did I, my wife, my son, his wife. Any of us. Say, "Oh my God! A voice actor got cancer! Oh my god! Why me!" Well, why not me? I'm sure you know people who have had cancer, and maybe even succumbed to it. Sadly, it's super ubiquitous. Everybody knows somebody. So, I'm no different.

But I didn't get my cancer when I was 30 with two new kids. I didn't get my cancer at the beginning of my career. My child didn't have cancer. I was almost 60, and they did say, "We're pretty sure we can cure you, but - I don't know. You'll be able to speak. Whether or not you'll be able to sing at the same level, or do your work and manipulate your voice at the same level, you know. We've got to be honest. We're not sure."

As they always say, everybody's different. But they had a protocol which they knew would give me about an 80% chance of being cured seven years out. I'm at four now.

So, of course, I said, "Sure." And that's the only time I got a little bit tweaked, was not knowing if I could do - circling back, you know, to what made my soul happy. Because I've been doing this since I was ten years old. Not with an eye on being an animation actor, because I just loved creating stuff for my own sake and - as you know - if you write something, or you're a performer - obviously, your parents, grandparents, friends will tell you you're brilliant. But you kind of go, "okay, but you're my mom, or you're my dad, or you're my boyfriend," and they really do mean it! But, yeah. They love you.

But when you hook somebody who you've never met, and when somebody comes up to you and says, "Oh, you're THAT Sarah Leiber. You are a wordsmith!" When I started to get that feedback, that's it. You're hooked.

So, I had not lost that feeling. And the idea of not being able to do my job at the same high level that garnered me the income, and the Emmy, and the relative fame, and, ultimately, the joy of just getting up every day - whether I work or not, I create because I love it. That was what kind of got me freaked out.

But, once I got through it, and once I knew that I was going to be able to do my gig again - and once I found out that Steven was going to do this, and I was able to do it at the same level after stage three throat cancer that had already spread to my lymph nodes - that's a story.

It's a story not so much because of Rob. It's a story because of the power of joy, that so many millions have derived from Rafael, Donatello, Yakko, Pinky, Carl. All of that. And moreover how that joy was in me, because I got to create those characters. And that's what got me through the most difficult experience of my life, bar none.

It was really uncomfortable for about six months. I lost 50 pounds, I still can't really taste food anymore, but it's a trade-off. Food is now a drug to keep me alive. So what? I get to talk to Sarah Leiber today. And that's not a small thing - that's a big deal to me. I get to go to work. Moreover, my job is to make people happy. But the cool thing is that you brought up the book - and, not only was it a remarkable experience for me, it really was - but, as always, I'm not a writer. And, by the way, my son is a journalist, he works for a company called GameXplain, he writes video game reviews, his name is Ash Paulsen. He's a wonderful journalist, he's got his degree in journalism. But, boy. Did I learn the difference between being a goofy actor and writing a book.

My co-writer, Mike Fleeman - who, I should say, my writer. I just recorded answers to his very excellent questions, questions that were posed in a way that I did not understand until I had the experience with a real writer - Mike writes books for a living - how, depending on the way a question is posed, the answer can be changed dramatically. And at 60 I did not know that. So when Mike says, "Well, let me ask you this," and he would ask me a question, and I'd say, "That's kind of an odd question," and he'd say, "Well, just think about it for a day and then get back to me." And the way he asked the questions inspired me to answer them in a way that was really interesting. And then when Mike put the book together in an interesting, readable fashion, it came out, I think, quite well, because it's not just this compendium of, "And then I did, and perhaps you know me from, and then I won an Emmy, and then I got fired, but then I got re-hired." You know? Who wants to hear that crap?

But Mike, I believe, made a really readable book. It's not gonna be on the New York Times Bestseller list. However, because of the kindness of people like you, we never know - you and I - when a person is gonna read this article - this is the words that other people say, because I'm very careful about self-aggrandizing - "My God, this guy's THE VOICE of my childhood."

And that's probably not too far from the truth. There are a handful of us who can make a claim to that. And I'm still doing it. But the story - for somebody out there who's struggling with maybe throat cancer - is to say, "God, I didn't know this guy's name, but saw this interview on BroadwayWorld, and, do you this guy... Ron Pullman? Oh, it's Rob Paulsen. And this guy - he's Yakko, he's Pinky, I love these cartoons. I just got diagnosed with cancer, and I'm really kind of freaked out, but, you know what - this guy had it in his frickin' throat, and he's doing it again, and nobody was any the wiser because his voice is fine. Holy s**t, I can do this." And that's the story. That's where this lovely confluence of various disciplines comes together between two people of different generations who share a deep desire for joy and laughter, and share a love of a particular show. Your profession and my profession come together, and I guarantee you - it may be decades, but there's gonna come a time when somebody will tell you, "Madam, I read this article that you did with that voice actor a hundred years ago, and I have to tell you - my father had just been diagnosed with throat cancer, and I had him read that interview, and he read Rob's book, he went to and saw Rob's story," because I'm now the spokesperson for THE HEAD and Neck Cancer Alliance. You're gonna hear this: "I can't even believe this happenstance that I got my father to read this interview that you did with Rob Paulsen."

And that is the glory of what we do. It turns out that it's not always just about the paycheck. And so, by virtue of you having me here today, and asking me about it, you've given me a glorious platform to share knowledge and information and empathy. Because now, when I say to somebody, "I get it," I really do! I know what I'm talking about.

And that's really important, because I know people who could do that for me, who said, "Let me tell you what you're gonna go through, but you're gonna be okay." And now, (as Yakko) when I can still do this.


And make you do that! And you can't tell the difference, that's the story. I'm so glad you asked.

"Animaniacs" premieres on Hulu this Friday, November 20th. Watch the teaser trailer below, and order Rob's memoir here.


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