Animaniacs' Rob Paulsen Talks About What Living in Yakko's World Was Like

Voice actor and singer Rob Paulsen (right), the voice of Yakko Warner on the animated series Animaniacs, performs a live rendition of "Yakko's World" at the Regent Theater in downtown Los Angeles.EXPAND
Voice actor and singer Rob Paulsen (right), the voice of Yakko Warner on the animated series Animaniacs, performs a live rendition of "Yakko's World" at the Regent Theater in downtown Los Angeles.
courtesy Dewaal PR
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Rob Paulsen and Randy Rogel bring Animaniacs Live! to Arlington Music Hall this Friday.

Every child of the '90s remembers the Warner Bros. cartoon Animaniacs. The zany show featured a cast of wise-cracking, physics ignoring, violence-prone characters presented in a loosely connected series of animated shorts like a moving comic humor magazine.

Tthe Warner siblings, Yakko, Wakko and Dot, topped the show's cavalcade of characters — including Pinky and The Brain, the world-conquering lab mice duo; Slappy, the cranky cartoon squirrel of showbiz yesteryear; and the lesson-teaching Wheel of Morality. The three siblings constantly escaped from the WB studio's iconic water tower and left a dusty trail of havoc in their wake.

But it wasn't just a wacky kids' show where anvils in which routinely dropped on characters' heads without causing permanent damage. The show's writing was smart and referenced pop culture and the news.

"There are two generations now who have been introduced to Animaniacs," says voice actor Rob Paulsen, who voiced the baggy slacks-wearing Yakko on the Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning cartoon series. "When it was put on Netflix, it got so much publicity, and children would watch it and the parents would watch it and realized: 'I didn't get this joke when I was 11, and my kids love it for the same reasons I did.'"

Paulsen and show writer and composer Randy Rogel still get to share their love of the show with their fans through Animaniacs Live!, a live show where the two share skits, songs and stories from the cartoon's iconic five-season run. Paulsen and Rogel will perform Animaniacs Live! this Friday at Arlington Music Hall.

Animaniacs' humor ranged from the type of slapstick pioneered by Looney Tunes to sophisticated topical references aimed at adults, and in that regard, it was a precursor to shows like South Park and Family Guy.

Paulsen says executive producer Steven Spielberg and show creator Tom Ruegger gave their program an edict not to talk down to anyone or shy away from its natural sense of wackiness. He credits Spielberg and Ruegger for the multigenerational fanbase Animaniacs has almost 25 years later. 

"Steven Spielberg and Tom Ruegger's whole edict was to not condescend to the audience," says Paulsen, who has performed more than 2,000 hours of voice work for shows such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Tick and Rick and Morty. "They referenced a lot of political figures, Hollywood figures, cultural and historical figures. During the show when we were making it, we got how utterly smart it was, but 20 years later while we're working on other properties, we get to look back at it with an objective eye, and it holds up really well."

Animaniacs' music may have been most memorable of all. The show delivered some of the funniest educational songs for children. "When You're Traveling From Nantucket" taught about time zones, and the fiendishly clever "Yakko's World" called on Paulsen to sing a rhyming scheme of every country in the world in just two minutes.

Rogel, a musician and writer who wrote for Batman: The Animated Series before joining the staff of Animaniacs, wrote the tune while teaching world geography to his son on a globe. Rogel says he used "Yakko's World" as an "audition piece" to join Animaniacs' writing staff, and when Spielberg and the other producers brought him on board, Spielberg gave him a piano to use in the show's writing room with a note that said, "You're gonna be my little Gershwin."

"This one was a challenge for more reasons than you might think," Rogel says. "It had to have the rhyme, but I also rhymed them internally. The other thing is I knew it was going to be animated, so you couldn't have the character jumping all over the map."

Even more remarkable, Paulsen has sung "Yakko's World" enough times that he can perform it completely by heart.

"There's no downside to it," Paulsen says. "People often ask if I'm tired of singing that song, but I'm lucky enough to be an actor, a singer or a comedy writer, so I'm grateful when people ask. There are a million guys like me in Hollywood, and I'm a working actor and I'm grateful to be such, so when people ask me to do a character or sing a song, it's a pleasure. I'm not at all averse to doing that."

Rogel went on to write more tunes for the show, such as "A Quake! A Quake!," a song about earthquakes; "Wakko's America," sung by Jess Harnell, which rhymed America's states and their capitals; and "I'm Cute," in which Dot (Tress MacNeille) proclaims her beauty and fame.

"We were really lucky because Rob, Tress and Jess are great singers," Rogel says. "Rob is a fantastic singer. Jess actually sings in a rock band, and Tress has a great voice. So the fact that we could write these songs and they could knock them out of the park was just serendipitous."

A few years ago, Paulsen and Rogel realized they had a whole library of songs and fans who have been clamoring for an Animaniacs comeback. So they approached Warner Bros. about the legal requirements for doing a live Animaniacs show where they would sing the show's songs and play clips.

They tested out their concept at a couple of Los Angeles comedy clubs, and the shows were successful enough that the studio agreed to give them a licensing deal, which Paulsen says "is a big deal for a big company to give a couple of knuckleheads a free deal."

Paulsen and Rogel have done everything from a performance with a full orchestra to a stripped-down show with a just a piano and a set of microphones. Paulsen says he relishes any opportunity to perform as Yakko.

"As much as I love doing the big show with all the players, performing at a small venue with Randy at the piano is really cool," Paulsen says. "It's much more intimate, and people get to participate more."

The only way Animaniacs could keep Paulsen and Rogel busier is if Warner Bros. decided to reboot the show. Sure enough, there are rumors floating around Toontown that Spielberg is developing another run at the series.

Paulsen says he hasn't heard any other news about the reboot, but he thinks there's something to it because "there's been no pushback from Amblin [Entertainment]," Spielberg's production company.

Paulsen and the show's fans are hoping that a new Animaniacs series will find its way back to TV because it's more than just a colorful and silly way for parents to keep their kids occupied.

"We got how smart the show was, and seeing it come back into the cultural spotlight, we could tell that everybody did their job well and that it still holds up well," Paulsen says. "Even the individual pieces, I believe, are seminal pieces of pop culture art."

Animaniacs Live, 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 27, Arlington Music Hall, 224 N. Center St., Arlington, tickets $25 and up, arlingtonmusichall.com. 

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