Cartoon voice icon Rob Paulsen talks ‘Animaniacs’ ahead of Joe’s Pub show

If you go to his imdb.com page, Rob Paulsen has, as of press time, 490 acting credits.

That’s a lot of work, which is no surprise as he’s one of the pre-eminent voice actors of his or any generation. Some of his most iconic works include the animated series “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” where he has voiced both Raphael and Donatello, and the title character from the cartoon version of “The Mask.”

But it is perhaps on the 1990s series “Animaniacs” and its spinoff “Pinky and the Brain,” where the 62-year-old actor really got to shine, playing Yakko Warner, Pinky, Dr. Otto Scratchansniff (and dozens more characters).

Paulsen, along with series writer and composer Randy Rogel, will be revisiting the series and — most notably — its memorable songs in “Animaniacs Live! Starring Rob Paulsen & Randy Rogel.” The four-day, eight-show run will take place at Joe’s Pub, starting Thursday.

“Having a 185 to 200 seat room with a piano, it’s like a Rat Pack cartoon,” he explains. “You know, it’s just all these cartoons knocking around with each other, and Pinky shows up and Yakko shows up and Dr. Scratchansniff shows up, and every now and then Rafael shows up or whoever people want to hear from. . . . It’s very informal. It’s relaxed. You get a chance to meet people.”

This is all pretty impressive considering “Animaniacs” ended its eight-year run two decades ago.

But then again, as Paulsen confirms, “Animaniacs” and “Pinky and the Brain” are special. Many cartoons are almost extended commercials to push product — toys, clothes, toothbrushes, cereal (“I get that, I totally do,” he says. “I mean, Christ, I’m two Ninja Turtles”). But these two series are successful along the lines of classics like “Looney Tunes” and “Rocky and Bullwinkle,” “shows that become very successful for their own sake, not as the result of copious amounts of action figures,” he says.

And it’s not really a surprise that “Animaniacs” was so successful. To start with, look at the executive producer of the series: Steven Spielberg.

“He’s the king of Hollywood, and rightfully so,” Paulsen says.

When they were making the series, the edict that came down from Spielberg “was to not condescend to the audience,” Paulsen says.

The creators of the show were making stuff that made them laugh, Paulsen says, creating stuff that was politically or socially clever. And it holds up. The pop culture references are dated — stuff about Mickey Rooney might go over younger viewers’ heads — but they’re still incredibly funny and memorable.

Perhaps some of the most beloved aspects of the series are the musical numbers, many of which were written and composed by Rogel. One of his finest works — which also happens to be his audition piece for the show, Paulsen reveals — is “Yakko’s World,” in which the character sings the names of all the countries in the world.

“That’s the first song we recorded for ‘Animaniacs,” Paulsen says. “So you can imagine me looking at it as a singer and going, ‘This is what we’re starting with? It was mind blowing, and it still is to this day.”

And, as a special treat for people who come to the show, they’ll get to hear new lines from the song, updating it for the changes to the world from when it first aired in 1993.

Rogel would create these very smart, intricate songs for the characters to sing that take on different meanings to different age groups.

“If you start to pick apart the lyrics, you just go, ‘Oh my God, that is cartoon Sondheim,’ ” Paulsen says. “It’s such excellent music and such clever lyrics. That’s why it lasts, because they got people that knew what they were doing and they were inspired by folks who are essentially doing the same thing years before.”

And it’s going to last for generations. Earlier this year, Hulu announced that it was the exclusive streaming service for “Animaniacs,” “Pinky and the Brain,” “Pinky, Elmyra and the Brain” and their predecessor, “Tiny Toon Adventures.”

Oh, and beyond that, they’re rebooting the series with two new seasons in 2020, with Spielberg returning as executive producer. Wellesley Wild, who has worked on many Seth MacFarlane projects, including “Family Guy,” “Ted” and “The Orville,” is running the show. But Paulsen was not able to reveal much else.

“I feel like I’m being questioned by a Congressional subcommittee,” he jokes, “because I have to say, ‘I can neither confirm nor deny,’ with a big wink. That is with respect to my participation.”

Paulsen hopes to have news about his involvement in the Hulu project, as well those of other key voices: Tress MacNeille (Dot), Jess Harnell (Wakko) and Maurice LaMarche (The Brain).

“I can tell you that, whether they use me and my friends or not, don’t bet against Steven,” he says. “I’m sure that they’ll take into account new technology, new cool references, who knows . . . So yeah, I’m looking forward to more announcements, he said with a smile.”


Rob Paulsen has worked on a lot of shows with a lot of talented voice actors, and on his Nerdist podcast, “Talkin’ Toons,” he chats with some top people in the field about their work, and even re-enacts some famous scenes.

“I just talk to all my friends, who happen to be the most gifted voice artists in the world: Maurice LaMarche, John DiMaggio, Tress MacNeille, Tara Strong,” he says. “I’ve got to stop dropping names, Bob De Niro told me that.”

Check it out at nerdist .com/videos/talkin-toons/

‘Animaniacs Live! Starring Rob Paulsen & Randy Rogel’ is at Joe’s Pub Thursday through Sunday at 7 & 9:30 p.m., 425 Lafayette St., publictheater.org, $45