Ask Rob Paulsen why one of his best known characters, Pinky of Animaniacs fame, has a British accent, and the prolific voice actor won’t miss a beat. “Because he doesn’t have a Latvian accent” he squeaked at me over the phone during a recent interview before following it up with Pinky’s favorite exclamation: “Narf!”
Paulsen’s voice is an impossibly flexible instrument—one that’s given life to characters like Raphael (and later, briefly, Donatello) on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Antoine Depardieu on Sonic the Hedgehog, and Carl Wheezer on Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. And now, with Animaniacs making its grand return on Hulu, fans can hear his encore performances as Yakko Warner and, yes, that deferential string bean of a mouse.
Animaniacs debuted its first revival season, one of two Hulu has officially confirmed, on Friday. And fans will be delighted to know that it largely looks and feels the same as the original—thanks, in large part, to the return of producer Steven Spielberg and original cast members including Paulsen, Jess Harnell, who plays Wakko, Tress MacNeille, aka Dot, and Maurice LaMarche, the maniacal voice behind The Brain. (Original creator Tom Ruegger, unfortunately, was not involved.) Between the original voices and the revival’s continued use of a full orchestra to score its episodes, the new season is a nostalgic balm—and although at times its efforts to catch up on the years missed can strain the comedy, the classic gags are still there, and still reliably, joyously funny.
But Paulsen’s return might be the most emotional for devoted Animaniacs fans, given the beloved actor’s recent battle with throat cancer. He was diagnosed with stage III metastatic squamous cell carcinoma in 2016, and has since made a full recovery—returning to the work he loves most after a harrowing period in which he worried he might no longer be able to do it.
When asked how his cancer diagnosis changed his perspective on his life and career, Paulsen replied with candid perspective. He recalled conversations with fans who connected with his work on shows like TNMT and Animaniacs at the darkest times of their lives—and visits he and various co-stars have made to Children's Hospital Los Angeles, where they met countless terminally ill patients whose adoration for the characters left a mark.
“While I was visiting and talking to children in the hospital, my son was the same age as the children, often, to whom I was speaking,” Paulsen recalled. “And I was the age of their parents. So what it did for me was give me a context to decide what is a problem.”
Paulsen grants that his diagnosis was, as he put it, “a bit of a left-hander.” The doctors were virtually sure they could cure him, but to do so, they told him they’d need to practically kill him. And although they assured Paulsen he’d be able to speak, they weren’t sure he’d be able to access his full register.
Being able to return to Animaniacs in peak vocal form, Paulsen said, is nothing short of a gift—especially after Spielberg went to bat for him and the other cast members personally in pitch meetings with various streaming platforms. According to Paulsen, the mega-producer went so far as to bring poster-sized images of the original cast’s headshots—as if to say, in Paulsen’s words, “If you guys are thinking we’re going to have Peter Dinklage be The Brain and Russell Brand be Pinky, no, no, no, no, no.”
“To get another shot at it with world-class music again—and, on a personal note, to be able to do it after throat cancer—that’s the story for me,” Paulsen said. “To be able to do it and no one was any the wiser... I don’t want people to say, ‘Oh, he sounds pretty good for an old guy with throat cancer!’ I want people to say, ‘Oh, it’s Yakko!’”
All of this circles back to one of Paulsen’s most cherished refrains: “I’m not special,” he insists. “The characters are special.”
Paulsen speaks with the delightfully chaotic energy of an Animaniacs episode; he narrates his decades-long career with the same frenetic enthusiasm of the show’s Warner brothers (“and sister!”) as they wreak havoc on the studio lot. The simple question of Pinky’s accent sent us down a rabbit hole of British comedy, Peter Sellers anecdotes, and the time Paulsen worked on a Nickelodeon pilot with Carl Reiner, Dick van Dyke, and Rose Marie. (The pilot never went forward, but for those wondering, Paulsen voiced “an animated Filipino ventriloquist.”)
The real origin story of Pinky’s Cockney-ish accent, by the way, is Paulsen’s “desperate love of British humor” and particularly English actor-comedian Peter Sellers. Dr. Strangelove is his all-time favorite movie.
(Here, too, the actor pauses to share an anecdote about the time he worked with Pink Panther director Blake Edwards’ daughter Jennifer Edwards. When asked about Sellers on the set of Pink Panther, Paulsen recalls the actress told him, “He was there, and he was miserable. But he was genius.” Edwards also recalled her father saying, more than once, “Oh my God, I’m gonna kill myself but first I’m gonna kill that son of a bitch!”)
When he first moved to Los Angeles in 1978, Paulsen had been on the road both with a theater company and an itinerant rock band—all experiences that prepared him for the Hollywood audition process. He landed a series of one-off on-camera roles in shows like MacGyver and St. Elsewhere, and when the opportunity to do voice acting arose, he seized the opportunity for more work.
But even in some of his earliest roles, on series like G.I. Joe, something about the work tickled the young actor. “People I recognized from episodic television [were] in the room, but they were utterly unlimited by their visage,” Paulsen said. “The things for which I knew them were things that they were not encumbered by... And as a young actor at 26, 27? Oh shit, this is the gig!”
After five years, he stopped actively pursuing on-camera work.
Paulsen’s first regular voice acting job came with a Jonny Quest reboot, in which he played Hadji, Jonny’s best friend. (Given that Hadji is Indian, Paulsen said he would not play the character now.) A bigger turning point came with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which became a huge hit and launched Paulsen’s profile to new heights. He later joined Spielberg’s Tiny Toon Adventures—the progenitor for Animaniacs—to play characters like Fowlmouth and Concord Condor.
But it’s Animaniacs, which ran for five seasons on Fox Kids and then Kids’ WB in the 1990s, that remains Paulsen’s most treasured work. As he put it: “Turtles changed my career trajectory... but Animaniacs changed my life.”
It was Pinky who earned Paulsen three Daytime Emmy nominations—one of which he won in 1999. And perhaps more importantly, the clever, slapstick-y cartoon gave Paulsen a chance to blend his love of acting and improvisation with his musical passion. Some of Animaniacs’ best and most memorable moments, both in the new and old show, come when Yakko gets to sing. (Millennials all owe Yakko an eternal “thank-you” for helping us remember all the nations of the world.)
Now a self-described “pretty old guy”—translation: age 64—Paulsen still treasures the invisibility factor in his work above all else. Nobody cares what he looks like, and he likes it that way. (For those curious how the actor might describe himself, however, he did offer a description: “like a human tooth has had a child with a chia pet.”)
Now, with the Animaniacs once again bouncing around and creating chaos, Paulsen is just glad to be a part of something that will spread joy at a time when so many people desperately need it.
“It turns out as we know that 2020 has delivered a shit ton of nasty frickin’ lemons,” the actor said. “... While we’re not going to be able to change the world, Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain are, to be sure, going to be able to deliver a huge, giant vat of Acme lemonade.”