Animaniacs star Rob Paulsen previews Hulu's reboot: 'It's a labor of love'
In a recording studio circa 1993, voice actor Rob Paulsen looked around, drinking in the scene. He was at work on an early episode of Animaniacs, an animated series produced by Steven Spielberg and Warner Bros. Animation that would become a massive hit, run for five seasons, spawn the spin-off Pinky and the Brain, and become a tenet of '90s nostalgia.
That particular episode, Paulsen recalls, "had a really large cast, including a number of celebrities, and we had more characters than microphones, so we were playing musical mics depending upon whose character was up." In the midst of this chaos, he turned to his costar and longtime friend Tress MacNeille. "I said, 'Honey, take a picture of this. This just doesn't get any better.'"
Little did he know that a quarter-century later, he and MacNeille would be back in front of the mics to commence recording on a Spielberg-backed reboot of Animaniacs, which is set to finally premiere Friday, Nov. 20, on Hulu. The series once again follows the zany adventures of the Warner siblings, Yakko, Wakko, and Dot (Paulsen, Jess Harnell, and MacNeille, respectively), as well as scheming laboratory mice Pinky and the Brain (Paulsen and Maurice LaMarche), with their original voice actors breathing life into them once more.
"It really, truly is a deeply personal labor of love," Paulsen tells EW of the new series. "And to be able to share it with people with whom I've been to weddings, funerals, birthdays; to do it again with an audience that's exponentially larger than the first go-round? It really is beyond cool."
A key factor in Animaniacs' success was its appeal to viewers of all ages. The show delighted kids with its wacky animation and catchy, often surprisingly educational songs, while winking at adults with how'd-they-get-away-with-that double entendres (you'll never hear "fingerprints" the same way again) and clever cultural references (one of the show's most beloved segments, "Yes, Always," spoofs an obscure audio clip of Orson Welles complaining through a commercial voice-over recording session).
Now, as Paulsen notes, the audience has only expanded, with now-adult fans of the original series having kids of their own. And the reboot's creators are keenly aware of the wide range of viewers they have to please: "Dads are a key part of our demographic," Yakko quips in the first episode.
"My process, and I would probably think the processes of the other actors, hasn't changed at all," says Paulsen. "What has changed is the time. And there are, to be sure, a zillion things that [the characters] can mess with, both historically and culturally, and the folks writing the show get it. What has not changed is the subversive humor, the lampooning of culturally sacred cows, all the things that made everybody love Animaniacs from the beginning."
Indeed, topics addressed and skewered in the reboot's first batch of episodes include cable news, memes, Hollywood's reboot fixation, and even gun control, with all the irreverence fans would expect. Still, some devotees may balk at the absence of key creative figures from the original series, including Animaniacs creator Tom Ruegger, who has said he was shut out of the revival's development and production. (Warner Bros. has disputed Ruegger's account.) Paulsen, however, expresses enthusiasm at the new creative team, led by Family Guy veteran Wellesley Wild.
"Part of Mr. Spielberg's genius, I submit, is that he knows whom to hire and then he turns them loose," says Paulsen. "Mr. Spielberg knows that he doesn't know everything that's hip and cool and wonderful, but he also doesn't have to. The team of writers are smart, young, they get it… and they're doing it right."
In the summer of 2018, Paulsen arrived to record lines for the new episodes and found himself sitting beside MacNeille. "And this is the gospel truth," he says. "I looked at her and said, 'Do you remember years ago, when we were in an episode and I said…' And she stopped me, and finished the sentence: 'That it doesn't get any better?' I said, 'Yes.' And she kind of smiled and took my hand, and she said, 'It does, doesn't it?'"
"There's a great old love song called 'The Second Time Around' [that goes], 'Love is lovelier the second time around,'" he continues. "And that's truly what this is meant to be."