There was a moment in the 90s when animated programming was at the forefront of popular culture. Reagan’s deregulation of the laws surrounding advertising and children’s broadcasting ushered in a glut of commercials-turned-cartoons like Transformers, He-Man, My Little Pony, and GI Joe. In response came a wave of creator-driven animated series that were experimental in content and form, such as The Simpsons, Ren & Stimpy, Beavis and Butthead, Rugrats, and Batman: The Animated Series, to name a few.
At the heart of what would be remembered as the “Cartoon Renaissance” was an animated variety show driven by sharp writing, topical satire, and big production. Show creator Tom Ruegger and executive producer Steven Spielberg envisioned a cartoon that was at once subversive yet entertaining, bombastic but subtle, and smart—especially when it was being stupid.
The show, which ran from 1993 to 1998, won Annies, Emmys, and even a Peabody. It was a ratings smash, a critical darling, and a cult hit all at once. It was called Animaniacs, and it was, as its theme song claimed, zany to the max.
The show was at once product, satire, and regurgitation of 20th century pop culture. The main characters, the Warner brothers Yakko and Wakko and their sister Dot, were cartoon stars who supposedly broke loose from the Warner Bros. water tower in the 90s and got into altercations with Tom Cruise, the Clintons, and Saddam Hussein. Yakko would rhyme the nations of the world, while Pinky and the Brain would plot to take it over. The show did its best to touch on everything.
Animaniacs was fast-paced, tongue in cheek, and self aware. At the core of the show’s anarchy was its de facto mascot, Yakko—the Groucho-esque eldest brother who wisecracked and eye-rolled the sacred cows of the times into the show’s hand-drawn abattoir. Fast-talking, all-knowing, and quick to break into song, Yakko spoke to and for a kind of familial ADHD that existed within himself and many young viewers.
Yakko was both statement maker and statement. Someone who eye-poked conformists, while accepting freaks into the fold. Chatting with Rob Paulsen, the voice actor who brought him to life, is like talking to a relaxed version of the character. Paulsen speaks with Yakko’s brisk cadence, his voice only slightly lower, his jokey asides just as sharp.
Paulsen recently told VICE that fans often approach him and say, “You’re the voice of my childhood.” In addition to Yakko, he’s the man behind characters such as Raphael, Donatello, The Riddler, Carl Wheezer, and Pinky (to name but a few). Paulsen’s many voices echo down the halls of generations of childhood memories.
“My fame is tangential,” he said. “The stuff I’m famous for is utterly joyful and happy and all that. I am constantly blown away at how much joy people derive from these characters, and I’m just so grateful.”
Paulsen came to Animaniacs after working with Ruegger and Spielberg on Tiny-Toon Adventures and with much of the same crew from Batman: The Animated Series. He knew he was perfect for the role of Yakko: “I thought ok, I’ve been waiting for this for a long time. I can sing, I can sing in character, I can read music, I can create character voices.” He landed the role, as well as that of Pinky and the show’s surrogate father-figure/psychiatrist Dr. Scratchansniff.
“If Ninja Turtles changed my career path,” he told VICE, “then Animaniacs changed my life.”
The show’s production value was legendary. With Spielberg at the helm, Animaniacs had access to the best talent in the business. Songs were recorded with a full orchestra, which included players from the LA Philharmonic. “All the French horn guy would do was play French horn for a living. That’s the kind of people we had,” Paulsen says.
Paulsen recalls taking it all in: Spielberg, the animators, script writers like Sherri Stoner, songwriters like Randy Rogel (who Paulsen now tours with, performing songs from the show), and co-stars like Billy West, Maurice LaMarche, and Tress MacNeille. “I remember saying to Tress, ‘Boy oh boy honey, take a picture of this, cause this is as good as it gets,’” he said.
Episodes of Animaniacs cost between $500,000 and $750,000 to produce. It was big, brash, and bold, but it defied the marketability of its contemporaries. Paulsen is on his “third ride in the Ninja Turtles van,” as he calls it, and sees Animaniacs as unique in how it survived not on merchandising or branding, but through its artistry. “You didn’t walk around Toys ‘R’ Us and buy an Animaniacs action figure,” he says. “This is a pretty big deal in the context of Hollywood entertainment, and I don’t think that’s hyperbole.”
The show was both a result of and a response to the ultra-capitalism of children’s programming in the 90s. “Of course, this is commercial art, this isn’t Piss Christ or something,” Paulsen laughs. “You aren’t doing it for some reaction. You have to satisfy people, and the show still has to make money.”
Animaniacs was a ratings smash across multiple demographics, until the show was clumsily moved from Fox Kids to the WB Network in 1995, where it would eventually be replaced by foreign merchandising phenomenon Pokémon.
Animaniacs was able to be subversive in a way that its toy-driven competitors could not afford to be. Thanks to its popularity, critical accolades, and Spielberg’s clout, Animaniacs was allowed to bare its cute fangs. “The edict was never to injure, it was to satirize, to lampoon,” Paulsen explains. “It didn’t take long for people to figure out that this was a ‘kids’ cartoon.”
And so, the show was able to target psychiatry and Star Trek, golf and the Gulf War, sensitivities and censorship. Paulsen says “the most shining example” of their winking humor was the infamous “finger Prince” joke. “It was just a clear example of how you put the wrong em-PHA-sis on a different syll-ABLE that led us from ‘fingerprints’ to ‘finger Prince.’ It was very clever, very naughty, and very on purpose.”
The show was educational, but never didactic. It eviscerated the hokey condescension of contemporaries like Barney & Friends, and lampooned the shoe-horned PSAs of Captain Planet and the like with its own “wheel of morality.”
“All of that stuff conspired to [...] entertain you and inspire you and educate you, and not [make you] want to shove a gun in your mouth like you were watching Teletubbies," Paulsen explains.
Yakko was the prime vehicle for these knowing in-jokes. The Randy Rogel-penned “Yakko’s World” (which Paulsen delivered in one take) became the show’s most iconic moment—later to be lampooned when Yakko attempts to rhyme every word in the dictionary.
Paulsen recalls workshopping Yakko’s character alongside the rest of the cast: “We had a grand piano, all sorts of drawings of all the characters, and the cast was told to go nuts. It really was a giant sand box.” Yakko came into sharp focus for Paulsen after Ruegger told him to think of Groucho Marx, somebody who “might eviscerate a person who mightn’t realize they were being eviscerated.”
It clicked for Paulsen. Scenes between Yakko and, say, Beethoven found their frenetic rhythm. Paulsen, reenacting a scene between between character voices, goes off: “I’m a pianist," says Beethoven, and Yakko replies, “You’re a what?” “I’m a pianist!” “Hey, wait a minute, you can’t say that on television. Goodnight everybody!” You can almost hear the rimshot and cymbal crash sound effect.
Yakko appealed to a certain kind of hyperactive kid growing up in the 90s. “I have often said I essentially get paid to do what used to get me in trouble in seventh grade,” Paulsen laughs. “I love the fact that my brain and my countenance is not at all dissimilar to Yakko’s.”
Animaniacs is slated to get a reboot in 2020 on Hulu, and it’s impossible not to imagine Wacko, Yakko, and Dot responding to the Trump era. But they’ve missed 20 years of social media, cultural upheaval, and collapse. Even at the show’s manic clip, could they ever keep up?
“It’s more of a challenge to a comedian or a comedic writer to find a way to be entertaining and relevant without going for the low-hanging fruit like Donald Trump,” Paulsen says, sounding exasperated. “Trump, Trump, Trump. But what’s next? What can we do that will be relevant 20 years from now? That is not an easy task.”
Paulsen says the show and his characters within it are tools to both confront and comfort people in what is a rather humorless time: “Yakko’s influence on me allows me to be accepted by people on both sides of the aisle, so we can talk about things that make us laugh and enjoy each other, and maybe even allow that to be the gateway so we can have a discussion and learn about each other. What can be better than that?”
Paulsen laughs, then sighs. “I want to be a source of joy and happiness, whether it’s personally or existentially, because there’s just too much shit to get sad about and to get upset about.”
“It’s like I always say,” his voice pitching higher, making him sound like his wisecracking alter-ego. “Laughter is the best medicine. The cool thing is you can’t overdose, and the refills are free.”
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.