Interview: Rob Paulsen, Voice Of Yakko, Talks Voice Acting and Animaniacs Live

Dragon Con is known for being a fan-driven convention, as opposed to a media-driven one. One effect of this style is that the guests are often the kind who are genuinely pleased to be there and interact with their fans. Voice actor Rob Paulsen, perhaps best known as Yakko from Animaniacs, may be the best example of this type of guest that I’ve ever seen.

As we waited in an hour-and-a-half line to see him perform songs from Animaniacs, Paulsen stepped into the room and thanked us all for being there. He invited us all to sing along to the familiar songs and exited with Pinky’s signature, “Narf!” Someone sitting near me exclaimed, “I’ve never seen the guest come visit the line before the panel even started!”

But before seeing that stunning performance (more on that in a moment), I had the pleasure of interviewing Paulsen about his work and history in voice acting. Though he’s best known to many of our generation for Animaniacs‘ Yakko, Dr. Scratchansniff, and Pinky, Paulsen has had an extensive career that includes both the 1987 and 2012 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series, The Snorks (one of my favorites), Taz-Mania, the animated version of Fraggle Rock, and more than 250 other characters.

And yet, for all those voices I so fondly remember and continue to enjoy, I had not realized until our interview that he also was responsible for all of us drinking our milk and knowing who shot Alexander Hamilton. He voiced the radio announcer in the first commercial of the “Got milk?” campaign in 1993:

“Do you know who directed that?” Paulsen asked. Of course, I didn’t. “Michael Bay!” he said. “Michael Bay got his start directing commercials.” Add that to your mental list of “trivia that might win me Jeopardy! someday.” (Or Gyp-Parody! as the case may be.)

But how did Paulsen get his start? He has remarked on his Talkin’ Toons podcast (which I recommend listening to!) that now he’s getting paid to do what got him in trouble in the seventh grade.

“I came to LA primarily to do live action, that was the practical reason,” Paulsen said. “I just happened to be in LA for the animation boom. With animation, you’re not limited by the way you look.

“There are a million white, middle-aged guys with SAG cards,” he continued. “I’m 59, and I’m Donatello [on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles].

“Pound for pound, I’ve never worked with more purely gifted actors than voice actors. They’re fearless because they’re unencumbered by the way they look. We’re not self-conscious. That frees you up a lot to do things that work beautifully with a cartoon because you’re not thinking about how you look.”

Like many voice actors, he started in other entertainment, such as singing and theater. His passion for performing is clear in every word he says and every interaction with the fans. Once we filed into the room for that live performance, he didn’t stand behind a curtain or sit on the stage waiting to begin. He walked around the room and took photos with any attendee who asked.

“I’ve been rich and poor—rich is better,” he said. “But none of us started doing it for money.” It’s a sentiment I’ve heard from other voice actors at Dragon Con over the years, from Maurice LaMarche to Billy West. They truly love their work with a deep passion and appreciate the joy it creates in their fans. If you watched Animaniacs growing up, you can’t help but melt when Paulsen sings a few words of “Yakko’s World” or spontaneously releases that “Narf!” But having your own joy reflected when he sees your reaction is even better.

It helps that Paulsen is clearly a big fan himself, particularly of others in his field and of those who came before him. He talks exuberantly with nothing but the highest compliments for other voice actors, from his co-stars on Animaniacs to John DiMaggio, Billy West, and many others.

“I remember working with Mel Blanc—he was probably 85. We were working on a Jetsons thing 20-odd years ago,” he told me. “I said, ‘Mr. Blanc, I am such a big fan, I hate to bother you…'” Much to Paulsen’s glee, before he could finish asking the question, Blanc responded with Bugs Bunny’s classic, “What’s up, Doc?”

Today the tables are turned, and he’s the one answering requests for his famous voices. “I now am the grateful beneficiary of that response,” Paulsen said. “I’m telling you—none of us take it for granted,” he said. “It is an incredibly gratifying thing. [It’s] emotional remuneration that’s beyond any money.”

He carries that spirit over to his aforementioned podcast, where he interviews other voice actors. Most of the shows are available for free, but it’s funded through Patreon, where supporters get extra episodes, longer interviews, and other benefits.

So what’s next? Paulsen said he’s working on three shows for Netflix. And of course, there will be more Ninja Turtles. (To double the geek level, David Tennant will be voicing a 15-episode arc as the Fugitoid on the new season.)

But even better than all of that, Paulsen continues to do Animaniacs Live, a show with Randy Rogel, who wrote many of the Animaniacs songs you love; as well as Jess Harnell and Tress MacNeille, the voices of Wakko and Dot; and Julie and Steve Bernstein, composers. They perform the Animaniacs songs you love, live with an orchestra, interspersed with stories from the show. It’s scored for as many as 85 pieces or as little as 10 to 20 pieces. You can see a video of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra’s performance on Paulsen’s website, as well as get information to pass on to your local symphony to try to get the show performed in your town.

For Dragon Con, Rogel and Paulsen alone performed a one-hour version of the show with only a piano. It was one of the best, if not the best, hours I have spent in all my years at Dragon Con, and I can only imagine (with the help of the video linked above) how much better it is with all three voices and a full orchestra. Rogel is top among those Paulsen speaks about with high admiration—he describes him repeatedly as “an effing genius.” I can hardly disagree. Their combined genius powers in this show were quite simply joyful.

“At my age, I still have the same jones to work as I did at 19,” Paulsen told me. “It’s like a drug, in a good way. You gotta have your fix. I’m always doing it.”

And we’re so glad he does.

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