Part of the fun of watching Hulu’s new Animaniacs (streaming now) is hearing the original voice actors, including Jess Harnell, Rob Paulsen, and Maurice LaMarche, return to the characters that they turned into cultural icons in the 1990s. These are new versions of the characters — in addition to their new, more graphically ambitious designs, there are shifts in tone and feeling that will surprise and delight longtime fans or those who are coming to the characters fresh in 2020. The show is overall much more politically pointed and the “Pinky and the Brain” segments have the shiny chrome sheen of harder science fiction.
We got to chat with Harnell, Paulsen, and LaMarche about what it was like returning to the Animaniacs world, fearing that they would be replaced by celebrity sound-alikes, Steven Spielberg getting in their corner, and wanting to be an animated 60 Minutes (without pants). You can also read our review of the show and our interview with the reboot’s executive producers (where you’ll earn that Spielberg’s Freakazoid almost made it into the new series).
Did you guys ever think you would be back in the Animaniacs world?
JESS HARNELL: We could only hope, man. What’s funny is we’ve all done so many personal appearances in Comic Cons and things over the years and we’ve all been really blessed to work on a lot of stuff, but certain things rise to the top. And over and over we would hear, “Are you going to ever bring Animaniacs back? Are you ever going to bring it back?” And we said, “If only it were up to us,” and I guess the powers that be finally got wind of that and a couple of years ago, they said, “Guess what we’re going to do?” And we said, “Cool. That sounds like a great idea!”
MAURICE LAMARCHE: Unbelievable. I have to say, I’m the cynic of the group, Drew. So, I always said whenever anybody asked us that question at Comic Cons, “Yeah. They’ll bring them back and Peter Dinklage will play the Brain and Russell Brand will be Pinky and there’ll be all these celebrity stunt casts,” and Steven Spielberg actually went into the meetings when he was pitching to Hulu and took out little pictures of us. Us, not our characters, and said, “These are our stars. We don’t do this show without them. The original voices have to come back. Rob, Tress and Jess and Maurice have to come back.” Because we’re trying to bring people back to childhoods. We can’t do it with celebrity soundalikes, stunt casts.
ROB PAULSEN: Isn’t that something?
Well, this is a very different show in a lot of ways and the look of the characters is different. Did that sort of define or help inspire how you guys did these new performances or was it just like putting on an old shoe?
HARNELL: Well, you know what? First of all, I was just glad they didn’t give Wakko pants because that would have been a rule breaker for me, bro. I would have to step out, but no. What I said a little earlier and I think it really applies is that even though they’ve modernized and contemporized a lot of the sensibilities and look of the show, it still holds true to everything that you loved about it before. The voices are largely the same. The circumstances have changed. The circumstances have now become apropos of 2020, oh my gosh, and in the past couple of years where there’s so much more to poke fun at than we had in the ’90s. So, I think it’s a perfect time.
LAMARCHE: I think attitudinally there’s one or two changes, not in terms of the voiceprint, but I know Brain’s a little crankier.
HARNELL: We love that too. It’s great.
Well, I was going to say Maurice, that the “Pinky and the Brain” segments have a more hard-edged, sci-fi feel to them too. Was that fun?
LAMARCHE: It was. It was great to go a little deeper with Brain. Initially, I resisted it. I thought, “Well, Brain was kind of lovable in the ’90s because his plans, they were fluffy and make people stick to the ceiling,” and now we’re talking about fucking destructor rays and stuff like that, but it fits. It fits for a character that has been trying to take over the world for 25 years and he still hasn’t. He’s angry. He’s a little edgier. So, I got into playing him a little more that way. What hasn’t changed is the love between Pinky and the Brain. That’s key to the success of the show.
Although there is a female character in the mix now.
PAULSEN: Oh my God. The one that Maria Bamford plays?
LAMARCHE: Played by Maria Bamford.
PAULSEN: Oh my God. Drew, I’m telling you what, that sweet lady, Jesus Christ is she…
LAMARCHE: She’s a certified comedy genius.
PAULSEN: She is. Have you ever met Maria?
I’ve never met her, no.
PAULSEN: Oh my God. I hope you do. She’s so delightful as a person. I mean, she’s really sweet, but Jesus Christ, once she gets fired up, oh my God. She’s original. She’s so quick. So clever, unusual and just we’re so lucky to get her. She’s so great.
Rob and Jess, what was it like singing together again after all these years?
PAULSEN: Man, honest to God Drew, it never gets old to say how glorious this whole experience is. There’s a great old love song called “The Second Time Around” about how, yeah, you get heartbroken and things don’t work out, but then you meet the real right one the second time around and I’m telling you, as much as we loved it and as much as that show literally changed my life, doing it again with people who are my family and we’re all healthy and then the King of Hollywood again says… Drew, you tell me, right?
I mean, unbelievable.
PAULSEN: It is unbelievable. And then we’re in a position in 2020, as a result of this shitty year, we’re in a position to deliver a little bit of joy. How much better can your life get, man? We know how fortunate we are and then nice people like you lower your journalistic standards to talk to Jess and Mo.
HARNELL: How about that?
I just wanted to see if you guys could tease anything about the next batch of episodes coming next year.
PAULSEN: Oh, honestly, well, let me try to put it this way, Mo and Jess and I haven’t seen anything. You’ve seen more episodes than we have. So, we don’t know which order.
HARNELL: You’ve seen more episodes than we have!
LAMARCHE: Yeah. I know there’s an episode where Brain signs an NDA, and he makes everybody in the world sign NDAs and then he takes over the world because nobody can say anything.
PAULSEN: Let us ask you though. Did you like what you saw?
These episodes have an edge to them, I got to say.
PAULSEN: But you liked it?
Oh yeah. But there’s a gun control episode, a Putin episode …
PAULSEN: Oh, yeah-
LAMARCHE: We got to give that up to Wellesley Wild, our showrunner, for bringing that sensibility. I mean, a lot of us were like, “Aw, we miss the original team,” but Steven in his wisdom said, “This is the guy to bring the show into the 2020s,” and Wellesley with his time on Family Guy and working alongside Seth, with so many of those shows to add that edge and yet still honor the original characters.
HARNELL: Alluding to your topic though, Drew, about we’re not afraid to tackle the social and important issues. We’re sort of the 60 minutes of cartoons without pants.
Animaniacs is available on Hulu right now.
While on Collider Ladies Night, Kate Mara discussed why she took a small role in ‘Iron Man 2’ and if there was once hope her character would return.
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