I spent the past Saturday night watching two middle-aged men get onstage and do cartoon voices and sing songs for two hours.
Out of context, this might sound like a complete waste of time and money, but for me it ended up being one of the most rewarding evenings of entertainment I’ve experienced in a long time.
That’s because the men on the stage were both responsible — each in their own way — for providing me with hours and hours of joy throughout my childhood and also significantly shaping my sense of humor.
In a small theater with about 100 others, the minimalist stage was set with a pull-down movie screen and a keyboard with a bench. That was it. Two men emerged with headset microphones and proceeded to perform songs, tell stories and answer questions from the audience of adoring fans.
The man behind the keyboard was Randy Rogel, a writer and musician who evolved from crafting dramatic episodes of Batman: The Animated Series to penning the majority of the clever, catchy and side-splitting songs from the cartoon series Animaniacs. Joining him onstage was Rob Paulsen, a man whose vocal stylings reverberated through my TV set and etched their way into my psyche as Yakko Warner on Animaniacs and a host of other cartoon characters over the years.
In this relatively intimate setting, these men were able to immediately transport the audience back to those weekday afternoons watching the Warner Brothers and their sister Dot escape their water tower to create mayhem. Every time Rob Paulsen opened his mouth and Yakko’s voice came out, I was startled by the reemergence of the character before my eyes, er, ears. As a nerdy pre-teen watching the show in the 90s, I was completely enthralled. Paulsen’s Yakko stood out to me in particular as the model of quick-witted humor to which I aspired. I wanted so badly to be the smart aleck with a one-liner comeback for every situation, although I think the only real resemblance I had was the high-waisted pants.
As Randy Rogel told stories about the songs he wrote for the show, I thought back to the Animaniacs soundtrack cassette that my brothers and I played so frequently that I still know every orchestra hit and vocal inflection on every single one of the songs. Rogel and Paulsen also did an impressive live performance of “I’m Mad,” a song that was released as a short that played before the theatrical release of the 1994 animated film Thumbelina. My brothers and I, who had absolutely zero interest in Thumbelina, dutifully attended a showing just so we could see the Animaniacs short, but we got there too late and missed half of it! We sat through Thumbelina and waited for the next showing so we could catch the full four-minute song. That’s real devotion. I’m happy to report that more than 25 years later, Paulsen — who voices both Yakko and Dr. Scratch ‘n Sniff in the song — can still hit every note. And that’s even after a recent successful battle with stage III throat cancer! He’s a living legend.
As Paulsen and Rogel gleefully plied their musical craft onstage, I couldn’t help but look around at everyone else in the theater and see that the diverse group all had stupid smiles on their faces as they were equally transported back in time. In the front row, a guy a few years older than me had brought his three kids to see the show — the live action version of forcing your kids to watch DVDs of your childhood shows — but the kids were smiling as much as everyone else.
There is a timeless and innocent quality to Animaniacs, even though it was a subversive kids’ TV show that had tons of humor meant for adults supplementing the falling anvils that appealed to its youngest viewers. Although some of the references are decidedly dated (“while Bill Clinton plays the sax”), the absurdist humor, one-liners and general irreverence never gets old. So often when I revisit shows I loved in my youth, I get that warm and fuzzy sentimental feeling mixed with a realistic downer dose of “Why did I like this? It’s kind of terrible.” Not so with Animaniacs. I watched an episode when I got home from the event and laughed like it was 1994 again.
The show maintains its appeal because the humor was universal but not one size fits all. Even as you were enjoying the show on some level as a small child, you could grow into the ever deeper and funnier levels of the show’s humor as you matured. It was just plain clever.
The show spawned unforgettable characters and a host of catch phrases, but perhaps its greatest distinguishing feature was its original songs. The music and lyrics conceived by Randy Rogel are nothing short of genius. Aside from the most-remembered ditty in which Yakko recites the nations of the world (which Rogel revealed was the first song he wrote for the show as an audition for the chance to join the writing staff), there are dozens of songs that are brilliant in their comedic lyrical escapades. The songs are so good that they frequently stood on their own as segments of the show.
To this day, these songs continue to pop into my head at random times — and they’re always welcome.
It was wonderful to see that both Rogel and Paulsen are down-to-earth, decent human beings who love what they do and truly appreciate the support of the show’s fans. Someone asked Paulsen the inevitable question of “What’s the bluest thing you’ve ever said as one of your characters?” and Paulsen’s response surprised and impressed me. He basically said that he considers himself a steward of the characters he portrays and would never compromise their integrity for a cheap laugh or an extra buck. He told a story of recently being asked to sacrifice Yakko to the parodying wolves of Robot Chicken and turning them down, even though he was flattered by the offer. He said the characters mean too much to the fans — including a new generation of children — and he wouldn’t want someone to be disappointed by hearing something inappropriately bawdy coming out of Yakko’s mouth. That’s an incredibly refreshing sentiment in 2017.
It also gives me some reassurance that if the Animaniacs ever did make a comeback — Rogel and Paulsen could neither confirm nor deny any rumors, but they offered a glimmer of hope— the creators and talent involved would remain true to the original spirit of the show and not try to reinvent them or add an edge to get some press or ratings. (I’m looking at you, Muppets.)
If you are a fan of the show, I highly recommend that you be alert for an opportunity to see this show in one of its iterations. Paulsen said that sometimes it’s just the two of them with a piano and other times it has been staged with a full orchestra and the involvement of all three voice actors for Yakko, Wakko and Dot. I am incredibly grateful that I had the opportunity to witness a live reincarnation of one of the essential shows of my childhood.