“Animaniacs” had been off the air for about a decade when Jess Harnell got an offer to reprise his character for a popular TV series.
For five seasons, the actor had voiced Wakko, the Liverpudlian middle child of the ’90s animated sibling trio of Yakko, Wakko and Dot, otherwise known as the Warner Brothers and Warner Sister.
The proposed concept: “Whatever happened to the Warner Brothers?” His fellow “Animaniacs” voiceover artists were also asked to sign on.
However, the pitch got a little more dicey from there. (The show making the request deals in more adult-oriented kind of humor.) Yakko was going to be a drug addict. Harnell’s beloved Wakko? Shooting people with an AK-47 from the Animaniacs’ famous water tower.
“They offered us a bunch of money to do it,” Harnell says.
He refused. So did everyone else.
If they were going to bring back the Animaniacs, they had to do it right. After all, these were the characters that had captivated a generation of kids with their zany-to-the-max antics, “Goodfellas”-inspired pigeons and lab mice bent on world domination.
“I’ve always thought if it worked once it could probably work again, as long as you try to make sure that it’s good,” Harnell tells NJ Advance Media.
That’s the idea behind the “Animaniacs” revival coming to Hulu Friday, Nov. 20.
In 2018, producer Steven Spielberg got onboard for a full-blown return of the Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning series. Joining Harnell as Wakko, Rob Paulsen as Yakko and Tress MacNeille as Dot was showrunner Wellesley Wild, an alum of another beloved, irreverent animated institution: “Family Guy.”
Two years later, the Animaniacs are back in full effect, to the excitement of ’90s kids everywhere.
At first glance, the characters mostly conform to their original fun-loving molds from 1993. Harnell points out that Wakko, who he’s described as a “small John Lennon,” who wears a red cap, still doesn’t see a need for pants.
“I think the attitude was we’re going to take everything people liked about these characters, give them a fresh coat of paint,” Harnell says, speaking from his home in Los Angeles. The Englewood native grew up in Bergen County.
But the show has made some post-#MeToo tweaks. One update to “Animaniacs” is apparent in the show’s celebrated theme song. Dot is no longer described as “cute.” (As in, “We’re Animaniacs!/Dot is cute and Yakko yaks./Wakko packs away the snacks while Bill Clinton plays the sax/We’re Animaniacs!)
Now, she “has wit.”
“I like the fact that we’re acknowledging more than just the fact that she’s adorable,” says Harnell, 56. “Frankly, she may well be the smartest of the three of us, so it’s about time she got some notice for that.”
Dot even utters the words “never mansplainy” as part of the opening song. Also gone is one of the show’s long-running characters — the busty nurse who Yakko and Wakko used to drool over, saying “Hello, Nurse!” at every opportunity.
Instead, the anthropomorphic trio now find a woman CEO at Warner Bros. (who is staunchly committed to pulling the ladder up after her).
The show’s comedy stylings appeal less to irreverence this time around than a reverence for nostalgia. The new “Animaniacs” not only keeps its saxophone-playing Bill Clinton, but also lovingly roasts the very content model that brought the show back in the first place. One of the early musical numbers is “Reboot It,” a ditty dedicated to criticizing TV reboot culture.
“Do they just bring back old shows now?” Harnell’s Wakko asks in earnest.
Reboots indicate a lack of imagination, Yakko says. As he says this, the trio is slathered in heaps of Hulu cash.
“When we sell out, we know we’re selling out so it’s cool.” Wakko says.
In another musical adventure, Yakko, Wakko and Dot run through things they missed when they went on their long hiatus in 1998.
Harnell says the characters had to acknowledge that the entertainment and media landscape had completely changed. When Yakko hears about a “tablet” that carries vast quantities of information, he downs the mobile device like a vitamin and absorbs it all (including facts about quinoa and Queen Bey).
Oh, to have a brain untainted by 2020, let alone 1999!
When the show left the air in 1998 — and certainly when it debuted on Fox in 1993 and moved to The WB in 1995 — going online (or “surfing the net”) definitely didn’t mean all the things it does today.
“The internet didn’t really exist, much less social media, much less YouTube and reality TV culture,” Harnell says. (”The Real World” debuted in 1992, but the explosion of the genre was still unfolding.)
Making up for lost time, series favorites Pinky and the Brain, who got a spinoff in 1995, are back on their world-conquering grind. Their first episode skewers Instagram (they use an app called ”InstaGratification”) and video-sharing culture. The Brain (Maurice LaMarche voices the imperious fellow — Paulsen plays the dopey but well-meaning Pinky) creates a filter to control people’s minds.
“I will become the internet’s cutest and silliest animal!” he triumphantly declares.
The very fact that cute animal photos enable the device to commandeer people’s consciousness is its own commentary on modern life.
One “Animaniacs” episode about a rapidly multiplying population of bunnies functions as an allegory for gun violence in America (there’s even a bunny buyback).
Harnell says Spielberg was hands-on throughout the making of the series revival, hearing every pitch, approving every script and song. The one major omission, especially in a show known to riff on current events? The pandemic.
Since actors have to finish recording so far ahead of the show’s delivery date — a second season is already in the can — the material is always going to lack some of the current moment.
Still, Harnell says, “‘Animaniacs’ does cartoons about gun control and global warming, and I can’t think of too many other ‘children’s cartoons’ that do that.”
Even if Yakko, Wakko and Dot don’t utter the word “pandemic” once in the new season, the harsh reality of COVID-19 can make a dose of zany more than welcome, Harnell says.
“We know we’re not going to save the world with any show, but hopefully with this particular show we can make the world smile a little bit again and that’s something that has been in short supply this year,” he says.
Like other nostalgia bombs from the ‘90s — HBO Max’s recent “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” reunion, for example — “Animaniacs” also creates opportunities for multigenerational viewing.
“A lot of those people who grew up watching and loving the show can sit down on the couch with a big bowl of popcorn with their little ones,” Harnell says. “The adults can rediscover it while the kids discover the new stuff for the first time.”
“One of the things that I hear the most is, ‘You were my childhood, man,’” he says. “And I don’t take that lightly at all because childhood is such a special time in people’s lives.”
Harnell spent his own early childhood in Glen Rock. His family moved to Philadelphia when his father, Joe Harnell, a noted jazz composer who worked on music for TV shows like “The Incredible Hulk” and “The Bionic Woman,” got a job as musical director for “The Mike Douglas Show.” Later, when he was 12 years old, Harnell and his family relocated to California.
Today he has one of the most COVID-proof jobs in the entertainment business.
“Plug in a good microphone, make sure you have good sound and you’re off to the races,” he says. “I’ve been recording a ton of stuff in my closet.”
That’s just how Harnell has been recording his voice for “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” For nearly 25 years, he’s served as the show’s announcer. He also sings in Rock Sugar, a band that fuses pop with heavy metal.
In addition to filling other minor roles on “The Animaniacs,” Harnell’s voice has popped up in everything from “Doc McStuffins” to the “Transformers” movies (he provided the voices for both an autobot and a decepticon). He’s also known for voicing Crash Bandicoot in a string of games.
“Every five years, we’re part of someone else’s childhood,” he says of the job. “I’ve gotten to ride this wave of being part of people’s happy memories. The fact that now I get a double shot of it with this show is just a beautiful gift that I couldn’t be more thankful for.”
Sometimes, however, fixtures of childhood will necessarily change or evolve.
As the country faced a national reckoning on systemic racism, Harnell’s first professional foray into character voiceover work made headlines this past summer. Since 1989 he’s been the voice of Br’er Rabbit and other characters on the Splash Mountain rides at Disney’s theme parks.
People signed a petition to change the ride because it was based on the 1946 Disney movie “Song of the South,” known for its problematic, racist tropes. Now the parks are giving the ride a complete redesign, changing the backdrop to the 2009 Disney film “The Princess and the Frog.”
“I’ve always taken a great deal of pride in the fact that most hours of the day, somebody somewhere was on a ride and it was making them happy,” Harnell says. “They were smiling and having a good time and hearing my voice singing about having a zip-a-dee-doo-dah day.”
“If that ride has become a source of discomfort or pain or unhappiness or an unhappy reminder to people, then I understand them wanting to restructure it and remake it,” he says.
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Amy Kuperinsky may be reached at [email protected].