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Wakko's Back! An Interview with Jess Harnell

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Wakko's Back! An Interview with Jess Harnell

Jess Harnell with his character from Animaniacs, Wakko Warner.

Warner Brothers Studios

Animation lovers and '90s kids rejoice: Animaniacs is back on the airwaves as of January 7th, 2013, thanks to The Hub after their success with the Wakko's Wish Christmas special airing. Animaniacs was on starting in the early '90s, starring the Warner Brothers Yakko and Wakko, and the Warner Sister, Dot, as crazy cartoon characters run amok on the Warner Brothers studio lot who are then captured and locked away in the iconic Warner Brothers water tower until they manage to escape and wreak havoc on the studio once more. Many other characters grace the cartoon as well, including Slappy Squirrel, a grumpy older starlet squirrel raising her nephew Skippy, the troublesome toddler Mindy who calls her mother "Lady" and is constantly left only in the care of the family dog Buttons, the gene-spliced lab mice Pinky and The Brain, and more.

Those of us who grew up with the program (I turn 30 this year and I used to watch it after school and on the weekends as a middle school student) are super excited to introduce this program to our kids, although some of the jokes might be lost on the younger generation (Bill Clinton plays the saxophone in the opening credits, for example). As part of the welcome back to television event with The Hub, I was given the opportunity to chat with one of the voice actors, Jess Harnell, who plays Wakko Warner (the one with the hat).

Jess Harnell: Helloooo Tori! (I have to say, this made me blush like a schoolgirl. Anyone who has seen Animaniacs knows that they say this about the super hot nurse character, so I took it as an immense compliment. I giggled.)

Tori Michel: First of all, you're known for being the voice of Wakko Warner. What did you do initially to prepare for the character?

JH: Well, as far as preparing for it, with any audition you look at what they want for the character and you try to bring something to it that you think might be clever or suited to it. With Wakko, originally on the auditions it started out just being a crazy, dingy cartoon character. He's crazy, off the wall, you know, so I just went with crazy cartoon voices. But at the callback audition, they knew I did a lot of impressions and said, well, what if I did some kind of impression. I thought that was kind of cool. They said, "how about Elvis?", so for a while it was kind of (Elvis voice) "Uh, hey-ya, hello there, how's it goin'?", which was kind of funny. But then we said, "Well what about the Beatles?". It started out more like Ringo (Ringo voice) more from the regular band, but then it transitioned into being very small (Wakko voice) because he's just a little guy. When Mr. Spielberg heard the audition, he said, "That's really cool, do that." But, in terms of preparing for the role, in animation, once you have the basic voice of the character down, it's all kind of free range from there and you just build on the foundation that you've laid. So the preparation is basically selecting the right voice, and from there that's your large task to just take it places and get crazier and crazier with it as time goes by.

TM: So what's your favorite "Wakko-ism"? I know he's got a lot of really great ones. A lot of my friends, when I told them I was interviewing you, said "get him to say Faboo!"

JH: Well, you know first of all, (Wakko voice) I want to say that Tori is "Faboo" (this elicited another giggle from me). That's got to be one of mine. There's so many great Wakko-isms. I just love that he's just so clearly uninhibited, he'll say whatever is on his mind. My favorite Wakko-ism is that he's happy 24/7, and that's kind of what I aspire to be too. I try to learn from Wakko.

TM: Besides the promos for The Hub with the show premiering, is there anything new you're working on with Wakko that you're allowed to talk about?

JH: We've all, myself and you know Rob Paulsen and Tress MacNeille who are the amazingly talented folks who play Yakko and Dot, we're all blessed to work on a lot of animated projects, and TV shows and stuff like that, so there's always a lot going on for everyone. But we all hold a very special place in our hearts for Animaniacs because of how good it was, how much fun it was to work on, and what a special project that was. There has not been any activity on it in a long time, so with The Hub bringing it back and it airing again on the Hub, we sort of feel like it's getting a new touch… not that we've really fallen out of touch with it, because folks that remember it remember it fondly, but all of the sudden it's back on TV again and you never know. We're all working on other things, we have plenty of shows and they're all great, but I think in the back of our minds, we're all kind of hopeful that maybe with the resurgence of Animaniacs on television, you never really know where this could lead. (Wakko voice) We could be back in your living rooms with all new stuff any day folks, keep your fingers crossed and write your Congress!

TM: You know, that would be awesome. I've been dying to introduce my son to Animaniacs, and just finding it on DVD and stuff has been next to impossible. So now that it's back on the Hub, I've got my DVR set to record all of them, because I'm so excited.

JH: Aw, I'm so glad. That means a lot to me! Thank you.

TM: Now switching gears a bit, you mentioned that you do a lot of other cartoon voices. I know you were Secret Squirrel on Two Stupid Dogs, another favorite of mine, you're Chilly on Doc McStuffins...

JH: Yeah, Doc McStuffins, that's a great new one on Disney Junior that's doing really well.

TM: And for Disney Junior you do Taxicrab, is that correct?

JH: Yep, for Jungle Junction, I do [Taxicrab], and for Sofia the First I did Cedric also for Disney Junior, that's a really cool one. And I'm on a new show coming out called The 7D that is still kind of under wraps for Disney, that's going to be a great show as well. I worked on Monsters University, I worked on Wreck It Ralph, I did some voices for America's Funniest Home Videos, there's always something going on!

TM: And is true you're doing Tim the bear on The Cleveland Show as well?

JH: Yeah, I took that over. Seth MacFarlane got busy with his movie and stuff like that, so they were looking for a new bear and (Tim the bear voice) the next thing you know, I ended up doing that show too! So one thing leads to another.

TM: So on this thread, what has been your favorite character to work with?

JH: My favorite to character to work with, bringing things full circle, I definitely have a soft spot in my heart for Wakko. The reason for that is, I had done some voiceover stuff, some Disney stuff... I'm the voice of Brer Rabbit on the Splash Mountain ride and I did Roger Rabbit for a while as well, but Wakko was my first original voice that I'd done. The other folks on that show had done so many cartoons before Animaniacs, even they knew we were involved in something special. Even though I was new, I also knew that this show was really special and it would stand the test of time, because it's made with so much character, so much love, and it's so clever. So I always have and always will have a very soft spot in my heart for Wakko, and it makes me happy that I think a lot of other people do too.

TM: So what's your favorite thing about doing voiceover work?

JH: My favorite thing is that unlike doing on-camera work, there's obviously nothing against on-camera work, but when you're doing on-camera stuff, you are limited to what your physical type is, you know? It's like, in my case, I look like a guy in a rock band; I can either play that or Jesus or something like that, but there aren't a whole lot of options. With animation, I can literally play a 75 year old British king, and then a five year old boy from Wisconsin, and then a monster, and then a dog, and then a talking squirrel, and then I can do Wakko, and all in a day's work, and I don't have to do wardrobe or change my hair. So, it's pretty cool. Literally, the options for roles are a hundred fold to what you'd be considered for in the on-camera world, it's unlimited.

TM: Is it more fun to do a voice for a kids cartoon character or one for a more adult audience like with Tim on the Cleveland Show, or is there even a difference to you?

JH: There is a difference, you know, because they're being generated for a different audience and there's a different humor and such, but I think at their heart it remains the same, largely because it's almost like putting on an invisible costume. One costume is not better or worse than another, they're all just different. It's a real joy. For an adult cartoon or a kids cartoon or a movie or whatever it happens to be, I'm just happy to put on that costume and be in that room and be that person even if it's just for an hour.

TM: Okay, so I have two kind of goofy questions that I ask everybody I talk to... the first one is, if you could be the voice of any cartoon character in history, which one would you choose and would you change the voice in any way?

JH: I love and I grew up loving Peter Pan, the Disney movie, so I think if I could be Peter Pan or Captain Hook in that movie, which was made a while before I was born, that would have been a particular joy. In terms of doing something different, I don't really think there could have been improved upon. That's definitely one. I think, too, somewhere deep in my heart there's always been a desire to play Batman, so hopefully one day I'll get to do that. You know I grew up on Batman and I could pull that off.

TM: Finally, I've got one last question… what is your favorite cartoon character personally, past or present?

JH: My favorite cartoon character of all time... that's a big question isn't it? Let me think. On a personal level, I would say Wakko, because who doesn't want to be Wakko, and I got to do it for a long time. On an overall level, probably Captain Hook, because Captain Hook is a bad guy but he seems to have so much fun doing it! And he got to wear cool clothes and had long hair. Ha!

(We then got into a quick conversation about having long hair, as I used to have hair down to the back of my knees in high school, but chopped it in college. Jess shared that his hair is about to the middle of his back.)

I have to say that this was probably my favorite interview to date. Jess is so passionate about what he does, and that comes through in his voice as he talks about his career and the characters that are forever parts of him. He was so full of life in our conversation, and such a joy to chat with. Besides, hearing one of my favorite childhood cartoon characters basically call me hot stuff over the phone, that's just priceless in my book.

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