"Wakko Yaks: A Conversation with Jess Harnell" by Javier Zayas

Probably best known to the 90's generation as the voice of Wakko Warner on Steven Spielberg's ANIMANIACS, Jess Harnell has lent his pipes to everything from TAZ-MANIA to 2 STUPID DOGS, from Michael Bay's TRANSFORMERS to Pixar's UP, from video games to theme park attractions like Splash Mountain, from AMERICA'S FUNNIEST HOME VIDEOS to even opening for bands like AC/DC and Aerosmith with his band Rock Sugar. But when he's not taking over the world as an alien in DARKWING DUCK or voicing multiple characters on THE POWERPUFF GIRLS, what is this rock star voice actor doing? And what led him into this "totally insaney" career? Fortunately for us, he was kind enough to share some of those stories...   

Javier Zayas: So you were born in Teaneck, New Jersey?

Jess Harnell: Actually it was Englewood Hospital, but right near Teaneck and that's where I lived so we'll stick with that. I lived there until I was about three or four then I moved to Philly because my dad became the musical director of The Mike Douglas Show in Philadelphia. Then I moved to L.A. when I was eleven, so I'm an official dude. I've been there for a while and it's been good to me.

JZ: What were some of you favorite voices to imitate as a kid?

JH: One of the first things I learned to do was all four of The Beatles. I gotta admit that I learned to do David Cassidy from The Partridge Family when I was a little boy because I noticed that all the girls liked him... I was a four-year-old singing "I Think I Love You." It worked because all the counselors at camp wanted to hug me, and that taught me a lesson I never forgot.
(Javi interviewing Jess at Orlando's 2015 MegaCon)
JZ: What cartoons inspired you when you were a kid?

JH: I love cartoons like everybody does, man. I love The Flintstones, Looney Tunes, and all that stuff... but I was really more of a fan of the classic sitcoms like The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family, and then later Mork & Mindy and Happy Days. I guess Robin Williams was like a cartoon character, so I'm sure he was a big influence. That guy was freaking amazing.

I do remember going to a voice-over session at Filmation. My dad knew the owner of the studio and he got me a tour. We walked through seeing these four actors recording Superfriends and I thought "wow, that seems like a cool job." They were changing their voices to play like nine characters! Even then I was doing impressions and voices, so it was kind of fortuitous to see that when I was a little boy, and now I do it every day. How cool is that? You know, full circle.

JZ: Fulle Circle!

JH: It's a tie-in right there. And that was completely unpaid, folks. 

JZ: Who do you consider to be legends in the field of voice acting? 

JH: It all starts and ends with Mel Blanc. He's the guy that kind of created this field. Then there's a guy named Frank Welker who is just so prolific and has worked on so many projects, and he is also the nicest guy in the world. To tell you the truth, I feel like every day I get to work with most of the legends in the business because I get to sit alongside Rob Paulsen and Tress MacNeille, Billy West, Jeff Glenn Bennett, and Kevin Michael Richardson and people who are so great at this stuff. They have done literally thousands of cartoons! Then I reflect on my own self and I think "wow, I've done thousands of these things. Holy smokes." Not that I consider myself legendary.

JZ: You are!

JH: Thank you. I consider myself blessed. Let's put it that way.

(Jess with fellow Animaniacs, Tress MacNeille and Rob Paulsen)
JZ: Growing up, how much do you think your father's musicality served as an influence for you?

JH: That was very helpful because my dad was a great composer and arranger. He actually did the music for The Incredible Hulk! My mom was a big band singer, and she's still great, but having music around the house just made me and my brothers want to pursue music in one way or another. My path was singing and it still is. I think that really taught me a lot about where to place your voice, where tones sit, and doing impressions. To this day it helps me with character voices because the first thing I do is say "ok, this is where he is." I look at it from a musical point of view.

JZ: What is your process for creating a new voice?

JH: You might read a few lines of a character description and just think you have a beat on what the guy might sound like, but then you see a picture of him and that changes everything. The character's height, shape, how they dress, even their hair... you go "oh, now I see, now I get it." You've got this Batman poster here and you might say "these are both villains that are taking over the world." You'd do a completely different voice for The Penguin because of his nose and cigarette holder. Then there's Mr.Freeze who's head is inside a helmet and he's got the glowing red eyes, it'll be a completely different mindset you establish for these characters and that's what it is. That's what's most helpful to me is getting a clear character description and a drawing.

JZ: What is an example of a character's voice that completely changed?

JH: The first big series I ever got was Animaniacs. They originally told me just to do The Beatles and I asked "which Beatle do you want?" and they said let's do John. I was just talking like John Lennon and we started reading it and finally they showed me a picture and he was this very small guy, so I made his voice much smaller, like John if he were on helium or something, and that's how that developed.
JZ: What was that audition like?

JH: It was crazy! The first thing was my initial audition where they just said the character's name is Wakko and he does whatever he wants. He's crazy and just bounces around like a ball of energy. I was already doing Roger Rabbit for Disney at that point, and I did it like a crazy, zany character like him. I went in for the callback they said "we like what you did, but let's try some other stuff." I kid you not, the first impression they wanted me to do was Elvis, so I was saying "hello, nurse!" That was weird, man. It just didn't make any sense to me. 

Characters constantly develop and turn into different things. When I did The Tick I read this character called the Sewer Urchin and he was supposed to be kind of mild mannered and timid, so I did a take like that and then I decided to do a take-two like Rain Man because I thought he is as timid and mild mannered as you're going to get. So I'm like "yeah, definitely gotta save the tick, yeah, definitely save the tick." That's what they loved and they went with that. So sometimes by being weird you create a whole new thing that nobody else thought of.

JZ: How many years now have you been in the industry?

JH: Well I started as a rock and roll singer, which I still do, and then that lead into being a studio singer in 1987. In 1991 the voice-over thing hit. I guested on Darkwing Duck (my first spot was playing an alien named Bleeb who wanted to take over the world), recorded for the Splash Mountain ride, and the Roger Rabbit stuff. Then in 1993 I got Animaniacs and I've been doing it ever since.
JZ: So with doing voice-over AND singing in Rock Sugar, how do you keep your voice in shape?

JH: Usually the best thing to do is just shut up. If I shut up for a couple of days I'll be ok. In this instance I can't do that, so I just rest and try not to push it too hard. Sometimes I have to shut down for like a week or something, but hopefully it won't be that bad.

JZ: I read that with Rock Sugar you've had the chance to work with AC/DC and Aerosmith, how was it working with them?

JH: Incredible! It's such a great feeling to have a guy who's poster you had on your wall when you were eighteen tell you that you're his favorite band. Like Vince Neil from Mötley Crüe, one of the first gigs we ever had was opening for him and when we walked off he goes, "you guys are like the best band I've ever heard in my life." It's like really really cool, and for those who don't know Rock Sugar check it out online because trust me you'll be glad you did. I'm not just saying that because I'm involved. Basically, we take all the greatest metal songs of the 80's by bands like Metallica and AC/DC and I sing the greatest pop songs of the 80's over the metal songs. I know that makes no sense, but the biggest song we have is "Don't Stop the Sandman" and it's a cross between "Enter Sandman" by Metallica and "Don't Stop Believin'" by Journey and you gotta hear it to believe it. We started as a goof and next thing you know we're playing in front of forty-thousand at a shot, so it's been really cool.

JZ: What do you like about the convention scene?

JH: I love meeting the people who like your work. That's by far the best part - the traveling is ok, the hotels are ok... but the people are great and they always make us feel so welcome and they make us feel very grateful.

JZ: Is it tough being on the road away from your friends and family?

JH: Yeah man, but it's not like it was back in the 80s when you get on a bus and live there for four months. Now even for these things I'm out for the weekend. When I play with Rock Sugar the longest we'll be gone is a week if we do Europe and then we're back, so it's really not that big a deal. It's great because like I said it's meeting people who appreciate your work. People come up say they waited in line two hours and they say "thank you so much", and I'm like "thank me? Dude, thank YOU!" I don't know if I'd wait two hours to meet Paul McCartney, much less a freaking cartoon, so I'm very very grateful that they take the time out of their busy schedules to come and say hello to us. It's awesome.
JZ: Is there anyone you've ever been star-struck by?

JH: I've met a lot of folks, man. The only person that I think I'd ever be star-struck by is Paul McCartney. I've met George Harrison and Ringo, which was pretty great. I just have so much respect for The Beatles and if I had met John I probably would have to be resuscitated because he was such a hero to me, and still is.

JZ: Do you have a favorite Beatles album?

JH: Oh my gosh all of them. It's different eras - the best early Beatles album for me is A Hard Day's Night. The best mid-level album is Revolver. My favorite later-period album is real close between Abbey Road and The Beatles. That's like saying "what's your favorite kind of donut?" They're all really good!

JZ: I actually went to a Paul McCartney concert back in October and it was a life-changing experience. 

JH: When you go to a McCartney concert you see grandparents holding their seven-year-old on their shoulders and they're both singing the same song. I announce Americas Funniest Home Videos, and I have for eighteen years - stuff like that makes me so proud because when you have something that crosses generations that grandparents can watch with their little ones, who can watch with their little ones, that's all you can ask for in life. So I'm no Paul McCartney, but I'm glad that I get to be something that families can enjoy.
JZ: I've gotta know, what was it like recording for Splash Mountain? 

JH: It was an unusual thing and I'll tell you why - Splash Mountain is based off Song of the South, which is the only Disney movie from that era that has not been released on DVD. It's because... let's just say, it's maybe not the most politically correct movie. It was made in a different era and so there are some hurdles to cross in terms of releasing it. So doing Splash Mountain was sort of a sensitive thing because you don't want to offend anybody's sensibilities. At the same time, you want to be true to these characters who were very over the top. The main thing I remember about voicing that stuff was I had never done a character voice-session ever in my life and all I could think of, even more than getting paid, was how cool it would be to go on a ride at Disneyland and hear my voice. I also thought it would really impress chicks, so I was excited about that.

When they gave me the money I thought "wow, there might be a job in this someplace." My favorite thing about it is whenever I go to the parks I turn into an eight-year-old again. When I hear myself on those rides I am so proud. 

I took my family to Disney World not too long ago and they got us VIP seating for the Main Street Electrical Parade - so we're sitting there above the street and I'm watching all these floats come down with this bird's-eye-view of a family who were so happy. They were being made happy by my friends who provide these character's voices and by these actors who are doing the great job of moving and gesturing and I kept thinking, rather selfishly, "I wish I had something in this parade!" Finally, off in the distance, I hear "Under the Sea" from The Little Mermaid which I did Sebastian for. It was the last thing in the parade, so here it comes down the street and this family starts singing along, and they're just beaming! Looking down at them I just thought "I love my job."

That sort of describes every day. You get people coming up to you saying "you're my childhood." That's beautiful because I can't believe anybody's parents would ever let me in their house. Second of all, I'm so happy to have been any part of anybody's happiness, even for a moment.
(Javi presenting Jess with personalized artwork by Stephen Wittmaak as a thank you gift)
JZ: Finally, we like to end all of our interviews with this question: what three words would you use to describe yourself?

JH: Fun. Kind. Interested.

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