Animaniacs is officially back, and the show is already gaining a significant amount of buzz. The Warner siblings’ return to the small screen has garnered positive reviews from many critics and fans of the meta and pop culture-infused show. However, the toon is also receiving its fair share of backlash due to the presence of a Johnny Depp joke that many believed was making light of the actor’s recent court battle with ex-wife Amber Heard. Many across social media have voiced their thoughts on the matter and, now legendary voice actor Rob Paulsen (the voice behind Yakko), has provided some thoughts on the matter.
The situation specifically revolves around a background gag that depicts a cartoon version of Depp as starring in a project titled Johnny 2: Telling Lies. Many of Depp’s fans believed the show was implying that the actor is lying about the abuse claims against Amber Heard. The controversy also added fire to the hashtag, #BoycottWarnerBrothers, which was already making the rounds due to Heard’s continued involvement in the DC Extended Universe.
Aside from those who believe Animaniacs was taking a shot at Johnny Depp, there are others who believe the show was actually putting a spin on a children’s rhyme called “Johny Johny Yes Papa.” When I spoke with Rob Paulsen, he explained that the intent was to parody the poem, and he pointed out that the episode was animated well before Depp and Heard’s legal battle began:
But the truth about that is that there's a poem, a children's poem, a book called 'Lying Johnny,' or 'Johny Johny' or something like that, you can look it up. And remember, this was done a couple of years ago. And by the way, this is a background that is involved in one of the episodes. And frankly, I'm not sure which one because I don't draw them and I don't write them.
Rob Paulsen explained to me that he learned about the controversy over the weekend through fans on social media. This encouraged him to do a bit of research to verify the validity of the producers’ intent:
I've been getting heat myself. ‘Mr. Paulson, how could you?’ ‘How could I what? What did I do?’ ‘Well, Johnny Depp and you know, he's being mistreated.’ I don't know what people are talking about. So I did a little research. Well, check out 'Johny Johny.' And you know, and if you see earlier in that background shot, there's a baby eating sugar, and that’s part of the children’s rhyme.
The legal battle between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard has had a somewhat polarizing effect on the public. Earlier in the month, Depp lost his libel lawsuit against The Sun, which described him as a “wife-beater.” Ultimately, the court ruled that the recorded evidence justified the publication’s claims. Shortly after, Warner Bros. asked the actor to resign from his role in the Fantastic Beasts franchise. This, paired with Amber Heard’s work with WB, caused even more friction between supporters of Depp and those of Heard. Considering all of this, Paulsen finds it “interesting” how the public can read into the episode and “co-opt” the content based on the sides they’ve taken:
People read into things, what suits their point of view. Isn’t that interesting? These things, and I know categorically that these things that are not cartoons, they’re backgrounds in cartoons – no movement, no nothing. People have co-opted that to suit whichever side of the Johnny Depp/Amber Heard mess they identify with. I and the producers had nothing to do with that, in terms of throwing shadow one way or the other. But it's fascinating, in this day and age, how that can happen so quickly.
While he has gotten feedback from folks across the internet, Paulsen does not believe he’s getting the bulk of the complaints. He also provided some thoughts on who he thinks is taking issue with the joke the most:
Most of the people are probably not going after me but are saying, ‘Hey, Mr. Paulson, look what happened', are probably in their 20s, maybe teens, TikTokers. And that's not a pejorative. I'm a TikToker… Their reality, your reality, is instantaneous. I’m kind of going, ‘Wow, this is crazy.’ And it is. But it gives me something to talk about.
Ultimately, the veteran actor explained that when it comes to Depp and Heard’s situation, he would “wish them both the best,” and he also stressed that the cast and crew of Animaniacs never intended to poke fun at their situation:
But I can tell you nobody was looking to make it uncomfortable or cast dispersions against Johnny Depp, Amber Heard or anyone. People co-opt that for their own uses.
The first season of the Animaniacs revival is currently streaming on Hulu and features Rob Paulsen’s stellar performances as Yakko and Pinky of Pinky and the Brain.