Freaking Out With Paul Rugg
by Brett Rogers
After starting his career in entertainment as a writer for KBC radio in
his stint at KBC in the early 1980s, Rugg joined the “L.A. Connection”
acting group, which produced a Mystery Science Theater 3000-style television
program called “Mad Movies”.
In 1989, Rugg moved on to the ACME Comedy Group, where he wrote and performed
comedy sketches throughout
While with ACME, Rugg was asked to join the writing staff for the Warner Bros. animated series, “Steven Spielberg Presents: Animaniacs.” His lack of experience in animation proved not to be a liability, however, as Rugg's work was so well received that he not only became a Supervising Story Editor on the show, but also a resident voice actor, portraying the roles of minor characters such as Mr. Director, Mrs. Mumphries, Albert Einstein, and others.
As a writer, Rugg has consistently pushed the limits of what one can expect to see on Saturday morning, or in Prime Time television for that matter. With “Animaniacs”, Rugg has given audiences fast-paced episodes driven by silliness and zany brand of humor, epitomized by one particular segment in which the word “potty” is used 32 times in under six minutes of animation. It is this outlandishness that won Rugg the positions of story editor and writer for the equally fast-paced “Steven Spielberg Presents: Freakazoid!” in 1995.
Early in the production process for “Freakazoid!” a satisfactory voice actor to play the part of Freakazoid had not been found after extensive auditions for the role. This led to a very unusual circumstance in which Rugg was called upon to serve in both writing and voice acting roles for the show. As Rugg recalls, “We were under a big deadline and we were just finding ourselves really confused. Whenever we tried to explain the show to somebody we were faced with a really blank stare. People had no idea what we were talking about and we had no idea what to tell them.”
Eventually “Freakazoid!” Producer Tom Ruegger asked Rugg to go into the recording booth to demonstrate what he thought the character's voice should sound like. Rugg describes, “I went in there and did it. Then they played it for Steven [Spielberg] and he said 'Yep! Fine, sure, great,' and then I panicked ... and I had to do it.”
The result was a hyperactive teen super hero whose personality is a bit of Jerry Lewis, Chris Farley and Batman, rolled into what is one of the most bizarre central characters on television. Rugg explains, “We were able to experiment and try something really different with 'Freakazoid!' There is no format. Each show you never know what direction we're going to take. I think that a lot of people when they first watch ['Freakazoid!'] are puzzled and say 'What is this about? I don't understand it,' and once they understand it, it's basically about being silly ... and not so much about the story, but how we tell the story.”
Much of that humorous presentation is achieved through Rugg's frenzied episodes of ad-libbing in recording Freakazoid's dialogue. One episode in particular, “Dance of Doom,” was marked by a particularly high-powered and unplanned outburst in the recording booth. As Rugg says, “I kind of went off, and much to my surprise, they animated it.” It is that level of creative freedom that has allowed Rugg to accomplish the extraordinary energy that carries his segments.
Working as both a writer and voice actor has presented an interesting dilemma for Rugg. “You really have to put your ego aside because you write [an episode] as a writer and say to yourself, 'okay, good, I like this, and I hope that actor doesn't ruin this copy,' and I'm talking about myself. Then I get in the recording booth and I go 'Who wrote this?!' And it was me.”
Rugg's debut as the voice of a major animated character has shown what can happen when the energy of a comedy writer is allowed to escape into the recording booth. This dynamism undoubtedly had a hand in winning “Freakazoid!” enough success to warrant a second season on the WB Network, where along with “Animaniacs” we can see more of his voice and written talents at work this fall.
Originally published in ANiMATO! Fall 1996, Issue 36
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