If you happen to own a television anytime from say 1983 to the present time you have no doubt heard, if not seen, Rob Paulsen. Among the most successful voice over talents since the late Mel Blanc, Rob has lent his gifts to more than 250 different animated characters, utilized by such shows as The Mask, Aladdin, G.I. Joe, The Fairly OddParents, Doc McStuffins, Jake and the Neverland Pirates and more. He is probably most known for his work on Animaniacs (Yakko) The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (he’s voiced both Raphael and Donatello) and Pinky of both Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain. If you have a child, Rob’s skills have kept them entertained for years. He’s won a Daytime Emmy Award for his role as Pinky as well as three Annie Awards, which recognizes excellence in animation. At fifty-nine years old he was diagnosed with throat cancer, which would be alarming for pretty much anyone but especially so for someone who used their voice to make a living. Fortunately, the doctors did what doctors do best and he has made a total recovery, an experience the writes about in his new book – “Voice Lessons: How a Couple of Ninja Turtles, Pinky, and an Animaniac Saved My Life”. Recently, he’s teamed up with Animaniacs composer Randy Rogel to perform Animaniacs in Concert, a terrific cabaret show which I caught at Joe’s Pub. I had a chance to speak with the voice over legend after the show.
Was doing voice over work something you actively pursued when you were young?
Growing up I was always sort of a happy go lucky, whack job child; I loved cartoons, no more or less so than any other child but I used to watch Looney Tunes with my father and mother. When I was in high school I had two friends in my class, brothers, whose father did a local radio show for The Buick Factory. I was born in Detroit, but I grew up south of Flint, which is where they built Buicks. A fellow named Bill Lamb had a show called ‘The Buick Factory Whistle Show’ which was a daily radio show directed towards the folks that worked in the factory. He had this really killer recording studio in his basement, a technological sandbox, and his sons and I got together and started doing little radio plays, and it was a lot of fun and that cultivated my desire to be creative and try stuff. At the same time I was becoming a huge fan of the Pythons (Monty Python and The Flying Circus), plus Carol Burnett, Tim Conway, Harvey Korman, people who were just creatively fearless. I loved it. But then I saw Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove and I said, “Oh my God the same guy played three distinct characters and they were all fantastic!”
I was primarily a singer who became an actor, moved to L.A. in 1978 ostensibly to do singing and live action work, and that’s what I was doing. Then in the mid 80s my agent called and said, “Have you ever thought about doing animation?” and I said “Yeah, but only a handful or people do those” because remember, in those days it was all about Saturday morning; there was not nearly the amount of product that had to be made for all the various outlets. But I auditioned and the first ones I got were G.I. Joe and The Transformers and I got to tell you, I walked into the studio and I saw all of these actors – character actors I’d seen on network television growing up, and all of them were doing what I and my friends were doing back in Michigan. Just playing. And no one was wearing fancy clothes, nobody had on groovy makeup and they were doing characters that had nothing to do with the way they looked. I thought, “Now you’re talking!” Because when you’re a non celebrity talent in L.A. you are limited almost always by how you look. Here there was none of that. It took me probably another five years to where I totally abandoned the on camera stuff and it’s not that I didn’t like doing it, it’s that this particular avenue is what had opened up to me. I was getting paid well, I was working every day, I wasn’t limited by being on a set for two months, I didn’t have to get dressed up, and look, I don’t mind any of that, but I loved the impromptu nature of essentially just jumping into the pool and playing. And I got to tell you, now I’m 63 years old and nobody still cares what I look like! I made the right choice, and I’m really glad I did.
Ok, but now because of the concert and the appearances at Comic Con and such, some people do care what you look like. Are you starting to be recognized now more than you were?
I am and it has even happened here in Manhattan. And look, I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t matter to me, of course it matters to me, it’s very flattering and mainly because my sort of fame is tangential. That is, the characters are famous. I don’t draw them. I don’t write them. And I’m fine with that. I always give credit to the others because without them, I got nothing. However, there is something incredibly special about a voice that hits you right in your heart and in my case, when I am recognized it is never intrusive. When I am recognized it is all about pure, unadulterated, unfettered joy. It just makes everybody happy. I’m asked to do Yakko or Pinky or Donatello or whoever and it often reduces people to tears because it takes them to a place of utter happiness or sometimes it takes them to a place that was the ONLY happy thing that was their experience as a child. You meet people who say ‘Dude. I was in the foster care system from the time I was six months old to the time I was seventeen and I was at four or five homes throughout my young life and it was really, really hard feeling abandoned but there was a TV in every home and I could hold on to Ninja Turtles. And it got me through it and so now I would like you to meet my wife, and my kids, and I’m fine and you will never, never know what Ninja Turtles did for me.” and that’s not unusual. It’s freaking mind blowing.
Wow. That is a life well lived then.
Man, I tell you, I hit the lottery. And if I were to die right this minute, it would be inconvenient for you, but I am so fortunate. But moreover, I totally get it. I understand how incredibly lucky I am. Now I embrace it. I want people to stop and talk to me. Because it makes people happy and it gives me even more of a reason to think that the work I am doing is way more important than just a paycheck or an action figure and I tell you, it has happened zillions of times and it is never not spectacular.
If you never did this, is there anything else you wanted to be when you were growing up?
Yeah, the only other thing I ever wanted to be was a hockey player.
Ok, so how does it work, this voice over thing? You’re given a script, or an idea, how do you figure out what sort of voice goes with what sort of character? Is it something you create yourself, do you work on it with the writers, the producers, etc.?
It’s a very collaborative effort, probably more so than on camera work, because there again, you’re generally hired by your look, and you do take after take to get it right. But when the only thing you have to inform the audience of the character is a voice, and I’m not trying to make it sound more difficult than it is, it’s not brain surgery, but I don’t have the ability to convey a thought or a feeling with a wink or an eyebrow raise, so I have producers, and myself, and often the other actors by choices that they make help me to come up with ideas. It’s a deeply collaborative effort and pretty much ego-less. The actors with whom I work are utterly ego-less in this pursuit because we know that ultimately our characters and the voices they’re in will be helped a lot if you listen to other people who have a lot of experience. I’m a much better actor because I get to work with great writers. And we’re doing Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain again….for an audience that is exponentially larger than when it came out in 1993, where the King of Hollywood asks us if we want to do this again and we’re like, Are you kidding me, Mr. Spielberg? Of course we want to do it again. So I made the right choice and I’m really glad I did.
Let me ask you, with technology being what it is today, do you ever just sit at your home and record your work, or do you always go to a studio?
I prefer to go to the studio. I much prefer going there, being with other actors. I’m an old dog, not only is it what I’m used to, but these men and women are my friends. We spend time together when we’re not working, we’ve been to each other’s homes, we know each other’s children; these people are my best friends so I’d much rather be with them. And from a selfish perspective, it makes me better.
With all your success, do you still have to audition?
I do, and that I can do from home, but not for everything. I certainly get a lot more work given to me than I used to because I’ve cultivated some relative success and there are people now who are 30, 35 years old and they know everything I’ve worked on and they make a point to hire me and my friends and a great example of that is Rick and Morty. It’s a great show and the kid who created it was straight up when he hired me, he said, ‘Are you kidding me, I grew up loving the smartness of Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain and other shows you’ve worked on and I said some day when I get to Hollywood I’m going to hire the usual suspects’ and he did. We’ve all worked on the show and it’s been fantastic. You see, my job is to make myself more famous. Because there’s no question that fame has a cache. And now, especially now that animation is HUGE….especially in cinema and television….there are a lot of celebrities doing cartoons. For me to be able to compete with the likes of George Clooney or Brad Pitt….if Disney says we’re going to hire George Clooney to be the talking dragon, and they’re going to spend about two million dollars or whatever, I have to say, You know what? Hollywood’s never going to change. So instead of me getting my nose out of joint, my job is to say, Look I can totally compete with those people talent wise. I’ve got the chops, I’ve got way more experience in this realm and virtually everyone who’s working on this movie would know what I’ve worked on. They just don’t know it’s me. So my goal is to say, let’s see how far you can push this, hotshot. Let’s see if you can take what I think is a pretty good resume and see if you can expand on that and make people aware of who you are. I’m interested in the challenge. I don’t like to settle. I’ve done this for a long time and I want to see what I can do with what I’ve got. It’s been a really interesting process and a hell of a lot of fun.
Talk about Animaniacs in Concert. To begin with, let me just say that Randy Rogel, who wrote the songs is a genius.
He is, he is! The word gets bandied about a lot in this business but he is a freaking genius. Period. I’ve known him for about a quarter of a century and we’re very, very good friends. Off the stage as well. And so years ago, I was doing a podcast and I said, ‘Hey Randy. Why don’t you come on the podcast and we’ll talk about all these killer songs that you wrote for Animaniacs and so he did and the podcast listeners all said God, you guys should get together someplace and do your music. So we approached Warner Brothers, because we didn’t want to do it bass-ackwards and it took us six months but I’ll be damned. They gave us a licensing deal which allows us to do songs Randy wrote but they own and all that animation and we’ve done it a number of times at Joe’s Pub, which I just love, it’s such an intimate setting but then we also get to do it with an eighty piece orchestra and a fifty foot screen somewhere else and that’s great, too.
Ok, so talk to me about the throat cancer. How did it happen, how did you deal with it, where is at now?
Ok, so when I was diagnosed, I was 59 years old. And even if the doctors had said, ‘look, you’d better go home and get your stuff in order, you’re fixing to punch your ticket. We’re gonna keep you comfortable but, ya know, I’m sorry’ and they have to do that every day…so honestly, I had had a great career, I won an Emmy, I worked with wonderful people, I’ve been married to the same woman for thirty odd years, I’ve got a great kid who’s married and healthy so, you know, it’s my turn. Shit happens. But they didn’t say that. They said, ‘Here’s the deal. We’re eighty percent sure we can cure you, which is great odds. But. Before we do, we almost have to kill you.’ And I love that, because I have a wicked sense of humor and I embraced it. But I tell you what, goddamn it, they weren’t too far from the truth. I really took a punch. I lost a pile of weight. I can’t really taste food anymore like I used to. So food is now a drug to keep me alive. But. I was also told, unequivocally, we really don’t know because we don’t treat too many voice actors, if you’ll be able to manipulate your chords the way you used to. But I can. I lost a couple of notes on the high end of my register singing wise, my voice gets tired much quicker than it used to, but I’m adapting. So Rob 2.0 is a little bit different.
To purchase a copy of Rob’s book ‘Voice Lessons click on How a couple of Ninja Turtles, Pinky and an Animaniac Saved My Life’