Rob Paulsen is a voice acting legend from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain. Now he’s telling his own story in Voice Lessons.
Rob Paulsen is the voice of several generations. One of entertainment’s best voice actors, he’s spent decades bringing some of your favorite characters to life, including Pinky from Pinky and the Brain, Yakko Warner in Animaniacs, and two different Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
He’s provided joyous memories for so many people—not just now but there are people who have grown up with his characters or passed shows he’s been in down to their children.
But Rob isn’t only a one of a kind talent; he’s also a one of a kind person. Now in his autobiography Voice Lessons, he’s sharing his story, and it’s one that everyone should read. He shares his battle with throat cancer and the perspective he’s gained through being able to touch other people’s lives with his career. It’s not just a celebrity life story; it’s life lessons, all told with Rob’s signature wit.
He joined Hidden Remote recently to discuss the writing of Voice Lessons, so get to know more about it—and Rob Paulsen—in our interview below.
Hidden Remote: What made you want to write a biography in the first place?
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Rob Paulsen: I have to tell you, it was not an easy sell to me. Precisely because honestly, the last thing the world needs is another celebrity bio. I also get, as you know, that the characters are famous, not me. I don’t draw them. I don’t write them.
People make a fuss over me, and I understand there’s something maybe a little more special to the public about the voice. The voices are iconic. [But] unless you’re Chuck Jones or Bob Clampett, most people don’t pay that much close attention to the artist.
However, when I had the experience with my throat cancer and got through it, I thought now I’ve got a story to tell that makes sense in the context of what I do for a living. As far as I know, there aren’t too many people who do what I do at this level who have gone through throat cancer, which is obviously life-threatening but also in a lesser sense, career-threatening.
HR: Was it easy for you to put the book together, considering how open you’ve always been with your fans on social media and in public appearances?
Rob Paulsen: I have to give the credit where it’s due. My co-writer Mike Fleeman, he’s a journalist, he teaches at Cal State Northridge, and all he does is write books for a living…In the hands of a person that knows how to construct it, it’s a pretty good book. It’s not like I didn’t understand the craft of storytelling, but it’s not The Brothers Karamazov. It’s Rob Paulsen, the funny cartoon guy. But it is an interesting story.
I’ve already talked to about half a dozen reviewers who have read the book. Every one of them said I really liked this, and they even say it’s inspirational. And that was my goal because I have nothing to be sad about. Even if I had been diagnosed and they’d said you better go home and get your stuff in order because you’re on your way out—I’ve had nothing but a wonderful career.
But that’s not what they said. Now I’m back to working at the same level I was before, and my story is not only entertaining but inspirational because I am who I am. People can say wow, it’s like a placekicker losing his foot. This guy had throat cancer, I can handle my fill in the blank. That’s why now [writing a book] makes sense and I’m really proud of it.
HR: The career of Rob Paulsen spans dozens of years and hundreds of characters. Did you have to narrow it down for Voice Lessons? How did you distill all that onto the page?
Rob Paulsen: Mike’s process was we went over the sort of bullet points of my career, focusing primarily on the children and families I’d met throughout my career who were in really awful, diabolical circumstances with their particular diseases. Often the children wouldn’t make it, so that was the point of the story. The voice lessons, if you will. To understand the extent these people and their families embrace these characters, so much so that they were even able to keep in touch with me and thank me, if you can imagine it, be it Raphael or Yakko or Pinky or whomever.
A lot of it is about my own personal experience with these incredibly brave children and families about whom the book was ostensibly written…We wanted to use stuff that was germane to the mission: to celebrate the power, the joy and positive power of the characters I’ve done, and by extension all the others. We could talk about Jim Cummings in context of Winnie the Pooh and Tigger and how those characters have gotten people through impossible circumstances alone for the whole freaking day.
There are everyday heroes who get to do something, whether it’s something as silly and simple as a cartoon character, and it keeps them going. I never knew that until all these experiences I got to have at conventions where I see it first-hand all the time.
HR: How did you balance telling that story with satisfying the people who will come to the book looking for more detail about Rob Paulsen’s cavalcade of characters?
Rob Paulsen: There will be people, even more so in the audio version of the book, hoping they hear Yakko and Pinky and other characters, and they will. There’s a nice chunk at the beginning of the book where I tell Pinky that I have cancer, and then there’s a nice chunk at the end of the book where Doctor Scratchansniff has a therapy session with me about my characters. I tell him that I actually created his voice and he says to me, I think we’re going to need a bigger couch. If people are coming to hear the anecdotes about the shows, that’s a great way to hook them.
But they will finish the book, I hope, with a much bigger understanding about the simple importance of joy from the most unexpected places. People get the biggest kick out of Yakko or Pinky or Carl or Donatello or Dr. Scratchansniff or Raphael or whatever because it brings them to a place of nostalgia, happiness, innocence.
But you dig a little deeper and there are many, many others who tell me and my friends, but for DuckTales, Looney Tunes, The Simpsons, Animaniacs, Ninja Turtles, my childhood was a freaking mess. I was a six-month-old when I was taken into the foster system and I didn’t get out until I was 18, and I switched homes five different times, and were it not for the fact there was a television in every home, I don’t think I would have made it. Or my son ultimately passed away from muscular dystrophy, but he spoke to Raphael and he saved those recordings to get through a really dark day.
That’s the takeaway. The power of joy in whatever form it takes. It can be something as simple as Looney Tunes and I have learned much more than I ever knew about that power.
HR: You mentioned the audiobook. As a voice actor, what was it like recording Voice Lessons and reading your own material instead of someone else’s script?
Rob Paulsen: It was fascinating and another example of being smart enough to know what I’m not smart at…It’s a different discipline and when they booked me to read my book—it’s 250 pages and there’s maybe 4-5 pages of pictures but it took like four days of five-hour recording sessions. I’m like Jesus, I’m not reading Gone with the Wind, I’m not reading the Encyclopedia Britannica, I’m reading my book. And I used every nickel of that time because it’s grueling.
Your mind starts to go to mush. I’m reading words that I wrote—Mike constructs them but they’re my words—and I still had to take breaks. Still had to go over and over. It was fascinating and grueling. I’m an actor, not a reader. I’m much better creating characters and speaking in the context of those characters rather than just reading words. It’s a different vibe for sure.
HR: Is there a part of Voice Lessons that is particularly special to you?
Rob Paulsen: I had a lot of different thoughts on whom I would like to write the forward, from Mr. [Steven] Spielberg to Maurice [LaMarche], to [Frank] Welker to Peter Cullen, who is also a friend. But I thought wait a minute, you know who I should get to write this forward is my son Ash, who is a games journalist for GameXplain, and it turned out really well.
I didn’t ask him or tell him to write anything…and he wrote from the heart. He explained that there are a lot of people who look upon people that do what I do with a certain amount of awe, and I understand that because I was like that when I didn’t live in Hollywood too. But it’s like everybody else. It’s not all perfect. It’s not all easy to be the son of someone who people [are] like oh my God, your dad’s Raphael or Pinky or Yakko, what was that growing up with Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill at your birthday party? That’s all great but it comes with its problems too.
I know this isn’t going to be at the top of the New York Times Best Sellers list, but it will give an insight into what people look at as kind of groovy and glamorous. It is, but there are also typical ups and downs which includes throat cancer. I was grateful that my son wrote about all of the things that contextualized being the son of a “famous” person. It’s not all fabulous.
I think it’s nice for people to understand that’s the way it is for everybody. Nobody is immune from taking a few punches; it’s just the way it is. I didn’t go in and out of rehab, I haven’t been married 14 times, but we still have our issues. Sometimes life throws you curves and you choose to be joyful and deal with it or you don’t.