Search form

A Finely-Tooned Voice: Rob Paulsen Interviewed

Dr. Toon flew to Los Angeles and sat down with voice-over legend Rob Paulsen to talk about taking over the world.

Annie and Emmy award-winning Rob Paulsen has seen a lot of changes in animation during his 20-year career as a voice actor.

Annie and Emmy award-winning Rob Paulsen has seen a lot of changes in animation during his 20-year career as a voice actor.

Rob Paulsen is one of the most talented and active voice artists working in animation today. His résumé includes countless voices on 200+ animated series as well as two Annie Awards for his work on Steven Spielberg Presents Animaniacs and Steven Spielberg Presents Pinky and the Brain. Rob also scored an Emmy in 1999 for his voice work as Pinky. A devoted pro hockey fan, Rob lives and dies with the Detroit Red Wings; he often plays in charity matches and has a pretty mean wrist shot.

Dr.Toon: Youve been working for more than 20 years now as a voice artist. Over that time, how do you think cartoons have changed?

Rob Paulsen: Well, the obvious change is that theres more CGI stuff, which has become both more cost effective and nicer to look at. One of the great things about Jimmy Neutron for instance was that the movie was very successful and it translated beautifully from the small screen. It even looks better now than it did on the big screen because the folks who are doing the work at DNA productions are an incredibly talented group of people. They constantly find new and amazing magical tricks to make things look great. The CGI stuff is becoming more and more prevalent and Ive worked on a lot of shows over the past three or four years that are CGI Jimmy Neutron, Butt-Ugly Martians, another one called Dan Dare thats airing in England now. Of course, with the success of Finding Nemo, Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., and Shrek its all CGI stuff and that technology absolutely astonishes me.

Paulsens work on Pinky and the Brain won him an Emmy in 1999. Unless otherwise indicated, all images © Warner Bros. Ent. All rights reserved.

Paulsens work on Pinky and the Brain won him an Emmy in 1999. Unless otherwise indicated, all images © Warner Bros. Ent. All rights reserved.

In terms of the voice aspect, the single most noticeable change is the advent of celebrities. Theres a lot of celebrity talent that I work with, and I enjoy that, but competing with them is difficult. I have no problem competing with them talent-wise I feel that Im good enough at what I do to hold my own with any actor in Hollywood in my segment. I feel good about my ability to improvise, to sing, to do dialects.

The thing I cant compete with is celebrity. Im not Brad Pitt, Im not Mel Gibson, I cant compete with the marketability of an actor in the context of a new animated feature. Its a double-edged sword, because I have respect and admiration for anyone who makes it to the top in this business, but at the same time, its difficult because, like you said, Ive put in 20-odd years in this business and Ive won Annies and been nominated for Emmys but I dont have the face to go along with the marketing plans that big features have.

So, its disconcerting as a voice actor but its also exciting to get to work with these people every now and then. The only thing I can really do is just be the best actor I can be and hopefully get to the place where people say Im the best guy for the job.

But having said that, every time people find out what it is I do, they freak out, because there are usually one or two characters theyve grown up knowing and they love the characters. The times I have been on talk shows I could be there for two hours. People say, Lets hear more Pinky! Lets hear more Yakko! or, I hear Rafael (from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) and it makes me feel like Im back in my pajamas watching TV.

Dr.T: Do you feel that there are different demands on voice artists since the days you started working?

A career highlight has been working with Maurice LaMarche, who played the Brain to Paulsens Pinky.

A career highlight has been working with Maurice LaMarche, who played the Brain to Paulsens Pinky.

RP: No, the demands are pretty much the same. I get paid to improvise, to bring something to the party, to be fearless by that, I mean not to be afraid to be stupid, try things thats one thing I think voice actors have over the celebrities, because its not about how big your muscles or your boobs are, its about being fearless. You might be asked, Here are the talking sunglasses, theyre coming to life, what do they sound like? I dont know, Ill try whatever you want! Do you want it fast or slow, do you want a dialect thats what all of us do, Billy (West), Maurice (LaMarche), Frank (Welker), Kath (Soucie), Tara Strong, E.G. Daly, theyre just amazingly gifted folks and theyre unafraid. In my case, Ive been doing this so long that people expect a certain level of professionalism and competence from me, and Ive always expected and wanted them to expect the best from me.

Dr.T: Youre also a singer, Rob. When you do a song you can probably tell when youve nailed it just right. How are some of the ways you know that youve nailed a characters voice just right?

RP: Thats a great question. When I can carry on a conversation as a character and I have the same sort of thought processes that the character has and can answer questions that arent scripted. For instance, its when I can speak like Pinky all day long and things come out of my mouth when speaking like Pinky that wouldnt come out of my mouth when Im Rob. To me, thats kind of the litmus test. Its like that with Carl Wheezer from Jimmy Neutron just like Yakko was quick, Carl is very slow, he has a lazy l like Tom Brokaw, I have this crackly voice and I would be reticent, probably avert my eyes a lot and be very shy, and so the character feels very organic.

It feels like the character came from someplace before you see him on the screen, and when hes done hes going to go someplace else. Theres a life for this character that happens exclusive of the 22 minutes you see him on screen. There are other ones that take me awhile to get a hold of but the best ones Ive done, the ones that Im proudest of and people seem to like the most are the characters that I can just be for hours at a time... which may be disconcerting to my wife just a bit!

Dr.T: Youve given voice to nearly 200 animated characters. Have you ever been handed one thats really stymied you in terms of coming up with a voice?

Paulsen felt that fellow actor Frank Welker did a better job with the character Furball from Tiny Toon Adventures.

Paulsen felt that fellow actor Frank Welker did a better job with the character Furball from Tiny Toon Adventures.

RP: Hmm. The short answer is no, because if that had been the case, then I wouldnt have kept on doing it. Ive been replaced before, and usually its because I think the person who replaces me is better. As a matter of fact, I did a character called Furball on Tiny Toon Adventures, which was a cat who didnt speak; he just made kitty noises. I was pretty good at it but they ultimately gave it to Frank Welker, and they should have Frank was better at it.

I guess I have to say no, there really hasnt been a character who stymied me, because before the character went too far down the road and I felt like I couldnt get it I would have said, You know, the best guy for this is Jeff Bennett. And youll find that a lot in voice work, magnanimous gestures by voice actors. Frank, Jeff, Jess Harnell, people who will say, You know, I can do this, but if you really want a good Al Gore, go to Jeff. I sometimes get stymied because the producers change their ideas about what they want throughout the course of the character, so I sometimes get a little confused about that. The producers sometimes dont know what they want theyll know it when I hear it but Im not a mind reader.

Dr.T: Well then, how important is the chemistry between you, the producers, and the directors? Do they ever give you suggestions or ask you to make changes?

RP: Oh, absolutely. The chemistry is important, and usually its there. I have to say that I get along pretty well with most of the folks with whom I work. There was a great period for me when I worked at Warner Bros and I went from Tiny Toons to Animaniacs to Pinky and the Brain to Histeria it was just a great run. I was with Tom Ruegger, Andrea Romano and Steven Spielberg and Jean McCurdy a great group of people.

It was as if all the cartoon stars aligned at the same time. Peter Hastings was there, John McCann, Paul Rugg, Audu Paden and Richard Stone God bless him who scored all this incredible music. Randy Rogel, who wrote a lot of the music that we all got to sing, Julie and Steve Bernstein and we were all together for this almost a 10-year run at Warner Bros. Everybody won Emmys and made money and got notoriety and we worked on really good stuff.

I remember looking at Tress McNeill during one episode of Animaniacs and saying, Boy, honey, take a look at this room, because this is as good as it gets! It wasnt only Tress and myself there was Frank Welker and Jim Cummings and Jess Harnell and Maurice LaMarche and Jeff Bennett. It was incredible! We need to be cognizant how fortunate we are now, because its not always going to be like this. So, the answer to your question about how important chemistry is: Very important.

Paulsen found a way to make Carl Wheezers slow and lazy speech organic to the character in The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius. Credit: Nickelodeon.

Paulsen found a way to make Carl Wheezers slow and lazy speech organic to the character in The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius. Credit: Nickelodeon.

Dr.T: Youve done a number of workshops for aspiring voice artists. What are the most common pitfalls for a beginner?

RP: I think underestimating the competition. What happens is that people grow up thinking, I can do this! My uncles told me I do a great Yogi Bear. But its about acting, not just about doing funny voices. You have to be able to think like the character, make choices like the character. The best actors make the best voice actors, and thats no surprise. My job is to give them information on breaking into the business. But theres a giant caveat that says, All of this doesnt mean a hill of beans if you dont have a couple of breaks along the way. I was 19 when I first came to L.A., but 22 when I moved here forever, and at 22 things are a little different than at 42. You have the time to make mistakes and the time to get over your fear of competition. You can walk in to audition for something and theres Mel Blanc and Daws Butler, Don Messick and Frank Welker and June Foray all those people that make you think, I havent got a prayer. You have time to get over that. When youre 45, you dont.

I would never say Dont try it to people, but in my seminars Ill play demo CDs of actors with whom I work; they dont get as much work as I do but are every bit as talented. They have agents, theyre members of the Screen Actors Guild and they cant get a job. The point Im trying to make to these folks is, you need to know that there are people that theyve never heard of who are really good and are going to get the call before you do. Theyve already got representation and have been here for five or 10 years.

People arent aware of how much competition there is; there are things I never even get a shot at and Ive won an Emmy. Ive done a couple 1,000 half-hours of work on a couple of 100 series and I still have to audition and still dont get everything I read for. Thats the two big things: Knowing theres a lot of competition and realizing that its not all just a matter of doing funny voices. Its also acting, the ability to sing and improvise in your characters.

Dr.T: Speaking of acting, early in your career you had a couple of live-acting parts. Werent you in a film called Eyes of Fire?

RP: Yes, I was. Gosh, that was in 1983, I think. I had this horrible beard that bugs used to get into. We were on location in the Ozark Mountains lovely people but a really horrible place in late July. The film was a period horror piece; I played a guy named Jewell Buchanan, and it turned out to be not a very good film. I had a blast but I dont think I did a very good job in it. I did a pretty bad Irish accent, as I recall, but I blame that on the fact that I had a beard in my mouth most of the time!

Paulsen voiced Dr. Scratchandsniff (left) and Yakko Warner in Animaniacs, which led to a jacket delivery and lunch with Steven Spielberg.

Paulsen voiced Dr. Scratchandsniff (left) and Yakko Warner in Animaniacs, which led to a jacket delivery and lunch with Steven Spielberg.

Dr.T: Would you still consider doing live acting?

RP: Id love to! If there are producers out there interested in having an average-looking white guy to do silly voices or even my regular voice thatd be great. Unfortunately for my live-camera career, whenever I would get the call to audition for an episodic TV show I was too busy working with my voice. Mr. Spielberg was nice enough to give me a job as a talking lab mouse and Im not going to tell him Im not coming in because I have a chance to be second banana on a goofy TV series. I dont make gobs of money like some of the top TV guys do, but I have longevity and steady work.

Dr.T: Lets say you could have broken into voice acting in 1933 instead of 1983. What classic cartoon characters do you wish you could do the voices for?

RP: You know, I would have loved to have tried Dudley Do-Right. I hesitate to suggest anything Mel Blanc did because hes the gold standard. All the stuff that Mel did, that was just astonishing. There are a couple of obscure characters Tom Slick; I thought he was pretty cool. I really love Michigan J. Frog because I love the cartoon and I would have loved to have sung that character.

I dont know the actor that did that but his voice was incredible (Harry William Roberts Dr.T.). Carl Wheezer, that I do on Jimmy Neutron, is sort of like Elmer Fudd so it might have been fun to try something like that. And Bugs Bunny. I suppose Bugs would have been easy because hes quick, sort of a smart ass and I did a couple of those, like Raphael and Stanley Ipcriss in the animated version of The Mask. Some of that stuff was really quick, so I think I could have given Bugs a shot. Yeah, Tom Slick, Bugs, Michigan J. Frog and Dudley Do-Right.

Dr.T: Really liked those old Jay Ward toons, eh?

RP: I liked Jay Wards stuff a lot. Ive had the opportunity to work with Stan Freberg on a couple of things, and of course June Foray. I never had the pleasure of meeting Bill Scott, Jay Ward or Hans Conreid but I do know Corey Burton, who got the opportunity to work with all those guys. He does the best Hans Conreid; its like hes channeling Hans Conreid.

The character of Mr. Smartypants on Histeria was part of a great Warner Bros. period for Paulsen when he also voiced Tiny Toons, Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain.

The character of Mr. Smartypants on Histeria was part of a great Warner Bros. period for Paulsen when he also voiced Tiny Toons, Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain.

Dr.T: Working with Maurice LaMarche on the Pinky and the Brain cartoons had to be a career highlight. What do you consider to be some other highlights during your career?

RP: Well, Pinky and the Brain certainly has to be up there. I won some awards an Emmy for Pinky in 1999 and that was a huge thrill. Working for and with Steven Spielberg. Being able to create characters that had some life, and I think some legs to them. Getting to work with people like Maurice and other folks that I really do like and respect. Raphael was certainly a highlight because that was the first big, big show that I worked on. It was an iconic show; everyone in the world knew Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, so that was pretty cool. And, of course, all the stuff that happened as a result of those things, such as getting to play in charity hockey games with my heroes like Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr, Stan Mikita all of the people Ive gotten to meet through doing cartoon voices.

I remember years ago we had jackets made up for Animaniacs. Jess Harnell put together these really beautiful leather jackets that were airbrushed on the back, and there were only six of them made. One for Tress, Jess, and myself, one for Andrea Romano, one for Tom Ruegger and one for Mr. Spielberg. When we saw Tom Ruegger we told him When you speak to Mr. Spielberg please tell him we have this jacket for him. Maybe you can take it to him as a gift and tell him thank you very much. The next day I get a call from Mr. Spielbergs secretary and she said, I understand you have a jacket for Steven. Maybe youd like to come over, have lunch at Amblin and give it to him. So, two days later I find Tress, Jess and myself with Steven Spielberg having lunch at Amblin, just the four of us. He was the sweetest guy, never took a phone call, gave us all his attention. It was one of those days you call your Mom and Dad and say Guess what? I just got done having lunch with Steven Spielberg! It was truly special.

A few months ago I did a pilot for Nickelodeon with Carl Reiner, Dick Van Dyke and Rose Marie. Thats another one where I called my folks. There are a number of highlights. If I walk out of here and die in the next five minutes, honestly, Ive had a hell of a run. To be able to do what I do, make money, have a family and be friends with Gordie Howe? Ive been so fortunate.

Dr.T: Other fine work you do involves charities, families and children. What are some of the projects youre involved in at present?

RP: Its more stuff that I do on my own. Ive been involved in a project called Famous Phone Friends which we all do, Nancy Cartwright, myself and Dan Castellaneta. It puts athletes, celebrities and actors in touch with children in the hospitals, who would like to talk to them. I can be helpful because these children, through diabolical circumstances, find themselves spending their days watching what I do. My feeling is, you cant not do something about it. More than the children, who are very brave, there are the parents who are absolutely devastated. I really love to do it, and I get as much out of it as the kids because I go home and Im a much better parent. Having your kid spill ice cream on the couch is nothing compared with your child being ill. I do some stuff with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation; Im always calling kids or doing something. I get a lot of requests for autographs and things to raise money for charities, and Im always glad to do it.

Dr.T: Okay a producer gives the greenlight to an animated series about the Detroit Red Wings. Whose voice do you want to audition for?

RP: Oh boy, Gordie Howe, right off the bat! What a guy, a real sportsman, even gracious when losing. I dont know if I could do as good a Gordie Howe as some other actor friends of mine but I would definitely audition for the role. If I could be Gordie Howe hey, thats all Id need to be!

Dr.T: So tell me, Rob... how would Pinky end this interview?

RP: (as Pinky): Oh, Martin, thank you so much for flying across the country to talk to a silly old person like me! And Oh, wait, you should ask me, Pinky, are you pondering what Im pondering? Go ahead!

Dr.T: (a poor imitation of the Brain): Pinky... are you pondering what Im pondering?

RP: (as Pinky): Well, I think so, Martin, but if Jimmy cracks corn and nobody cares, why does he keep doing it? NARF!

Martin Dr. Toon Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.