Over the course of his career, voice actor Rob Paulsen has helped give life to some of television’s most iconic characters. Whether it’s Yakko from Animaniacs, Pinky from Pinky and the Brain, Raphael from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or over 250 other characters, odds are you’ve most likely heard his voice at some point. His eclectic and wide-ranging career has earned him an Emmy, three Annie awards, and a Peabody. And now he can add author to that list, thanks to the publication of his upcoming new book, Voice Lessons: How A Couple of Ninja Turtles, Pinky, and an Animaniac Saved My Life.
“I’ve had a couple of different folks mention writing a memoir over the past five years,” says Paulsen, “and I was always the first one to shut it down, only because I didn’t really feel like the world needed another Hollywood memoir, especially by someone who isn’t really famous. It’s the characters who are famous.”
Paulsen’s interest in staying in the background wasn’t rooted solely in humility, but in the belief that he was part of a group that came together to bring the characters alive. “There are teams of artists and writers that really create these characters, I’m just one part of an extremely talented team.” Even if that may be, Paulsen’s part in the creation of these characters not only changed his life but improved the lives of viewers along the way.
A Turn of Events
For years, Paulsen has been working with sick children to help them as they recover. He recalls children only willing to go into surgery if they had their Ninja Turtles jackets on, women who got through surgery with the help of Pinky and the Brain, and others who were soothed by the voice of Carl from Jimmy Neutron. “It’s really impossible to quantify,” says Paulsen. In 2016, however, Paulsen came face to face with something that put his life and career on the line.
“Three years ago, I was diagnosed with stage 3 throat cancer, from which I’m now thankfully cured,” Paulsen says. “The treatment, though, is pretty brutal. It’s like being the placekicker for a football team and losing your foot. But then I remembered all the kids I met throughout the years that have gone through the same thing. I’d had so many experiences where children and their parents have gotten through impossible circumstances because of their love of these characters. The book is called Voice Lessons because that’s exactly what my relationships with these kids have been: lessons that have helped me through my own struggle. They shine a light on the depth to which people embrace these characters.”
According to Paulsen, the bonds that children form with cartoons isn’t a one-time phenomenon. “You’d be surprised how often this actually happens. Whether it’s Spongebob or Bart Simpson, these characters are changing kids’ lives. It’s easy to look at these characters and think to yourself, ‘Oh that’s kind of cute.’ But it’s way bigger than that.”
As someone who grew up watching shows like Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain, and Jimmy Neutron, I was happy to reveal to Paulsen that the characters he helped bring to life meant a lot to me. The next thing I knew, Paulsen started talking to me as one of my favorite childhood characters, Yakko from Animaniacs.
“I know what you’re doing right now.” Paulsen said. “You’re grinning ear to ear.” Sure enough, he was right. I was doing my very best to stifle laughter and stay professional, but I was full of a sense of elation that I haven’t felt since I was a kid.
“That feeling that you’re feeling right now, that’s exactly what the book is about. It’s exactly that. It’s impossible to quantify. It’s not about money; it’s about a pure reconnection to something profoundly important. A piece of your personal puzzle.”
One of Paulsen’s main goals with Voice Lessons is to finally tell his side of the story, to write about his struggle with health and finding the inspiration to keep pushing forward in the same way that he’s done for others. But there’s something else the book aims to get across as well—something that Paulsen has learned after years of working with kids.
“I was at an event at Dallas a few years ago signing autographs, and I see a big guy in line. He’s about 6’4”, big long ponytail, tats, and biker jacket. He steps up to the table, and in the voice of Pinky from Pinky and the Brain, I go ‘Oh boy, you’re a big one, aren’t you?’ and he just started crying. Turns out that character’s voice brought him back to being in Afghanistan, and one of the things he took to comfort him after being shot at were his Pinky and the Brain DVDs.”
The cartoons we grew up with are a clear connection to love, comfort, and joy, Paulsen explained. These characters’ voices can channel something childlike inside us, somewhere that all of us are longing to get back to. In his voice, Paulsen has found a way to give teenagers and adults an instant ticket back to childhood. For many of us, the characters that teach us valuable lessons stay with us for our entire lives. In Voice Lessons, Paulsen writes with honesty and heart that this clearly works both ways.