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October 08, 2019

A Wacky, Wonderful Life

Strange requests (like, Can you do Groucho on helium?) are all in a day’s work for a voice actor. But as Rob Paulsen makes plain in Voice Lessons, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Rob Paulsen
  • Lesley Bohm
  • Animaniacs

    Warner Bros.
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles


Voicing characters is an art, but it's also a craft.

There's a big difference between having an aptitude for making your friends giggle and using those skills to pay your mortgage. Many people can conjure up a silly voice. I was certainly making them when I was a kid. Everybody can say, "Eh, what's up, Doc?"

The question is: Can they speak like Bugs all day long in all sorts of dramatic and comedic situations? It's the difference between saying, "Hey, hey, hey" or "Yabba dabba doo," and bringing the characters to life in the context of the story.

I submit that voice actors are actors. When you think about it, Jack Nicholson has his little Nicholsonian things, and he does them all the time. Whether he says, "Hey, Mrs. Mulwray, you better watch out," or "Take the toast and hold it between your knees," it's different roles, but it's clearly him.

We like Jack because he has that X factor that makes him a movie star, but he doesn't change the way he sounds all the time. He changes the way he behaves and the way he executes the character. Same with cartoon characters. If you listen carefully to Mel Blanc, Daffy and Sylvester are not that dissimilar, but they're different characters and they'd be performed differently. It's all in the acting.

The other key difference between amateurs and professionals is versatility. Many people are good impressionists. Everybody does his own version of Christopher Walken because he's so affected and has those weird pauses.

But not everybody could do Chris Walken as a duck, or Chris Walken as a duck underwater. Or Chris Walken as a duck underwater falling in love with a starfish. And can you do the starfish, too? Then consider this: What if Chris Walken doesn't just express his love in words, but in song? Can you sing like Chris Walken underwater in love with a starfish?

I've had stranger requests. But the only instruction I got for Animaniacs was, "Go for it."

When trying out new voices, the first thing I notice is the physical characteristics of the character.

If you look at an elephant, you know it's got a certain kind of voice. Same for a whale. But when you look at Wakko, who isn't even a discernible creature, what do you even think? (In Animaniacs, Wakko, Yakko and Dot are cartoon stars from the 1930s, locked away in the water tower at Warner Bros. until the 1990s, when they escape.)

Wakko's tongue was hanging out of his head a lot, and he had this goofy hat on and no pants. He was the nutjob of the bunch. So I tried to offer my take on being a little nutty, goofy but not Goofy. I used my own voice to start out, because I had already done characters that were kind of quick-witted in my own voice. Raphael from Mutant Ninja Turtles is a good example.

After I tried this for a while, one of the producers asked, "Do you do Groucho?"

I'm not an impressionist, but I can probably say, "Guess the magic word and win a hundred dollars" with the right vibe.

Then they asked, "Can you do Groucho on helium? And sing that way?" So that's what I did.

The audition process went on for a long time. I'd read alone or with other actors. I'd do a session, then come back and do another. I had six callbacks over a month and a half, and along the way I threw in other voices.

One was for a secondary character, a mad scientist named Dr. Scratchansniff. For him, I did my interpretation of Dr. Strangelove from my all-time favorite movie, but I combined Peter Sellers with another character I love, Ludwig Von Drake, Donald Duck's uncle. I loved that thick German accent: Sellers as a duck.

Every time I'd go in and read, the producers would pat me on the back and say, "Attaboy, Rob. You're our guy. You can sing in character. You can do whatever we want you to do." And then they'd call me back for more.

But you never know for sure. So many times a producer who truly wanted me would say, "You're my guy," and then something would happen and they'd say, "No, we're going to go with this other guy." That's the way it goes.

But the more I auditioned, the more I felt this show was perfect for me. I had never felt more confident about a role in my career. The final decision was up to Steven Spielberg. (Amblin Entertainment produced the show with Warner Bros. Animation.) He wanted to evaluate the auditions blindly, with no idea who was doing the voices.

So the producers numbered the audition takes instead of putting names on them. For Yakko, they sent Steve recordings of their 10 favorite versions of the character. I later found out I was numbers two, three, four, seven and nine. The producers also had all of us read for a secondary character named Pinky, who would appear in short features sprinkled into Animaniacs.

Pinky and his cohort, The Brain, were two lab mice bent on world domination. When I auditioned for Pinky, I did different stuff with my own voice — impediments, no impediments, dialects, no dialects. And I threw in a Monty Python Cockney thing.

I remember exactly where I was when I got the news about casting. It was March 1992, and I was running errands, picking up my photographer-wife's proof sheets at a photo lab in Hollywood when my pager went off with my agent's phone number.

"Sweetie," she said, "you got it."

I kept it under control as I listened to her tell me that it was Mr. Spielberg who said, "I really like this idea of pairing Orson Welles" — that was Maurice LaMarche as Mo; he's always done a spot-on impression of Welles — "with a wacky, nondescript, goofy British guy." He also liked the idea of Groucho on helium for Yakko. He even liked my Scratchansniff.

I hung up the phone and went back into the lab, calmly thanked the staff for the proofs and returned to my car. I screamed, "I did it! I did it!" I was bouncing in the driver's seat, thrusting my fists. People must have thought I was having a seizure. But I was about to embark on a wonderful journey. This show would change my standing in the acting community. It would also change my life.

Rob Paulsen has voiced Yakko in Animaniacs, Pinky in Animaniacs and its spinoff Pinky and the Brain, and Raphael in the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

From Voice Lessons: How a Couple of Ninja Turtles, Pinky and an Animaniac Saved My Life by Rob Paulsen with Michael Fleeman. Copyright © Robert Paulsen with Michael Fleeman. Published by Viva Editions, an imprint of Start Publishing, LLC.

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 9, 2019

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