It has been twenty-two years since the Animaniacs entertained audiences with their zaney and insaney antics. Hulu’s upcoming revival of the series was recently ranked by Rotten Tomatoes as the #4 most anticipated fall premiere.
Your Money Geek recently had the pleasure of chatting with Rob Paulsen, the voice behind the elder Warner brother and so many other iconic characters from the 80s, 90s, and today. Paulsen’s voice brought to life Pinky in the Animaniac’s spin-off Pinky and the Brain; Carl Wheezer in Jimmy Neutron Boy Genius; Raphael in the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Donatella in 2012 revival; and so many other beloved characters.
Rob Paulsen Discusses Hulu’s Animaniacs Revival and Being a Purveyor of Joy
Maggie Lovitt (ML): So did you expect to see a revival of the Animaniacs come to life?
Rob Paulsen (RP): No. Never. In fact, that question had been asked, very kindly, by thousands [of people] to me personally over the years. Because we’re talking about a show that was released twenty-seven years ago. And I have been doing Comic Cons in earnest for probably the last ten years. So literally thousands of people [have asked] in interviews, personally, post-autograph, or at panels. I’ve been asked that a lot.
It’s so sweet when people who don’t know, think of me as a celebrity and I’m very clear. The characters are famous. I am not. You are very kind for taking the time and making me feel like a big shot, but I don’t draw them and I don’t write them. So it’s very sweet. I’m kind of a face now with the voice and the voices are important and they really resonate. All I have to do is sing and it’s just the coolest thing in the world.
So people say, “Hey, Mr. Paulson, you know if Animaniacs came back do you think you would [do it]? Would you be okay with doing it again?” As though I sit here going through scripts [for the] next iteration of Harry Potter. So my response was always, “Are you kidding me?”
That show hit every mark and you get to work with Steven Spielberg, Tress MacNeille, and Maurice Marsh. It was remarkable. But alas, I thought, “Oh, well. Listen, that was a great time and I will always be grateful.”
Most actors don’t get a shot like that once. I had gotten that Pinky and the Brain spin-off, I got Ninja Turtles twice, I got Jimmy Neutron, I got The Fairly Odd Parents. I mean, I’ve been way more fortunate than most. There’s a wonderful love song called “The Second Time Around” and it’s basically about how you get married and fall in love and things don’t work out. You think, “Oh, well, I’ll just go on with my life” and then you meet someone else. The gist of it is that love is lovely the second time around.
I have to tell you this, I think because we’re a bit older we’re actually better at our jobs now than we were twenty years ago. All of us have done other work that has become relatively iconic. So for Mr. Spielberg, the unofficial king of Hollywood, at seventy-three years old, to say, “Hey, you guys want to get the band back together?” Oh, my God. It couldn’t be any better.
Then when you see how it’s turning out — it’s just Oh, my God. One more thing, pardon me, but because of the zeitgeist [and] because of the current madness, I don’t think it’s hyperbole. We really do need to laugh. Our timing could not be more perfect, for a purely altruistic reason. I’m not gonna make any more money, whether the show is a hit or a flop. It’s about utter joy. So in a word, “No.”
ML: What was it like that first day back in the room recording with everyone again?
RP: There’s a wonderful passage in my book about my experience with throat cancer. Tress MacNeille who plays Dot — I’m not sure if you’re a cartoon fan, but if you look up Tress MacNeille, it’ll blow your mind which she’s done. I mean, she’s done 600 episodes of The Simpsons alone, let alone Dot and Babs.
ML: I know. It’s surreal how much she’s done.
RP: It is and you know what else, Maggie? She is the nicest, kindest, most unpretentious zillionaire actress I’ve ever met in my life. She’s like a sister. I’ve known her since 1979. She was a cocktail waitress at Charlie Brown’s Restaurant in Marina Del Rey. We sort of came up together. And to watch her star rise has been nothing short of privilege because she really is like a sister. The only people I’ve known longer than Tress are literally my brothers and sisters. So to watch her become who she is, and with the respect from so many people on either side of the camera, it’s remarkable and she deserves it.
But I remember when she and I were all doing Animaniacs twenty years ago and there was an episode in which we had a who’s who of Hollywood voice talent. It was just everybody in a particular episode. It just happened to work that way. So we were playing musical chairs [because] we have more actors than microphones. We would be sitting behind one another. It’s like, “Okay, let’s take a break, Tress. You swap with Nancy Cartwright, who’s Bart Simpson. Rob, you swap with Jim Cummings who is Winnie the Pooh.”
I remember saying to Tress, “Jesus honey, take a picture. This should remind us that — unless you’re on The Simpsons — it just does not get any better than this. Look at this! Steven Spielberg producing; Andrea Romano directing; everybody’s winning Emmys; everybody’s making a nice living. It’s huge. Pinky and the Brain is spinning off.”
Then cut to twenty-five years, I sat next to Tress again in the studio. It was just Tress, Jess, and myself. Yakko, Wakko, and Dot. Tress was sitting between us and I looked at her and I grabbed her hand and I said, “Do you remember years ago?” She took off her glasses and looked at me and said, “When you said it doesn’t get any better than this?” And I said, “Yes.” She said, “It does, doesn’t it?”
I almost got tearful because it really did. It was such a glorious experience. Also, for me personally, because there was a period of about a year where I wasn’t sure if I could physically do it because they were beating the daylights out of my throat with radiation and chemotherapy. There was a period of months where I couldn’t really speak and so to be in that position.. It all kind of came together. It’s beyond wonderful.
I can’t even tell you how much we enjoy the process. But moreover, how grateful we are. We understand deeply how really fortunate we are and we never take it for granted. This is a Hollywood story. I swear to God it is.
ML: That just gave me goosebumps just thinking about that.
RP: Good. That’s the idea. It’s not hyperbole, it’s authentic. We hear from Steven and he’s just like, “Guys this is fantastic.” Steven Spielberg? Are you kidding me? It’s worked pretty well. I love good work. I don’t care if it’s music, live-action, animation, stage. Good work is good work. And something like Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain have really transcended at least two generations now. So it’s the real deal.
ML: Yes, I have to admit Pinky and the Brain is my favorite. My mom and I quote it at least once a week.
RP [speaking in Pinky’s voice]: “I’m gonna start switching characters. Now. I should speak like this the rest of the day.”
ML: Ah, this brings back so many memories.
RP: Isn’t this the greatest? I gotta tell you very quickly, what just happened to you happened to me about thirty years ago when I was working on a Jetsons project at Hanna Barbera. The late, great, Gordon [Hunt], who was Helen Hunt’s father, but also was a wonderful Hollywood acting coach and director. He directed all the cartoons at Hanna Barbera through the 80s and 90s.
I started working there a lot in the late 80s and one day we were doing a Jetsons project. [Gordon] said as I was going into the studio, “Hey Robbie, Mel’s here today.” Mel Blanc. He played Mr. Spacely on the Jetsons and of course, Bugs and Daffy. He was about eighty at a time. [Gordon] said, “Do you want to sit next to Mel Blanc?”
So I sat next to him in idle chat. [He was] a very pleasant fellow. An icon. I grew up, my parents grew up [with him]. Everybody loves Looney Tunes. So I said, “Mr. Blanc, before we start, I’m so sorry if I sound like a fan, but I am. If it’s not too much.” He knew what I wanted. So he took off his glasses. He looked at me and said [speaking in Bugs Bunny’s voice], “Hey, what’s up, Doc?”
It lit my brain on fire. It was fan-tastic. So don’t get me wrong, I’m not comparing myself to Mel — that’s for people to do when I’m dead and gone. My point is, the response that I get from you, the kind of the feeling you get when I say [speaking in Pinky’s voice], “I think so Maggie, but if Jimmy cracks corn, and no one cares, why does he keep doing it?”
It’s a glorious feeling on either side of the equation, because now I’m in a position to deliver the joy. I never in a million years thought I’d be in this position. So Pinky and the Brain has done that for you, for your sweet mother, and millions of other people. It’s the coolest thing in the world.
ML: Speaking on that response, I love watching your Tik Toks. It is just so cool to see how people are responding, in real-time, to seeing your voice work. It’s fantastic.
RP: It blew my mind and well. People really love all those characters. For some reason, they freak out over Carl Wheezer [speaking in Carl Wheezer’s voice], “I don’t know why.” They just do.
I’m so glad you brought that up because you’re a younger person. My wife said a couple of months ago, “TikTok is huge. You would probably kill it on TikTok.” So I downloaded the app. I’m pretty active on social media, because obviously, I love what I do. I love to talk about it. I’m a purveyor of joy. I’m in the happy business for God’s sake. What’s there not to like?
I just forgot about it and then a friend of mine says, “Dude, have you seen how people flip out over impressions and Carl Wheezer on TikTok?” There are like 1500 million TikTok views of various incarnations of people’s versions of Carl Wheezer. I said, “Well, let’s see what happens if the real deal does it.” Overnight I got like 800,000 views [and] within a week it was 2 million.
ML: It’s surreal.
RP: My point is, I appreciate you saying that because I try really hard to be authentic and accessible. But I also don’t want to look like some old dude trying to be hip. So I’m not going to make TikToks of me dancing in different clothes. Some of them are so creative. But my gig is singing and acting and improv. Riffing in the context of these characters. It turns out, people are responding because it is nothing but the characters and this old guy doing them.
[Speaking in Pinky’s voice] “But when I say this, and when I start doing, I think so Tik Tok. Boink! Let’s put that brain in the White House.” It’s the coolest.
So thank you for saying that, that is a real nice vote of confidence coming from somebody who’s a professional journalist and really gets TikTok. Like I said, I don’t want to look like some old guy who’s trying to be a hip youngster. That made my day.
ML: You’re welcome. I love the “Mouse in the White House“. That was fantastic. I watched it probably three times.
RP: Do you know who wrote that? It was written by Randy Rogel who wrote, [speaking in Yakko’s voice] “United States, Canada, Mexico, Panama, Haiti, Jamaica.”
ML: Are you serious?
RP: Isn’t that something? I said, “Hey, Randy, you got a thing for the 2020 election?” He said, “Let me see.” So he sends me that a couple of days later. Are you kidding me? [speaking in Pinky’s voice] “Come on and give a cheer for the presidential candidate that’s new. He’s the hero that we need and he’s here to take the lead. We put the right mouse in the White House.”
ML: With the new Animaniacs series, does it play towards nostalgia? Or is it something brand new for a new generation to fall in love with?
RP: Yes. That’s the answer. It does both. The premiere is self-aware right from the get-go. I won’t spoil it for you, but the opening theme is still the same melody [he hums the theme]. Bill Clinton plays the sax, yada, yada, that’s relevant and needed. You can pick apart the lyrics when you hear it a couple of times.
We have a new, talented crew of writers. The people overseeing the music are Steven and Julie Bernstein, who are the protegees and literally right and left hand man and woman of Richard Stone who won, I don’t know, a half dozen Emmys for his music on Animaniacs [but] has passed away. Steven and Julie were there for everything and there was never a doubt from Steven Spielberg that they would be the right ones.
Just doing the opening theme again, a couple of months ago, [with] the new lyrics and the old nostalgic way… As soon as [you hear] “It’s time for Animaniacs” people cry. The lyrics immediately let the audience know that we are self-aware. We get it, it’s been a long time later so we kind of take the piss out of each other about, [speaking in Yakko’s voice], “Hey, come on, man. We did that twenty-seven years ago. Come on, you know, you’ve gotta do something better. We’ve got to make a living.”
We go after sacred cows, which we did before. It could be subversive and a little naughty and all of those things. The trick is doing it so that it is appealing. Maybe in a slapsticky version to kids, and [in the same episode] there are cultural references that you, and people older than you, would get.
That’s the reason you like Animaniacs now is because you could have watched them as a little girl and then watched them as an adult with your mom [and] your brain says, “Oh, my God, I didn’t get that.” That was exactly the point. That’s exactly why it was written that way. No one knew that we’d be doing it again. But Steven and his crew knew that if they do it the right way, ala Rocky and Bullwinkle [and] the Looney Tunes, that they would become timeless and relevant, irrespective of the zeitgeist.
I think this is exactly why people weren’t anticipating it because we got it right before. When you [have] Steven running the show, it’s pretty hard to screw it up. So yeah, we go after the old stuff for nostalgia and new stuff to make you laugh.
ML: That makes me even more excited to see what’s gonna happen with it. Now, you mentioned earlier your battle with throat cancer and your experience as an advocate. You’re also a spokesperson for the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance and the Oral Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Program as well. How was that experience? Did it change things for you? What have you been working on with them this year?
RP: I’m so glad you asked. I’m sure you sadly know people who have had to deal with cancer and maybe you have lost them. It’s a scourge. The fact that I had it is no big deal, one way or the other, except to my family and friends and me.
[I was on Dr. Drew Pinsky’s show] awhile back and I was telling him how grateful I am for not only surviving and being able to do my job. There was a real question mark for about six months as to whether I could do it at the same level and that I’d be able to survive. Singing those songs and having the same range and all that that’s a different animal.
Dr. Drew kind of took the time to say, “Wow, it sounds deep for you. I’ve heard people say that my cancer actually turned out to be a gift and a blessing and all that.” I have to say that I feel that way. The folks at the Cancer Alliance, Elizabeth Langdon, and her wonderful crew, reached out to me via my publicist Lori.
They said, “Hey, you know Michael Douglas did it for a while [and] Jim Kelly. I’m a big sports nut. Jim Kelly, the former quarterback for the Buffalo Bills, suffered from the same kind of cancer that I did. It came back [and] he’s really taken a beating. They said, “Well, here’s a guy who makes his living with his voice. Everybody knows one or more of these characters. How would you feel [doing this]?” I couldn’t even get it out of my mouth faster. I said, “Are you kidding me? You bet!”
I have been given a platinum lining from my experience, way beyond silver. I have had incredible opportunities to spread joy on an intimate level with young children and their parents. Especially starting with Ninja Turtles thirty years ago. [The] turtles really hit. I would get phone calls from Make-A-Wish or from hospitals all over the country. In fact, the big Children’s Hospital in D.C., I’ve done [appearances for] them in person a few times. I’ll come and chat with the kids and they love Ninja Turtles.
Of course, you can’t say no. I get way more out of it than the kids do. Oftentimes these children didn’t make it. The way the parents would keep in touch with me about how important it was that Raphael [or] Pinky spoke to Kyle before they died at age 11. That’s the only time I get tongue-tied. I don’t know how to quantify what that means to me. My son is grown [and] healthy, I never had to go through that. I don’t know how people get up the next day and move through their lives after that.
For them to take the time to let me know what a frickin phone call meant. Do you see my point? It’s just such a small thing for me. It’s not about me, it’s about the characters and the joy they bring. You already experienced that today.
Now I have a platform as a result of the kindness of the Head Neck Cancer Alliance to do this on a much larger scale. I have a sense of empathy that is so heightened because I know what I’m talking about. When I hold somebody’s hand, virtually these days, and say, “Man, I know. I get it. I do. I really do.” That is not to usurp the position of parents and their loved ones, the husbands and wives of people who are struggling. I don’t know what breast cancer is like. I can be sympathetic and handhold and do whatever I need to do to help my wife, but with throat cancer, I can totally say I know exactly what you’re going through. I can help people who are helping someone they love with throat cancer.
They’ve allowed me and Pinky, Yakko, Raphael and Donatello, Carl Wheezer, and everybody else [that] is banging around in my melon to make a difference.
I have gotten to do some fantastic roundtable chats with folks in the CDC. Gardasil, which used to be recommended for young girls to prevent them from [getting] HPV-related cervical cancers when they got older now, [is now being used] for boys to keep them from getting head neck cancers that are HPV related. So now I’m involved with scholarly discussions, because of my experience.
The coolest thing is that I’ll be sitting next to somebody in a Zoom call, [this] happened a couple of months ago. A lovely doctor, who was I don’t know thirty-five, who is a virologist working with the CDC [who was there] talking about Gardasil and its benefits and relative side effects, risks, and etc. I was there [as] the spokesperson and we all introduced ourselves, but I didn’t say here’s my resume. I just said, “Hi, nice to meet you. I’m Rob.” “Oh, you’re the actor!” But not, “You’re the actor, I know who you are.” She just said, “Oh, yeah, you’re an actor and you’re the spokesperson. Great, thank you for your help.” [It was] very kind, respectful, just general chit chat before we started doing our thing.
We have a nice young woman, like you, moderating and they get to me and I start to say [speaking in Pinky’s voice], “First of all, it’s a pleasure to be here, helping you save the world.”
This doctor just flipped out. She just in, “Oh, my goodness, Pinky and the Brain. We watched that every day. Oh, my, oh, my, I can’t tell you what Pinky and the Brain means to me, but can you say Narf?” It was glorious. Nobody knew it was coming. I didn’t know it was coming. She clearly didn’t.
But you see my point, it transcended all the serious stuff. That’s important. Of course, it saved my life. But, but the overarching takeaway was joy. I was only able to do that because of the kindness of the folks at the Head Neck Cancer Alliance.
I don’t mean to sound self-aggrandizing, but they made a wise choice. I clearly love to discuss it. Because of what I do, I have I think even a larger audience than a guy like Michael Douglas. He’s a movie star and deservedly so, but you’re not going to get a lot of eight-year-olds or ten-year-olds or twelve-year-olds who are going to say, “Holy smokes mom, did you know there’s a guy that’s the voice of Pinky, that had throat cancer check this article out!”
You never know where the discussion goes then, especially with respect to a vaccine. So I have the ear of a big audience, simply because of these characters and my experience. I choose to believe that there are no accidents and if this is the reason that I had to go through throat cancer. What a great way to move through my life, I never would have expected that this work that I get to do for a living would put me in a position where I get to literally make a difference.
I’m a lottery winner. I cannot thank them enough. They’re going to re-up me for a second year. About a week ago they told me. So I’m ready to rock and roll and do some more.
ML: Oh, congratulations! That’s awesome. Hopefully, you’ll be able to do even more next year. When I told my friends that I was going to be interviewing you, quite a few of them had questions.
RP: They didn’t say to you, “Who?”
ML: No, they all knew exactly who I was talking about. One of the top questions was whether or not the “Nations of the World” song was difficult to memorize.
RP: I’m not really sure and the reason I say that is because I don’t really know the point at which I said, “Okay, I’ve got it.” I do know that it was the first song I recorded for Animaniacs.
There’s a great backstory to that. Our pal Randy Rogel who wrote that [speaking in Yakko’s voice], “It’s a big universe and we’re all really puny. We’re just tiny little specks about the size of Mickey Rooney.” He wrote so many of the states and capitals and all that stuff. Genius. You know [speaking in Pinky’s voice], “Right Mouse in the White House.”
I had not yet met Randy, but I had got the job. It was time to start doing music and I read music, so I was given the sheet music and an audio track with the piano playing to sing along and rehearse it. I remember laying in bed one night watching TV with my headphones on and my wife said, “What is that?” I said, “Check this out. This is pretty much every country in the world rhymed.” And she said, “Come on.” And I said no, “Check this out.” So I did it acapella and it was like, “Holy shit! That’s, that’s pretty cool.” So we recorded it four or five days later, and I did it in one take.
ML: Oh, wow!
RP: Now, now, that sounds more impressive than it is. I didn’t have it memorized, I had the music in front of me [and] we recorded two takes. But the first one is the one they used. I recall when we got done with it, everybody on the other side of the glass looked at each other and looked at me and said, “I think we got it. You want to do it again since we’re here. Let’s try another one.”
What’s important to remember is that I live in Hollywood. You can throw a dart and hit a good singer. You cannot throw a dart and hit somebody who can write that stuff. Randy is a singular, uniquely gifted, individual, and probably the most overachieving human I’ve ever met. He’s a West Point grad [and] a Boston University grad for some other crazy degree. After serving his time after West Point, four or five years of service, [he] joined corporate America making a nice six-figure salary at I don’t know 30 or 33. But his background is musical comedy writing, performing, dancing, singing. Crazy talent.
[He] finds his way to LA, quits his $150,000 a year gig, which is a lot of money back in 1992. He bangs on the doors and bangs every door in Hollywood, right? He finally gets a job writing on Batman: The Animated Series, which was a big hit. Mark Hamill as the Joker, Kevin Conroy is an iconic version of Batman. [Rogel] wins an Emmy for writing a script for Batman, which had a twenty-year run.
A couple of years after he starts writing on Batman, he hears across the hall this music and discussions that Steven Spielberg just got done doing tiny Toon Adventures and now they’re going to do a brand new music-driven variety comedy show. And Randy says, “Oh, my God, that’s what I’m about.” So he bangs on that door and for about the first few weeks it’s “No no, look, he just won an Emmy for Batman. Go do more of that. You write drama.”
“Yeah, I know. But I can also write music.” The typical Hollywood stuff. Finally, after being persistent, he says to Tom Ruegger, the producer and creator of the show, “Look, Tom, I know what you’re saying, and I’m not gonna stop writing on Batman. I can do both. But I love to write music. I’ve got great songs.” He says, “Alright, put something together and we’ll talk tomorrow.” The song he had in his back pocket, his audition piece, was “Yakko’s World”.
ML: Oh, my gosh.
PR: When I tell that to people who are perspective writers [or] musicians, I say, “Look, here’s the story I’m going to tell you.” The story is important not to sway you, but to inspire you because this is the level of people you run into in Hollywood and New York, who all bring their dreams there. It’s not about luck. It’s about putting yourself in a place to get lucky.
Randy has that talent, but if he had done it in Omaha, a great town, nobody was going to hear it who could make any difference. Because he banged on the door and made his way from the east coast and all that stuff, came out here and was persistent somebody said, “What do you got?” And he said, “How about this? United States, Canada, Mexico.” Mind-blowing.
From then on the bar was set. Now, Randy and I have done that song together with Animaniacs in concert, I don’t know a hundred times. I’ve done it a couple of hundred times with interviews and live appearances, with no music, it doesn’t matter. It’s such a brilliant, iconic piece that a two and a half minute cartoon [has] I don’t know, 50 million views [online]. Everybody knows it and it is a singular iconic piece of American Art. Just brilliant.
All it did was set the tone for the rest of the show. I could make the argument that not everyone was knocked out of the park, but pretty damn close.
ML: Yeah, I mean, that’s definitely one of the most iconic songs from the series, I think.
RP: You want to hear the lyric he wrote to update it? There’s a stanza that Randy wrote, he kind of came to my rescue. I’d been doing it for decades now [and] people would say, “Hey Paulsen, you know that song is not really relevant.” So Randy said, “Well, they’re right.” Check this out, this is what he wrote to update the song with the countries that have sprung up since that song was written.
[Singing in Yakko’s voice] “Montenegro and Bosnia, Herzegovina, the Soviet Union is gone, South Africa, Georgia, Moldova, Latvia, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, then there’s Tajikistan too, Turkmenistan. Kurdistan, Armenia, Tonga, Pallu, Lithuania, Serbia, Kosovo, U.S. Somoa, the Balkans, Brunei, Macau, and Crimea, then Eritrea, Ukraine, and Estonia. Here’s Macedonia, New Caledonia, Eastern Slavonia. Ivory Coast and Cape Verde and over the Solomon Islands nearby.”
ML: Oh. My. God.
RP: How about that? We use that as an encore when we do Animaniacs in concert. “Yakko’s World” is always the last song for obvious reasons because it’s our “Stairway to Heaven.” Everybody loves it. They all want more so we come back and do that little 45 second or 30-second click, and they just leave with their sweet cartoon minds blown.
The word genius gets bandied around a lot in Hollywood, but [Rogel] is the real deal. It wasn’t a one-shot deal, [because] he’s better now than he was twenty-five years ago. It’s astonishing to watch. That’s where the real credit goes, I’m good at my job. You’re good at your job. I don’t have any business being in the same area code as a guy like that, in terms of the talent department.
As long as he’s nice enough to say, “Hey, dude, sing this.” I’ll take it. It makes me look a lot better than I am.
ML: That’s fantastic. One of the other questions was, are there any roles you turned down or didn’t get that you regret?
RP: No to the first question, yes to the second. I haven’t turned down anything and if I have it was for personal reasons, or taste, or being a parent. When you record these things, they’re permanent. I’m not sure if this is something that I want my child to see me be part of. So I would judiciously say, “Thanks very much. I appreciate it.”
I don’t get phone calls every other day from Matt Groening, or Fox, or even Steven. I’m a journeyman actor [and] very lucky to be such. I have made decisions that are, I think smart for a parent.
The second half of the question, yeah, there are several that I really wanted that I didn’t get. One of which I’ve spoken about before. I had, I think, two or three callbacks for the role of Philip J. Fry on Futurama.
ML: Oh, wow.
RP: Great show. One of my dearest friends in the world, [who is] like a brother to me, is Billy West. [He] is the voice of Fry, Zoidberg, and Zapp Brannigan. I’m not sure if you’re a Futurama fan, but Billy is the real deal and they made exactly the right choice. It was between me, Billy, and Charlie Schlatter. I think Charlie got the pilot, but ultimately Billy has done it for the last twenty years. I was left out. [It] doesn’t matter.
If I’ve done 2500, half hours of animation, by any measure, I’ve had a wonderful career. That means I’ve auditioned for thousands more that I didn’t get. That was one I really would have wanted because it’s that great. It turned out to be what it is. But they made absolutely the right choice to get Billy. He did things with the character that I would have never thought of and that’s where he got the gig.
On the other hand, it’s difficult for me to come up with stuff that was heartbreaking because I have had the barest hint of riches, Maggie. Ninja Turtles turned out to be what we all know it to be all over the world. I got another shot at an equally successful version in 2012. This time, I was with Sean Astin, Greg Cipes, and Seth Green. It was great. I’ve been two freakin’ ninja turtles in one career! I mean, come on. I’ve got nothing to be upset about.
Billy is like a family member, he has been to many of my son’s birthday parties when he was a kid. We’re very close. I talk to him all the time.
ML: You mentioned part of the next question, which is about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. One of my friends is a huge TMNT fan and he wanted to know if it was weird to return as a different turtle.
RP: You know, it was a little weird at first. Not returning, because once I got the job I was just, as you can imagine, pretty stoked. But I was almost a victim of my own ageism.
I remember I was working on another show there, called The Fairly Odd Parents. I got a call from my agent because Viacom owns Nickelodeon, [and they had] bought the rights to Ninja Turtles to start doing new stuff with it.
My agent said, “Hey, you’re there and we’d love to have you read for Donatello.” I kind of chuckled and said, “Well, do they know who I am?” Not out of arrogance, but because I’d already been Raphael when many of these kids, who are now producing a show, had grown up watching it. I was already in my 50s and that has no bearing on voice acting, but I was the one who was questioning whether or not I was appropriate, as though it mattered.
You see, it’s interesting how we all perceive ourselves. It had never occurred to me that I was too young or too old to do any role as a voice talent. If a producer hired me, they don’t care what I look like. But all of a sudden, I care. And I said, “Gosh, you know, I don’t want to go in there. I’d be happy to read, I wasn’t offended. I’m not a movie star, I’ll happily read for it. I just wanted to make sure that they know that I was already in the original version because if I get in there and somebody says, “Oh shoot, that’s right. You know he’s here. He’s a nice guy, let’s bring him in. We kind of blew it. We don’t want to waste his time.” Do you know what I mean? I didn’t want to put them in a position to feel embarrassed if they didn’t remember who I was from the original show.
My manager was laughing. She said, “No, Jesus, they know exactly who you are. They know that you are Raphael; they know that you are Pinky; they know you won an Emmy; they know about you’ and all of these other characters. They’re thirty-five years old, they grew up watching you. They just want you as Raphael, they just think [that] because of your chops, that you could add an interesting vibe to Donatello. If you’re okay with reading for another ninja turtle.”
I love telling the story because it’s important. There really is a deep affection among all of us who are lucky enough to do this work. The first phone call I made when I got the job was to Barry Gordon, who was the original voice of Donatello because he was not asked to read for no reason other than that they wanted to go a different direction. I just wanted to make sure that he was cool with it, that he had not been asked or that it turned out to be a money issue and I was going to undercut him. He says “No, no Robbie. I haven’t been asked, I hope you get it.”
We all have such deep respect and admiration for [each other] and it’s hard to get work. You know, we respect that. So anyway, all that was cool. Not only did I learn such a valuable lesson, because I was the one who had a problem with my age, but I had forgotten that the people who [are] now in power at Nickelodeon, Hulu, Netflix are all thirty to forty years old. They know everything that I’ve worked on. My friends Tom Kenny, Billy West, Maurice LaMarche, and Tress — they know everyone. Of course, they do. I just kind of forgot that.
I did the audition and I went back for like their third or fourth callback where they make it right down to the wire. This is how big of a deal Ninja Turtles is to virtually anybody who’s in animation even in Hollywood. I walked into the third callback for Ninja Turtles and there’s Jon Cryer and Jason Bateman,
RP: Now, I don’t know either one of them. I’ve met Jason, I know his sister a little bit. So I said, “Hey, Jason.” Who isn’t a fan of Jason Bateman? I said, “This is cool. You’re here for Ninja Turtles!” He looked at me with all seriousness, excuse my language, but he said, “This is Ninja f—ing Turtles, dude. You see my point, it’s a big deal to people. Even to people who are bonafide TV stars. Ultimately, I got the job and that’s really neither here nor there. Except for me. I was blown away.
For your sweet friend who was kind enough to ask the question, Ninja Turtles transcends a lot of stuff. It’s kind of now like Looney Tunes or maybe SpongeBob and The Simpsons. It’s a big deal. Everybody wants to be involved with Ninja Turtles. So that was pretty cool. When I got the job, it was glorious. That particular incarnation of the show, we did, I think, 120 episodes. It turned out really good [and] I was very proud of it.
Sitting next to Sean Astin, who was a good friend of mine before we did the show together. He was Raphael and I remember the first couple of episodes, [there were] a couple of times where he just had trouble getting a line out. I said to Andrea, our director on the other side of the glass, I would chime in and say, “If Sean can’t get this out, I’m happy to give it a shot at the character.” He is just a lovely guy.
I mean the stories behind all of this, they’re great. The lesson for me is, “Hey, man, don’t be so self-conscious. Nobody gives a shit about your age. Just do your job. Forget about your luck. Forget about what you just did this morning, or the fact that you had a fight with your kid, or that your car’s broken. Go in and do your cartoon gig. Nobody cares about how you look. You know, enjoy that. You’re not limited by bits, like so many actors.” Once I got the gig it was simple and fantastic to flesh out another iconic role. Getting it was a unique experience because I was so self-conscious about the fact that I was older than anybody else. And it meant nothing to anybody but me. So I was lucky I got over it.
ML: Now this question is probably like choosing a favorite child. But do you have a favorite character that you voiced above all the others, or maybe one that you identify with more?
RP: The next one, because it means I’m still working. That’s really not too far from the truth. The work is hard to get. It’s easier for me than it used to be because I have a pedigree now. But I just love to work and I’m grateful to have it.
I think if I had to make a choice, the [character] I would probably identify the most with is Yakko, because I’m a bit of a smartass and I love to sing. I was a singer before I was an actor and I really love to sing. Those songs are such good songs and they really are timeless. So I have to say that Yakko is probably the closest to me.
I really love the sweetness of Pinky. Pinky is such an earnest character. He loves the Brain. Sometimes [he] gets bonked on the head with a pencil and gets berated, but he really does believe that the Brain is the best thing for the world. He is committed [and] it’s a love story. I really enjoy the sweetness of Pinky, especially in the Christmas episode. That’s my favorite episode of Pinky and the Brain. It’s just a lovely, beautiful friendship episode. When Pinky is so distraught that he cannot get his letter to Santa Claus, which he asked Santa to find a way to give the Brain the world for Christmas, he’s not upset with the Brain he’s upset with himself [because] he can’t get this letter to Santa to help his friend. It’s the perfect reason for Christmas — it’s about giving. It’s just a lovely allegory. So I love Pinky as well.
It would be a tough choice. Luckily, I don’t have to make it because we’re doing them both again. Yakko is most likely [who I am as] a human, Pinky is what I’d like to be my soul. Let’s put it that way.
ML: I love that answer. That’s the perfect note to end this interview on.
Following the interview, Rob offered to record a sweet message for my mother as Pinky. Proving that he truly is a purveyor of joy.