"Silly is healthy": "Animaniacs" star on laughing through throat cancer & finding a whole new fandom

Rob Paulsen opened up to Salon about how throat cancer threatened the tool he has used to bring joy to millions

By Matthew Rozsa
April 3, 2021 3:00PM (UTC)
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Voice actor Rob Paulsen and his Disney friends (Rob Paulsen)

Recently, I got to interview two Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, an Animaniac, a happy-go-lucky talking mouse who says "Narf!" and the dog from "Rick and Morty."

All of them inhabit the mind, soul and vocal cords of veteran voice actor Rob Paulsen. He is, in his own words, "in the happy business," but right now he was remembering something unimaginably frightening and devastating. Specifically he recalled how Warner Bros. had told him that they wanted to reboot the animated '90s series "Animaniacs" . . . roughly a month after he had been diagnosed with throat cancer.

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Barely containing his emotion, Paulsen described how he was afraid that he wouldn't be able to sing anymore (a key part of his job) or that something unthinkably worse might happen. But despite working in an industry so often associated with cynicism and selfishness, the colleagues with whom Paulsen shared these concerns — who also happen to be his dear friends — made it clear that they loved him and supported him. No matter what, they were going to stand by his side.

If you were a child in America during the 1990s and early 2000s, it's a safe bet that you've heard Paulsen's voice. The prolific actor has played Raphael in the 1987 animated series "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" (and later Donatello in the 2012 reboot), Yakko Warner on "Animaniacs," Pinky from "Pinky and the Brain," and Carl Wheezer from "The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius," among other roles.

Fortunately, he's beaten throat cancer and indeed reprised the roles of Yakko and Pinky for the 2020 "Animaniacs" reboot on Hulu, introducing a whole new generation of young people to his Paulsen's vocal talents. And he hasn't been just revisiting nostalgia roles either, instead taking on fresh challenges in newer projects. One of my personal favorites is a small role on Adult Swim's "Rick and Morty," Snowball/Snuffles, the fluffy dog given hyper-intelligence. Per Paulsen: "I love that critter. The inspiration? Let's say it was 'HAL' from '2001: A Space Odyssey,' with a 'tude and a vasectomy."

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Yet very few of us — myself included — knew that the world was almost deprived of another chance to explore his gifts.

He discusses his experience with cancer in his memoirs "Voice Lessons," which I cannot recommend highly enough. That said, I must confess that there is something about talking to Paulsen directly that cannot be replicated. There is a sweetness to the man, an authenticity and a humility, that is absolutely staggering. I had previously interviewed him in 2018 and, although that was a much briefer conversation, I was struck even at that time by his obvious passion for the seriousness of being silly.

That last phrase may sound like an oxymoron, but it really is the essence of Paulsen's legacy. During our interview, which spanned a wide range of subjects, he repeatedly returned to the subject of why it is important to savor the humor and happiness that life offers whenever you can find it. It is easy to see why Paulsen is widely loved, not just by those who have heard his voice but by those who know him personally. And as he explained in one anecdote near the end of our conversation, he learned through his ordeal that even when you think life can't get any better, it will often surprise you by doing precisely that.

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The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Thank you again for the kind words earlier. I really do appreciate it.

You work for a high high-level outfit. People at Salon are not folks who are second-year journalism students at Podunk College. It's always a pleasure to speak with somebody who's a world-class journalist, especially about something that is sort of universally loved. That is to say animated cartoons, which are utterly timeless. And I love the fact that anyone likes to talk about this because the bottom line is: it just brings joy to both sides of the equation. So when you get to do that with somebody who knows how to do fancy writing, that's great.

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You have a book out about your experience with throat cancer.

It dropped in October of 2019. I'm happy to speak about the whole cancer experience. In fact, that's the platinum lining of my cancer experience. It is having opportunities like this to help.

Your voice is quite literally the tool that you have used to make a career for yourself. Did it affect your ability to do your job when you first developed the cancer?

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No, which is what was so disconcerting when I was diagnosed. I had probably six months, eight months previous to my diagnosis [when I] had noticed a lump on the left side of my neck. While it was obvious to the touch, and I didn't have a goiter, someone had put his hand on it and said, "Oh dude, yeah, wow. You might want to have that looked at." And of course, as you said, it pays the rent, but I was working with big Hollywood productions, the usual suspects: Disney, Nickelodeon, Warner Bros., Universal.

There is a lot of music. I sing all the time for my supper, literally, and I was fine. I wasn't losing weight, nothing. So I went in for my physical, as I said about six to eight months after I noticed this, and put my doc's hand on this spot and — I promise you, Matt, in five seconds he says, "Oh boy. Not good, Rob." And I said, "Oh, come on." I've known this guy forever. He said, "No, seriously, you've got to have this looked at yesterday." And of course the first thing I thought of was cancer. But I thought, "Well, maybe it's like a lymphoma," because it was a lymph node that was swollen, but the cancer had already spread to that area. The original tumor was deep in my throat. I had no trouble eating, swallowing, no pain, nothing, but the lump was the area that the cancer had already metastasized to. And that's what got my doctor's attention. It was confirmed to be Stage 3 metastatic squamous cell carcinoma and a B primary tumor was at the base of my tongue in my throat.

What advice would you have for people who develop any kind of medical condition, whether it's a disability, whether it's a disease that specifically impacts their sense of identity or in general their sense of who they are?

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In my now really lovely circumstance where I have very clear, authentic, anecdotal evidence of how I got through it, the most important piece of advice I could give to anyone who is suffering or dealing with something that literally hits somewhere they live is two things:

Find humor, joy, laughter. As trite as that sounds, Matt, it is very powerful and uniquely human. I know, we know, you know that our dogs are happy and stuff, but you see my point. They are uniquely human with respect to a defense mechanism.

And I make my living in the happy business, even if it's gallows humor. I remember one of my doctors, who has become a dear friend. He's my radiation oncologist, Dr. Henry Yampolsky. He's the one who put together my two months of daily radiation to zap the tumor in my throat. When we met for the first time, he said with this glorious Russian accent, "Mr. Paulsen, I feel certain we can cure you. Unfortunately, before we do, we will almost have to kill you." And I started laughing because I'm a big James Bond fan, and he sounded like Goldfinger. You know, that great scene where Sean Connery's on the table, and there's a laser coming up towards his crotch, and as Goldfinger is leaving the room 007 says "What do you think Goldfinger? Do you expect me to talk?" And he says, "No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die."

And that's where my mind went: to the humor, to the weirdness, to all of that. It's my sweet spot. And as soon as I started laughing and thanking him for approaching it that way he said, "Don't lose that. Don't lose that sense of humor. I tell you, seriously, how important that is for all my patients. Whether it's music, whether it's their family, their dog." He categorically told me, "Don't stop that as an adjunct to your treatment."

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. . . I'm also learning when it's enough. . . . I would go back to work and I wasn't able to do it the way I wanted to do it. From Rob 2.0 to Rob 1.0, I was not up to my standards yet, but the producers were very kind and saying, "Robbie, honest to God, I know you're not going to believe it, but it sounds great, and if it doesn't work out, we'll tweak it in post-production later. You go back home and rest." . . . I am better now at being able to say, "Hmm, you know, I feel my throat getting a little tired. I know what's going to happen if I keep pushing. Now it's as good as it's gonna get." And I'll be fine with that.

So humor and giving yourself a break. Those are both things that are very important and I would absolutely recommend anyone.

You really seem to embrace the joy and value of being silly. I know it may sound paradoxical to talk about the seriousness of being silly, but is being silly something that you think everyone should take seriously?

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We should do this once every two years, if not once a day. That's wonderful. Yes, you're right. Like I said, I'm in the happy business. I'm effectively a blue-collar worker in the dream factory. I go to work every day and I get paid to do what essentially got me in trouble in seventh grade. I sound like Gordon Gekko, but silly is good. Silly is healthy. Silly is utterly human. I think we're all silly when we're kids. It's just part of the deal. And as we get older, we're all silly. When we go on vacation, have a couple of pops, whatever, that's the deal. Silliness, laughter, joy for its own sake are utterly human emotions. And I know that I'm speaking from a unique, relatively privileged position in that my job is to be silly.

If you want the scientific, empirical data that shows what happens when you laugh from your soul, with respect to your endorphins and your brain, it's out there. It's not new, it's not unusual. It transcends language. It transcends generations.

Here's a quick anecdote that is important in this context. A good friend of mine is a world-class physicist, Leonard Mlodinow. He just published a book. He did three books with Stephen Hawking and they were very close friends. And so he wrote a book about his experience with Stephen Hawking and last fall, when the book dropped, he wanted me to interview him online for some collective bookstores. He wanted one of my characters, Pinky, to ask them some really important questions about Stephen Hawking because of the humor aspect of it. Stephen Hawking had a wonderfully wicked sense of humor at the very same time. And I had this like moderate epiphany at the moment that I was discussing his new book with this guy who teaches here at Caltech and knows he's working on it. They call it this, the theory of everything.

I don't even know how to get that, how to respond to that, the theory of everything. This is a super intellect, but it occurred to me that while I was riffing as Pinky and he was laughing and the people online were laughing and all that stuff. I was laughing literally a week before while I had had the same experience with a young man who is on the autism spectrum. He is a young man who will always, by his parents' admission, need help to do the most rudimentary of things. I don't mean brush your teeth and go to the bathroom, but he won't be able to live by himself, drive a car and all that. He's 30 and incredibly bright, a talented artist with pen and ink, but his ability to communicate as you and I are doing was, as is often the case, not what we're used to. But the thing that really struck me, Matt, was that my young friend, Anthony was his name, when Pinky started riffing, he laughed at the same jokes in the same spot, the same way that a guy who used to hang with Stephen Hawking and who is working on the theory of everything did. That's a big thing.

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I have to interject at this point. I'm not sure if you knew this, but I actually am on the autism spectrum too. And growing up, I would watch "Animaniacs." I would always laugh at "Pinky and the Brain." Pinky in particular would crack me up. I also loved watching Yakko and Wakko and Dot and, being a child on the spectrum in the '90s, people did not really understand autism as well as they do today. I was lucky because I had very supportive and nurturing parents, but I was also very socially isolated. And I felt like I was friends, in a way, with the characters that you and your colleagues played. So the story you just told took me back 25 years. God, it's been even more than 25 years.

Friend, there are no accidents. How about that? I have a couple of friends on the spectrum out here who, by their diagnosis, have Asperger's. One of them is Corey Burton, who is a really gifted actor. I had him on my podcast several years ago. And we were discussing in the context of the podcast his encyclopedic knowledge of microphones and how he would take his own mic with him to work. And we used to make fun of him, but not in a denigrating way. We'd say, "Oh my God, Corey, I wish I was as smart as you. . . . You're a Hollywood regular and your insight, your knowledge of microphones is savant. Like it's incredible." And he looked at me and he said, "Oh, Rob, I've been diagnosed. I'm on the autism spectrum. I have Asperger's." And it's like, boom. It made perfect sense.

Thanks to people like you and my friend, Corey, who gives me the privilege of speaking with you and sharing all my anecdotes, we don't know when someone's going to read this article and somebody's going to hear your story, irrespective of whether it includes me or not. But you are an example, Matt, your life, the way that you move through it, what you've accomplished, despite what can be crippling for other people, just by virtue of you breathing. That's not hyperbole. You, like my friend Corey and many others whom I've had the great privilege of meeting. I'm very involved with the autism community, personally, and I love it. There are important things to discuss, and so I just love these things. Like I said, there ain't no accidents, my friend.

Now I have to ask, for you emotionally, what was it like returning to play these characters like Yakko and Pinky?

Oh my God, that's almost impossible to quantify. In the book I recount that we had a dinner meeting. Tress MacNeille who is Dot, and Jess Harnell, who is Wakko, were called by Sam Register, the president of Warner Bros. Animation a few years ago. He wanted to have dinner at this really nice restaurant, literally in the shadow of a water tower in Burbank, a really high-end fancy Hollywood steakhouse. We were hoping that it was, "Oh my God, you know, we'd all wished that we got to do this again." And you know, it was the start of kind of reboot mania. "Gosh, do you think there might be something to this?" And we went to have the dinner, but I had literally just started my chemotherapy and radiation and my two friends, Jess and Tress knew it, but Sam from Warner Bros. didn't. Certainly Steven Spielberg didn't, and I didn't broadcast it. I hadn't told anybody outside my dear close circle.

But that was the gist of the conversation, the meeting: Steven wants to do this again, probably pitch it to the new streaming platforms, but "Animaniacs" had already been back on Netflix, the original episodes, and it was just exploding. Here we go. "Are you guys in?" Well, of course, what do you say? "Steven Spielberg, no, I don't think so?" Of course we're in! . . .  And of course, what I'm thinking is because Steven insisted that it be just be me and Maurice LaMarche, the Brain — it wasn't about movie stars doing our roles, it was about authenticity, it's about the fact that we can still do this, if you do what you're doing now it would have been all or nothing — so immediately I put myself in the position of thinking, "Well, I know they love me and it's about me surviving. But if we can't do this, I'm keeping them from doing this." I mean, it's not my fault, but you see my point.

It turns out it wasn't an issue because we were on Steven's time, which took a couple of years to get going. So when it happened and I signed a contract and we were getting ready to do it again. It was a show that changed my life, and to get to do it again with people I choose to have in my family, been to funerals, birthdays, gotten through each other through divorces, all of that family life stuff — and we've all gotten Emmys and make a nice living and make millions of people happy together — it's an unbelievable opportunity, like winning the lottery of life. The way it played out was pretty precious.

Cut to 25 years ago. There was a moment during "Animaniacs" that I cite in my book, which we had everybody who is anybody in terms of voice talent in Hollywood, in a particular two-part episode of "Animaniacs." We had so many actors in the booth, a big recording studio, that we were kind of playing musical microphones. We'd stop and I would switch with Jim Cummings, who was the voice of Winnie the Pooh and Tigger and [the Tasmanian Devil]. He was doing an episode, we even had a couple of celebrities. I think in this particular episode, it was Cary Elwes was in it. I think Dom DeLuise was in it, but it was a really big episode. 

And I remember sitting next to Tress. I did in every recording session, Tress was between her brothers Wakko and Yakko in every session . . . but I remember, I grabbed her hand during this episode of "Animaniacs" in the '90s and said, "Holy s**t, honey, take a picture of this. Unless you're on 'The Simpsons,' it don't get no better." Steven Spielberg, everybody's winning Emmys, we're making a nice living, look at all the actors around us. This was literally one of those situations where if a bomb hits this room, the cartoon business is shut down. These guys, this is the best of the best. Holy crap. It's just doesn't get any better, and we're just enjoying being in the moment. This is as good as it gets, and we're getting paid!

So 25 years later, Matt: I'm through my cancer. I've been hired again. They know I'm okay. I know I'm okay. And the first episode of the version that's now on Hulu, I'm sitting next to Tress again. And this is the God's honest truth. I took her hand. I said, "Honey, remember all those years ago when I said . . ." and she stopped me and said, "It doesn't get any better." And I said, "Unbelievable. You remember that?" She said, "Of course, I remember that. It does, doesn't it, Mr. Cancer?" And I said, "Holy s**t." I kind of lost it. Because she was there. She knew what I had gone through and she's very close to my family and she says:

"It does, doesn't it?"

Has a new fandom arisen from the show or is it mainly old fans from the '90s? What have you experienced?

It's huge! What we have noticed is that the fan base and the people who come to see us, the breadth of the age is literally mad! Eight or nine to 70 or 75, because the people who are now coming to see us and watching "Animaniacs" are people who were turned on to the show by their college kids. And just like I watched Looney Tunes with my parents and my siblings, they watch "Animaniacs," "Ninja Turtles, "Pinky and the Brain," "Jimmy Neutron," "The Mask," "Fairly Odd Parents," "Goof Troop," "Gummy Bears," all the stuff I did for Disney, all that. They all watched that with their college kids or high school kids. So now their high school college kids have their own kids. And so now they're saying, "Hey, let's get grandma, grandpa, and go here, sing 'Animaniacs' songs," say these kids, "and I'll bring my own kids." 

That's exactly what's happening. And it is freaking amazing to see the requests I get for autographs, from people who get their children with them online and say, "Here's my little boy." I listened to him sing "Animaniacs" and mom and dad are wearing "Animaniacs" T-shirts too. And then they say, "Oh, before we forget, would you do a voicemail from my dad – the kids' grandpa? He loves Pinky." Well, my dad loved Bugs Bunny until he died, so they're timeless. And when you put that in the context of what this means to me, how on earth could it get any better than that?

I get to help people thanks to you. Jesus. I won a lottery, man. This is great! I'm such a privileged man. And to get a chance to speak with you, again, learn about your circumstance, your bravery, your example, your willingness to share it with the world. Come on, guys like us are truly, truly blessed.

"Animaniacs" is currently streaming on Hulu and will return for a second season later this year with another already ordered.


Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

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