Tom Kenny Interview: The Voice of SpongeBob SquarePants

For nearly 20 years, Tom Kenny has voiced SpongeBob SquarePants. As Sponge Out Of Water arrives on disc, he spared us some time for a chat.

If ever you want to give your head a bit of work to do after watching a family movie, give the beautifully insane SpongeBob SquarePants: Sponge Out Of Water a watch. A big box office hit earlier this year, and now arriving on DVD and Blu-ray, it’s got a plot that defies anyone to sit and explain it succinctly. So we decided to go straight to the heart of things and ask SpongeBob himself, the mighty Tom Kenny. Here’s how we got on…

I have a confession, and I should start with that. I broke my SpongeBob duck this year. I took my kids to see Sponge Out Of Water, having no idea what to expect. I really, really liked the film, and haven’t seen anything so comfortably insane in a long time. But it got me wondering: how do they go about explaining the story of these things to you?

Could you explain it?

Oh, lord no. A good thing, though: it was a film that looked like it hadn’t seen a focus group in its life.

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[Laughs] Sometimes you start an interview and they ask, ‘what’s the movie about’? And I always say ‘how much time have you got?’ [Laughs again. We like it when Tom laughs].

Well, we’re so used to family movies that never stray outside the fences. By the time we got to the dolphin in outer space, we’d given up trying to work out what was happening!

I think there was really a desire to not do a movie that… there was no desire to do a film that was as formulaic and by the numbers as so many of these CGI features are these days. But you still have to make something that people will want to see, and will be popular. A film that for those who have been following the show for years, it’ll still feel like the SpongeBob they know.

The first movie that we did in 2004, that was wilfully crazy. But Sponge Out Of Water definitely took it a couple of steps further. I think with something like SpongeBob: Sponge Out Of Water, there’s no way you’re going to attempt to reach the same emotional level of Pixar movies like Up or Inside Out. So let’s take it as crazy as possible.

All these things that are influences on us, the animators and the writers… Mad Max, post-apocalyptic films. Spaghetti westerns. Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy

I grew up reading D C Thomson comics in the UK. The likes of The Beano and The Dandy. Have you come across them?

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Yes, I do know those. I grew up buying imported issues of 2000 AD and things like that.

What I loved about these British comics at their best was that they could never, ever resist a joke. Universal jokes, too. I got a feel of that here, and I wonder how strong the British influences are on you all? You mentioned Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, which clearly is a strong influence on the film.

Yeah. Monty Python for sure, there’s a lot of that in there. We’re aspiring to Monty Python-ish-ness. British humour and British speculative science fiction has always had a healthy dose of absurdist humour in it. This movie definitely does too. It’s also part Looney Tunes too.

My kids, when they’re really into something, they want to go shopping. So we looked online at some of the merchandise, and I struggle to think of a more eclectic bunch of tie-in products. There’s duct tape, thermometers, tampons…

They really make those?

Yes! Do you have any say on any of this?

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Well, I guess the SpongeBob property really is going where it’s never been before. I have to say that there is probably no product that you could think of that has not had SpongeBob’s face emblazoned upon it. Everything from bowling balls, a surgical mask… A friend on mine went to China and saw ladies walking round with SpongeBob surgical masks on!

Okay, you win, you win.

Looking at your list of credits, I think they’re in the process of setting up a whole new IMDB for you. But one thing the IMDB likes to do is categorise what you do. It has this feature where it attributes keywords to your work, and lists what the most popular ones are. 63 of your IMDB credits, for instance, have ‘surrealism’ as a keyword. Another 10 have ‘bare-chested male.’ There’s ‘castle thunder’ in there too.

Wow! As a 53-year old man I try not to take my shirt off ever! I didn’t realize it did that feature. There’s worse words that could appear next to an actor’s name than surrealism! That’s a good word to be associated with.

Agreed. The reason I wanted to bring it up though was that you’ve talked in previous interviews about how your voice work is stacked out weeks at a time. But that Monday to Friday, you’ll do lots of jobs, and lots of very different roles. Is that the crux of the joy of being a voice actor for you? That you walk out of one room, into another, and it’s a whole different world?

Oh most definitely. You just hit exactly why most voice actors think that we have the best job in showbusiness. We don’t really aspire towards anything else. I don’t want to be Tom Cruise, or the wacky neighbour on a sitcom. I work every day, I have fun, I get to play tons of different characters. Some are very surreal, some are scary, some of it is scatological, more adult, and some is really gentle pre-school humour. One of them being the show Henry Hugglemonster. It has a British and American cast, different voices in the UK and the US.

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Just being able to put on all those different vocal masks every day and run around… a friend of mine referred to my job as being a paid schizophrenic. It kind of is. Multiple personalities, but not a disorder. It actually helps you have a house and stuff.

There’s a coffee chain here, Costa Coffee, and I remember reading that they’d insured the tongue of their main coffee taster for ridiculous amounts of money. Do you have anything in place for your voice, and is there a physical challenge to keeping your voice in shape?

Yes. There’s an Elvis movie called Jailhouse Rock. He’s a famous singer, then gets punched in the vocal chords before his big break. He doesn’t know if he can do the big show or not. That’s kind of my worst nightmare.

I’ve not insured my vocal chords though!

You should do. When you come to promote SpongeBob 3, that’s your publicity story. Just insure your vocal chords for $4 trillion or something.

You should join the Paramount marketing team!

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I’m just on my way now. One of the things you touched on earlier was that SpongeBob has been going for the best part of two decades. This film came out at the start of 2015, and it had a $55m opening weekend in the US. Can you talk about that weekend? That basically cements your job for another ten or 15 years. Also: it’s never been bigger, has it?

[Laughs] That’s how I can tell that you have children too! You’re thinking like that – oh good, job security!

That opening weekend… it’s funny, you’re the only person who’s asked about it.

It was such a heady experience. The show has been on the air here in the States for 16 years. The very ephemeral pop culture that we deal in, for something to last 16 years… even to last four seasons in television, the odds are very much against it. For something to last four times that long, and still be conquering new worlds, is really miraculous. We’re all very aware of how unusual and special that situation is, and that very few people ever have the luxury to be in the position of an actor… you just go job to job, hoping that that audition you did six months ago will come up. You hope that you can make your way through to your golden years, having worked a lot.

SpongeBob has been this amazing thing. The movie came out, there were projections, but nobody was really sure how it was going to do. And then SpongeBob – no pun intended – blew those expectations out of the water.

That weekend? I felt like I was dreaming. We all did. We were calling each other. ‘Did you see the numbers for SpongeBob?’ It was amazing. Then a few weeks later, when it knocked American Sniper off the top of the box office, that was a victory for us. We’re officially tougher than Clint Eastwood now!

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It was indescribable. But at the same time, there’s still so much life in these characters, that we all love doing. It’s pure fun, and doesn’t seem like it’s been 16 years. I think if you were doing a character on a live action television show, you’d be tired of sitting in the make-up chair. With SpongeBob, such a joyful character, to do it for 20 years? Incredible.

Then there’s people like you and your family, who are just getting on the train! Even though this thing feels ubiquitous and has been around forever, there are people who are just discovering it. That’s interesting too. People are still going on their first date with SpongeBob!

I’ve interviewed stand-up comedians towards the end of 100 date tours, and they say that the thing they have to remember when they go on stage, and they may have done the material hundreds of times, there are people in the audience for whom it’s their first. And they have to keep hold of that. Are you conscious of that, when recording SpongeBob?

In the recording booth, it’s not in our minds. It’s really being in a sandbox and playing. We always record the show full cast, with everyone in the room. You sort of just go into SpongeBob mode, and we become those characters, and try to be funny. We do try to add jokes, we do a scene a bunch of times, with as many variations as possible.

When you leave the studio, and go to Comic-Cons and such like, that’s when you see people in their 30s coming up, and saying that they we were the soundtrack to their childhood. I’ve had groups of twentysomethings saying they still talk to each other in SpongeBob memes. It’s really touching, you know?

You get people who have had very difficult lives, and they say that SpongeBob got them through things, which is very touching. Someone told us that they were considering suicide, and SpongeBob made them laugh, and they cycled through that phase of their life. You get everything from that, to I had a great happy childhood and SpongeBob was part of it.

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You get all colours of the spectrum in terms of people coming up. Not just with SpongeBob either. It may be some cartoon that was a failure, or a videogame that took an hour to record in 1996. But they say it was the biggest thing in their life at one point. It’s mind-blowing. You don’t realise the footprint of what you’re doing is leaving behind.

Can you capture the privilege of being such an important part of someone’s childhood?

I never really did very many of these Comic-Cons, and I’m just starting to realise in the last year or so what you’re saying. I’m someone who’s not on social media at all. Maybe if you were someone on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and all that, it wouldn’t have been such a big pleasant surprise to me. But since I’m not on any of that stuff, when I go to these appearances, or just walking down the straight… my wife and I were walking around one day, were in a restaurant, these kids were in there looking at us, then came over and had looked me up on their iPad or whatever! The father came up and said ‘is this you?!’

I’m always amazed when kids recognise me. Visually. It’s always a surprise.

I have to end by asking you about Jason Statham, as is tradition for us. Do you, Mr SpongeBob SquarePants, have a favourite Jason Statham movie?

Oh boy, that’s a tough one. You’re talking to someone who barely turns his television on or goes to movies.

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Make one up if you can’t think of one…!

I would say Lock, Stock & Three Smoking Barrels. Has anyone done that yet?

Oddly, you’re the first.

And I’m also very much looking forward to The Fast & The Furious 27.

That one will more than likely happen, so you’re on safer ground there.

Tom Kenny, thank you very much.

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SpongeBob SquarePants: Sponge Out Of Water is available now on DVD, Blu-ray and digital download.