Doug Lawrence, known professionally as Mr. Lawrence, is an integral part of SpongeBob SquarePants’ DNA. As a writer, story editor, and general co-conspirator to creator Stephen Hillenburg, as well as the voice of Plankton and several others of Bikini Bottom’s finest (MY LEEEEG!!!), Mr. Lawrence is hugely responsible for SpongeBob being the beloved animated institution that it is today.
With the show’s 20th Anniversary Special just around the bend, Den of Geek chatted with Lawrence about all things SpongeBob, from his favorite episodes, characters, and his thoughts on SpongeBob becoming one of the most meme’ed figures on the web. Follow along as we plunge deep with Mr. Lawrence on Nickelodeon’s most enduring, and endearing, hit.
Den of Geek: How does it feel to inhabit the same character for a 20-year period? I’m talking about Plankton, of course. We’ll get to some of the others…
Mr. Lawrence: Plankton, sure, sure. It’s a thing that we’ve been sort of… even at the 10-year mark, it was like, “Wow, we’re still making this.” Even at the five-year mark, we were like, “Hey, people are still watching this show.” All animated shows have a short shelf life mostly, so you get like two seasons, three seasons, you’re happy, and you kind of move on to the next show. This has been on so long that I’ve left the show and come back. I’ve always been Plankton on the show, but as far as writing the show, I’ve gone away and done other things and the show is still sitting here going, “Hey, you want to come back?” It’s been like a sort of place to come back to that still exists, which doesn’t really happen ever. Usually, you don’t get the opportunity to keep going back to a show that’s still there. That rarely happens and I’ve come back several times, back and forth.
It’s weird because you start to get complacent about it, because usually you’re waiting for the ax to fall. You’re waiting for the other shoe to drop and go, “Okay, you’re done. You’ve been canceled now. You’re finally done.” But that hasn’t happened yet. After a while you start to count on it. You start to worry that you’re counting on it too much to be there. It’s funny. It’s nice that people still like it and, because we sort of feel like an ownership or a responsibility to make sure that the shows are still quality and that the shows are really funny and that they have a surprise in them or two each show, so it doesn’t get stale. It’s a hard thing to make a show keep having sparks flying out of it and I think we’re still able to achieve that.
It’s a testimony to the characters’ longevity, just how good the character development has been on our show, and I think we’re lucky that people still like it, and because it’s kind of easy to take the characters and put them in new situations, even though you would think it would get insane after a while trying to come up with new things for the characters to do. We have our lives and new things happen to us all the time and new stories happen to us all the time, so why not have new stories happen to SpongeBob? I mean, that makes total sense. If you’re around long enough, you’re going to have more experiences, more stories to tell.
Now, when it comes to voicing the character… we’ll talk about the writing and the story editing aspect, but when it comes to voicing the character of Plankton, has your approach to voicing the character changed at all, or was there anything that was not on the page about Plankton that you feel like you specifically brought to the role, whether it was the first time you voiced the character, or that you found as time has gone on?
Well, everything that Plankton said the first 5-6 years, I wrote. So, it’s been a back and forth. I don’t always write exactly what Plankton says, but I always have a say in it because I play him, so I get a chance to say, “Hey, that doesn’t sound like how he’d say it. He might say it like this.” But, you know, the character was something that I had to practice when we first did it. I had to practice to keep it consistent. You know, because it’s a certain kind of a voice that I’m putting on. My voice doesn’t sound like Plankton normally, so I have to actually make a pocket in the side of my mouth and bring it down low, as low as I can go.
So, that’s what Plankton is, me scooping down as hard as I can into my larynx and getting it to be as low as I possibly can. So, when you do that, for me, it was something I had to go back and forth about. I’ve been doing him for so long though now that I can pick him up any time and do him. I don’t have to practice anymore to remember. I have like a muscle memory in my voice box now. It knows exactly where to go to get Plankton and make him make sense and act through him. I can do him easily now. It’s way easier than it used to be. It’s much, much easier for me to get to where I need to get even as an actor playing that part just because I’ve gone through so many emotions with that character already. I already know who he is and I feel like he’s more me. It’s really weird, when you play a character long enough you sort of become that character, or I should say the character becomes you.The lines blur.
Yeah, the lines blur a little. When I see the character doing things lately, I hear Plankton yelling something that I wrote and had him yell in the show, and I’m thinking, “God, that’s all about my car breaking down that day.” It’s all about stuff that happens to me that I remember why he’s mad, it was inspired by something that I was actually mad at. It’s always been cathartic, but now it’s gone beyond that. I really count on that. I count on the catharsis of having an outlet for my emotions. Playing that character is that for me too. It’s therapeutic. I think if the show ever ends, I’ll still be doing Plankton at home just to the walls. I gotta get it out, you know?
You’re also the voice of many of the supporting characters like Larry the Lobster and I was just wondering, beside Plankton, do you have a favorite character on the show that you’ve voiced?
Yeah, I like the announcer stuff and the other characters I play in the show, but currently we’ve been getting a lot of play out of this character called Rube, who is sort of like Huell Howser spin-off. I don’t know if you know who Huell Howser is, but he was a local California guy who used to go around and interview people in California, go to beautiful places in California and show off things you didn’t know about, that kind of thing. So, Rube became this guy who goes around and he’s showing you all around Bikini Bottom. So, that character lately, I’ve really enjoyed doing it. People seem to respond to it even if they don’t know the genesis of the character, they respond to how happy he is about everything. So, we’ve been using him more often. We used him in a couple of episodes the past season or two, so we’re using him more often. So, as far as a new character goes, Rube is my favorite new character.
Other than that, it’s really fun. None of them are like Plankton though. Plankton I sort of set aside in my head as a different thing. The other characters are sort of supporting player. I don’t get to act as much with the other guys. With Rube a little bit in some of the new things we just did, but it’s mostly Plankton. That’s my thespian. That’s where I do my Shakespeare. The rest of it is just sort of doing the comedy, but I always feel like I’m going for something deeper when I’m doing Plankton. I always feel like I’m trying to at least make it feel real so everyone relates to it and it doesn’t just feel like a guy who is pretending to be angry. I want you to feel like he really is angry or really sad or happy or whatever he is. We all do that on the show. I think we’re all trying to make the characters as believable as possible even though they are absolutely fake and absolutely could never exist. It’s great to be able to put human emotions into them and make them feel real. That might be one of the reasons it’s still around.
On that note, was it surreal getting the chance to essentially play a live-action version of Plankton in the 20th anniversary special? Did it feel a lot different than voicing him in the booth?
Yeah, that’s the thing; everything that is sort of familiar and comforting about being in a booth, that’s all gone when you’re standing there on the set, and you’re actually talking to the other people and trying to remember your lines. We didn’t have a ton of lines, it’s a short sequence, but it was enough. It was enough for us to screw up enough and go, “Ah man, why can’t I remember this?” A lot of us don’t do that much acting on camera, so this was a thing. About a year before we came up with the idea to do this show and I wrote that scene and all the live-action stuff that’s in this episode, that was one of the most fun I’ve ever had writing in my whole life.
It was just sitting alone in the room and I was able to give myself an atmosphere where I could just have fun, which I always try to do anyway on the show, but this just was… I don’t know what it was, but there was something cool about it. I had so much fun writing this thing. I was giggling all the way through because I knew how this was going to look. I know this is going to look so silly to people and be so funny. When we show people, because there are people seeing it here and there, you know other PAs and people connected to the show on the side, younger people, they see it and go, “Oh my God, that is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.” Their minds are blown because we’ve been on for so long and now you’re getting to see us do it live in front of you as if we’re real people. I mean, it’s so unique, it’s so weird, it’s so different. It’s going to be hard to top.
We’re really excited to see it.
I hope you love it. We really loved making it and I’ve been so excited for people to see it. I cannot wait to see what the reaction is to this thing. It will be one of those things that’s famous from the show that we did. It’s funny, because I thought The Simpsons had done this before. I thought The Simpsons must have done this already, and we looked into it and we’re like, “No, they haven’t done that one yet. They haven’t tried it that way.”
The classic animation saying, “The Simpsons have done it.” You beat them to it.
Yeah, this time. I wanted to do it years ago when the show started, like first season. I think the idea came up that “Why don’t we have the characters either tear their faces off and you see live-action heads underneath?” or you know, a way to get to that joke to show that off. It always got torn down because usually when you’re starting off a show, especially in animation, there is no budget for you to make it live-action. You have to kind of fudge the numbers to make the situation right so you can do that. But the show has been on longer now and we can ask for things and say, “Hey, we have an idea to do this, this might be good for the show.” So, it’s a different situation than we used to have. The timing was right and we finally got it together. I am kind of glad we waited because if we had done it sooner, it wouldn’t have had as much of an impact as I think it’s going to, so I think it was good timing for us.
As a writer and story editor on the series, what are the hallmarks of a classic SpongeBob episode and do you feel you have a favorite episode that you’ve written that sort of encompasses what the show is to you?
Really, the show has so many different stripes to it. We have so many different character dynamics that we can take you down different roads. We’ve been creating new ones lately just to make the show more interesting for the audience and for us to write it because there’s certain things you can only do so many times, you need to come up with a fresh take on everything. We’re always trying to kind of team up characters that maybe haven’t been together before. We found a few different combos that we hadn’t tried too much before, like Plankton and Patrick together. They are really funny, we found out, because Plankton just cannot take how stupid Patrick is. It’s fun to watch that happen. We’re doing more with Bubble Bass. We’ve made him more of a star. We’re making more characters out of some of the side characters on the show. We’re doing more with them because we feel like, “That guy has got a little more depth. I think we could make more of this guy or that guy.”
It’s hard to say what the perfect episode is. Of the ones that I’ve participated in, or wrote or voiced in, there are a lot I liked as a voiceover actor. There was “Frankendoodle,” which I really was pretty proud of. I’m in that in live-action too. It was the first time I was on the show in live-action in the boat with the magic pencil. I love that one, not just because I’m in it that way, but because that whole episode has such great surreal quality. It’s just a great story with an impossible situation, a surreal situation, an evil character that’s magical. You know, we usually don’t do that, so it’s a very unique show. That’s the funny thing, when you’re saying do I think there is a show that says it all, I think that’s the great thing about the show, why it’s lasted too. I think we’re always trying to be funny and surprising, so we’re always trying to reinvent the wheel with the show and by doing so, it changes all the time.
It’s almost hard to say what is the formula except character. To me, character can be formula because you know how this guy acts, just like in real life, you know how your mom acts. You know certain things will set your mom off. You know certain things your mom doesn’t like and other things your mom loves. That’s the same thing. We know about these characters. We know them like our family. We know what they like and don’t like. That’s really the formula of the show is the characters. Going off of that, there are so many episodes and so many different things that I like, and I did like “Frankendoodle,” but there is an episode we just did last season called “My Leg,” which is about Fred.
I wrote that one and I’m very proud of that one, mostly because the format of that show goes against what the normal format is for the show. The normal linear story telling? We didn’t do with that one. There is a story being told, but we’re also trying to see how many times we can say “my leg.” It was like, “How can we take a running joke on the show, and turn it into a real story?” It was a challenge to figure it out. And then the idea came up of course to, “Well, if we’re going to make Fred seem real, then we’re going to have to make him do something like be in love.” You know, he’s going to need to fall in love. So, that episode turned into Fred being in love and SpongeBob helps him reunite with his beloved. But it’s all silly.
It’s all crazy and the structure of that episode is very unlike other episodes. And we have ones like that every so often where there is something else going on, you know a piece of music that’s carrying what’s happening, or a certain character comes in and it’s themed to that character. But that would have to be my all-time favorite right now, “My Leg.” And I could go on, of course. There are so many episodes that I’m proud of.
When the show debuted, I remember exactly where I was when the first episode aired. I am 26 now. I love the show just as much as I did back then and I feel like for the generation directly above mine, I feel like Seinfeld is the comedy touchstone that everybody quotes and everybody knows what you’re talking about when you reference it. For my generation, I feel like that is SpongeBob. Rarely does a day go by that my friends don’t reference SpongeBob in some way and it pretty much always gets a laugh.
Oh, that’s funny.
It has always appealed to both children and adults, and I was wondering if you thought of why that is? Or as a story editor, how to approach the balance of making the show that is for all intents and purposes for kids, but something that parents can sit down and watch right alongside their children and they’re not dreading it. They enjoy it as well.
First, thanks for the kind words. It’s always nice to hear that people quote it and are still into it, that makes me feel good.
Yeah, it’s a part of the daily lexicon.
That’s always amazing. I think the show itself… remember, the show started in the ’90s when the climate was a little different as far as what was being done in animation. There were a lot more independent kind of shows that were all eclectic. There seemed to be more different kind of shows and less shows that were just being marketed towards kids specifically. It was sort of more like family. We always thought of being more of a comedy show, not a kid’s show. We try not to talk down to kids ever. We are always trying to make it as smart as possible, but then also realizing, “Hey, that subject, or that theme, or that idea, or that joke goes into an adult theme.” It may not even be something that’s bad for kids to hear, it just might not be something kids grasp, so we don’t do those things.
So, we try to stay away from certain adult themes just because kids won’t get it. It will be too much over their head and they won’t have fun. They’ll just wonder what we’re talking about. And we draw out stories sometimes that aren’t kid friendly enough, as well as entertaining for everybody. We kind of see ourselves as more like Pixar, where we’re really making family entertainment. We’re not shooting for a kid demographic. I know it hits many demographics, our show, but that’s the thing, we never looked at it that way. In fact, any of the shows I’ve worked on, like Ren and Stimpy and Rocko’s Modern Life, all those shows were the same thing. We were just making comedy shows that kids could sit down and watch too.
It’s less of a kid-centric thing and more about stories. You know, we always are going to do stories about our childhoods, because that’s part of what SpongeBob is, how innocent he is and how childlike he is. So, we’re kind of spoofing childhood. It’s almost that’s what the show is. It’s kind of a spoof or a satire of childhood in a way, and I think that sort of pulls it into a satirical bend, which kind of allows us to do different kinds of humor. In other words, it is a conscious thing that we’re trying to do, but it’s not that hard because we have a tone that we have already set and we know what the tone is.
So with that comedy tone in mind, we’re able to write off of that knowing, “Okay, this is the kind of thing we can get away with.” And we push it sometimes. There are certain things we think, “Oh, this will be perfect for the show,” and it isn’t. We realize later, “No, that’s not for us. That’s for another show to do.” We’re very specific. We have our roles in certain spots, but I think the main thing I want to see more of in TV is less specific humor, less making fun of things that are topical, which you see a lot of too. They try to be so topical they forget about just telling a story.
Part of it too is that we really are a rapid fire kind of show that has a lot of jokes per square inch on it all the time. There are many jokes happening all the time and I think that a lot of shows don’t have that tone. They’re more telling like a sitcom type of a story. I think we are a sitcom, but we know we’re a cartoon and we know that we need to push the boundaries of being a cartoon, otherwise, for us, why are we doing it. Why is this in animation if we’re not going to push it? That’s all of us. The group that makes the show grew up on old theatrical shorts from Warner Brothers and MGM and we like gags. We like to see gag cartoons and we need more of that because I think it gets lost sometimes. People forget how much they love that. And then all these other sitcom things, they all look the same. We need more fun. Gags are fun.
That’s why I always think of it as being funny and fun. It goes hand in hand with doing gags and slapstick and things that you know you can stretch. That’s why we stretch SpongeBob all over the place as much as we can. We blow him up. We do whatever we can to the characters to distort them and push them because it’s funny and that’s really our goal is to be funny. I think a lot of shows are out to tell their story about their characters, and that’s fine too, but really for us, the bottom line for us is always “Is this funny?” Because if it isn’t, we’ll throw it back. If it’s not funny enough, it bothers us. We sit there going, “It has to be funnier. There has to be a way to do this.”
So, I mean, I think that’s what it is about. We do precision comedy. We’re trying to do well-timed comedy like we grew up with, like we’ve seen from other guys over the years that we loved in the industry. You know, just other guys who are really good at character comedy and making you really laugh at the situation between two characters who you know are perfectly matched to milk the best joke they can out of this situation.
Well, I want to shift gears to something a bit more serious. I’m sure everyone who works on the show and is involved in the production are probably still emotional about the death of Steven Hillenburg. I was just wondering if you could talk to me a little bit about what it was like to work with Steven, and besides brainstorming the entire enterprise, about what he specifically brought to the production of the show.
Well, we were friends on Rocko’s Modern Life. We were both directors side by side on that show and even directed a few shows together. We did a few half hour specials together. So, Steve and I just always had a similar style of humor. We laughed at the same things. We liked the same kind of stuff and so, when you hang out with somebody, when you’re on a show with someone, you just kind of have a kinship, and you know, “If I get something going, I’m calling this guy.” And he says the same thing, “If I get something going, I’ll call you, you call me,” you know that kind of thing. So, it was that kind of connection we always had. If one was doing something, they called the other one.
So, this came up while he took over Rocko for one season, and he was able to swing a deal where he could get a pilot made. We were all trying to get pilots going around the same time. Not just me and him, but others from Rocko, and this is the one that happened. This is the only one out of all of us that actually got made because it was really still very hard, especially with us being younger then, to trust us and say, “Yeah, we want you to do this show.” So, it finally happened and there we were again being close as we were in the comedy sense that we were on Rocko, now here we were trying to come up with this new thing. There was a [show] bible in place and all, but we still had to come up with how the character dynamics were going to work and who is going to play these characters and make them work. So far we only had Patrick and SpongeBob cast, and Squidward. But we weren’t sure about all the characters yet. We hadn’t explored them yet. Sandy wasn’t there yet. Plankton wasn’t there yet.
Right at the beginning it was mostly me, Steve and [writer, creative director] Derek Drymon and we would be in a conference room together just throwing out ideas for the next shows. In fact, one of the last times I got to work with Steve, where we were actually writing together, was on the second SpongeBob movie. I came in there to do punch up with him. The two of us and a couple of other storyboard guys were in the room and we were just coming up with ideas and pinning them up and having a ball laughing and stuff. That’s what I remember the most about the show with our small group, was just enjoying laughing about what we were going to do with these characters, their dynamics with each other and how they were going to antagonize each other, and how we were going to bring all these ideas we had. It was exciting.
Steve’s thing definitely was about character-driven stuff. Rocko was a good training ground for us. That’s where we first started to deal with characters that will stick, characters that were solid, and I think that was part of what we wanted. We wanted to make sure that we got another show where the characters really resonate, that they stick. You can only guess half the time what to do, but we took a lot of chances with stuff because that’s what you do when you’re starting off with a show. A good thing about Steve and I was that he always looked over at me, because he knew that if I hated something, then I would just look at him like, “No, we’re not doing that.” I’d give him a look and he would know. We would talk about stuff like that all the time and it would be this back and forth about what’s right. What should we do and what shouldn’t we do for the show because we’re making it up for the first time.
He knew what he didn’t want a lot and that was really helpful, and so did I at times. We both kind of back and forth knew “that’s not good, this is not good”, but he knew as he was going through it where to navigate to try to get the best out of the situation and the animation, and the music, and everything else. He cared about each department of each thing, as you should when you’re creating a show. And of course we all did that, but not everybody had the same dedication to the comedy of it. Some people, you get a show, you get it on and you’re happy it’s on and you’re not worried about necessarily how good the humor is, you’re just trying to get a show on.
This was more like, “Okay, we have to be funny. We really have to be funny. Let’s try to be as funny as we can within the boundaries of a kid’s show, how far we could take it.” And again, we were still young then too, so it was new territory for all of us, but at the same time, something we were sort of ready to do at that time. It was the perfect time for us. We had just finished another show and now here’s this one and let’s make this great. So, we all kind of laser focused hard, all together, to make that. But like I said, Steve was good at knowing who was good. He always surrounded himself with guys that he knew could help him put the house together. He was good at all that and good at picking the voices too, and good at being just the arbitrator of his vision.
We all have those shows where it’s something about our childhood or something that comes from us personally, and this show came from a personal place. Even though it’s silly and crazy, that’s Steve bringing it from a personal place and saying that the optimistic little guy, the little guy who people kind of want to step on and put down, he’s too optimistic to let that be a problem for him. There’s something about that kind of character, the optimism and the hope of a character, and it makes you go, “Gee, I wish I was more like that when I was a kid when I was getting picked on.” You know what I mean? I wish I was more like SpongeBob. There’s something in that. And I think that’s what we were trying to do, and Steve was definitely trying to do, was re-tell our childhoods in a way that’s funnier and not as tragic.
So, I think that becomes part of what this all was, you know this all has become. It’s sort of a re-imagining of our growing up and saying, “Boy, what if I had all that?” And some kids are like that. I was like SpongeBob when I was really little, but later you get more cynical. That’s being a teenager.
You become a Squidward.
Yeah. So, it’s fun, it’s like a safe place to say here’s what it could have been like. Here’s what I could be like. Everybody wants to be like him, like SpongeBob. Be naïve, not stupid, but naïve enough where you can enjoy things a little bit more than everybody else and see the joy in everything and pay attention to the joy in everything. That’s the way we’d all like to be. That’s the thing that Steve brought that we now reap the benefits of, for that character and the characters surrounding that character, because without SpongeBob being relatable or believable, the other characters wouldn’t work at all.
So, having our main character be somebody who everybody relates to, it makes it much easier to have the other characters emotionally also have resonance and have weight. It’s a good group and like I said, as far as the cast goes, that’s why Steve was the thing that helped us figure out what this was all going to be, because he didn’t know either. In certain cases you don’t know, you’re just hoping you’ll find out as you go along. It was fun to be part of that process with Steve. We miss him, of course. He was sick for a while, so he’s kind of been gone for a bit as far as we’re concerned on the show, but you know I think of him all the time because we’re on the show and I always think, “Oh yeah, remember that time Steve was telling me this, or we went to that show and this happened…” There are so many touchstones in my head with Steve that goes back to Rocko. There are great memories connected to it. And then we keep making it, so it’s even weirder, you just keep rekindling these memories constantly.
SpongeBob has taken on almost a new life online as a source of countless popular memes, and I was wondering if it’s interesting to see the way that fans use SpongeBob and moments from SpongeBob as a means of reacting to things online pretty much every day in every situation?
Yeah, it’s funny. It’s a weird thing in general because they’ve been doing it with everything.
SpongeBob in particular.
You think you’re not going to see it anymore and then there it is in a meme.
SpongeBob pops up quite a bit. Different little shots from different episodes all over the place.
They just came out with a series of vinyl dolls based on popular memes. There’s a whole group of them. I’m looking at one right now. There’s a whole bunch of these little box characters that look just like the meme and say the meme on it. It’s a phenomenon that wouldn’t be something I would have guessed they’d be coming up with. It’s another thing. It’s like a bumper sticker. It’s like the stuff we grew up on when we were kids. There is always a sort of bootleg shirts of like Calvin and Hobbes and that kind of stuff. There’s those bootleg copies. That’s what memes are to me. They’re like these bootleg tattoos you could get. It’s not a tattoo, but its a visual version of something like that. Just something to throw out there.
It’s funny when I see them because it’s like a new version of the show. It’s another thing that exists unto itself. It has nothing to do with the show except that it’s derived from it, you know what I mean? We just keep seeing them too. There have to be billions by now. There are so many. People keep asking us, “What’s your favorite meme?” I said, “I don’t know, I’ve seen hundreds of them. I don’t really have a favorite.” There are so many, its hard to decide.
The only ones I remember now are the ones that they made the dolls out of because I’m like, “Oh yeah, that one.” There are so many. It’s nice that it resonates that way too. I like that there is another way that the show is permeating the culture and being part of the conversation, which I always think is good to keep the show relevant. I think it’s a good way to keep the characters alive too.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Nick Harley is a tortured Cleveland sports fan, thinks Douglas Sirk would have made a killer Batman movie, Spider-Man should be a big-budget HBO series, and Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson should direct a script written by one another. For more thoughts like these, read Nick’s work here at Den of Geek or follow him on Twitter.