There can’t be a Laurel without a Hardy, an Abbott without a Costello, or for the kids out there, a Will Ferrell without a John C. Riley. And certainly, there can’t be a SpongeBob without a Patrick.
For 20 years, Bill Fagerbakke has been voicing Patrick Star, the dim other half and best friend to SpongeBob SquarePants. Den of Geek had the chance to speak with Fagerbakke about making up one half of everyone’s favorite cartoon duo, how theater school doesn’t train you for a 20 year role, and about the upcoming third feature-length SpongeBob film, The SpongeBob Movie: It’s a Wonderful Sponge.
Den of Geek: Well, I’ll jump right in here. 20 years, that has to be pretty surreal. I was wondering how does it feel to inhabit the same character for 20 years?
Bill Fagerbakke: Well, you know, it’s not like when I was in acting school studying theater that had a chapter on how to handle the 20th year of a character. No, it’s really obviously extraordinary and I really love my character and so that really makes it all wonderful.
I suppose if someone didn’t enjoy doing this kind of stuff or didn’t like the material or didn’t like kids or something, it might be a real tough ride, but none of those things apply to me. I also love the people I work with. I had a taste of a long running job when I was on a sitcom that ran for nine years, so I was already built kind of in a way to be able to appreciate the longevity of the relationships and that it’s a transient occupation, so being able to have sustained relationships is really extraordinary and there’s really nothing bad about it.
Now, I’ve just got off the phone with Tom Kenny and he made the comparison that it’s like playing in a band for a long time, like even though the solo that your bandmate plays might be different in some way, you kind of know what to expect and how to gel, and I was just wondering, obviously there’s familiarity, but has your approach to voicing the character changed at all over the past 20 years?
Yeah, I suppose it has. And first of all, Tom, good observation and well stated. He’s an extraordinary guy to work with. He’s just one in a million and every session we have, I thank my lucky stars that he was cast as SpongeBob because absolutely, you know, there’s no one else that could have done and is still doing like what Tom is. I mean, we are all so fortunate.
But in terms of changing character, you know, I’m more actively looking to just anticipate what I can do to it beyond what they’ve already wrote. It’s not like camera work. There’s already very specific ideas of what a given beat is supposed to be in animation, because there’s a storyboard along with the script so you have a very specific concept and so I always want to honor that while at the same time also finding a way to play within that and bring a little something extra, you know, as a performer. So I suppose that certainly is something that’s a built in part of the experience for me.
Was there anything that wasn’t initially on the page about Patrick that you specifically feel like you brought to the character, I mean besides your fabulous voice?
That I really can’t speak to. I don’t know. I like to think I hope I contributed to his sense of warmth and play and also to that sense of bizarre potential that exists with Patrick but I can’t really know for sure. In animation, you’re so compartmentalized, there’s so much work done before you get into the studio to record and then you walk out of the studio and there’s all this other work done, and then maybe you get another look at it, but probably you don’t, so it’s hard to know that stuff.
For the 20th anniversary special, you essentially got to play a live action version of Patrick Star and I was wondering if presenting Patrick as a live action character felt a lot different than having to voice him in the booth?
Despite my career reality, which is to a large degree playing morons, despite that, it was still really strange because your focus, when you’re recording, is so specific as to those moments but also your imagination. You know, it can go anywhere with what you imagine. You look at the storyboard and then you also let your imagination spring off of that to inform your vocal performance, and here I was bound by me and my body and it was really strange. It was a very unusual thing and I kept looking around the set going, “Why do I feel like I’ve never acted before?”
So that was an interesting challenge. Yeah, again, it’s something that was never covered in my theater training.
I bet. You know, I wanted to switch to a little bit more of a somber note. Fans of the series, and I’m sure the cast and the people behind the scenes, are still emotional about the passing of Stephen Hillenburg and I was just wondering if you could talk to me a little bit about what it was like to work with Stephen and besides this whole thing being his brain child, what specifically he brought to the production of the series and the spirit of the show.
Well, all that unique heart and sweetness that characterized the show and the development of the show, that was all Steve. He was such a lovely human being, and you know what? You’re so kind of fractured and compartmentalized in the process, it took me a while to get to know him beyond just a casual working relationship and everything about him was unique. Those first three years, he was our session director and he would sit in the room with us very often and he’d set up a table and he’d wear earphones and he would doodle and it would be kind of like he was a part of us performing the show, and he’d give us notes as we went along.
He was such a unique guy. I always got the sense that one of his skills, such a special skill, was to be clever and innocent at the same time and that’s just such an amazing ability. That was him. He was a beautiful person and I miss him and I’ll never forget going to the opening of the SpongeBob musical on Broadway. I just sat a couple of seats from him and seeing how happy he was and how excited he was, and I was. You know, out of anyone who ever saw that musical, no one cried as much as I did. But yeah, just having that sense, having that sense of what that meant to him.
Well, that sounds really special and I’m sorry about the passing of your friend. You know, you touched on it for a minute there, about the ability to be clever and innocent at the same time. I think the series has always appealed to both children and adults. I was six-years-old when the series started, I remember exactly where I was.
I still revisit so many of the episodes or my friends and I still make references to jokes on such a daily basis. It clearly has an appeal for both children and adults, and I was wondering why do you think there is that sort of connection, that the whole family can kind of get behind this silly show about underwater creatures?
I don’t know. I really truly don’t. It’s hard to qualify that with something concrete. For me, personally, I think it’s all built on Stephen Hillenburg’s character and also I think the way it was developed was really important. The way Nickelodeon let it just happen and let it develop in an organic way was really critical, really crucial, because that’s not an easy thing to do. To produce a show as a network and then just let a young animator kind of develop it on his own. You know, he really got to make this thing his and so kudos to Nickelodeon for that.
What a ride it is. I love every day. I love every session and your generation, you know, it feels like 80% of a person under 30, I can just say, “No, this is Patrick.” And you start laughing or smiling…
Yeah, well, it does work because I just started laughing and smiling.
It’s really an amazing scenario and I love it and I love Patrick. He makes me laugh and I feel that Patrick is linked in a real personal way to me as a seven year old, you know?
And there’s something really deep and profound about it for me.
The show is broadcasted now in over 50 different languages and the show, the merchandise is everything from beach towels to band-aids to ice cream that you can get from the ice cream truck. I mean, SpongeBob is everywhere.
Is that bizarre?
Like if you travel outside of the country or you see Patrick onscreen speaking in a different language? That has to be quite a surreal feeling.
For sure. Yeah. Well, it’s today’s global commerce, right? And entertainment is an integral part of that but, yeah, that’s pretty amazing and all the more reason to be grateful that my face has nothing to do with the product. But no, that’s really cool, yeah.
You know, there are so many shows that I love that if you tried to translate it into a different language, it probably just wouldn’t work, there’d be something off about it or there’d be something that would be lost in translation. What is it about these characters that make them so universal?
There’s something elemental, isn’t there? It’s almost like a commedia dell’arte or something but I tell you, man, there’s some weird alchemy at play here. I don’t know what it is … I don’t know, with the colors and the shapes of the characters. I just don’t know how else to explain it. I really don’t.
But that the character of SpongeBob, I think, has some kind of profound fundamental human appeal. And Tom Kenny is just the right person to embody that and bring him to life. And then we all just kind of respond, we all just kind of relate to that character and bring what we can. Goodness, Roger Bumpass [voice of Squidward] is so hilarious, Clancy Brown [voice of Mr. Krabbs], so funny, Mary Jo Catlett [vocie of Mrs. Puff] and Carolyn Lawrence [voice of Sandy Cheeks], they’re so wonderful at what they do, they bring so much humor and Lori Alan [voice of Pearl] and everyone, Doug Lawrence [various voices], wow, I mean, look at that vibrant character in Plankton and what that means to the show.
There’s a balance there. It all works so well, but you remove SpongeBob from that, then I don’t know. I don’t know.
I find it interesting that you guys still record as an ensemble. You know, there are a lot of animated programs where you hear about people doing their vocal takes in isolation or even, you know the phrase “phoning it in,” but doing it over the phone sometimes. What do you think that that has added? Do you think the fact that you guys are still so plugged in and together in the room, do you think that that’s a part of the longevity of the show and why it’s lasted so long?
All I know is personally how I feel about it and that recording by myself offers so much less satisfaction. When we’re all in the booth and we’re working together, it really lifts everything up and we’re so in tune with each other. You know, it’s so funny, when we’re together I can’t stop myself from doing Krabs and Squidward. I just go … I’ve got them both. I love those characters so much, I can’t stop doing them. It’s like I have this weird envy of I want to do those characters too, you know? But I know that I couldn’t do them like those guys do them.
Maybe if you guys get to 30 years, the next special will be you guys getting the chance to swap roles a little bit.
Yeah, well, how many of us will be in the home? (Laughs) Shady Shoals.
You know, SpongeBob, it’s lasted a long time. There’s no cartoon that I came up with as a kid that’s still producing new episodes where the show hasn’t been rebooted or re-imagined or anything like that.
The only comparisons you can look towards are the Looney Tunes or Mickey Mouse. Is it strange to think that 20 years in, these characters could be the Looney Tunes for a new generation of fans?
That phenomenon is not lost on me because, you know, that was the joy of my youth, the Looney Tunes. I enjoyed some other cartoons also, but not like Looney Tunes. So, yeah, I mean, to be able to be considered such a key part of the fabric of animation is really thrilling and it means a lot to me.
I’m sure there are some things that you can’t, but anything that you could tell me about the upcoming third SpongeBob feature length film?
Well, I can tell you this certainly, that much of what we’ve talked about in the last 30 minutes or so is, in terms of recognizing the breadth of the show and the characters, I think that dynamic is a part of the story, if that makes any sense.
That’s not a sexy quote that’s going to get you very much but that’s really about all I can say, I think.
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.