We all probably wish our personalities were more like SpongeBob SquarePants — friendly, selfless, and eternally optimistic — but there’s a good chance that you more readily identify with his easily annoyed, pessimistic neighbor Squidward Tentacles. Squidward has been called the voice of “millenial despair” and the man responsible with imbuing the character with such a relatable malaise, Rodger Bumpass, is happy to voice the animated poster child for existential desperation.
Den of Geek had the chance to chat with Bumpass about voicing Squidward for the past 20 years, the series live-action anniversary speical, and why the successful SpongeBob Broadway show made him jealous.
Den of Geek: I’ll start with the obvious: 20 years is a long time to be working in the same role. It’s pretty peculiar. Definitely doesn’t happen for a lot of actors, so I was wondering, how does it feel to inhabit the same character for 20 years?
Rodger Bumpass: It becomes a second skin. I used to say that he was my alter ego. As the years have gone on, I have become more Squidward, so I shoo people off my front lawn a lot more than I used to. It really is a very interesting thing and quite unique. With the possible exception of The Simpsons, we’re pretty much up there, as far as longevity for animation, and it’s a very honored position to occupy.
It’s interesting that you said you feel yourself becoming more like Squidward. I find myself feeling the same. The show debuted when I was six. I watched the first episode, and 20 years later, whereas in the past I more so identified with SpongeBob, when I watch the show now I find myself more so identifying with Squidward. Do you have a lot of fans coming up to you and relaying similar sentiments?
I was just going to say this is perhaps the most common story that I am regaled with at Comic-Cons and wherever. When we premiered, most of our audience, our young adult audience, was somewhere between three and six. Very formative years, and they all identified with SpongeBob to begin with, the youthfulness, the innocence, the enthusiasm and all that. But then, as they got to be adults and saw what the real world was like and all its frustrations and anxieties, and they all tell me, well, they became Squidward. And I understand that fully. It’s great to be a part of a human being’s translation into pessimism.
Now, when it comes to voicing Squidward, has your approach to voicing the character changed at all over the past 20 years?
Yes. Anything this long, there’s an evolution. When we first started, Squidward was very monotone, almost like Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple, but he was [monotone Squidward voice] “blah-blah-blah-blah-blah.” That was the signature. That was the thing I focused on when we first started. And then, as the show went along, the other writers found different things to do, and so I was able to spread my wings and actually become more and more me, more expressive in many different ways. And that’s what I mean by me becoming Squidward, or actually, Squidward becoming me, because I wasn’t doing this monotone thing. I was doing my acting and my characterization of him, so yeah.
And then they learned that I scream, and once they learned that I scream, they made me scream in every episode. In fact, when we do the post-production, I always say, “I did my words absolutely perfect.” What they have to add in the post-production is all the screams and utterances and grunts and groans and all that stuff. But they enabled me to develop into this character that goes from sarcastic observation comments, “How did I ever get stuck with such loser neighbors?” to total apoplexy. And I get to scream. It’s very therapeutic. I have saved a lot of money on psychiatry fees [laughs].
Now, like you said, the character’s becoming more and more you. Are there any specific character traits, besides the yelling, that weren’t on the page about Squidward that you feel like you brought to the characters or that the writers started writing specifically around aspects of your personality or your interests?
Yeah, there’s just certain … It’s kind of a vague subjective answer, but there was just nuances and flows that I seemed to choose as my signature. It’s just inflection things that I tend to do, and I was able to keep doing, so they became part of Squidward’s persona also. It’s just certain lilts. It’s hard to remember exactly what I’m talking about, but I do know that going from monologue to more fleshed-out character is what he has become. But thankfully, he’s become a more complex character, and yet simplistic at the same time, with all the screaming. And he explodes a lot. You ever notice that? He explodes a lot?
I have, actually.
There’s was actually a YouTube collection compilation of the times that Squidward has exploded, and I didn’t know that there was that many.
Was it surreal getting the chance to essentially play a live-action version of Squidward in the 20th anniversary special? I hope that you didn’t have to be blown up.
No, yeah, I didn’t [laughs]. You are right on the nose. The word is “surreal.” In fact, we all turned to ourselves during the shoot and said, “Golly, this is surreal,” because we have heard all of our fellow cast members do the parts for 20 years, but when we’re on the set, on camera, in essentially costume, trying to look like our characters … And I worked darn hard to look like Squidward. I mean, the mannerisms … When you see this, I hope you’ll appreciate the work that I’m putting in there, as far as the droopy eyes, the boredom, the sarcasm, the certain mannerisms that Squidward is. And to actually see … see, I think that should be a spinoff, to tell you the truth. The spinoff should be a live-action version of SpongeBob, absolutely. We would have so much fun.
You kind of read my mind, because I had heard that spinoffs had been teased in a press release from Nickelodeon, and I was going to ask you if you had-
Yeah, they’re going to do some.
Yeah, did you have any Squidward-centric ideas for a spinoff?
Well, like I said, I think the live-action would be absolutely novel and be absolutely just so silly, and you’d be hearing the voices, seeing live-action people. I think there’s a hook there.
I think so, too. You have my interest.
But then, I’m selfish. I mean, if you want to do something really weird, a weird direction for the show, live-action’s the way to go.
SpongeBob has always appealed to both children and adults. I love it just as much now that I am an adult as I did was when I was a child. And part of the fun of watching the show or rewatching my favorite episodes is, not only seeing all the jokes that hold up just as well as I thought they did when I was a kid, but finding new layers and things that I may have missed that were subtly … I would never say overtly adult-themed, but just little things that are definitely hidden in there for a more mature audience. But why do you think it is that the show has this appeal to people of such a wide variety of age groups?
The comparison I always give is the old Looney Tunes. Looney Tunes, animation itself will attract young people because it’s animated, it’s a cartoon. But then Looney Tunes, like us, because we’re both cartoon shorts, we’re not half-hour shows, will appeal to different people. It’s kind of like a parable, where it appeals to different people and different age groups for different reasons. The little kid will get something because it’s colorful and moving around. A teenager will get something, “Oh, that’s a little … we said the word ‘butt.'” And then an adult will get the topical references and even historical references. So there’s something for everyone, and that makes this show non-age-specific.
It’s not like a … not to denigrate, but it’s not like, say, watching Rugrats, which was a fine show, but it kind of appealed to the parents and the little kids, or The Smurfs, that had a relatively narrow appeal. Even though those were both good shows, they had a relatively narrow appeal. Our show has this broader appeal because funny is funny, and if you can have comedy as your central tenet, your central emphasis, then people, as you grow older, will get different things from it. You revisit and say, “Oh, I didn’t get that before,” just like I’ve done with Looney Tunes throughout the course of my life.
That’s interesting that you bring up Looney Tunes, because is it strange, thinking that SpongeBob could have the same longevity that Looney Tunes has had, that 30 years from now, the show could still be on the air?
Yeah, well, Looney Tunes has been going on since pretty much the ’40s, so that’s 70 years, and it’s still going strong. And yeah, I’m hoping that SpongeBob will last just a little bit longer than the pyramids.
I want to shift to something a bit more somber. Fans of SpongeBob, and I’m sure those involved with the creation of the show, are still emotional about the death of Stephen Hillenburg, and I was just wondering if you’d be willing to talk to me a little bit about what it was like to work with Stephen, besides brainstorming this entire enterprise, just what he brought to the production of the show.
Well I have, as we all have, worked with many, many directors and creators of various shows and stuff, and I have never seen a more mild-mannered, unassuming creator/director of a show. Working with him was so easy. He was easily pleased and yet he never compromised his original concepts for the characters. Very soft-spoken, and I have dealt with such demanding directors; hard taskmasters that make your work a living hell. To be around a person who was genuinely humble and yet wonderfully creative, it was a joy. Very few people get to see their legacy while they are still alive, and thankfully, Stephen got to see how much respect and admiration and love this world had for him, and I hope wherever he is right now, he can see that he is appreciated. He was a joy to know and to work with, and one of the true lovable people that I have ever come across.
Well, once again, I’m sorry about the passing of your friend, and I just have so much respect for the show and all those involved. And from what I’ve heard about him, he seems like such a lovely person.
He definitely was. Even that is an understatement. He really was.
I know that there is a third SpongeBob feature-length film, The SpongeBob Movie: It’s a Wonderful Sponge, on the way-
…and I’m sure that Nickelodeon doesn’t want you to tell us too much about it, but I was wondering if there was any small details that you could share with us about what we can expect from the third SpongeBob full-length film.
Well, not knowing what I shouldn’t say, I don’t know what I should say, so I have to be cautious about that. I’ve already opened my mouth before. As far as I can tell, the way it looks right now … because we don’t see a lot of it, we come in and do our voice parts, and we may see a little bit of an unfinished segment to give us an idea of how that scene is supposed to go. But it seems to be, in at least some respects, a tribute to Stephen. That’s my surmising about that, as far as I can see about the script and what’s in there. But my lips are sealed, as far as giving away things. I’m just not going to do that. Sorry.
And I really can’t, anyway.
How about the Broadway show? I was going to ask if you had-
I was so jealous.
You were jealous? Why is that?
I was so jealous because theater is where I started, and I wanted to be onstage. And I really enjoyed the performance of Squidward and the whole thing. And they had a really interesting costume dilemma because, in the cartoon, we’re taking an octopus and anthropomorphizing him, and so that’s why they have four tentacles forming two legs. Well, as a human who already has two legs, you have to make him look like a squid. So they had this wonderful appendage, extra tentacle appendages on him to make a human look like a squid, which was very difficult to do, and they did it beautifully. It was a wonderful sight gag. So to see the different incarnations… I’m a selfish person. I don’t share my character very easily, but watching the execution of these various incarnations, it is a lot of fun.
When I was talking to Tom [Kenny, voice of SpongeBob] he was describing you guys recording as an ensemble. He was saying that part of the fun is not only knowing your character so well, but knowing the other characters so well. He likened it to a band, that you might not know exactly the solo that someone’s going to play, but you know what’s in their wheelhouse, and you sort of know what to expect. I was just wondering if you could tell us a little bit about what it’s like to record as an ensemble, as I’m sure not all animated programs have the opportunity to do that. And what do you think that that brings to the overall quality of SpongeBob as a series?
It’s an apropos comparison, as a band or orchestra, especially a jazz band. Knowing … you have a skeleton of the melody and a progression, and everyone riffs off of that, and you know what the other person … you know your colleague, you know kind of what they’re doing and what they’re going for, and then you play off of that. One of the good examples is that whenever Tom and I have a little scene together, we have very good chemistry and back-and-forth just because of the differences in the characters. And if you’re old enough to remember the old Jackie Gleason show, The Honeymooners–
Jackie as Ralph Kramden and Art Carney as Ed Norton, and Norton was a SpongeBob kind of character. He was goofy, and he would go off on these abstracts, and then eventually, he would get to a point where Jackie couldn’t handle it anymore, and Jackie would go, “All right!” And Squidward does that several times in several episodes with SpongeBob, and we always make reference to The Honeymooners on that. So that’s a dynamic that’s wonderful to both experience and to hear played back, because we know that we are jazz musicians that work together well.
Well, thank you so much for talking to me today, Rodger. I really appreciate you taking the time out of your day. I’m really excited for the chance to see not only the upcoming film, but to get to watch you bring Squidward to life in live-action. I’m very excited to see it.
And please remember when you see it, I am working my butt off trying to be Squidward!
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.