Tom Kenny Reflects on SpongeBob SquarePants’ Enduring Popularity
We caught up with the voice of SpongeBob, Tom Kenny, to talk about the 20th anniversary of the show.
Tom Kenny’s voice might be more instantly recognizable to most pop culture fans than members of their own family. From CatDog to Adventure Time, Spyro the Dragon to the Powerpuff Girls, Kenny’s voice is heard far, wide, and often by cartoon and video game devotees. But the role he’s most associated with is the one he’s been voicing for the past 20 years, the absorbent, yellow, porous and iconic SpongeBob SquarePants.
Den of Geek had the opportunity to chat with Kenny about reaching the 20th anniversary of SpongeBob‘s first episode, the late SpongeBob creator Stephen Hillenburg, and how he’s still having as much fun voicing the goofy goober as ever.
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Den of Geek: I’m going to start with the obvious: 20 years. It’s a long time.
Tom Kenny: Especially now, in the gig economy. Everybody has to have four jobs and like, “Yeah, I do computer consulting, and I’m a dog walker, and I work at Trader Joe’s.” Hey, it’s the longest I’ve ever held a job, that’s for sure. It’s almost one-third of my life.
You’ve obviously had a lot of jobs in voice acting, but how does it feel to-
And a lot of jobs before voice acting.
Yeah. How does it feel to inhabit the same character for 20 years?
I guess the answer to that would be: one, it doesn’t feel like 20 years. It doesn’t feel long at all. I guess it’s kind of like with your kids, where up until you have kids, your life seems like it goes kind of slow. And then suddenly your kids are graduating college and you’re going, “Wow. It feels like two weeks. How does that happen?” And that’s kind of how it is now. I mean, it definitely doesn’t have that feel of a grind or a job that’s not enjoyable anymore.
It’s like the old married couple that still gets along great. It doesn’t feel like a long time. But still, knowing that it’s been that long, and knowing that very few characters get to that point, or very few actors get to portray the same character for that long, and also still enjoy it. They’re great characters to portray. They’re a blast. That’s when it’s got you saying, “Wow, not only has it been 20 years, but it’s multi-generational now.” Kids that watched it when they were little, are now in their 20s, and revisiting it, sometimes with their kids.
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That’s where it starts to blow my mind, when you talk to people about that. It’s amazing, that it just has gotten into people’s lives, regular everyday people, and everybody’s got a story about some fun SpongeBob moment they had, or some episode that they love, or some SpongeBob joke that they’ve been doing with their best friend every day for 20 years, or whatever. And it’s pretty great. We’re definitely aware of the unusualness of it, and that it’s just an incredible opportunity.
And we feel very lucky that we love the show, and love the product, and love the characters. Being on a show that you don’t like and don’t enjoy, for 20 years, would seem like a prison sentence. But with SpongeBob, we all feel like, “Wow, where did the time go?” I hope it goes for another 50 years. We have a ball. We’re doing an episode tomorrow.
That’s wild. I’m one of those people that you talked about. I can remember exactly where I was when the first episode aired, and seldom does a day-
It’s like the JFK assassination, from my generation.
I was going to say, I think there’s a generation that’s directly above mine, that maybe their comedic touchstone is Seinfeld references. And I feel like, I’m 26; I feel like for people my age, seldom does a day go by where there’s not a subtle SpongeBob reference that gets made, either by myself, or one of my friends. It’s just become such a common, quotable part of pop culture.
You know, you’re right. You’re exactly right. And then there’s the parents that grew up in that house, around all these recurring SpongeBob jokes, or grandparents, or whatever. And they’ve kind of been brought along for the ride, with the people your age. And it’s just, yeah, you’re right. I do feel, not to sound pretentious, or whatever, but I think there is a certain age of person, where SpongeBob is a big part of their comedic ecosystem. You know what I mean?
What they think is funny, and why. And a lot of it hit them at a really early age, and then the stuff that they like, that they’ve gotten into after SpongeBob, has been influenced by the aesthetic that they picked up from SpongeBob.
Just weird, odd character-driven, surreal stuff. Whether it’s Rick and Morty, or certain movies, or whatever. But yes, SpongeBob has a really deep, wide reach. And it just blows my mind when I hear examples of it.
What’s interesting is, like you said, these jokes sort of shape your sense of humor when you’re a kid. And then you come back and you revisit some of the episodes as an adult, and it still is just as funny. And you’re uncovering little subtle traces of adult humor in it, that you maybe didn’t pick up on as a kid. And I was just going to ask, it seems like the show has always appealed to children and adults, and I was wondering why you think that is?
I think it was always intended to. Not on a conscious level of, “Let’s write something that a 40-year-old and a five-year-old can laugh at.” It wasn’t that. But it was just in the early days, and even now, I think we’ve always considered ourselves, to some degree, a children’s show. Or a family show, in that obviously there’s stuff that Family Guy or Rick and Morty can do, or whatever, that SpongeBob could never do or say or portray.
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The people that were writing [the show] were never writing down to people. If you’re on a preschool show, there’s certain things, certain slapstick, physical humor, or characters being dismissive of each other, stuff that happens on SpongeBob, that if SpongeBob was a preschool show, would never fly.
But I look at SpongeBob more as a classic comedy show. SpongeBob and Patrick are kind of a classic comedy team, like Laurel and Hardy, or something. I don’t think those comedians tried to appeal to one demographic over the other. They were just trying to make funny stuff.
And that’s what we’ve always tried to do, since the beginning. If it made the writers laugh, it would get in. And if your vocal performance could make [creator Steven] Hillenburg and those guys laugh, or an ad lib could make them laugh, it would get in. It would find its way into the show.
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One of the great advantages of being these characters for a long time, is that you not only know your character, but you know the other actors. It’s like playing in a band with somebody for a long time. You know what they’re going to do. Even if the solo’s going to be a little different every time, you know when you play your little drum fill. You know where you’re leading them, kind of. But I’m still always surprised by what Roger Bumpass [voice of Squidward] and Bill Fagerbakke [voice of Patrick Star], Mr. Lawrence [voice of Plankton and several others] and Carolyn Lawrence [voice of Sandy Cheeks] give us. There’s always fresh, new takes, and odd inflections, and things like that in their lines. They’re not phoning it in. You know what I mean?
I hear about other long-running television series, which will go unnamed, where characters literally phone it in. Like, literally. They call into the studio and record their lines over the phone. And it’s like, “Yeah, no.” That ain’t how SpongeBob works. We’re an ensemble comedy show. Jackie Gleason and Art Carney on The Honeymooners have to be in the same room at the same time.
That’s just the way it is. You can’t have Curly being a whole different location than Moe and Larry.
They have to be together, yeah.
So I think that keeps the freshness going, too. As a working situation, it never feels tiresome. Like I said, “Wow, it’s 20 years already? Holy crap.” I still feel like I’m 25.
Just to follow up on that. You guys record together as an ensemble, but has your personal approach to voicing the character changed at all over the past 20 years?
No. The marching orders are pretty much the same, and it’s the same for every voiceover I do on any show, really. Make the character live. Bring vocal life to that character. I look at a storyboard beforehand, and stuff like that, so I know what the animation is going to look like. Or I can picture it off of the storyboard, what it will be. And you just want to bring life to those drawings. Animation really is just the illusion of life, where it’s like these drawings seem real. You know what I mean. They’re as real as characters in a sitcom or a drama.
And so, you got to play it as serious, as straight as a heart attack. Just be the character. And that’s how our approach has always been. When I step into that booth, I really feel like I am SpongeBob for a few hours. I think like him, I talk like him, I’m him, until I leave the recording booth. And same with Squidward and Patrick, and those guys. A transformation happens.
People are inhabiting these roles. And a lot of that, is that the roles are so inhabitable, thanks to Hillenburg creating this world and these characters, that’s so well delineated. You know what I mean? The lines are so right there. It was all there, before we ever even auditioned. It was all there in his head, and then on paper, and then eventually on the screen.
But Hillenburg, that all springs from Steve, and his aesthetic, and who he was, and what he cared about, which was basically the ocean and silly comedy.
I wanted to ask about Steven Hillenburg. For fans of the show, they’re obviously still emotional about his passing, and I was just wondering if you could talka little bit about what it was like to work with Steven, and besides this being his brainchild, just what he brought to production?
Man, I would say what Steven Hillenburg brought was Steven Hillenburg. Who he was, and what he cared about. He was a completely unusual person, especially in show business. I never really met anybody like him, and I’m sure I never will. He was such an unusual guy, like in his path into show business. Show business and being a show creator wasn’t what he always wanted to be,it wasn’t his all-consuming interest. He’s not one of these guys that grew up loving movies, and then went to film school, and then became a film director, where there’s no experience or anything else besides that.
Steve was a guy that was super smart and intensely interested in a lot of different things, his whole life. Whether it was surfing, or oceanography, or earth science, or animation, or comedy, or any of that. He was just this amazing stew of stuff that he liked. And SpongeBob, I think, was this lightning in a bottle, where he just thought about what kind of show he wanted to do, and he just synthesized a bunch of his interests into one bit. He loved the ocean. He had been a teacher, teaching kids about the ocean at an ocean institute. And he’d done a comic book about the characters in the tide pools. He just made it for the kids that he taught. I have a copy of it. It’s pretty amazing.
Those are early iterations of the SpongeBob characters. Not 100%. The sponge is round, and wears sunglasses. So it was kind of cool, so that’s not SpongeBob at all. But it’s kind of a germ of it, and I think he just went back to that stuff. He didn’t care about being a mogul. Considering what a success SpongeBob became, and how much income SpongeBob provided for him, he still lived really simply. Like, more simply than anybody else would. He just wanted to surf and paint, and laugh. And he was always very concerned with the integrity of the show and the comedy of the show. And he was really involved in that, right up until he passed away. Still coming in, still in on recording sessions, and still okaying stories.
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We just recently recorded the last story that he had a direct hand in. And knowing that, it was really emotional. When his diagnosis came out, that was a really emotional time for everybody. When he couldn’t come in anymore to the sessions, that was really, really emotional. And then, when we recorded the last storyboard that he had a direct hand in, that was really emotional.
So I appreciate and understand the emotion the fans have, because we have it too. All of this stuff came from him. It’s all his brain. It was all in his head, and on paper before anybody else ever laid eyes on it. He was such a nice guy, and a lovely person. But also very firm about what he wanted. He was this very gentle guy, not a yeller, not a screamer, almost azen kind of guy in a lot of ways. And he was real.
But he would also dig in his heels on certain things. He would choose his battles, but he would dig in his heels on certain aesthetic grounds, if he felt like it wasn’t true to the character or true to the franchise. And it’s funny, he didn’t want to have a whole bunch of other shows on the air. He didn’t want to be a mogul. He didn’t care. He didn’t want to be like the Law & Order guy. You know what I mean?
He didn’t want to host the Oscars. He just wanted to make funny SpongeBob episodes, and then surf and paint, and be with his wife and his kid, and travel around and see stuff that he’d never seen before. I guess that’s the main thing that led to SpongeBob. He always was curious about everything. He had tons of curiosity, like tons of curiosity about a million different things. And an appreciation for a million different things, most of which had nothing to do with show business.
Now, we have this challenge and this mission of carrying on this character, like he would have wanted. And doing him proud and it’s fun. We were always a close cast, but I think even more so, when you go through a loss. Steve was the first one of all of our group to pass away. So we had never really had to deal with that before. We are very lucky. Everybody’s still vertical, pretty much.
Yeah, thank god.
I guess the ironic thing is, it’s Steve who was kind of a health enthusiast, physically fit and slim, didn’t eat meat, all that stuff, and now he’s gone because of this random ALS card that came up.
So we’re still getting our minds around it, even though it’s been since November.
I’m sorry about the passing of your friend.
Thanks. I didn’t mean to be a big downer.
No, not at all.
Or make it sad, but there is still tons of joy in the room, when we’re making SpongeBob stuff. And I think part of our joy comes from knowing that keeping SpongeBob in the world is kind of keeping Steve Hillenburg in the world.
Well, he’s certainly in the world. The show is broadcasted in over 50 different languages now.
SpongeBob merchandise of all shapes and sizes and varieties exists.
Yeah. That is amazing, the cultural thing. It’s neat to know that all these different people with different cultures and different experiences all over the globe, they find something in SpongeBob and his world that’s identifiable to them. All these different corners of the globe, there’s something there, that people glom onto, regardless of their hugely heterogeneous life experience. I guess that’s a testament also to Steve Hillenburg, but also in a bigger sense, a testament to comedy and silliness and laughter.
So, Spongebob’s been on the air for 20 years, but there’s obviously the precedent of the Looney Toons, and Mickey Mouse, for these characters to go on for a very long time. Have you thought about the possibility of still voicing Spongebob, even 30 years from now? Have you thought about that at all?
I guess you think about it in the sense, like you said, that there’s those classic characters. A lot of them are characters that meant a lot to me personally, in terms of Looney Toons, Popeye the Sailorman, stuff like that.
But I think you’re right, that I think SpongeBob’s got that staying power. It used to be, when the show was first starting, “I think this show might actually have legs, and have staying power.” And then you’re like, “Wow, it does have legs and staying power. This might be around for a couple years.” And now it’s been 20 years, and it’s never really gone away. It’s an interesting thing, SpongeBob hasn’t been rebooted. It’s not a reboot. It’s not a reinvention. It’s not like like Ninja Turtles, which are great, but they come back in different iterations. SpongeBob’s always been SpongeBob. And I think that constancy is one of the things that people like about it. It’s comfort food.
As a kid, who always wanted to be a cartoon voiceover guy, that really always was my dream job since I was a little kid. I just wanted to be Mel Blanc. If SpongeBob is lucky enough to have that kind of longevity that you’re talking about, it’s like, “Wow, that was my fondest dream.” That’s really … I got the job I always wanted. And it’s a blast.
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.