He may be, as the ditty goes, absorbent, yellow and porous, but voice actor Tom Kenny, aka Spongebob Squarepants, is at a loss as to why this quaintly comic animated TV series has emerged as one of the biggest television phenomena in years.
“You have to remember we’re just performers, that we seldom have any kind of grasp on real life,” Kenny says, laughingly. It’s not easy to describe this 41-year old who originally hails from New York’s Syracuse. Initially unassuming, wearer of black glasses, he sits crouched on a chair as if ready to pounce. With his high range voice the perfect tool for a character such as the child-like Spongebob, one of many animated characters, Kenny has inhabited throughout his long and lucrative career.
Effortlessly hiding behind the animated façade of an odd little sponge that “lives in a pineapple under the sea”, Kenny adds that “when we were making the pilot and Steve was making the show from the Gecko, there was no inkling that this would ever be any more than hopefully a very good children’s show on a children’s network, then it just cast such a wider net that everybody was taken aback.” Spongebob has indeed emerged as a show that has crossed over from the annals of children’s television to adults in their mid-thirties and beyond. Kenny says that it was important from the outset, “not to be like other shows and with the movie not to make it like other animated movies, to have some unexpected non-formulaic, weird, tricky stuff in it that might even surprise people who are very familiar with the show.”
The movie version does in fact spring off the success of its television counterpart and take Spongebob on a kind of Hope and Crosby road journey outside of his underwater domain in Bikini Bottom to the world above. in order to search for King Neptune’s missing crown. But the film does continue to explore the childlike innocence and purity of Spongebob, who first appeared on the small screen in 1999. Kenny says that it was easy to develop the character from the outset, “Steve [Hillenburg, creator and director of the movie] had very good templates for all these characters. He had me over to his house before he even pitched the show and showed me paintings he had of all the characters, houses and little bible descriptions of every character and sketches and he had it very well mapped out, almost like a much sillier Tolkien or something. He knew where everything was and then he just sat down with me and tried, said this is the character. He’s not a child but he’s childlike, he’s not a grown up, he’s not a kid, maybe he sounds like an elf on helium, we’ll play with it. Then gradually we dialled it in,” recalls Kenny.
While most animated shows and films require each voice actor to voice his or her session alone and separately, Kenny has no doubt as to why he has been able to keep the Spongebob Squarepants TV series as fresh today as it was 5 years ago. “You’re doing a scene with Mr Crabs, and Mr Crabs is really there. You’re not reading with the monotone voice of the casting director who’s reading in Mr Crabs’ lines.” The same philosophy applied to the movie, but what about newcomers to this set, such as actors Scarlett Johansson and Jeffrey Tambor, who are relative newcomers to this cartoon game? “I think they both actually remarked to us that how much fun they were having and how different it was for them, a much more free-wheeling sort of fun experience. There are not a million people around like on a TV or a movie set. It’s pretty much the engineer, Steven and maybe one or two people taking notes for Steve and that’s it. It’s a very short line from the creator of the show to what’s being recorded. Plus there’s no attitude on our part because on a showbiz ladder, cartoon voice actors are just below the guy with no teeth and Harley shirt that sets up the Tilt awhirl at the carnival.”
Yet for Kenny, the sense of anonymity that goes with his job as one of the busiest voice actors in town is also what remains so appealing about it. “I like being invisible. for me it’s the perfect job for someone who’s simultaneously shy and an irritating show off. Some people might find it galling, but for me this is what I always wanted to do.” Tom Kenny grew up in East Syracuse, New York. When Tom was young he was into comic books, drawing funny pictures and collecting records, before turning to stand-up comedy in Boston and San Francisco. This led to appearances on every cable show spawned by the stand-up epidemic of the 80’s and 90’s as well as stints on “The Dennis Miller Show”, “Pat Sajak”, “Conan O’Brien” and “Late Night With David Letterman”.
Tom was a regular on Fox TV’s “The Edge” and spent a year as the host of TVs “Friday Night Videos”. His mainstream television appearances include “Brotherly Love” and David Alan Grier’s “The Preston Episodes”. Tom supplies the voice for “Heffer” the cow on Nickelodeon’s “Rocko’s Modern Life” and Hanna Barbera’s “Top Cat”, as well as regular performances on The Cartoon Network’s “Dexter’s Laboratory”, “Justice Friends”, “Powerpuff girls”, and “Johnny Bravo”, Tom joined the cast of “Mr. Show” where he met his future wife Jill Talley. Together they’ve teamed up on Comedy Central’s “Comedy Product”, the stage show “The Show With Two Heads”, HBO’s “Not Necessarily The Elections”, the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight” video and Travis “Sing” video, and has become firmly entrenched as that loveable sponge. As funny and spontaneous Kenny appears in person, the actor says that comedy did not come as easy to him in the beginning as one might think. “People are always saying that I must have been the class clown, with all these voices. No, I was way too shy to be the class clown; I was a class clown’s writer. I sort of wanted to be the class clown but I didn’t have the balls so I would try this part during Math class.”
His transition to performer eventually emerged, he recalls, “when in high school, a very good friend of mine who turned out to be a professional comedian/actor has said to me, you know what, you’re funny and you need to get out there, you’re funny, you write funny and you’re funny and get your ass out to some of these open mikes.” Kenny was still in high school in Syracuse at the time. And the kid, who pushed him back in first grade, has remained his closest friend to date. “He’s the guy who kicked me into overdrive.”
Kenny has a lot to be grateful for, and says that he has no intention to return to stand up comedy. After all, he has a little sponge with squarepants to be thankful for. “I had fun with it but it’s like an old day job I used to have fun with. It’s, the same way that I wouldn’t want to go back to bagging groceries.”