Rick DeMott talks with Tom Kenny to discover there’s a truly animated soul behind the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants.
When you see actor Tom Kenny, the voice of many cartoon characters including that of SpongeBob for the first time, you get images of cartoons in your head. With his slender build, he reminds me of those Bing Crosby-look-a-likes that popped up in Looney Tunes shorts from time to time. His thick, black horn-rimmed Buddy Holly glasses catch your attention right away. Personable and energetic would be how Id describe his personality. At a recording session, he chats with anyone he can. Hes curious about what everyone does. When it comes to the work, hes enthusiastic from the first to the last take and works hard to give the director what he or she wants and more. I have the best job in the world, Kenny says, and you can tell just from the tone in his voice that he really believes that.
Kenny grew up in East Syracuse, New York, and became obsessed with comic books and cartoons at a young age. He searched out information on animation wherever he could find it. When he discovered a new tidbit, he said it was like discovering the Dead Sea Scrolls. Once, animation legend Bob Clampett came to Syracuse University to speak and Kenny was the only non-college student to attend. He says he never tried to imitate characters as a kid, but loved creating voices of his own. When he read books to his younger siblings, he often created different voices for each character.
He started his career in entertainment as a stand-up comedian first, in Boston and then in San Francisco. He said, Tex Avery was a bigger influence on my comedy than Johnny Carson. In addition, Kenny cites Chuck Jones and Jay Ward as major influences. If you see his stand-up act youll see it clearly. His performance is very visually based. For instance, he has one bit where he sets up hilarious visual gags in the audiences heads based on the silly look of the Popemobile.
From his stand-up work he landed live-action gigs in film. His first big role was as Binky the Clown in the 1992 cult flick, Shakes the Clown. Throughout the 1990s, Kenny made the rounds on various sketch shows including Foxs The Edge and HBOs Mr. Show, as well as late night talk shows like The Dennis Miller Show, Pat Sajak, Conan OBrien and Late Night With David Letterman. He even spent a year as the host of NBC's Friday Night Videos.
Though he loved cartoons as a kid, he wasnt actively seeking out voice work at first. One night, he was performing his stand-up routine at a showcase of stand-up talent. Execs from Hanna-Barbera and Nickelodeon were in the audience. Afterwards, they approached him about doing voice over work. In no time, Kenny had landed himself the gig as the voice of Heffer on Joe Murrays Rockos Modern Life.
During the run of Rocko, Kenny started working on Mr. Show, where he met his future wife Jill Talley (Ladies Man). After bringing Heffer to life, the voice work started pouring in. Kennys résumé is a laundry list of top animated programs, including Dog on CatDog, the Mayor on The Powerpuff Girls and Ratbert on Dilbert. But the character Kenny will probably be most remembered for will be SpongeBob SquarePants.
Its a SpongeBob world, Kenny said. The success of the show is bizarre and shocking. It only sinks in at certain times. SpongeBob has been part of my life since 1997 when [creator] Stephen Hillenburg first showed me drawings of the character.
Asked how his experiences working on various cartoons have been different, he said, In some ways, remarkably, they are the same. Ive worked on shows which were created by nice, brilliant guys. They would give me the storyboards and let me play around. They gave me a long leash and a lot of leeway.
When asked how working on cartoons and sitcoms differ creatively, It depends on the format, he said. On shows like Just Shoot Me and That 70s Show youre often known as the one-week guy, and that you dont want. But with shows like Mr. Show, you get a lot more leeway. He said that he thrives in environments where the creative process is immediate, and where you run by the seat of your pants. These environments allow the creatives behind the scenes the opportunity to throw something off of him and let him run with it. Kenny also admits that animation is conducive to his short attention span.
With so such of his time dedicated to voice work, Kenny has little time for stand-up. Its just as well because he has a five-year-old son and another little one on the way. I asked him if his son knows that his dad is SpongeBob, and he said the kid is very aware. Kenny seems a little bit envious of the world his son is getting to grow up in a sort of ground zero for the animation community, with his fathers friends being artists and other voice over actors. Unlike when Kenny was a kid, his son knows how the animation process works. But in spite of this knowledge, the young boy can get lost in the Bikini Bottom world just like any other kid.
When it comes to advice for aspiring voice actors, Kenny said, Dont do it in the half-baked way I did. I went through a backdoor. However, from his friends experiences, he said that breaking into the business is a matter of compiling voices and getting it out there and in front of the right people. He encourages people to take classes, but to be careful because some of them are worthless.
So whats in the future for Tom Kenny? One day hed love to get behind the scenes in animation. He said his drawing skills are crappy and would have to work with a friend on collaborations. He hopes to use the connections and knowledge hes gained from voice work to pitch and create shows down the line. But for now, hes extremely happy with what hes doing. He said he wouldnt trade places with a big movie star any day. The tradeoff of a bigger house for less fun is just not worth the price.
Rick DeMott is managing editor of Animation World Network. Previously, he served as the production coordinator for sound production house BadaBing BadaBoom Productions and animation firm Perky Pickle Studios. Prior to that position, he served as associate editor of AWN.