The prolific voice of SpongeBob SquarePants riffs on the second box office hit from Nickelodeon’s improbably successful animated cartoon franchise.
For an elder type person like me, watching SpongeBob SquarePants is like jetting around on a moped – it’s really enjoyable, but you wouldn’t want your friends seeing you’re riding one around town. Which is a shame because most people I know could use a little SpongeBob in their lives. They could use a little of some other things in their lives as well, but it’s safer for me to comment on their humorless existence rather than their other prominent and voluminous flaws. It’s unfortunate for them that no amount of SpongeBob SquarePants could provide the psychic relief they sorely need.
Since the pilot SpongeBob SquarePants episode aired on Nickelodeon back in 1999, the curiously odd and ridiculously nonsensical adventures of a square-shaped sea sponge and the equally bizarre denizens of his aquatic neighborhood have become one of the most successful and longest running animated TV series in history. 11 years and billions of dollars in merchandising after the original SpongeBob SquarePants Movie hit theatres in 2004, Paramount released a second wildly successful feature, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, earlier this year.
Just released this week on Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D after a previous launch of the digital download, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water once again unites our favorite Bikini Bottom inhabitants in a madcap adventure – this time, they try to recover the Krabby Patty recipe stolen by Burger-Beard the Pirate, played by Antonio Banderas. Central to the hilarity of the show and cohesion of the ensemble cast effort is actor and comedian Tom Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob. I recently had a chance to speak with Tom about his work on the franchise, the challenges of being a voice actor and the completely unexplainable appeal of the show.
Dan Sarto: When you were approached with the opportunity to do SpongeBob, what were your first thoughts? "Hmm. He’s a sponge and he's square, and he lives at the bottom of the ocean…"
Tom Kenny: Well, I loved it. I love doing voice-overs, so anything that comes along is a challenge. No matter what the character is or the story, I love solving that puzzle of looking at a picture of a character, reading a little paragraph description of what the character's personality is, and maybe a couple of clues of the general area they're looking at for the voice, and try to be the one that puts it all together in a way that makes the powers that be, usually the creator of the show, say, "Yes, that's the voice I've been hearing in my head while I've been drawing this little guy on cocktail napkins and shopping lists for the last couple years."
I first saw SpongeBob when Steve Hillenburg showed me his picture before he had even brought it to Nickelodeon. He and I knew each other from a previous show we worked on. I just loved it immediately. I'm an animation fan, so I love silly and I love goofy, and I wasn't put off by that at all. Really, I just immediately fell in love with the look of the characters, their designs, the designs of the world. Steve already had their homes and other things worked out - the pineapple house and the Tiki-head house that Squidward lives in, the lobster trap motif of the Krusty Krab restaurant, things like that. It was the kind of thing that you looked at on paper and could see what the cartoon would be like, just silliness, that was in short supply at the time in animation. There wasn't really any other show like it I could think of at that time. Something like Rugrats was very different. The Power Puff Girls and other shows that were going on at Cartoon Network had kind of a different vibe.
DS: SpongeBob was just plain goofy.
TK: I was very eager to ... I just wanted the job. I just wanted to be the voice of this sponge. I knew I could do it and I was just chomping at the bit to do it. I did not want it to be anyone else but me.
DS: Along those lines, when you were talking with Steve and trying to figure out what the voice was that he was hearing in his head, did you arrive at the SpongeBob voice pretty quickly? Were there other voices you considered?
TK: We figured it out pretty quickly. Every show is different, every character is different. Sometimes you really cast around a lot and throw a lot of things at the wall before something sticks. With SpongeBob, I think, [we got his voice down quickly] partly because Steve really had a clear idea of what he wanted and was very articulate about describing it. Even though he's not a voice actor himself - in fact, he's the opposite…he's really shy, bordering on hermit-ish - he was very articulate about describing what he wanted. Really, it came together very quickly…Steve was like, "Yeah, that's it! That's it! That's what I'm thinking of," so it was off to the races pretty quickly. It was really exciting. It was very organic. It didn't seem like you were really sweating over the nuts and bolts of it. I'm sure Steve did before he put his pitch package together, but those nuts and bolts were so well-fitted by the time it got to me that it was fun to glide right into that sweet spot and create the voice that he was hearing in his head for this character.
DS: Have you changed SpongeBob’s voice or how you’ve acted for him over the years?
TK: I guess so since the character of SpongeBob has gone through some permutations over the years. He might be a little more crazy, a little more hyper and a little more bipolar than he was at the beginning, in terms of going from very high highs, laughing and running around, to very low lows, sobbing and crying, and then immediately back to... his reset button gets hit and he’s back to normal. That has changed a little bit over the years, so that may have changed the performance and the tone of his voice. He's going to more and different places, in terms of characters, than he was in that first seven-minute short.
In terms of the method, no, it's pretty much the same. It's the same cast as it was in 1997, when we did that first seven-minute pilot, which then became a series in 1999. It really is the same. It's all ensemble - everybody's in the room. Everybody's there, all the actors are the same since the beginning. Everybody knows their character inside out, everybody loves the job, everybody loves the show. It's really the most pleasant working situation one could imagine. Probably the only difference that there is from the beginning is that I've been the voice director for the last season or so, which wasn't the case at the beginning.
DS: It's unusual to have all the actors recording together. That must make for really enjoyable, almost spontaneous and organic recording sessions. Do you guys riff a lot? How much improv goes on during those sessions?
TK: Quite a bit. The scripts are locked in, obviously. It's not like we’re making up the story as we go along. The beats of the story, the script and the dialogue are definitely written and re-written by the time recording day rolls around. But there is and always has been a fair amount of ad-libbing. Like I said, everybody knows their characters really well and with me in the voice directing chair, especially, I'm always open to anybody pushing a joke. The funny thing is, a lot of times it's not even adding things in terms of ad-libbing. A lot of times it's about simplifying, where you look at the script and go, "Wow, SpongeBob's talking for a whole paragraph here. Let's show, not tell. Let's take a red pencil through all this blah blah blah and just get to the funny part, boil it down." I kind of enjoy that Rubik's cube too, of distilling dialogue down, down, down, kind of putting your silly Hemingway hat on and just trying to not have things be too verbose.
DS: AWN has always gotten a slew of inquiries from hopeful voice actors. They know they could nail a character if they just got a chance. I think there's a misconception with regards to voice acting – most people think it has to be easy. For you, with such a successful and recognized career as a voice actor, what are the biggest challenges?
TK: Well, first of all, I want to say, those people that want to break into voice acting, that are saying, "If I could only get the chance, I could nail that voice," I totally was that person, so I get it. I hope to be working with all those people someday because I identify with them. That was my struggle too. It's a more crowded field even than it was when I started, and it was hard for me to break in, so I can only imagine the toughness of busting into it now. A lot of it is really just tenacity and hanging in there, and storming the barricades again and again and again.
I wanted to be an animation voice actor much more than I did anything else. I made a living as a stand-up and a writer for years before I was able to break into voice-over. I look at all that as stepping stones to voice-over, which is kind of the opposite of what ...a lot of voice-over people say, "Nah, I really want to be an on-camera actor, but I'm slumming it in cartoons." I remember talking to these people when I was starting out... I'm thinking, "Wow! I'm trying to tunnel into the prison that you're trying to tunnel out of - we're kind of passing each other with our teaspoons as we're digging through the dirt."
To your question, probably the biggest misconception is that it's not a job and it's not work. Last Friday I just did career day at my fifth-grader's class. It was like me and a dental hygienist and a fingerprinting guy. I had to go up there and talk about being a funny voice guy. The thing I wanted to get across to the class was that it's a job. It's a really hard job, but it's a job.
The actual process in the booth, getting in there with funny, creative voice people and animators, creating characters, and getting that thumbs-up through the glass from the creator that you're vocally personifying this thing that he's thought about a lot…that's the fun part. That's great. That adrenaline.
The part that nobody thinks about is, you've got to read a lot storyboards. You have to audition. I audition, even now. I audition pretty much for something every day, and often don't get it, though sometimes I do. You've got to grow that thick skin, putting up with rejection for things that you really want, jobs you really want to be doing. "I know I could be the one to do this!" Sometimes they happen and sometimes they don't. It’s work just doing your due diligence in terms of preparation. I'm up late every night reading the storyboards for the next day because I want to know everything about the cartoon I'm going to be doing, even if it's an ongoing series that I’ve been on a long time.
For me, if it's visually driven, like a lot of the projects that I'm on are, then you want to know what's going on in the action. You don't want to have the voice director or creator slow everything down and say, "Okay, you probably didn't read the storyboard, but they go to town and then he's this far apart from this guy, and then he falls off this cliff and it's about a four-second scream..." If I go in knowing all of that and can just do it, A, it makes things easier, B, it shows the powers that be, "Wow, this guy really did his homework, he knows all this." That's the challenging part that's not so much fun - all that stuff where you're just kind of making sure you know everything that you can know.
In Los Angeles, the logistics are tough just getting from recording session to recording session to recording session, I'm always in my car just pin-balling around from this place to that place to the other place. Some of it is for cartoons, some for features, some for commercials, some for video games, and some for promos. [I work on all sorts of] Different things. There's kind of a Rubik's cube aspect to it that can be challenging sometimes.
DS: SpongeBob has had a tremendously successful run, now including its second hit feature film. So many really good shows have come and gone quite quickly since SpongeBob first hit the air. Looking back on the work that you've done, that Steve and the whole team has done, to what do you attribute the incredible popularity of this show?
TK: That is the secret herb and spice that everybody, Nickelodeon and myself included, wish we could figure out. That’s what’s so amazing about SpongeBob, especially with this movie doing so well at the box office. From the beginning, from the first time it was aired on Nickelodeon in 1999, SpongeBob has been a statistical anomaly. Nobody can figure it out. I think it's unknowable. It wasn't supposed to do as well as it has on TV, it wasn't supposed to last as long as it did, it wasn't supposed to spawn one successful feature, let alone a second one, 11 years later. I think conventional thinking was, "Well, we'll put out this movie and see how it does." It just blasts through everybody's expectations.
I realize that's kind of what SpongeBob has been doing from the get-go. It's really exhilarating. It's been this exhilarating almost 20-year ride for me to be a part of this weird, bottle rocket that nobody can figure out, including Steve Hillenburg, the creator, and Paul Tibbitt, the director of the film. There's just something about these characters that people like and they want to stay with them. Like you said, a lot of shows have come and gone, many of them very successful, and many of them very good. But for some reason, SpongeBob just has...there's very few properties that have that kind of staying power and can continue to reinvent themselves and take hold with succeeding crops of youngsters that are aging up into SpongeBob-watching age, and glomming onto it. It's really amazing.
The actors and everybody working on the show talk about it all the time and it really is ...you probably aren't going to get another one of those shows in your career. Statistically speaking. You can go into the same liquor store and buy another lottery ticket, but it probably won't win like the last one did. Long story short, I think it is going to remain one of the great imponderables of the universe.
DS: I know for myself, part of the appeal is that the show is much like a guilty pleasure. It's just sheer whimsy. There's not enough whimsy in our lives. It’s not that often I take to a show and say, “I'm just going to sit and have a belly laugh because none of this makes any sense and that's OK."
TK: I agree. I agree. I think maybe it takes the place of what The Three Stooges shorts or things like that used to provide us. Just pure silliness for 11 minutes. When I was a kid, silliness was all over the place. You had The Munsters, and The Addams Family, Get Smart. All those sitcoms were in reruns every day when I came home from school. Looney Tunes were on TV all the time when you'd come home from school. Inspired silliness. Bullwinkle and Rocky, Jay Ward cartoons, and Roger Ramjet, all that stuff. Those shows aren't really out there anymore. It's hard for a kid ...where's a kid going to watch Looney Tunes in 2015? They're not really on that much. I think maybe SpongeBob fills that void. Like you said, it’s just the desire to come home and laugh at something that is smartly stupid.
Nickelodeon has done a great job marketing SpongeBob, promoting the show and keeping the brand fresh. I think Paramount did an outstanding job with the movie, making people aware of it and letting people know the movie was going to be out there in February. And now available for digital download, DVD and Blu-ray. The DVD and Blu-ray have some great new stuff on them. There, we finally got to it.
It's been great to be a part of something that people have such good will towards and want to continue their relationship with. What I love about it is that it's a product that I can actually feel good about. I'm proud of my work on the show. I love the character and I love that it's had such staying power. I'm proud of the show, proud of Steve Hillenburg and proud of my fellow actors. It really is a collective effort. It's great to feel great about something that you're on. It's not like you're working for some oil company that just had a pipeline spill. You're working on something that makes people smile, makes people happy, makes kids laugh.
DS: Yep, you certainly put a smile on many people’s faces.
TK: It's a pretty beautiful gig.
The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water is available now on Digital HD, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D and DVD.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.