The Pop Insider’s Maddie Michalik chatted with Tom Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants himself, about how he got started voicing the iconic character, SpongeBob’s legacy, and what fuels his fandom.
Pop Insider: How did you get your start in voice acting?
Tom Kenny: I always had an instinct that voice-over would be the place where I would be happiest and animation was where I wanted to be, and I just thought that was the best use of my weird, oddball skill set. I just wanted to have fun and work on stuff that I liked and be around creative people. My main goal has always been to make a living in an unconventional way and to use what you’ve got to not do a job that you’re bored with and don’t like. That was my goal at 16 and it’s my goal at 56.
PI: How did your time as a stand-up comedian prepare you for your voice-acting career?
TK: I would say the main thing was by the time I even started doing voice-over, I had been, for years, writing jokes and delivering jokes and doing characters on stage because I was also into sketch comedy as well as stand-up, which is very character-based. I guess that’s kind of the main stuff that stand-up brought to it, and ad-libbing and being able to come up with stuff on the fly, pick stuff up quickly, learn quickly. Not that you really have to memorize a whole lot in animation because it’s there in front of you, but learning songs quickly and stuff like that where they go, “We forgot to mention that we’re recording two songs today, did you get ‘em?” and you’re like, “Yeah, yeah, OK!”
It’s just being ready for anything. There was a certain unpredictability to stand-up that I think was helpful when I started doing animation.
PI: That’s a really interesting perspective, I wouldn’t have thought of it that way.
TK: It was fun. Especially with sketch comedy, so much of it was about inhabiting different characters, and that’s always where I was happiest. … In some ways, I think SpongeBob is a lot like me, or I’m a lot like him, or we’re a lot like each other. I think that’s actually why Steve Hillenburg cast me. I think that definitely helped me get the job in that I was a fair amount like the character in outlook and energy level. Steve really picked up on that and pretty much never really had anyone else in mind for SpongeBob. Luckily for me, he knew me from previous work on Rocko’s Modern Life and said, “Tom is SpongeBob. Tom’s gotta be SpongeBob.” That’s very unusual. Most stuff in this business, no matter how long you’ve been in it, you’ve just got to audition for stuff. … When I’m not recording, which is pretty much every day, I’m auditioning for future work all the time. Everything’s auditioning, and SpongeBob is this freaky outlier on my IMDb [as] the thing I didn’t have to audition for.
PI: What was the process like to come up with the right SpongeBob voice?
TK: It actually came kind of fast, which again, is not always how it goes. Steve wasn’t a voice actor. He wasn’t a wakka wakka, comedy, man of a million characters guy. So, he never really … said, “I want SpongeBob to sound kind of like this,” or “Just do something like this.” … What he did do was really lay out who this guy is. He laid out his whole profile — SpongeBob’s whole psychological personality profile thought out to the nth degree — and explained that to me. …
The graphics were there, the drawings were there, and the drawings were so funny and so charming and so odd. They were kind of classic, familiar, and unfamiliar at the same time. They had a warmth. … It felt like I knew these characters, or knew them from another life. It was really mysterious, but they also did not look like stuff that you’d seen a million times before in other kid shows. I lay that down to him knowing exactly where he was going, knowing exactly what he was doing, knowing exactly what he wanted, and A) explaining it really well, but then B) giving us — the actors, once he hired us — a lot of leeway. One of the great things about Steve was that once he hired you, he trusted you. He did not micromanage you. He’s like, “You know why I hired you. You know SpongeBob. You are SpongeBob.” Bill [Fagerbakke] knows Patrick better than anybody; Rodger Bumpass knows Squidward better than anybody. Steve really let us explore the characters vocally, just bringing our own little oddball filigrees to [them]. He gave us a great foundation to build our little vocal house on.
PI: I feel like the cast has a really special bond with these characters, and it just takes it to the next level.
TK: We do! We really do have a bond with these characters. I know from working with these actors every Wednesday for 20 years, they’re really, like me, very proprietary about these characters. You’re a part of it; it’s this amazing gift that Steve gave us to entrust us with these characters that are really fun to do, are fun to portray, and that people really like. People … think they’re funny and enjoy them, and they have become a part of people’s lives. You can’t help but be a little bit proprietary about that. You feel a sense of ownership to these characters; Steve gave us that. He gave us that pride of ownership.
PI: SpongeBob has appealed to a wide audience for 20 years. What do you think is its mark on pop culture?
TK: Twenty years is a long time, but it’s not as long as some animated characters who have been around, such as Disney or Looney Tunes characters. And he’s in that pantheon. The Simpsons would be in there, too. SpongeBob, I think, is in that group, and that’s just amazing to us to be in something like that. I think 20 years is long enough to be multigenerational, and I don’t know what ultimately his mark will be, but I know that people laugh at it, they enjoy it, it makes them happy, it gets them through tough times here and there, and to me, in terms of a personal mark, that’s what I’m really proud of.
For me, it’s that SpongeBob has been able to make a mark in so many areas of pop culture in terms of how many languages he’s in, how many countries he’s in, almost 250 episodes so far — and counting — a couple of feature films, plus one more coming down the pike soon, [and] a Broadway musical.
[SpongeBob] just seems to have really permeated a collective conscious. … SpongeBob just seems to enjoy this almost supernatural goodwill still. I see it at comic-cons every year, and that’s where we really see and hear firsthand about what SpongeBob has meant to individual people and what it’s been in their lives. That’s a pretty huge mark to make. The whole SpongeBob thing is just trying to be funny. The mission statement has been the same for 20 years: Just make a funny cartoon; just try to do stuff that makes us laugh. … The storyboard guys, the animators, the music guys, the voice talent — everybody’s just trying to make something as funny as it can be. It’s a great job to be allowed to have.
PI: What’s your favorite SpongeBob SquarePants episode?
TK: It used to be “Band Geeks,” then the Super Bowl happened, and now I’m not sure. It changes.
It’s pretty funny, a lot of times people will come up to you and just ask you to do a line from their favorite episode. People are always reminding me of episodes that I haven’t thought about in a while, and certain lines in certain episodes really connect with different people in different ways. That’s pretty hilarious for somebody to go, “My sister and I are 25 now, and this is still our running joke between us. For the last 20 years, my sister and I have been doing this line to each other to crack each other up, and we still do.” Stuff like that? It’s incredible…
A lot of [my favorites] are more recent episodes, some of them are episodes that haven’t even aired yet. Because you go, “Ah! That was a really fun episode to do, everybody’s laughing in the booth, and we’re yucking it up.”
PI: What are some of your personal favorite fandoms?
TK: I’m a total weirdo. I hardly watch TV, and I hardly go to movies, but I’m a fanatical record collector. So, I would say a lot of my fandoms have to do with music and record collecting. Old soul records and hillbilly records, rock ‘n roll records, garage rock and punk rock and zydeco and cajun and jazz. Those are pretty much the fandoms that I tend to inhabit more than anything. I’ve never watched Game of Thrones. I’ve never seen an episode of The Big Bang Theory. I’m a total cave-dweller. … Also, old animation, classic animation — Looney Tunes, Popeye the Sailor Man, Laurel and Hardy. My wife is a Chicago Cubs fan, so there’s a fandom I got drawn into through marriage.
This article was originally published in the Pop Insider’s Summer 2019 Issue No. 4, click here to read more!