SpongeBob’s Tom Kenny talks his favorite voiceover artists

SpongeBob’s Tom Kenny talks his favorite voiceover artists

The Internet features more than its share of negativity and snark—sometimes you’ve just gotta vent. But there’s plenty of room for love, too. With Fan Up, we ask pop-culture people we admire to tell us about something they really, really like.

The fan: Tom Kenny’s career has taken more than a few crazy turns as he parlayed his early days working in stand-up comedy and sketch shows like Mr. Show With Bob And David into one of the most successful, ubiquitous voiceover careers in the industry. Kenny offered his talents to such groundbreaking kids shows as Rocko’s Modern Life and The Powerpuff Girls, before essaying some of the most famous cartoon characters in American TV history, including the Ice King on Adventure Time. But the role he’s probably best known for is that of the cheerful young sponge who lives in a pineapple under the sea, SpongeBob SquarePants. The series, which casted Kenny in 1997 and debuted in 1999, sailed past 200 episodes last year and shows no signs of stopping, with a second movie on the way. Yet with that many episodes in the bank, new episodes of SpongeBob have become rare commodities. Tonight, however, Nickelodeon brings the debut of the first new episode since May.

The fanned: Legendary voice actors Mel Blanc and June Foray.

The A.V. Club: Is there another voiceover performer whose work you’re really impressed by?

Tom Kenny: Obviously as a kid, for probably anybody who chose animation voiceover as a career in their adult life, Mel Blanc was the touchstone for everybody. He kind of invented the job and was the first voice actor to get onscreen credit, which he bartered in lieu of a pay raise with Leon Schlesinger during the Looney Tunes days. He said, “Well, if you won’t give me more money at least can you billboard my name up front, so then I can get other work? So people will know who this guy is that’s doing all the voices.” That’s why at the beginning of every Looney Tunes you see “voice characterizations by Mel Blanc.” Which I understand ticked off some of the other voice actors, because he doesn’t do every voice in those cartoons. But the other guys didn’t have that deal. [Laughs.] So it sort of fomented this idea that he was doing every single voice in those cartoons, much to the consternation of, from what I hear, Stan Freberg and people like that who were also great. 

And of course June Foray who is still with us, still alive, still working. June was everybody from Rocky The Flying Squirrel and Natasha on The Rocky And Bullwinkle Show, to Witch Hazel and Granny in Looney Tunes. She’s also the killer doll in that Twilight Zone episode, Talky Tina.  

AVC: June Foray was really groundbreaking for women within that industry as well.

TK: Absolutely. I know her. I’m lucky enough to count her as a friend of mine. She’s a very scrappy, ballsy lady. Somebody who could definitely walk into a room full of wisecrackin’, three-martini-lunch, dudes in 1950-whatever or 1960-whatever, and hold her own. There are some great Bullwinkle outtakes where you can hear that. There’s some great studio chatter from the Bullwinkle days where it’s William Conrad and Bill Scott and her. You can hear her really holding her own with those guys. 

So guys like that were my touchstones, like Stan Freberg. I had a hip aunt who gave me some of his albums when I was a little kid and those had Daws Butler and June Foray on them and people like that. Those are kind of the first times where I realized that maybe that was an actual profession that one could aspire toward.

AVC: When you look at Mel Blanc, what is a voice characterization of his that you’re really impressed by?

TK: Well, they’re all great. Something that people don’t realize is that Daffy Duck was sped up slightly, artificially sped up, and things like that. So for some characters there was a little bit of help given. To me, the most amazing thing about Mel Blanc is his versatility. His voices are so strong, and his performances are so funny, in a way you know couldn’t have all been on the page. He just goes for it. 

One of the most amazing things about him that a lot of people don’t think about is stuff like what a great singer he was. He could sing in character. When Daffy Duck sings or Bugs Bunny sings, [Impersonates Bugs Bunny singing.] “Oh what heights we’ll hit, on with the show, this is it.” He’s singing as Bugs and Daffy and all these other characters, and they’re great. 

Even his minor characters have a lot of thought in them like Charlie Dog, who was a really minor character. They’re kind of one-off characters, but when you hear them, they just make you laugh. All his characters are really different. Bugs and Daffy are way different from Barney Rubble and Tasmanian Devil is a language and species onto himself. The Tasmanian Devil is like four or five sounds just looped, by Mel, in the moment, just looping those sounds in different combinations. But when you break it down it’s only four or five sounds, and he’s just mixing and matching them in different order, which is another example of his superior business acumen, to me. [Laughs.] I always say I have the business acumen of a 1920s blues singer. Blind Lemon Jefferson and I have the same business sense. 

The Road Runner, you know, [Impersonates the Road Runner.] “Meep meep.” He recorded that once. [Laughs.] He went into a studio in the ’50s and went “Meep meep,” and they said, “Okay Mel, thanks,” and then they just used that meep meep for decades, and he got paid every time.

AVC: There’s a real sense of an ensemble cast in a lot of the old Looney Tunes, even though everybody is recording separately or someone like Mel Blanc is talking to himself, doing different voices. How do you build that sense of different characters talking to each other when it’s just you in a room?

TK: When you’re watching those shorts, you’re not thinking that a lot of it is one guy talking to himself. That’s definitely something that I do, although I would say probably any actor prefers the ensemble experience. Talking about those Bullwinkle outtakes that I was referring to, that’s all the actors in a room doing their stuff together, and they’re laughing and people are going, “Come on, I’ve gotta get out of here. Quit blowing your line!” It’s almost like a workplace comedy when you listen to it, and I really love doing it with everyone there. That’s how SpongeBob does it, Rocko’s Modern Life, Powerpuff Girls, Foster’s Home For Imaginary Friends always did it, too. 

Then there’s a lot of shows I’m on where you do go in separately, and I think the skill set you’re utilizing there is imagination. [It] comes in really handy with any acting job where you just have to imagine that the other voice is there talking to you. It’s almost like weird self-hypnosis. I also get the feeling that probably, I don’t know this for sure, Mel was playing off guys like Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones and people like that when he was recording, and they were great actors unto themselves. Their cartoons prove what great actors they were. Their animation proves what great actors they were. I think that probably accounts for some of it. It is kind of a parlor trick. It’s just something that you learn how to do. Doing an ensemble is way, way more fun. You throw something out there, and the other actor picks up on it. It’s ad-libbing. Any good times that I had on camera were because of that.

AVC: When you look at Mel Blanc and June Foray and how they built characters, how do you apply that to your own work?

TK: I paid, probably, an inordinate amount of attention to all of the animation—even the stuff that wasn’t so great—that I watched as a kid. When you think about it, even at the nadir of TV animation with that ’70s and ’80s junk animation that was pre-Ren & Stimpy renaissance, it was still great voice actors on all of the shows—a lot of which were basically commercials for toys. Frank Welker was in everything. Charlie Adler’s in everything, and so were Jim Cummings and Rob Paulsen. All the best guys that are still working today that are just slightly older than me got into the game slightly before I did, like Billy West, who I knew from the radio in Boston even before he was on Howard Stern.  When I was trying to break in, those were the guys that were there. It wasn’t all old guys that I was paying attention to. All those contemporary guys who were and are so freaking good and really versatile were there. Maurice LaMarche and people like that, and I’m sure there are people I’m forgetting. Tress MacNeille. I was aware of who they were, and I was also aware that they were doing a job that I really, really wanted to do. 

Basically, at the end of the day, in terms of building a character, you’re just trying to do what feels right. It’s reading the tea leaves. It all comes from auditions, and all of us are just carny folk running around, auditioning, trying to get the job, trying to be the guy that runs the tilt-a-whirl for a while until the carnival folds up. So you have a description of the character, maybe a personality breakdown that the writers and the creator have done, and a visual representation. There’s usually some art. That often changes. SpongeBob looks way different now than he did in the Bible that I saw in 1997. 

You really just go in there and try to collate all the data and do something that will make sense, that they will respond to, but that also stands out a little bit from the pack, because you don’t want to be doing the same audition that 20 guys before you came in and did. So you’re just sifting through, like panning for gold or something, trying to sift through the information. 

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This is how I do it. I have no idea if other people do it this way. They might be lucky enough to be more instinctive than me. I don’t have confidence in my instincts, and I feel like I have to go through a very right-brain and left-brain process where I’m trying to be artistic and instinctive, but still trying to collate all the data that I have and do something that will please the masters, that will land the gig, but will also stand out a bit, where maybe it’s not exactly what they had in mind, but it makes them laugh. Maybe even if it’s not right for the character you’re reading for, they’ll plug it in with some other character later. “Hey, you know what? We were going to have you read for this guy, but that thing you just did might fit this guy instead.”

I really enjoy that process. I don’t find it odious at all. Some people like doing crossword puzzles or Sudoku. I love auditioning. On camera, I hated auditioning. But voiceovers I like trying to figure it out, then getting in there and seeing how close you can get. And it’s a total “win some, lose some” proposition. But when you win, it feels so good. It’s such a rush. It feels exactly like when I was doing stand-up: You would have a good stand-up set, where you just felt like everything was flowing and you were going, and your material was doing well, but then you were going off of your material and taking chances that were paying off. It has that same kind of exhilarating feeling.

AVC: What did you key in on with SpongeBob, and what do you think the producers responded to in your audition?

TK: I think Stephen Hillenburg, the creator, knew me, and I think there were elements of me that he responded to as being like SpongeBob or vice versa. I think the fact that I was kind of this hyperactive, high-energy, hardworking guy created parallels between the part and me. He felt very strongly about casting me, which I’m obviously eternally grateful for, since I’m talking to you from a house and not a shed. [Laughs.]

He knew what he wanted. SpongeBob was his baby and his creation, and he cast all the characters very carefully. I think with me he made a decision right away and very quickly. The kind of data that you’re asking about, I think, was him saying, “He’s kind of a grown-up; he’s kind of a kid; he’s kind of like Stan Laurel; he’s kind of like Jerry Lewis. He’s a spaz, but he’s really sweet. He irritates everybody, but he’s very likable. He’s kind of like a munchkin, maybe he sounds a little bit like a munchkin, but he’s in that Pee-wee Herman tradition of ostensibly adult characters that act like kids. Or the Three Stooges, the way the Three Stooges act like little kids.”

AVC: Both Mel Blanc and June Foray have done some very famous, legendary characters. You have had a chance to play some other legendary characters from other properties, like Rabbit from Winnie The Pooh and some Hanna-Barbera characters throughout your career. How do you approach resurrecting that sort of character while also making it your own?

TK: I think, in terms of voice matching and stuff like that, it’s really a thrill for me, because I don’t feel like I’m good at it. I don’t feel like it’s my forte at all. I never did impressions or anything in my stand-up act. Like these people on Saturday Night Live who will try to do a great Martha Stewart or Justin Timberlake or whatever, I never cared about imitating. Who cares about celebrities? We’re already giving them too much attention; I don’t want to work on an impression of this goofball that’s more than likely going to be forgotten. So I never thought of myself as an impressionist, so when I do audition for those voice-matching things, I have to work really hard and do a lot of listening and trial-and-error. 

I guess I’m surprised at how much of that voice-match stuff I’ve been able to book, [Laughs.] because there are people who are really good at it; that’s all they do. They can give you a flawless, undetectable impression of a character from the past. I guess I have to like the character to work that hard on it. [Laughs.] I’ve been Elroy Jetson, I’ve been Top Cat, who was my favorite as a kid. Rabbit in Winnie The Pooh. That was helpful because they said that they weren’t looking for an exact voice match, so that was kind of liberating. “Oh, I don’t need to sound like the last guy, or the last four guys? Perfect!” 

I just did Bullwinkle for a short over at Sony, for like a Bullwinkle and Rocky short that’s going to air or play theatrically before the Peabody & Sherman feature that’s coming out. I didn’t even want to go in for Bullwinkle. My agent said, “Oh, they want you for Bullwinkle,” and I said, “I don’t do Bullwinkle. I’ve never tried to do Bullwinkle. I’ve never attempted to do Bullwinkle. I’ve never wanted to do Bullwinkle. It’s not my thing. Can I read for Fearless Leader or one of the more ancillary guys? I’d feel more comfortable.” I said, “There’s a guy named Keith Scott that’s Australian that’s done a lot of Bullwinkle voice acting ,and he’s fantastic. I seem to remember Dave Coulier’s stand-up featuring a dead-on Bullwinkle impression.” [Laughs.] And they said, “No, they want to see you for Bullwinkle.” 

So I said okay. I just watched a million episodes of Bullwinkle, which is not the worst way to spend your workday. So many times with those things, my whole goal is to not humiliate myself. If it’s bad, as soon as you leave, I always picture the people going, “That’s Mr. Voiceover guy? He sucks.” “That’s Mr. Been-On-A-Zillion-Cartoons? He blows. That was the worst Bullwinkle I ever heard. Talk about ‘much ado about nothing.’” On all of these voice-matches, I figure if I can just be in the ballpark enough so that it’s not humiliating when I walk out, then they’ll go, “Eh, that wasn’t bad, but there’s another guy that’s better.” [Laughs.] That’s all I want. That’s all I’m asking for. I was very surprised when the Bullwinkle thing happened. 

I think, according to the Bullwinkle folks, if I have an edge it’s that a lot of those voice-match guys are great mynah birds, but that’s what they’ve got. Mel Blanc had a comedic sensibility, and Bill Scott that did Bullwinkle had a comedic sensibility. I’m sure there’s guys that can get closer on the voice than me, but I think maybe there’s a feeling because I have a lot of experience doing stand-up and sketch comedy on Mr. Show and stuff that I might have some stuff in my tool belt or a different type of tool belt than these other guys have. They’re totally sonically, aurally oriented; they can do a perfect, dead-on, note-for-note match that could open a voice-activated lock in a spy movie. [Laughs.] I don’t have that going for me, but I’m pretty good at understanding characters and I’m pretty good at ad-libbing and tailoring what I do to the sensibility at hand. 

Something like Adventure Time is very different from something like SpongeBob, and they’re very different from Powerpuff Girls. So the ad-libs that you do have to make sense or else you’re just blowing hot air. “Why is this guy making jokes that aren’t usable, that aren’t appropriate to the project? What a masturbatory waste of everyone’s time that is! Does he want to show us that he’s a funny guy? Who cares?” I think you’ve got to do what’s appropriate. I always take the aspect of things pretty seriously.

I like to flatter myself and flatter us voice actors by thinking we’re like The Wrecking Crew, the studio musicians in the ’60s that played on every conceivable kind of record. They’re on Pet Sounds, they’re on Sinatra records, they’re on hillbilly records, they’re on TV-show soundtracks, they’re on movie soundtracks, they’re on commercial jingles, they’re on cartoons playing their instruments, they’re on Byrds and Rolling Stones records. When I found that out, I thought it was really exhilarating that there were these guys who were invisibly ubiquitous. They cast such a long reach over everything and nobody knew. I thought that was really neat. I didn’t look at that as a negative. I still don’t. 

When I was doing stand-up, I came very, very close to booking Saturday Night Live. I got very, very close, and I didn’t get it. Like, there are two spots open, and I came down to the final three guys. I was as close as you can get without getting on the show. At the time, I just was devastated and thought that was the worst thing that could happen to me. “My career is over. I must be doing something that is a turn off. Maybe there’s something I should change.” It was a drag. 

Now, years later, I feel like I dodged a bullet, because odds are you’re going to be one of those people: “Whatever happened to that guy? He had one or two good characters, and then I never heard of him again.” Well, he’s probably at a Laundromat doing his wash right now. The Will Ferrells, or even Chevy Chases from my first Saturday Night Live viewing, those are few and far between. This is something that you don’t see until years and years and years later, but I feel like not getting that was a lifesaver for me in many ways. 

I think because of my Wrecking Crew mentality, it feels like so much in the on-camera world requires you to maneuver for position and ally yourself with the writer and just push yourself to the front of the pack. That’s how it’s done. And I just liked being Hal Blaine and sitting in the back playing my drums and maybe enough people will notice, “Hey, that guy’s pretty good.” That just gets you your next job. It’s been decades of that and I feel like I was smart by mistake. I just kind of blundered into the perfect job for me, and I’m really glad I did. I don’t want anybody else’s job. Although there seem to be a lot of movie stars that want my job. [Both laugh.]

AVC: You’ve been doing SpongeBob since 1997. What’s been the weirdest and craziest thing about that whole ride?

TK: It just keeps coming. There’ve been so many great, weird experiences with SpongeBob, where you wind up in places you wouldn’t ordinarily think about being, but you wind up being able to observe a lot of interesting stuff. Calling “Gentlemen, start your engines,” at a NASCAR race. I never would have done that, but it’s a really interesting microcosm of society to observe for a little while. Ringing the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange, going, “Wow, this is a place that I would never even think of wanting to visit, but here I am with this bird’s-eye view of this crazy, weird thing. What do these people do, and why are they all sweating?” 

Just a few weekends ago at Universal Studios in Hollywood, they did a big SpongeBob fan celebration—or “shellabration,” as they called it—and we got to do a full-cast table read of the first SpongeBob short that we did—we did it twice—in front of a packed auditorium of people. It was very powerful. It was a trip. You’re reading this thing that you read 15 years ago, and in the meantime it’s become this globally recognized thing that’s still going on. We’re doing a movie in 2015. I never know when the completion dates are. We’re working on a movie, I know that much, and have recorded some stuff for it. I think about what’s transpired with that character and the impact that it has on people, kids in particular. People who started out watching it as kids are now grown up, and it was a part of who they are, the way those Looney Tunes and Bullwinkle cartoons and things are responsible for large aspects of my taste and personality and comedic sense. SpongeBob is like that for a lot of these younger people. It sounds ultra-cornball, but it’s kind of touching that you’re doing something that has that kind of reach and continues to. 

I think one of the things that keeps it fresh for me is doing all this other stuff. I’m a total session monkey. I don’t say no to anything, because I like working. I did the voice of a parrot on The Millers with Will Arnett and Beau Bridges a couple of weeks ago. They had a parrot that was talking to Beau Bridges and they said, “Hey, you want to come in and do the parrot?” I’m like, “What? Are you kidding? Of course!” That’s something that probably most people won’t know about. They’re not going to read those credits, especially the way the credits are crunched down into the tiny corner of the screen these days. But for the people who do notice it, I think there’s kind of a fun, Where’s Waldo?, connect-the-dots aspect to my career. [Laughs.] It’s kind of the opposite of being a giant star.