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Of Mr. Show's talented alumni—David Cross, Bob Odenkirk, Jack Black, Sarah Silverman, Brian Posehn, Paul F. Tompkins, Jerry Minor, etc.—it's surprising that Tom Kenny has found the greatest success, especially since his name isn't instantly recognizable among the general population. But the animated character he voices—SpongeBob SquarePants—is a ubiquitous cultural phenomenon: Since SpongeBob SquarePants debuted on Nickelodeon in 1999, it has become one of the network's highest-rated shows, made the leap to the big screen, and saturated the world with a Krusty The Clown-like merchandising bonanza. SpongeBob's popularity would be irritating if the show weren't so enjoyable; it routinely finds the sweet spot for animation that appeals equally to kids, adults, and stoners with its clever mix of humor and heart. Kenny provides a variety of voices on the show, and hosts new episodes as Patchy The Pirate. (His wife and Mr. Show alumna, Jill Talley, works on the show as well.) Kenny has also done voice work for many other animated shows and features, from Meet The Robinsons to The Boondocks, and he recently released a surprisingly great SpongeBob CD called The Best Day Ever, featuring a who's who of famous session players and guest stars, including Brian Wilson. A new SpongeBob DVD, Friend Or Foe?, came out in April. Kenny recently spoke to The A.V. Club about working on a kids' show, the cartoon character who lives in a pineapple under the sea, and the nipple-ring industry.
The A.V. Club: On one episode of Lockdown, the National Geographic Channel show about prisons, an officer led a whole cell wing in singing the SpongeBob theme. Has SpongeBob reached a level of ubiquity where you don't even think twice about seeing his face everywhere?
Tom Kenny: Oh no, I think about it. No, I'm constantly still surprised and awed that he's still ubiquitous, and still getting into places. Yeah, I wouldn't say that I'm blasé about it. I'm glad that we're finally reaching what was our intended demographic all along, which was tough. Convicts. We were just using the children as a gateway to get to the cons. I guess it just goes to show that now that Johnny Cash has passed away, SpongeBob has stepped to the floor as prison inmates' favorite performer. He's the postmodern Johnny Cash. That means that in 50 years, Rick Rubin is going to re-discover SpongeBob and make him cool again.
AVC: When did you realize the show was becoming such a phenomenon?
TK: Well, it took a little while. It was kind of a build. It came as a surprise to everyone when it started its climb; it wasn't like the network put all of its muscle behind this new show that everybody was hot on. It was a new show, and kids got down with it pretty quickly, but it didn't really start to have the makings of a phenomenon until at least a season and a half in, or even two seasons. Then I was going, "Wow, this is definitely different than the hundreds of other cartoons I've done. This has legs and life and shelf life and cross-cultural appeal that we've never dreamed of." It's incredible. I'm just amazed, because it's been eight years now since it's been on. It hit the air in 1999. We're in the sixth season, and there's been a movie and all that. It still garners huge ratings, and it's weird that it's still big. Anybody who observes the pop-culture landscape knows that stuff burns bright for a short time, and then goes away—and then maybe it's re-discovered in 20 years. SpongeBob is still everywhere. By personal observation, it has to be the most bootlegged, bad-looking carnival prize. "Wow, it's a square. You guys couldn't do your bootleg drawing better than that? Let me show you how to draw it."
AVC: What's the strangest SpongeBob product you've seen?
TK: A nipple-piercing ring I saw at a place. That was actually official merch. That was actually licensed. So the nipple-ring/belly-button-ring piercing company came and made their pitch to Viacom. [Viacom chief executive] "Mr. Redstone, I don't know if you have pierced nipples or not, but they're big." So that was a weird one. For me, it's always funny to see the square SpongeBob character presented on a round product: a SpongeBob bowling ball or soccer ball. It just looks weird. The whole thing is that he's square, yet he's on all these balls.
It's definitely been an interesting education for me, because I've been on a fair amount of animated shows, and it's one of those things—the person who solves this equation can rule the world. This is boring and probably a lousy place to go in the conversation, but I was talking the other day to another voice actor about the randomness of what makes one show really successful in a merchandising area. There's a lot of kids' shows that are really popular ratings-wise, but they don't sell a lot of stuff. A character on a backpack just doesn't have the same appeal as watching it on TV. And SpongeBob seems to be this rare thing, and I had some experience with it with Powerpuff Girls, where even people who aren't that familiar with the show or the character will buy stuff with him on it. I don't know what goes into that. I guess it has something to do with the graphic pleasingness of the design. Who knows what weird subconscious buttons get pushed to make one character design work more on merchandise than another one. I don't know if anyone can really figure this shit out, but they all try to. "Where's our SpongeBob?!"
AVC: That question is being asked in boardrooms right now.
TK: I have it from a first-hand source that that was actually uttered in a boardroom. "We need a SpongeBob! Where's our SpongeBob?"
Tom Kenny on why voicing SpongeBob is comparatively easy
AVC: What's the writing process like for SpongeBob? Do you have input on the scripts?
TK: In the earlier seasons, I was sitting on story pitches more than I do now. The show is run a little differently now, and also my schedule is a challenge. But from what I understand, it starts off with an idea and a story outline and a beat sheet, and that goes to a storyboard artist or a storyboard team. In effect, much of the nuts-and-bolts writing is done by the guys who are drawing the boards. It's almost like the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby method of comics. This outline becomes this 200- to 250-page storyboard with funny, weird, wonderful drawings that comes to my door. It's like three panels to a page, almost like a comic-book representation, with the action and the dialogue underneath the panels. That's how we do it.
A lot of shows are more script-driven, like a prose script. You never see a storyboard. As an actor, you never see a storyboard. But with SpongeBob, the visuals are so extreme, and he's so extreme, that if you were to just see the words he is speaking on a piece of paper like a typed script, it would mean nothing. It would look like a random word salad. Then we go in and record it full-cast, which to me is always better, Bullwinkle-style, where everybody is in the room. There is table-read the day of the taping, where you throw in all your ad-libs and changes and suggestions, and a lot of that gets in the show. So it's pretty collaborative.
AVC: How hands-on is Nickelodeon? Do they give you a wide berth because you're basically their Simpsons at this point?
TK: I'm not really there for that process, like every day, but I know from talking to people second-hand. Nickelodeon has notes, definitely. [Simpsons creator] Matt Groening was genius enough to make it part of his deal: "You're not allowed to give me notes." That will never happen again. They will never give that away again. What a genius! "I'll make a show, and you can't have any input in it because you're bean-counters, and you don't know what's funny. Let me handle the funny stuff. That's what I do." Of course that's true, and it's the way every show should be. Nickelodeon definitely vets the scripts, and sometimes they might deem something a little too sick or disturbing. Although a fair amount of sick and extreme and disturbing stuff still manages to get into SpongeBob. It's a different thing, since The Simpsons is written from an adult perspective. It's really Homer's show, about this kind of W.C. Fields-y, world-weary, lazy idiot who is kind of a softy inside. SpongeBob is all through the eyes of this innocent Stan Laurel-y kind of knave who thinks even the most mundane shit is incredible. So it's different—the network experience and the basic-cable experience are definitely miles apart.
AVC: Because it's a kids' show, it seems like there'd be a lot of restrictions. When it comes to "protecting the children," people lose their minds.
TK: People do lose their minds with kids. Also, [they] don't give children, who are really smart and funny and whimsical naturally, credit for being able to tell cartoon comedic behavior for what it is, whether it's a kick in the butt or a funny pimp-slap to the face. When they do these studies, "By the time they're 6, children see over 30,000 violent acts on television." They're counting Elmer Fudd chasing Bugs Bunny around as if it was Reservoir Dogs. No, that's apples and oranges.
Tom Kenny on cartoon violence (with funny voices)
AVC: Even though it's for kids, the show has its share of adult fans. Was it important for you to work on something adults could also enjoy?
TK: Something like SpongeBob is a lot of fun because the comedy in it is really sound. It's character-based comedy; it's really fun. I wouldn't say it's super-important to me to only do shows that have a bit of an adult sensibility, because as a journeyman voice guy, I'm on all kinds of shows for all different kinds of demographics, including the Disney show Handy Manny, that's for preschool-age, real little kids. It's very gentle. But something like SpongeBob is fun, and some of the Cartoon Network stuff.
AVC: The Best Day Ever CD was mostly your pet project, right?
TK: Yeah, well, it was something that I wanted to do. There had been a couple of SpongeBob CDs that were just little music bites culled from the show—not really a great listening experience for the fan, or the parent, or the kid, or whatever. We just wanted to make something that harkened back a little bit to those Hanna-Barbera kids' records that I had as a kid. They kind of had a storyline, and they had all the voice actors on them, but they were written just to be on LPs. "Top Cat meets Robin Hood and his merry men." I still listen to it and go, "Man, what a great vocal performance Dawes Butler did there." That's always been my weirdo obsession. So we just started out writing some songs as if SpongeBob and his friends had a band, like Alvin And The Chipmunks or the Archies or something. What kind of a song would Squidward bring to practice? What would he write a song about when he was in the woodshed trying to write sensitive lyrics?
So we came at it from that angle, and started writing some pretty funny songs, started making demos, and Nickelodeon gave us a little budget. Before we knew it, it kind of turned into this crazy thing where we were calling up Brian Wilson, asking if he wanted to do it, and he was saying yes. James Burton, Elvis' guitar player, Ricky Nelson's guitar player, probably been on more rock 'n' roll records than any guitarist in history. It kind of turned into this cool thing, under the radar, our tribute to behind-the-scenes session musicians. These guys who are part of the greatest, hugest records of all time, but you don't know who they are. We got the guy who played the harmonica on "Moon River," who was also the guy who played all the giant harmonicas on Green Acres and Sanford And Son. You're like, "Oh my God, you're the Sanford And Son guy, too?" "Yep, that was me." You're like, "Nobody would ever care about this stuff," but it did become this thing where instead of just doing a kids' album, we tried to make it fun for us. "Let's call the harp player that used to play with Billie Holiday and Liberace."
AVC: There are new SpongeBob DVDs coming out too, right?
TK: I saw a commercial for one today. I believe it's called Friend Or Foe. I'll be honest, I don't really know that much about it. Who could keep up with the flood of SpongeBob products? I always picture, in the far future, some decimated Earth and some guy in a Hazmat suit, like the last guy on Earth, just wondering what all this shit is with this square yellow thing on it. Like in the Forbidden Zone, like the baby doll in Planet Of The Apes. "This must have been some square god that they worshipped. This image is everywhere, Dr. Zaius."
Tom Kenny on SpongeBob's possible dark, Johnny Cash-like future