The Shy Showoff: Our Interview With Tom Kenny, The Voice Of SpongeBob SquarePants

It may be difficult to imagine in this day and age when all the kids are slick poseurs standing around looking jaded and hard to impress, but I actually had to physically restrain mine from beating down a door to get to the Hendrix of Kids Entertainment, Tom Kenny. Vaulted into the pop culture stratosphere by the worldwide appeal of SpongeBob, he is now a star known for his distinct voices and tremendous range.

It is a peculiar phenomenon to be so widely known yet to have your notoriety limited to what others can hear instead of see. This seems to work just fine for Tom who took time out of his busy schedule to talk to us last week and to keep me in stitches for nearly thirty minutes straight.

Hi, Tom. How are you?
I'm great. Sorry, you are the 3rd of three phoners and they were all running over today

Oh, that's okay. I was a little terrified that I was beeping in on your line the entire time you were talking to that person. I did that on another interview as well.
You know what? I could hear it but for some reason they couldn't so that was good.

That had to be annoying.
That's okay. I have kids, so I'm real good at tuning out extraneous noise.

Okay, lets' start out with the obvious. You are like the Marlon Brando of voice talent.
Does that mean I'm going to end up really fat living on an island?

Yes, you are.
He kind of ended up his own island. Kids involved in weird murder.

I actually forgot about that. Okay, never mind

You can't swing a cat without hitting an animated show that you are either on or have been on...
It's true. I even do the voice of the cat.

Or the dog? Like in CatDog?
Yes, it's been fortunate that I've got a job that I love and managed to be fairly employable at it. Knock on wood.

You're excellent at it. I had to lock my kids downstairs when they found out I was going to be talking to you.
Oh yeah I know how that goes. "Daddy's WORKING! GET OUT OF HERE!"

I decided to tell them it wasn't going to be until later so I'd be left alone.
Lying is one of the first skills parents learn.

And I'm excellent at it! Also, do you prefer being behind the camera voicing the characters as opposed to being in front of it? You were on Mr. Show, which was one of my all time favorites!
Wow, thanks! That was really fun. And yeah, I like being on camera, but I've got to say that voiceover just kind of personally appeals to me more and it's fun. I guess I would characterize myself as a shy showoff, so the voice thing is just like "Look at me, look at me" enough without having to be totally out there and having everybody know what you look like, so you're able to kind of dip a toe in that pool. One of the great things about Mr. Show and other sketch shows is that you spend so much time in wigs and beards and prosthetics that a lot of the time you didn't really look like you anyway which is how I prefer it.

Keep a little bit of the anonymity and live your life. Makes sense.
Yeah, just me personally. Whatever personality type I am prefers it that way. Some people are perfectly fine with that. I know famous people and they seem to be fine with that trade-off (in movie star voice), "Hey that comes with the territory," but I don't know that I could be so sanguine about it because you know, different strokes. So yeah,  I like that aspect of being just a voiceover guy. It's also freeing because you can play characters that don't look like you. Like if I was auditioning for stuff right now, I'd be playing a nerdy middleaged dad. Cause that's what I am and that's what I look like. But with voiceover, I'm Ironman, I'm Captain America, I'm Doctor Octopus, I'm SpongeBob, I'm Rabbit from Winnie The Pooh, I'm a Transformer! You are not a prisoner of your body and I never cared much for my physical appearance anyway.

I think you might be shortchanging yourself in the looks department a little there but okay.
Well, thanks and there are probably a million weird little reasons but when I started doing voiceover. I just fell in love with it and immediately thought that if I could have that be the bulk of what I do, that would be really great. And it took a little while but basically it was just getting the people who are doing the hiring to know you're out there and that you can do a few different things.

In your case WAY more than a few.

You know it's strange but SpongeBob is, for lack of a better term, a cultural phenomenon. As I sit here talking to you, I'm propped up on a SpongeBob pillow and one of my kids is watching it downstairs. Did you ever think when you first started working on it that it would be so universally loved? You say "SpongeBob" and they know what you are talking about no matter where you are.
I know right? My family and I traveled to Europe this summer and it was interesting to see SpongeBob all over Italy and all over Spain. You go to the Leaning Tower of Pisa and they're selling a t-shirt with SpongeBob holding it up. And you say to yourself, "That's pretty cool." And then you're watching the show dubbed into all different languages in the various European countries and you think, "Hey, that guy is pretty good at doing me!" None of us ever saw that coming for sure. I mean it was just a show we were working on. You know we are all freelancers, pretty much anybody in show business whether you are a writer or an actor or an animator or a storyboard person, so you are just glad to have a job. You're like a migrant fruit picker.

That's an interesting way to look at it. I would never have thought of that analogy.
Now everyone's going to be disappointed that I'm deglamorizing it so much but you know what, it's a job and I always consider that voiceover actors have a real workmanlike approach to the gig that has a little less to do with us and acting and thespian styling (this in a high falutin' British accent) and more to do with like... it's more like being a carpenter or a lighting guy on a set.

I'm still working with the visual of you out in the field picking apples. I thought it was much more glamorous.
Well, I'd probably last about a half hour as a real farm worker (in pleading voice), "Oh my back! Ow!  Please get me back in the booth!"

So tell me about this project you are working on with Tim Burton redoing Tim Burton with the remake of Frankenweenie. This sounds amazing. Can you tell us a little about it?
How did you hear about that! (shocked)

I'm a super sleuth.
Wow, that was really fun and they just called me in to do voices in Frankenweenie, nothing too huge but like the fire chief of the town and this guy and that guy and the teacher. It was really fun and I got to be directed via Skype by Tim Burton and that was a real thrill for me because I love that original Frankenweenie short film, the black and white. It's so great and THIS looks great although I'm not sure how much of this I should be talking about because sometimes the studios get so ultra secretive.

Well don't get in trouble but tell us anyway. Just kidding.
It's beautiful stop motion and I love how he does it and it's incredible fun to be a part of that. One of the great perks of this job is that you get to work with a lot of people that you've admired in the past. On SpongeBob, I get to work with Tim Conway sometimes and it's like, "Wow, my family grew up watching The Carol Burnett Show" or even Ernest Borgnine, I'm like "I'm obsessed with a whole bunch of your movies." Wild Bunch, Black Rock, I mean come on! That's a really cool aspect of this job.

You're a New Yorker, from Syracuse if I'm not mistaken, and you had a relatively famous band there called The Tearjerkers, right?
Oh yeah! I don't know if we were a big band, but we were a little rock and roll combo that would play dive bars, jump around, go nuts, and have fun!

We spend time in the summer in Syracuse (Manlius), so you wrote our theme song, "Syracuse Summer."
Actually, "Syracuse Summer..." I was kind of like their second lead vocalist and that song already existed before I joined the band, but it was written by a great songwriter named Gary Frenet and he was in a local band that I loved in the '70s called The Flashcubes who were probably the only kind of new wavy, power poppy band in Syracuse at that time. They were kind of the only game in town and I just loved them. Well Manlius hey? You've got a duck pond and the little Manlius art cinema right?

Yup, still there.
Well, Syracuse isn't quite like being a New Yorker. It's really nice but it's kind of like Smallville vs. Metropolis. I love it. I'm usually back there around this time each year you know because we always go to the state fair, but we sat it out this year because of the European trip. We're kind of traveled out.

Let's talk about CatDog. I thought it was underappreciated in its day. It ran from 1998-2001.
That's pretty much the standard respectable lifespan for an animated show. I mean SpongeBob is kind of an anomaly in that I think the thinking with the suits and the bean counters is that once you reach a certain amount of episodes of an animated show, you don't really need anymore. You've got enough. You can recycle them until a kid has grown out of that particular show and then there's another kid coming in to start at the beginning and watch all those shows you already made a million times so you don't really need to spend money making new ones. That three-year span of three seasons is good.

CatDog is a show that does well and it had an interesting thing where Nickelodeon decided that they wanted to strip the show, in other words, show a new episode five times a week. So that show got put on this crazy treadmill where the writers and the animators had to come up with an incredible amount of product and it was a whirlwind. Jim Cummings, who voiced Cat, is one of the greatest voice actors ever. He does Tigger and Pooh so he and I got to reunite on that Winnie The Pooh movie where I got to do Rabbit for the first time, so that was fun. And the creator of CatDog, Peter Hannan, is just a really super talented guy. Started out as a newspaper cartoonist and had never really worked in animation before, so he sells this show and he's a painter, a writer, and an artist and suddenly they want to do this show five days a week. So he got a crash course in being an animation mogul and it was really fun to be along for that ride. He's also a really talented musician and in fact wrote and sang the theme song for the CatDog show.

I remember the theme song being almost as famous as the show.
Exactly! He's a music fan and I am too and there's a lot of music and singing on that show. It's always fun for me to sing in character. Jim Cummings is a really good singer and musician as well, so that was an aspect of the show that I really, really enjoyed.

Kind of where it all started.
Absolutely! And Rocko's Modern Life, which is put out by Shout! Factory as well. It's funny, you realize that every show that you do and every series that you do strikes a cord with certain people. Every show has its own hardcore constituency, so you do something like CatDog or Rocko's Modern Life and it's really fun and Joe Murray (creator of Rocko's Modern Life) went on to create Camp Lazlo for Cartoon Network.

Which you are also on.
True, and when the show is done everyone packs up their tent and the creators go on to do other things. Peter Hannan writes really successful children's chapter books and Joe Murray is working on other cartoons now and just wrote a book, so you forget that once the show ends and you pack up there are all these kids out there that are growing up getting older year by year going, "I really loved that show!" "This one episode was so weird it freaked me out when I was five and why is it not out on DVD?" Luckily there are companies like Shout! Factory that cater to that market. They put out a lot of the stuff I'm obsessive about but not many other people care about. Like old cop shows from my youth and stuff like that.

They do have a good mix of hard to find stuff.
I know, I love it. It's like, Adam 12 season five I need that! They are the perfect home for this kind of mania. Every show that I've ever done had fun memories associated with it. I've got to say that I'd be hard pressed to think of one bad experience I've had doing animation in all these years. People are nice and they're sane and the creators are these energetic visionary people and I love just being a tool for them to use. If Peter Hannan or Joe Murray wants to use me as a screwdriver, I just want to be the best screwdriver I can be, you know what I mean? I want to give them exactly what they want and I see that as being my job. I have a lot less in common with Johnny Depp or Tom Cruise and a lot more in common with a session musician who plays bass or something like that.

I like that better than the migrant farm worker comparison
You know when I say session musician those were always the people that I was really really curious about and interested in when I was a kid (in old man Jenkins voice) Of course I grew up before the Internet and the computers so… finding out about this stuff was difficult. It wasn't just like click, click , click on Google and you know what the guy has done. It's like who is Chuck Jones? Who is this Mel Blanc guy? Did he do anything else? And then you find out he was on the Jack Benny show and he was on the radio and he did Bugs Bunny and he did Tweety Bird and Speedy Gonzales. Amazing to find out that was all the same guy.

Sounds familiar.
Well to me, that was intoxicating as a kid and I thought if you could sort of try to have that career that, that might not suck. And it doesn't.

You've arrived!
For once I was right!

Okay it's time for the Culture Brats Three. Are you ready?

Purple Rain or Thriller?
There's a caveat up front that I have to say here. It's that I sat out the '80s in terms of pop culture mostly. This is going to sound so weird coming from someone who can be said to be in the world of pop culture but I have not watched a sitcom since 1977. I'm a total weirdo who listens to mostly old music from the '20s through the '40s and '50s and with that being said, I did see Purple Rain in a theater and I've never owned a Michael Jackson album, so I would have to say Purple Rain.

Now I feel like I shouldn't ask the next one.
NO, no! Give me the other two, I've got to know now!

Okay. Sixteen Candles or Pretty In Pink?
Wow, this is another thing that's going to sound weird to anyone in the 21st century. I have not seen either of those movies nor have I ever seen a John Hughes film. But I know they have Molly Ringwald in them and I think she's cute!

Okay let's try the last one! Debbie Gibson or Tiffany?
Lets see, um... Who covered "I Think We're Alone Now" by Tommy James & The Shondells?

That would be Tiffany!
Okay, so I prefer her because I love Tommy James & The Shondells and you can't go wrong with that song. Oh and also she was in the Jetsons movie playing Judy.

For real? Look at the pop culture trivia coming right out of you!
I remember that people were a little up in arms at the time because Janet Waldo, who's the original voice of Judy Jetson, not only was still around back then but is also still around now and sounds exactly like teenage Judy Jetson still.

She still sounds the same?
Yeah, I was with her on a panel a couple of years ago at Comic Con and she sounds like a sixteen year old girl. She was also Penelope Pitstop. So I like Tiffany because she was in The Jetsons but I still think they should have used Janet Waldo.

Well I guess this brings us to the best part of doing voiceover. which is that you can do it for a lot longer time and you can have a career that's a little longer than Debbie Gibson or Tiffany.

You'll be around for so many years that you'll probably get sick of it.
I'll never get sick of it but there probably will come a day where I'm wheeling my oxygen tank into the studio to do SpongeBob.

Never stop making SpongeBob.
"Tom, could you take the hoses out of your nose? We're hearing them." "Also, turn off the generator for your iron lung because it's coming over the microphone"

Take care, Tom.
Say hello to Manlius for me and get your earthquake kit together!

You can purchase CatDog and Rocko's Modern Life on DVD from Shout! Factory.

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