As SpongeBob turns 10, voiceman Tom Kenny explains why leading a hit show can be like surviving a terminal disease
Speaking over the phone, Tom Kenny sounds lot more like an overworked middle-aged dad than the hyperkinetic voice behind one of TV's biggest cartoon hits ever, Nickelodeon's Spongebob SquarePants -- now marking its 10th anniversary on air.
But Kenny -- who also voices the controversial Skids robot in the Transformers movie sequel and a talking toy chain saw under development by Fisher Price -- is always a can of Red Bull and an enthusiastic request away from sliding into the relentlessly upbeat undersea sponge at the center of nickelodeon's gargantuan hit SpongeBob SquarePants, even as he compares starring in a hit TV show to surviving a terminal disease.
“Spongebob has hung on for so long it’s almost like you beat this terminal disease – marketplace malaise," he says, laughing." And every day’s a bonus round.”
Beating the odds, SpongeBob has racked up $2-billion in annual merchandising sales and a regular berth among the most-watched cable shows each week without compromising its eccentric, creative vision.
Nickelodeon celebrates with 50 hours of programming this weekend, including 11 new episodes, celebrities’ favorite moments and a documentary Square Roots, airing at 9 p.m. Tuesday on VH1.
Before the madness starts, I spent 90 minutes dissecting SpongeBob SquarePants with the guy -- outside of creator Stephen Hillenburg -- who knows him best:
Can you believe the show has been on for 10 years?
“It’s not like I would have been disappointed that it went away after three or four years – that’s usually the lifespan in the marketplace. You do 52 episodes, which gives them enough to rerun it forever. I always loved the character and loved the show right from the very beginning. I really liked him and his world and the supporting cast of characters – even when they were just drawings on a piece of paper. It’s been nice to watch it flourish. It’s been an interesting sociological experiment.”
What have you learned from the show's success?
“You can’t try to sit down with test tubes and beakers and try to create a gigantically worldwide popular show. You never know what’s going to resonate. SpongeBob was created in a resolutely unscientific way – without regard to demographics of flow charts or marketshare. It was an artistic, funny guy with an interest in oceanography and comedy, trying to make a funny seven-minute short. It’s inspiring for younger people and kids out there – be passionate about what you’re passionate about, because you never know about how it call can come together to enrich your life.
I love the way the show recalls earlier landmark cartoons like Ren and Stimpy.
"When Ren and Stimpy came along, all the funny cartoons that were on were old. Looney Tunes is funny, but it’s old, Bullwinkle is funny, but its old,. And then you turns on new cartoons and its Care Bears and stuff. Ren and Stimpy made it okay to be funny again. It was an animators show...(it) had the fingerprints of its creator all over it. It was funny like those old cartoons, and it was new. It really intensified my desire to work in animation.
You once said you get paid for doing stuff that used to get you kicked out of class.
“It’s that weird job that as fun as you think it would be when you were a kid. When you grow up, you might realize that actually being a fireman or being an astronaut is nothing like the reality of it. But I can't think of anything I’d rather do. I don’t need to date any more, I’ve find my soulmate. I'm able to make a living doing what I always want to do – being creative and funny and artistic. For me, as a voice over person it’s like being a session musician. Today I’m playing on a soul record, yesterday, I played on a country record – you’ve got to make your instrument play the right stuff for that gig. You’re just always out there trying to keep all the plates spinning as much as you can.”
Do you have any idea why the show is so successful?
“It was made to be a funny show and an enjoyable show, but not a gigantically profitable merchandise juggernaut. Being an environmentalist, I think (creator Stephen Hillenburg) sometimes look at all the landfill he created and has heart palpitations. I think a lot of it is timing. It's a hopeful show, a funny show that was kinda edgy and comedic, and a kids show – that had this hopeful protagonist married to animation that was pretty high quality for cable TV. I try to think this out and I can never figure it out. But the fact that the characters aren’t human or even animals you have seen animated that often (helps). If SpongeBob was a bear you’d say, 'I’ve seen Yogi, I’ve seen Open Season, I’ve seen that.' Because they’re not people and they’re not critters you’re overly familiar with, they seemed new."
You've said, it helps that the cartoon doesn't explain too much.
That’s also a smart decision Steve made early on. I know that was a fight for him – not explaining everything in the early stages of the show. In a world where the audience expects every "t" to be crossed. He was always explaining to people that he didn’t need to explain. Is SpongeBob a kid or a adult? He goes to school but he has a job? Where are his parents? Well, I don’t know. They’re just comedy archetypes – you don’t need to know why (Charlie Chaplin's) The Little Tramp is unemployed – he just is. Again, zeitgeist-wise, it was just, people were ready for a character like that”
When some conservatives said SpongeBob might be gay, you seemed to enjoy the controversy.
“I think it’s just misguided – I think its people who are scared of the world. They’re standing on the parapets, always looking for invaders, and you start hallucinating and seeing stuff that isn’t there. 'It’s part of a worldwide conspiracy to inculcate our children into thinking alternative lifestyles are okay?" You can instantly put that stuff to bed by making it look ridiculous. The Three Stooges all slept in the same bed – but unless you’re a twisted person, you don’t think Moe and Larry are getting it on. They’re childlike characters -- adults who act like kids in the grown up world and that’s just funny. If we had all this righteous indignation about health care and education, think of how much we could get done.”
Is SpongeBob SquarePants a Rorschach test?
“Anything that’s ubiquitous in pop culture is kind of a Rorschach test. Any characters that are well delineated, you can ascribe different things to them. If SpongeBob at its care is a show about letting your freak flag fly and saying its okay to be kind of weirdo – and SpongeBob is definitely a weirdo - that's really one of the oldest ideas in the world. How you react to the show, I guess, depends on how you feel about that message of breaking out your inner oddball and the spirit of inclusion.
Does it feel surreal to be the voice of a worldwide cartoon phenomenon?
"We’re about to do these Nickelodeon cruise ships – they just started it last year. It was hugely successful. Me and a bunch of musicians, do music from the show -- we do Best Day Ever and Where’s Gary – I’ve written those songs. And that’s the amazing thing, the cruise line was unprepared for – I don’t think they expected the middle-aged cartoon voice guy who is not seen to cause such pandemonium. I told them: "You guys are going to need to have somebody walk me from place to place on the boat.' And they said, 'Really?' And when it went down, the security people had to abandon the guy in the Backyardigans costume who was hyperventilating to get me out of the room. We’re doing an east coast cruise, where they will probably fly me in on a helicopter to join after it's in progress. They had a SpongeBob car in the NASCAR race. We’re even supposed to ring the bell at the stock exchange.
There’s all this surreal stuff – you read interviews with Barack Obama saying he likes SpongeBob. For me, I was able to see a lot of guys I started out get famous and then not so much. These perfectly nice people got the ride that so many get, and they deal with it in different ways. It may me think being the well-paid session musician is the way to go. You get to go out and do stuff with your kids in the way where, if you were on a sitcom as popular as SpongeBob, you couldn’t leave you house. I couldn’t live that way. I got a house an a fun job doing all this stuff that I used to get sent to the principal’s office for.”