At the Memphis Comic and Fantasy Convention, Tom Kenny was the Guest of Honor. Mr. Kenny has had a wide-ranging career, consisting of stand-up comedy, singing in a band, acting in movies and music videos, and most notably, being the brains and the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants! As a voice actor, he has worked on many different animated TV shows.
He doesn’t normally participate in many conventions throughout the year. Once in a while he’ll attend San Diego Comic-Con, but the thing that attracted him to Memphis was participating in the Animation Education panel, at nearby White Station Middle School, speaking to middle-school students about working in the arts, as a profession. Later, he presented the movie screening of Comic Book: The Movie (which he starred in), and participated in three panels on the Main Stage. Mr. Kenny was incredibly gracious with his time throughout the entire weekend, signing autographs and taking pictures with everyone. He spoke with us for a quick interview after his final panel, just before catching a cab and doing some late-night stand-up comedy!
Would you please tell how you originated the voice of SpongeBob?
– “When I was auditioning for a holiday on-camera commercial, next door there were a lot of Santa guys dressed up and elfs — little people. There was one little person, who was so bitter, and so foul mouthed… I overheard this guy, and he had this great voice. I was listening to him, and thinking, “That’s amazing!” I told Steve Hillenburg that story — the creator of SpongeBob — long before he came up with SpongeBob. Then I totally forgot about it. Years later, Steve was telling me about this animated show he had, and said, “I have you in mind for the voice. Do you remember that voice you did, about the bitter, little elf guy, at the Christmas commercial audition?” I had to think back a little. So, an angry little person is the reason I got employed as SpongeBob.”
When Stephen Hillenburg approached you with the SpongeBob character all mapped out, did it include your iconic glasses? Or was that added later?
– “I think that came about later, when the animators were sketching away, during the recording sessions. Sometimes, they’ll give characters the aspects of the actor, just for fun. They just started drawing SpongeBob with my glasses. They became his jellyfishing glasses.”
With the recent passing of Ernest Borgnine, would you mind sharing a story about him?
– “I have a lot of stories about Ernie Borgnine. He was great. He always spoke highly about SpongeBob. I was always blown away by his career. He’s one of the greats. I mean, he’s an Emmy winner, an Oscar winner. He’s done everything. He’s in so many great, iconic stuff. From The Wild Bunch, to Bad Day at Black Rock, to McHale’s Navy, to Marty, the guys has done so much. He loved the fact that SpongeBob made him known to a generation that wasn’t familiar with his movies. He really appreciated that late-in-life connection with younger fans. He was so fantastic. He, and Tim Conway — who played Barnacle Boy — it was their first time to work together since McHale’s Navy. They would want to play with the other actors. It was cool. And Ernie worked his butt off. He was in his late 80s, early 90s, when he started on SpongeBob. He would work hard. He would scream and yell, and the directors would be very ‘kid gloves’ with him, and he was real workman-like. Definitely blue collar; the opposite of a diva. That was really inspiring. I feel very lucky to have gotten to work with him. He is one of those legendary character actors. When I grew up, those type of character actors were more important than movie stars. Those were the guys who always fascinated me, as a kid, and who I wanted to be.”
Rob Paulsen and Billy West recently attended the Geek Media Expo. Have you worked with either actor before?
– “I love both those guys. I just did Rob’s podcast, Talkin’ Toons. Billy was somebody who I was really influenced by, long before I met him. Even before I was doing voice-overs, he was a local radio DJ in Boston. This was before Howard Stern grabbed him. He just used to blow my mind. He was so versatile, great. Rob’s the same way. Funny, nice guys. It’s a pretty small, friendly community of voice-over people. It sounds fake that everybody’s so nice, but it’s a cool, little world.”
Rob Paulsen had mentioned taking a Pinky and the Brain musical on the road! Any thoughts of a SpongeBob musical act?
– “That would be great! Billy West is a really great guitar player and singer. Billy is such a good guitar player, he could have been a session guitar player. Rob Paulsen and I both have backgrounds playing in rock-n-roll bands, jumping around and being crazy when we were teenagers. So, I would love to do a SpongeBob musical. We’re actually doing some SpongeBob live musical shows for Christmas, because we have a Christmas album coming out. We’re doing some live dates, just playing music from the album, with a 10-piece band. We do the live show with a big band on some of the Nickelodeon Cruise Ships. It’s a blast. I sing in SpongeBob’s voice, the other voice actors are there, and they’ll sing lines I’ve written for them. And they’ll have walk-around characters in the suits, for the little kids. It’s pretty crazy. Kids act like it’s a rock concert; rush the stage and go nuts. It’s so fun.”
Speaking of rock bands, please tell me how you got into the music video of Smashing Pumpkins’ song, ‘Tonight, Tonight.’
– “My wife and I were the couple in that video. There was an accompanying music video, it was almost a steampunk-meets-George Melies thing. It was kind of based on his 1902 movie, A Trip To The Moon. They did it with practical sets. It wasn’t green screened. It wasn’t CG. They really built those giant cardboard zepplins, it really did have propellers that worked. It was really highly artistic. I think Wayne White was the Artistic Director. It was so fun. My wife and I get to fight Moon Men, travel to the bottom of the sea… there was one scene where we jump out of the Zepplin, tumble butt over tea kettle. They put us in a spinning harness, suspended us 10 feet above the ground, and just spun us around. I get really bad motion sickness, really easily. As soon as they cut me down, I had to barf for a while. Everyone was laughing at me. The reason that came about, the Directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris had seen my wife and I at a Mr. Show taping and thought we had silent-movie looking faces, and asked if we wanted to be in a video. We did. They went on to win an Oscar for Little Miss Sunshine.”
What is something about you, that no one knows?
– “Wow. Like a weird credit, or something? Oh, man. I’ve done Shakes the Clown, where I play a coke-snorting evil clown who kills Paul Dooley. Paul Dooley is the actor who played Wimpy in the Robin Williams Popeye movie. I killed Wimpy with a giant bowling pin. My eyes were so bad, since I didn’t wear my glasses, I forgot to put in my contacts one day, and they said, ‘You’re going to be killing Paul Dooley with a bowling pin. Just hit the wall above his head, and we’ll fudge it in editing.’ Of course, I clocked Paul Dooley in the head with a bowling pin. He was very nice about it. I thought, ‘Oh, man, I just killed Wimpy.'”
Are you a big Popeye fan?
– “Popeye is my number one, favorite comic-strip character, of all time. I was obsessed with Popeye, as a kid. I still have a Popeye room, in my house, that’s all Popeye stuff, mostly from the 1930s. One of my happiest moments, was when SpongeBob started to get popular. TV Guide did a story of the top 50 cartoons of all time. They did a cover, where Popeye is fishing SpongeBob out of the ocean, with an anchor. I immediately tracked down the original art. Stephen DeStefano does all the Popeye, retro, 1930s style and SpongeBob was drawn by Steve Hillenburg. It was kind of cool. It hangs in a place of honor, in my office. Wow. All the stupid, junk you’re obsessed about in your formative stages, becomes the reason you have a job, and don’t live in a cardboard box, under a bridge.”
You’re a singer, originally in a band, now with SpongeBob. You’re a big fan of the blues. Did you ever get to visit Babe’s and Ricky’s?
– “YES! I have been to Babe’s and Ricky’s, many a time. I’ve never talked to anyone, who’s ever been to Babe’s and Ricky’s. Micky Champion! She sang with The Mannish Boys. The Mannish Boys: Named after the Muddy Waters song. My son, McKinley, is named after McKinley Morganfield — the real name of Muddy Waters. So, when you ask if I’m a blues fan, obviously that’s the answer, right there. I’m a music fan, in general. I love blues and soul, jazz and country, hillbilly and Western swing, Zydeco and Cajun. Music just makes me happy. It’s the thing that separates us from the animals. Music is where the soul to man, never dies.”
My webpage deals with zombies. I believe there was an episode where SpongeBob gets attacked by zombies?
– “There is a zombie episode. I’ve never seen it. There’s over 200 episodes. I’ve seen a lot of them. My kids have seen all of them. I wish they were here, they could clear me up on this. Yes. There’s a psychedelic werewolf-zombie episode. Zombies are everywhere.”
What are your thoughts about zombies?
– “You know, zombies are the great unifier. I go back far enough to have seen Dawn of the Dead at a drive-in, in the ’70s.”
What is your favorite horror movie?
– “Clearly, Dawn of the Dead, because it’s got the satirical aspect of mindless consumerism in the shopping mall. And to me, the images in that movie, that stay with you, are not so much the gore, and the entrail eating; as it is the clueless, zombies going up and down escalators, in this abandoned shopping mall. That tells you everything you need to know about dumb, mindless, consumerism in America. I love it.”
I have to ask, are you on Twitter? Speaking of dead people, there was a crazy rumor you had died on Twitter.
– “I am not on Twitter. I would like to confirm that I am dead. No. I don’t do Twitter, or Facebook. It’s such a time suck. It drives my publicist crazy. The people who I need to know, know where to find me. I’m like the only actor who’s trying to keep the world at bay — which may explain why I’m a voice-over guy, instead of an on-camera actor. It’s weird. I’ve died twice on Twitter. The first was around Halloween, a couple of years ago, and then September of 2012, I died again, and the Internet blows up. The first time it happened, people told me I was a trending topic on Twitter. I didn’t even know what a trending topic was. What is that? You kind of get these half-nervous calls from people. People do get a little worried. I was touched by the fan outpouring. It was kind of cool. Kind of like in Tom Sawyer, when everyone thinks him and Huck Finn have drowned in the Mississippi River, they go and watch their own funeral. And people get all mad when they find out they faked it. It’s really cool, to see that people actually like you.”
What are some of your upcoming projects?
– “I did a bunch of voices in Frankenweenie. For anybody who’s ever lost a pet, it’s a very cathartic experience. I guarantee you’ll be crying, and thinking about that special pet. We have a SpongeBob stop-motion animated special, that premieres on CBS and Nickelodeon in December. Most importantly to me, there’s a SpongeBob Christmas album, titled ‘It’s a SpongeBob Christmas Album,’ it’s all music, sung by the cast, written by me. It’s on iTunes and Amazon. It’s got all kinds of cool guest musicians on it, who may not be super famous, but I’m obsessed with. Brian Wilson is on it, Jonathan Richman is on it, Elvis’ guitar player, James Burton is on it. Adventure Time is still going on. Huggle Monsters is a pre-school show, it going to be on the Disney Channel. Angry Birds Star Wars, look for it on a cell phone near you. Craig McCracken — who created Powerpuff Girls, along with his wife Lauren Faust — created a new show, Wander Over Yonder, for the Disney Channel. I’m doing a lot of bad guys, lately. I’m entering my evil phase. It’s a lot of fun.”