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Talk of the Town: Voice actor for SpongeBob talks latest movie, Syracuse memories

Bill DeLapp interviews the voice of SpongeBob, Tom Kenny

Cartoon voice Tom Kenny discusses the new SpongeBob movie, memories of East Syracuse and more with entertainment analyst Bill DeLapp

During Super Bowl weekend at a press junket in Manhattan for The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, the second big-screen incarnation of the popular Nickelodeon TV cartoon series SpongeBob SquarePants voice, actor Tom Kenny was in fretting mode.

“It’s always nerve-wracking to wait for a movie to come out,” he admitted during a phone interview. “I like the movie, but are other people going to like it? Are kids going to like it? Are fans of the show going to like it? Are critics going to like it; you guys are a whole different breed. It’s exciting but also worrisome, but I always worry about everything.”

Kerny’s trepidations must have quickly faded during Sponge Out of Water’s opening weekend, Feb. 6 to 8: The denizens of Bikini Bottom topped the box office with more than $55 million. The sequel almost doubled the first SpongeBob movie’s $32 million opening weekend back in 2004, an indication that the durable 16-year-old TV franchise remains quite spongeworthy among its many fans.

SpongeBob SquarePants in THE SPONGEBOB MOVIE: SPONGE OUT OF WATER, from Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies.

SpongeBob SquarePants in THE SPONGEBOB MOVIE: SPONGE OUT OF WATER, from Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies.

While Sponge Out of Water’s casting calls include a nominal live-action superstar played by Antonio Banderas, Kenny’s hyper-kinetic voice is what really drives the cartoon. And it’s a dream Kenny, 52, has pursued since his childhood in East Syracuse, when he and his best pal Bob Goldthwait were cracking each other up during their wonder years. Whereas Goldthwait’s career path went from standup-comedian stardom to critical acclaim as a TV and movie director, Kenny’s onstage comic shtick included so many vocal impersonations (such as an early bit spoofing Jeopardy’s Alex Trebek) that his segue into the voiceover world proved both seamless and inevitable.

Always a cartoon fanatic, Kenny has a special affinity for another seaworthy character: In his high school years he even had a cardboard standee for the 1980 movie Popeye in his bedroom. He’s passing along that cartoon jones to his 17-year-old son Mackinley, an aspiring animator; Mack also plays drums for the Studio City, Calif., indie rock band Sandbox Fistfight, which scored a gig last spring at hallowed West Hollywood hotspot Whisky a Go Go.

Father and son joined forces last Thanksgiving when they performed a number of jumping tracks with Shakedown Blues Band, featuring Tom’s brother Dan “Bone” Kenny, at Lew’s Sports Bar in North Syracuse. “I think every 17-year-old should listen to Howlin’ Wolf,” proud papa Tom said, “even though he’s named after Muddy Waters.”

Rounding out the Kenny family tree is daughter Nora, 11, who writes songs and plays guitar, while wife Jill Talley (Tom met her on the set of the 1992-’93 Fox TV variety show The Edge) also supplies the voice of Karen the computer on the SpongeBob series.

You went to the first screening a few weeks ago. What’s your verdict?

I really liked it. It’s super-weird like the best kids movies are, whether it’s The Never Ending Story where you just go, “What am I watching?” or The Wizard of Oz with the flying monkeys or Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory with Gene Wilder. Hopefully we’re not crazy to think we can aspire to that level of oddball WTF-ness.

Tom Kenny

Tom Kenny performs at a local club.
Photo by Bill DeLapp

It’s kinda like if you dropped SpongeBob, Plankton and Patrick into Mad Max, Back to the Future, Guardians of the Galaxy and one of those incomprehensible J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek movies where you go “What the heck?,” where you have alternate versions of the characters running around and meeting each other. And it’s a riot: The kids were whooping it up at the screening, which also had old people, hipsters and too-cool-for-school teenagers, so hopefully my informal market research will hold true globally. (Laughs)

I really enjoyed the 3-D. To me, there’s a visual giddiness at play, where we are freed of the budget constraints of the basic-cable TV series, or even the budget constraints of the first movie from 11 years ago. It’s not just bells and whistles for the sake of bells and whistles. I think director Paul Tibbitt, creator Steve Hillenburg and the writers really figured out a way to make it a big stupid event movie without sacrificing what’s great about the SpongeBob series, which is that you can have an episode where he just learns to tie his shoe for 11 minutes.

And that’s a really hard balancing act to pull off. Because for me the stuff I enjoy most about SpongeBob, the character and the show, is the stuff in between the cracks, the awkward, dumb, quiet moments, so I was glad to see that there was a healthy dose of those moments in the movie. But there is also CGI stuff, 3-D animation, flat 2-D animation like in the cable show, and hand puppets. One of the characters is largely portrayed by a hand puppet, so it’s the oldest of show-biz technology–puppets–with the most up-to-date new-school show-biz technology, so it’s a really fun melange, if I can use that word.

It took about a year to do the 2012 stop-motion animation special It’s a SpongeBob Christmas. How long did it take to do this project?

It’s probably going on 2 ½ years, maybe even a little longer for the writers’ stuff. For us voice actors, we have not done an episode of SpongeBob in 2 ½ years. As huge as sponge bob is, in terms of his ubiquitousness out in the world, it’s still a pretty small amount of people that work on the show. It’s not like there is movie-team Sponge Bob and TV series-team SpongeBob, it’s all the same people and all the same actors since the beginning.

We took a break from doing TV episodes and we’ve been doing this movie in much smaller increments. So instead of blowing through 30 pages of script in an hour-long (recording) session, you’ll do one scene and then you’ll come back a week later and someone will say, “we changed a word in that scene, so we’re gonna do it again,” or “Actually, we’re gonna give that half of that line to Sandy (the squirrel character) so we’re going to re-record that.”

Left to right: Squidward Tentacles, SpongeBob SquarePants, Sandy Cheeks, and Mr. Krabs in THE SPONGEBOB MOVIE: SPONGE OUT OF WATER, from Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies.

Left to right: Squidward Tentacles, SpongeBob SquarePants, Sandy Cheeks, and Mr. Krabs in THE SPONGEBOB MOVIE: SPONGE OUT OF WATER, from Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies.

So it’s a much longer gestation period, but I think the movie had a pretty short gestation period for the writers and animators, from the point of being green-lit to being in theaters on Feb. 6. I think those guys had to hit the ground running, I think the freight train was bearing down on them from the first second (Kenny makes a “Beep-beep” sound effect), like Dennis Weaver and the truck in the rear-view mirror from (Steven Spielberg’s TV-movie) Duel. They didn’t have the luxury of years of R&D (research and development) in a Pixar movie where it’s like, “We wrote a script for a couple years and then we threw it all out and we started again.” I think those guys did a fantabulous job.

And it has to be an event movie, it has to be in 3-D, it has to be big. Otherwise, why are you making a SpongeBob movie when the last one was 11 years ago? And that one did quite well financially and critically, but this is definitely a few steps above that, both in terms of budgetary constraints being lifted and also technology being far ahead of where it was 11 years ago, the stuff you can and are able to do.

So I think there’s a joy in the new bag of tricks, the palette of colors so to speak, that the guys could use, and I really felt that. And I wasn’t knowing if I would feel that because I hadn’t seen the movie since it was in an animatic pencil sketch on a storyboard. Between that and the finished movie I didn’t really see much footage when we were recording it.

The ads have focused on SpongeBob’s superhero appearance. Did the animators model him after your Luke-Perry-goes-topless skit that you did on the 1992 Fox-TV sketchcom The Edge?

(Laughs, then proceeds with tongue in cheek.) Yeah, they pretty much Photoshopped SpongeBob’s head onto my real body. It’s not like the old days when Robert Mitchum could have a little gut in Cape Fear; now you’ve gotta stay in tip-top physical condition and I do my best to do that. I look to Chris Hemsworth (from the Thor movies) for my body image. (Laughs)

SpongeBob SquarePants (as The Invincibubble) in THE SPONGEBOB MOVIE: SPONGE OUT OF WATER, from Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies.

SpongeBob SquarePants (as The Invincibubble) in THE SPONGEBOB MOVIE: SPONGE OUT OF WATER, from Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies.

You’ve been to several ComicCons. What is it like meeting your most rabid fans?

Syracuse native Tom Kenny is the voice of SpongeBob.

Syracuse native Tom Kenny is the voice of SpongeBob.

Really nice, actually, It’s not at all like that William Shatner’s Saturday Night Live sketch (from December 1986, where he told Star Trek fans to get a life). And truly, I do not do very many conventions at all, so when I do it, I think people get excited. A lot of the voice actors do a ton of them, but I do San Diego every year, I just did New York City a few months ago, I’ve done DragonCon in Atlanta a few years ago, and I’ve got one or two coming up in 2015. But I generally say no to those because it takes you out of the country and away from the 10 animated shows I’m usually working on at any given time. Yeah, it’s great to go to Australia and be at a ComicCon in Melbourne or Sydney for a week or two, but when your kids are in school and you can’t take them out, it just feels wrong. (Laughs)

So long story short, I love meeting people at the cons. A lot of it is the kids, a lot of it is people in their 20s and sometimes 30s if they grew up on Rocko’s Modern Life, some of them have kids of their own and they say, “You’re the soundtrack of my childhood, man, you’re the voice I hear in my head.” Some say, “I watched it with my family and it was a really pleasant memory,” and others say, “My childhood was horrible and I escaped into cartoons, thank you.”

Everyone standing in line has a really good association with the characters and the stuff you’ve been in, so it’s an unexpectedly affecting experience for me, like super-gratifying. And even elderly empty nesters say (in a senior citizen voice), “My kids are all gone now, but we still watch SpongeBob, isn’t that funny? We looked around and we said, ‘The kids are gone and there’s no grandkids around, why the hell are we watching SpongeBob? We can’t stop?’”

The highest compliment was from the guy who was in charge of the New York ComicCon. It’s really about how long the lines are, where people say, “Wow, the Green Power Ranger is really popular!” I said, “Well, I don’t really do this stuff. How did I do?” And the guy (Kenny in a gruff New Yawk voice) said, “Are you kidding? You kicked the A-listers’ asses! You did better than any of the Star Trek people. And (The X-Files’) Gillian Anderson had no lines!”

Back in 1979, you and Bobcat Goldthwait answered a Syracuse New Times classified ad about going for standup tryouts at Skaneateles’ Under the Stone. That was the first time you both met social satirist Barry Crimmins.

Barry Crimmins Photo:

Barry Crimmins

That is true. Barry Crimmins took out this ad, and we sort of do owe our careers to the Syracuse New Times, and I’m not kissing ass. If we hadn’t answered that ad, we might have gotten around to what we were doing eventually, but it probably would have been a more elliptical (journey). I mean, that was perfect: 16 years old, answer an ad, show up, do standup, it goes pretty good, you go back again, then you think, “I might want to do something like this to make a living. Can I do that? What are the options? How do you pursue that?”

For me, the path was standup comedy to voiceover, and I love it. Voiceover is the most fun job. I can’t picture a job I would like more. And Bob has different aspirations: I want to be a director, I want to make people cry, feel, laugh, and he’s doing that.

One thing that’s been a blast about this is that as the SpongeBob movie is rolling out–and we’re starting to do new TV episodes and I’m the voice director as of this season so it’s fun directing my old pals in the booth–meanwhile, Bobcat is burning up the Sundance Film Festival with his Barry Crimmins documentary. That’s fantastic. He and I are texting each other back and forth, and I’m reading stuff like (in a deep voice), “Call Me Lucky is Bobcat Goldthwait’s masterpiece,” and it’s just so cool and great. I would be in Sundance now with Bob and Barry if I wasn’t doing this (promotional duties for the SpongeBob movie). So it’s a pretty heady week for us East Syracuse types.

Here’s a loaded question: After years of attending parochial school Lenten fish fries, do you still eat seafood?

Ha ha ha! At the risk of sounding like a cannibal? Don’t bite the fin that feeds you.

(The Shakedown Blues Band’s post-Turkey Day show on Nov. 28 at Lew’s Sports Bar, 7356 Church St., North Syracuse, featured some very special Left Coast guests. Lead vocalist and harmonica Dan “Bone” Kenny managed to lure visiting musician Tom Kenny to the microphone for several jumping blues rockers, while Tom’s son, Mack “Drums Along the Mohawk” Kenny, likewise sat in behind the drum kit. Teenage skinhitter Kenny is also part of an indie rock band, Sandbox Fistfight, that scored a gig last May at the hallowed West Hollywood venue Whisky A Go Go. “We’re like the Von Trapp family!” exclaimed proud papa Tom, who also introduced his octogenarian East Syracuse mom as she sat on the sidelines. Tom Kenny’s voice work on the big-screen cartoon The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water was released Feb. 6 at nationwide multiplexes.)

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