It’s rarely a compliment to posit that an artist has a face for radio, a phrase coined in 1952 by snarky Broadway entertainment columnist Earl Wilson, the implication being that a performer lacks the facial aesthetics to succeed on the strength of beauty alone. While most audiences worldwide may be unfamiliar with the face of Tom Kenny, it’s not because it’s an ugly one; he’s just too damned busy being the voice in our heads – lending his talents to more than 200 films, TV shows, and animated projects including, most famously SpongeBob Squarepants – to plaster his mug all over the collective consciousness.
Today, at 52, the modern-day Mel Blanc is simultaneously giving voice to eight or nine different projects, having recently wrapped The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, the second big-screen installment of the sassy, surreal, long-running hit Nickelodeon series. (The first SpongeBob movie in 2004 grossed more than $140-million at the global box office.) While the agile-sighted may recall Kenny’s live-action work from the late, great HBO sketch comedy series, Mr. Show, as well as several films directed by Kenny’s friend Bobcat Goldthwait, Kenny refers to himself as “a professional chameleon. Not only don’t most people know my face, but a lot of them don’t realize I’m not only the voice of whatever character I do that they most love, but a dozen other ones too. I kind of like that.”
As Sponge Out of Water hits theaters today, we talked with the man behind one of Hollywood's most beloved sea creatures.
Looking over your IMDB page, you may very well have the longest resume of any man in show business.
Well, thank you very much! (Laughs) Really? I mean, that’s kind of cool, isn’t it? I think I kind of get off on that. But you know, there’s this guy named Frank Welker, who was the original voice of Fred on Scooby-Doo, and I think his might be longer. He definitely has the most movie credits of anybody. He did all the gremlins in the Gremlins movies. In Out of Africa, when the baby elephant gets shot in the head, that’s Frank. (Laughs) Crazy resume! He still works pretty often, but he’s very reclusive. He’s like the J.D. Salinger of Cartoon Voices.
That’s some epitaph!
Frank is this very gentle, quiet guy who likes to make weird sounds.
Going back to your resume, you’ve done so many beloved voices – Jimmy Neutron, CatDog, Fairly Oddparents, Powerpuff Girls, Winnie the Pooh. And, interestingly, a lot of these characters are the color yellow.
Yeah, but they didn’t give me Bart or Homer Simpson. I don’t have those yellow guys!
Still, when people think about the voices in their heads, a lot of them may first consider Siri on their iPhones, but for anyone with children, it’s got to be Tom Kenny.
Yeah. I get that a lot. A lot of the shows I’ve done, they’re not even in production anymore, but they still air on television all the time, so my voice is coming at people from every direction. With SpongeBob alone, I think you can hear me talking to you probably, like, 24 hours a day. That show has just been the anchor of my career, you know. How many jobs last 15 years anymore? How many things in the world at all last 15 years anymore? It’s shocking to me that we’ve been able to keep the ball in the air that many years. I think we’re still doing really, really great work, and the audiences around the world still seem to be really into what we’re doing. We’re all pinching ourselves every single day.
On the one hand, as long as people keep having babies, there will always be an audience for SpongeBob.
Some people actually leave our show on for their kids while they go upstairs to make another kid! “Hey, we’ve got 11-minutes here, honey. Let’s go!”
How big is the love you get from fans around the world? I would imagine only the real die-hard fans know what you actually look like.
There are a few of those die-hard fans, that’s for sure. It’s such a pleasant thing to be a part of. People in their 20s and 30s will come up to me sometimes and it’s, like, “Dude, thanks for being the soundtrack to my childhood.” Sometimes there are tears. Sometimes there are hugs. Everyone gets a good, happy childhood or a really unpleasant childhood, right? If you had a happy childhood, then SpongeBob was probably, if you’re of a certain age, some warm, fuzzy part of it, and if you had a terrible childhood, then SpongeBob might have been some kind of escape for you. Either way, I think there are a lot of positive associations with this character.
It’s been more than a decade since the last SpongeBob movie. That’s a long layover, and that David Hasselhoff guy from the first movie, he’s become kind of a big deal.
Yep. In Germany. (Laughs) No, I’m kidding. I see him around sometimes, and he’s always, like, “So when are we gonna do another one?” He’s so great. On the new SpongeBob movie, we had to “settle” for Antonio Banderas. Again, I’m kidding. With Antonio Banderas, you’re never settling. He’s amazing in this movie. He’s our villain, Burger-Beard the Pirate.
Maybe you didn’t hear: this movie’s kind of crazy. Very weird. Very bizarre. It’s a little bit Willy Wonka and a little bit Neverending Story or Labyrinth, that whole wacky, dark, bizarre, thing. Here’s a better description for you: Mad Max meets Back to the Future meets Guardians of the Galaxy and Hot Tub Time Machine. But with SpongeBob Squarepants as the hero.
You’ve just confused the hell out of every parent in the country.
Oh, I forgot to tell you about the hand puppet! There’s a very cool, old school hand puppet in the film, which is pretty darn cool. (Laughs) I’ve been to a couple of screenings of the movie and there have been, like, small children there and then there have been grandparents and everyone in between, and they all seem to be having a really good time.
So why wait so long to do another film?
I think the feeling was that we didn’t have a story that warranted the extra screen time. There’s no point in just doing a triple-length TV episode. This movie is a crazy mash-up of 2D animation, 3D animation, CGI, live-action, and – don’t forget! – the hand puppet. When people see it, they will not be saying, “Oh, man, this is just a really long episode of the TV show.” It’s not that.
You grew up in Syracuse, New York and your first performances were as a stand-up comedian. How did that work prepare you for the voiceover work you do today?
The things you get good at as a stand-up are being in the moment, being able to think quickly on your feet, going off-book, improvising. In that kind of arena, dive bars and comedy clubs, at least the ones I was playing, you cannot afford to stick to what you’ve prepared because it might not be working. If it’s not working and you’ve got eight-minutes on that stage, those eight-minutes can seem like an eternity if you can’t reinvent right there on the spot. You have to be able to ad-lib and riff. I think I got pretty good at that, and that’s a skill-set that’s served me well in the work I do today. Also, when I was doing stand-up, I was doing a lot of characters, so I’m still kind of doing today what I used to do a long time ago. I’m just, you know, getting paid for it now! (Laughs)
At 52, it’s very clear that you’ve found your voice – or your voices. What suggestions might you make to the rest of us, who are still struggling to find our voices?
One thing that I like about working with actors and voice actors and writers and animators is that they all have this sense of playfulness and a sense of childlike wonder. They grew up playing with action figures and telling stories in their heads and making stuff up and, somehow, they’ve been able to keep doing that as grown-ups. I mean, the ones who are making a living at playing also are incredibly competent, efficient, capable human beings. They have to deliver a product at the end of the day, if they expect to be rewarded for their efforts. But I guess the suggestion is: Get down on the floor and play with your toys. Don’t forget what it was like to be a child. Don’t be afraid to play.
Any idea what you’ll be when you grow up?
I’ll let you know when I do. If I do!