Tom Kenny on 20 years of voicing SpongeBob SquarePants: 'We have more fun than movie stars'

You know Tom Kenny. Not so sure? Just trust us: You know Tom Kenny.

If you've watched an animated show on TV sometime in the last three decades, you've almost certainly heard snippets of his voice here and there. He's brought to life characters in, literally, hundreds of TV shows, from major franchises ("Ultimate SpiderMan," "Star Wars: The Clone Wars") to kids' cartoons ("Fairly OddParents," "The PowerPuff Girls") to adult comedies ("Rick and Morty," "American Dad").

But it's "SpongeBob SquarePants" that made Kenny's voice ubiquitous around the globe. The No. 1 kids' animated series on TV for the past 17 years (!) is about to celebrate its 20th anniversary, and Kenny's been the man behind that little yellow sponge season after season.

Nickelodeon is celebrating with a special episode, "SpongeBob's Big Birthday Blowout," and AOL sat down with Kenny in New York to talk about the future of animated features, late show creator Stephen Hillenburg's lasting legacy and why it's cooler to be behind the mic than on the red carpet.

You've been doing voiceover work for longer than 20 years — before SpongeBob.
Yeah, SpongeBob was not my first rodeo. I'd kind of been doing voiceover for five or six years before that and including "Rocko's Modern Life," the nineties Nickelodeon series where I first met Steve Hillenburg.

You've done so many different voices beyond SpongeBob. [Kenny has brought to life characters in literally hundreds of TV shows, Do you always recognize your own voice?

No. Sometimes I don't realize it's me and my kids will go, "Dad, that's you," and I'll say, "I don't think so. I don't remember ever doing this show." My IMDb is like 200 pages long! They'll show me the credits and say, "Yeah dad, that was you." Okay, it's something that took me a half hour in 1994, cut me a break kids. I've lost a lot of brain cells since then.

Your kids must have been exactly at the right age to be watching "SpongeBob."

They were! My kids are 21 and 15, so they grew up right when SpongeBob was on the rise. My son was actually born in '97, the year we did the pilot. In fact I remember my wife was pregnant with him when I got the call that the pilot was going. I was like, "Yes!" Looking at her pregnant stomach going, "Good, a job right now would be a really good thing." They were right now during those years when SpongeBob sort of took over the world. I was always glad they were able to enjoy it. They didn't think of me when they were watching it. They just went right into the world of Bikini Bottom. They weren't thinking of Dad being behind a microphone at work doing this recording nine months ago.

Were you breaking out the character voice at home?

No. Hardly ever. They would ask me to not do voices: "Dad, could you just use your own voice?"

Do you find that when you're watching something for fun, your'e not in work mode, that you notice the voices more acutely than most people do?

Yes, and I always did. As a kid, iId think, "Oh, that's the same guy who does George Jetson on 'The Jetsons'!" Most of the other kids, including people in my family, didn't really care one way or the other. "Why do you care so much about that?" I don't know, I just do. Luckily that turned into a viable way to make a living later.

Do you have any particular thoughts on seeing the flat animation films of the 20th century being re-made into live-action features, like "The Lion King"?

Just aesthetically, that's a weird thing I don't understand. To me, I'm always going, why do you need to re-make that? I don't need to see a live-action version of "Dumbo" without the mouse in it! [However], the "SpongeBob" musical, the Broadway musical, I was asking the same questions: Does this really need to exist? And then it turned out to be awesome.

What's the professional voiceover community like?

It's a pretty tight-knit group, and occasionally new people come in, and then they're part of the group. I really like the community. In particular, the cast on "SpongeBob" are super cool. Nice folks to spend 20 years of your life with. Boy, if one of them were a jerk, that would be awful! How do I know I'm not the jerk?!

We were talking a bit earlier about stunt casting, when celebrities are cast in animated features to recite lines in using their own speaking voices. Of course, there are some exceptions, like Mark Hamill.

Mark is great. He's a good friend of mine. People forget there was a point when "Star Wars" wasn't cool at all! That second trilogy — people were down on "Star Wars," and being Luke Skywalker meant less than being the Joker on "Batman." Mark's voiceover career kind of sustained him, and now he's a movie star again, which is crazy! A crazy second act, or third act! Mark is a real voice actor. Even if Mark had never met George Lucas, he would be a great  voice actor. Some [voice actors] get bitter about the stunt casting. Our job is to be chameleons, and their job is to be movie stars. I don't want to be a movie star, do you? We have more fun than movie stars.

Over the several months, the "SpongeBob" cast and crew have had to move forward without Stephen Hillenberg, who you all cared deeply for. [Hillenburg died in November 2018 after a battle with ALS.] What has that been like?

It's been really beautiful, actually. Not easy, because SpongeBob sprang from Steve. His DNA is in every aspect of SpongeBob. He had the whole show in his head before any of us were ever brought in. To top it all off, he was a great boss and a lovely guy. Just a nice person, a sweet man. People ask me what he was like, and I go, "He was exactly what you'd hope he would be." Nice, silly, respectful of other people ... It's interesting that he's the first death in the "SpongeBob" family. You take this new situation where he's not around and try to carry on the show. He left a roadmap for us because he knew he was sick for a couple years, so there's a roadmap we're following. Twenty years and still going.

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