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May 14, 2013

Tom Kenny: Life with SpongeBob and Other Talking Animals

The many voices of Tom Kenny: ‘You think, ‘I am making a living at this, and the only reason I have a house is all this dumb stuff I’ve done.’’

The many voices of Tom Kenny: ‘You think, ‘I am making a living at this, and the only reason I have a house is all this dumb stuff I’ve done.’’

Talking Animals.

If you’ve read a few of these columns, you’ve surely gathered that the title of the show ordinarily refers to discussions I’ve conducted with guests about an array of animals: cats, dogs, dolphins, horses, big cats, roosters, killer whales, more dogs, more cats, and so on.

But once in a blue moon—to mix things up a bit, bring a more playful spirit to the proceedings—we roll with a more literal interpretation of the title.

Perhaps the most literal came eight years ago, when we interviewed Conan O’Brien’s pooch pal Triumph The Insult Comic Dog—the only instance, so far, of a talking animal appearing on Talking Animals.


We came at this more-faithful-yet-funny approach from a slightly different angle on the April 13 program, when our guest was Tom Kenny, who, as a voiceover actor extraordinaire in the world of animation, has given voice to such talking animals as SpongeBob SquarePants, Gary The Snail, Dog in CatDog, latter-day Rabbit in Winnie The Pooh, and an ark’s worth of other cartoon critters.

Also an actor, comedian, musician and roots rock aficionado, Kenny recalled how in his formative years as a comic—when his fellow comics would try to score a voiceover role chiefly because that sort of gig represented a week or two they didn’t need to go on the road—he flipped this paradigm, where pursuing voiceover work was not the means to an end, but the end itself, while stand-up was primarily a tool to get there. For Kenny, it was all about carving out a voiceover career in animation.

“Yeah, that was my goal from the get-go,” he acknowledged. “But as you correctly sum up: being a stand-up in clubs, being a road warrior, was a way not to work a conventional day job and have to wear a tie and work in a cubicle, or unload trucks, or something else that my unskilled, untutored self would probably be doing.

“But ever since I was a kid, voice work and Stan Freberg and Mel Blanc loomed larger than Johnny Carson and stand-up did in terms of influence. As did animators like Tex Avery and Chuck Jones and people like that. In retrospect, they were probably a bigger part of my comedy sensibility than most stand-ups were.”

Behind the scenes of SpongeBob with Tom Kenny and his fellow voiceover actors

Part of the reason I invited Kenny on the program—beyond his being the majordomo of brightly-colored talking animals—was hearing him participate in an interesting discussion on The Dana Gould Hour, a podcast presided over by the titular Gould, one of the best and most inventive comedians of the past 25 years.

Comedians hosting podcasts is practically considered de rigueur these days—we profiled Marc Maron, host of WTF, the most celebrated of these programs, in the October 2011 edition of Deep Roots’ predecessor,—but Gould’s podcast is perhaps the most ambitiously-produced of the bunch, including that it features a top-flight, stentorian radio announcer. His name is Tom Kenny.

A tribute to Tom Kenny posted at YouTube by his fans known as TomKennyIsLovely, who get extra credit for using Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Move On Up’ as background music.

In this particular edition of The Dana Gould Hour, entitled “Poll To Pole,” Kenny—who was an accomplished comic, appearing on multiple TV shows as a stand-up and was a cast member of the acclaimed HBO sketch comedy, Mr. Show–left the announcer’s booth to partake in a discussion in which he explained how he never felt the “buzz” from doing stand-up that top comics like Dana and others describe. Yet he did experience that buzz from doing voice work.

I asked him to expand on this observation in our Talking Animals chat.

“I think it was more a case of, with stand-up,” Kenny said, “sometimes I did feel the buzz—the hoary old cliché goes: when you’re doing stand-up and everything is clicking and the audience is laughing and you feel creative and you material is going over great and then you’re also going off your material and adlibbing and riffing, and that’s going great, it’s really heady and seductive.

“And there really is nothing like it. And I really love that aspect. I had the good fortune—or misfortune—to do well my first four or five times doing stand-up. I didn’t bomb or go down in flames until my fifth or sixth time, but”—he laughs heartily—“the hook was already in my mouth.”

“It really is that thing where you want to catch the perfect wave again. And as you know, ‘cause you were around then, there was a big comedy club boom happening in the ‘80s—that was really a great time to be in Boston or New York or San Francisco, or I guess L.A. (I didn’t come down to L.A. ‘til much later). It was a great time to be doing that.”

On Attack of the Show, with host Kevin Pereira, Tom Kenny talks voice acting and SpongeBob

He pauses, as though reflecting on that period, then continues. “It did reach a point where [as I said on Dana’s podcast] that I started to feel guilty that I didn’t love the art and the craft of stand-up, and crave it as much as the people I saw who worked really hard at it. And still do. There are so many guys, where it’s Jay Leno or Dana or Steven Wright or Robin Williams—people I know that their palms get itchy if they don’t go out and do stand-up.

“And I was just lacking that gene. Once I started to do a little voiceover, and then more voiceover, I did get that feeling: Wow! It’s kind of like you’re engaged to a girl that’s kind of OK and you get along and stuff, and you think things will probably be all right. And then you meet that person where you make a love connection and you think, “Wow, this is what people are talking about….I’ve got to break up with that other girl.’

Stand-up’s loss was animation’s gain, as Kenny stepped purposefully into that world, landing a great gig in 1993 on Rocko’s Modern Life—portraying, it should be noted, a talking animal: a yellow steer named Heffer. “I loved it,” Kenny recalled, enthusiastically. “I was working with super amazing voiceover people who could do 800 voices and accents and be off the cuff.

“And I saw that there was a way to use the stand-up skill set of being able to adlib and learn a bunch of material quickly and things like that. And maybe able to parlay that into something where you don’t have to be doing the third show in a biker bar on a Friday night.”

‘Something Smells,’ SpongeBob Squarepants (full episode)

Now, it seems, the animation hook was firmly in his mouth, akin to the way the stand-up hook had been. But more firmly, more irresistibly. But even though Rocko lasted 52 episodes, and Kenny seemed to adore animation voicework, that voicework initially did not return his affections. He recalls auditioning relentlessly in this post-Rocko period and simply not being hired for another voiceover job.

“So I was thinking to myself ‘So much for the voiceover career. That was a fun little busman’s holiday. It would’ve been great. Oh, well. Back to the stand-up, I guess.’ “

Not so fast, pal. Things began to pick-up for Kenny, and he started booking voiceover gigs here and there, but things were hardly going great guns.

And then Steve Hillenburg called.

Hillenburg was a creative director on Rocko’s Modern Life, his first job in animation. “He and I had clicked on Rocko,” Kenny said. “And he contacted me after I hadn’t seen him in a while and said that he had this idea for a show that was percolating in his head, and he was thinking about pitching around town, to Nickelodeon first. And would I come over and look at some of the stuff, and see what I thought. It was SpongeBob.

“It was in the desk drawer of his very tiny rented house. And he took out these drawings of these characters and these nice little watercolors of SpongeBob’s pineapple, the Krusty Krab lobster-shaped restaurant—I just thought it was so whimsical and fun and stupid and funny and smart.”

‘Plankton’s Pet,’ SpongeBob Squarepants (full episode)

Not long after that rendezvous, Hillenburg, Kenny & company made a seven-minute pilot. Nickelodeon gave that wide-eyed yellow sponge the green light in 1999, and the rest, pretty much, is animation history—forever changing Hillenburg’s and Kenny’s lives. Fourteen years later, The SpongeBob SquarePants operation is going strong.

In fact, on the day of our Talking Animals conversation, Kenny had a SpongeBob recording session scheduled that afternoon. On the show, Kenny not only provides the voice for SpongeBob, but also Gary The Snail, Patchy The Pirate and the Jacques Cousteau-like narrator. (Over the course of the interview, he briefly lapsed into two of those voices, plus several others.)

It’s standard to voice multiple characters on an animation series, and in addition to SpongeBob, Kenny works on a number of other shows at any given time—currently, he’s also on Adventure Time with Finn and Jake, Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated, Cosmic Quantum Ray, Batman: The Brave And The Bold, Annoying Orange, Henry Hugglemonster…and, given how rapidly things change in the animal universe, that count may be up or down by a show or two as you’re reading this. This clearly represents a staggering range, to say nothing of all the shows he’s voiced in the 20 years since his very first stint as a talking animal on Rocko’s Modern Life.

‘Body of Binky’: Tom Kenny burning a hole in the screen with his classic turn as the psychotic clown, Binky, in Bobcat Goldthwait’s Shakes the Clown, a movie one critic hailed as ‘the Citizen Kane of alcoholic clown movies’

Little wonder that Dana Gould (who beyond his own towering talents as a comedian, spent several years as a writer-producer on The Simpsons, and therefore knows a thing or two about the animation cosmos) calls Kenny “the Mel Blanc of his generation.

Gould is neither the first nor the last to make the favorable Kenny-Blanc comparison. But when I suggest the description is incredibly high praise–and incredibly accurate—you can practically hear the squirming over the phone. “I’d say that’s incredibly effusive over-praising,” he said, quietly. “Mel Blanc is the guy, the gold standard.”

Exactly. And these days, Kenny is the guy. There’s clearly a singular talent here, coupled with the stand-up chops and inventiveness he brings to the booth, seasoned with two decades of experience of voicing damn near every kind of character imaginable.

I love all sorts of animation, but given the critter emphasis on the radio show and in these pages, I asked Kenny how he approaches giving voice to an animal, particularly when working on (or even auditioning for) a new show—how much does the behavior of an animal or its other traits figure in to what he brings to the voice?

Tom Kenny in another classic Binky moment from Shakes the Clown

“A lot of that is in the writing,” he answered. “Sometimes, these animals are just anthropomorphized people—the kind of animal it is almost doesn’t matter. It’s incidental, almost. You have to take into account…you’re kind of collating all the data you can when you go into an audition like this: you have a picture of the character, you’re reading a description of it, always trying to figure out a voice that’s going to be different—but not in a bad way—from all the other people they’re listening to. You want to make choices that sound fresh and interesting to them, without sounding wrong.”

Based on the career he’s stitched together, and the success and recognition (for instance, he’s won an Annie for Best Voice Acting in an Animated Television Production) he’s generated along the way, it’s probably safe to say he ain’t sounding wrong too often.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, he’s also having a blast, just about every day, all these years later. “The shows that are the most fun for me are the ones like SpongeBob,” he says with great animation in his voice, fittingly, “where the actors are all there in the room [recording together]

“Then it’s kind of like doing sketch comedy, where you have your character and they have their character, and you’re just kind of in the zone. It sounds super corny, but you sort of forget you’re you. There’s that cliché, Acting is just learning to play, like you did when you were a child. But it really is that. You think, ‘I am making a living at this, and the only reason I have a house is all this dumb stuff I’ve done.’”

Click here to listen to the Talking Animals interview with Tom Kenny and here to go to Marc Maron’s WTF podcasts.

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