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Tom Kenny and SpongeBob SquarePants Interview: "Don't Be a Jerk (It's Christmas)"

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Image attributed to Tom Kenny

Tom Kenny

For the first time in the franchise’s thirteen-year history, the hugely popular SpongeBob SquarePants animated TV series has spawned a holiday album. It’s a SpongeBob Christmas! Album was released in November 2012 from Nickelodeon Records, offering twelve tracks of original SpongeBob music in tune with the season. The album features vocals and songwriting by voice actor Tom Kenny and musician Andy Paley. The DVD SpongeBob SquarePants: It’s a SpongeBob Christmas! also came out in November and tells the tale of some “tainted fruitcake” being eaten by the residents of Bikini Bottom at Christmastime that changes some characters into complete “jerks.”

Kenny is known for his long-running role as SpongeBob SquarePants, and he also provides the voice for the title character’s pet snail named Gary. He is Heffer Wolfe and various other characters in Rocko’s Modern Life, the mayor and narrator of The Powerpuff Girls and Scoutmaster Lumpus and Slinkman from Camp Lazio.

“Since he’s not a human being, he doesn’t have to be a hundred percent of anything. SpongeBob and his best friend, Patrick, act like little kids that play games all the time, but he’s also an autonomous person that lives alone in a pineapple (laughs). (In SpongeBob’s voice) So the voice I came up with was sort of adenoidal, a really enthusiastic voice.”

In addition to SpongeBob, Kenny currently voices the Ice King in the Cartoon Network animated series Adventure Time, voices additional characters on Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated, Quantum Ray in Cosmic Quantum Ray, Plastic Man in Batman: The Brave and the Bold and Woody Johnson on Comedy Central’s Brickleberry.

Aside from voice acting, Kenny starred in the short lived Fox sketch show The Edge and was a cast member of the HBO sketch comedy program Mr. Show where he worked with his wife, Jill Talley. He is also known for being one of the longest working voice actors to voice Spyro in the Spyro the Dragon video game series. Kenny has appeared in many films including How I Got Into College, Shakes the Clown and Comic Book: The Movie.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Tom, I love It’s A SpongeBob Christmas! Album and the Christmas television special, which was based on one of the songs you wrote.

Tom Kenny: Yeah. It was based on a song that a friend, Andy Paley, and me wrote called “Don’t Be a Jerk (It’s Christmas).” We’ve written songs for SpongeBob and for a couple of other cartoons. A couple of years ago, Andy and I had written this song (“Don’t Be a Jerk”) that was just a funny Christmas song. I would always hear the Chipmunks and the Muppets sing Christmas songs, so I thought, “Gee, why doesn’t SpongeBob have a Christmas song or a full album? We should do that.”

We wrote this song as just sort of a little sample calling card of what we were thinking about. Then after a couple of years, I had given it to some of the executives at Nickelodeon, and when they were shaking ideas around for a SpongeBob full half hour, twenty-two minute Christmas show, they thought maybe it was worthy of expanding into a special. Andy and I came up with the story with the help of Mr. Lawrence. That’s the name he goes by, Mr. Lawrence who does the voice of the character Plankton on the show. He’s also a storyboard artist and writer. We came up with the plot lines off that little two-minute song.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’m sure holiday shoppers can relate to “Don’t Be a Jerk (It’s Christmas).”

Tom Kenny: The song itself certainly started from, on our part, a very humorous but truly sincere plea for civility at least for this time of year … maybe work on the other fifty one weeks of the year as we go. But we wrote it at a time when there was all this rudeness on display in the news. You know, the Michael Vick dog-fighting thing was around then and Joe Wilson screaming, “You lie!” during the State of the Union address. We were just like, “Gosh. What’s in the water? Where are the rules of manners and just basic kindness? You shouldn’t treat people you don’t agree with like turds beneath your shoe.” Then we came up with a storyline for the holiday special that there was an actual element called Jerktonium in the form of a big meteor, which landed from space to Bikini Bottom, and exposure to it would bring out your inner jerk. It was like kryptonite or something.

Plankton, the villain of the piece, gets pieces of the meteor and bakes it into a fruitcake which he distributes to everyone in Bikini Bottom as gifts. Everyone becomes a jerk except for SpongeBob who is so pure of heart that it doesn’t work on him. So yes, we were trying to be humorous with the song, but it was also coming from just a real place of head scratching disappointment in our species as we were writing it and using humor (laughs). That’s one of the great uses of both humor and music is to light heartedly shine a spotlight on unpleasant things and bring them to people’s attention.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I think some of us have always had a strange reaction to fruitcake (laughs).

Tom Kenny: Fruitcake is definitely one of those acquired tastes. It’s a real dad food. Often, in a house, it’s only the dad that likes fruitcake, and everybody else hates it. My dad was the only fruitcake eater in my house.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’ve always thought that it was a great recycled Christmas gift.

Tom Kenny: (laughs) So you’re saying that there may have been only twenty fruitcakes ever made in the history of the planet, and they’ve all just been endlessly re-gifted throughout the decades? That’s a good theory. I like it. I’m going to look into that. We should tag the fruitcakes like penguins to follow their movements. Put a little radio collar on every fruitcake. That’s a great idea (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes it is (laughs). Did you write some songs from personal experiences? “Christmas Eve Jitters,” for example.

Tom Kenny: It’s hard to write new Christmas songs (laughs). We didn’t want SpongeBob to sing “Jingle Bells” or “Sleigh Ride.” We didn’t want to do covers, so we wrote new songs and made them sincere, thinking of something about Christmas you could build a song around that hasn’t been done to death. In “Christmas Eve Jitters,” we were thinking about when you’re a little kid and your parents say, “Go to bed or Santa’s not going to come!”

You’re in your room with eyes as big as saucers, staring at the ceiling, and every little noise you hear, you think is Santa Claus. It’s a pretty exhilarating mixture of fear because you think you should be asleep or you’re going to blow it and just intense anticipation and excitement. There is nothing like it in adult life. You have the Christmas Eve jitters. You are running around and your parents keep going, “Get upstairs!”

Of course, now that I’m a parent, I’m very familiar with assembling things on the living room floor and cursing at 3:30 in the morning knowing the kids will be up in two hours. We were also thinking about our favorite Christmas album, which is the first Elvis one. I’m a big Elvis Presley fan. I’ve loved him since I was a kid. I actually delivered the newspaper with his death in it, and I remember pulling my radio flyer wagon full of newspapers in Syracuse and putting that paper on everybody’s doorstep. Anyway, I really like the production of that album, so we tried to make it sound, at least the track, sound like those records sound with the Jordanaires in the background, that kind of cool, tightly wound twangy guitar. That song is definitely Tom channeling SpongeBob channeling Elvis.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): James Burton, Elvis’ guitarist for about eight years, played on the album, so the Elvis theme continues.

Tom Kenny: Yeah. He also played on our previous album that Andy and I did called The Best Day Ever. He’s just one of the greats and a terrific person. James played on everything from Elvis records to Rick Nelson to the theme song of The Flintstones. That is his guitar on that track. There’s so much stuff that guys like that have done. To me, those guys are ten thousand times cooler than movie stars. I get more speechless around them than I would get with the biggest movie star. I don’t really care that much about movie stars.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): As a child, Tom, did you imitate cartoons or entertain family members with difference voices?

Tom Kenny: Surprisingly, probably not as much as one would think. I was sitting there watching cartoons and wondering about the people that did the voices, who they were and whether that was an actual occupation that one could really do. I wasn’t particularly a “look at me” showoff kind of kid. But I got more confident in high school, and people started to think that I was rather funny.

I think I got more confident, and then I started doing standup comedy in clubs and playing in rock ‘n roll bar bands and things like that when I was still in high school. That was kind of intoxicating. I thought, “Hey, this is what it feels like to have an aptitude. This is what guys who are good at sports feel!” I’ve never felt that. It was kind of neat to be good at something, to actually feel, in a positive way, competitive with others. I understood the sports mentality a little better. I guess doing the voices and jumping around in a band was my equivalent of being able to throw a ball really far (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And now, you can go to work in your pajamas (laughs).

Tom Kenny: You know, I’ve never tried that although I did work with Larry Charles, one of the creators of Seinfeld. I did Dilbert. Based on the comic strip Dilbert, there was a short-lived one season animated show, which Larry co-developed. He was actually a guy who would show up for work in his pajamas (laughs). You’re like, “Wow. You’re really wearing pajamas!”

I guess theoretically one could wear pajamas, but I’m running around to various studios. I really don’t record much out of my home. I’m here in LA, and I’ll run to Nickelodeon, then run to Disney, to Cartoon Network and then run to do a video game somewhere, and it’s all me showing up physically at those places. You have to present yourself in such a way that you are not scary. Do not scare the buyer, rule number one.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Absolutely. What are the differences in acting in front of the camera and doing voiceover?

Tom Kenny: They’re very different which is why I think so many of the best on camera actors are pretty ineffective as voiceover actors when I see them and hear them and work with them. For me, the main difference is that voice acting is so much less laborious and dull. I guess what I’m trying to say is, you get right to the good stuff. That’s what I liked about doing standup comedy as well, which is how I started out. You just get out there, and you get right to the good stuff. As soon as you hit that stage or as soon as you show up at that voiceover session, you’re right into the funny stuff, and they’re going, “Tom, you’re the Russian guy. You’re the lizard. You’re the mad scientist. You’re the cowboy.” It’s kind of exhilarating, and I thought that the first time I did voiceover, and I feel the same now. It’s really fun.

This exhilarated state is kind of like a drug I guess. You get this exhilarating high, and the people are fun. This is a fairly small community of voiceover actors that do the majority of the work here in LA, so these are people you work with and know all the time. It’s great. Then you get in your car and drive to the next one and on and on. You audition for something and try to put your best foot forward, crack the code and figure out what they’re looking for vocally with this commercial or promo or cartoon character, whatever it is you’re auditioning for.

After you’ve done that a lot, which I’ve done it a lot, you go and do a guest appearance on a sitcom, get maybe a scene or two, and the rest of the time you’re sitting around. It just seems really glacially slow and boring. It’s like watching paint dry until it’s time for your part. Maybe I’m just a stimulus junkie, but for me personally, on camera acting never had that high for me. I’m sure there are people who feel that way about being on camera and feel like they get a buzz from it, but I think I just stumbled into a job that is probably about as perfect a job, as I could want. I feel very fortunate and hope that can continue for a long time.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What makes the character of SpongeBob so appealing to kids and adults alike?

Tom Kenny: He’s truly international. There are many countries where SpongeBob plays, and I’m obviously not the person doing the voice because I don’t speak Italian or Spanish or whatever, and that’s kind of a trip for me. This thing resonates with all these different cultures, and it’s kind of cool to think that there are all these guys in foreign countries trying to figure out how to do my tone of voice in Finnish (laughs). I was talking on the phone with the SpongeBob of Helsinki! It was really funny.

I don’t know what it is about the character that gives it that resonance. I think it’s a mixture of what’s elemental in the characters and also there are design and color elements in the physical artistic pallet of the show that are very familiar. It’s kind of deceptively simple, you know? Obviously, if it was that easy, there’d be a whole lot more shows that are as big and long lived as SpongeBob. Much of it is a kind of random harmonic convergence, that even after doing it for fifteen years, I still don’t understand. Do you know what I mean? I can’t go, “Oh. This was the formula that made this show great.” It’s pretty incredible to be a part of something like that … kind of few and far between for actors.

Again, not in a movie star sense, but just in terms of like journeymen bringing home the bacon actors, just making a living as an actor puts you in a very small club. It’s really hard to make your living solely doing acting or writing or “musicianing,” so just to make a living at it feels like an achievement. Then if you’re lucky enough to stumble into something that actually has weight and staying power with people, it’s just a bonus round and such a very fortunate icing on the cake.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you basically “find” SpongeBob’s voice right away?

Tom Kenny: It came pretty easily. The creator of SpongeBob, Stephen Hillenburg, just described the character to me and showed me concept art. This was before he had even taken it to anyone at Nickelodeon. This was something he had in a desk drawer. He and I had crossed paths previously on another animated series, and it was his first job and my first job in animation. A couple of years later when he got ready to spread his wings a little and pitch his own ideas to Nickelodeon with no guarantee they would even air it, he called me and said, “I have you in mind as this character. I think you’re the guy that can channel this little guy.” He described SpongeBob and his personality as being half child half adult, kind of like a munchkin, a Jerry Lewis, Pee Wee Herman and Stan Laurel, childlike but not a little kid in the sense that Charlie Brown is a little kid.

Since he’s not a human being, he doesn’t have to be a hundred percent of anything. SpongeBob and his best friend, Patrick, act like little kids that play games all the time, but he’s also an autonomous person that lives alone in a pineapple (laughs). (In SpongeBob’s voice) So the voice I came up with was sort of adenoidal, a really enthusiastic voice. (Back to Tom) It was really happy. Steve said, “Yes. That’s the voice I’m hearing in my head, but I couldn’t make that sound.” So it came about actually fairly easily, much easier than many things do (laughs). A lot of stuff that has been much shorter lived than SpongeBob has been much harder to land (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’ll bet (laughs). SpongeBob’s pet snail Gary just meows like a cat.

Tom Kenny: You know, I’ve got to get corroboration on this from Steve, but I think that he said that Gary is basically a snail who meows like a cat. For all intents and purposes, he’s a cat. When you live under the sea in Bikini Bottom, a snail would be the closest thing to a cat, kind of moody and off to itself … standoffish sometimes and really affectionate sometimes. Gary is usually wiser than some of the more vocal characters of the show kind of like Snoopy. But he’s a snail of very few words. In fact, he’s a snail of one word, and it’s “meow.”

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you get recognized on the street, Tom?

Tom Kenny: Sometimes I do. The great thing is that it’s usually kids or people who are big enough fans of either SpongeBob or something previous that I’ve done. I’ve been in some culty stuff, not super popular but have really dedicated fan constituencies, so it’s somebody who is really into those things. They’ve checked to see who did that voice or who played that character, so that’s cool. Generally, it’s related to people that like your work. Recently TMZ spotted me in an airport, and it was just the worst feeling (laughs). I was just so disappointed that I was recognizable now. I worked hard to keep all that stuff out of my life.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I believe that reports of your death were also greatly exaggerated.

Tom Kenny: Oh yeah. That has happened a couple of times. The Tom Kenny death hoax has happened twice. In fact, the last one, which I think was this past September, is still kind of flying around out there. My publicist asked me if I wanted to issue a statement like, “Contrary to reports, I’m very much alive.” I said, “Nah. Don’t worry about it.” It’s funny. Some people still think it’s true and are very surprised when they run into me because I’m supposed to be gone from this world (laughs).

They say, “I’m glad you’re not dead, man. You are my childhood.” I’ve been doing this long enough because kids in their 20s and older actually say that. But that’s really a cool thing to have somebody say to you. They have these warm fuzzies and all these memories because cartoons were obviously a big enough force in their youth. That’s really a heartwarming compliment. It’s nice, though, to have relative anonymity. There’s a show called Adventure Time on the Cartoon Network that’s starting to blow up and get quite big, not SpongeBob big yet, but I can kind of see it gathering steam which doesn’t happen on most shows. It has an intense fan base that really love it.

In this business, I like that the character can become famous, and you can get a little juice and hopefully make a living as an actor. That’s not as distasteful to me as being on a sitcom or having to be on a movie location for months at a time being away from my wife and kids. Voiceover guys say the best part of this job is that you’re home for dinner every night. There aren’t many places in show business where you can have that, so when these TMZ guys followed me around the airport, I just felt like something had died inside of me (laughs). I thought, “Oh no. I’m now recognizable. Dammit! I’m successful. This sucks.”

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Well, before you get too tuckered out and hoarse this afternoon, perhaps I should ask SpongeBob a few questions.

Tom Kenny: That’s okay. You’re fun to talk to. I hope I’m not taking up too much of your time.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): This has been great fun, Tom.

Tom Kenny: You’re helping me work some things out (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Like a therapy type thing?

Tom Kenny: Exactly. I feel like I’ve got my shrink on the phone, and you’re charging me by the hour (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Feel free to bend my ear anytime.

Tom Kenny: Twenty-four hours a day? Hi Melissa, Tom calling, I don’t know what time it is there in Birmingham, but …

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Two hours ahead of you (laughs).

Tom Kenny: I was just in Chicago because my wife’s family’s there, and we did Thanksgiving. Then I went on to the Mall of America in Minneapolis to do a live SpongeBob music concert doing songs from the album. We had a huge band and girl backup singers. It was really fun.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Where do you spend Christmas?

Tom Kenny: We do Christmas in LA and then post Christmas with my mom and siblings in Syracuse, New York. We travel around and spread ourselves pretty thin. My wife and I both come from large families, so everybody coming out here is not really an option. Mohammed has to go to the mountain so to speak. I guess that would make us Mohammed and our families the mountain.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’m sure it’s tiring, but very worth the time and effort.

Tom Kenny: Oh yeah. You want your kids to have a relationship with their cousins, so it’s really fun. Do you want me to channel SpongeBob for the next questions and do a promo for Smashing Interviews Magazine?

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Promo first?

Tom Kenny: Whatever you think. You’re the boss. You’re the driver. You’re my therapist. I leave it up to you.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Okay. SpongeBob, do you like Smashing Interviews Magazine?

SpongeBob SquarePants: Sure. So all you smart, smart readers, this is SpongeBob SquarePants. “Meow.” Hey Gary! “Meow.” “Meow.” What am I reading, Gary? What do you think? Smashing Interviews Magazine! I love it! (laughs)

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That was great, SpongeBob! Tell me how it feels to be a sponge.

SpongeBob SquarePants: It feels very squishy (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Would you like to have a serious romance with Sandy Cheeks?

SpongeBob SquarePants: You know, right now Sandy is a girl, and she’s my friend, but she’s not my “girlfriend.” If that should happen in the future, well, I’ll be open to it. But she’s not my girlfriend. She’s my squirrel friend (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you have more than one pair of tighty whities?

SpongeBob SquarePants: I have an entire dresser full of tighty whities. They are all white and all glistening (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What’s your favorite song of all time, SpongeBob?

SpongeBob SquarePants: My favorite song of all time I think would either be “The Best Day Ever” or maybe, seasonally thinking, “Don’t Be a Jerk (It’s Christmas).” (laughs)

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What’s on your wish list for Christmas?

SpongeBob SquarePants: I have two things on my wish list, tighty whities because it’s all about accessorizing, and also I want twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, maybe seventy or eighty Krabby Patties in my stocking. I have to eat them fast because they start to smell funny after a couple of days. Krabby Patties in my stocking! (laughs)

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Thanks for your time, SpongeBob, and thank you, Tom.

Tom Kenny: Melissa, that was really fun. Thanks for asking questions I hadn’t really been asked a million times before (laughs). It’s funny. It’s not like people re-ask the questions as much as you sort of fall into lazy habits. You just have your rote, automatic pilot answer that you rely on.

It’s kind of like your brain and your mouth aren’t even engaged with one another. You’re just doing the thing you’ve been saying for years, and you don’t really have any engagement in it, so it’s nice to actually have a conversation. Thank you.

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