“Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?” the moderator of the SpongeBob SquarePants panel, Michele Rittwage, asked the eagerly waiting audience at 4PM Friday in the Hyattt Regency VI–VII. “SpongeBob SquarePants!” the audience roared. To everyone’s delight, Patchy the Pirate’s voice called out from the wings, “I can’t hear you!” The crowd was primed and ready as Tom Kenny, best known as the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants, bounded onto the stage. This was Kenny’s first time as an official guest of Dragon Con, but he admitted to showing up with a friend in 2010 and unexpectedly joining a few panels.
Kenny spoke of growing up as a shy kid for most of his childhood. Although he wasn’t the class clown, he was “the class clown’s joke writer.” In late middle and high school, he realized that “being the funny guy gave you street cred,” which helped him conquer his shyness. “I was the shy showoff,” he said.
Often during the panel, Kenny would switch to SpongeBob’s voice or one of his many other characters’ voices. For example, when asked by a young fan, “What’s funnier than 24?” He instantly replied with SpongeBob’s memorable line from the cartoon, “25!” Then he added the character’s signature giggle.
Kenny talked about his love of voice acting and described what it’s like to be living his dream. He always enjoyed doing voices and idolized Mel Blanc. Kenny thought voice acting would be the best job in the world, and it was hard for him to believe that an adult could even get paid for it. Figuring out how to get into the field was hard, though, and took him a while. But the best part as a voice actor is that he’s not imprisoned by his physical reality. “I can be anybody… or anything,” he said. “It’s limitless.”
When the show needed a meow for Gary the Snail, they asked Kenny. It’s amazing how many different feelings he can put into that little, two-syllable word. Patchy the Pirate? Sure. A French narrator (which he based on Jacques Cousteau)? Why not? Kenny is amazingly versatile and prolific.
He treated the audience by singing parts of some of his favorite SpongeBob songs, in SpongeBob’s voice, of course. The ditty’s included “Best Day Ever,” which he co-wrote with Andy Paley. Kenny feels that it encapsulates SpongeBob’s optimistic personality, and he was thrilled when the song was included in the Broadway musical.
Fans were surprised when Kenny mentioned asking Clancey Brown, who voices Mr. Krabs, to come along with him to Dragon Con. Brown declined because he didn’t think fans of the show would want to see him. The audience made it clear that Brown would receive a warm and enthusiastic welcome here at Dragon Con. Kenny promised to do his best to get more of the cast to come along with him next time.
Kenny noted that the cast members are all rather like their characters. The show creator, Stephen Hillenburg, had him in mind for SpongeBob from the start, so he never had to audition, which was a first for Kenny. “[Hillenburg] knew I was kind of hyperactive and positive all the time, and hardworking, and I think he put some of that into SpongeBob.”
What about Bill Fagerbakke, who voices Patrick? “He’s not dumb at all because you have to be really smart to play a character that dumb—but Bill’s really big…and he’s always knocking stuff over,” Kenny said. And Rodger Bumpass, who voices Squidward? “He really is that guy. I’ve been working with him for 20-some years, and he’s still a little mysterious.” The animators have even turned Kenny’s glasses into SpongeBob’s jelly-fishing goggles in the show, and Bumpass really does have a recumbent bicycle like Squidward’s that he rides around Burbank.
SpongeBob’s voice has grown to be like a comfortable shoe that Kenny can slip on with ease. The character’s positivity has changed Kenny’s life and has brought him “so much joy.” Voicing SpongeBob does have its challenges, though. “SpongeBob is very much bipolar,” Kenny said. “It’s over, it’s over, Patrick,” he mourns as SpongeBob. While recording, Kenny has to vacillate between joy and despair quickly, and he also tries to do so in different ways, which he finds physically exhausting. As an example, he gave several wildly different versions of SpongeBob’s infectious giggle.
According to Kenny, the cast members have a great time laughing their heads off during the recording sessions. They also get the chance to add their own spin to the script. After two passes, they do a third take, what Kenny called “the crazy pass.” During that take, they can go off script, add jokes, switch words around, etc. The third take is not only a blast but also often ends up being in the show. This pass, for example, was the one chosen for the episode “Sailor Mouth,” with the naughty words edited out.
Memories of certain moments in the show always make Kenny smile, like SpongeBob’s “Do you like Krabby patties?” and Patrick’s “Is Mayonnaise an Instrument?” He also loves SpongeBob’s “Imagination” comment from the “Idiot Box” episode. “That one really gets to the heart of who SpongeBob is.” All he needs is a cardboard box or a piece of paper to have fun—and to drive Squidward crazy.
Kenny has also voiced many not-so-nice characters, like the Ice King on Adventure Time. “He’s this total jerk,” Kenny said in the Ice King’s voice. While he loved the show and mourns its end, he noted that “nothing is ever gone forever.” He is hopeful that someone will do a reboot someday. With SpongeBob’s infectious optimism, Kenny pointed out that nothing is ever final.
Fans will get a chance to see another side of Kenny as he performs with his band, Kenny & the Hi-Seas, on Saturday night at 8PM in the Marriott Atrium Ballroom. “It’s a fourteen-piece band… classic soul… music that will make you happy,” Kenny said. “We’ll provide the soundtrack for you to have a great party, if you bring your dancing shoes and your sense of fun.” With Kenny at the helm, it’s sure to be a jolly good time. Arrrrr you ready?