You might not recognize his face, but you've certainly heard his voices. Tom Kenny has voiced hundreds of animated characters, including villains, robots, monsters, superheroes, zombies, and most famously, a certain yellow sponge who lives in a pineapple under the sea. After nearly 17 years on the air, Kenny's portrayal of the wide-eyed, eternally cheerful SpongeBob SquarePants is still as popular as ever.
"Honestly, my work is a lot like play," says Kenny. "It's got to be one of the best jobs in the world. I feel really, really, really lucky, Powerball lucky, to get to do what I do."
Kenny grew up in Syracuse, New York in what he describes as a "Leave it to Beaver" neighborhood. Most days, he didn't spend an inordinate amount of time in front of the TV. "There were only three channels," he says. "Back then, you might have been able to catch The Flintstones for half an hour when you came home from school, but that would be it until Saturday morning. Saturday mornings were huge."
At an early age, Kenny tuned into the nuances of animation. "I wanted to figure out how cartoons were made," he says. "I was interested in different animators and directors the way some kids are into sports and athletes."
In particular, Kenny admired Mel Blanc, who voiced many iconic Warner Brothers characters like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. Kenny loved doing different voices, too, but couldn't see how it could translate into a career. "Today there are museums and college courses devoted to animation," he says. "Back then, before the Internet, I had to turn over rocks to find answers to my questions. Is that a real job a grown-up can have? I didn't know anyone who did anything like that. My dad was an accountant."
While still in high school, Kenny started a sketch group with his childhood best friend, Bobcat Goldthwait. Together, they took advantage of Syracuse's lax nightclub scene. "If we had been in New York City or L.A. or Chicago, it wouldn't have worked," Kenny says. "In a real city, they would've looked at two 16-year-olds and kicked us out. We had no fear. We'd go to a biker bar and ask if they wanted us to do a comedy show on Tuesday night. And a lot of times they said yes."
As a comedian, Kenny made a name for himself, appearing on Late Night with David Letterman and other late-night shows. "I liked stand-up, but I didn't have the requisite amount of obsession to endure the long stretches on the road," he says. Once he got married, his stand-up days were numbered.
Kenny moved to Los Angeles in hopes of branching out. "I didn't have some big showbiz strategy," he says. "I just wanted to work." He auditioned for voiceover roles but didn't land the ones he wanted. "I had just enough forward movement to keep the hook in my mouth," he says. Instead, he had minor roles in TV shows and appeared in commercials, including a western-themed one for Arby's. "I was a dorky cowboy," he says. "There were all these Marlboro-man types and then me, all tangled up in a lariat."
While Kenny was grateful to be working, he hadn't found his niche. "Voiceovers match my skillset," he says. "It doesn't matter what you look like. When you're auditioning for a nerdy, white dude role in a commercial or a sitcom, you walk in and there are a bunch of guys who look vaguely like you. It's disconcerting. Plus, I still had that Mel Blanc dream in the back of my head."
Finally, Kenny got a voice job on a series called Rocko's Modern Life where one of his co-workers was Stephen Hillenburg, a former marine biology teacher. After Rocko's Modern Life ended, Hillenburg came up with his own idea for a cartoon set in a town on the ocean floor populated with anthropomorphic sea animals. Hillenburg approached Kenny with his concept, and offered him the lead role, having remembered a certain voice Kenny did once for a Rocko's Modern Life crowd scene. "He knew exactly what he wanted and the voice he heard in his head was mine," says Kenny. "I don't think anyone else even read for the part. SpongeBob SquarePants was the easiest job I ever got."
For Kenny, much of the satisfaction he gets from his job is collaborating with others. "It's a collective effort to pull off this illusion of moving drawings," he says. "I work with the most talented, weirdly-creative folks in the industry. Animation is our own little tide pool of showbiz."
In addition to SpongeBob, Kenny lends his voice to all kinds of animated shows. If it's Wednesday, he's working on SpongeBob. "On Tuesdays, it's Adventure Time," says Kenny, who voices Ice King. He's starting a new series on the Disney Channel called Billy Dilley's Super Duper Subterranean Summer. He also plays the father of a family living in space in Disney Junior's Miles From Tomorrowland. "It's the only show where I get to use my real voice," he says.
The variety keeps the work interesting for Kenny. "There's a weird thing that can happen when actors play a ubiquitous, break-out character," says Kenny. "They can start to resent that character. I've never been resentful of SpongeBob. He's a component of my working life but he's far from being my entire working life."
Kenny related to Sylvester Stallone's touching tribute to his "imaginary friend" Rocky Balboa at the recent Golden Globe Awards, calling SpongeBob the best friend he ever had. "I totally get that," says Kenny. "SpongeBob is my Rocky. He's a fictional character who's done right by me."
Kenny doesn't pretend to know exactly why SpongeBob SquarePants has been so popular, he's just glad to be part of it. "From the beginning, it's been intentionally silly and warm and crazy and slapstick and weird and strange and stupid and smart," he says. "For some reason, that combination has resonated with kids and adults."
A whole generation of kids has grown up watching SpongeBob SquarePants since it first aired in 1999. Kenny says he often gets choked up when fans thank him for the role he played in their childhood. "It's a really high compliment," he says. "Whether watching SpongeBob was a way for a kid to escape a sad childhood or just one piece of a happy childhood, I'm lucky to be associated with something that's been such a positive experience for so many people."
Article by Melissa Fales, Story Monsters Ink magazine, March 2016. Photo courtesy of Nickelodeon. Read full article and more at www.StoryMonsters.com
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