You’ve Heard Him Before: An Interview With Tom Kenny
Tom Kenny is probably best known as the voice of SpongeBob on the hit animated children’s series SpongeBob SquarePants. But if you take a second to look at his IMDb page, you’ll quickly realize he’s probably at least one of the voices (if not more) on an animated show you watch. Whether it be Adventure Time or Ultimate Spider-Man, the man gets around, and the story of how he got there is as interesting as it is inspiring. We recently had the pleasure of talking with Mr. Kenny about all this, how he doesn’t miss stand up, and how he really doesn’t care if you don’t know who he is.
When I was looking at your resume, I was blown away because you do so much stuff.
Yeah, I’m pretty ubiquitous (Laughs). Well I guess secretly ubiquitous. I’m like all over the place but under the radar at the same time, which is kind of a weird occupation in bold description.
How did you transition from film and stand-up to voiceover? You know, Shakes The Clown is kind of a cult classic and you were on the sketch comedy shows and everything.
Well it’s funny. It wasn’t so much a transition as, you know, you’re just doing a whole bunch of stuff. And I started doing standup as a standup comedian and sketch performer and wound up being cast in Shakes The Clown because I knew Bob Goldthwait really well from when we were kids and I was working with Julie Brown on stuff. And he was just calling in favors to his friends. So at the time I was doing Shakes The Clown, I was also at that time, a writer on the America’s Funniest Home Videos spinoff America’s Funniest People while Shakes was filming. And I was also doing standup. And I wanted to be doing voiceover but I hadn’t quite broken into that very much yet. It was the toughest nut for me to crack and the one that I most wanted to do. But yeah, the short answer is it wasn’t so much a transition as you’re just kinda doing a whole bunch of things at the same time. You just gotta take whatever work comes along and dance with whatever girl wants to dance with you and feeling glad to be gainfully employed at any one place let alone a couple of different places and having fun learning how to do stuff. Learning how to write on a show and that was enough to make me realize that that wasn’t a direction I wanted to go in (Laughs). And you know, just trying to build a career and decide what your career’s gonna be.
So you always had wanted to be a part of animation?
That was a dream/fantasy of mine since childhood, yes. That was something I was always very interested in doing. And so was the other stuff but that was something I always wanted to do as a kid. I grew up in a place where show business stuff wasn’t really an option. Like there wasn’t anybody to talk to like “how do I break into show business” in Syracuse, New York, you know what I mean? Everybody I knew worked for Courier Air Conditioning or Chrysler Motors or their dad’s plumbing and heating company. There wasn’t really a paradigm to figure out how to do this stuff unlike growing up in Los Angeles or New York or something. So I knew, talking about teenage years here, high school and stuff like that and before that, middle school age; I know that I don’t want to live a conventional life or have a conventional job and I don’t know exactly what I want to do or what format it’ll take or how to do it but I don’t want to be living the conventional day job for the next 50 years. I don’t think I’m cut out for that. But there’s gotta be an angle that can help me escape that. It’s not like Steve McQueen in “The Great Escape.” It’s like this prison of expectations. (Laughs)
Were you always driven towards voice acting or did you want to draw as well?
Well again, what you’re good at kind of dictates that. I mean obviously if I had been able to draw better, a lot better, I’d love to be an animator like people who I feel like are my comedic inspirations… were animators. Like Tex Avery being an influence on what I think is funny as George Carlin is and Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett and all those Looney Tunes guys. And Jay Ward who did the Bullwinkle cartoons. Those are as big a part of my funny influence system, and Mad Magazine and stuff like that, as Bill Cosby is. So I guess you kind of put everything in the Cuisinart of your brain.
It seems like you’re really good at having the kids and adults entertained on basically most of the stuff that you do. A lot of people can’t really do that. Is there a secret to that?
You know, like a thumbnail sketch of being a voiceover person whose not a famous guy is that you work on multiple shows. You want to work on as many shows as possible so versatility is key. The more stuff you can do and the people that are doing the hiring become aware that you can do a number of different types of things and tones of characters and shows, you’ll be the go to guy. And the goal is to be the go to guy. So they go “oh, we’ll just have Tom do it. We don’t need to audition 35 people, just have Tom come in. He can do that.” So the nature of the job is that you wind up working on a lot of different things, different projects that are all intended for different demographics. For instance, in the same day I’ll work on something for Fox 21 or [adult swim] and then you’ll get finished and you’ll get in your car and you’ll drive across town to a studio where you’re doing some PBS Kids show about how sharing is good. (Laughs) You know what I mean? And it’s a different mindset and it’s a different type of performance but they each have their unique and fun challenges and approaches. For me, it’s not so much that I’m good at entertaining adults and kids, it’s just that there’s a lot of different kind of animated shows out there for different ages of people and they all need folks to do the voices. (Laughs) So if you can be the guy that does the adult stuff and the kid stuff and the clean stuff and the straight “side effects may include diarrhea disclaimer” stuff or whatever, it’s a little different than being on a sitcom where like “oh good, I’m on Big Bang Theory. I’m set for life.” It’s you’re more like a session musician. Like there’s this book out now that just came out called
that’s about this gaggle of studio musicians, mostly in the 60′s, that played on pretty much every record that came out. Like rock and roll records, country records, soul records, TV show themes, commercial jingles. So much of it was this handful of people and nobody makes the connection that the guy that played guitar and bass on this Byrds record or whatever is also the guy that played on The Jetsons theme or something. And I consider the voiceover people as being the kind of verbal equivalent of that.
I heard you have the opportunity to do a lot of improv with the voiceovers. Do you have a background in improv?
Well I guess I have a background, not so much a background in like The Second City sense. You know like “give me an emotion.” I’m not so much that kind of improv, although my wife who is a Second City alumnus, has much more of that background. But my background was standup which of course just by default gives you the ability to kind of be by the seat of your pants, just go for it, try different stuff when effed up things happen in the room or whatever (Laughs). And it’s just something that you do without thinking. So everything from that kind of diverse resume that I had going into voice acting really stood me in good stead as a writer, where I go “does it make this funnier if we put this word here and move this to the beginning of the line?” Since I had written for myself and for other places, I felt very comfortable doing that. And you just do it without thinking, it’s just in your skill set. The way like a carpenter knows how to measure a board or something like that. You kind of do it without thinking. And from being in standup I wasn’t shy about trying different things and asking them “hey can I try this?” What’s the worst they can say? “Nah, we got what we want but thanks for your interest.” Or they’ll go “yeah, I do like that” or “yeah that works better” or they go “yeah, okay, we still like the original way better but cool.” You know, whatever. I feel the same way about garage bands I played in when I was a kid and stuff like that. You know, you gotta sing a lot in these shows and learn songs really fast. They’ll go, “We just finished a couple of songs for Adventure Time or whatever and we didn’t want to email them to you too late so can you go out to your car and learn these two songs and record them?” (Laughs) “Okay, let me go out to my car for 10 minutes.” And that comes from, like I said, just farting around with your friends playing Ramones covers when you’re 16. So everything you ever did, it comes in handy and sometimes at unexpected points in unexpected ways. And you’re like “wow, the reason I know how to do that is that I did this other job that I didn’t really think that much of back when I was 24″ or whatever. It’s kind of neat. And now that I’ve been doing it a long time, you can actually look at your mental flowchart and go “oh wow, this connects to this. I didn’t even see it at the time.
Are you still doing stand-up?
No, not for many years. I don’t think I’ve done it since sometime in the 90′s.
Is it tough to let that go?
For some people I think it would be tough to let it go but for me it was incredibly easy (Laughs). It’s amazingly easy. I felt like I’d done it and I knew how to do it and it was never my first love. And I had to come of age during the 80′s comedy boom and say “wow, I think I can do that. And I figured out how to do it. But I wasn’t as passionate about it as I think you need to be. Like some guys, they have to go on stage 4 or 5 times a week or they get itchy palms. I was totally lacking that gene. It was starting to not be as fun for me and I think I was starting to realize that since I didn’t have that requisite passion and love for it that there was only so far you can be able to go with it, if you don’t love it. You know what I mean? If it’s not your passion, you get a feeling after a while, cause it’s not what you love. You can figure it out. And I had fun doing it; I got to go to a lot of places and meet a lot of people and make 100% of my living as a stand-up comedian instead of working in a Dilbert-type cubicle (laughs) but I felt like I was ready to transition into something else. And when the voiceover thing started happening, it was an easy door to walk through for me. I still don’t feel like I was leaving anything behind, you know? If I had to walk away from voiceover I would feel like I was leaving something I loved behind. With standup I felt like I had this skillset I accrued from doing this a bazillion times and I think I can put that in this other arena and have a different kind of job that maybe suits me better. But then there’s like Patton (Oswalt) and you know, people I know like Steven Wright, Robin Williams, Bobcat Goldthwait. They love doing standup. They love to pick up their sword and sally forth into battle, you know? And I was always lacking that gene.
I gotta say, I feel ashamed that I didn’t know this about you. You were Heffer from Rocko’s Modern Life?
Yeah, uh huh. It’s funny. You’re saying you’re ashamed that you didn’t know that. My response to that is A: Why should you know that? Why would you know that? You were probably a young kid when you were watching it. And B: when people don’t know a voice is me, I’m thrilled. That’s a good thing for me. You don’t want is people going “Eh, I can always tell that guy cause everything he does sounds the same.” Then you go “oh fuck, I guess my bag of tricks is running out.” (Laughs) So when people go “you also do this character? You also do this thing?” or “I had no idea that was you” to a voiceover person, that is the highest compliment you get. And it kinda puts the lie to Chris Rock’s bit at the Academy Awards… “voiceover is so easy!” And they gave you a million dollars! No Chris. Do a ride along with me and you would not last through a single day, screaming your brains out as 20 different people. Probably for Chris Rock it is pretty easy ’cause all you have to do is sound like Chris Rock, which is pretty easy for Chris Rock to sound like Chris Rock. This just perpetuates a stereotype that people have that voiceover is just reading aloud off a piece of paper. And the people that I work with everyday that I always call the Navy Seals of voiceover, the guys with the resumes on IMDb that look like mine, people go “well, this guy does a lot of shit. I didn’t know this was all him.” That’s a different deal than being a celebrity that goes in and does like a water buffalo in Madagascar 7 and you just sound like you. It’s definitely an apple and an orange for sure.
I definitely had a sensory overload when I looked at your resume. I was like “no, this is too much information!”
That reaction that you just described, I still get off on that. (Laughs) That is so cool. To me it’s like you’re in the fabric of a bunch of different things that people are familiar with but they don’t know that it’s all the same guy. To me there’s something kinda cool and secret agenty about that. (Laughs)
Well before I let you go, you have a ton of stuff out or coming out right now. Anything you want to promote?
Well talking about that Chris Rock ride along about him passing out after the first day. I mean what’s today? Today is Wednesday so just this week I’ve already done Adventure Time, Spider-Man, Green Lantern, SpongeBob, I’m doing a Comedy Central show called Brickleberry that’s done by Fox 21 [and Daniel Tosh]. And then today is more SpongeBob and then Thursday is a Disney preschool show that’s not out yet called Happy Hugglemonsters. And then, let me look at the calendar here! You know what I mean? (Laughs) And this is like a pretty typical week for me and I say that with all the knock on wood, luckiest guy in the world that I can muster.
And I just got to voice Bullwinkle in a short that DreamWorks is doing. A Bullwinkle & Rocky short that they’re gonna show before some of their features. That probably won’t be till next year at least when it comes out but we just recorded it. But you know, getting to voice match stuff that, I don’t know if Rocko was your cartoon as a kid, but Bullwinkle was that for me. So it’s kind of like this full circle thing where it’s like “wow, this thing that I was obsessed with as a kid that I still think is great, you get to be involved in it now as a middle aged guy here as a grown up.” And it’s like wow, it just flashes you back to every teacher going “you need to concentrate more on your math homework and less on watching those stupid cartoons!” (Laughs) “Believe me, when you get out in the real world, watching cartoons isn’t gonna get you anything! But being good at math is.” So it’s pretty funny.