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Tom Kenny, Also Known As 'SpongeBob'

Comic Tom Kenny is the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants, Nickelodeon's animated star of television and lately the movies, too. The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie is now out on DVD. Originally broadcast on Nov. 16, 2004.

30:45

Other segments from the episode on May 30, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 30, 2005: Interview with Tom Kenny; Interview with Donald Kroodsma and Don Stap.

Transcript

DATE May 30, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Tom Kenny discusses being the voice of SpongeBob on TV
and in the new "SpongeBob SquarePants Movie"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of "The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie")

Mr. TOM KENNY: (As SpongeBob) Can I help you with something, sir?

Mr. ALEC BALDWIN: (As Dennis) Name's Dennis. I've been hired to exterminate
you.

Mr. KENNY: (As SpongeBob) You're gonna exterminate us?

(Soundbite of music; SpongeBob and Patrick laughing; sighs)

GROSS: SpongeBob and his dimwitted starfish friend Patrick face a hit man,
voiced by Alec Baldwin, in "The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie," which is now out
on DVD. This animated film is based on the "SpongeBob SquarePants" TV series,
which is set at the bottom of the ocean and stars a sponge along with his sea
creature buddies and sea monster foes. The series premiered on Nickelodeon in
1999 and became the number-one kids show on broadcast and cable TV. The new
season started earlier this month. Both the movie and the TV series were
created by Stephen Hillenburg. My guest, Tom Kenny, does the voice of
SpongeBob and several of the film's minor characters. He's also a stand-up
comic and was a cast member on HBO's sketch comedy series "Mr. Show." He's
done voices for several other animated series. I spoke with Tom Kenny last
fall when "The SpongeBob Movie" opened in theaters.

Let me ask you to describe SpongeBob for someone who's never seen the cartoon.

Mr. TOM KENNY ("The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie"): Oh, wow. Yeah.
SpongeBob SquarePants is a little square kitchen sponge, even though he was
born of sea sponges. It's kind of an accident of nature. But he lives in a
pineapple under the sea, works in a fast-food restaurant called the Krusty
Krab in the undersea community of Bikini Bottom. What else can I tell you?
He pals around with an incredibly dim starfish named Patrick Star, has a
crabby neighbor named Squidward Tentacles, who lives in a giant tiki head next
door to him. He's incurably optimistic and enthusiastic and kinetic, and,
yeah, and he has a cartoon show on Nickelodeon.

GROSS: Now if you're doing a voice for, say, a cartoon animal--you know,
animals make noises, so you can maybe base your voice on, like, a cat's meow
or a dog's bark or, you know, a bear's growl or something. If you're doing
the voice of a human character, humans really speak. If you're doing the
voice of a sponge, there's really, like, nothing in nature to base that on.
So how did you figure out what voice you wanted to use?

Mr. KENNY: Which is actually very freeing in a way, because there's no
template. So, you know, it's kind of a wide open road. But when it came time
to come up with a voice, it was just a matter of finding a voice that was
childlike and maybe childish, but not a child, non-age specific, enthusiastic
and just kind of weird. And we finally settled on this elfish helium--(as
SpongeBob) `helium voice that SpongeBob wound up being.'

(Soundbite of Kenny laughing as SpongeBob)

Mr. KENNY: And, you know, this weird--you know, that was the fun part, was
before it was even a pitch or even a show and we were just, you know, sitting
in coffee shops irritating people at other tables going, `You know, what would
he laugh like? What would his laugh be like? And, you know, how about a
dolphin? How about kind of like a dolphin, that--(laughs like SpongeBob) like
Flipper used to do?' `Yeah, that's good.' And, you know, it was really a
blast.

GROSS: You mentioned, like, the voice sounds as if it's on helium. Have you
ever inhaled helium to see what it would do to your voice?

Mr. KENNY: (Laughs) You know, it's funny you should mention that. In the
seven-minute pilot episode that we did, which as far as we were concerned,
might be the only episode of "SpongeBob" ever made, there was a school of
anchovies that invade SpongeBob's restaurant and, you know, just this big
school of destruct--like locusts, you know, that just descend on the
restaurant and go (makes noises). And Steve Hillenburg actually brought a
tank of helium into the studio and all of us voice actors just--(makes sucking
noise) sucked on it (makes noise). And it was just--that was the pilot. So I
said, `Boy, if this thing goes, we are going to have a lot of fun.'

GROSS: So did it help to hear what your voice sounded like on helium? Did
you learn something about your voice you didn't know before?

Mr. KENNY: Yeah. I learned that I don't really need the helium.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KENNY: (As SpongeBob) Because it's pretty easy to flick that switch and
go right up there.

GROSS: Were there voices you came up with for SpongeBob that you rejected?

Mr. KENNY: Oh, yeah. It's all hit and miss on any animated character in any
animated show. You're trying to dial in a voice that the creator is hearing
in his head. And in the case of SpongeBob and a lot of the shows I've worked
on, really, it's a matter of just letting yourself be dialed in like a radio
or something with the creator going, `OK. No, a little--add 20 pounds. OK.
No, five years younger and, you know, maybe he has a deviated septum. OK.
Yeah.' And, you know, it really is hit or miss. You're zeroing in on this
target. And when it hits, it's pretty obvious. You just know.

GROSS: OK. Could you do that for me? Could you add 20 pounds to SpongeBob's
voice?

Mr. KENNY: Yeah. Which--when he absorbs water, I guess it's (as SpongeBob)
water weight. I have a tendency to retain water, Terry. This is SpongeBob on
a very--I'm feeling very obese and very large today.

GROSS: And make him five years younger.

Mr. KENNY: (As SpongeBob) Oh, make him five years younger? This is SpongeBob
as a child. I am in sponge kindergarten.

(Soundbite of Kenny laughing as SpongeBob)

GROSS: Deviated septum.

Mr. KENNY: (As SpongeBob) Oh, a deviated septum. I don't know what that
means. I'm just a dumb sponge.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Now the movie, "The SpongeBob Movie," is kind of a musical. There's a
bunch of songs in it. You sing a couple.

Mr. KENNY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And one of the songs you sing in the movie is called "The Best Day
Ever." Before we hear it, can you talk a little bit about what it's like to
sing in character?

Mr. KENNY: Yeah. Yeah, that's a good question. Boy, I've never talked about
that before. Some voices really lend themselves to singing, and even though I
didn't really think about it ahead of time, it's just serendipitous that (as
SpongeBob) SpongeBob did. It's pretty easy to sing in that voice. La, la,
la, la, la, la, la, lee. My dog has fleas.

But, you know, there are other voices that I've done where I'm just so glad I
don't have to sing in them. (Makes noise) You know, if you're doing that guy,
there's not a lot of Sondheim-like range that you can tap into.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KENNY: But yeah, SpongeBob really, really is fun to sing as. It's sort
of like a weird mix between, you know, Jerry Lewis and the guy from the
schlock '70s band Styx, you know. It's kind of--(singing as SpongeBob) `Babe,
I'm leaving, must be on my way.' It's very weird.

GROSS: Where do you place that voice in your head?

Mr. KENNY: (As SpongeBob) In my--boy, I would have to say that if I were
going to draw a circle around the target area, it would be somewhere between
my fairly sizeable proboscis and my thorax.

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. KENNY: It's definitely up in the nasal cavity, back-of-the-throat area.
And Bill Fagerbakke, that does the voice of--or it's Fagerbakke (pronounced
fahg-er-bach) or Fagerbakke (pronounced fay-ger-baki)--he's never told me how
to pronounce his name. He says, (imitating Fagerbakke) `Whatever. I'm not
fuzzy. Whatever.' But, you know, his voice as Patrick is just (as Patrick)
is just all pushed down right into his big barrel chest. (As SpongeBob) And
then SpongeBob is way up here.

So it's kind of a neat contrast between SpongeBob and Patrick Starfish.

GROSS: Well, Tom Kenny, let's hear you sing. And this is from the soundtrack
of "The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie," and here's Tom Kenny singing "The Best
Day Ever," a song you co-wrote.

Mr. KENNY: Yes, I did, with Andy Paley, power-pop-meister.

GROSS: OK. Here it comes.

(Soundbite of "The Best Day Ever")

Mr. KENNY: (Singing as SpongeBob) Mr. Sun came up and he smiled at me, said,
`It's gonna be a good one, just wait and see.' Jumped out of bed and I ran
outside feeling so ecstatic, satisfied. It's the best day ever.

Backup Singers: (In unison) Best day ever.

Mr. KENNY: (Singing as SpongeBob) It's the best day ever.

Backup Singers: (In unison) Best day ever.

Mr. KENNY: (Singing as SpongeBob) I'm so busy, got nothing to do.

GROSS: That's Tom Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob and the star of the "The
SpongeBob SquarePants Movie."

So you actually wrote "The Best Day Ever," which we just heard.

Mr. KENNY: Yes.

GROSS: Tell us a little about your approach to writing a song for SpongeBob
to sing.

Mr. KENNY: You know, it was this really fun mental exercise where my friend
Andy Paley and I--and, you know, if you Google Andy Paley, it's insane. He's
produced records by Jerry Lee Lewis and, you know, Brian Wilson and, you know,
all these people. But it was very freeing to just put on SpongeBob's brain
and say, `Wow. Well, SpongeBob is this unbridled optimist. You know, he
jumps out of bed every day and greets the new day with the mantra (as
SpongeBob), "This is gonna be the best day ever."' You know, every day has
the potential to be the best day ever, which is, you know, how we'd all like
to be. And then by the time we walk out the front door, we're beaten into
submission by life.

But yeah, it was really fun and we tried to make the song sound like--you
know, we were trying to figure out who in rock 'n' roll history has been most
in touch with their inner SpongeBob, and--you know, and it's John Sebastian
from The Lovin' Spoonful, you know, div--you know, he is SpongeBob, "Do You
Believe In Magic?" You know, Brian Wilson where--you know, who will write,
like, this beautiful four-minute opus about the wind chime. (Singing as
SpongeBob) `These are my wind chimes,' you know. And it's like, you know,
they sort of have this naiflike, child-man sort of sensibility that is
SpongeBob. So it's like, `Let's write a Lovin' Spoonful/Brian Wilson/"Pet
Sounds," you know, sort of thing with SpongeBob singing it,' and that's where
"Best Day Ever" came from.

GROSS: My guest is Tom Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob. "The SpongeBob
SquarePants Movie" is out on DVD.

More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Tom Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob in "The SpongeBob
SquarePants Movie," which is out on DVD, and the "SpongeBob" TV series, which
is shown on Nickelodeon.

Now you do the voices of several other characters, smaller characters, in "The
SpongeBob Movie." Tell us about some of those characters and the voices you
came up with.

Mr. KENNY: Oh, gosh. Let's see. I've always done--you know, SpongeBob has
a pet sea snail named Gary that meows like a cat for reasons that are never
explained on the show. And I think just 'cause I was around early on, I've
been meowing for Gary for five seasons (meows as Gary). And they still record
all his meows. I go, `You guys have to have a library of every type of meow
imaginable. Why are we still recording them? (Meows)'

(As French narrator) And there's also a French narrator that sounds a lot like
Jacques Cousteau, `And now we see the beautiful manta ray as he swims.'

And Jacques Cousteau is a great hero of Steve Hillenburg's, and rather than
have the usual kind of booming (imitating announcer) `stentorian narrator'
that you'd see on a cartoon, we decided to have the action occasionally be
moved along by this really, you know, flat-liner Jacques Cousteau-type guy.
(As Narrator) `Three days later, we find SpongeBob SquarePants and his'--you
know, it's this kind of bizarre choice.

And then there's an on-camera kiddie show host that occasionally appears in
live action on the show (as Patchy the Pirate) `named Patchy the Pirate, that
is also me, who's got, like, this sort of chintzy cheap kids show where she
shows "SpongeBob" cartoons.'

GROSS: So when I see that character, I am seeing you?

Mr. KENNY: That's me. Well, you're seeing me with, like, a patch and a beard
and a hat.

GROSS: And a wig maybe?

Mr. KENNY: And a wig. Definitely a wig. And a wooden leg often, which
doesn't work and is hard to move around in. And actually, after the first
couple of Patchys, we got rid of the wooden leg. But yeah, Patchy's a fun
character to do because he's based on, you know, that local kiddie show host
that we all had in our hometown in the '60s that showed "Popeye" cartoons and
"Betty Boop" cartoons and whatnot that--you know, everybody had that guy. In
my hometown of Syracuse, New York, it was Salty Sam. He had a show called
"Salty Sam's Showboat." And, you know, he was the sailor character that
showed "Popeye" cartoons and, you know, would hold up drawings that kids sent
in. And it was just this neat, vanished world of kid programming that's not
around anymore in the ultraslick current day. And, you know, everybody that
we talked to on the show had that guy in their hometown, or, you know, that
type of guy, and--who is also usually the weatherman on the station and also
would put a hunch in his back and host the monster movie on Saturdays and did
the "Bowling for Dollars" on weeknights. It was--you know, those days were
really great.

GROSS: So what were the cartoons you grew up with on "Salty Sam"?

Mr. KENNY: Oh, man, I was obsessed with Popeye the Sailor Man as a kid. I
think--I don't know--six or seven Halloweens in a row, I was Popeye the Sailor
Man, which, you know, is a pitch that probably would not fly now. You know,
you go into the big Cartoon Network and go, `OK, he's a sailor and his eye has
been poked out and he likes to punch people. What do you think?' you know.
But...

GROSS: `Oh, and the real thing is he eats spinach.'

Mr. KENNY: `He eats spinach...'

GROSS: Wow.

Mr. KENNY: ...`and then he gets strong, and this enables him to punch people
harder and beat them up more completely. What do you think?'

But it was Popeye the Sailor Man. And it was a particular honor for me when
SpongeBob and Popeye shared a cover of TV Guide as they did a series of covers
featuring the top 50 cartoon characters ever. And they had a cover drawing
that was Popeye the Sailor Man drawing his anchor up out of the water, and
it's caught on SpongeBob's underwear, and he's just kind of hanging off the
anchor looking at Popeye. It was a weird kind of--I don't know--like,
full-circle cosmic moment for me.

GROSS: So when you were a kid and you loved "Popeye," did you do the Popeye
voice and that kind of Popeye mumble that he's always doing as he's walking
and thinking?

Mr. KENNY: Oh, I love that, yeah. That thing that Jack Mercer, the voice of
Popeye--you know, he was Popeye for 80 years or something, you know; he was
incredible. And I also loved, you know, the "Looney Tunes," you know, Bugs
and Daffy, of course, and, you know, Bullwinkle and Rocky were huge for me.
And even those early Hanna-Barbera cartoons like "Yogi Bear" and "Huckleberry
Hound" and "Top Cat."

You know, they had--even when the animation was fairly limited, the voice work
was really great. And from a really early age, I was conscious of the fact
that there were grown men whose job it was to help bring these things to life,
and it seemed like a really fun job to me. I had an aunt, a very hep aunt
who, when I was a kid, gave me a bunch of Stan Freberg record albums, like
"History of the United States" and all that. And they had little biographies
of the voice actors on the back of the album, like, you know, Stan Freberg,
June Foray, Daws Butler, you know, people like that, and they were amazing. I
was very aware that there was a guy named Mel Blanc whose name was on every
cartoon, but, you know, pre-Internet--in the pre-Internet world it was kind of
hard to find out about that stuff. You had to sort of feel your way around.
But that only made it more, kind of, mysterious, you know. I liked to--I
don't know, I felt like there was this whole hidden world of cartoons and
voice acting that needed to be uncovered by me.

GROSS: So did you have a sense when you were a kid that you wanted to be a
voice actor?

Mr. KENNY: I did, yeah. I did. And by the time I was a teen-ager, it was
firmly in place. In fact, one of my best friends from first grade on is the
comedian Bobcat Goldthwait, and we met in first grade and, you know, are still
close at 42 years old or whatever. And he reminded me recently of a
conversation that he and I had in high school, like, just, you know, kind of
walking around your hometown where there's no show business and playing this
game of `Whose career do you want?' If you could have anybody's career in
show business, who would you want? And this was probably '76 or '78, and Bob
reminded me of this conversation we had had where he said John Belushi and I
said Mel Blanc. And he said, `Wow, isn't that weird that, you know, you sort
of did it? You know, you're doing the same kind of work that Mel Blanc did.'
And I said, `Yeah, that is weird. Like, I wanted to be an astronaut, and then
I kind of got to go up in space a couple of times. It's cool.'

GROSS: I don't know how Bobcat Goldthwait still manages to have a voice,
because...

Mr. KENNY: Yeah.

GROSS: ...the voice that he does sounds like it would just rip up your vocal
cords.

Mr. KENNY: Yeah, I know. I don't, either. He has vocal cords of steel. He
is more than human. But, yeah, he's--we met in first grade. We went to the
same Catholic school, but we were in separate first grades. And the first
time I became aware of Bob was when the nun that taught his classroom just
dragged him by the ear in to the nun that taught my classroom, and his nun was
crying. And she just threw him into the classroom and said, `I can't take him
anymore, Sister. You have to--this Goldthwait boy out of'--and I said, `Whoa,
I have to get to know this boy who can make a grown nun cry.' It was really
bizarre. And so him and I--he was the only other kid that had an interest in
that left-field kind of, you know, stand-up and sketch comedy.

And when "SCTV" came on the air, it totally blew our minds. And we went to
see Andy Kaufman perform in Syracuse when we were--and, you know, it was cool
to have another person who was into that stuff so you knew that you weren't
crazy, 'cause again--now a kid can get on the Internet and just, you know,
immediately be in touch with, you know, how many hundreds of like-minded
square pegs. But, you know, (in old man voice) `It wasn't that way back in
the '70s. We had to find other nerds to talk to, ourselves.'

There's one really funny memory I have. You know, I was--Bob was the
quintessential fat kid that was the class clown, and I was the quintessential
shy, skinny kid who didn't have the guts to be class clown but considered
himself the class clown's head writer. You know, I mean, `Hey, try this
during math class, Bob. It'll work for you, you know.' (Makes flatulence
noise) `That's a good sound. Try that one.' But, you know, I have a great
memory of us in gym class, and they were picking teams for basketball, and, of
course, Bob and I were both just hopeless at sports and, you know, funny as a
defense mechanism, that old chestnut. And it came down--they were picking
teams, and everyone got picked except Bob and myself and this little girl who
had a hook for a hand. And Bob and I just looked at each other, and the kid,
the captain of the other team, says, `I'll take Susie.' And the girl with the
hook for the hand walked over to play hoops. And Bob and I just looked at
each other and just started laughing, you know, these, like, you know,
fourth-graders just laughing our heads off at how stupid and hopeless we were.

Even now I can't explain, you know, how perfect that moment was where it's
just you and your other nerdy friend and a girl with the hook, and the girl
with the hook goes off to play basketball. And they're going, `Yeah, Tom and
Bob, it doesn't really matter what team they're on; they're just there to make
us laugh anyway.'

GROSS: Tom Kenny will be back in the second half of the show. He does the
voice of SpongeBob SquarePants. "The SpongeBob Movie" is out on DVD. The
Nickelodeon series started its new season this month. I'm Terry Gross and
this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. KENNY (As SpongeBob) and Mr. BILL FAGERBAKKE (As Patrick Star):
(Singing in unison) Now that we're men, we can do anything. Now that we're
men, we are invincible. Now that we're men, we're going to Shell City, get
the crowd, save the town and Mr. Krabs. Now that we're men...

Mr. KENNY: (Singing as SpongeBob) ...we have facial hair.

Mr. KENNY (As SpongeBob) and Mr. FAGERBAKKE (As Patrick Star): Now that we're
men...

Mr. FAGERBAKKE: (As Patrick Star) ...I change my underwear.

Mr. KENNY (As SpongeBob) and Mr. FAGERBAKKE (As Patrick Star): Now that
we're men, we've got a manly flair. We got the stuff, we're tough enough to
save the day. We never had a chance when we were kids. No! No! No! But
take a look at what the mermaids did. Ha! Ha! Ha!

Mr. KENNY: (Singing as SpongeBob) ...(Unintelligible)

(Announcements)

(Soundbite of birdsong)

GROSS: That's the call of the northern mocking bird. Coming up, we listen to
recordings of birdsong with the world's leading expert on the subject and with
a journalist who has written about his work. Also we continue our interview
with the voice of SpongeBob, Tom Kenny.

(Soundbite of birdsong)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Tom Kenny. he does the
voice of SpongeBob in the animated "SpongeBob SquarePants" TV series and "The
SpongeBob Movie," which is out on DVD. The TV series debuted on Nickelodeon
in 1999 and started its new season earlier this month. Tom Kenny is also a
stand-up comic and has done voices for many cartoons, including "Futurama,"
"Powerpuff Girls," "Johnny Bravo" and "CatDog."

GROSS: How did you break into voice work?

Mr. KENNY: You know, fortuitously, I was doing stand-up one night at the now
defunct Improv in Santa Monica, and there was a person from Nickelodeon and
also a person from what was then Hanna-Barbera in the audience. And they both
approached me the same night--It was a showcase--and they said, `Geez, have
you ever thought about doing animated voices for cartoons?' And I said, `Ah,
you know, maybe every day of my life perhaps. Where do I sign?' And, yeah,
that was--it was great. I really felt like, you know, once I did the first
couple of them, the first one or two were extremely terrifying, and then I
felt like I had just found this suit that fit me so well. It was like, wow,
this is what I was looking for. You know, this feels even much better and
righter to me than stand-up does. It was a blast.

GROSS: What is the most devious thing you have ever done with your voice?

Mr. KENNY: (Laughs) Oh, boy. That is very weird. Well, I have to say
occasionally parents who are maybe a little pushy will foist their kid on you
and just say, `This is Mr. Kenny. He does SpongeBob. Do SpongeBob. Do
SpongeBob for Timmy, Mr. Kenny. Do SpongeBob. Do SpongeBob. Do SpongeBob.'
And then you do the voice and the kid just--you know, they're two years old,
so they don't understand why this man with three-day stubble is yammering
SpongeBob in their face. It's terrifying for them. So that's kind of
unwittingly evil on my part, but I sort of get hornswoggled into it. But I
just know that that kid is going to be on a psychiatrist's couch somewhere
down the line. (Imitating psychiatrist) `So tell me again when this sponge
man yelled in your face. And that made you cry?'

GROSS: Have you ever used a voice on the telephone or in real life to get
somebody to do something that you wanted them to do, but you didn't want them
to know that it was you who was behind it? You know what I mean.

Mr. KENNY: Oh, that is a great question, and, boy, I've never been asked
that. There was a time when I was first trying to get stand-up comedy
bookings and trying to book gigs where I posed as my own agent. I
invent--'cause, you know, I was so bad at tooting my own horn and pushing
myself, which, you know, I was just awful at. But, you know, as this guy, you
know, I was able to go on and say, (as agent) `Hey, this is Tim Golden(ph),
and I'm representing a kid who--this kid is--he's dynamite. He's dynamite.
This kid does voices, he does characters. He's very funny. He's headlining
all the clubs and colleges here in the Bay area. He's wonderful.' And, you
know, it was very freeing to be able--I mean, to be somebody else while you're
selling this product.

GROSS: Did it work?

Mr. KENNY: Believe it or not, yes. It actually--I actually did manage to
book a fair amount of gigs that way. And, you know, it was the '80s. There
was this huge comedy boom going on where all you had to do to make a living as
a stand-up comedian was not be terrible. All you had to do was avoid sheer
awfulness and you could make a living. So it's like, wow, you know, I don't
want to set the bar too high, but I think I can be slightly better than awful.
I think I can make a living at this.

GROSS: Do you ever get recognized by your voice, since you don't really use
your real voice in your work?

Mr. KENNY: No, actually, this is a character that I'm doing right now. You
know, this is really hard for me to do right now. You know, my real voice is
kind of just uninteresting and vanilla and, you know, nasal, you know,
Syracuse accent. And you know, if I wasn't able to twist it into various
shapes, you know, I'd be working in a store. Like, I see guys like James Earl
Jones and they've got the voice, they've got that voice and it's what they do.
And, you know, it's a gold mine. You know, if I say Darth Vader's lines, it
doesn't have the same cachet. `Hey, I find your lack of faith disturbing, OK?
I must have those plans.' You know, so--like the guy that does the trailers,
you know, (imitating voice) `In a world where a man's voice goes down at the
end of every sentence'--it's like, wow, that guy really talks like that. I've
run into that guy. That really is his voice. (Imitating voice) `And he
really does do the thing where he goes down, then'--like in promos. You
listen to promos and you realize that it's all about the word `then.' You
know, (imitating voice) `On a very special "C.S.I.: Toledo." Then, on
"Buffy." Then, on a very special "Pretty People in Their 20s," cellulite is
discovered on Sarah.' You know...

GROSS: Have you really met that guy?

Mr. KENNY: I have, yeah. Yeah, man. He...

GROSS: He gets a lot of work.

Mr. KENNY: He's the guy. I mean, there's--it's him. You walk around, you
go, `Wow!' You know, (imitating voice) `Yes, I'm ready for my car now.' It's
like--I love that. You know, like, I can make fun of that, but I can't really
do it, you know.

GROSS: Oh, you just did it.

Mr. KENNY: And you have to be able to reference the word `masterpiece' in
illimitable ways, you know. (Imitating voice) `It's been called a small
masterpiece. Critics are calling it some kind of a masterpiece. It's being
hailed as a masterpiece.' It's like, wow, if everything's a masterpiece, that
makes everything sort of generic. If it's all a masterpiece, it's all--eww.

GROSS: Well, Tom Kenny, it's just been great talking with you. Thank you so
much.

Mr. KENNY: And thank you very much, Terry.

GROSS: What voice was that?

Mr. KENNY: That was--(As Mr. Haney) `That was my Mr. Haney hillbilly voice
from "Green Acres."' I don't know. No, I think that was `I did interviews
all day today' voice. That's phlegm. That's Mr. Phlegm, my new character
that I'm working on.

GROSS: Tom Kenny does the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants. "The SpongeBob
SquarePants Movie" is out on DVD. The TV series started its new season on
Nickelodeon this month. Our interview was recorded last November.

Coming up, we listen to some amazing birdsong with one of the world's leading
experts on birdsong and a journalist who wrote a book about him. This is
FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Donald Kroodsma and Don Stap discuss intepretations of
birdsong
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Why do birds sing, and what are they singing about? My two guests are
absorbed in those questions and get enormous pleasure from listening to birds
sing. We're going to listen with them to some amazing recordings of birdsong.

My guest, Donald Kroodsma, was recognized by the American Ornithologists'
Union in 2003 as the reigning authority on the biology of birdsong. He's
written a new book about the art and science of birdsong called "The Singing
Life of Birds." My guest Don Stap is a nature journalist. His new book,
"Birdsong: A Natural History," is in part about Kroodsma's field work. Stap
is a professor of English at the University of Central Florida.

Don Stap, Donald Kroodsma, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd actually like to start
with birdsong, and what I'd like to do is play the song of the common
yellowthroat. And, Donald Kroodsma, in this recording, we're going to hear it
both ways; we're going to hear it at regular speed, and then we're going to
hear it slowed down to half-speed and then to quarter-speed. Tell us what to
listen for.

Mr. DONALD KROODSMA (Author, "The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science
of Listening to Birdsong"): Well, this is a beautiful yellow bird with a
black mask--in spite of that--called a common yellowthroat. What you hear is
a song with four phrases. And you might call it `witchity, witchity,
witchity, witchity.' Well, once you slow it down, you hear each one of those
notes rising, and sometimes they'll rise, fall and rise very rapidly. Things
will still happen very rapidly, but if you could see this sonogram, see it in
your mind's eye, you would see that sweep up and down very easily.

GROSS: Here's the song of the common yellowthroat. And we'll hear it at
regular speed, and then we'll hear it slowed down and then slowed down even
more.

(Soundbite of yellowthroat birdsong)

Mr. KROODSMA: Fantastic.

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about the chickadee. Donald Kroodsma, would
you describe the chickadee's song before we actually hear it?

Mr. KROODSMA: Yes. It's such a nice, simple song. And in the field guides,
you'll see it described as `fee-be-ee,' but I personally prefer `Hey,
sweetie.' So throughout mainland North America--most of North America, you
hear two main whistles. The first whistle's higher than the second, and
there's a little break in the second whistle, so you hear two syllables:
`Hey, sweetie.' So that's the mainland North America song. But Martha's
Vineyard's song, why, you've got something completely different there.

GROSS: Now do you write lyrics to most birdsongs, like the `Hey, sweetie'
that you just described?

Mr. KROODSMA: No, I don't write lyrics to most of them, but I needed
something so that I could rephrase that lyric to accommodate all these
variations on the Vineyard. So on the Vineyard, we have `Sweetie, hey,' for
example, or `Sweetie, sweetie' or `So sweetie, sweetie' to indicate where
those little pauses are in the main whistles.

Professor DON STAP (University of Central Florida): I'd just like to say one
thing about this, which is Don, referring to it as `Hey, sweetie,' for
instance, is something that naturalists have been doing for a long time
because it was difficult to figure out how to remember what the songs sounded
like. So we can have all these mnemonic devices to remember birdsongs. So
we've got all these--you know, the barred owl says, `Who cooks for you? Who
cooks for you all' is the phrase we use. And what, you know, bioacoustics has
done in the last 50 years, with tape recorders and audio spectrographs, has
made it possible to grasp these songs by looking at them on a graph and not
needing to have to remember how they sounded.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear the black-capped chickadee's `Hey, sweetie'
song? And here it is.

(Soundbite of birdsong)

GROSS: For some reason, that birdsong sounds so in sync with the Western
scale. You know, that bird has perfect pitch. It keeps coming back to the
same pitches, and then he changes key (laughs). It just sounds so in sync
with--it sounds like the bird's been taking music lessons. And I'm not
talking about, like, the beauty of the song but just how it kind of fits with
what--fits in with the structure of Western music.

Mr. KROODSMA: Yes, there is one thing you ought to know, and that is the
pitch ratio between the `hey' and the `sweetie' stays constant as he
transposes this song over this range. So it's, really, quite a remarkable
song.

GROSS: Are birds born with songs, or are they taught certain songs?

Mr. KROODSMA: If we could have the answer to one question in all of
bioacoustics, all those of us who study birdsong, I think we would love to
know the answer to that question. Yes, these songbirds, 4,500 of them, learn
to sing just like we learn to speak.

GROSS: In what sense is it similar?

Mr. KROODSMA: It's the learning component. The songbirds, 4,500, they have a
sister group, a very closely related group, and the fly catchers belong to
that group. In that group, the songs are, more or less, encoded right into
the DNA. A young bird does not have to hear anything in order to know how to
sing perfect songs for that species. But for these songbirds--this
yellowthroat, this chickadee that we heard--these are songbirds. They have to
hear from adults, just as we, as people, as children, need to learn our speech
patterns from parents. And young birds babble; young people babble. Birds
have song dialects, and we certainly know that people have these same kinds of
dialects. So striking similarities between how these songbirds acquire their
songs, how we acquire our speech and the parallels between them.

GROSS: Well, on the CD that comes with your book, Donald Kroodsma, that--you
have one track of baby talk. Is that because you wanted to make that
comparison between how certain young birds learn their songs and how babies
learn to talk?

Mr. KROODSMA: Yes. I love that comparison. We can listen to that track of
my daughter when she was about a year and a half old. She's uttering all of
these words in a nonsensical sequence, and we can tell where these words
belong. She uses `bowwow' for `dog'; `ditty' for `kitty.' `We-we-we'--and
she hears the little piggy's homeward cry in the story that we've told to her
over and over. And then you look at the song graphs or the sonograms for the
adult wren and compare what the baby wren does, and you see this same kind of
nonsensical sequence. Everything is taken out of context. The youngster is
just babbling away, practicing everything. So my daughter and this young
wren, these young songbirds, are doing exactly the same thing.

GROSS: Well, let's start with your daughter (laughs). Here's your daughter
babbling at a year and a half.

(Soundbite of CD)

Kroodsma's Daughter: Bowbow, bowwow, bowwow. We-we-we. Happy. Mama, wa,
wa, da, da, da, daddy. Daddy. Wa-wa, wa-wa. We, de, de. Ay, de, de.

GROSS: OK. And why don't we now hear the adult wren and then the baby wren.
What should we be listening for, Donald Kroodsma?

Mr. KROODSMA: Oh, with the adult wren, you'll hear four songs, and they are
sharp and crisp. And this adult knows exactly what he's doing. And he'll
sing one of these songs up to 50 times in a row, then he'll go to another wren
and sing that one 50 times in a row. But we're hearing just one examples of
each of these long series. Then you listen to the young bird, and you hear
this amorphous babbling and the little bits that will eventually become the
adult song. They're all taken out of sequence. There's--one is sung before
the other. They're strung together in this long sequence, very unlike the
sharp, crisp singing of the adult.

GROSS: OK, let's start with the adult wren.

(Soundbite of adult wren's birdsong)

GROSS: OK, that was the adult wren. And let's hear the baby wren, who is
just learning how to sing. And this is kind of like a babbling baby. It
doesn't--it's a little, well, nonsensical.

(Soundbite of baby wren's birdsong)

GROSS: So, OK, we just heard the baby bewick wren imitating, not perfectly
yet, what he's heard the adults sing. You actually had a breakthrough in
studying wrens. You learned that they don't necessarily learn to sing from
their fathers. They might learn from their neighbors. Can you talk a little
bit about that breakthrough?

Mr. KROODSMA: Yes. I was a graduate student at the time and looking for a
good research project. And after a lot of reading, I realized that nobody
really knows where a young bird gets its songs. Where, for example, these
bewick wrens that I was studying--`Where does that young male get his song?'
Well, the female doesn't sing. She's the architect of everything the male
sings, but she doesn't actually sing. So the choices for a young male are
either his father or other birds after this young male has left home.

And what I found, after a wee bit of work, banding lots of baby birds, putting
little bands on their legs, following them along as they moved from their
birthplace to where they would settle for the rest of their lives--and this
could be about a mile away or so--I found that these young birds were
certainly capable of learning their fathers' songs. But then they rejected
all of those songs, so that they could sing the songs of the males that were
around them on the territory that they would hold for the rest of their life.
So they had to fit into this new community. Fathers' songs meant nothing in
this new community because, after all, it was a different dialect, and
dialects change over very short distances, up to a mile or so.

GROSS: Well, let's hear another birdsong, and I thought we could hear the
song of the barred owl. And some of these sounds sound to me almost like
chimps or roosters. They're really interesting. But before we actually hear
a male-female duet of barred owls, let's start with a recording that just kind
of is simple and breaks it down. Don Kroodsma, what are we going to hear?

Mr. KROODSMA: Well, the first recording that we're going to hear, it's very
simple. There are simply two sounds; the first is by the female, and the
second is by the male. And what we've always known is that the female has a
higher-pitched voice. Even though she is much larger than he is--this is just
the reverse of most birds--even though she's much larger than he is, the pitch
of her voice is a little higher. So the first sound that you hear is a
`you-all' by the female. And the second one is the `you-all' by the male. So
listen for the higher pitch in the first one, the lower pitch in the second
one. And then what became part of my story was I discovered that the female
has much more vibrato. It's a `you-aaaalllll,' and it drags on, whereas the
male just stops short, `you-all.' So go ahead.

GROSS: OK, here it is.

(Soundbite of barred owls' birdsongs)

Mr. KROODSMA: Do you hear the striking difference in both the pitch and the
amount of vibrato?

GROSS: Uh-huh. Well, you want to hear a duet now? What should we listen
for?

Mr. KROODSMA: Sure. Let's listen to a duet. So now that we know the key
difference in how to tell male and female, now you can start to tell, well,
who's contributing and actually how to this duet. So you always listen for
this pitch difference, the higher one being the female. But then when the
sounds are so different, you can no longer rely on the pitch, then you rely on
that vibrato to tell which is the male and which is the female.

GROSS: OK, let's hear it.

(Soundbite of barred owls' birdsongs)

GROSS: That's the duet of the female and male barred owls. My guests are
ornithologist Donald Kroodsma, author of the new book "The Singing Life of
Birds," and nature journalist Don Stap, author of "Birdsong: A Natural
History."

More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guests are ornithologist Donald Kroodsma, author of the new book
"The Singing Life of Birds," and nature journalist Don Stap, author of
"Birdsong: A Natural History."

Donald Kroodsma, I've been choosing all the tracks from the CD that comes with
your book, and there's, you know, like, about 90 tracks on it. I want to ask
you to choose a personal favorite or one that's particularly popular with
people. Would you do that?

Mr. KROODSMA: Oh, my favorites, I think--I always gravitate towards the
thrushes: the wood thrush, the hermit thrush. They are routinely considered
among the most beautiful songs in North America. It's the song of the wood
thrush, and let's first listen to a normal wood thrush singing at normal
speed. And what I'd like to have you hear are these song, little
`bup-bup-bup' notes at the beginning of the song and then a loud, bold,
whistled prelude and then the ending, what I would call a flourish. And that
flourish happens so rapidly that we can't appreciate what's going on. So
let's listen first to the overall details of, oh, roughly 10 songs.

GROSS: OK.

(Soundbite of wood thrush birdsongs)

GROSS: So those were some of the details of some of the songs of the wood
thrush. What shall we hear now?

Mr. KROODSMA: OK. So we heard that loud prelude and then the middle of the
song and then the ending flourish. I want to zoom in on that flourish on the
end because, to our ears, things happen so quickly there that it sounds like
just a blur. But what happens when you pull this song apart and slow it down
to one-tenth its normal speed, it is just exquisite because this wood thrush,
like so many songbirds, uses two voice boxes simultaneously. So he's singing
a duet with himself. And so you can look at the sonogram--and I--these are a
figure in the book--you can see the contribution from his left voice, and you
can see the contribution from his right voice box. And in some songs, the
left and right are tightly coordinated, beautiful sine waves moving in harmony
across the page. But in others, the two voice boxes are quite independent,
and--but whether they're tightly coordinated or independent, the effect is
just really striking.

So in this next recording, what I've done is to present only the left voice
box first--be just a few seconds long, five seconds maybe--then five seconds
of the right voice box. And then you hear the left and the right together in
harmony. So go ahead and play that.

GROSS: OK.

(Soundbite of birdsong)

Mr. KROODSMA: So that was one of those flourishes, if we could pause there
just a minute. So the left and the right voice boxes in that first flourish
are doing something quite different.

In this next one, the left voice box and the right voice are doing pretty much
the same thing. They're beautiful sine waves in the figure, but they're
non-overlapping in pitch. So the first voice box is low-pitched; the second
one is higher-pitched. And you play the two together, and you just feel this
wonderful harmony.

(Soundbite of birdsong)

GROSS: That was really wonderful. That's the song of the wood thrush. And,
well, I thank you both so much for talking with us. Thank you.

Prof. STAP: Thank you.

Mr. KROODSMA: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Ornithologist Donald Kroodsma is the author of "The Singing Life of
Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong," which comes with the
birdsongs CD. Journalist Don Stap is the author of "Birdsong: A Natural
History." Our interview was recorded last March.

(Soundbite of "Bye Bye Blackbird" instrumental)

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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