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Tom Kenny, Voice of SpongeBob SquarePants

Former standup comic Tom Kenny is the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants, the star of his own animated series on Nickelodeon. SquarePants lives under the sea in the city of Bikini Bottom where he works as a fry cook at a greasy spoon called the Krusty Krab. The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie opens nationwide Nov. 19.

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Other segments from the episode on January 16, 2004

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 16, 2004: Interview with Tom Kenny; Review of Rod Stewart's "Stardust: The Great American Songbook Volume 3."

Transcript

DATE November 16, 2004 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 new "SpongeBob SquarePants Movie." This
animated film is based on the "SpongeBob SquarePants" TV series, which is set
at the bottom of the ocean and stars a sea sponge, along with his sea creature
buddies and sea monster foes. The series premiered on Nickelodeon in 1999 and
has been the number-one kids show on broadcast and cable for almost three
years. "SpongeBob" also has a devoted adult following. Joyce Millman wrote
in The New York Times, `It's the most charming 'toon on television and one of
the weirdest.'

Both the movie and TV series were created by Stephen Hillenburg. My guest,
Tom Kenny, does the voice of SpongeBob and several minor characters. He's
also a stand-up comic. He's done voices for "CatDog," "Rocko's Modern Life,"
"Futurama," "Johnny Bravo" and "Powerpuff Girls." He was a cast member on
HBO's sketch comedy series "Mr. Show." Here's another scene from "The
SpongeBob SquarePants Movie." SpongeBob works at a greasy spoon called the
Krusty Krab. He's showing Patrick the diner's new promotional car, a giant
hamburger on wheels.

(Soundbite of "The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie")

Mr. KENNY: (As SpongeBob) Feast your eyes, Patrick.

Mr. BILL FAGERBAKKE: (As Patrick) What is it?

Mr. KENNY: (As SpongeBob) The Patty Wagon. Mr. Krabs uses it for promotional
reasons. Let me show you some of its features: sesame-seed finish;
steel-belted pickles; grilled leather interior; and under the hood, a
fuel-injected french fryer with dual overhead grease traps.

Mr. FAGERBAKKE: (As Patrick) Wow.

Mr. KENNY: (As SpongeBob) Yeah, wow.

(Soundbite of hood closing)

Mr. FAGERBAKKE: (As Patrick) Hey, I thought you didn't have a driver's
license.

Mr. KENNY: (As SpongeBob) You don't need a license to drive a sandwich.

GROSS: Tom Kenny, welcome to FRESH AIR.

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

Mr. KENNY: Oh, wow. Yeah. SpongeBob SquarePants is a little square kitchen
sponge, even though he was born a sea sponge. 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.

And then Steve went in and pitched it to Nickelodeon and they liked it. It's
the only job in all the hundreds of voiceovers that I've done that I really
didn't have to audition for. I had the job from the get-go, which was nice.

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--just struck 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) suck on it ...(unintelligible)--(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, the creator of the show has a very definitive idea that he sometimes can't
articulate, because he himself is not a voice actor, of what this character
should sound like. So 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: What was it like for you the first time the voice and the image were
matched up and you actually saw, you know, a little bit of completed animation
of SpongeBob with your voice?

Mr. KENNY: It was really great, 'cause like I said, I had gone over to
Steve's house, you know, even before the pitch was a pitch, and he had
drawings and watercolored paintings of SpongeBob's pineapple house and
Squidward's tiki head house and the Krusty Krab restaurant, which looks like
an overturned lobster trap. And they were just so beautiful. You know, it
was like looking into an aquarium or something. He had--they were just
gorgeous.

And then when I started to do informal focus group testing at my house--you
know, translation: forcing people to drop by to watch my cartoon pilot--`Sit
down! We're watching "SpongeBob"!'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KENNY: The clamps come out of the arms of the chair--(makes noise). But
you know, people really liked it more than they usually like a cartoon,
especially kids. They liked it more than a little bit; they were just
entranced and wanted more. And luckily, Nickelodeon took a flier on it as a
series.

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. (In normal voice) 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
fog-ur-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-barrelled chest. (As SpongeBob) And
then SpongeBob is way up here. (In normal voice) 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."' (In normal voice) 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,' (in normal voice) 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" opens on Friday.

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

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

What were some of the changes involved from going from, like, short cartoon
installments of "SpongeBob" to a feature-length film?

Mr. KENNY: Well, the craft service was quite a bit better. You know, we're a
basic cable show, so even after the show was a big hit, you'd walk in to do
the "SpongeBob" recording, and there's be two brown bananas sitting there that
we'd all fight over, but--you know. When Jeffrey Tambor and Alec Baldwin and
Scarlett Johansson are in the house, there's actually some good chow laying
around.

But the main difference was length of session and, you know, time, the added
luxury of time that in TV animation, the--you know, the turnaround time is so
fast that you do each scene three or four times, and then it's gone; it's
done, you got to move on. And if you're driving home from the session in your
car and you go, `Doh, I should have--oh, it would have been funnier if I--oh,
if only I had'--you can't go'--there's no going back. And with, you know, the
longer gestation period of the movie, we would spend four hours working on a
scene and then come back a couple of days later and do that scene some more.
You know, you actually had time to massage the performance and the comedy
quite a bit more than you do in the accelerated life of TV animation.

GROSS: Can you think of a line that you had to do where you really wanted to
do it over, like, you were driving in your car and you realized, `Oh, I should
have done it this way'?

Mr. KENNY: Oh, you know, that happens, like, with every episode of the show,
and it tortures me to know that that stuff is going to be floating around on
the airwaves for the rest of my life. The same way--like, there are certain
episodes of the show where I can tell that I had a cold or I had--you know, my
voice was raspy from laryngitis or whatever. And you just go, `Oh, man, I
wish I could go back and do that entire episode over again,' you know, like
Spielberg did with "Close Encounters." Like--yeah, you don't have that George
Lucas luxury--(imitating George Lucas) `I think there should be two more storm
troopers in this scene. I'm going to CGI those in, and we're going to release
it on DVD,' you know.

GROSS: Can you talk a little bit about the process of doing "SpongeBob"?
Like, when the voices are done, when the animation is done, are you in a room
with all the other actors? Were you and Alec Baldwin in the same room? Were
you phoning it into each other?

Mr. KENNY: You know, "SpongeBob" is fairly unusual amongst the animated
series, and features for sure, in that it was always full cast. "SpongeBob"
is always done full cast with everybody there standing at their microphones,
like--it's like old-time radio. It's the closest I'll ever get to being an
old-time--you know, that--(Imitates radio announcer) `And "The Shadow,"
brought to you by Blue Coal,' (in normal voice) you know. It's a blast.

And it's a weird mix of right brain and left brain, because Steve Hillenburg
definitely is the big kahuna and, a lot of times, just has every vocal nuance
and eye blink and twitch mapped out to the nanosecond in his mind. And then
other times, he'll just take you off the leash and go, `You know, I don't know
where this is going. Just take it where it feels funny.' So you never know
whether you're going to be doing math or jazz. It's kind of cool.

GROSS: 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--(meowing 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 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.' (In
normal voice) And Jacques Cousteau is a great hero of Steve Hillenburg's, and
rather than have the usual kind of booming (imitating announcer) stentorian
narrator--(in normal voice) 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--(in normal voice) 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, whose 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. We're, like, `Can we just
say that he got a prosthetic? It's hard--I'm sorry. It's hard to move across
the room with this--my leg bound up behind me like Lon Chaney,' you know.

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 would probably 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. I started crying in the grocery store.
That's all I'm going to say, Terry.

GROSS: Tom Kenny does the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants. "The SpongeBob
SquarePants Movie" opens on Friday. Kenny will be back in the second half of
the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KENNY and Mr. FAGERBAKKE: (Singing as SpongeBob and Patrick) Now that
we're men, we can do anything. Now that we're men, we are invincible. Now
that we're men, we'll go to ...(unintelligible), get the crown, save the town
and Mr. Krabs. Now that we're men...

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

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

Mr. FAGERBAKKE: (Singing as Patrick) ...I change my underwear.

Mr. KENNY and Mr. FAGERBAKKE: (Singing as SpongeBob and Patrick) 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 ...(unintelligible) did. Ha, ha, ha!

Mr. KENNY: (As SpongeBob) Patrick, time for some slapping.

(Soundbite of slapping)

(Announcements)

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, becoming friends with Bobcat Goldthwait in the first grade;
we continue our conversation with Tom Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob. And Ken
Tucker reviews Rod Stewart's third volume of great American songs.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Tom Kenny. He does the
voice of SpongeBob in the new animated "SpongeBob SquarePants Movie" and in
the "SpongeBob" TV series, which debuted on Nickelodeon in 1999 and has become
the top show watched by kids. It also has a devoted adult following. Kenny
has done voices for many cartoons including, "Futurama," "Powerpuff Girls,"
"Johnny Bravo" and "CatDog." Tom Kenny is also a stand-up comic. When we left
off we were talking about how much he loved "Popeye" cartoons.

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 along
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 love, 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 is 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, it 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 look 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. 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 a hook, and the girl with
a 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: Do you remember the first voices that you started doing that made you
realize that you could do it?

Mr. KENNY: You know, like I said, I was kind of shy up until junior high
school, and it wasn't until then that I started to kind of step out and think
that, you know, maybe I could be funny in front of more people than my handful
of selected trusted friends. So, you know, I wasn't really wocka wocka
kooky guy in class. I had this secret desire to be, which makes the world of
cartoon voice-over perfect for me 'cause, you know, if you're simultaneously a
little bit shy and also an annoying, irritating showoff at the same time, it's
the perfect gig.

GROSS: Do you have a favorite theme song from all the cartoon shows?

Mr. KENNY: Oh, man, I loved "Top Cat." I thought that that--(singing) `Top
Cat, near invincible, leader of the gang'--you know, that was just such a
cool, snappy, Rat-Packy--and you know, when I was thinking about it, I
realized that all those Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters that I grew up with
as a kid were basically ne'er-do-well con men. You know, Top Cat lived in an
alley, and him and his buddies were always stealing from garbage cans and
hiding from the cops. You know, it's like, `Our market research shows us that
children enjoy grifters. Let's make the cartoon series about'--you know, Yogi
Bear is always stealing picnic baskets. It's like, you know, they were all
con men and crooks. They were all--had this Sergeant Bilko whiff of
illegality about them that I was responding to for some reason.

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

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) When you were young and wise, scratching your
letters in the sand...

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

Now you did a lot of stand-up comedy, too. And what was your stand-up act
like?

Mr. KENNY: You know, boy, I wish I remembered it. It was, I guess, very
kinetic, pop culture oriented, also a lot of stories about just people I had
met or seen or people in my family or--you know, it sort of lent itself--it
sort of was a good stepping-off point for the sketch comedy stuff like "Mr.
Show with Bob and David" on HBO that I later did. You know, just very broad
strokes, very high-energy, kinetic. I would change it a lot, which, you know,
club owners occasionally did not appreciate. (As club owner) `Your act is
different than it was the first show. You gotta do the same thing you did the
first show.' You know, well, I get bored. I don't want to do--I mean, what's
the point if you can't throw some stuff against the wall and, if it doesn't
stick, well, those are the breaks. I don't tell you how many cases of
Heineken to order. Get off my case. But...

GROSS: When I was growing up, all the comics--like, so many of the comics did
impressions, and they did impressions of people who they must have grown up
with, you know, like James Cagney and Al Jolson and then...

Mr. KENNY: Right.

GROSS: ...contemporary politicians like JFK and Nixon were thrown in there,
Ed Sullivan...

Mr. KENNY: ...(Unintelligible).

GROSS: Yeah, right. Everybody had to do Ed Sullivan.

Mr. KENNY: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: Did you grow up with any of that, and did you ever do impressions?
Impressions just aren't what they used to be. Very few people do impressions
in their act anymore.

Mr. KENNY: Yeah, and especially--you know, I was doing stand-up comedy--you
know, I started in '83 or so as a rank open-miker. And to us, I don't know,
maybe we were like snot-nosed little wise guys. But to us, people like me and
Bobcat, like--the impression guys were--there was just something kind of
square about it. There was just something kind of corny, like, `Hey,
here's'--you know, `What if Jack Nicholson was on "Star Trek"?' You know, it
was just some sort of--who cares, you know? You know, who cares. So
impressions were really not of much interest to me, and maybe because I'm not
very good at them myself; maybe it's just sour grapes, 'cause there are
voice-over guys that I work with every day that are just--have the most
incredible ears and incredible radar for doing these uncanny impressions, not
just of huge celebrities, but celebrities that you would think you couldn't do
an impression of.

Like, you know, my friend Billy West, who's like a monster cartoon voice guy,
you know, he was Ren and Stimpy and a bazillion other characters, including
Popeye, currently. But, you know, he'll do a dead-on Charlie Sheen. And
you'll go, `Wow, I didn't know there was enough to Charlie Sheen to do an
impression of. Wow, that's really cool.' And I never had that skill. You
know, my strength was always creating characters out of whole cloth and
looking at a drawing or a picture and kind of figuring out, you know, what
these things might sound like. By the same token, though, a lot of my cartoon
voices that I've actually been hired to do have been the result of my highly
unsuccessful and lame attempts at impressions.

GROSS: Like who?

Mr. KENNY: You know, like--well, I'll do an impression that's so terrible
that it sounds like an original voice. You know, people go, `Wow, we haven't
heard that before. That's very good.' And I'll go, `Well, I was trying to do,
you know, this person or that person.' But--or sometimes they're amalgams,
like the series "The Powerpuff Girls" (as Mayor) `you know, has this
ineffectual mayor of the town. Welcome to Townsville, ladies and
gentlemen'--that's sort of an amalgam of my bad impressions of Frank Morgan,
"The Wizard of Oz," and Joe Flynn, the guy from "McHale's Navy." (As Joe
Flynn) `I'm going to toss you in the brig for this, McHale.' And, you
know--Who was the woman?--Ruth Gordon, you know, in her later years in those
awful movies with Clint Eastwood and an orangutan, (as Ruth Gordon) `Get that
monkey out of my Oreos,' you know. So it was like, there's three horrible,
weak attempts at impressions that actually turned into an employment
opportunity for me.

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, `Jeez, 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 couch somewhere down
the line. (Imitating psychiatrist) `So tell me again when this sponge man
yelled in your face. And that made you cry?' And so it's weird.

And then there's another school of kid who finds out what you do and just
comes up with this sense of demanding entitlement and starts poking you and
going, `Talk SpongeBob. Talk SpongeBob. Talk SpongeBob.' It's weird. And
you just think, (as SpongeBob) `All right, I'll talk SpongeBob. Why don't you
go to your parents and ask them to teach you some manners?' (Laughs)

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's 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, he's done'--you know, I'd make up TV shows--`he's done--you know, he's
won'--you know, I'd make up awards that I--`he has won the Golden Banana Peel
Award for college comedy two years in a row. And, you know, you've seen him
on "Comedy Wagon," a very funny stand-up show that's on with a brick wall and
a microphone.' And you know, it was very freeing to be able 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 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" opens on Friday. The "SpongeBob" TV series is shown on
Nickelodeon.

Coming up, Rod Stewart has another album of standards, and our rock critic Ken
Tucker has our review. This is FRESH AIR.

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

Review: Rod Stewart's "Stardust: The Great American Songbook
Volume 3"
TERRY GROSS, host:

Rod Stewart's "Stardust... The Great American Songbook Volume III" entered
the Billboard Pop chart at number one and continues the career revival of
the British rocker whose career extends back to the late '60s, when he sang
for the Jeff Beck Group and Faces. Like its two predecessors, "Stardust"
features orchestrated versions of pre-rock standards. Rock critic Ken Tucker
considers Stewart's evolution, if you can call it that.

(Soundbite of "S'Wonderful")

Mr. ROD STEWART: (Singing) S'wonderful, 's'marvelous you should care for me.
S'awful nice...

KEN TUCKER reporting:

If you're of a certain age and temperament, you may find Rod Stewart's "Great
American Songbook" series less 's'wonderful than 's'worrying or just plain
's'lousy. The rooster-haired British howler who made classic rock albums like
"Gasoline Alley" and "Every Picture Tells a Story" has become in the new
century just that, a so-called classic rock artist, consigned to oldies or
middle-of-the-road radio stations when played at all. So you might think
Stewart is just selling out by turning his back on rock and crooning to baby
boomers who don't care that his version of "Isn't It Romantic?" cannot compare
with, say, Ella Fitzgerald's or Bing Crosby's.

(Soundbite of "Isn't It Romantic?")

Mr. STEWART: (Singing) Isn't it romantic, the music and the night, a dream
that can't be heard? Isn't it romantic, moving shadows ...(unintelligible)
the oldest magic word. I hear the breezes playing in the trees above while
all the world is saying you were meant for love. Isn't it romantic...

TUCKER: The thing is Rod Stewart has always been willing to do whatever it
takes to prop up a career that commenced with artistic triumphs. His
discography is dotted with half-baked but enthusiastic commercial efforts.
His 1978 disco move, "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?" was as big a hit as a great piece
of music like 1971's "Maggie Mae." And it's telling that in the late '70s, it
was disco, not punk, that Stewart felt more kinship with. After all, this is
the guy who's gone by the nickname of Rod the Mod. Raised poor and rough, a
scrappy soccer player with a scratchy voice, he was always a chaser of
fashion. Outraged nostalgists probably forget that even when he was first
singing "Maggie Mae" and "Gasoline Alley," he was applying eyeliner and tights
for stage performances. What I mean is Stewart has always been a showman, not
a tiresome upholder of working-class authenticity.

(Soundbite of "Night and Day")

Mr. STEWART: (Singing) Night and day, you are the one. Only you beneath the
moon and under the sun. Whether near to me or far, it's no matter, darling,
where you are when I think of you night and day. Day and night...

TUCKER: The current phase of Stewart's career revival follows a pattern
established in 1983 when Linda Ronstadt, having tried to go punk or at least
New Wave three years before with scant success, hooked up with arranger Nelson
Riddle to release "What's New" a glossy collection of standards that went
double platinum and saved her career. She, like Stewart, also followed up
that success with two quick sequels. Subsequently, and with varying degrees
of quality, everybody from Carly Simon to Willie Nelson to k.d. lang were
warbling Gershwin and Hoagy Carmichael.

Stewart's fall-back move was masterminded by Clive Davis, the Arista Records
founder who revived Aretha Franklin's career a decade ago and is still so
canny a selector of material that the winners of "American Idol" go to him for
advice. That I am mentioning Rod Stewart and Clay Aiken in the same breath
suggests what a dim view I take of these proceedings.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. STEWART: (Singing) I've flown around the world in a plane. I've settled
revolutions in Spain. The North Pole I have charted, but I can't get started
with you. And at the golf course, I...

TUCKER: In the press bio that accompanied "Stardust," Stewart admitted that
when he first recorded these songbooks, he told Clive Davis at one point, `I
think we should shelve the whole bloody thing. I feel like a rock 'n' roll
sellout.' Nowadays Stewart is filling concert halls, offering his greatest
rock hits plus a hefty portion of these awkwardly phrased, schlockily arranged
standards. Lots of times, I kind of like this music precisely because Stewart
is so lurchingly mediocre at it. He comes across less as mercenary than
sheepish and desperate behind an album cover that depicts him as a suave,
middle-aged geezer standing in front of a hot-legged, much younger woman.
It's only that whiff of desperation and its accompanying breeze of guilt that
breathes any life into Stewart's deadly determination to sell records no
matter what the cost to the consumer or to his reputation.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is film critic for New York Magazine.

(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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