Twenty-plus years in the game and you’d expect Tom Kenny to be sick of it all.
If you can’t even recognize his name, that’s all another reason he should be. Yet, the man behind cartoon’s cuddliest manifestations glows at the prospect of another twenty years in voice over work. It’s because he can still be a character while being a beer-guzzling, foul-mouthed middle-aged man. He can still be SpongeBob while maintaining Tom the person.
At 51 years, the voice to dozens of highly recognizable cartoon characters is just as human as the next guy. He’s not schizophrenic. He’s paid to be a children’s favorite character one recording session and an A-hole the next. “I feel like I’m 24 until I look at my driver’s license. Then it’s, ‘Sh*t, I’m the old guy who thinks he’s the young guy’,” Kenny describes of his career. With a slew of voices at hand, Kenny reveals the life of a television’s most renowned voice actor, one neurotic character after another.
“Pharrell Williams had a SpongeBob-themed 41st birthday in New York City. I was honored to be invited. Imagine a fancy restaurant on Wall Street decked out with SpongeBob garb,” Kenny recounts of a recent proud memory. In that moment, he was SpongeBob without having to be SpongeBob. “It shows how you can create characters that connect with people long after they turn the TV’s off. Especially when a lot of Hollywood products are disposable, it’s great when characters truly connect.”
Kenny’s filmography includes familiar voices in “The Powerpuff Girls,” “Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends,” “Winnie the Pooh,” “Rocco’s Modern Life,” “Brickleberry,” “Adventure Time,” and “Teen Titans Go!” No, that’s not even half his IMDB page. “I’ve admittedly had a lengthy career for something as uncertain as show biz. Sometimes people are part of a successful show for a few seasons and after that got nothing. It can be a one and done. My job’s been so fun I don’t feel the passage of time. Like, it feels like ‘Rocco’s Modern Life’ was not too long ago but it was back in 1992. It blows my mind,” Kenny recites. Having grown up in Syracuse, New York, an interest in stand-up and sketch comedy prompted the comedian to launch a sketch group with high school friends. Soon enough, he’d grow popular of this endeavor. “It was a little taste of people recognizing you for talents. What if I could parlay that into a living?” Moving to San Francisco for stand-up then LA for shows like Conan O’Brien and Comedy Central stand-up specials, the transition for the soon-to-be voice actor would turn into Kenny’s main source income. “I was happy to let that happen.”
Nickelodeon’s personified lovable yellow sponge may be Kenny’s most acquainted form to the modern audience, yet he enjoys the ability to separate himself when need. Nothing like not being attacked by crazed fans at the grocer’s. “I can still be Tom while being attached to SpongeBob for the rest of my life because luckily it’s a cartoon, not a live-action character. Plus, I just love the character so much so it doesn’t hold me back. There’s a physical distance from SpongeBob.” Kenny has much more in the tank, maybe even getting twice as productive with age:
“So many age groups you can play around with as a voice actor it never gets boring. I’m on ‘Brickleberry’ by Daniel Tosh which is scatological, which I was doing yesterday, not for kids! Then I’m on the ‘The Fresh Beat Band’ which is on Nickelodeon full of joyous, happy faces – definitely for children more so! I get to play pet monkey on the show. Today, I’m on ‘Adventure Time’ with a big Ice King episode with just one other character. Great job – I don’t want to do anything else. I love my gig.”
Down the road, SpongeBob SquarePants 2 is set to hit theaters February 2015. Kenny’s sessions have been recording including songs for the soundtrack. “Spots have been re-written and changed, re-written and changed. That joke could be funnier or that right there can be tighter. Of course, you’re always tweaking to the point you send it off to be fully animated,” Kenny acknowledges of the film’s development. “Expect an interesting guest star the same way David Hasselhoff was in the first film!”
Well into his 50’s, Kenny’s career is far from over. That is, of course, if he has his way. It’s only natural that a next generation of voice actors will someday take over. Kenny’s advice for them: “Characters are separated but without trying some characters can bleed into each other. A minor character on ‘Rocco’resembles SpongeBob now that I think of it,” A little bit of recycling may be involved but your starting point is always your natural voice. There are so many ways you can twist that. The more versatile you can be the more you’ll work.” As for Kenny, it’s as if time stands still when he’s getting paid for being as youthful as ever. “I’m lucky to have this protracted adolescence for so many years. It’s like being in the sandbox. The only downside is if I ever had to have an actual job and be a responsible person, I don’t know what I would do. I can be doing this until I’m 93.”
Stopping mid-sentence, the uber-active million dollar voice realizes he must be in the studio very soon. He leaves with a closing thought that encapsulates the body of his work. “The best compliment someone can give you is, ‘I didn’t even know that was you until closing credits!’ I go to work every day to make rude noises for a paycheck.” He finds joy in just that thought alone.
Catch voice actor Tom Kenny on “Adventure Time” is in its 6th season and “Brickleberry” in its second season. “Wander Over Yonder” has been renewed for a second season.