“What the fuck is this?” I overhear SpongeBob Squarepants say, as we depart a yellow double-decker bus on a summer afternoon in New York City. Even though the bus has the googly eyes and spots of the famous cartoon sponge, this four-letter word isn’t coming from our underwater friend; it’s coming from Tom Kenny, the man who has voiced SpongeBob for the last 20 years. As it turns out, the guy who voices SpongeBob is just as funny as the pineapple-dwelling invertebrate, beloved by children and stoners alike. And he’s lost none of his passion or love for the role in his two decades behind the world famous sponge.
July 17 marks the 20th anniversary of SpongeBob Squarepants’ first episode, and Kenny has been there to see it all. Part of the reason for Kenny’s enthusiasm is because 20 years in the same role is a rarity for any actor or voice actor. “Just to stay sane in this business, you sort of got to always be prepared for things to end,” he explains. But SpongeBob is the exception. After 12 seasons, two movies, and a Broadway musical, SpongeBob Squarepants remains one of Nickelodeon’s most prized franchises. And leagues and leagues below the surface of the ocean, SpongeBob and his friends still have stories to tell. Kenny is more than happy to be a part of telling them.
As we sit down together, Kenny knows my first question. It’s everybody’s first question: “how do you do the laugh?” He raises his flat hand to his throat and begins to tap it right above his Adam’s apple. “I had never done that noise before,” Kenny explains, trying to remember the laugh’s origin. “Something made me do it, like I don’t know why. So much of SpongeBob is kind of mysterious, and I’m the least spiritual person of all time. It just kind of came out—almost dolphin-like.”
The laughs and the memes and everyone’s favorite episodes are all old hat to him at this point, but Tom Kenny remains as enthusiastic as the day this all started. All these components never get old because according to Kenny, this is the dream. As a student of voices and a fan of some of the greatest voice actors in history, playing SpongeBob for 20 years is exactly where he hoped to be. And while he doesn’t count himself among the greats, it’s inevitable—Tom Kenny is a legend.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You’ve been doing SpongeBob Squarepants for 20 years. You’ve voiced so many people’s childhoods, including mine.
People say that, and it’s so meaningful because I was a kid who grew up loving cartoons and thinking the people that did the voices of them all the time. Other guys would fantasize about meeting whatever sports stars or whatever, and I would fantasize about hanging out with Mel Blanc, you know? What if I met Mel Blanc on the street, that’d be awesome. And then when I moved to LA and started doing it, I’d run into voice actors who were like me, except because they were in LA, they looked up Mel Blanc in the white pages and called him up.
And at this point, you’re one of them. I know you did Rocko’s Modern Life before SpongeBob was even a thing.
That was such a special show for me, and my first series—first animated series—where I met Steve Hillenburg, and so many of the guys that worked on Rocko wound up working on SpongeBob. You know, Mr. Lawrence who does Plankton?
He was Filbert. “I’m nauseous, I’m nauseous, oh yes, so nauseous.” Yeah, that was the same guy. I’ve known these people for… Rocko was like 1993? That’s a long ass time to know a lot of these people. The people that design the look of the show were people who Rocko was their first job in a lot of cases.
So you’ve had the chance to impact multiple generations.
Yes. Because it’s tied up with their childhood, you know what I mean? Like they remember, you know, old times, people that are gone, how their lives are changed. Whatever it is, people get really emotional, you know, and I’m an emotional Irish guy, so next thing you know I’m sobbing along with them. But one thing I’ve noticed that people, that makes people crazy, in a good way, is when they see me and Bill Fagerbakke, Patrick’s actor, hanging out, like just socially.
Wait. SpongeBob and Patrick are friends in real life?
Yeah. They’ll see us in a music show and they’ll flip out. I’ve seen grown men reduced to tears. They’re like “Are you SpongeBob?” I’ll go, “Yeah, and that’s Patrick.”
Speaking of music, congratulations on your Super Bowl appearance this year. Did you know that was happening?
I did. I knew that there was a movement, you know, a whatchamacallit, petition to honor Steve Hillenburg by having “Sweet Victory,” the ultimate generic victory power ballad [at the Super Bowl]. People were like “Have you seen this? Look how many signatures this thing’s got.” I’m like “Wow, that would be really cool if that happened.” And then, yeah, next thing we knew, they said “Yay, the NFL half-time people are doing it.” And then ultimately I think a lot of people felt like they wanted a little more SpongeBob in there. SpongeBob just gets you, he worms his way into so many aspects of faith. Like, I’m sure Steve Hillenburg never watched the Super Bowl in his life.
That petition was insane. What do you think makes SpongeBob so universally loved?
The characters are very archetypal, you know. SpongeBob’s the naïve positive guy, and Mr. Krabs is the ambitious guy who only cares about material goods, Squidward is the guy that thinks he was made for better things and he’s stuck with these losers. The thing that I always responded to about Squidward that I kind of found touching is that he kind of would love to be able to play with SpongeBob and Patrick, but he can’t. The characters just are who they are, and I hate how everything in the last bunch of years has to be an origin story.
There’s something nice about this constantly being their story.
Obviously, I’m not mentally ill, I know SpongeBob and his friends aren’t real, but I know that when we’re acting the characters, we always proceed from the place that they are real. We’re always playing it straight as a heart attack, you know what I mean? We’re playing it like it’s Shakespeare.
Have you kept up with all the memes that have come from the show?
I don’t feel like I can keep up with it.
I see them occasionally. I got kids, you know. Teenager and a 21 year old, so they show me stuff, I see them all the time. And yeah, there seems to be just an endless flow of them, and they just keep on coming. It’s funny, I noticed today that a lot of them, a lot of them seem to have to do with feeling like you’re losing control. I feel like that all the time in the current world, you know?
God. You know, Jesus. Just look at a headline. Pick up any newspaper or go to CNN.com and go, “Oh my god, what the hell is happening? I’m so scared right now.” SpongeBob has been taken into the social media age by [fans] and repurposed to kind of embody a lot of their feelings, like existential fears. Just [being a] young person that’s trying to make ends meet and pay off your student loans, and rents are 600 times more than they were when I was in my 20s.
That makes so much sense.
There is something in the fabric of now and in the lives of these people who grew up with SpongeBob that, you know, SpongeBob allows them to label these feelings of existential dread and horror and the world letting you down and your job not being as fulfilling as you had hoped and, you know, just life crap, you know?
Before we end things, if SpongeBob gets another 20 years, how would you feel about that?
Hey, like we talked about, just as a freelance actor, I spend my life feeling like that [exhausted SpongeBob] meme. I’m like “Whew.” You know? Survived another day. Like people go, “Wow, what’s it like having your career?” I go “Oh, it’s really fun. It’s also like a game of Frogger where you just try not to get flattened before you cross the street, you know?” So, it’s been 30 years of me not getting flattened, which is nice. It’s a good damn run.