Tom Kenny Reflects on 20 Years as the Voice of 'SpongeBob SquarePants'

Hannah Kotler
Q&A Robert Voets / Nickelodeon

SpongeBob SquarePants at left, and Tom Kenny as JimBob

Happy birthday, SpongeBob!

The fan-favorite Nickelodeon cartoon turns 20 years old this July, and to celebrate, the network is throwing a big bash Bikini Bottom style! A mixed live-action and animated special called SpongeBob's Big Birthday Blowout will air this Friday, July 19, with beloved SpongeBob voice actors playing doppelgänger versions of their characters.

TV Insider had the chance to sit down with Tom Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob Squarepants himself, and ride along a double-decker Spongebob-themed bus for the day in New York City. Amidst Tom's comedic tour of the Big Apple, we got the scoop on the upcoming special, memorable moments from the last 20 years and how the yellow sponge came to be.

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When you started SpongeBob, did you ever think it would make it to 20 years on air?

Tom Kenny: The odds of a show not going and not moving forward are much greater than the odds of a show going forward and popping. And so with SpongeBob, it just started out being a fun gig that I was hoping wouldn’t end after we did the pilot. And then when it became a series, and then the series kept getting picked up, and then there were movies and video games and now it’s 20 years later — I will say it doesn’t seem like 20 years — none of us saw that kind of longevity coming. There’s kind of never been anything like it. I’m 57 years old and SpongeBob is 20, so I’ve been doing him almost a third of my lifespan on earth, and it’s just mind-blowing. It’s incredible, and we’re grateful for it every day.

The cast talks about it all the time, like ‘Man, what a gift we got that actors don’t usually get,’ that you get to play a character that people like and that they want to see more of, and it makes them laugh. It’s all so positive and it’s all good vibes. I think it’s an opportunity that hardly any actors ever get, all because of this idea, this thing that Steve Hillenburg drew on a piece of paper. This drawing that he made conquered the world and kept all these people employed for years. It’s amazing.

Tom Kenny celebrates the 20th Anniversary of the series on a double-decker bus on July 01, 2019 in New York City (Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Nickelodeon)

You have said that you didn’t need to audition to be the voice of SpongeBob and that creator Stephen Hillenburg knew he wanted you for the role. How was it knowing that Stephen trusted you with such a beloved character?

It felt really good. Anybody that’s been hired to do anything on this show over the last 20 years got hired because Steve trusted them. Steve’s a very gentle guy and was a very gentle soul, but he also wanted everything on the show to be right. So if you weren’t the right person for the job, he wouldn’t give you the job just to be a nice guy, because the show’s gotta be the show that he envisions. I guess anybody on the show is there because Steve had that level of trust in them, saw what they did, saw their work. And Steve was a really shrewd guy at putting a team together from the very beginning, not just in terms of the work that you do, but [also] people’s personalities. Steve was all about the team building aspect of SpongeBob. But if he hired you, you could feel really good about that.

Did Steve have a vision for the voice or was it more of a collaborative process between you two in forming the character? Did you add something of your own to the character of SpongeBob?

He had a very definitive vision for every aspect of the show: the voices, the music, the graphics, everything. He thought through every aspect of it, so there was a certain way that he wanted SpongeBob to sound, and he thought of me because I could make that sound. It was a voice that he had heard me do for a really minor character in a crowd scene of Rocko’s Modern Life, the show that he and I met on. And so he said, ‘Remember that guy in that crowd, the guy that sounded like a munchkin?’ And I said ‘Oh, yeah.’ To me that was a total disposable paper cup of a voice: you use it once, you throw it away. And Steve was like, ‘Something like that is how I picture this guy sounding.’ And so I went right there, and it was what he was hearing in his head.

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And any of the other actors that got cast in the show, he picked them because they were the voice that he was hearing in his head. He was pretty brilliant at picking them. Steve was just so certain, and that helped my status. [The network] would say ‘Hey, how about auditioning this celebrity for the lead sponge?’ Steve would go ‘No. Don’t need to.’ And so because he pushed back on stuff like that, he did me a total solid. But really, the reason he was doing that was because I sounded the way he wanted the character to sound. Steve just knew what he wanted the show to sound like, feel like, look like, what the music would be like on it. He’s quite an inspirational figure — he changed a lot of people’s lives, including mine.

And with this special coming up, I know you’re doing live action, which you’ve done before on the series because you play Patchy the Pirate. But what was it like this time getting to do live-action alongside your co-stars for the special?

That was great. SpongeBob has always had a bit of a live action element with those Patchy the Pirate framing devices that we use for specials sometimes. And even that was supposed to be kind of a one-shot thing back in the early days of the show, and then we just kept coming back and doing it. So the Patchy stuff is always fun, but it’s usually standalone stuff, and then with the Patchy segments for this special, David Hasselhoff reprises his role from the 2004 movie as himself. Him and Patchy got to interact, so that was fun to do scenes with David Hasselhoff.

Patchy (Tom Kenny) and Guest David Hasselhoff (Robert Voets / Nickelodeon)

How was that working with David Hasselhoff?

Oh my god, he’s great. He’s off the hook, man. He’ll do anything you want. He’ll do anything it takes — he just wants to be funny. Shooting the live action stuff with the rest of the cast was just so surreal and meta, because we were dressed like human versions of our characters. I’m like a dorky fry cook, Bill Fagerbakke [voice of Patrick Star] plays a dumb Patrick-like customer, Clancy Brown [voice of Mr. Krabs] plays the manager of a diner that I’m fry-cooking at that is kind of greedy and loves his cash register, and so on and so forth.

It was so different from our usual interactions with each other when we always record together. And I’m the voice director, so I’m always putting these guys through their paces in the booth, making them scream louder and faster, but to be there at 7 in the morning and walk out and see Clancy Brown with his pants up to here like Mr. Krabs wears his, it was crazy. We had a ball. I think even the people doing the show weren’t exactly sure if it was going to work, if the animation would, and it actually wound up looking really, really good.

In SpongeBob's Big Birthday Blowout on Nickelodeon, voice actors (l to R): Bill Fagerbakke, Rodger Bumpass, Tom Kenny, Mr. Lawrence, Clancy Brown and Carolyn Lawrence play human doppelgängers of their animated characters. (Robert Voets/ Nickelodeon)

Over the past 20 years, what has been the most rewarding experience out of working on this show?

SpongeBob has given me the opportunity to do so many off-the-wall things that were outside of my skill set. I wrote a song for the Broadway musical, so it’s like ‘Wow, I wrote a song in a Broadway show.’ Last week or two weeks ago, me and Bill Fagerbakke were in the royal palace of Monaco meeting Prince Albert of Monaco. He’s got two little four-year-old twins that like SpongeBob. So SpongeBob has given me so much like that. And then on a personal level, it’s given me this 20-year relationship with these great actors and fun artists that have become great friends. You know, you work at the same place for 20 years, there definitely is a family feel to it.

And then just in terms of the impact that SpongeBob has on people’s lives of a certain age, like kids who grew up with it when they were young and now they’re in their 20s, and there’s the memes, they really have a warm, fuzzy feeling for SpongeBob. Like they love him, and when they meet us, they love us. So it’s kind of like all this warmth and nice, good vibes that when we were making a seven-minute pilot in 1997, I never would’ve dreamed that these things would happen or that all this crazy stuff would go down.

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And one of the heaviest things is you realize the power of humor and silliness to make people smile when their lives are kind of horrible. So a lot of people tell us those stories: ‘I was having a tough time and SpongeBob got me through,’ or ‘I was thinking of doing something drastic and I saw SpongeBob on TV and it made me laugh and it pulled me back.’ There’s a million variations on that that we hear all the time, and I think there are very few actors who get to experience that.

But people just like SpongeBob, and they like the show and they like the world of SpongeBob. The fans are so beautiful, and the interactions are so nice with them. That’s something that I never saw coming. It’s kind of like an unexpected perk of the job—there’s a million of them; they just keep on coming. So hopefully for another 20 years I’m looking forward to a lot of other bizarre, oddball, WTF places that I wind up in because of SpongeBob, because I voice this crazy character.

SpongeBob's Big Birthday Blowout, Friday, July 12, 7/6c, Nickelodeon