While the name Tom Kenny may not ring a bell for many of you, chances are this “Man of 1,000 Voices” has impacted your life through the years. Whether it is lending his voice to a popular television commercial, conjuring up the sound of a new character in a host of classic animated series or bringing smiles to the faces of millions of kids and adults worldwide as the voice of Spongebob Squarepants, he built one of the most unique careers in the entertainment industry. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Tom Kenny to discuss his amazing career and his exciting projects, and to get an exclusive look behind the curtain at the life of a voice-over artist!
Let’s start with a little background on you. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Syracuse, New York. Central New York State, ya know, very far from any resemblance of a career in show business, which I think was good! [laughs]
They say the entertainment is not for the faint of heart. How did you get your start initially?
It’s funny because I always thought of myself as being slightly faint of heart! [laughs] But when it came to this one thing, I had some weird eye of the tiger determination that I didn’t realize that I had until later. At the behest of a very good friend of mine, a very close childhood friend pushed me into doing stand-up comedy at this amateur comedy night that they were having in Syracuse. It was the late ‘70s or early ‘80s and I was still a high school kid. This was well before the big ‘80s comedy boom, so stand-up wasn’t really cool yet. I wound up really loving it! Then before I knew it, I found myself in Boston, San Francisco, making a living for seven or eight years as a stand-up comedian. That is kinda the short version but I have been day job free since 1984! [laughs]
There’s nothing wrong with that!
Who would you cite as some of your biggest influences?
Even when I was doing stand-up, my influences weren’t really stand-ups. I mean, I love George Carlin and people like that but my stand-up probably had more in common with Tex Avery, Chuck Jones and Stan Freberg, who also had an animated component to their careers. In terms of voice-over, Mel Blanc, who is obviously the Babe Ruth of voice-over guys, June Foray, Daws Butler, Don Messick, Paul Frees, people like that were my voice-over idols.
How did you make the transition from stand-up to voice over work? Was it a gradual change or a rapid switch?
Yeah, it was kind of a switch but a little bit gradual. When I was doing stand-up, done here in LA and in San Francisco where I was dividing my time, I auditioned for a show called “Rocko’s Modern Life,” which just came out on DVD from Shout! Factory! Plug, plug! [laughs] I had always wanted to do voice-over, that was my dream career, even more than stand-up comedy. My stand-up career I was glad to have and it sure beat the hell out of working in a cubicle with a tie on, but I didn’t totally, totally love it. Once I started doing voice-overs here and there, I realized that I totally loved it! It was like, “Wow! I am totally falling in love with this career! I want to do this and not the other thing!” I pushed and, although it was kinda gradual, I tried to phase out stand-up and on-camera stuff as much as I could, just because A) I liked the voice-over work better and B) I just thought that it was a better use of my skill set. On camera, I did a lot off sketch comedy shows and made sitcom appearances and stuff like that but you would walk into a room for an audition and there would be 100 guys that looked like you and were just about as funny as you, probably funnier! I just felt like when I was doing voice-over that I had more to bring to the party. There weren’t a million other guys that could do it as well as I could.
You mentioned auditioning for “Rocco’s Modern Life.” What is the typical audition process for one of these animated projects like? Has it changed for you now that you are more established in the industry?
Really it hasn’t changed at all, despite Spongebob Squarepants and all that stuff on IMDB! It really hasn’t changed. You still go in and audition. You sign in, they say, “Go sit over there. Here are the papers. Here is a picture of the character and a description of its personality with a few suggestions of things that they are looking at for the character. Think Mr. Haney from ‘Green Acres’ meets some other obscure character actor!” [laughs] From that you try and twist and turn it and be the one that they like! Which I always think consists of giving them exactly what they want and making them say, “Yes! That is exactly the voice that I have been hearing in my head!” or “Wow! That is really not at all what I had been picturing but it’s kinda cool. Let’s try more of that!” or “Let’s read him for this other character because what he is doing is perfect for this other character that isn’t the one we called him in on.” I find that really fun. I found that when I was auditioning for on-camera work that auditioning process just gave me indigestion, ya know? My stomach would just be flip-flopping. I hated it and just wanted to get out of there! [laughs] With voice-over work, each audition is a sudoku or Rubik’s Cube to be figured out. I really love that! It is basically like going to a batting cage and you just step up and take your swings, ya know? You hit it just often enough that it is fun and the whiffs you just try to forget as soon as possible! [laughs]
I am sure you see a lot of the same faces when you are out for auditions. Is the voice-over industry a fairly competitive business?
In contrast to the on-camera world, I would say that it is friendly competitive. There is a pretty finite amount of guys and ladies that do the majority of voice-over work. When I was first starting out, it was my goal to become one of those guys. It was like, “OK, those guys are the Navy Seals. How long do I have to hold my breath underwater before I can get a chance to join these guys?!” It kinda is like that! It is kinda the four eyed wussy version of the Navy Seals! [laughs] You know, you’ve got Billy West, Rob Paulsen, Dee Bradley Baker, Carlos Alazraqui, Maurice LaMarche, Jim Cummings, Kevin Michael Richardson, Wally Wingert, all of these guys that I know and love and I think that they like me! It is a pleasure going up against them. When you are told that, “It came down to you and Billy West and they wound up going with Billy,” it is impossible to get mad at that because it’s Billy West! He is like the Orson Welles of voice-over! He’s the greatest! So I really enjoy that and probably to the detriment of my show biz career, I was never a highly competitive person. I never had that jock mentality but I guess in this one area, I kinda enjoy grabbin’ a glove and gettin’ in the game! Is that enough baseball metaphors for one interview?! [laughs]
Oh, it’s great! And now we know that we aren’t going to see you in a street fight with Billy West anytime in the near future!
Well, ya know, if it came down to it … I would cut him to get the gig! I would! It would be like “Rebel Without A Cause” at the Griffith Observatory, just me and Buzz swingin’ knives at each other! [laughs] So probably no street fights in our future. Billy works out so he could probably kick my ass anyway!
How did you get involved with the “Spongebob Squarepants” project initially and did you have any inkling that it was going to have the impact that it has on audiences over the years?
“Spongebob Squarepants” was a direct result of “Rocco’s Modern Life.” So many of the guys that began working and crafting Spongebob from the beginning were there because “Rocco’s Modern Life” was their first show and first employment in the animation world, including mine and Carlos Alazraqui, who did the voice of Rocco and would go on to be on “Reno 911” and a whole bunch of other stuff. Steve Hillenburg was there as well as the creative director of “Rocco’s Modern Life.” When “Rocco” ended a few years later, he pitched his new project to Nickelodeon about a sponge that lived in a pineapple under the sea. He remembered me and said, “This is the guy that I want to do Spongebob. I don’t want to have an audition, this is exactly the guy!” So from that first cartoon it kinda lead to the next project. To answer the second part of your question, no way did anyone see this job, we were just happy to be working, turn into a global phenomenon! I was traveling around Italy and Spain, even after all of these years, I still get excited when I see some Italian waitress at a restaurant wearing a Spongebob T-shirt! [laughs] It’s kinda cool!
How much do you get to improvise when working on a project? Does it vary and what can you bring to the table on these types of projects?
Yeah, it does vary from project to project. Every show is different and when you do it for a little while you kinda discover which shows are cool to do heavy ad-libbing on and which shows are cool to do some light judicious ad-libbing on and which shows you need to stick to the script because it is the 25th draft and they don’t want to change anything! [laughs] It really depends on how many colors of pages are in the script. It’s like, “Wow! Goldenrod! I better not ad-lib on this!” [laughs] It does differ but I feel that one of the things that has really helped me out in the career that I have now is having done all that stand-up and sketch comedy beforehand. It helped me become comfortable riffing and ad-libbing. A lot of these cartoons have a lot of singing and music stuff in them and I always played in bands and stuff like that, so that comes in very handy. I guess that gets back to what I was saying about this weird, disparate skill set that I have which tends to be best utilized in this animation/voice-over arena. That coupled with the fact that I just enjoy the hell out of it is a nice, harmonic convergence.
Shout! Factory has been really great about bringing all of the classic Nickelodeon shows back for all of us to enjoy again. We mentioned “Rocco’s Modern Life” and “CatDog” just came out …
Yeah! “CatDog” has always been one of my favorites. That was a crazy show!
As they put these sets out, do you ever get a chance to look back at your career so far and think about how you have evolved in your craft along the way?
Ya know, I am not a big look back at my work kinda person, just because I am always running around doing whatever my current thing is and I have to keep those plates spinning. But now, because I have kids, I will walk in and they will be watching an old “Dexter’s Laboratory” or “Powerpuff Girls” or “CatDog” episode. The TV will be on and you will walk in and be like, “Wow! I remember that! That was that session where we all were cracking up because such and such happened …” or “That guy was a guest star on this! I had totally forgotten about that!” To be honest, it is kinda fun! It is like flipping through a photo album. In terms of how I have evolved, I guess if you have been doing one thing for a long time and you haven’t gotten any better, your stupid and it is probably time to get out! [laughs] So, just by doing it for so long, I am probably a lot better than when I was on “Rocco’s Modern Life.” A lot of that just has to do with confidence and just realizing that you can do it and you figure out the ins and outs of it technically and acting-wise. You figure out the lay of the land. One thing that I have noticed is that my approach and my feel for it hasn’t really abated or changed at all. I am just so glad to have a job that I like! I get to go to work everyday and work with these fun, energetic and visionary creators like Craig McCracken, Pendleton Ward, Peter Hannan who did “CatDog,” Steve Hillenburg and Joel Murray who did “Rocco’s Modern Life” and these voice-actors who are funny, weird, smart and insane in a very benign, functional way! They have figured out how to turn multi-personality disorder into a functioning career! It is a fun thing to do everyday and even after all the years that I have been doing it, it’s great! I may well be one of the last people in America that enjoys going into his job everyday! [laughs] I may be one of the last Americans that has a job!
You have a lot of flexibility when it comes to doing voices. I ask this question of a lot of the actors we interview but I was curious to ask it of an established voice actor. Is there a type of role or genre that you haven’t had a chance to tackle yet that you are on the lookout for?
I have to say that one of the things that attracted me to voice-over as opposed to stand-up or on-camera work is the fact that I could play a wide variety of roles and it doesn’t matter what I look like. I mean, I don’t know what type of roles I would be playing today but back when I was auditioning 20 years ago, it was like, “OK, you are a guy with a kooky haircut and Buddy Holly glasses … let’s put you in the nerd file! If we need a guy on an ‘A-Team’ type show where it calls for a guy who looks like he is really good at fixing computers, we’ll have you audition for that guy!” That would end up being the role you would play! You are kind of a prisoner of your own body. It’s kinda funny because with voice-over, I have gotten the chance to play Iron Man or Captain America or Dr. Octopus! I have played good guys, bad guys, heroes, villains, monsters, comedic characters, nice characters and evil characters. I have gotten to play the straight-laced announcer, like, “Ask your doctor if such and such is right for you!” or on a promo like “Tonight … on an all new ‘Fraiser!’” It is so varied! I feel like I get to access a whole bunch of different vibes and feels. Every work week I get to do six or seven heterogeneous things so I don’t get to feel that frustration that maybe someone feels from playing James Bond or Spock for a million years would feel! [laughs] Luckily I have managed to bypass contracting Gilligan’s disease. [laughs] “I should have never worn this stupid hat and shirt!” [in Bob Denver voice] It’s the tragic side of Bob Denver! “There’s more to me than Gilligan, dammit!”
One of the stranger things I discovered about you was that you were rumored to be dead on Twitter early this year? What was it like to wake up dead?
It’s funny, that happened in October of last year. I remember because I was at a little spooky Halloween train ride here in Griffith Park in LA with my kids. Out of nowhere people just started calling me like, “Are you OK?” or “Don’t go on Twitter!” or “Hey man, did you know that you are dead and the number one trending topic on Twitter?!” At that time, I didn’t even know what a trending topic was and I had to have them define it! Then I found out that I had actually died once before that but nobody told me! So that was my second time dying. It’s kinda weird and kinda fun and definitely interesting because you only have a couple of hours before it is disproven, so it is nice to be able to go on and see what people are saying about you now that you are dead! [laughs] Very bizarre but I guess I joined Jeff Goldblum, Justin Bieber and others in the illustrious ranks of Internet passings!
What advice would you give to someone just starting out on a career in the entertainment industry in any capacity?
Well, I have a couple of capacities! Like I said, I have done stand-up, acting, the voice-over work and I have been a writer on a couple of shows. Ya know, it sounds so trite and cornball but it’s true. Ya gotta come to Detroit if you wanna make automobiles, ya know what I mean? I would say get as many chops in as you can in around your hometown and once you feel that you have hit the glass ceiling where you are from, get to LA and just get in. Whether that is, depending on what you want to do, taking a class on writing, acting, voice-over or whatever you want to do to meet other like-minded people. That was huge for me when I was starting out, realizing that there were all these other like-minded people who were into all the same crazy stuff that I was and kinda knew the secret handshake. Those are the same people that I still collaborate and work with today. They found their way into the industry and found a way to make a viable living at it as well. It can kick your butt! It can be intense. I should say that after “Rocco’s Modern Life” ended, I had a year and a half where I couldn’t book a voice-over. I kept auditioning with no luck and was like, “OK, I guess it’s over!” [laughs] “That was a fun voice-over career that I had for a year! Back to the crappy comedy club that I hate!” But then some other things started to happen. Like the kitten on the poster says, “Hang in there, baby!”
What other projects do you have coming up that we should be on the lookout for?
Well, let’s see! Spongebob is still going strong! It is still rising in the ratings, so it will be around for some time to come! “Adventure Time” is doing really well on Cartoon Network. There is some more “Winnie The Pooh” stuff in the works, where I play Rabbit, so “Pooh” is up and running. There are new episodes of Disney’s “Handy Manny” coming out. I write some of the songs for that show along with some of the songs for “Spongebob Squarepants.” There is also a “Green Lantern” series coming out where I play the bad guy, Zilius Zox. That is going to be coming out in the Fall. “Ultimate Spider-Man,” where I play Dr. Octopus is also going to be coming out in the Fall as well. I am kinda like “Where’s Waldo,” ya know?! Always hiding in the background somewhere!
Anything that you would like to say to the fans before I let you go?
Yeah, thanks for watching stuff and giving a crap about me and the stuff I do! [laughs] All of us voice-over actors appreciate the people who notice that we are here. On the show biz ladder, voice-over people are right down there with the guy who sets up the Tilt-A-Whirl at the carnival! [laughs]
Thanks for taking time out to talk to us, Tom. We will be spreading the word on all your projects and I hope that we talk again very soon!
I hope that we will! Thanks so much for having me!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.