Tom Kenny finds his inspiration as the voice of "Spongebob Squarepants" in the retro cool of his '60s childhood
By Carl Kozlowski
Tom Kenny opens the lid of his vintage 1955 Seeburg V200 jukebox and slides a rare 45 rpm record into a slot. A second later, the box is blasting out a tune called "King Kong" by a long-forgotten singer named Big T Tyler who sounds like Little Richard on speed, and Kenny is off and running with a fierce air guitar solo, duckwalking back and forth across the hardwood floor of his spacious Studio City kitchen.
He may be 44, but Kenny is still just a big kid inside. While that might pose a problem for some men, maintaining that youthful spirit has been the key to his entire career as the voice of one of the most famous characters in American kid culture today: Spongebob Squarepants.
Yes, Kenny is living the strange yet lucrative life of being one of the most versatile voices in the cartoon world, portraying the joyful talking yellow sponge as his main gig while picking up plenty of guest role work ranging from an evil robot in "Transformers" to women in "Rocko's Modern Life." It's a living that affords him the opportunity to collect the kinds of things he loved as a kid, as his office space is filled with dozens of volumes of vintage comic books ranging from superheroes to "Lil' Abner" and he even has actual original comic strip drawings from the artists behind "Popeye" and "Dick Tracy."
Yet he also enjoys the fact that he hasn't had to sacrifice his privacy the way that on-camera stars do and the fact his wife Jill Talley not only loves what he does for a living, but is also a voice actress herself.
All in all, he's got the life he dreamed of ever since he was a kid growing up in Syracuse, New York with a best friend who turned out to be famous as well – Bobcat Goldthwait. And with a little luck, it's a career he can ride for a long time to come.
"There's a real prejudice that exists about age in Hollywood, but for me, it's the best job in showbiz because it all centers on your sound rather than how young you look. I get just enough recognition that it's an ego stroke, but it's both a rabid cult following and relative anonymity in one," says Kenny. "It's great because even though I'm 44, I'm often the spring chicken in the room when I show up for a job among the other voice actors."
Kenny grew up as one of five children of an accountant and a housewife who "were a little puzzled by my creativity and were wondering why I was acting like this." Nonetheless, they allowed him to follow his dreams and by the time he was a sophomore in high school, he and Bobcat were talking their way into running weeknight comedy shows at bars across Syracuse.
Despite getting onstage at an unusually early age, he hadn't yet made the move into his eventual specialty in voiceovers. Kenny had never been the class clown, instead finding his niche in making a select group of friends laugh. But in his final years of high school, he started to realize that creating laughter was his destiny.
"I didn't always have the skill, but I definitely had the desire and fantasy. Then I saw the cachet of that and that it was this skill not everybody had. It was as good as being able to throw a football really far," recalls Kenny. "It's that phase when you're a teenager discovering what you're into and I was lucky I had likeminded people. When you meet those few people in high school that are into the same weird things that you are, it changes your life."
Living in a university town like Syracuse gave Kenny a surprising array of cultural opportunities. Spending his teen years there during the late 1970s and early '80s meant he was able to see Steve Martin perform at the height of his standup popularity, to witness Andy Kaufman at his creative peak, and to hear classic "Looney Tunes" animators like Bob Clampett give talks in town.
Rather than going to college himself, Kenny played in a local rock band called The Tearjerkers for two years before leaving to pursue standup in Boston at age 20 – a move that started what he calls "the longest year off to find oneself in history." Eventually he moved to San Francisco with two friends and created a sketch group, because he found Boston's comedy scene was dominated by "jocks" and San Francisco afforded the opportunity to "explore weirdass ideas."
"We moved from Boston to San Francisco because it seemed more hospitable to the kind of weirdass comedy we were doing. One thing that was eye opening to me comedy wise was that I moved there from college and had this dumb kid fantasy that there's revival movie houses and a book store on every corner and the comedy clubs were all intellectual," Kenny recalls. "But no, alpha male comics who were bullies ruled the roost in Boston. In retrospect I can see why they were great, but at the time it rankled me because my friends and I were into weirder, more challenging kinds of stuff. It was much harder to do that than AIDS jokes. Jocks weren't supposed to be doing comedy – jocks had the locker room, I had the club, so I was like get out of here. San Fran is definitely more welcoming of oddball things."
Eventually, he broke off and worked the standup circuit for a decade, earning spots on Pat Sajak's and Conan O'Brien's talk shows.
"I had met club owners through the group, and so I called and asked for my own stage time. I started making a living at standup really fast – making a living at it, like wow, they're paying me money for doing this. Standup was so huge then, that all you had to do was not be terrible to make a living at it," he says. "And you do all right because there were so many gigs – every fish restaurant and bowling alley had a comedy night. If you're a young single guy with an affordable apartment, it was great: $200, $500, couple thou a week. Sure beats the Army for training in life."
However, he never really felt he even knew how to do standup. He hated the club owners, who often discouraged performers from doing new material, and couldn't see himself honing his act into a set 50-minute routine that would never change, either, like many of the road veterans he encountered.
"The way some people could deconstruct it and break it down – write a joke and distill it down like Stephen Wright, distill a joke to its barest essence, I never got the hang of that because it wasn't my passion," he explains. "But I made a good living at it all through the '80s and into the '90s. I did a sketch show on Fox called "the Edge" and I knew Janeane, Sarah and David Cross from standup."
And it was through those connections that he landed the gig that would change his life in more ways than one: a spot in the cast of HBO's groundbreaking sketch comedy series "Mr. Show." He lasted through three of the series' four seasons, having built a concurrent voiceover career that finally took too much time for him to remain in the cast – yet he found a lasting connection to the series through the fact he met his wife Talley on a prior sketch series called "The Edge" and then worked with her throughout "Mr. Show."
"Comedically our tastes are very similar, we laugh at the same things so it makes writing together and improvising together easy, and we pretty much agree on what makes something funny," says Talley. "He's great with the kids because he's a kid at heart, and he never stops working even when he's home. He does funny voices and he does the laundry. He's a Renaissance man, but what makes him great is he's humble."
One thing that doesn't hold an appeal for Kenny is the world of current sitcoms. He grew up on the glory days of '60s television, when he loved shows that had a rather unique twist on daily life.
"I was spoiled by my sitcoms. They were about people with horrible secrets: 'My wife is a witch and no one must find out!' 'I talk to a horse and no one must find out!' 'The guy posing as my uncle is a Martian and no one must find out!'" he says, laughing. "I always fantasized there was a support group for these people where they could open up to each other. I don't know what that says sociologically about the times they came out. We also had shows about outcasts who weren't normal, but they they're the normal ones, like the people on 'Green Acres' who thought Eddie Albert was crazy. Or that the Addams Family was normal. Sorry, after that, 'Friends' ain't doing it for me."
Instead, he finds plenty of creativity in his work on "Spongebob" and other cartoons, which he feels have taken on the mantle of creativity that sitcoms once had.
"I wouldn't say my creative inspiration is on autopilot, and I always read the storyboards very religiously. The creative process is really, corny as it sounds, just like playing – getting into it and being as true to the vibe of each show, whatever that might be," he says. "I was a giant evil robot on 'Transformers' the other day, so getting immersed and playing with the other actors is another big thing. That's the main thing, it's like any acting I guess – the freer and looser in the moment you are, the better your performance will be and the more you'll work."
And so it is that he and Jill have made a life for themselves and son Mack, 9, and daughter Nora, 4, in a spacious two-story home filled with framed posters of such forgotten drive-in classics as "I Walked With A Zombie" and "Running Wild." But it's in two framed pictures in his kitchen, drawings that his grandfather doodled back in 1918, that it becomes obvious Kenny places family above all the trappings of fame.
"I love living in Studio City, it's the greatest, the best. The schools are good, and most of my work at Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and commercials is within 15 minutes of my house," says Kenny. "You want a little bit of "Leave It to Beaver" in your life, you wanna keep the helicopters and shootouts of L.A. to a minimum. We've got our little slice of life, mid-Americaness, but get on the 101 for three exits and you're in freaky Hollywood and we take the kids to the Ripley's museum, the Chinese, the Egyptian. I like that you're sort of cocooning without realy having to cocoon. So we've stayed, dug in and put a bunch of roots and improvements to the house because we figured, let's make a good life for ourselves."