Amidst my adventures at Comic-Con, I had the pleasure of chatting with two of the cast members behind one of my all-time favorite Nicktoons, “Spongebob SquarePants”. The longest-running Nicktoon of all time, “Spongebob” first premiered in 1999 and has since aired over 200 episodes, several television specials, two full-length films, and even a few amusement park rides. The two main characters and BFFs, Spongebob and Patrick, are known for their endearing love for one another as well as great one-liners. (My favorite Patrick line of all time may be in answer to Spongebob’s question of why he is mad: “I can’t see my forehead.”)
Tom Kenny and Bill Fagerbakke are the men who bring Spongebob and Patrick to life (respectively). We discussed the latest “Spongebob” episode to air, who they think Spongebob and Patrick would cosplay as, and their most endearing fan interactions!
YH: Could you tell us a bit about the new episode of “Spongebob” that just premiered on July 16, “Lost in Bikini Bottom”?
TK: It’s actually called "Lust in Bikini Bottom". We’ve decided to take “Spongebob” in a more adult direction. [laughs] It’s about Spongebob trying to find his way home after he takes a shortcut. He gets off-track and ends up lost! He runs into some unsavory sea life forms.
BF: That’s one of the things I really liked about the episode, is that it’s a real simple idea. You just get to see what happens with Spongebob as he gets lost.
TK: Yeah, this has happened to me a few times when I was a little kid, because my head was always in the clouds. You would be with your parents somewhere and you would be looking around, and next thing you know -- [gasps] -- I’m lost! This happened whether it was the mall or the state fair. That feeling of panic of [in Spongebob voice] “Oh no, I’m lost!”, that is what that episode taps into, that feeling of panic. You could be a half block away from your house, but if you don’t know that you are, you might as well be in Alaska. You know, how normal people feel if they are sent to Comic-Con.
YH: Were the voices of Spongebob and Patrick based on anyone you know?
BF: My approach to Patrick was really just born out of hearing Spongebob, because Tom was already doing Spongebob. When I auditioned, they played a recording of Tom doing Spongebob (who was called Spongeboy at the time), and they explained that Patrick is his counterpart. I just tried to fulfill that.
TK: Spongebob was a combination of influences that Steve Hillenburg had invoked when he was explaining the character to me. He mentioned munchkins, he mentioned Pee-wee Herman, he might have mentioned Woody Woodpecker -- just a bunch of different animated characters. It was just taking all of those various ingredients and making the right cookie.We were talking about this yesterday at dinner, that a lot of people who want to get into voice-over think that voice-over is the art of doing funny voices, and if you can do a bunch of funny voices, then you are a made man in voice-over. But really, it’s acting. Not to be pretentious, but like an on-camera actor, you want to give the illusion that it’s not acting; you want them to think that this thing on the screen is real.
BF: A lot of it comes from understanding the material. You want to understand what is the best way to inhabit this material.
TK: We also receive really good material, so we don’t feel like we are painting a turd gold, as my father would say.
BF: [in Patrick voice] Haha, he said turd.
TK: [laughing, in Spongebob voice] Well this is my turd interview of the day! But really, it’s just about inhabiting the characters, as Bill said, and making them breathe, whether it’s a superhero show or a funny show.
YH: If Spongebob and Patrick were to come to Comic-Con, who do you think they would cosplay as?
TK: [Spongebob voice] There’s only one answer for me: Mermaid Man!
BF: I think Patrick would come as The Flash. I like the irony there.
YH: Over the years, have you had any interesting interactions with fans?
TK: The fans are really interesting people to talk to. They’re really nice and they’re really open about telling us what "Spongebob" has meant to them and their family's lives. It runs the gambit from where 20-somethings come up to me and say, “My friends and I only talk to each other in Spongebob memes.”Somebody said today that she met her best friend through "Spongebob". She was new at a school, and this one kid cracked a "Spongebob" reference and she got it, and they are still best friends. "Spongebob" brought them together. You meet everything from people who still speak in "Spongebob" speak in their adult lives to visiting sick kids in hospitals. We’ve had Make-a-Wish kids come to the studio. We’ve also met knucklehead frat boys who think Spongebob and Patrick are funny.
BF: Today we met a young adult who learned English through watching "Spongebob".
TK: That’s not the first time I’ve heard that. I’ve met quite a few immigrants who moved here and just watched "Spongebob", and they learned English through osmosis.
BF: About two or three years ago, we did a panel, and sometimes people wait outside of the panel to say hi. This girl who was about 15-16 came up with her mother, and she said that I saved her life. Her mother was crying. She told me that she had suffered horrible depression and that she had attempted suicide, and she said that Patrick would make her laugh. It was the one thing that knew would make her feel good.
TK: What’s interesting is that it’s not an isolated story. I’ve started doing other Comic-Cons this past year besides San Diego, but people come up and will ask for autographs, and they will leave you these notes. And these notes... it’s not like these people want you to call you or anything, they just tell you where they were, how "Spongebob" helped them, and they thank you. It’s heavy. It’s the power of comedy.
BF: We feel privileged to do this. When we go visit kids in the hospital, they want you in there to visit.
TK: Our visits can make them smile and feel better for a couple of minutes, which is an unexpected privilege. It’s really remarkable. You aren’t thinking about that when you are auditioning for the job; you are just thinking about what this animated character would sound like, and then 20 years later, it’s this whole other phenomenon. It’s still new and fresh all the time.
YH: “Spongebob” has been on the air for quite some time. Are you still caught off guard when you read the scripts?
BF: I’m still blown away that people write out scripts after this many years. It’s hard. It’s a challenge.
TK: If you’re a new writer who is coming on a show that’s been around for 12 seasons, you have to find some new angles. It’s always fun to do the recordings and find some new wrinkle they’ve found out. They’re good at it. It’s infinite variations on a theme. If you know four chords on a guitar, you can play a zillion songs. That’s kind of what this is -- we have four chords, and you can mix and match them in many ways.
BF: There’s certainly more freedom than live -action, where maybe you have two chords.
TK: With live-action, you may just have two locations, like the kitchen and the fake outdoors. With animation, if you can draw it, it can happen. "Spongebob" is pretty limitless because of that. Some episodes are just Spongebob, Squidward, and Mr. Krabs hanging around The Krusty Krab like a workplace comedy, and then some of them are these big epic quests like the Spongebob: Out of Water movie.
BF: [to me] Do you ever teach The Time Machine?
YH: Yes, I do.
BF: If you remember the morlocks, that’s who I consider TV writers to be like. They’re toiling away in the bowels of the Earth. They never get to see the sun, they’re just cranking away, trying to keep the show afloat.