The “Best Year Ever” for SpongeBob may have gotten off to a somewhat bittersweet start due to the tragic passing of creator Stephen Hillenburg almost a year ago, but the outpouring of love from fans worldwide cemented his legacy. With a Kamp Koral CGI animated spinoff announced as well as another season (not to mention a third movie), SpongeBob SquarePants isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. At NYCC, The Beat had the chance to sit down with SpongeBob co-executive producers Vincent Waller and Marc Ceccarelli and discuss the longevity of the show as well as a particularly unusual working experience with a guest actor on the show.
Taimur Dar: When did you start working on SpongeBob?
Vincent Waller: I was in Season 1 and Season 2, then split and came back on Season 4.
Marc Ceccarelli: I’ve been on it since Season 8.
Dar: How did you both end up taking on producer roles?
Waller: Stand in one place long enough and they put you in charge. We were both storyboard writers working on the show 13 years for me and 8 for you.
Dar: Any show that runs as long as SpongeBob is going to be completely different now than it was at the beginning. The Simpsons is a great example. How would you compare SpongeBob now to the first season?
Waller: The first couple of seasons were animated TV sized and on cell so they look different. Then from [Seasons] 4-9 it was digital so the cells were gone. They looked different. The models were locked down a little more which was a Steve [Hillenburg] thing to lock down the models and cut down on retakes. In the first three seasons there was a lot of animation movement and people flopping around. Having to constantly fix it was getting expense so they locked it down.
Then when we were away on the movie, it was a little less locked down because Steve looked at the expressions and said, “It’s funny!” And he started laughing and the rest is history.
Ceccarelli: I’d say the first few seasons had a kind of loosey-goosey kind of look to it because everything wasn’t really locked down yet. And you could see the individual artists’ hands. You could tell who had drawn that particular scene in the storyboard
Waller: The artists at that point were cleaning up their own board you could absolutely tell who did what show if you knew their art.
Ceccarelli: When we took over, we knew that the fans really liked those first few seasons a lot and we tried to figure out what were some of the things that they did in those seasons that made the show different than what it turned into over the years. And that sort of visual anarchy was something that we really liked and really appealed to us. So it’s something that we’ve really tried to bring back into the show. Sort of just that crazy no holds barred look of the show. And so now we’ve gotten back to a point where we can tell in the finished animation which storyboard artist did that particular sequence. We really like finding individual voices in the drawing end of the show. We like finding people who have a real ability to draw the characters in their own style while staying enough on model so there is enough uniqueness from scene to scene.
Waller: And an affinity for expressions. Show me an expression that I’ve never seen before for this particular emotion. And our crew has been really good at delivering that.
Dar: The Patchy the Pirate Special was announced at the panel. Can you talk a bit more about that?
Ceccarelli: That was something that they wanted to do for the 20th Anniversary. They wanted to do a clip show. The Patchy Special is going to be a clip show where he’s stranded on the island and he’s reenacting sequences from his favorite episodes—
Waller: —for whatever celebrity is stranded on the island and has to suffer the clip show with this slightly crazed pirate.
Dar: So is this all in puppets?
Waller: It starts on land and then goes into the thing you actually want to see.
Dar: I can’t help but be reminded of the ingenious ways The Simpsons handled their clip shows.
Ceccarelli: We’re doing a similar thing. We’re trying to find our own way into a clip show and make it as weird as possible.
Dar: What can you say about the 3rd SpongeBob movie?
Ceccarelli: We really don’t have as much to do with it because it’s being done over at Paramount. It’s so hard just to do all the things we’re doing on our show.
Waller: The last time Nickelodeon basically said, “We want to make a movie but you guys can’t stop production this time.” So we stayed put and they made a movie.
Dar: So do you keep the show fresh without jumping over the proverbial sharks?
Waller: Which we actually did intentionally in the “Shark vs. Pods” episode.
Ceccarelli: We get nervous when we see the same thing over and over again. We’re always our own biggest critics as far as trying to do new things. We’re always pushing ourselves. So it’s not that difficult to go in that direction if you want to see new stuff.
Waller: And we’re lucky enough to work on a show where they let us do that. SpongeBob does come up with cachets so as long as we’re doing things within the realm that they need it to be, we can get as wild as we can possibly get.
Dar: Tim Conway, the voice of Barnacle Boy, unfortunately passed away and Ernest Borgnine, Mermaid Man, a few years ago. Fans love those characters, so I’m curious if you plan to retire those characters are will they still be appearing?
Waller: They’ll still be in cameos but they won’t be speaking. We’re not talking to replace them. There was some talk about Ed Asner possibly doing it, but Steve didn’t want us to do that so we’re not going to. He did come up with the idea of SpongeBob and Patrick cosplaying and becoming their versions of Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy. You will be seeing them from time to time.
Ceccarelli: I like writing those episodes and keeping those characters’ memories alive and finding a new way to do it.
Waller: Who knew that Mr. Krabs was a secret comic book fan? We did!
Dar: There have been some big name guest stars on the show. Any particular favorites?
Ceccarelli: I loved Ed Asner. He played that old curmudgeon in “Whirly Brains.”
Waller: Before the day was out, I had my ass squeezed by Ed Asner! When you take a picture with Ed Asner, he will squeeze your ass right at the moment they take the picture! Thank you Ed, it was lovely!
Dar: At the panel you mentioned that Hillenburg got to see the SpongeBob Musical before his passing, so I’m curious what were some of the last things he was involved in and saw?
Waller: I think the last episode he was at a [sound] mix for was “Pineapple RV.” I was very happy because he was laughing his ass off all the way through it. If we can get him to laugh then I know we’re sitting pretty!
Dar: Was he able to see the Birthday Special with the voice actors playing their respective characters in live-action?
Ceccarelli: No unfortunately, he didn’t get to see it but he knew that we were going to do that. He was really tickled by the idea.
Dar: You have Tom Kenny as the voice director on the series now. You previously had the amazing Andrea Romano as voice director so it’s clearly high caliber. Rob Paulsen is another veteran voice actor he’s stepped into the position of voice directing in Rise of the TMNT, so how did Kenny end up assuming the role?
Waller: We had Andrea on and off for awhile then it was just whoever was running the show. Sometimes I would direct. But coming up with the thought of getting Tom to direct was one of the best decisions we ever made. He comes in there and he’s he’s loaded for bear. He’s studied everybody’s parts, his parts he knows every little effort and thing that we’re going to need in the final product. And he’s just super focused and really good at it. .
Ceccarelli: He’s really funny too when he’s giving directions because he’s such a great improv comic. He’ll he’ll find the weirdest ways to pull a particular performance out of somebody. His. descriptions of the headspace that the character’s supposed to be in will often be funnier than anything that we’ve written. He came from stand-up. You can never turn that off. He’s just like. constantly improving even if it’s just for an audience of three people—us and the recording engineer.
Dar: So what’s next for SpongeBob?
Ceccarelli: We’re doing the spinoff Kamp Koral show which we’re having a blast writing. Putting the characters in this new location freed up the writers and they’ve come up with new ideas.
Waller: They’re not just in Bikini Bottom anymore. Suddenly we have this entire wilderness to play with and all the things that can inspire a story out of that.
Ceccarelli: It’s different dynamics with the characters because they’re a little younger.
Waller: But the comedy is not younger.
Ceccarelli: Yeah, it’s going to be for the same audience. In some ways it may be a bit more subversive because we’re doing the same kind of physical comedy with the younger kids.
Dar: Some animated shows like to have firm continuity while others play fast and loose with it. What’s your approach?
Waller: We play with it and then we mostly ignore it as far as canon and having a through story. The show you’re watching is what you should focus on and how it hooks up to that thing.
Ceccarelli: But we also do like to play with continuity and use that for humor. We pick and choose.
Dar: The running joke of the “My leg!” guy is a perfect example of that, which just had an episode devoted to that character finally giving him a name. How did that episode come about?
Ceccarelli: It was time. [Actor] Doug [Lawrence] is our head writer and that was his character that he’s had for years. Just recently we named the character and have been using him a lot more.
Waller: By that, he means the fans named him and we went, “That’s a good name for him. That’ll work!”
Ceccarelli: So once he had a name, we ended up using him more. That was how far we could push the “My leg” joke.
Waller: When we would do shows and veer away and follow characetrs like Fred we were encouraged to push the camera back to SpongeBob. But it’s been 20 years and everybody realizes that every character is popular. And people would like to follow characters like Patrick around and see what he does all day. [The episode] “Mall Girl Pearl” was the first episode where we literally had SpongeBob in the background and he’s shadowing Squidward.
Dar: Have you considered taking that further and doing an entire episode without SpongeBob?
Waller: I think everybody is ready for the other characters to have their moments in the sun.
Ceccarelli: It’s the SpongeBob show but it’s always been about this community in Bikini Bottom. The performers are so strong and the characters are written so well. There’s a lot of depth to each of the characters. It’s really easy to write humor for these characters because they’re deep and have so many facets to them.
Dar: Have you noticed any changes in the performances since the beginning?
Waller: We were just watching “Suds” and Clancy [Brown] barely sounds like a pirate. He sounds like Mr. Krabs but it’s not [imitates Mr. Krabs laugh]. When Tom started most of SpongeBob’s lines were almost whispery. Now he’s moved back.
Dar: Favorite episodes?
Ceccarelli: I’d have to say that my favorite is the stop-motion Halloween episode because I’ve always been such a huge fan of stop-motion. We were able to do both the Christmas and Halloween episode with Screen Novelties and they’re just amazing. What they bring to stop-motion is the animated their characters in a way that’s almost like 2D animation. There’s a lot of overshoots and squash and stretch with their characters which makes their 3D animation look like our 2D animation.
Waller: “Mimic Madness” has been my favorite since the 10th Season. But we’ve done so many since like “Plankton Paranoia” I just love.
Dar: Last question, what should fans look forward to in 2020 for SpongeBob?
Waller: Lots more great expressions from SpongeBob in 2D and of course the CG that’s come up. We’re going to see exactly where we can go with that.
Ceccarelli: There are a few more 22-minute specials coming up at the end of the 20th Anniversary celebration. Those are pretty special, cray episodes. One of the episodes has a lot of interesting musical moments. Another has a crazy sort of take on amusement parks and what’s underneath them.