At the beginning of the year, Nickelodeon declared 2019 the “Best Year Ever” for SpongeBob SquarePants. Everyone’s favorite nautical friend has come a long way since he made the scene back in 1999. With a spinoff series and a 13th Season already announced, don’t expect SpongeBob to disappear from the airwaves or our hearts and minds anytime soon. At SDCC, The Beat had the chance to sit down with Tom Kenny and Rodger Bumpass, the voices behind SpongeBob SquarePants and Squidward Tentacles respectively, as well as executive producer Marc Ceccarelli. Our discussion ranged from the surreal experience of performing in a live-action segment in the recent SpongeBob Special as well as the legacy and impact of the late creator Stephen Hillenburg.
Taimur Dar: You both have on-camera experience so I’m curious how you adjusted or tailored your performances of your respective characters for live-action?
Rodger Bumpass: It was a very, very unusual situation. For twenty years we have seen each other do our parts in the studio but all of a sudden being on camera in costume and people trying to actually look like their characters was so surreal that I felt Rod Serling would come in at any moment.
Tom Kenny: Yeah. And people like Roger and Clancy [Brown] and Bill [Fagerbakke] and I guess me to some extent and Carolyn [Lawrence] we all had on camera experience you know to one degree or another. But for me one of the things I loved about when I started doing more and more voiceover was being free of your body. You didn’t have to worry about what to do with your hands or what faces you were making or whatever. As long as you could make that sound come anything was fair game.
So yeah it was kind of weird to be back in that style of acting. You actually had to think about what your body, your vessel is doing. All of our live-action characters in the special sound very much like they’re animated counterparts. But it was an interesting mental exercise. [It was] kind of exciting and nerve wracking at the same time.
Bumpass: I spent the entire time trying to look and act Squidward. I really did.
Kenny: Oh, and they pulled it off beautifully, man! When I saw Roger standing behind the little boat with the cash register in it at the Krusty Krab live-action that they built—they basically took an existing diner in California and near L.A. and retrofitted it as the Krusty Krab. Roger standing there behind the register with that Squidward look on his face and his hands on his hips was truly a meta moment.
Bumpass: I even grew two extra legs! I still have some suckers on the bottom of my feet.
Dar: Looking back at other cartoons that debuted 20 years ago, I can’t think of any others that have lasted or have had as tremendous an impact on the world as SpongeBob. I would go as far as to say that SpongeBob is our generation’s Looney Tunes. How would you assess that statement?
Kenny: I’ll take it!
Bumpass: I do that all the time. They’re both short cartoons. I think they should go back to playing our cartoon before the feature in a movie theater just like they used to do with Looney Tunes.
Kenny: Yeah. Instead of 45 minutes of trailers and commercials for cars and soda. Yeah, yeah. No thanks!
Kenny: I’d much rather see a funny animated cartoon! But yeah, we kind of look at ourselves with all due humility as being the inheritors of Looney Tunes. We’re the closest thing around to that in the modern world where it’s crazy, surreal, bouncing off the walls and squash stretch extreme animation. Crazy drawings and crazy animation drive the whole bus. It’s really an artist-driven, animator-driven cartoon which a lot of things aren’t any more.
Marc Ceccarelli: We try and keep the stories pretty simple so they can be more gag based cartoons which is similar to the way Looney Tunes were done back in the day. We always try and keep it as visual as we can. Gag based surreal comedy.
Kenny: It’s funny like in terms of longevity, probably the only animated shows that have been around longer The Simpsons and South Park. I don’t think Family Guy has been around quite as long has it?
Dar: Not if you don’t count the cancellation hiatus.
Kenny: Oh right! That’s true! That kind of messes with the math. Yeah I know that South Park and The Simpsons have been around longer than us. We love them and aspire to that kind of longevity. It’s funny, they’re both somewhat limited in their animation style. By design the comedy is more verbal and more topical. So in some ways those shows couldn’t be less like SpongeBob but hopefully a high tide raises all the boats in the animation waters.
Bumpass: That’s really one of the strong things about SpongeBob. Like Marc said, we’re gag oriented. We don’t get bogged down in verbiage. And it’s very easy to do that but you lose what is essential to animation.
Kenny: I love being a part of this show because in some ways in kind of being the last dinosaur SpongeBob ends up feeling fresh and new and current in everything just by doing the show that still does that. It’s really storyboard driven, really artist driven, really animator driven and really rewards extreme animated vision on the part of the artists. Taking the characters physically into crazy poses and weird physics, faces and expressions. I think that’s one reason for the memes. Why there are so many SpongeBob memes is because there are so many tens of thousands of drawings of the SpongeBob characters making these weird crazy faces.
It’s very specific. I love the meme thing where somebody will look at one of those drawings of one of the characters making an expression and go, “Oh that’s my face when I blah blah blah.” And they repurpose this drawing and make it into something else like found art. It’s like they dived to do a dumpster and found some cool piece of trash and made a new piece of art out of it. It’s cool.
Bumpass: There’s a place at Nickelodeon you’ll see a wall that is covered in post-it notes and there’s just literally hundreds of various permutations of SpongeBob’s character saying whatever emotion he’s in. It amazes me the diversification of all this possibility with his face. The guys are really inventive.
Dar: I’d be remiss if I ended our conversation without bringing up the creator of SpongeBob Stephen Hillenburg who tragically passed away back in November. As bittersweet as it was to begin the 20th Anniversary of SpongeBob SquarePants with such a sad note, it was touching to see this outpouring of love from fans to honor him like the petition to have the song “Sweet Victory” from the “Band Geeks” performed during the Super Bowl half-time show. Is there anything you think not just fans but people should know about Hillenburg?
Kenny: Steve was really unassuming so he wasn’t out there a lot. He was kind of a shy guy. He just liked doing what he did and surfing and painting and overseeing SpongeBob. That’s kind of what he liked to do—being a dad and husband and going to see different parts of the world. That’s kind of what he did so he wasn’t one of these people that had a need to have their face everywhere, to be a brand or to be a mogul. In a way that kind of helped us because he allowed the actors or kind of defaulted the actors into kind of being the goodwill ambassadors for the show. I think that kind of helped with our job security frankly. We were kind of out there and more visible and known than the average anonymous voice actor. We’re still somewhat anonymous I guess.
What I always loved about him was his curiosity about stuff and how he would find out stuff. He knew about a lot of stuff. So he seemed like the kind of person who was always reading and learning and interested in stuff. [He] knew a lot already and was always voracious about finding out more. That’s a very admirable trait he had.
Bumpass: He was just an endearing personality. You would never guess that inside his brain was this universe that he brought out into the ether. He was so quiet, unassuming, and humble.
Kenny: Zen almost.
Bumpass: He was just two different things in his wonderful package that was so easy to love.
Ceccarelli: It’s a real testament to the actual creation that he did sort of try and stay in the background. And yet there was so much love for the show that it ended up coming back onto him.
Kenny: Yes, you’re right. And the whole Super Bowl thing happened because he passed away and people wanted to honor him. So this petition started online that actually built up steam and this crazy thing actually happened. I don’t know that Steve ever watched a Super Bowl in his life!
Dar: I only watch the commercials myself.
Kenny: But yeah, he would have been really blown away and honored by that. You used the word bittersweet. The bitter came when Steve got ALS and he was dealing with that and we had to deal with the prospect of him not being at the helm anymore. And I feel like now we’re kind of into the sweet part of moving on and using the map that he left us Marc said to honor his creation and do SpongeBob proud and Stephen Hillenburg proud because he changed our lives in many different ways on so many different levels. He gave us this gift and we want and we don’t want to mess up the gift.
Dar: I can’t think of a better way note to end on!
“SpongeBob‘s Big Birthday Blowout” kicked off the 20th anniversary celebration of one of the most iconic and TV series and characters ever created. The mixed live-action and animated special, featured for the first time the celebrated voice talent behind SpongeBob, Patrick, Mr. Krabs, Sandy, Squidward and Plankton playing live-action doppelgänger versions of the animated characters they voice. SpongeBob SquarePants is created by Stephen Hillenburg and produced by Nickelodeon in Burbank, Calif.