You’re the Voice: Tom Kenny

Say hello to Popdose’s latest column, in which I’ll be sitting down with…okay, fine, getting on the phone with…some of the all-too-unheralded men and women who work behind the microphone to give voice to some of your favorite animated characters and, yes, maybe even to a few of your kids’ favorites, too. I’d had the idea for this column some time ago, but I just hadn’t gotten around to putting it into action. The impetus to finally get off my arse and kick it off…? An E-mail from a publicist, casually asking me if I had any interest in chatting with his client, Tom Kenny.

Tom Kenny and I first crossed paths in early 2009, when he was in the midst of the promotional blitz for Fox’s then-new (if ultimately short-lived) animated series, “Sit Down, Shut Up.” I impressed him at the time by referring to him as the Hal Blaine of voice actors, since he’s a utility player who can always be counted on to give exactly what’s asked of him, and he impressed my daughter by providing her with a message on my recorder as Spongebob Squarepants, which she still cherishes to this day. Mr. Kenny had just finished another call when I rang in to chat with him for “You’re the Voice,” and to my amazement, he immediately recalled not only our conversation but also my E-mail address, confirming, “You’re NonStopPop, right?”

“I was just on the phone with a friend of mine who’s pitching an animated show for the first time,” he explained. “I said, ‘If you’re going in and talking to executives, let me prepare you for the rudest experience in the world, because they’ll be texting people while they’re looking at this thing you worked really hard on!’ Basically, I was just telling him to expect arrogance and rudeness, because executives forget who the lucky person in the room is. It’s, like, ‘Uh, let’s not forget that you’re the luckiest guy on earth, Untalented Suit Guy!’”

I quickly briefed Mr. Kenny on the premise of this column, and since he seemed jazzed about the concept, we jumped right into the proceedings, kicking things off with what you can expect to see as my standard opening question:

How did you first find your way into voice acting?

My path into it was kind of elliptical and random. I started out as a stand-up and a sketch actor who wanted to do voiceovers and just was having trouble finding the entrance door, but, ironically, while that was hard for me, making a living at stand-up comedy came pretty easily and quickly for me! So I had that going on, and then doing a fair amount of on-camera stuff and guest stuff on sitcoms and various sketch comedy programs on TV from the early ‘90s on.

Then, while I was doing that, somebody from Hanna-Barbera saw me do stand-up at The Improv here in L.A., and said, “Have you ever thought about doing voiceover?” And that was my dream job. It was, like, “Yes! The way some guys dream of doing this…? This isn’t my dream. It’s not like some ‘Dilbert’-esque cubicle job, but it’s not my be-all, end-all job. I’m good at it by accident.” So I went down there and auditioned for something, got it, and then from that came an audition for “Rocko’s Modern Life,” an early Nicktoon during the “Rugrats” era, just post-“Ren and Stimpy.” After “Ren and Stimpy” made it okay to be funny again. That was when I started to book a lot of voiceover stuff, although after “Rocko” ended, there was kind of a lull as far as voiceover activity, where I was, like, “Wow, maybe I shot my wad!” (Laughs)

I was right about it being the best job for me. The best use of my talents is that weird job, as opposed to being Drew Carey’s fourth friend from the left on “The Drew Carey Show” or something. That didn’t interest me at all. The money’s good, but sitcoms are not my bag at all. But then things started to pick up, and… (Hesitates) Even though I’m your first column, you probably already know this, but the whole journeyman voiceover guy thing is about just keeping the spinning plates spinning while getting new plates spinning, because some of those plates that were spinning…something gets to the end of its third season, and that’s the end of it, because that’s just the rules. With kids TV, 52 episodes is usually the magic number. Once they get 52 half-hours, even if it’s a pretty successful show, they figure that that’s enough for them to work with. Kids can watch stuff a million times, and they don’t demand new episodes like the fans of “30 Rock” or something like that. Once you have 52 episodes of something in the can, you can run those 52 episodes a zillion times, and by then, the kid has aged out of the demographic and you don’t need to spend money making new ones. You don’t need to…or, at least, that’s network thinking.

So that’s the trick of this thing: to always be out there auditioning and always be out there pitching. That aspect of it is one that I really like. For me, auditioning for on-camera stuff was always this…I mean, I would have nightmares about it. I hated going in and auditioning, sitting in a room with 10 guys that kind of look like you. .. (Laughs) …and you’re just, like, “God! I’m here for the nerd audition!” You just feel like shit! But with voiceover, I love auditioning for it. Just the auditioning process and trying to figure this stuff out is fun for me that on-camera never was. Like, reading the description of that character or even just reading the description for commercial stuff. “We’re looking for somebody who’s upbeat but not announcer-y but still sounds authoritative!” (Laughs) To me, I like trying to read those tea leaves, to figure out the Sudoku. You go, you give it your best shot, and sometimes you get it and a lot of times you don’t. It’s a numbers game. You just go and audition for stuff.

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I feel very lucky that something like “Spongebob” blew up in a way that that is kind of the anchor…no pun intended…of my work life. That’s there, that’s solid, that’s going to be around for awhile. And then you’ve got all of this other stuff that you’re doing that keeps you from being bored and feeling to yourself like a one-trick pony. Because I think that’s important, too. That kind of breeds contempt for the job that’s your bread and butter. For me, one of the great things about the job is that this huge character that you do is just one day a week. It’s a blast: you go in, you do an episode, maybe another day a week you do toys or video games of “Spongebob,” and the rest of the cast, you’ve been working with them for 12 years and they’re all super fun, hilarious, great people that are a blast to kick around with. So it’s all good. And the other four days of the week or whatever, you’re being Iron Man or Rabbit from “Winnie the Pooh” or a robot or the Ice King from “Adventure Time” or any of the other stuff I do.

I’d just get bored without doing all of this different stuff. It probably has to do with ADD more than anything else. (Laughs) Billy West and I have actually had this conversation. And then when you do have to do an on-camera thing, it just seems so slow. And dull. It’s, like, erosion. Like watching the Grand Canyon erode, where you’re just, like, “Jesus Christ, I’ve been here for four hours, and I’m still sitting in my trailer!” The voiceover job is perfect for somebody who gets bored fast and has ADD. And, also, a term I use a lot is that it’s the perfect job for the shy showoff, where you sort of like being a class clown kind of guy, but you’re able to do it in kind of an under-the-radar way where you have a nice comfort zone. There’s an anonymity that goes along with the ubiquitousness that’s a great combination for me, personally.

From here, it was time to shift into the portion of our conversation where I’d bring up one of Kenny’s voices and he’d tell me a bit about the experience.

I decided to start things slow.

• Tom Kenny, “Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist”

Yes, that was a character I was pretty familiar with. (Laughs) Well, you know, this speaks to…I don’t know how much into the inside-the-industry stuff you care to get with this, but to me, I always tell aspiring people that are trying to break in that so much of this business is relationships. It’s not that you have this hardcore agent who goes out and gets stuff. It really isn’t about that. I was a stand-up, I did “Dr. Katz,” which was done by a little company called Soup 2 Nuts in Boston, and years after “Dr. Katz”…well, of course, for the uninitiated, “Dr. Katz” was a show where comedians performed their stand-up bits in the guise of couch talk with a shrink, Dr. Katz, played by Jonathan Katz. It was kind of crudely animated, and it was really just a way to repurpose people’s stand-up material in a new way. But this company Soup 2 Nuts, after I’m not even hardly doing stand-up anymore, they’ve got other shows going. They’ve got a show called “Home Movies” that was on Cartoon Network, and now they’ve got a show called “Word Girl” that’s on PBS Kids. And people at that company remembered me from “Dr. Katz” years ago, and they were, like, “You know, that guy was good. That guy was funny. Hey, I hear that guy’s doing a lot of voiceover work now.” So, you see, so much of this business is relationships. Like, being versatile and not being a dickhead and kind of like the two most important skills of this job. (Laughs) Know how to do a bunch of stuff, and don’t be an asshole to people. So “Dr. Katz,” yeah, that was really fun, and it was cool to see myself as a cartoon.

• Oswald Cobblepot a.k.a. The Penguin, “The Batman”

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Yeah, that was funny! That was a newer “Batman” series called “The Batman”…as opposed to “A Batman”… (Laughs) …and I went in and auditioned for pretty much every villain in the rogues’ gallery. You know, there was the Riddler, there was the Joker…to me, Mark Hamill will always be the Joker, but they were auditioning new Jokers. It eventually went to Kevin Michael Richardson, a guy who you should also interview, who kind of made a totally different and totally great Joker, as it turns out. So I auditioned for The Penguin, amongst others, and it’s funny. Here’s more advice to newbies. I said, “What are you looking for with this new Penguin?” And they said, “Well, we know what we’re not looking for. We’re not looking for anything that’s reminiscent of the Burgess Meredith treatment in the Adam West ‘Batman’ series. That’s what we’re not looking for.” And so I did it a few different ways, but then I started thinking to myself, “You know, Burgess Meredith was perfect! He did it exactly right!” His Penguin…I mean, The Penguin is a kind of upper-crust guy who’s maybe fallen on hard times. His family, the Cobblepots, used to be like the Waynes in Gotham City, a rich family, who kind of squandered it all away. They were, like, wastrels and screw-ups.

“Wastrel” is a word that’s screaming for a comeback.

Exactly! It sounds like a new superhero. “This is a job for The Wastrel!” He just sits there and drinks and snorts coke while the crimes are going on. (Laughs) But, anyway, I went ahead and did a take on the Burgess Meredith version, and then I got called back, and they said, “We really like this one. Listen to the third one, because this is the one we like.” And it was the Burgess Meredith one. So there’s another rule for newbies: keep your mouth shut. I just said, “Yeah, okay, cool, I can do that!” And I wound up doing The Penguin, and it was really fun. I’ve always been a comic book fan guy, since I was a kid, and I’ve always been fascinated with the second and third string guys, I guess because I always figured that, if I was a superhero or super villain, that would be me. (Laughs) I wouldn’t be Superman or Batman. I’d be, like, Elongated Man: kind of okay at it, but not the A-list. So, you know, I loved the character of The Penguin. I also just love his balls, and his sense of inadequacy. No super powers, he’s just kind of ugly, this dumpy kind of guy, and he just decides to put on a tuxedo and be a villain and commit bird-themed crimes.

• Plastic Man, “Batman: The Brave and the Bold”

Yes! I don’t think of Plastic Man as being a B-list superhero, but many would. He’s always been one of my favorite characters. I love those original ‘40s and ‘50s “Plastic Man” comic book stories by Jack Cole…who wound up blowing his brains out, but… (Trails off) I just love those. I like funny, lighter-hearted superhero stuff. Like, all this nihilistic “Who Raped The Flash’s Wife?” stuff that leads to a 52-issue arc. Again, talk about short-attention span, but I feel about comic books kind of like I feel about music: if your single’s longer than three and a half minutes, you need to cut some shit out of it. (Laughs) It’s, like, “Come on, the Ramones never went over two minutes. Come on, guys, pick it up!” But I love Plastic Man, and…I don’t know if you know this, but I wrote and voiced Plastic Man in an unsold “Plastic Man” pilot of Warner Brothers.

I did know that, in fact. I’m a fan of the Ruby-Spears “Plastic Man” series, so I’ve got that set.

Oh, okay, so you’ve probably seen the pilot, then, because I know it’s on there. Yeah, that was kind of our approach to Plastic Man. Sorry, but I just thought those ‘80s cartoons were terrible… (Laughs) …so me and this guy Andy Suriano, who’s a character designer and artist, a really gifted guy who did a lot of the designs for “Clone Wars” and “Dexter’s Laboratory” and “Power Puff Girls” and all that, we would just be talking in the lobby of Cartoon Network, and we were always talking about Plastic Man and how somebody should do Plastic Man right. And I’m, like, “Yeah, those horrible ‘80s cartoons that were super-limited animation…why would you take a character that is limitless and then do him in ultra-limited animation? Wow, I wish someone would do a cool Bob Clampett-like squash-and-stretch Plastic Man…” And Andy Suriano said, “Why don’t we do it?” And I said, “Uh, yeah, okay!”

So, basically, they gave us money to do a pilot and stuff like that, and ultimately they wound up not picking it up for…mostly, I get the feeling that it was for internal office politics reasons. From what I understand, Warner Brothers Animation and Cartoon Network have a dysfunctional relationship… (Laughs) …and figuring out who’s going to pay for what and how the costs are going to be broken down often causes shit like that to fall apart. Ironically, it should’ve been an easy sell, just because, like, “You guys already own this character, you’re not doing anything with it, and we love it, so we’re taking a resource that you already have and reinvigorating it.” And that logic works in getting it greenlit, but then it’s the usual thing where all the people who greenlit your project, by the time the pilot’s finished, they’re all fired and gone and two more regimes have happened in the meantime.

So, you know, disappointingly, it didn’t get picked up as a series, but…and here we go with relationships again…what wound up happening is that I think it put Plastic Man back on their radar as a viable character, so when they were doing “The Brave and the Bold,” which was just all about guest stars and team-ups from all over the DC universe, they said, “Hey, let’s do Plastic Man…and, you know, we liked the way Tom Kenny voiced him in that short he did with Andy Suriano, so let’s just have him voice him!” So in a weird way, it kind of got me the gig without even having to audition. So, you know, silver livings all over the place. But I love doing Plastic Man. He’s one of my all-time favorite characters, and I hope that someday I’ll get to do our treatment of him, because I think it was good.

• Peter Cottontail, “Here Comes Peter Cottontail: The Movie”

Ha! Man, let’s see…that was Rankin-Bass, it was a sequel to the network TV special from back in the early ‘70s, probably, and, yeah, that was one of those where it was just another product of an audition for something. You go in and you give it your best shot. As I recall, that was a pretty straight voice that was fairly close to my natural voice, which I don’t get to do very often. (Laughs) So it was fun. Once in awhile, it’s nice to not have to scream.

• Happy, “Sit Down, Shut Up”

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Man, that was a blast. It’s the R-word again: relationships. Mitch Hurwitz, believe it or not, when I was doing on-camera, I had done a couple of sitcoms that he’d worked on. I did a couple of episodes of “Brotherly Love,” with Joey Lawrence and his two brothers. (Laughs) Mitch remembered me from that, and I think he’d also heard that I was doing a bunch of voiceover work, and that helps. I think he also was using a lot of celebrity, on-camera talent, some of whom were new to voiceover, and one thing that works in the favor of guys like me, Billy West, Phil LaMarr, Kevin Michael Richardson, Maurice LaMarche, and so on, is that if a producer or creator is using celebrities that are unfamiliar with the voiceover process, they’re going to need a little more handholding and they’re going to have a little bit of a learning curve in addition to crazy schedules that celebrities like Jason Bateman or someone like that has. That guy’s always shooting something somewhere and goes from movie to movie to movie, so he’s usually out of town somewhere. So I think it behooves a producer to have a…well, you know, you want your utility infielder to be a guy that you don’t have to worry about. You go, “Okay, Tom, you’re the doctor, you’re the Russian guy, you’re the cowboy, you’re the bear, you’re the robot, and you’re the Martian.” And you go, “Oh, okay, I got it.” (Laughs) They know they don’t have to worry about you. And I think that helped me with that.

That was one of those shows where I just went in and…I pretty much auditioned for every male voice on the show, but even when you’re doing it, you’re pretty sure that, since it’s a network prime-time show, they’re probably going to go with a celebrity in the lead. But maybe I can be the utility infielder on the show, which ain’t bad. And I like those gigs. A lot of times, that’s where you discover new voices, because you’ve got to do five or six voices for the show, so it forces you to go places that you haven’t really gone before, since they can’t sound like each other. So it’s kind of a good exercise in a way, and it kind of helps you, because a lot of the voices are so minor – one line, two lines, three lines – that you can often, like in the case of “Sit Down, Shut Up,” when that show goes away, recycle the voice somewhere else and no one will notice. (Laughs)

What I want to know is how many stupid journalists insisted on asking you about the status of the “Arrested Development” movie.

(Bursts out laughing) It happens all the time! It’s so funny, though, because I have heard various things. I know writer guys that are saying that they’ve been asked to work up some stuff for it, that this actor’s on board and that actor’s on board, that Mitch Hurwitz wants to do it. Who knows how much of this is true? It changes. People get committed to other stuff, they get tied up for X amount of months, and if something doesn’t get rolling right away, they move on to other stuff. So, anyway, yeah, I hear the movie’s still kind of alive, but my information is very non-specific and probably unreliable! And, also, I would like to underline once again that I myself did not have anything to do with “Arrested Development.” (Laughs) I’d never even worked with anyone from the show, aside from doing a few seasons of “Mr. Show” with David Cross and the stuff that I did with Mitch.

• Ratbert, “Dilbert”

Oh, man, “Dilbert” was another one of those shows that…I think it only ran for one or two seasons, maybe, and I thought it was a very good show, but I think the timing and the network were wrong for it. I think the height of “Dilbert”-mania had already passed by the time they got that show going. I think if they’d done that show a couple of years earlier, it would’ve done much better. By then, the “Dilbert”-mania ship had already sailed. Part of the reason was that they’d first tried doing a live-action sitcom version of it that ended up not happening. The great thing about that show was getting to work with Larry Charles. I mean, co-creator of “Seinfeld,” he’s gone on to do the “Borat” movie and “Religilous” with Bill Maher…real cutting-edge kind of comedy. He’s a really brilliant guy. He did “Masked and Anonymous,” with Bob Dylan, a cult movie that a lot of people hate but that I love.

“Dilbert” was really fun, and the shows were well-written, and I… (Slips into his Ratbert voice) …I got to do a little tough Brooklyn guy, a Ratbert sort of ‘tude. And I… (Slips into Asok voice) …I also got to be Asok, the Pakistani guy who works in the office, the nicest guy in the world, who works in the office with Dilbert. (Laughs) That was a really great experience. It was one of those shows that I wish had gone on longer, because it was really a fun experience, but I also think it was on…UPN? At the time, they were, like, the tractor-pull network.

Man, all of a sudden, I can’t even remember what was on UPN, aside from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Star Trek: Voyager.” Was “Reba” on there?

Actually, that was on The WB. And the only reason I know that is that I used to have to drive by a big, scary billboard of her face whenever I’d drive onto the Warner Brothers lot. “AAAAAAA! She looks like the fucking Joker! Jesus Christ!” (Laughs) But what I mean by that is that a sophisticated white-collar animated cartoon with a lot of social commentary…UPN was probably not the right home for it. But the funny thing is that now you see “The Office,” and you’re, like, “A lot of this is like what the ‘Dilbert’ animated series could’ve done.” It’s tapping into a lot of the same “Office Space” kind of zeitgeist of cubicle hell. I think the “Dilbert” cartoon did that pretty well, and since then, other shows have mined the same territory with, uh, much greater success. (Laughs)

• Special Agent 14, “Stripperella”

Ha! “Stripperella” was a fun, kind of softcore show that was co-created by Stan Lee, I believe, that we did for Spike…and, unlike “Dilbert” and UPN, that was the right network for that show! (Laughs) The funny thing about “Stripperella” was that, since it was Viacom, you’d record it in the same studio that you’d record the Nicktoons in. So it’s, like, Pam Anderson would come in to do the records, and you’d be standing next to her, doing this pretty spicy stuff, while you’re staring at a picture on the wall of Dora the Explorer, feeling filthy.” (Laughs) It’s, like, “Oh,man, I’m looking at Boots the Monkey and trying not to stare at Pam Anderson’s hooters. I’ll just look at that picture of Dora the Explorer and try to lose my boner!” But it was really fun, especially Special Agent 14, being a play on the word “special.” He’s literally a special agent, where he, uh, has a learning disability. And, yet, he’s smart. That was the weird thing about him. He wasn’t a dumb guy. He actually was a good agent. But he had neurological disorders that led to communication difficulties. (Laughs) But he was pretty funny!

• Yancy Fry, “Futurama”

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Hey, that was great, because Matt Groening’s mind…he’d been able to achieve so much with “The Simpsons,” which is such a great show. My 12-year-old is heavy into “The Simpsons” right now, he’s kind of just discovered it in the last year, so I’m watching a ton of old “Simpsons,” 20 years of “Simpsons,” and getting a crash course as I’m re-watching them. That show and “Futurama” are just…I like the heart that those shows have. In addition to all the scathing social commentary, they also have kind of a heart at their core that a lot of the adult animation shows don’t have. It’s hard to pull off. I love working with Billy West, and…people tell me that my and Billy’s natural speaking voices are kind of similar, anyway. Like, we always wind up getting called back for the same stuff. The last time I saw him was Friday. I heard, “Hey, there’s this big Comcast campaign, and it’s down to you and one other guy.” “Who’s the other guy?” “I don’t know, but they’re bringing you in, and it’s a paid callback. They’re calling you in, and you’re just going to read some stuff.” I show up, and who’s sitting on the couch? Billy. “Hey, dude!” (Laughs) So, anyway, long story short, it was kind of fun, since people are always saying that we sound the same, to play his brother in some flashback sequences.

“Futurama” is one of those shows that, like “The Simpsons,” they’ve already got the utility infielders they need. I mean, you’ve got Phil LaMarr, you’ve got Billy West, you’ve got Maurice LaMarche, you’ve got Dave Herman…that’s, like, 14 million voices between those guys! (Laughs) So it’s kind of unusual for them to have to bring in somebody unless it’s some big celebrity stunt casting thing. “Hey, Leonard Nimoy!” Or whatever. So that was a rare chance for a non-celebrity to do a guest shot on “Futurama.” I guess they didn’t want Billy talking to himself. I don’t know.

• Narrator / The Mayor, “Power Puff Girls”

Yeah! Love that show. I was lucky enough to just start breaking into the business when there were these young guys…well, guys younger than me, and I wasn’t old!…like Genndy Tartakovsky, Steve Hillenburg, Joe Murray, and, of course, Craig McCracken, who were just starting to be given some creative freedom. I had worked with Craig on “Dexter’s Lab” and stuff like that, with Genndy, and he pitched his own show, this “Power Puff Girls” thing based on a student short he’d done in college called “Whoop Ass Girls.” Obviously, they couldn’t call it… (Laughs) …but I just went in and auditioned for it, and I really loved it. I loved the material, and I loved the idea of ass-kicking superheroes that are cute little girly-girl ragamuffins, seemingly. I thought that was pretty funny and a lot of comedy was in there.

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So I was the narrator, which was just your standard booming voice… (Goes into his narrator voice) “So, once again, the day is saved, thanks to the Power Puff Girls!” Just your standard announcer guy, Bullwinkle 101. And then the Mayor is just kind of a bumbling, inept politician. Gee, imagine that, right? BP oil spill, anyone…? (Laughs) So when it came time to audition for him, I just kind of mixed together a bunch of people: Ruth Gordon, the Wizard from “The Wizard of Oz,” and a little bit of Lionel Barrymore from “It’s A Wonderful Life.” (Goes into the Mayor’s voice) You just sort of mix ‘em all together, and you come out sounding like this! (Laughs) There’s a little bit of Captain Crunch in there, too. You just put it all into the Cuisinart and try not to make it sound too much like any of those things. As long as you do a mélange of stuff, you’re safe.

But I loved it, and that show went for a long time. That show is special for me because it was the first time with a show that I worked on where I started to see merchandise from it out in the world. Like, you’d be out in L.A., and some little hipster girl with black fingernail polish would be wearing a Power Puff Girls backpack, and I’d be, like, “That’s so cool! I work on that show!” (Laughs)

I got my daughter into the show through the “Meet the Beat-Alls” episode. She could name all four Beatles by the time she was a year old, so it seemed like the perfect gateway.

Oh, great! That was a great episode. How old is your daughter now?

She’s four.

My kids know more about the Beatles than I do, because of “Beatles Rock Band” and stuff. Like, I know the average amount because I like the Beatles, but I had an older brother and sister who liked them more. I was more of the punk rock demographic, because I was 14 in 1976, so it was, like, “Boom, there’s the sweet spot!” The Clash, the Sex Pistols, the Ramones. So I was a little young when the Beatles came out. Most of the stuff I know about them now comes from my 12-year-old. But Craig, obviously, is a complete freak, and they did that episode which was just chock full of Beatles references and Easter eggs and Beatles tidbits. It was pretty fun. And, of course, the challenge of that is that you can’t actually do anything that sounds even remotely Beatle-esque because Cartoon Network don’t want to pay Paul McCartney. (Laughs)

• Wally Langford, “Mission Hill”

Yeah, another one that… (Starts to laugh) As you’re asking me these questions, I’m realizing that my track record on prime time animation sucks! Another show that…it’s funny, because that show has gone on to have this cult following, much like “Mr. Show with Bob and David” has, where it seemed like a lot of people weren’t watching it at the time but it turns out to have this crazy afterlife where it’s way more powerful. Like Dracula, it’s way more powerful in death than it ever was in life. (Laughs) I loved that show, because it was Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein, big “Simpsons” guys for years, and, again, it’s a show that I think was kind of on the wrong network at the wrong time, but I see shows now that…they aren’t ripping it off, but they’re tapping into the same kind of zeitgeist. Like “Big Bang Theory.” “Big Bang Theory” could almost be a live-action version of “Mission Hill” in a lot of ways, and it’s hugely successful…and not as funny as “Mission Hill”!

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I loved the character I played, because, really, it was the first time that I’d ever seen – definitely in an animated series, but maybe even in a sitcom – characters like Wally and his boyfriend. He was an older gay gentleman, and he had been for years with this other gay guy, and they had a long-term relationship, and they were like an old married couple who both just happened to be men. Do you know what I mean? And no big deal was made about it or anything. It just treated them as characters, as oddball characters like everybody else was an oddball, square-peg kind of character. I liked that he kind of looked like R. Crumb, and it was really fun. They were really fun scenes to do, really well written, and in retrospect, I wonder if the show shouldn’t have been about them! (Laughs) Do an animated series about an older gay couple. Forget about the twentysomethings and just do a show about a gay couple that’s been together for years. Kind of like the parents on “Everybody Loves Raymond,” but dudes.

Time to pitch Logo.

(Laughs) I loved that show, but, again, the relationships go on, because Oakley and Weinstein wound up working on “Sit Down, Shut Up,” and I think they might be one of the reasons that I got in the door there: because they said nice things about me.

• Leon, “Squirrel Boy”

Another show that was funny and fun to do, and people on both sides of the glass were nice and let you go with your instincts. They let you, as an actor, go with your instincts and do what you thought was funny. I’m always grateful for that.

I should point out that I specifically mentioned this role because one of my fellow Popdose writers, Scott Malchus, said that you were always hilarious when he caught you recording your stuff as Leon.

Oh, wow! Yeah, I know Scott! Well, please thank him for me!

• Otto, “The Haunted World of El Superbeasto”

Something I really enjoy about this job, again, is the total multiple personality disorder that you get paid for. (Laughs) You can be doing something that teaches preschoolers to read in the morning, and then in the afternoon you can be doing something completely sick and twisted. I’ve done stuff that’s all over the spectrum, and I like it all. It all has its unique, fun rewards. But “The Haunted World of El Superbeasto,” now, one of the directors of that is Mr. Lawrence, who voices Plankton on “Spongebob.” He’s also a very talented animator. He kind of stumbled into voice acting by just doing placeholder shit for “Spongebob,” and they said, “You know what? We can’t find anybody as funny as you to be Plankton!” So I wound up in that, being this British gorilla, and also a couple of other characters. But it was fun. When I walked into the booth, Rob Zombie really was there directing, and I’m, like, “Wow, this guy’s really hands-on! And he has a giant Creature from the Black Lagoon tattoo on his forearm that’s photographically real. That’s insane!” (Laughs)

So, yeah, that was really fun, really incorrect, and I loved it. When I went to the screening, one thing I really liked about that movie when I saw it was that I could tell that the animators had been given free reign on their segments. A lot of them were guys who work on TV stuff, but they were allowed to take the gloves off and do a bit where there’s, like, a million rats coming out of a guy’s butthole. (Laughs) You’re just, like, “Wowwwwwww…” I could feel their freedom, is what I’m saying. It came off the screen, and it was cool. So, yeah, it was really fun and different. I like doing stuff that’s all over the map. That’s one of the reasons that I got into this. I don’t want to be me.

• Skids, “Transformers: Return of the Fallen”

Yeah, you know, that ended up being more controversial than I expected. Maybe I’m dumb, but I really wasn’t expecting that. Maybe I’m naïve. That was, again, one of those things where a lot of times these big, giant budget movies just go right to celebrities, and “Transformers” is one where they can’t really do that. You really do need voiceover actors to be those robots. You can’t have Cameron Diaz sounding like herself. So I went in and auditioned for a whole bunch of parts on it, wound up getting Wheelie, the little Joe Pesci-ish robot, and then he said, “Hey, as long as you’re here, can you and Reno (Wilson) read for these two guys?” And I didn’t know whether we were placeholders or what, but I said, “What’s the deal with these guys?” And Michael Bay said, “They’re robots who’ve been sitting out there in space, picking up Earth TV signals and movies and radio stations and stuff, and they’re fixated on gangsta rap. They’re wannabe gangstas, but they kind of suck at it.” And I said, “Cool, I can do that.” And we did it, and the next thing I knew, there was all this controversy…which I basically just ignored because, by that time, I’d done 150 more voiceover jobs.

Yeah, it caught us by surprise, and Reno, the other actor, who is African-American and from Brooklyn, he was equally as surprised by the outcry. I thought…I mean, I drive by wannabe gangstas every day in L.A.. I see Caucasian kids trying to be gangsta, I see Hispanic kids trying to be gangsta, I see Asian kids trying to be gangsta…with their shorts around the buttcrack and trying to talk “street” with varying degrees of success. In a world with Eminem and shit like that, it just didn’t seem that controversial to me. It still doesn’t. Being an actor, you play a whole bunch of different characters. I don’t have to like or agree with the politics with every character that I play. It’s, like, “Sorry, but my aesthetic and Michael Bay’s aesthetic are probably very different on a lot of things!” So I was surprised by the outcry, but if you dig a little deeper, you realize that a lot of the outcry is just, like, pop culture college professors that have a self-published book that they’re trying to pimp. That I understand. (Laughs) Being a whore? I completely understand that. Now me and this college professor are on the same page. We understand each other. By the way, I was not surprised by how quickly that outcry disappeared, and how it had no traction. Fundamentally, it’s a dumb avenue of thought to complain about that.

You know, we’ve already started work on the third “Transformers” movie, and those characters are in there, from what I understand. Probably in a much reduced role, but…hey, obviously, from an aesthetic point of view, if I was the boss of that movie, I would’ve had less comedy relief and more robots kicking the shit out of each other, ‘cause people pay to see that in those movies. But, hey, it ain’t my movie. I’m just the bass player. If I go in there and Michael Bay says, “Hey, do this,” I say, “Okay, cool, I can do that.” That’s your job. You’re a foot soldier. You’re a shelf builder. You say, “Okay, what size do you want your bookshelf? How big is the corner that you want the shelf in?” They give you the measurements, you give them the shelf, they give you the money, and you’re done!

• Doctor Two Brains, “WordGirl”

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Yeah, it’s those Soup 2 Nuts people again: “Dr. Katz” and “Home Movies.” A really fun, funny show which in some ways has some of the same aesthetic as “Power Puff Girls,” as far as spoofing melodramatic superhero stuff with a little girl protagonist, but it also teaches vocabulary and word-building skills to kids. It’s a little older than something like “Handy Manny” or something. The target audience is probably 1st or 2nd grade, as opposed to preschool to kindergarten. Again, those full cast recordings are just a blast. A lot of the usual suspects are involved there, and Grey DeLisle and…oh, man, what’s his name? He’s another one of those “Arrested Development” guys, and he was in “Hellboy” and “The Larry Sanders Show.” Jeffrey Tambor! He’s one of the bad guys on the show, and he’s always a zillion laughs. Yeah, those shows are just an unadulterated pleasure, and it just got picked up for a whole bunch more episodes, so that’s always good news. The unusual thing about that series is that the people who do it are in Boston, and they fly in just a few times a year, so you do these marathon sessions where you do three, four, five episodes at a crack. It’s kind of fun. You’re there for six or seven hours, just living in the “WordGirl” world. That show’s a pleasure. It’s kind of funny, but all the years I’ve been doing this…I think my instincts were right to get into voiceover, because I’ve run into very few horrible people in the world of animation. (Laughs) I think if I was working in sitcoms or movies, I would’ve run into hundreds and hundreds of horrible, anal people. Animation is just a nicer world, one filled with nicer weirdos.

• Iron Man / Captain America / M.O.D.O.K, “The Super Hero Squad Show”

Yeah! I also voice Colossus from the X-Men, and Juggernaut, who in Marvel canon is Professor’s half-brother or something. It’s really fun. I don’t know how old you are, but there was a comic book…like “The Brave and the Bold,” I like it because it’s a superhero-oriented show that kind of gives superheroes back to the younger audience, who originally enjoyed them. Let’s face it: comic books used to be mostly for kids. A kid goes to the drugstore, he’s got a couple of dimes in his pocket, and he buys “Uncle Scrooge” and “Superman.” With “The Brave and the Bold” and “Super Hero Squad,” I think they serve that purpose. I love Christopher Nolan as much as the next guy, but parents don’t want to take their kids to see a superhero thing where a guy shoves a pencil through another guy’s eye. (Laughs) So, yeah, “Super Hero Squad” is great, and there was a comic book called “Not Brand Echh,” which I don’t know if you’re familiar with…

Oh, I am. I’m a full-fledged comic book geek.

(Laughs) Oh, okay, then! Yeah, to me, “Super Hero Squad” is the closest vibe to “Not Brand Echh” that exists right now. It was done by Marvel and drawn by Marvel artists, “Not Brand Echh” was, and it was like a Mad Magazine version of the Marvel superheroes. I loved it because it was a way to see all of those superhero artists draw funny, people like Marie Severin and John Severin and Jack Kirby drawing in a big-footed, comedic style that you could tell they loved doing. There was a lot of joy on those pages, and I loved those comics. Stan (Lee) was writing them, and Stan’s a comedian at heart, of course, so I love it. I totally get it. It’s funny for me because some of the voice actors just didn’t grow up with this stuff, so it doesn’t have a lot of import for them, whereas voicing Iron Man is…I mean, to me, it’s like the culmination of all those man hours…sorry, kid hours. (Laughs) One of the reasons I became a voice actor, and one of my main training grounds, was reading aloud to my younger brothers and sisters, and a lot of the stuff I would read them were old Marvel comic books. I always had an idea in my head of what Iron Man would sound like if you did him…and now I actually get to do it! I’m a 47-year-old guy, and now it’s my job! It’s pretty cool.

We just recorded a script on Wednesday that I wrote for “Super Hero Squad,” which I co-wrote with Eugene Son, one of the other writers. Matt Wayne, the guy in charge of “Super Hero Squad,” was very nice, and he said…and this is the best compliment I’ve gotten in years…”You know, we’ve noticed that you’re not only just ad-libbing, you’re polishing dialogue on the fly.” And I was, like, “Wow, thank you for noticing!” He said, “You’re shortening stuff, making jokes clearer, and stuff like that in the moment while you’re doing it.” I said, “Thanks.” He said, “You’re also kind of a nerd about this stuff.” “Yes, I am.” “Would you like to write an episode?” And I said, “Yeah, cool…but I’m really busy, running around like crazy every day. Team me up with someone else on the staff, though, because I’d probably be better off co-writing with somebody, so we’re a two-headed beast.” So we just recorded that show on Wednesday, and it involves the Impossible Man, who’s kind of like the Mr. Mxyzptlk of the Marvel Universe. So, yeah, we got to do this really fun, comedic episode of “Super Hero Squad.”

With “Super Hero Squad,” there was kind of a line of toys that spawned the cartoon series, and usually that’s not good for creativity, with the merchandising driving everything, but, really, except for the character designs, that’s the only thing they really had to honor. I’m amazed at how far they’re allowed to go with the characters. And Stan Lee is a member of the cast! That’s another great thing. I mean, Stan Lee is, like, 87 years old or something, and you’re standing next to the mike with this guy who you worshipped your whole life. It’s, like, “Wow, the shit that came out of this guy’s head and this guy’s typewriter impacted my whole life, and now we’re sitting around making fart jokes with him!” (Laughs) It’s great!

One of my prized possessions is a picture of me with Stan Lee.

(Offers a very acceptable Stan Lee impression) “Oh, yeah, sure, let’s take that picture!” That’s one of the great things about Stan: he’ll sign anything, he’ll stand there ‘til that last picture is taken. He’s a very gracious guy. Because of guys like that, I try to be the same way when it comes to…well, of course, it’s mostly SpongeBob stuff, but, still, that’s what I do for the kids. It’s really fun. What’s funny is that Wednesday is “Super Hero Squad” record day and “SpongeBob” record day. So from 9 to 1, I’m Iron Man, and from 2 to 6, I’m SpongeBob. Kind of a split personality.

• SpongeBob SquarePants, “SpongeBob SquarePants”

The best part of “SpongeBob” is…well, probably the most amazing part of it is how long it’s been on. That’s amazing. I mean, I always loved the show and I always loved the character, from the get-go, and Steve Hillenburg is a guy who I always respected and thought was a really smart, nice man. He developed the show and approached me before he pitched it to anyone and said, “I want you to be SpongeBob,” so I’m very proprietary about that show, since I was there before it even was a show. And now, 12 years later or whatever, it’s still going on. We did the pilot in 1997, so it’s 13 years that SpongeBob has been in my life.

You know, I’ve got kids, so I’m around kids a lot at school and when they have sleepovers and stuff, and to me, one of the best things about it is that this show has managed to work its way into people’s family lives. The whole family watches it together, it’s a show that kids like and most parents think is funny, so they can sit there and not feel like they’re suffering through it. They sort of enjoy it. And kids are so insanely super into it that…it’s very flattering to be a part of this thing that has such impact in people’s day to day habits. It’s kind of cool.

I love what I do, and it’s fun being all of these characters, but I think it’s pretty rare and kind of a rare occurrence that you get to voice a character that you got to kind of create the voice for, that’s not an inherited character like Winnie the Pooh or Tigger or Donald Duck or something like that, that has all this good will for people. SpongeBob seems to enjoy a pretty good amount of good will both within the animation community and outside of it, and to me, that’s really a cool thing. Plus, it kind of helps everything to be the voice of a character that’s really well known. You can at least walk into these auditions and not be a complete non-entity. (Laughs)

Well, kids, there you have it: the first installment of “You’re the Voice.” I hope you dug it. As for the future of the column, it’s going to appear as my schedule allows, so I can’t tell you when the second installment will appear, but I can at least tell you that I have someone who’s already agreed to participate. (Your only hint: the person in question was mentioned by Tom a couple of times during our conversation.) No one is locked in beyond that, however, so if anyone has any suggestions for future columns, please leave them in the Comments section.




  • http://www.bullz-eye.com DavidMedsker

    Somewhere, John Farnham is smiling. Power Puff Girls rule.

  • http://www.facebook.com/JohnCHughes John Hughes

    Great interview, Will. I see Tom at the comic book shop I go to every so often, but I'm always too starstruck to say “Hi.” He's done so much great stuff! I remember him being a fixture on the Ha! Channel, the precursor to Comedy Central…

  • http://kittysneezes.com revme

    Great interview! I love Tom Kenny's stuff, and he always seems to be a genuinely funny, genuinely NICE guy. It's funny — a long time ago, I was talking with a friend of mine who's an animation fan, but not an animation geek like I am, and we were talking about SpongeBob, and I mentioned that was done by Tom Kenny — and then mentioned that he was also the Mayor on PPG — and he couldn't believe that the same guy did both of those. Then I mentioned he was ALSO the PPG narrator. I think it kinda blew his mind a little bit that one guy could do such disparate voices.

  • David_E

    Love Tom. Have had the chance to work with him several times in the last decade, and he's always been a pro and a real treat. Great interview!

  • Jasonbishop73

    The voice cast from Star Wars the clone wars would be amazing, James Arnold Taylor FTW!

  • WHarrisBullzEye

    Duly added to the list. Thanks for the suggestion!

    I should add, though, that I already have someone lined up for Column #3…and it's someone whose list of credits is even longer than Tom Kenny's!

  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    Casey Kasem? No, wait. He doesn't give interviews anymore. How about a voice actor portraying Casey Kasem?

  • WHarrisBullzEye

    How about Frank Welker? He's on my dream list.

  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    Any of “The Real Ghostbusters” please!

  • WHarrisBullzEye

    Maurice LaMarche sits next to Frank Welker on the aforementioned list. :-)

  • Swapmeet Louie

    “Like watching the Grand Canyon erode”

    I burst out laughing at that comment! Great interview!

  • dgf

    theres no such thing as a voice actor like stop