For Tom Kenny, voicing Spongebob SquarePants has never really felt like work, even though he’s been at it for 22 years and counting.
“I don’t notice the passage of time,” he says. “You’re just working and then the next thing you know, you’re having the 10th anniversary and then the 15th anniversary and then the 20th anniversary, and you’re going, ‘Wow, SpongeBob has got legs,’ you know?’”
Yes, and pants…
When the pilot aired in 1997, the team never could have imagined the staying power of a 2D cartoon TV show about a yellow sea sponge who lives underwater, works at a burger joint, and spends all his free time with his best friend, a starfish named Patrick.
“[The show was] that rare harmonic convergence of a character that I loved immediately, a bunch of people that I loved working with, and it’s stayed popular enough that we can keep on making new ones,” he says.
Unlike other ’90s animated favorites that were retired and eventually rebooted years later—Blue’s Clues, Rugrats, Rocko’s Modern Life—SpongeBob has soldiered on without wavering. It has never been off the air. And not only that, in 2021, the show got not one, but two new spin-offs. It’s a testament to the award-winning creatives that put it together, making both kids and their parents laugh, but also its ability to appeal to a new generation of viewers without alienating OG fans.
“SpongeBob stays relevant by just staying SpongeBob,” says Kenny, “and I think that has more to do with the audience’s relationship with the character and the show, you know—like we’ve never felt a need to update him.”
This year, Kenny and his colleagues are sharing their time between three shows: the original SpongeBob Square Pants; Kamp Koral: SpongeBob’s Under Years, a prequel about 10-year-old SpongeBob and his friends at summer camp; and The Patrick Star Show, a “crazy, Hell’s-a-poppin” segment show, as Kenny describes it, which air at 9 and 9:30 am ET/PT respectively on YTV and STACKTV in Canada.
In addition to voicing the protagonist in all three series, Kenny plays other characters, too, and is the voice director of each production. He’s working on other projects as well, like a standalone Netflix movie starring Sandy Cheeks, the squirrel character from SpongeBob who wears a diving suit 24/7 so she can live under the sea in Bikini Bottom. Kenny, who also manages to find time to play in a band, shares two adult children with his wife, Jill Talley, who works on SpongeBob, too, as the voice of Squidina, Patrick’s sister, among others.
Kenny compares his busy work life to a game of ping pong—always bouncing back and forth. But others might use another term to characterize the voice actor: “workaholic.”
“Maybe I kind of am [a workaholic], but only because I love what I’m doing and I want to do more of it,” he says. “So maybe I’m not so much a workaholic as a stimulus junkie.”