The Voices Of SpongeBob And Patrick Explore The Series' Success
As one of the most enduring programs on television today, SpongeBob Squarepants transcended simply being a popular show long ago. As a veritable cultural mainstay, the award-winning show has not only spawned over 200 episodes during its 17 years on-air, but also two theatrical films (with a third said to be in development) and tens of video games.
This feature was originally published July 29, 2016.
While clever writing and undeniable charm have paved the way for the show's success and longevity, the core of the series' appeal are the two main characters, SpongeBob and Patrick, voiced by Tom Kenny and Bill Fagerbakke respectively. I sat down with the two stars of SpongeBob Squarepants to find out exactly why the series has been so successful and what they go through to create and maintain such beloved characters.
SpongeBob and Patrick are two iconic, beloved characters. When you first got these roles, was there any indication that these were not only going to be around for a long time, but would also have such a cultural impact?
Bill Fagerbakke: No! [Laughs] It's such a crapshoot! So many things have to break the right way and by some magical serendipity, I think [program creator] Stephen Hillenburg got to develop this in a really organic, natural way. It wasn't super pressurized. We didn't have the corporate overlords going "We want 60 episodes by March," like some places will do. They just let it happen naturally.
Tom Kenny: I know we loved it from the beginning and thought it was really funny and really different, but in terms of what that would mean in terms of longevity or legs or whatever, that kind of stuff is stuff that's beyond human...
BF: It's out of our purview.
TK: Out of everyone's purview, really. No one really ever knows what's going on in show business. Everyone's an idiot. [Laughs]
What do you think it is about these two characters and SpongeBob Squarepants as a whole that separates it from your other roles that have either been shorter or maybe were one-off things?
TK: You know, SpongeBob took hold in a really strong, unusually intense way. There are very few things that have that kind of a footprint in the world for that long in terms of animated kids' properties. I think it's just that the characters' are very archetypal. You know, SpongeBob, the hard-working naïve, sweet guy, Patrick, the id friend that's not real smart but he's loyal to the end, and he and SpongeBob have this friendship... Squidward, the crankiest neighbor ever that has all these secret wishes and desires to be able to play the clarinet well and be able to dance really good, and Mr. Krabs who's just this avaricious, bottom-line, money-grubbing guy.
BF: I think what SpongeBob offered immediately was entertainment that was really sweet, but also really funny. That's not easy to do. You can be really caustic and over-the-top pursuing humor, but there's a sweetness to the characters and a genuineness to the characters.
TK: Yeah, like Carebears ain't funny! [Laughs] You know what I mean? It's sweet, but nobody's ever laughed at it! Then there's other stuff that's more nihilistic or whatever where you go, "Wow, that's really funny, but it's kind of mean and I almost feel bad laughing at it" or it's kind of the comedy of cruelty and embarrassment and uncomfortableness. Obviously a lot of stuff that I enjoy has those elements in it, but SpongeBob, like Bill said, it had this naivety and sweetness, but it also had an energy and a knockabout comedy and a silliness and a surrealism. Just the way that Steve Hillenburg mixed those elements together really struck a nerve that not he or anybody could have predicted. He was just doing a cartoon that maybe he would enjoy watching or he would like to see and it really comes from his sensibility and his sense of humor, and it looks like a lot of people shared his sensibility or were waiting for something like that and still dig it.
You're the voices of these characters and that's a huge part of how the audience sees them. How much creative input do you guys have in the way these characters are portrayed or written?
TK: The writers are obviously really great and work super hard. It's a storyboard-driven show so most of the scripts start out with a paragraph or two of idea and story that's by one or two writers, then it gets roundtabled to a bigger group that adds stuff to it, then a storyboard team takes that and draws its in panel-by-panel form, and those guys are allowed to bring their own spin to it. By the time we record it, they're very nice about letting us bring our own spin to things.
BF: We're able to – which is unusual for animation – we're so intrinsic to the D.N.A. of the characters...we're able to contribute a little bit. They even give us a free pass to ad-lib, which is also fun. That becomes like a challenge. You don't want to have a stupid ad-lib; you want to have the ad-lib be really good.
TK: Yeah, it's gotta be something that could be useful, otherwise you just wasted everybody's time. "Here's something that will never make it into the show and never work!"
BF: You can make everyone in the room laugh, but it won't be good! [Laughs]
TK: Yeah, you don't want to do that too often! [Laughs]
BF: You want it to be really germane and funny.
TK: Germane. That's a great word!
BF: [In Patrick voice] Heh heh, thanks!
TK: See? That's Mensa Patrick right there. That's smart Patrick. [Laughs] They're very generous and I feel very proud that I bring some kind of special sauce to things and that everybody up and down the line does.
BF: And you're really good, Tom, about saying "This feels wrong for SpongeBob." You're really good about that. And there's a lot of trust on the team. I mean, Tom is now our sessions director, and that took a lot of trust for them. It's wonderful. It's so unusual.
TK: It's been fun. And obviously these guys don't need a whole ton of direction.
BF: It's not a vanity thing by you either. It's a natural kind of evolution in production.
TK: It's fun to do and it's fun to wear that different hat these days. The great thing about the SpongeBob experience for us is that it keeps kind of changing and morphing. I think it's a little different from people I know who are on The Simpsons and stuff where they literally phone it in these days. You know, just call in from your house in Malibu and do your lines over the phone. [Laughs] Good, I guess? But I don't know. We're having a blast. We're having a lot of fun, and the new episodes are really fun and seem to have a real nice energy and weirdness and psychotic-ness infusion. It's a blast.
Over the course of the series, we've seen episodes where the characters in the show stretch some of the rules of their traits. How fun are those episodes to act?
TK: Really fun!
BF: So much fun!
TK: Yeah, where Patrick gets to be the smart boss giving the advice. Patrick gets to be the voice of reason. A lot of that is writers going, "We've done so many scripts!" They're just moving the pieces around on the board and going, "How about put this here? We've never done that before!" [Laughs] It's like a Chuck Berry song; you've got four chords, how many variations on that can we come up with? That is the great thing about cartoon characters: You can play a bit fast and loose with it. It's not like a super logic-driven show or superheroes where, "Oh, it's canon that he knows how to do this because he learned it from this guy!"
BF: "Read your story bible!" [Laughs] The work done by the writers and the storyboard artists is just herculean. Like H.G. Wells in The Time Machine when he goes into the future, all the labor is done by the Morlocks that live underground. Writers and storyboard artists are like our Morlocks. Like, the hours and creativity and the sweat that all happens before we walk into the room...
TK: You know, the sausage making process...all that sausage that has to get made before the recording process...I don't know that I would have the intestinal fortitude to see it through. [Laughs] A lot of seasons, a lot episodes, a lot of hands, a lot of eyeballs, a lot of suits, a lot of notes. So it's definitely – I won't say a minefield – a racecourse that these guys are driving because there's always the clock ticking and these guys are always in some great race where they're doing a million things and have to be good at it.
BF: And only a couple guys show up to the sessions, so we hardly see people. We're enclosed in our own little bubble.
TK: Mostly writers and storyboard directors come in for our sessions.
BF: Those are the only ones that we see. A lot of times we'll come in and they're wiped out. They're fried.
TK: It's a lot of work for those guys. We respect them so much. You get that storyboard and it's funny and different and crazy. I love looking at the storyboards because something that wouldn't read really funny one way or another if you saw it as a script in words, when you look at it in those super extreme drawings like when they go over-the-top crimes against the eyeballs like Big Daddy Roth like Ren & Stimpy extreme drawings, you go "Oh! Okay!" If I saw it described, I wouldn't know if it's going to be funny, but as soon as I see the picture I'm like "Great! Awesome! Home run!"
Would you be able to give a brief rundown of how you came to the voices of SpongeBob and Patrick?
TK: Steve Hillenburg had these characters laid out, had personality profiles and drawings of the characters and who they were, what they thought like, and what was important to them, so that was really where it kind of all came from. Then you make the voice that those descriptions and that picture suggest to you. He found voices that encapsulated what he was hearing in his head.
BF: What was great about the casting process what that he cast Tom early.
TK: SpongeBob was first.
BF: So when everyone else was being cast, he'd bring in his adorable little cassette deck player and he would play SpongeBob. He'd say "Patrick is this guy's friend" and he'd play Tom doing this ridiculous voice.
TK: He was always tonally aware of how the voices would stack up against each other. He definitely casted it like it was an orchestra or a band. There were certain tones he was looking for with SpongeBob being the first thing that he was stacking everybody against.
BF: I've never auditioned before when I got to hear one of the other characters.
TK: No. "Where he's going might impact your performance." Usually you're not privy to that, but I think Steve thought that was important information for people to have. Like the guy auditioning for Bullwinkle should know what Rocky the flying squirrel sounds like so he knows where to go with it. And Steve, once he made his decisions, he was very decisive. He said as soon as he heard Clancy Brown, he said he didn't need to hear any more Mr. Krabs. As soon as he heard Squidward, it wasn't like, "Oh, I also kind of like this guy..." He said that as soon as he heard the people he picked, he was done. His clarity of purpose and idea really was what made SpongeBob what it was from the beginning and still is.
All images provided by Nickelodeon.