Movies & TV / Columns

Tom Kenny Gives Update on The SpongeBob Movie: A Sponge on the Run, Talks COVID-19 PSA Project A Moment for Kids

May 15, 2020 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
SpongeBob SquarePants, Tom Kenny

Recently, 411mania had the opportunity to sit down and speak the legendary Tom Kenny. A longtime actor and comedian, Kenny is best known for his voice-over work as the iconic SpongeBob SquarePants, which first hit the Nickelodeon air waves back in 1999. The third theatrical movie, The SpongeBob: Sponge on the Run, will hopefully arrive later this year. It’s scheduled release date of August 7 might be affected by the current pandemic. Speaking of which, Kenny and a team of other fantastic voice-over talents are collaborating with with Splash Entertainment, in partnership with CurtCo Media, to create a series of kid-focused public service announcements (PSAs) for the podcast, A Moment for Kids.

As part of the new PSA effort, Kenny and other veteran VA talents, including Eric Bauza (Woody Woodpecker), Tara Strong (Fairly Oddparents’ Timmy Turner), Jess Harnell (Transformers’ Ironhide; Animaniacs’ Wakko), Jeff Bennett (Johnny Bravo), and other star voice talent of the children’s entertainment world have teamed up to record humorous and informational messages that are designed to answer questions for children to allay their concerns during the COVID-19 crisis. The PSAs are already live on multiple platforms, such as Apple, Deezer, Omny, Spotify, Stitcher, and TuneIn. More PSAs will be released shortly. Kenny voices longtime Walter Lantz Productions cartoon character, Wally Walrus, for the podcast.

Kenny has had a long and illustrious career going back decades in film and TV. He was part of the cast of the sketch comedy series, Mr. Show With Bob and David, which ran on HBO back in the 1990s. His animation credits are almost too numerous to mention. Besides SpongeBob, he also voices the lovable AI robot HUE on the hit sci-fi animated series Final Space, Chief Randall Crawford and Woody Johnson on Netflix’s Paradise PD, and a number of the top animated shows and cartoons on TV both past and present. Here’s what Tom Kenny had to say about the PSA project, A Moment for Kids, his work on SpongeBob SquarePants, and more:

Jeffrey Harris: What sparked this project to create PSAs with cartoon characters with CurtCo Media and Splash Entertainment?

Tom Kenny: Well, you know, people involved with the project are people I’ve worked with, worked for I should say, in the past. Great people, fun people, trying to do something amidst this bizarre, uncertain time, trying to make some lemonades out of lemons. And I guess I was one of the lemons that they asked to squeeze, and I’m always happy to be squeezed.

Jeffrey Harris: Generally, I find the PSAs very positive and proactive, which is something we could all use right now. Was the the general approach everyone wanted to take with the style of the PSAs?

Tom Kenny: Yeah, positive and proactive, and also coming from the mouths and the voices of cartoon characters, who are kind of historically, through tough times in American history, comfort food, whether it was Felix the Cat in the 1920s or Mickey Mouse during the Great Depression or Popeye during the Depression. Cartoon characters are very comforting because they’re very consistent, and they’re always there. And so, I think having the voice-over actors voice and do these things in the voice of the characters that they vocalize. It’s kind of a nice sweet spot.

They don’t change. Cartoon characters are very consistent. They don’t change. They’re very much like the character you fell in love with, whatever that character was back in the day. Whatever that character was, they’re still remarkably the same now. They don’t really change, or morph, or age physically. Their voice actors do unfortunately. I think there’s something very powerful about that, just the graphic image, comic books, cartoons, just historically have always been a comfort.

Jeffrey Harris: They’re an immortal legacy.

Tom Kenny: Well you know, I’ve been lucky enough to voice characters that hopefully will have legs for a while. That’s really all I ever wanted to do since I was a little kid. I didn’t want to be a movie star or a TV actor. I didn’t care about sitcoms. I just wanted to be a cartoon guy. I wanted to be Mel Blanc. And it’s been nice to be able to shoulder my way into that world and be kept employed in it for as long as I have and work with all the wonderful, creative weirdos, the benevolent weirdos I work with everyday. And it’s the best job in the world for sure.

And it helps us too to be able to do something positive during these [times] — it’s really weird times. It’s hard if you’re an old person. It’s hard if you’re a kid. It’s hard if you’re an adolescent. It’s hard if you’re a high school grad. It’s hard if you’re a college senior who’s not going to graduation, or a little kid who can’t go to school. Or no matter what age you are, or where you’re at with your life, these are really, really trying times unlike anything that we’ve ever had to deal with before. So, you really need that comfort food now more than ever. They call it comfort food for a reason, right?

Jeffrey Harris: Right now the PSAs for the cartoon characters are on various audio platforms. Is there any thought to maybe at some point adding animation or illustrations to the PSAs and maybe taking them a little further?

Tom Kenny: Boy, that would be great? I think this is just the first shot across the bow they came up with because it was kind of no muss, no fuss. Just have the voice actors record stuff, but I think that’s a great idea. Another beautiful thing about animation is that it’s kind of one of the only aspects of the entertainment industry that can still continue right now. They can’t shoot movies, they can’t shoot sitcoms anymore right now, but animators can animate from their homes, and storyboarders can storyboard from their home, and voice actors can record from their home, and music composers can compose from their home. So, cartoons are kind of keeping on rolling on amazingly. And so I think that’s a great idea. Some of these animators could do it, and I’d love to do some more of these characters.

This one I did was Wally Walrus from the Woody Woodpecker series, which I just recorded some episodes of that yesterday here in my hastily improvised recording studio here I have in my house. But it’d be great to bring some of the other characters to it that I do. That would be a lot of fun.

Jeffrey Harris: The PSAs are informational and educational. They are great for kids to listen to, but I think there’s also information that adults would probably do well to listen to here. Do you think that was by design?

Tom Kenny: Absolutely. If you’ve got hands — anybody who’s got hands should be washing them, no matter how old those hands are. Yeah, you’re right, absolutely. I think another strength of cartoon characters is that they can get a message across without seeming too strident. They can keep it light and fun but still get that information across I think even better than “real-life characters.” So, I hope people are gleaning good info from these and acting accordingly.

Jeffrey Harris: So, you’ve started with Wally Walrus for the PSAs. Would you like to do more? <?b>

Tom Kenny: I love Wally. I was a big Woody Woodpecker as a kid. I loved all animation as I mentioned, and Woody Woodpecker, Wally Walrus, Chilly Willy, Buzz Buzzard, all those Walter Lantz characters were favorites of mind and kind of staples of my Saturday morning cartoon viewing, back when you could only watch cartoons back on Saturday morning. That’s when they showed them. And then maybe an hour after you got home from school, they’d show ’em and maybe an hour in the morning before you went to school, and that was it. If you had told me when I was a little kid back in the 60s that there would someday be multiple channels where you could — they would show cartoons 24/7 and you could download cartoons whenever you wanted, that would’ve seemed like amazing, futuristic science fiction to me.

Jeffrey Harris: Another industry that’s been impacted by the pandemic is theatrical movie business. A movie with one of your most iconic characters, SpongeBob SquarePants, was about to be released in theaters with SpongeBob: Sponge on the Run.

Tom Kenny: Yeah, I heard about that. *Laughs*

Jeffrey Harris: Do you have an update on what might happen with the film? Do you know if it might get delayed, or if the studio is mulling it over, or are they keeping you in the dark?

Tom Kenny: Well, you know, us dumb actors are generally kept in the dark to some degree anyway. In some ways, that’s how I like it. I always say, “Don’t tell me how the sausage gets made. I just wanna go in and do my thing and have fun and go home.” But I know that the SpongeBob movie was supposed to come out I believe this past weekend. And so it got delayed right then already once. And that’s like everybody, this coronavirus pandemic has really changed what we thought our spring and summer was going to be when I look at my calendar. It was like, “Oh, wow. I was supposed to be at the Tribeca Film Festival at the SpongeBob premiere this week,” or “I was supposed to be in New York,” or “I was supposed to be at Calgary at the big Comic-Con this week.” You just look at that stuff, and it’s just all erased or postponed.

And so the SpongeBob movie then got moved to the end of July. And then they did it again, and I believe it is now the first week of August? I could be wrong. I know I’m still, from my house, recording promotional materials and commercials and trailers for it. So, I’d look for it in August.

Jeffrey Harris: Hopefully, it’s not quite as long as the break between the first SpongeBob movie and the second, but the second movie was fantastic.

Tom Kenny: Yes, and I’m proud to say the SpongeBob movie franchise would be the second longest break between sequels. I think the first one was Dumb and Dumber. Only Dumb and Dumber went longer between having a first movie and a second movie.

Jeffrey Harris: I also love your work on Final Space as HUE. That show blows me away. I especially liked how HUE evolved in Season 2 and got a body, and the character has you doing a take on HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. So, what did you think of how that character has evolved?

Tom Kenny: Well, thank you. I’ve also been recording Final Space from home here. Like I said, cartoons keep on keeping on. Yeah, I love Final Space. Olan Rogers, the creator, is really a cool, creative, and Conan O’Brien’s company produces the show. I’ve Conan forever. My wife was in a comedy team, a comedy group with Conan, when they were in their really early 20s. So, I’ve known Conan for a long time. I’ve known Conan since before he had his TV show. He was a writer on The Simpsons. And so that’s really fun. And Olan Rogers is a creative genius. And it’s fun.

HUE started at the audition, I was just having fun with the HAL 9000 thing like you mentioned. Douglas Rain did the voice in the 2001: A Space Odyssey Stanley Kubrick movie, which is in my top couple of movies of all time. That’s one of the movies I’ve seen the most times in my life, like repeat viewings. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve seen that movie so many times, and HAL was such an iconic voice. So, I went in just thinking it was just a straight up HAL thing like a dispassionate AI voice. And then the same thing happened with Ice King on Adventure Time. You think the character’s going to be one thing, and then, the writers hit you with this other thing. And it goes in an even more interesting direction. I would’ve been happy if it stayed in the same direction, but yeah, he got himself a little body, kind of in a Pinocchio way or Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation. He waned to experience life in a different way with a corporeal form, so they gave him this garbage bot, broken down, slow-moving robotic body that turns out to be not all it was cracked up to be. I can’t say much, I can’t say anything actually, but I will say the HUE stuff I just recorded a couple of days ago at my house, there’s definitely more character stuff in store for HUE. Like big stuff.

Jeffrey Harris: A great film you did back in the early 1990s was Shakes the Clown with Bobcat Goldthwait. So, how does it feel that you did a movie with him that beat Joaquin Phoenix in Joker by about 28 years?

Tom Kenny: You know, Bob has been ahead of the curve all over the place in many ways. I think people don’t connect his dots, but when you kind of do a deep dive on the type of stuff that he’s been involved in, or where his head was at at various times, you kind of go, ‘This guy was hip. He was ahead of the curve.’ And I don’t know if you know this, but I knew Bob when were about six years old. Bobcat and I met in first grade, and we’ve been friends ever since. Him and I just talked yesterday, so 52 years I’ve known this guy.

And yes, Shakes was a movie — it was a big bomb when it came out. There was barely a script. A lot of it was just improvised. You would look at the script, and it would just say, ‘Tom ad-libs a psychotic monologue as Binky.’ I’d go, ‘OK. I guess I’m on my own here.’ And we just had a ball filming it. Adam Sandler had just gotten the word that he was on Saturday Night Live. And Robin Williams had a scene in it, and it was really shot low budget. Like nobody made any money, including Robin. You know, he just did it because he thought it was a fun idea, and he liked being around all these comedians. And we had a ball. Yeah, the psychotic clown thing. Bob was definitely ahead of his time. And like I said, it wasn’t real successful it came out at the time it came out in 1992 or 1993 or whatever. But it has really gotten this cult following since. And yeah, I went to a screening of it at a film festival in Vegas a couple of years ago, and people went nuts. Adam Sandler and I just looked at each other like, “What the heck?! This is amazing! People actually caught up to this movie!” It’s always fun when something that you worked on and had a good time on, and it didn’t get a huge reaction when it was released gets a posthumous — kind of rises from the grave like a phoenix from the ashes and is able to grab an audience in the here and now.

My IMDB is full of stuff like that, and in a way, I kind of like that better than being in something that’s really, really popular for a minute and then dies out. You know what I mean? Especially nowadays, stuff gets so hugely popular and just burns up the internet and pop-culture and everything for a minute, and just kind of utterly disappears because people say, “OK. We’re done with that,” and they move on. So, I like stuff that kind of bubbles under the surface for a while, and then years later, people go, “Wow. This has a lot of cool people in it. This is amazing!” And I’ve got so much of that kind of stuff on my resume. Mr. Show was like that. Yeah, in a way, to me that’s cooler than being in something that’s gigantic for like a second. And SpongeBob, I was very lucky that has remained relevant for 20 some odd years, and people still like it. And the late-night comedians still make affectionate jokes about it. It’s still in the mix.

Thank you to Tom Kenny for taking the time to speak with us. You can check out his work on the PSA project, A Moment for Kids, at the above mentioned platforms. The SpongeBob< Movie: Sponge of the Run is currently due out for release this year, though that could potentially change. Paradise PD is streaming now on Netflix, and the third season of Final Space is currently in the works.