Though he may become infamous as the voice of jive-talking "Skids" in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Tom Kenny is famous as the man who gives life to SpongeBob Square Pants. A veteran stand-up comedian, TV host, actor, and voice-over artist, Kenny has a resume a mile along, including being a member of the ensemble on HBO's Mr. Show. Aside from SpongeBob SquarePants and Transformers, some of his more recent work includes TV's The Batman and Batman: The Brave and the Bold, as well as a role in Bobcat Goldthwait's upcoming dark comedy World's Greatest Dad. Kenny spoke to me to promote the FOX sitcom Sit Down Shut Up. The occasion was the 2009 WonderCon at San Francisco's Moscone Center.
Groucho: So what sort of experimentation went into finding and developing your character and your voice?
Tom Kenny: For Sit Down, Shut Up? It was really just the usual audition process, you know? Everything’s a crapshoot; everything’s a roll of the dice, you know? As a journeyman actor—not a celebrity—you just go in there and give it your best shot and hope you’re the guy they like, better than the other guy. So I, pretty much in the early stages of the show, auditioned for nearly every character, and then I think got called back—what they call the callbacks—for a few of them. Then they started going in a celebrity casting direction, and I think they still wanted me on the show somewhere. So they said, “We’ll give him Happy, the foreign janitor.” And also, I think, you know, I’m fortunate in that— since I do a lot of voices—a show like this always needs their Hank Azaria guy that's, like, fill in, you know, “Man #7”—you know, “Guy Behind Door."
G: Yeah, the utility player.
TK: Yeah, your utility player. So that’s also a nice by-product of being happy on that show, is that, you get to be most of the other minor characters on the show.
G: That’s great.
TK: Longest answer ever.
G: No, no, no!
TK: “Please keep it to three-word sound bites.”
G: Do you have any teacher horror stories from your own past—
TK: Oh! (Laughs.)
G: That would inform your work on the show?
TK: Well, you know, I think everybody’s school career is a potpourri of great, useful teachers who you look back on with fondness, and ones that you just say, "What was that person even thinking about becoming a teacher?" They hated children, they hated knowledge, they hated—. So, yeah, there was—I did thirteen years of Catholic school, so there’s already a fair amount of wackiness going on. You’re already dealing with women who said, “I’m gonna take a vow of chastity and poverty and let priests order me around, and I’m gonna teach children.” You know what I mean? You’d have a nun teaching science. I’m like, "Wow—my science teacher doesn’t believe in evolution! This is weird!" (Laughs.)
G: What kind of bosses are Josh Weinstein and Mitch Hurwitz? Who’s Mom and who’s Dad?
TK: (Laughs.) Ah, let’s see, uh—you mean who’s on the bottom, and who’s on the top?
G: You said it, not me!
TK: Well, you know, I had actually worked with Josh before on a short-lived show called Mission Hill that actually has kinda found a much wider audience on DVD, I'm finding out when I go to these kind of conventions. I seem to have a tendency to get on shows that maybe died before their time, but, in death, they become more powerful than they were in life? Like an Anne Rice vampire. So, you know, Mr. Show is definitely that way, and Mission Hill, as well. So I had worked with Josh before, but Mitch—now that I think of it, I had also worked with him on sitcoms when I was doing stand-up and stuff like that, and I did a couple episodes of Brotherly Love, the Lawrence Brothers sitcom? (Laughs.) Featuring the three Lawrence Brothers, who showed the Jonases how it was done. So I had worked with both of them. But I’d say Mitch is definitely the guy who’s in—he’s the Tolkien, the head—. The world-views, the characters, how they relate, you know, the whole—the big map is in his head. And then, since Mitch is new to animation, I think Josh is very—he’s the nuts and bolts, knows how to get an animated show made, you know, negotiating Mitch through this minefield that—production-wise, and the way it’s made—is just an apple to the sitcom’s orange: you know, they’re really, really different types of shows to be making. And with whole corresponding sets of problems and learning curves. So, Josh is definitely his tour guide through the wacky world of making an animated show.
G: We’re at a comic book convention, and I’m a big Batman fan.
G: You've voiced some key characters on Batman shows.
TK: Wow, yeah!
G: Can you talk a little bit about…
TK: I forget about how much crossover there is between all this stuff. It is like—my career is an inbred hillbilly family.
TK: Ah, so, what about The Batman? Sorry.
G: Can you talk a little bit about the characters that you played in that universe?
TK: Sure...I’ve done a lot of, you know, more comedic animation voiceover, and then I’ve been the Penguin on The Batman, the Batman series. I always loved the Penguin. I just—you know, he's just—. As a kid, when I would read comic books—I don’t know what this says about me—I always identified with the second-stringers.
TK: Like, if I was gonna be a superhero, you know, I wouldn’t be Superman, you know what I mean? I wouldn’t be that lucky. I would be, like, Matter-Eater Lad, you know.
G: (Laughs.) Elongated Man.
TK: Yeah, yeah, Elongated Man, yeah—not even that good! I'd be, like, Bouncing Boy. So there was always – I loved—just the whole thing with the Penguin is just a guy with a rented tuxedo and a bunch of trick umbrellas that thinks he can conquer the world: it just cracks me up. It cracks me up. And in The Batman, they gave him this interesting backstory where the Cobblepots had been the Dynasty-type family of Gotham, and sort of squandered the money away, were wastrels and all this stuff. And then, you know, the Waynes were kind of a good-looking, together family that became Gotham royalty. So he’s still bitter about that.
G: Jealous of that.
TK: Yeah, yeah. I don’t know if that’s from any of the comic book series or if that’s just germane to that—
G: Well, he always had that inferiority complex, that character.
TK: But did they always have the family tree history, or is that—?
G: Ahhh, I think that might be a newer development.
TK: Yeah. Yeah, 'cause I still read comic books, but my heaviest reading years were definitely the sixties and seventies. So, uh, so yes, so I played the Penguin, who I love—which, incidentally when I auditioned, they said, “We don’t want anything that sounds even close to Burgess Meredith on the old Batman show.” And then I did a couple of different takes on the Penguin, and then I said, "Y’know, I love Burgess Meredith on the Penguin. I’m just gonna go for it and do it." And then did something like that, and they were like, “Hey, that was great! Do that again!”
G: (Laughs.) Snuck it in.
TK: So without telling them that I was giving them what they didn’t want, I actually sold them on what they said they didn’t want! But of course, why wouldn't you want it? It’s—
G: So brilliant.
TK: Dead-on. And I played Plastic Man in the new Batman: [The] Brave and [The] Bold.
G: Right. Yeah.
TK: Which is a younger-skewing, more lighthearted, more like the swashbuckling, Zorro-ish Batman of the forties and fifties.
G: Yeah, yeah.
TK: You know? And crazy team-ups with—I love marginal characters, you know. So Batman meets Jonah Hex and Adam Strange and people like that in this series. Which I just loved—I always loved all the weird second-stringers, you know. Space Cabbie—ever heard that one?
G: No, I never—
TK: Detective Chimp. These characters—
G: I remember Lancelot Link.
TK: Oh, Lancelot Link! Yeah! No, Carmen Infantino drew a series in the back of Detective Comics—
G: Oh, right! (Laughs.)
TK: Called Detective Chimp—and it was about a chimp that somehow got smart and wore a Sherlock Holmes hat and smoked a Meerschaum pipe and solved crimes. And it’s just like—that’s fun, you know? I’ve sort of had it with angst and nihilism in comics—I’m sort of—. It was cool in 1986 when I first read The Dark Knight and Watchmen. But now—
G: You’re over it.
TK: I’m kinda over the nihilism. I want comics to be fun again. I’ve got kids now, so it’s like—you know, it’s cool to have kids be able to read comics again. I’m doing Super Hero Squad for Marvel, which is also a younger-skewing version of The Avengers: I'm Iron Man and Captain America and M.O.D.O.C. in that. So yeah, it’s kinda funny, I’m winding up on a lot of superhero shows lately, and Transformers, as well. And I hadn’t really done much of that before Batman. I was always—you know, it’s hard to get them to see you as anything other than—
TK: The funny guy. Well, I always worked on a lot of different shows, but they were all comedy-oriented, you know what I mean? Like, it wasn’t that “Incoming!” “Seize him!” You know? That stuff's actually easier than the funny stuff! So—
G: (Laughs.) Right. Going back to Sit Down Shut Up, I saw the promo clip that’s been going around, and I don’t know if it’s from the table read or whatnot, but Kenan is wearing a wig—
TK: Ohhhhh! I’ve not seen that!
G: And I was wondering what the rest of you in the cast would do to demonstrate your commitment…
TK: (Laughs.) Well, I’m already—I'm not swarthy, but I am very hairy.
TK: And if I wanted to horrify the conventioneers, I’d let them look at my bare back. But, uh, you know, so, yeah, I feel like I share Happy's swarthiness. And the fun thing about Happy is that since he speaks in this non-specific foreign language, you don’t really know where he’s from, just someplace else. And, you know, the people around—it’s one of those things, like, in the post-9/11 world, any glowering guy muttering to himself in a foreign tongue seems scary.
TK: Represents the other. So, but, you know, there’s—Happy is a guy who just always looks pissed off and, you know, sounds mad and looks mad even when he’s not, and, you know. So, he has this BBC-type omniscient interpreter that will kinda come in and [goes into English accent:] translate what he’s saying, and who is also me. You know?
G: Ah. (Laughs.)
TK: [Continuing accent:] “Delicious. What’s for lunch? Are those corn dogs?”
G: (Laughs.) Through this device, I assume that we’ll learn we shouldn’t be afraid of Happy.
TK: Be very afraid of Happy. Be very afraid of Happy. I think school janitors from other countries are the one who are eventually gonna plot to destroy our way of life as we know it. No, I’m kidding. Yeah, I think Happy turns out to just be a very amiable guy who, uh, who just (laughs) has a beetling brow and speaks in a language that no one can figure out where it’s from. You know, is it Farsi? Is it Pakistani? You know, is it Arabic? What is it?
G: Alright. We’re out of time. Thanks very much
TK: Thanks, man.