After 16 years, “Spongebob Squarepants” is still making viewers laugh as much as it did when the show aired in 1999. The show’s lead characters joined together for a panel to preview a new episode titled “Lost in Bikini Bottom” and perform a table read for the fan-favorite choice, “Idiot Box”. Tom Kenny, who voices Spongebob Squarepants, and Bill Fagerbakke, the voice of Patrick Star, sat down with Blast at San Diego Comic-Con to discuss the longevity of the show and their journey to become these iconic characters.
Blast: Why do you think that “Spongebob Squarepants” has outlasted almost every other television program?
Kenny: I think that people come back to television shows because of the characters. They want to spend time with them and go on new adventures with them, even though they’ve seen them a million times. As long as people want to see the characters and demand new episodes, a network would be stupid to not provide them with that.
Fagerbakke: I think people are just too lazy to change the channel.
Kenny: A lot of people lost the remotes in 1999 and can’t get off Nickelodeon now.
Fagerbakke: There is something unique about the characters and the way they interact with one another that you can’t concretely explain. You just can’t copy it.
Kenny: You can analyze it and try to figure the exact reasoning out, but the bottom line is that it’s just something that happened that works really well. [Stephen] Hillenburg, the show’s creator, made this weird combination of personalities, graphic style, music and comedy that people really love. People are still discovering “Spongebob” every day and I’m always amazed when I hear people say that they just started watching the show this year. It’s been on the air for 16 years, but Steve created something that just worked and really connected with people. It’s just a perfect diaspora of elements that congealed into something that people love.
Fagerbakke: The recipe was right.
Kenny: It’s like the Krabby Patty secret formula. When you come to events like Comic-Con, you get to talk to people who are in their 20s that watch “Spongebob” every day or friends who met because of “Spongebob” and knew the other one was cool because they could make a striped sweater reference. The show has become a barometer and it’s mind-blowing and such a trip.
Blast: Both of you have done a variety of other voices for television in the past. How do you decide how you want to make the characters sound when you get assigned the role? Is there a specific process you go through?
Kenny: I look at the breakdown of the character and the basic picture they provide you with and try to make my best guess. You need to give them something better than the other 150 people auditioning for the role. It’s a right-brain meets left-brain kind of thing-half Rubik’s cube and half artistic.
Fagerbakke: Since you record first, you don’t have an animated character to base your ideas on. It’s all based on stills. The one lead you can get is if it’s humor-based, because then you can play on your comedic instinct.
Kenny: There are drawings of the character but there’s no finished animation yet. They animate to the voice tracks that they’re going to get. You really have to look at the small clues you’re given when you audition and try to put a different twist on it.
Fagerbakke: You really are guessing in the dark because you have such a minimal idea of what the finished project is going to look like. Tom is a lot more experienced than me. When I auditioned for “Spongebob”, I had no idea what the tone was for the show. It wasn’t a conventional script for animation, because they normally include stage directions. It was just dialogue on the page with each character’s lines. I had no idea of the tone and thought it was some preschool drivel. I didn’t know there was going to be an awesome Tiny Tim song in the pilot with incredible visual humor and flourish. When I saw the pilot, I was amazed. It was really lucky for me.
Blast: Earlier this year, the latest “Spongebob” movie, “Sponge Out of Water”, was released and grossed $56 million in the first weekend. Is there potential for more films in the future?
Kenny: The movie did really well and exceeded the box office expectations that Paramount had for us. “Spongebob”’s an anomaly as it’s been on the air for 16 years. Paramount had a certain projection of how the movie would do and we definitely surpassed it. As Mr. Krabs knows, money drives everything. I think if a studio does really well with a film, they are thinking about a sequel as soon as the box office receipts start coming in.
Fagerbakke: Paramount wasn’t sure how the film would do because it’s difficult to transform TV content into a feature film. However, if you were having this conversation with some Paramount executives now, I’m sure they would say there will definitely be another film.
Kenny: If there is a future film, it’s probably in a very embryonic state right now. It’s really about figuring out what the story will be and how to best relay that idea. I think that if the film grossed as well as it did, the studio is going to want a little bit more of that cake.
Blast: “Spongebob Squarepants” has been on the air since 1999 and there have been a lot of great episodes. Do you have a favorite?
Kenny: I always say “Band Geeks.” “Sweet Victory” is just an anthem to live by. It’s so stupid, it’s good.
Fagerbakke: For me, it’s the pilot and always will be. There was such a personal discovery and I got to share it with my kids. We got a VHS tape of the pilot way before it aired or got picked up. I thought it was fantastic and did my own testing of the show with some of my kid’s friends that would come over. They loved and it and so did their parents.
Kenny: The pilot had that kind of effect on people. I remember showing it to my dad on a VHS. He wasn’t a show-biz person or into animation and we didn’t really share any of the same obsessions. I was a kid who loved cartoons and he was very patient with that but I don’t think he quite understood it. When he saw that pilot, he laughed and thought it was amazing. He told me that this show was going to make it for the long run. He’s an accountant for an air conditioning company and I said, “How do you know it’s going to succeed Dad?” He was right and sixteen years later, here we are.