- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Less than a minute into speaking with Tom Kenny and Bill Fagerbakke — who voice SpongeBob SquarePants and Patrick Starr, respectively — music breaks in unexpectedly.

“That was me. I was trying to turn up the volume on my phone and that happened,” Mr. Kenny says from the press junket for “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water.” “This is going ‘swimmingly,’” he says, and laughs.

A few seconds later, the call is disconnected but then quickly reconnected, and Mr. Kenny laughs good-naturedly.

“Well, make sure you start your article by saying that Tom Kenny, the guy who plays SpongeBob, couldn’t figure out how to use a telephone,” he says. “I guess I’m more of a Patrick than Patrick is.”

“I just don’t touch anything,” Mr. Fagerbakke adds, channeling the voice of the bumbling Patrick, SpongeBob’s best buddy.

“Sponge Out of Water” follows the continuing adventures of the unfailingly positive man-child sponge, who this time must recover a magic book from the vile pirate Burger Beard (a live-action Antonio Banderas) and save his home of Bikini Bottom. Along the way, SpongeBob and his friends leave the sea behind and enter the human world, all in glorious 3-D. Hilarity — as it so often does in the SpongeBob universe — ensues.

Mr. Kenny and Mr. Fagerbakke have voiced the characters for 15 years, on television and in two films. Mr. Kenny came from the world of standup comedy, while Mr. Fagerbakke was known primarily as an actor, appearing in such projects as the Craig T. Nelson sitcom “Coach.”

Mr. Kenny says SpongeBob’s high-pitched tones were inspired by a little person he met at a commercial audition some years before working on the cartoon. The diminutive actor was auditioning to be an elf in a Christmas-themed spot.

“He was sitting in the hall with all these other dudes, and he was just complaining and cussing,” Mr. Kenny says. “And just, you know, [saying], ‘This is the only time of year I can get work. If it wasn’t for the Christmas [beep], you know, I would never [beep] work and [beep] I’m too old and [beep].’”

Mr. Kenny first channeled the frustrated actor’s voice as a minor character on a Nickelodeon cartoon called “Rocco’s Modern Life,” which counted animator Stephen Hillenburg on its staff. When it came time to cast Mr. Hillenburg’s own creation, SpongeBob, he recalled that squeaky voice and called Mr. Kenny in to audition.

“[Mr. Hillenburg] knew how he wanted the voices to sound in his head, although he’s not an actor or a voice guy,” Mr. Kenny says of his initial reading for the part. “He just described the character, had a drawing of the character, and said he’s kind of this arrested adolescent — half a boy, half a man, kind of a munchkin. A little bit Pee-wee Herman. And almost the first guess that I threw out there was the one that he responded to and the one that became SpongeBob’s voice pretty much for the next 15 years.”

Mr. Fagerbakke says the dim-witted Patrick’s voice came naturally. It was “very much kind of in my wheelhouse. You know, when you look like me and talk like me and sound like me, it’s just the kind of the jobs you get,” he said.

Bill is the go-to guy for dunderheads,” Mr. Kenny says, gently ribbing his co-worker.

Both men concur that SpongeBob was created to appeal not only to children but also to their parents, and adults who were raised on cartoons would appreciate the show’s subversive, anarchic humor.

“I think they were making the kind of cartoon they wish there was more of,” Mr. Kenny says. “You know, make a cartoon [the creative team] would like to watch, but I think they were just trying to make a funny show while at the same time being totally aware that it was being marketed as a kids show on a kids network.”

“Steve was a new parent at the time” the show was created, Mr. Fagerbakke says. “His boy was born right around the birth of SpongeBob. He had an awareness of that in a very personal way.”

Unlike in live-action movies, voice actors rarely, if ever, record in the same physical space as their co-stars. However, Mr. Hillenburg’s credo for SpongeBob is that if the actors are in a scene together, they record together.

“Since the beginning of SpongeBob, it’s always been old school, ‘Rocky & Bullwinkle’-style recording like a radio play,” Mr. Kenny says. “If SpongeBob and Squidward and Patrick and Plankton and Mr. Krabbs are all in that scene, we’re all in the room [with] our various microphones. “I would be really sad if the paradigm suddenly shifted and I had to go to a room alone and be SpongeBob, and then Patrick records his stuff later, and they Frankenstein everything together in the editing room.”

“That would be no good,” Mr. Fagerbakke says. “We have a great time working together. We make each other laugh constantly.”

The SpongeBob cast includes Clancy Brown as the irascible, avaricious fast food eatery owner Mr. Krabbs. Mr. Brown, a 6-foot-3-inch character actor known primarily as the villainous Kurgan in the first “Highlander” movie, has enjoyed greater success behind the microphone.

“It’s tough for a character actor to make a living these days,” Mr. Kenny says.

“In film too, if you’re not in the top four on the call sheet, you’re scale plus 10,” Mr. Fagerbakke says. “Or you hope plus 10.”

Switching gears, Mr. Kenny laughs and recalls that his co-worker had a love scene with Jamie Lee Curtis in the 1990 Kathryn Bigelow-directed cop film “Blue Steel.”

“So I think that Mr. Krabbs fans might want to Google ‘nude love scene Clancy Brown Jamie Lee Curtis,’” Mr. Kenny says. “He’s going to kill me! And he will! He can do it! He’s the Kurgan!”

“He can go back in time before you said that,” Mr. Fagerbakke says.

“Kick my butt on the day I’m born,” Mr. Kenny says.

Mr. Kenny emphasized that even more recognizable names find more consistent paychecks giving life to animated creations than live-action characters, including Mark Hamill. Though he is known the world over as Luke Skywalker, animation fans have responded to decades for his work as the Joker on animated Batman shows, as well as many others.

“I worked with him on a few things,” Mr. Kenny says, including on “The Ultimate Spider-Man,” where Mr. Hammil voices the evil Baron Zemo. “He’s unrecognizable from Luke Skywalker or the Joker,” Mr. Kenny says. “You know, he’s one of the on-camera actors who really is a really great voice actor as well.”

There’s a reason Mr. Kenny and Mr. Fagerbakke continue working with the same voice actors time after time: Once you break in, they say, there’s little chance anyone leaves.

“It’s a small world, a really small pool of people that you kind of just work with again and again and again,” Mr. Kenny says. “That’s probably why it was so hard to break into and why people complain. Young people complain, ‘I can’t get into it; there’s like 12 people that do every freaking job in town.’ And I guess that’s sort of true.

“I have no Plan B,” Mr. Kenny says with a laugh. “I’ve worked on loading docks, and I guess that’s what I’d have to do again, or maybe start doing standup comedy again, which I don’t remember how to do.”

“The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water” opens Friday.

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