Voice actor Tom Kenny vividly remembers the day he was introduced to the sponge that changed his life.
It was the late 1990s, and he had been invited over to Stephen Hillenburg’s house. They previously worked together on Nickelodeon’s show, “Rocko’s Modern Life” (1993-1996) , for which Kenny voiced Heffer the cow and Hillenburg served as creative director, among other titles.
“We just clicked immediately,” Kenny said of Hillenburg. He spoke with The Times on Thursday inside Nickelodeon’s press room at Comic-Con in San Diego, which continues through Sunday. “And when he pitched his own show, he thought of me.”
But before the formal presentation to executives, Hillenburg gave Kenny a personal preview. He unlocked his home desk drawer and revealed a mock up of, what was at the time, SpongeBoy.
“It was one of the few times I’ve looked at a character and said, ‘If I don’t play this character, I’ll be really sad,’ ” Kenny recalled. “It was like, ‘If I don’t marry this person, I’ll regret this for the rest of my life.’ “
Adding to the pressure, Kenny’s wife was pregnant at the time, so he “really needed the gig!”
The pitch? A sponge that works in a fast-food restaurant under the sea, in a town called Bikini Bottom. His dim best friend Patrick Star, his crabby co-worker Squidward Tentacles, and his greedy boss Mr. Krabs would color the neighborhood. (The idea came from Hillenburg’s background as a marine biology instructor and his work as a teenager in a seafood restaurant.)
It’s safe to say the pitch went well. This week marks the 20th anniversary since the sea creature, now dubbed “SpongeBob Squarepants,” made his debut. It’s become the longest-running Nickelodeon series and the fifth longest-running animated show on U.S. television since premiering July 17, 1999.
Some of your favorite Bikini Bottom residents — SpongeBob (Kenny), Squidward (Rodger Bumpass), Patrick Star (Bill Fagerbakke), Mr. Krabs (Clancy Brown), Plankton (Mr. Lawrence) and Sandy Cheeks (Carolyn Lawrence) — came to Comic-Con to celebrate this week.
“We never see an audience or fans when we do our work, so this is where it’s icing on the cake to see how they love our show,” Bumpass said inside Nickelodeon’s 1,800 square-foot Comic-Con booth.
This year’s SDCC setup is dedicated to the series, featuring supersized re-creations of the Krusty Krab restaurant, Plankton’s Chum Bucket and Mrs. Puff’s boating school, which drew hundreds of nostalgic fans Thursday for a cast autograph signing session.
Kenny called the celebration “bittersweet,” since the man who started it all with a sketch on a cocktail napkin was notably absent; Hillenburg died in November 2018 at age 57, after a battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.
“Bittersweet’s the word. Mostly sweet at this point. You try to find the sweet. That’s what SpongeBob would do,” Kenny said. “He gave us this gift. Steve changed all of our lives ... I’ve got a house ‘cause of that guy.”
Kenny, Bumpass and Carolyn Lawrence spoke with The Times further about Hillenburg, memorable fan moments and their favorite catchphrases. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What fan interactions stick out to you over the course of two decades?
Bumpass (Squidward): I had one in New Zealand where they had a tattoo booth at the convention, and some guy had all our characters tattooed across his back. He wanted me to sign it to then get it inked. So he took his shirt off, and it was the ugliest, [most] disgusting back you’d ever want to see! All oily, hairy and moley. I had to wash my hands afterwards. That was about the weirdest one I’ve had.
Kenny (SpongeBob): Just a couple of weeks ago, my buddy Bill Fagerbakke, [who plays] Patrick, and I were at the Prince’s Palace of Monaco to meet Prince Andrew and his children. I’m going, “We’re in a royal palace ‘cause we do [voices SpongeBob’s giggle]. Like, this is so weird.”
Lawrence (Sandy): When we were in Montreal, it was early on and the fans were just insane. We had no idea. When we had to leave, we couldn’t get around them, so they snuck us out the back door. But the fans saw us leaving, and we got rushed like the Beatles! We had to run to our van to get away.
Kenny (SpongeBob): With the times we’re living in, in particular, people tell me, wow, I need “SpongeBob” more than ever with what’s going on in the country and the world. It’s nice to be the delivery system of that particular buzz that people need more than ever right now.
And I’ve heard many times, “I was really depressed. I was going to do something drastic, and I watched a ‘SpongeBob’ episode, and it made me laugh and I pulled back.” It’s heavy. It makes you cry. Or, “My childhood was not good and people weren’t there for me, but ‘SpongeBob’ was there for me.” Heavy, heavy stuff.
How does it feel to be celebrating Year 20?
Kenny (SpongeBob): You’re always going, “This is too good to last.” I’ve been thinking that for at least 15 years.
The road trip that started 20 years ago is still going on, but instead of sitting in the backseat going, “Are we there yet? When are we gonna get there?” You’re going, “Let’s keep driving. Let’s see where this goes.”
I’m sure Stephen Hillenburg is on your minds this week as we celebrate the show’s anniversary.
Bumpass (Squidward): We’ve lost a friend. We have that pain of separation. But we are carrying on his vision in this project. And that makes us feel good that we are keeping him with us. And he is with us.
Kenny (SpongeBob): We knew about his ALS quite a while before they made a public statement. Now, I feel like we’re dealing with a death in the family and life after Steve.
And Steve knew he was sick for a couple years, so he left a trail of bread crumbs for us. There’s a map that we’re following. That guy was coming into sessions right up until his medical dean told him he couldn’t anymore. It was getting physically impossible for him.
Lawrence (Sandy): He had put a lot of thought into everything. I liken it to birthing us. I mean, he was our parent, right? He gave life to all of us. It’s his baby.
Kenny (SpongeBob): It really hit us when we all knew it was his last session. Wow. Look at me. [His eyes watered.] It was really tough. Now, I feel like we’re moving into a sweet spot where we got these bread crumbs, this trail, and we’re just trying not to mess it up.
Lawrence (Sandy): If I think about it too much, I’ll cry. Here I go. [She began tearing up.] Yeah, I can’t.
What’s it like looking back at some of those early episodes?
Kenny (SpongeBob): I feel critical of myself 24/7 no matter what I’m doing — not just the old episodes. I guess that’s just irritating actor stuff, where you just go, “Oh, I wish I had done that better or put the emphasis on that line.” Or it’s like, “Oh, I had a cold that day. I can hear it in the voice.” And you go, “Argh! That’s around forever.” It drives me crazy.
Lawrence (Sandy): I was totally intimidated. ‘Cause I had been auditioning forever and doing on-camera work. I started off as a dancer, and I didn’t even know voice actor work was a career. I had been trying so long to get into the game, and “SpongeBob” was my first series regular. I was completely intimidated because they were all so experienced and I came in like [imitating a voice crack], “Hi.”
What are some of your favorite catchphrases of your characters?
Kenny (SpongeBob): “I’m ready” is a nice mantra.
Bumpass (Squidward): “Let me explain how it is: I order the food. You cook the food. I deliver the food. We do that for 40 years, then we die.”
Kenny (SpongeBob): “You do like Krabby patties, don’t you, Squidward?”
Lawrence (Sandy): I always like the song. “Wish I was back in Texas. The ocean’s no place for a squirrel.”
Kenny (SpongeBob): The French narrator I really like, because that’s a direct link to Steve where he’s sort of based on Jacques Cousteau. Very soft spoken. Very unflappable. “2 hours later, we’re still in the Krusty Krab.” I love him. He’s a very soothing character. He’s kind of the opposite of SpongeBob’s hyper kineticism.
Bumpass (Squidward): “If I had a dollar for every brain you don’t have, I’d have a dollar.”
Kenny (SpongeBob): “This is going to be the best day ever.”