By Josiah Martin | Staff Writer
A crowd of more than 600 Duquesne University students erupted into cheers as Tom Kenny, the actor who has voiced SpongeBob SquarePants for nearly 20 years, ran through the aisles of the Union Ballroom, giving high-fives to any student within his reach. Exhausted, he returned to the stage.
“I thought that would be funnier,” Kenny said.
To the students, it was hilarious. Some had been lined up outside the door nearly an hour before his appearance on Feb. 22, hosted by the Duquesne Program Council (DPC). Kenny came to talk about his career and take questions from the audience. Lauren Casertano, a senior Health Science major and arts and entertainment director for DPC, explained that this was the first event of its kind for Kenny.
“It was his first time ever at a college,” Casertano said. “This is his guinea pig. He said he really liked it a lot.”
Kenny truly treated the event as an experiment. While DPC had a structure in mind for the event, Kenny opted for a more informal approach and chose to have Casertano join him on-stage for the entirety of the program.
“It was supposed to be me … going around with the microphone, getting questions. But instead he was like, no, you’re going to sit on stage with me,” Casertano said. “He’s just really down to earth, a nice guy.”
After his audience high-fives, Kenny briefly spoke about how he got started in voice acting. He got his start in stand-up comedy, but always had voice acting in mind as a long-term goal.
Kenny stated that voice acting was something he “wanted to do so badly but couldn’t figure out how to do it.”
Eventually, Kenny was approached after a stand-up show by people who noted the amount of characters and voices in his set. They brought him on board at Cartoon Network for what would be his first voice-over work. His start with Nickelodeon would be on the animated series Rocko’s Modern Life.
“That was my first series, and I just loved it so much,” said Kenny, who voiced Heffer, an anthropomorphized cow.
As Rocko’s Modern Life neared the end of its run, Stephen Hillenburg, the show’s creative director, pitched a new idea to Kenny.
Kenny recalled Stephen Hillenburg telling him, “I’ve got this idea for a show, it’s really stupid, it’ll never go. It’s about a sponge that works at a restaurant.”
That show became SpongeBob SquarePants, and Kenny jumped at the opportunity to voice its titular character, who he describes as having “one foot in the adult world … He lives by himself, but he is very childish.”
After finishing his story, Kenny took questions from the audience. Some were SpongeBob in-jokes such as, “Have you and Patrick come up with any numbers funnier than 25 yet?” A few were serious questions, such as one about the perceived dip in quality of the series after Hillenburg’s departure in 2004.
That question, asked by sophomore Jeremy Landau, received groans from the audience. Kenny, however, accepted it warmly, assuring the audience that the cast of the show “talk about this all the time.”
Kenny recalled that Hillenburg needed to depart the show to “surf, paint and hang out with [his] wife and kid.”
Kenny believes that no matter what the direction of the show, his role within it must stay the same.
“I’m just a dumb actor, my job is to be the keeper of Spongebob,” Kenny said.
While taking audience questions, Kenny described his friendship with Bill Fagerbakke, the voice of Patrick Star. They two first met doing a short lived Dumb and Dumber animated series.
“20 years later, we’re hanging out, we’ve watched each other’s kids grow up,” Kenny said.
Kenny told a story of a grown man brought to tears when he ran into the two actors together at Kenny’s daughter’s school play.
“People find it deeply reassuring to know that SpongeBob and Patrick hang out in real life,” Kenny said.
Kenny ended the event by encouraging the audience to “go out into the world and do stuff. Just do it!”
Following the final questions, Kenny was approached by a horde of fans asking for autographs and photos. Though this wasn’t part of the original plan for the evening, Kenny gladly obliged and spoke at length to every audience member he had time for.
“We were like … ‘this isn’t part of the deal, if you don’t want to do it, it’s okay,’ and he’s like ‘keep ‘em coming, keep ‘em coming,’” said Casertano. “We were just happy that everyone was so excited.”
Regarding the event, Kenny told The Duke, “I loved it. I didn’t know what to expect from it, except . . . I’m just going to come and babble about what I do every day.”
When asked for his impression of Duquesne students, Kenny added “The kids are great. It’s invigorating to be around young people. I get to work with these people who are fresh and, you know, they’re taking over the world, and that kind of keeps me young.”