As we’ve mentioned on the site before, one of the coolest things about this year’s Comic-Con was the filming of a mockumentary (or, as director Mark Hamill prefers calling it, “…a documentary unencumbered by facts”) called Comic Book: The Movie. Utilizing the Con as a backdrop for an improvised story of Hollywood greed versus the real passion of fandom, Hamill called up several of his friends from the voice-over industry to star. You know their voices, but you may not know their faces.
Except for one, because he has a cult following outside of his recent popularity as the voice of Sponge Bob Squarepants. Before becoming an animated sea creature, Tom Kenny worked as a brilliant stand-up and a cast member/writer on the immortal (to us here at Fanboy Planet, anyway) Mr. Show with Bob and David. Unfortunately, he and his talented wife, Jill Talley, will not be on the Mr. Show tour. In Comic Book: The Movie, Kenny plays Derek Sprang, a long-time comics fanatic and publisher of a famous fanzine with his partner, Donald Swan. Kenny sat down with us on the first day of the Convention, unsure of exactly what he would be doing in the movie and only knowing that after talking to us, he was having dinner with Stan Lee.
Also, you should note that on this first day of filming, everybody referred to Comic Book: The Movie as only a tentative title. It looks like it’s going to stick, but at the time, no one knew that for sure, not even the production company, Creative Light Entertainment. And we thank Dana at CLE for setting us up with Tom and a whole host of other cast members.
Derek McCaw: What do you think of the Convention?
Tom Kenny: It’s all the stuff that we care about. We come here and…
DM: Everybody is like us.
TK: It’s almost like being a born again Christian guy, and going to the Promise Keepers convention, at like a big stadium where there’s a group of people going (shouts quietly) “Jeeessuuusssss!” It’s sort of like that.
I mean, that’s how those people must feel, (in Gomer Pyle voice) “Wow! There are other people like us!”
DM: I don’t know who’s better or worse on that…
TK: Hey, whatever gets you through the night…
DM: Tell me about your work on this film, this improv piece…
TK: Yes. The working title for this thing, at least, oh, geez, I had to look at the poster behind me, is Comic Book: The Movie. I wasn’t even supposed to be down here or involved in this, and then on Sunday, Mark Hamill, or Luke Skywalker as we know him as, called me at home and said, “I’m doing this fake documentary about comic book people and using the San Diego Con as a backdrop. Do you and Jill want to mess around with us?”
DM: So Jill is in this. I saw her and she walked away…
TK: Yeah. She’s playing…uh, it’s amazing how little we know about this. I guess that’s what’s fun about it. He just said “come down, we’re sort of making it up as we go along, somebody gave me some money, and we’re just shooting a ‘Guffman’-type fake mockumentary that takes place at Comic-Con.” And I guess we’re basically playing who we are. Jill’s playing the long-suffering spouse of a comic book fanatic.
DM: You’re playing a fan?
TK: I’m playing a fan. But I actually am in real life. Not of everything, but I do have my certain areas of obsession.
DM: Tell me one. What’s your favorite?
TK: I’m an old newspaper strips guy. (On the way to sit down for the interview, Tom had been distracted by a booth selling what looked like classic comic strip art, but wasn’t.)
DM: What’s your favorite?
TK: Thimble Theater.
TK: Right, Popeye. Smokey Stover. Bill Holman, I like all the weird thirties screwball stuff. Krazy Kat I like a lot.
DM: Smokey Stover – that would be the saying “Foo,” right?
TK: Foo. Wow. See? The people at Dark Horse just informed me that Smokey Stover was the worst-selling statue in the history of their company. And I bought two. I bought two Smokey Stovers, just because I was so thrilled that anybody was doing anything with Smokey Stover.
DM: Yeah, I discovered that character on Archie’s T.V. Funnies…
TK: Archie’s T.V. Funnies! Yeah! And it was sort of crappy and everything, but when you look at the (original) stuff it’s just so…retarded…it’s just so wonderful, so screwball. You don’t see anything like that anymore. Completely illogical, weird gags all over, every panel is crammed full of stupid puns and corny gags. It’s like vaudeville, like a burlesque show or something.
DM: Is there anybody modern that you read?
TK: I like, well, like everybody I like Eightball and Dan Clowes a lot. I still like Pete Bagge a lot…
DM: You should like Tony Millionaire…
TK: Yes! I know Tony Millionaire very well. Yeah. I love Sock Monkey. In fact, I did a cover blurb for his kids’ book. As the voice of Sponge Bob, I guess my name has some cache in the children’s publishing circles. Tony’s great.
DM: You and Jill started out in improv groups? Actually, I’ve only seen a couple of bare bones biographical paragraphs about you.
TK: That’s all there is. We’re sort of mysterious.
DM: And you want to keep it that way?
TK: Duh. Yeah. We’re under subpoena. There’s people looking for us. Actually, Jill’s a Second City person. That’s how she knew Bob, from Second City Chicago. And then I was a stand-up comedian, so I knew David from the stand-up world in Boston. So Jill and I came in to Mr. Show from different doors.
DM: Did you meet on Mr. Show?
DM: That would be too romantic.
TK: No, we met on a sketch show called The Edge that was on Fox back in the early nineties. It was on the same season that Ben Stiller was on, on the same network. If they had combined the two shows they would have had one super-great sketch show. Jill and I were cast members on that, and then it was Wayne Knight, Jennifer Aniston and Julie Brown, and then us.
DM: I first saw you as Binky in Shakes The Clown…
TK: SHAKES! Yeah, talk about coming to a place that gives you a skewed perspective on the world, a lot of people here have seen Shakes The Clown. That would never happen anywhere else on the planet Earth. You know what I mean? I mean, there’s very few people that have seen Mr. Show. Then there’s a smaller subset of people that have seen Shakes The Clown.
DM: I feel very honored, then.
TK: (laughs) Before that I did stand-up and all that. I don’t really do stand-up too much anymore.
DM: Well, now you’ve got quite a career as a voice-over guy, obviously.
TK: A lot of animation, a lot of voice-over, a lot of commercials. It keeps me in comic books.
DM: I gotta get something like that.
TK: Oh, yeah.
DM: Do you find that a lot of kids recognize at all, knowing who you are as Sponge Bob?
TK: Sometimes kids recognize me, if there was an article in Nickelodeon Magazine, you know like “What’s the face behind the voice of Sponge Bob?” And they’ll have a photo of me. Kids are really good at bagging you on that stuff. They know it’s the guy they saw in the magazine, walking by them in the supermarket or whatever. It’s pretty weird. I get recognized sometimes by kids and sometimes by people that are deep into the animation world. Deep enough to know what the faces of voice actors look like.
Which is pretty damned deep.
You’re pretty mired in animation then.
DM: How does it feel to be part of two specific followings? You’ve got Sponge Bob which has a huge kid cult, and then there’s Mr. Show. They’re at such opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of taste…in some ways.
TK: In some ways they’re very similar, and in some ways they’re very different. They are similar in the sense that they have non sequitir humor, they’re both off-the-wall, super-crazy non sequitir character-based slash situation-based comedy. They share elements.
Boy, this is the worst answer ever.
They share elements. They’re different, and then one is very family friendly, and one is the least family friendly show ever to be on television. So I’m kind of proud to be at the bi-polar ends of that spectrum.
It’s funny, because Sponge Bob has a very cultish following, too, but Mr. Show’s cult is very small, and Sponge Bob’s is very large. But people’s devotion to both those things is equal. You know what I’m saying? The people that are into it are really into it. Nobody’s into Sponge Bob or Mr. Show just a little bit. If they watch it at all, it’s because they really dig beyond a casual viewership. And I guess that’s true of Powerpuffs, too, to a lesser extent.
DM: Yeah, I just saw the movie.
TK: Oh, cool. Not many people have. Yeah, I have the cartoon world and the Mr. Show world. It’s two very ultra-specialized areas of show business, weird little tidepools.
DM: Is your career where you wanted it to be?
TK: You know, I never really dreamed of anything. Probably to my detriment. I never had a grand master plan or a strategy of where I wanted to go. My strategy was always just to work on stuff that was fun, with people that weren’t insane and horrible. On that end of things, I’m right where I want to be. I just like working. It’s weird. As long as work is there, I’m happy. I guess I’m sort of shallow that way. I’m just glad that I’m getting paid to work on stuff that some people give a rat’s ass about.
The fact that anybody…you know, people are like, “isn’t it annoying when people come up to you and ask you to sign Sponge Bob stuff?” I’m glad to be working on something that people give a s*** about. It’s nice. Because I also know that stuff comes and goes. You know what I mean? There’s a new Sponge Bob waiting around the corner, waiting to happen, that I probably won’t be a voice on.
I like doing everything. I pretty much manage to have a good time on whatever I’m working on, but who knows? The Sponge Bob movie is supposed to come out in 2004, and they asked me to write on that. I’ll probably do it.
In the meantime, I’m running around with Mark Hamill and a bunch of other people, just farting around. Mark’s a guy I know from voice-over land, because of his whole Joker thing.
DM: Tom Kenny is wearing Joker sneakers, by the way.
TK: Which I bought in 1989 and never wore, because I thought it was just too… dorky. And then when I heard I was working with Mark, I cut the tags off these, and I’m wearing them around. Somebody told me that they fetch incredibly high prices on eBay. The Converse Jokers, with purple bottoms.
DM: They’re cool. They’re very cool.
TK: Now I feel like I shouldn’t be walking around in them, like I’m being stupid.
DM: You’re a walking collector’s item.
TK: I shouldn’t have cut the tags off. I could have thrown them up on eBay and retired. Then I wouldn’t have to do any more of these … cartoons.
Whatever I’m doing, I have a good time. For twenty years, stuff has always just come along and I’ve done it, and then something else comes along and I do it, and then before you know it, twenty years have gone by and I go, “wow. I guess I never really had a plan, but I guess if I’ve got a house and stuff, I’m happy.”
(Fellow castmate from Mr. Show, Brian Posehn, has been captured and dragged over by Michael Goodson. Tom admires Brian’s Comic-Con purchase…)
TK: WOW! Christmas With The Superheroes, I can tell by the back!
DM: Hey, I have that!
TK: I love that. Yeah, I love that!
And we devolved into a little bit of reminiscing over that DC Treasury Edition, which Brian Posehn clutched to his hulking frame for all it was worth. Anybody know what it’s worth? As the weekend wore on, we ran into Tom all over the place, sometimes in character, sometimes not. Every time, though, he was upbeat, happy, and clearly, just having himself a damned good time.