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News:LEFT COAST JOURNAL; Father and Son, Soaking Up Affection

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Index → June 2003LEFT COAST JOURNAL; Father and Son, Soaking Up Affection
LEFT COAST JOURNAL; Father and Son, Soaking Up Affection
Source citation: Wallace, Amy (June 15, 2003). "LEFT COAST JOURNAL; Father and Son, Soaking Up Affection." The New York Times. Retrieved October 28, 2013.

IT had been a big day for the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants and his 5-year-old son, Mack. They had been to their Daddy and Me class, where they ate pizza and talked about why Mack needed to work harder at listening. Then, father and son had compiled a list of the dopiest songs ever. She's fresh! Mack yelled, doing his best Kool and the Gang impression. Over the next few hours, he yelled it 17 more times, and not once did his father fail to respond, Exciting!

Now they had arrived at the Burbank Fire Station, where the firemen were celebrating Fire Service Day by letting children climb all over the trucks. Mack's mother met them in front of a pumper whose control panel pulled at Mack like a magnet. The boy was reaching for something marked Throttle when his father said what anyone with a pulse had to be thinking: Whoa! This looks just like the Batmobile.

If you have ever wondered what it would be like to have a superhero for a father, Mack Kenny could fill you in. For a long time, his father, Tom Kenny, traveled undetected through the mortal world. Blessed with the ultimate Clark Kent disguise -- on television he wears big dorky glasses and plays a cartoon sea sponge that lives inside a pineapple -- Mr. Kenny went bowling and bought groceries and was generally anonymous.

But as SpongeBob SquarePants has become a cultural phenomenon to rival Mickey Mouse, Mr. Kenny's anonymity has been slipping away. And that has taken some adjustment for everyone. The cartoon, which is televised on the Nickelodeon channel at least twice a day, is watched not only by children but also by irony-loving adults.

I tell Mack, 'Daddy's not famous. SpongeBob is,' Mr. Kenny said. So far, it seems, Mack isn't buying it. Mr. Kenny, 40, a former stand-up comedian, is one of the top voice-actors in town. A utility player who can do six voices at a clip, he also plays the narrator and the mayor on Cartoon Network's Powerpuff Girls, Dog in Nickelodeon's CatDog and Boo Boo on Yogi Bear.

When we conceive of new shows, we all come up with characters for Tom, said Chris Savino, who is a writer, director and producer on The Powerpuff Girls. He always gets the jokes.

But it is the wobbly-squeaky, ever-sincere voice of SpongeBob that has made Mr. Kenny a hero to millions, especially 5-year-olds like Mack. The boy has watched his friends from prekindergarten giggle when his father does the SpongeBob laugh, a sound Mr. Kenny describes as the dolphin on Flipper crossed with a smoke alarm whose batteries are dying.

With a feature film in preparation -- The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie is due in theaters in November 2004 -- even Mr. Kenny has to acknowledge that his days as a noncelebrity are probably numbered. If you ask Mack, those days are history.

At Knott's Berry Farm, the kids were going, 'SpongeBob! SpongeBob! SpongeBob! he said, referring to the nearby amusement park where Mr. Kenny made a recent appearance. When asked if that was weird for him, Mack looked down at his feet, which were stuffed into neon-blue slippers shaped like race cars. It was cool, he said coolly. When asked to name his favorite cartoon, though, Mack grinned. Tom and Jerry, he said.

SPONGEBOB is a hapless but cheerful, uh, square. He lives in the Pacific Ocean in the subterranean city of Bikini Bottom, where he works as a fry cook at a greasy spoon called the Krusty Krab. SpongeBob is relentlessly earnest. He is also his own worst enemy.

His flaw is that he's an innocent and it gets him into trouble, Stephen Hillenburg, the show's creator, said. He's optimistic and naïve, and that keeps him from being a one-note hyperactive sponge who you want to strangle.

Indeed, instead of turning the channel, millions of Americans, drawn by the show's odd mixture of positive thinking and campy, ironic undertones, have adopted SpongeBob and his chipper, rainbow-colored world. Mr. Hillenburg and Mr. Kenny are shocked by the show's popularity. It is the top-rated cartoon on the highest-rated basic-cable network, Nickelodeon, and retail sales of SpongeBob's licensed products reached $700 million in 2002.

We're in disbelief, Mr. Hillenburg said. It's hard to imagine everyone's so crazy over a sponge. But nobody seems surprised that Mr. Kenny is the man who brought SpongeBob to life.

In the fifth grade in Syracuse, N.Y., the future actor was asked to write an essay on an important figure in American history. He chose the animator Chuck Jones, who created Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote, among other characters.

Everyone else was writing about Abe Lincoln, Mr. Kenny said. But to me, Chuck Jones was right up there with Abe Lincoln.

As a teenager, he daydreamed about what it was like to be Mel Blanc, the legendary voice of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. But in 1980, when Mr. Kenny graduated from high school, animation was at its nadir. Cartoons were being used primarily to sell toys. Animation in the 1980's meant The Smurfs and Strawberry Shortcake.

That began to change when The Simpsons was introduced in 1987, followed a few years later by two irreverent cartoons from Nickelodeon, The Ren and Stimpy Show and Rugrats, about four babies who eat dog food and suspect their parents of being robots.

There was this renaissance, said Julia Pistor, senior vice president of Nickelodeon Movies, adding that animators needed versatile voice talent to make their alternate universes believable. Suddenly, people like Tom Kenny were very much in demand.

Mr. Kenny was first cast by Nickelodeon in Rocko's Modern Life, a cartoon about a wallaby; it lasted four seasons. He befriended Mr. Hillenburg, Rocko's creative director. Years later, when Mr. Hillenburg conceived of an impish sea sponge with a Pollyanna heart, Mr. Kenny was an important sounding board.

There were a lot of similarities between SpongeBob and Tom, the real person, Mr. Hillenburg said. Tom is a self-professed nerd. He can tap into innocence in his reads. He's also one of the quickest people I've ever met. You want a monster, he can do Vincent Price, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff.

Mr. Kenny plays down his gifts, in part, he said, because as a father he worries about the messages his newfound fame sends to his son.

Mack has a dad who makes a living doing the stuff you're not supposed to do in school: making funny noises. And he sees me lionized disproportionately, Mr. Kenny said. He'll say, 'Well, people like you because you're famous.' I say, 'Those people don't really know me. They like a show that I work on, along with a ton of other people.

MACK has his father's ears. When listening to music, he analyzes each instrument, savoring the silences, the rhythms. Although he cannot yet read, Mack can already identify an echo or a missed cue. Bob Seger will be singing Old Time Rock and Roll on the car radio, and Mack will lean forward in his car seat and say: Oh, I love this part.

Mack just hears everything, said his mother, Jill Talley, who is also a voice actor. He's very much like Tom in that way.

In truth, Mr. Kenny's ears are as important to his career as his vocal cords. His job is not just about sound effects and funny accents. It is about listening to his fellow cast members. It is about hearing -- and simultaneously knowing -- what's funny.

They call it voice-acting because it really is acting, Cyma Zarghami, Nickelodeon's executive vice president, said. Bringing an animated character to life in some ways is probably harder than bringing a live character to life. You need great comedic timing both to make the jokes work and to make the voice and the animation sync up. When done right, it's miraculous.

Ms. Zarghami's favorite Tom Kenny character, though, isn't SpongeBob, but a smaller role on the same show: Patchy the Pirate, who behaves foolishly.

He's just an idiot, but in the best possible way, Ms. Zarghami says. And I believe that character is Tom.

It's good that Mr. Kenny understands idiocy, because fame has a way of turning people around him into dolts.

Last July 4, Mr. Kenny's father died unexpectedly. He returned to Syracuse for the wake and was overwhelmed, he said, when dozens of people lined up to share their memories. Mr. Kenny will never forget that day, which he compares to a scene from It's a Wonderful Life.

But unfortunately, he will also never forget one woman who approached him, offered condolences, and then reached into her handbag and pulled out a SpongeBob CD.

She said, 'I hope this isn't inappropriate, but could you sign this?' Mr. Kenny recalled, shaking his head. I mean, the only thing that would have been more inappropriate is if I leaned over and used my father's forehead to steady myself as I signed.

Episodes like that make Mr. Kenny protective of Mack. He wants his son to see that his parents have jobs that they enjoy, so he takes Mack to recording sessions. But he will not take Mack to places where he will encounter too many fans.

It makes him feel strange. Not jealous in a 'Bad Seed' kind of way, but still strange, Mr. Kenny said. It's weird, because you want to show your kids that you take pride in your work. But those of us in voice-over, we're basically like the carnies of show business. We're one step above the guy that sets up the Tilt-a-Whirl at the state fair. I mean, I wouldn't want any other job in the world. It's just that we get such unfortunate adoration.

Still, notoriety isn't all bad. Mr. Kenny heard recently from a small record label inviting him to sing (as SpongeBob) on a tribute album to NRBQ, one of Mr. Kenny's favorite bands.

Mr. Kenny offered to play the songs for a visitor, but Mack had other ideas. Play the 'O.K.,' Dad, he said. His father looked at him quizzically, then seemed to understand.

He popped a CD of a recent rehearsal into a boombox. There was some jumbled talk as the musicians got ready to play. Mack beamed as if he were about to burst with pride.

O.K., Mr. Kenny could be heard to say. But it is Mack who appeared to be speaking. He lip-synched the single word perfectly, his arms outstretched, like a showman tapdancing a complicated step. For Mr. Kenny, O.K. was merely an offhand comment, mumbled between takes. But for Mack it was the very best part. In it, he heard something that no other 5-year-old would ever recognize. His father's voice.
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