The coronavirus outbreak hasn’t been easy on anyone, and there’s one fictional character who’d especially struggle with the isolation of lockdown. Perpetually upbeat SpongeBob SquarePants would be crushed by having to put his social life on hold, Tom Kenny, who voices SpongeBob, told me.
Of all the residents of Bikini Bottom, lockdown is “probably hardest on SpongeBob because he’s such a social creature,” the Emmy Award-winning actor told me over the phone. SpongeBob “loves going out to work at the Krusty Krab, and he loves being out in the town, and he loves hanging out with his friends, and he loves doing stuff.”
SpongeBob’s friends might adapt better to quarantine than the sponge himself.
“Squidward is a social distancer just by his personality,” Kenny said of SpongeBob’s morose co-worker. “Patrick lives under a rock. Sandy is the only mammal for 20,000 leagues around, so she’s used to kinda being a lone wolf — or a lone squirrel. And Mr. Krabs would rather just hang out with his cash register and count his money in the back room than do anything else, so yeah, I think that they’re probably doing better than SpongeBob.”
Kenny has voiced SpongeBob since the Nickelodeon animated show’s 1999 premiere, and he’ll voice SpongeBob in a new program, The Stars of SpongeBob Fan Favorites Special, airing Friday on Nickelodeon. (Editors’ note: Nickelodeon is a part of ViacomCBS, which also owns CNET.)
YouTube personality David Dobrik hosts the half-hour show, which features animation from original SpongeBob Square Pants episodes, with the regular voice cast redoing the same lines they delivered years ago. Fans were allowed to vote on a small selection of scenes at NickPlay.com, with the top vote-getters being used in the special.
Kenny said the re-created scenes felt fresh to the voice actors, even though they’ve done them before. “Some of (the scenes) are 20 years old, so those mental files were dumped long ago by the cast,” he said. “So that just kinda adds to the fun.”
The actor hopes the fan-favorites special provides some laughs in these strange times. The cast recorded from their homes, as opposed to joining together in one studio as they usually do.
“Cartoons are this kinda comfort-food product,” Kenny said, in a friendly, professional voice you’d never connect to SpongeBob’s bubbly, perky tones. (He sounds a bit like Breaking Bad and Malcolm in the Middle star Bryan Cranston, actually.) “You can make it in a different way but the end product still looks and tastes and smells the same way it ever did. It’s like a Krabby Patty.”
Kenny himself is staying busy in his “pineapple under the sea in Studio City (California),” he said. In addition to recording for— he’s voiced everyone from the cat-like Squanchy to the uber-creepy King Jellybean — and other projects, he’s working on regular SpongeBob SquarePants episodes as well as the show’s upcoming new Nickelodeon spinoff, Kamp Koral: SpongeBob’s Under Years. (Neither the new SpongeBob season nor Kamp Koral have premiere dates yet.)
In the new show, a 10-year-old SpongeBob and young versions of his current pals enjoy crazy adventures at sleepaway camp.
“All the regulars are there, and you get to see them in their nascent days,” said Kenny, demonstrating how he squeaks his versatile voice into an even higher register to voice “little-kid SpongeBob.”
The spinoff show will be set up in the upcoming third film for SpongeBob and crew — The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run, which includes flashbacks to the friends’ Kamp Koral days. The film is currently scheduled for theatrical release on Aug. 7, having been postponed twice now by the coronavirus outbreak.
While the outbreak hasn’t found its way into SpongeBob’s fictional world, the character himself, long a favorite topic of meme-makers, is again showing up in plenty of memes about the virus.
In one, a nervous SpongeBob SquarePants hyperventilates underneath the caption, “Somebody said reopening the economy right now is like believing your ex changed after two months.”
In another, SpongeBob appears to be getting up to leave his house, (he’s actually sitting down), and the wording reads, “People with the coronavirus when they get infected and go to get other countries infected.”
I talked to Kenny before global protests erupted following the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis. But SpongeBob has turned up in those related memes as well, including one showing a sick SpongeBob after presumably contracting the virus at a protest, and one offering a jab at those who replaced their social media image with a black square, but did nothing else.
Kenny says he hasn’t seen any of the coronavirus-specific SpongeBob memes — and we spoke before the protest-related memes really took off — but he understands why the character he voices has become such a universal backdrop, praising the expressiveness of the artwork and the artists’ talents.
“Cartoons just translate globally to all cultures better than most pop culture,” Kenny said. “I think that’s why he’s been so adopted by the meme culture.”