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TCA 2019: SpongeBob cast talks 'craziest' fans, from Bowie to Obama

By Tara Bennett & Josh Weiss
SpongeBob SquarePants

It’s hard to believe that yellow, porous sponge in the tighty-whities (and all of Bikini Bottom, for that matter) turns 20 this year, but he remains just as popular as ever.

While there's no doubt that the animated Nickelodeon series helped "raise" an entire generation of kids since it first debuted in the late '90s, SpongeBob SquarePants is not just a property for young people. While appearing at the TCA winter tour, a good chunk of the principal voice cast dished on some of their most unexpected fans, like David Bowie (who lent his voice to the 2007 TV special, SpongeBob's Atlantis SquarePantis) and President Barack Obama.

"[Obama] was like, I love SpongeBob and The Wire. Pretty much everyone has a soft spot for SpongeBob," said Tom Kenny, who voices the happy-go-lucky short-order fry cook living in a pineapple under the sea.

Switching over to Bowie, Kenny added: "In the early days of the show, when it was just starting to pop, Bowie’s people got in touch with the show and [creator] Stephen [Hillenburg]. He was doing a show in Orange County and asked for us to be his guests. Our parking was like 30 miles away, and the seats were way far away. We never got backstage, and I looked at Stephen and was like, 'We have really made it.' When you do cartoons, you are always a bit in the celebrity ghetto."

Of course, youths around the globe flock to SpongeBob, who has made his way to 200 countries and been translated into 50 languages. That's nothing to shake a stick (or piece of coral) at.

"For kids, he has the job he loves and is a child at heart," explained the show's co-producer, Marc Ceccarelli.

"[I'd] pick up my daughters [and] there was a John Lennon buzz around the playground," said Bill Fagerbakke, voice of SpongeBob's best friend and slow-witted neighbor, Patrick Star.

"Neighborhood kids [would] start to call me Sandy," offered Carolyn Lawrence, who plays Sandy Cheeks, a land squirrel from Texas living in a bio-dome underwater.

"I was recognized by my dentist," finished Roger Bumpass, voice of SpongeBob and Patrick's irritable neighbor and co-worker, Squidward Tentacles.

And if you've ever wondered where the show's often-used exclamation of "My leg!" came from, Mr. Lawrence (voice of Plankton) had a definitive answer: "It was an ad-lib. [The scene called for] everyone writhing in pain, and I said it and I kept saying it. Fans started talking about it and named him Fred. He has his own episode."

To celebrate the world of recently departed creator Stephen Hillenburg, Nickelodeon announced today at the Viacom TCA 2019 Winter tour that the SpongeBob “Best Year Ever” event will start on July 12 with SpongeBob’s Big Birthday Blowout special and culminate with the theatrical release of The SpongeBob Movie: It’s a Wonderful Sponge in the summer of 2020.

Fans can also look for a global mobile game that lets fans step into SpongeBob’s role as a fry cook at The Krusty Crab, pop-up experiences across the U.S., and a slew of new toys and collectibles, including the “Masterpiece Meme” line that reproduces the viral memes like Surprised Patrick, Handsome Squidward, and Mocking SpongeBob.

The one-hour launch special, SpongeBob’s Big Birthday Blowout, will be timed to "Help Wanted" (the debut episode from 1999) and feature a mix of live action and traditional animation as SpongeBob and Patrick travel to the surface world, where they will, for the very first time, encounter the real-life voice talent of the iconic characters in The Trusty Slab restaurant, the human version of the Krusty Krab.

The rest of the year will feature many celebratory initiatives, including the roll-out of the official SpongeBob SquarePants YouTube channel that will house classic bits from the last two decades and the new short-form series, Bikini Bottom Mysteries.

So, while Bikini Bottom fans didn’t get their full Super Bowl performance of “Sweet Victory” this year, Nickelodeon is making up for it with a victory lap.

"SpongeBob still ends up winning and on top," Kenny said. "They don’t hate on SpongeBob, they hate on Maroon 5."

For our full coverage of the TCA 2019 winter tour, click here.