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On Friday, June 5, Nickelodeon is holding a virtual table read of some iconic SpongeBob SquarePants scenes performed by the show's core voice cast: Tom Kenny (SpongeBob/Gary), Bill Fagerbakke (Patrick), Rodger Bumpass (Squidward), Carolyn Lawrence (Sandy), Clancy Brown (Mr. Krabs), and Mr. Lawrence (Plankton).
"We haven’t seen each other since this whole thing started," Kenny tells SYFY WIRE, referring to the coronavirus pandemic and how it's made in-person animation recordings impossible. "We’re used to recording together in the same room, pretty much every Wednesday for 20 years plus. I’m the voice director, I direct those guys and we miss it... We're really excited to get back together and be those characters again in an ensemble, not in a vacuum by yourself like this."
Hosted by YouTube personality David Dobrick, the half-hour special is dictated entirely by fans who have already cast their votes on eight absorbent, yellow, and porous moments they want to see recreated. We won't know what sequences were chosen until the event premieres (like Mr. Krabs and the Krabby Patty formula, Nick's keeping details pretty close to the vest) but the candidates can be viewed below.
"There are some [scenes] that always pop up and some of the ones that people are fond of are kind of the more obscure ones," Kenny says. "Who knows what the voting’s gonna bring, but it’ll be fun. It’s always fun to revisit these episodes because we do them and I direct them and then a whole bunch of other stuff supplants that in your brain. You just gotta move on to other shows, other episodes, other life stuff. You kind of forget about it and meanwhile, there’s people out there that’ve been watching it a 150 times and it’s really part of their DNA, even more than it’s [part of] ours."
After more than two decades of voicing Bikini Bottom's happy-go-lucky fry cook, the prolific voice actor has no shortage of favorite episodes, scenes, and lines of dialogue. The best part is that they're always cropping up at all hours of the day. In short, Mr. SquarePants is never detached from Kenny's life.
"I’ll be reading to kids in a school classroom [or] I’ll see kids fooling around and, of course, you think about, ‘What’s funnier than 24?... 25!’ I’m just constantly reminded of SpongeBob stuff and I think the fans are like that, too," he adds. "These scenes are just part of their memory bank and that’s what the memes are, right? It’s like, ‘Hey, this situation kind of reminds me of this drawing of SpongeBob. This Squidward face goes great with this situation. It encapsulates this situation that I’m feeling right now.’ It really depends on the day and it depends on what I’m seeing but, yeah, there’s a lot of SpongeBob-centric memories in my brain once I’m walking through the world."
And speaking of memes, it's staggering to the see sheer amount of relatable imagery the series has delivered unto the internet. Whether it's "Savage Patrick" or "Mocking SpongeBob," everyone's got their go-to template, including Kenny.
"I used to love ‘Imma head out.’ There’s no place for me to head out to anymore!" he jokes. "Where do I go? The store once a month? I understand that there are corona-specific SpongeBob memes and I must admit that I haven’t really seen those yet, but I love all the SpongeBob memes. They’re hilarious."
While we're on the subject of SquarePants content that applies to our everyday lives, let's talk about "I Had an Accident," the Season 3 episode wherein the lovable sponge shatters his posterior and, terrified of having to use an "iron butt" lest he breaks it again, quarantines himself inside his pineapple home against external danger. To anyone isolating amid the pandemic, it's no longer so far-fetched to think that a person could make friends with a potato chip, penny, and used napkin after nearly three months of no physical contact with the outside world.
"I realized that I’m very much like SpongeBob. I am not a stay-at-home, shelter-in-place person," Kenny admits. "Like SpongeBob, I’m realizing I don’t do well on lockdown. I like my community and I like going out and I like restaurants and I like people and I like hanging out and I like going to live music shows all the time. I love going to see old movies. SpongeBob is probably doing about as good as I would do, which is not well."
He notes that other SpongeBob characters would probably fare a lot better in the current situation.
"Squidward, he’s been social distancing forever. His personality is his social distancing," the actor explains. "Patrick lives under a rock. Sandy, she’s kind of a loner anyway because she’s the only Texan she knows, so she just hangs out in her dome and does science. Mr. Krabs just wants to hang out in the backroom and count his money... Gary’s at home while SpongeBob works all day... [But] me and SpongeBob need to get out of the house, man."
Has he sung the "Indoors Song" yet? You bet. "That's kind of my anthem now," Kenny says after belting out a line of the chorus. "I have a deep, personal relationship with a potato chip."
As the interview winds down, Kenny remembers SpongeBob's beloved creator, Stephen Hillenburg. He tragically died from ALS complications in November of 2018, but his underwater legacy lives on. At last summer's San Diego Comic-Con, Kenny recounted SpongeBob's humble beginnings as a mere sketch in Hillenburg's desk drawer.
"[It] could’ve easily been something that lived in his notebook forever," Kenny says. "And the fact that it was allowed to happen and that Nickelodeon got behind it and that the fans got behind it and that it’s had this trajectory that’s still ongoing, is just this beautiful [thing]. I could never have foreseen it. I couldn’t have foreseen it even enough to wish for it. It’s just such a weird thing, an anomaly and to be a part of that is ridiculous."
Kenny keeps constant "reminders" of the creator throughout his home office such as a custom drawing of SpongeBob that Hillenburg made just for him when the show "first started to take off." He also has a 2002 TV Guide cover — co-illustrated by Hillenburg — that mashes up SpongeBob and Popeye (the spinach-eating sailor was mutually beloved by creator and actor).
"[Stephen] changed my life for sure. He changed my career for sure," Kenny says. "He gave me the keys to that character. He gave me tons of freedom and said, ‘There’s a lot of you in this character, you know what to do. I’m not gonna micromanage the voice or micromanage your performance. You know this guy.’ Not very many creators give you that amount of freedom. Steph was such a secure guy and he gave everybody that freedom... He said, ‘You know the character, I picked you because you can channel the character, so just channel the character. If something feels right, do it.’ He was open to trying anything."
More than two decades later, and the denizens of Bikini Bottom are omnipresent; pretty much everyone up on dry land knows who they are and what they look and sound like. SpongeBob SquarePants is simply — and excuse the maritime pun here — an anchor of our popular culture.
"I feel really grateful to be a part of something like that," Kenny concludes. "I don’t think very many actors get to be a part of something like that. I don’t even really fully appreciate what that means yet or understand it. I won’t know for years and years. It’s a testament, I think, to the power of creativity and ideas that Steph Hillenburg had."
The Stars of SpongeBob: Fan Favorites Special airs on Nick this Friday at 7:00 p.m. EST.