Tom Kenny stands next to a replica of SpongeBob SquarePants. Kenny has been the only voice to portray SpongeBob in the show’s 10-year history.
WILKES-BARRE — “SpongeBob SquarePants” has a connection to the city.
Bikini Bottom can now call itself a sister city of the Diamond City. The Nickelodeon animated comedy series and its cast of main characters can say they have a true friend in Wilkes-Barre — actually, a blood relative.
Tom Kenny, the only voice of SpongeBob in his 10 years of existence, is the godson and first cousin of Jim Ryan, Wilkes-Barre’s city clerk. Ryan and Kenny both grew up in Syracuse, N.Y.
“Yes, my link to the Wilkes-Barre metropolitan area is my cousin Jim,” Kenny said from Los Angeles. “I think Jim was 14 when he stood as my godfather. Obviously he has utterly failed in his responsibilities. As my godfather, it was his job to warn me what a jungle show business can be.”
Though Kenny, a stand-up comic and voice actor, said he has never visited Wilkes-Barre, he joked that he may travel here to pick up a key to the city.
“Maybe the people there would prefer that the mayor and city council come to Bikini Bottom for a visit,” Kenny said. “If I come there maybe SpongeBob can go for a swim in Harveys Lake.”
Kenny’s mother and Ryan’s mother were sisters.
“They were inseparable,” he said. “Our family can take a lot of credit for my success; that is if you call making funny voices a successful career.”
Kenny said he gets back to Syracuse a few times a year and enjoys seeing his family and childhood friends. Ryan’s mother — Marcella Donigan Ryan — died four years ago and Ryan said he remains close to Kenny’s mom — Theresa Donigan Kenny. Ryan was in Syracuse last week to visit his aunt.
“I also had a close relationship with Tom’s father, Paul Kenny,” Ryan said. “He was like a second father to me and my family when my own father passed away at an early age. Because of these relationships I was given the honor of being Tom’s godfather when I was just entering high school.”
Ryan moved to Wilkes-Barre in 1974 when he married Jeanmarie Majikes. They have two children — Bridget, 23, and Daniel, 17.
Ryan said Kenny always has had a great sense of humor and the ability to make people laugh.
“When Tom and his best friend Bob ‘Bobcat’ Goldwaith (who also became a comic and actor) were in high school, they performed a comedy skit at Tom’s older brother’s wedding entitled Vigilante Nun,” Ryan said. “They attended a Catholic School and they spoofed and exaggerated the personalities of the nuns who taught at the school. I was at that wedding and they were hilarious, even at that young age.”
Ryan remembers Kenny and Goldwaith practicing their comedy all the time. He said after graduating from high school, Kenny honed his craft in clubs in Syracuse and Boston.
“My Aunt, Tom’s mother, just recently celebrated her 80th birthday,” Ryan said. “Tom regrettably informed his Mom that something had come up and he would not be able to attend her birthday celebration as originally planned. He then flew in to Syracuse, went to the Mexican Restaurant where the celebration was scheduled, dressed in large sunglasses, a toupee, Mexican sombrero and vest and interacted with the guests and even his mom, using a heavy Hispanic accent. No one knew it was him until he revealed his identity later in the evening.
“As far as his success, of course I’m a little biased, but I am certainly proud of Tom,” Ryan said. “His success couldn’t have happened to a more genuinely nice guy. I know he feels very fortunate.”
Ryan said Kenny was quoted in a recent issue of USA Today saying, “I couldn’t dream up a gig this fun. I feel like I’ve won the lottery.”
Kenny often broke into his SpongeBob voice during an interview, making it easy to understand why he has attained such a high level of success — success that doesn’t seem to have changed the boy from Syracuse that Ryan remembers.
“When we started out with SpongeBob, we thought if we were lucky we would get two or three seasons,” Kenny said. “We kept thinking maybe we would get another six months, another six months. Here we are 10 years later and going strong. SpongeBob has gone global.
“We just did 10 new episodes and more are planned,” he said. “It’s really been fun. The other day I rang the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange.”
Kenny said the popularity of SpongeBob and his pet snail, Gary, SpongeBob’s friends Patrick, Squidward and Sandy, and two restaurateur rivals Mr. Krabs and Plankton, is surreal. He said he still has pieces of paper that have the very first images of SpongeBob.
“And now SpongeBob is everywhere,” Kenny said. “When (SpongeBob creator Steve) Hillenburg vacationed in Sumatra he never thought he would see SpongeBob. But he looked out his hotel window and saw two Muslim girls walking down the street with SpongeBob on their backpacks.”
Kenny said SpongeBob’s popularity transcends generations; he said adults seem to relate more to Mr. Krabs than SpongeBob. But Kenny said he really got a sense of the power and influence of SpongeBob when he visited a Make-A-Wish child.
“When we walked in the room, this child just lit up,” Kenny recalled. “And you could see how SpongeBob energized him. SpongeBob has the ability to relieve their misery — even if only for a few minutes; he has the power to take people out of their real world and take them to Bikini Bottom.”
Kenny said SpongeBob provides a distraction that brings great pleasure to people — especially the young.
“These are kids that climb mountains every day and SpongeBob helps ease that path,” Kenny said. “And it’s a two-way street. It’s really inspiring to see the strength of will and the iron constitution that these kids and families have.”
Paul Tibbitt, executive producer of “SpongeBob SquarePants” for Nickelodeon, said SpongeBob’s happy and optimistic attitude makes him popular.
“It’s pretty simple in a lot of ways,” Tibbitt said. “There aren’t a lot of characters and they don’t go to a lot of places. We use bright colors like pink and yellow and red.”
Tibbitt said the entire “SpongeBob” production is a team effort. He said the show is recorded with all voice actors in the same room at the same time and results in what Tibbitt calls “true unadulterated goofiness.”
He said the challenge is to keep it simple; to give the characters time to shine. Tibbitt credits Kenny for bringing a high level of energy and enthusiasm into the show.
“It helps a lot to have a guy like that — a comedian first and a voice actor later,” Tibbitt said. “Tom has a real kind of ear for timing and what makes something funny; his input is invaluable.”
Tibbitt agreed with Kenny about the impact SpongeBob has on so many children and adults alike. He said it takes nine months to produce one 11-minute episode, but he said the effort is well worth it.
After 10 years, Tibbitt said the approach remains the same.
“We set out to make ourselves laugh,” he said. “Everything else just happens. I wouldn’t know how to change the show; the possibilities appear to be endless.”