What a Square! An Actor's Life as SpongeBob

What's it like to be yellow, absorbent and porous? Don't ask Tom Kenny, the man better known as SpongeBob SquarePants.

"I've never actually put on the SpongeBob costume," says Kenny, the 42-year-old comic who voices the cartoon character who lives in a pineapple under the sea in the hyper-stylized land of Bikini Bottom.

Nevertheless, Kenny has seen what happens when actors in SpongeBob suits appear at Nickelodeon events. They get mobbed by kids and adults who act like kids.

"Those people should get combat pay," Kenny says. "That's why they never let a SpongeBob go around without a handler.

"You'll see a guy in a big yellow suit with a kid dangling from each arm. There's another kid grabbing on to his buck teeth. It's like they are killing SpongeBob with love. And the guy in the costume is running around like he's looking for the last chopper out of Saigon."

Now, the Nickelodeon Network is going to try to parlay its hit TV cartoon into a full-length feature. "The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie" hits theaters today, and it will be interesting to see how many adults show up at ticket windows without kids -- effectively coming out of the closet as SpongeBob fans.

"Anyone who watches cartoons instantly becomes a nerd," says Kenny. "And that's when they become my people."

Certainly, as "The Simpsons" and "South Park" have proved, there are cartoons just for adults and quasi-adults. "SpongeBob SquarePants," however, was created for Nickelodeon's rugrat audience.

Somehow, the 11-minute romps through Bikini Bottom captured a cult following with grown-ups, mixing madcap humor backed with sly cultural references that hearken back to Looney Tunes classics.

In the new film, SpongeBob and his dimwitted starfish pal, Patrick, cross the ocean floor in an oversized sandwich. They're off to find King Neptune's crown, which has been stolen by Plankton, the speck-sized evildoer with long-range plans of ruling the world, even if he's occasionally stepped on and scraped off a shoe.

Joining the fun are Alec Baldwin as the voice of Plankton's hit man, Scarlett Johansson as Mindy the Mermaid and Jeffrey Tambor as Neptune, the follicle-challenged ruler who needs his crown to cover his bald spot.

But if SpongeBob's fate hangs on anyone's shoulders, it will be those of David Hasselhoff, who spoofs his "Baywatch" lifeguard persona in a live-action sequence where he swims our hero to safety on his back.

Hasselhoff actually appears in the film -- the other stars voice animated characters -- and Kenny really appreciated the ride.

"He's got that William Shatner-esque, Leslie Nielsen-ish ability to make fun of himself," Kenny says.

"I saw the 12-foot cast they made of Hasselhoff's back to film that big scene, with every back hair lovingly glued in place," he said. "There was a guy just in charge of the back hair on the fake David Hasselhoff. It was quite empowering to see, especially for a furball like me, whose back hair casts its own shadow."

At this point, SpongeBob might be just as much an icon as Shatner or Hasselhoff, and that makes Kenny all the more pleased to be no more than the character's voice.

"It'd be just awful to go through life looking like Captain Kirk or Mr. Spock," he says. "What I have is a comfortable level of fame. Kids don't know who I am. But then I can turn on the SpongeBob voice and spoil that veneer of indifference a little kid can sometimes have."

SpongeBob's high squealing nasal voice -- what Kenny describes as "an elf sucking on helium" -- was born when Kenny, then working as an extra, was asked to make background crowd noises. As a standup comic, he refined it further.

Parents, however, haven't always been laughing. Some have complained that little kids shouldn't be watching. Does a child really need to see a male starfish in fishnet stockings? What kind of message does that send?

Kenny proudly proclaims that his show has no message -- and no educational value. It's just slapstick fun. Is that so wrong? After all, another generation grew up with Bugs Bunny, who was known to wear women's clothing for laughs. Bugs has even been known to wear a brassiere.

"Knowing animators like we get to do, you find out why this happens. It comes out of drawing a character 8 bazillion times a week," Kenny says. "You get bored and start to play with it. You ask yourself, 'What if Patrick wore fishnets?' That then winds up in the show because it's visually funny, not because people on 'SpongeBob' are saying, 'Hey kids, become cross-dressers.' "

As the father of a 1-year-old daughter and a 6-year-old son, Kenny can tell you that "butt humor and underpants humor" are very popular with kids, and there's nothing wrong with that -- nor is there anything wrong with carrying a little of that into adulthood.

"I watch TV with my kids, and sometimes you'll see a 22-minute cartoon with the message, 'It's nice to share.' My kids know it's nice to share," he says. "We want to see someone get hit in the head with a mallet, come on!"