The hottest voices in animation enjoy life out of the spotlight
By Darrah Le Montre
LOS ANGELES, CA (Hollywood Today) 3/7/10 – Now in its 10th year, the multiple-Emmy nominated hit animated series “SpongeBob SquarePants” is a phenomenon. This quirky underwater tale stars sensation Tom Kenny and features his wife, sought-after Jill Talley. The duo dish to Hollywood Today on what it’s like as voice-over actors on dry land.
Before starring in Nickelodeon’s wunderkind “SpongeBob SquarePants,” which has spawned a feature film and merchandise sold all over the U.S., Kenny says he was “the weakest man to ever work on a loading dock.” He also spent time “down in the bowels of a bank in San Francisco taking pictures of cancelled checks everyday for a year,” Kenny deadpans.
Being fascinated with cartoons and animation in his pre-teens, Kenny read up on the voice-over industry becoming aware of the credits on cartoons and veterans like June Foray, Mel Blanc, Daws Butler and Don Messick. Foray, who has lent her voice to hundreds of shows including “Bugs Bunny,” is like “five Mick Jaggers,” he says.
As a teen, the 47-year-old Annie Award winner remembers talking with long-time friend, comic Bobcat Goldthwait about whose career each would have if given the opportunity. Bobcat, who Kenny describes as “very John Belushi-esque” staked a claim in Belushi. “I said Mel Blanc and my reasons were because he’s had this impact on pop culture that’s not immediately apparent. And he’s old and working in show business. Even at 16, I was sort of worried about the ageist aspect. I thought then, as I think now, find something that you love to do and then do it for as long as you can.”
Syracuse-born Kenny, who says he was never the “out-there class clown” admits he played around a little with voices as a child. However, the humble actor drew comics and was Goldthwait’s sidekick. As teens, Kenny and Goldthwait formed comedy duo “The Generic Comics” getting paid to write sketch shows. Every Tuesday at a biker bar in Syracuse, the two would take the reins over the small stage; gaining invaluable training for the future.
Kenny reflects the two were ballsy and calls his career, “smart by mistake.”
The bulk of Kenny’s stand-up experience came in the 80s in San Francisco, when “it was really creative, comedy was king,” he enthuses. “You could make a good living at it as a single guy with a cheap apartment.”
One of his fondest memories is meeting legendary stand-up comedian George Carlin, who encouraged his unique style and liberal politics. He offered newbie Kenny his phone number to use when he moved to L.A.
“I never used it,” he confesses, presuming Carlin didn’t sincerely want to hear from “some kid.”
After some fairly rough gigs at fish houses and bowling alleys making anywhere from $150-$275 each set (not bad in 1986) he earned his stripes as a fan favorite, segueing into an incredibly successful career in voice-overs. Kenny and writing partner Andy Paley have written songs for SpongeBob and Disney. Tom’s upcoming projects include the animated feature film “Winnie the Pooh” and Cartoon Network’s “Adventure Time.”
Another highly recognizable voice in the industry is Jill Talley, Kenny’s wife, who came up in the ranks studying comedy with heavy-hitters Conan O’Brien, Amy Sedaris and Steve Carrell. Talley has voiced dozens of characters for cartoons like “The Boondocks,” “American Dad,” “WordGirl,” and the award-winning indie film “Little Miss Sunshine.” She’s appeared on-camera on “The Sarah Silverman Show,” “Frasier” and “Seinfeld.”
Married with two kids, ages 6 and 12, the down-to-earth couple met at CBS Radford Lot doing the sketch show “The Edge” with Jennifer Aniston and Julie Brown.
It was 1992 a year of sketch comedies, including “The Ben Stiller Show” but “The Edge,” starring an unknown Jennifer Aniston lasted only one season. Kenny says of Aniston, “she was quite good and completely unconfident.”
Jill began her career at Chicago’s infamous improv mainstay Second City. “I was very scared when I first joined,” Talley admits of teaming up with the award-winning touring company whose alum includes the late Chris Farley, who Talley performed alongside. But it was at Second City that she broadened her range, hitting the road visiting schools and honing material written by the actors on the Main Stage – where she eventually landed.
47-year old Talley, who almost followed in her father’s footsteps becoming a firefighter, says she likes character roles the most. And revels in the normalcy of not taking on starring roles.
Highlighting the differences between voice-over work and on-camera toils, Jill says, “The simple pleasures of taking your kids to the park and not having anyone disturb you – I would have trouble giving that up.”
A niche industry, Talley notes that while there is some acrimony in voice-over work among women, mostly there is respect. “Yeah, I think there’s competition in any performing field, but I think there’s also such mutual respect among the top women. Grey DeLisle, Pat Musick, Tara Strong – who are so good at what they do, there’s no denying it. The very top women in the voice-over industry love each other.”
However, she observes, “I never really feel there are enough roles in general for women.”
Neither Kenny nor Talley watches or listens to their performances, choosing instead to donate the DVDs to their children’s school auctions.
“Being uncomfortable in my skin made me infer that voice-over was the best place for me,” says Kenny. “Not being seen gives me so much more freedom. Being on camera would limit the shit out of me.”
While many people make the assumption that he must be rattled that SpongeBob hasn’t lent the way to more on-camera work, Tom clarifies that sitcom fame was never his intention.
“I don’t need to speed-date a career,” Kenny muses. “I’m already doing what I love.”
First appeared in Hollywood Today.