For two decades, he’s lived in a pineapple under the sea, absorbent and yellow and porous, whose nautical nonsense we’ll always wish for more of. Created by Stephen Hillenburg, who died last November after battling ALS, SpongeBob SquarePants launched on Nickelodeon in 1999 as a surreal fever-dream cartoon that appealed to adult fans of comedy as much as the kids who grew up singing the theme song. In the years since, it’s become a worldwide phenomenon, having spawned a Broadway musical, multiple movies, and some of the internet’s very best memes. (Who among us can look at a jar of mayonnaise without wondering if it’s an instrument?)
On a sunny June afternoon at Nickelodeon’s studios in Burbank — where the original SpongeBob cast was working on the partially live-action special SpongeBob’s Big Birthday Blowout (July 12 at 7 p.m.) — EW sat down with the gang to discuss the series’ origins, development, and legacy. Are ya ready, kids?
TOM KENNY (SpongeBob): I’d worked with [Stephen Hillenburg] on Rocko’s Modern Life [as the voice of Heffer and other characters]. So this was the easiest job I ever got: There was no audition, there was no callback, there was no “It’s down to you and two other guys.” Though I did hear that there was a push to have Fred Savage play SpongeBob.
CAROLYN LAWRENCE (Sandy): I remember during the audition, it was in a conference room, which was awkward to me. [They] left the microphone on the table — we weren’t in a booth. [It was] awkward and weird. I had never done that. There’s the mic and there’s Steve. And there was a fly flying around. I’m watching the fly, trying to do it, and it landed on the paper I had. And I [slams on the table] killed it. I never kill anything! I always catch things and put them outside, and I totally panicked.
KENNY: Did you suck in that dead fly’s life force and channel it into your audition?
CAROLYN LAWRENCE: Oh my God, I don’t know. But when I left, I was like, “There’s no way.”
MR. LAWRENCE (Plankton): But that’s Sandy! That’s a Sandy moment.
KENNY: The last day of that fly’s life was the first day of the rest of your life.
CAROLYN LAWRENCE: It’s true!
MR. LAWRENCE (Plankton): I was also friends with Steve from Rocko; we were directors on that show together. When he was working on the SpongeBob pilot, I came in and he said, “You’re going to be somebody on the show.” I actually read for SpongeBob with Plankton’s voice. I was like [does Plankton’s voice], “I’m ready! I’m ready, Gary!” But I read all the pages like that. All I know is they kept listening to the tape while they were making the pilot. I felt like I was in the room because they’d always say they played it; when the network had just come in, or when they were down in the dumps for some reason, they’d play the tape and listen to this stupid thing. It sounded so stupid. It did not work at all.
VINCENT WALLER (co-executive producer): Steve mentioned on more than one occasion about Doug auditioning for SpongeBob with Plankton’s voice. He definitely loved that.
RODGER BUMPASS (Squidward): I just looked at [the script] and said, “[Squidward] has got this big ol’ honking nose, he must have some nasality quality to him. He’s a little sarcastic. It was a match made in heaven with my personality.
KENNY: I felt like I just got [SpongeBob]. Steve did such a good job with it. Everything was right there. You go, “Oh, I know this guy. I can embody this guy.” I feel like there’s some shared DNA between me and this character. We’ve all felt that way. That’s part of Steve’s brilliance. He seemed to be pretty sure of his decisions once he made them, and couldn’t be dissuaded.
BILL FAGERBAKKE (Patrick): Recording [the pilot], I thought it was a dopey preschool kids’ show. I didn’t get it. I didn’t get most of the jokes. “Why am I saying ‘Who’s ready?’ three times? Okay, it’s for 4-year-olds.” Then when I finally saw it, my head blew up. It was so delightful.
BUMPASS: I played the pilot for my family. I looked back 11 minutes into the thing, and my father was asleep.
FAGERBAKKE: Along with thinking it was for 4-year-olds, we were recording with helium for the sound of the anchovies. I thought, “This is the weirdest $600 I ever made.”
CLANCY BROWN (Mr. Krabs): The first time I read [for Mr. Krabs] for Steve, he told me to riff. I was just doing some pirate voice. I said, “Steve, you’re the director, right?” He said, “Yeah.” “Then direct me.”
BUMPASS: I remember one of our first episodes, I heard [Tom changing his voice as] SpongeBob. All of a sudden we had the latitude to do other voices — the “Krusty Krab Pizza” thing. I’m sitting there, and I didn’t know anything about the show, like, “What’s he doing? He’s totally out of character!” I didn’t realize [SpongeBob] had that latitude to be anything he wanted to be.
KENNY: It’s hard to riff when you don’t know the character yet, or it’s your first brush with the character. But now, Clancy riffs as Krabs all the time.
CAROLYN LAWRENCE: I was always terrified [of improvising]. It took me a while to get comfortable because I felt like [you guys] were all so much more established. I was amazed.
BUMPASS: When we first started I was very monotone. Then we had this scene [in season 3’s “Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy IV”] with the utility belt and it zapped me, and I had to do a sequence of screams. Each scream had to be a different type of a scream. There, they learned I could scream, so now, every episode they make me scream. [Laughs] But that’s how it expanded. Now [Squidward] is more me than anything else.
CAROLYN LAWRENCE: I can’t remember the first time that Sandy got angry. But I know there’s something about her being mad that became a thing.
WALLER: It was when they were messing with Texas!
CAROLYN LAWRENCE: Right! That’s where my personal life and Sandy [merged] also. When I was younger and I’d get really angry, people would laugh, and I’d be like, “I’m mad!” It’s the same with Sandy.
MR. LAWRENCE: We still try to [record together] as much as we can. What’s great to see every so often is when we roll down the road and there’s a lot of jokes happening because we’re laughing at something we’re saying, and it suggests something. Sometimes something comes out of that, and sometimes it doesn’t, but it makes the whole process fun to go through. It’s jazz riffing. I like watching it and I like doing it.
WALLER: That’s where some beautiful invention comes from that’s not in the script.
KENNY: And a conviviality. It feels like a workplace. It’s funny. I used to watch The Dick Van Dyke Show when I was a kid, and I’d go, “Wow, that’s what I want to do. I want the kind of job where you’re just hanging around with funny people.” This is as close to that.
CAROLYN LAWRENCE: But we were unique. A lot of shows don’t record like that.
BROWN: I love stuff [like “My leg!”] that comes out of left field.
MR. LAWRENCE: It was one of those ad-libs where we’re trying to get the last word, going back and forth. I know Roger does it all the time. We all do it because it’s so stupid.
KENNY: The voice-director just needs people to go “Agh! Oop! Blargh!” Like, “We’re still alive under this rubble, kids.” It was kind of like that. “Give me my legs!”
MR. LAWRENCE: It just came down to a silence, and I just let it go a little bit longer, and popped out, “My leg!” We all laughed and started doing it more. It became a joke for us to do it. Nobody’s writing “My leg!” in there!
KENNY: It was never intended to be a meme.
WALLER: [I was there] from season 1 to season 2, then I went away for 3, and then came back on 4, after the movie. I was on Ren & Stimpy previous…. This was the first time collaborating with someone in the same room over one piece, rather than doing one thing and having someone come in and tear you a new one and rewrite it. But it was all fun.
KENNY: So you would say it was a more collaborative process than on other shows you’d worked on?
WALLER: Yes, much more collaborative. From beginning to end, rather than when you’re done, everybody comes in and collaborates.
MARC CECCARELLI (co-executive producer): The idea of writing in a storyboard phase had fallen out of favor in television animation. The reason they brought it back for [Ren & Stimpy], and the reason it’s so appealing for SpongeBob, is because it’s a much more visual way of writing the story. It’s one thing to write a visual gag in text.
KENNY: One picture is worth a thousand words, right? “His tongue unrolls like a staircase. His eyes bug out and hit the wall.”
BUMPASS: It’s one of the things that makes this show special because it deals with animation and cartoon-ism the way it used to be. Unlike, say, King of the Hill, which should’ve been a live-action show.
MR. LAWRENCE: We often will base a whole show on just some visual we really want to see; something we start drawing, like, “I’ve got to see that.” It doesn’t happen every time, but sometimes a whole episode will form out of a visual where we go, “That’s gotta happen.”
CAROLYN LAWRENCE: As an actor, it’s a lot more fun being able to get the board. I mean, that’s huge.
BUMPASS: [This is] the first show I was ever involved with where they gave us the storyboards in advance. It helps you so much to see what that gag is.
CAROLYN LAWRENCE: Right! You know, and it’s amazing. You can see Sandy’s jumping off an enormous mountain instead of a little mountain. You can’t see that in a written script.
KENNY: Steve built a great foundation for this house. I think about that all the time, how much he knew what it was going to be. He was also really good at digging in his heels, usually in a very gentle, friendly way, and picking his battles and fighting bad ideas from non-creative people. He was good at that.
BROWN: Different milieu, though, right? Nickelodeon was its own thing back then.
KENNY: I guess everything was a different milieu back then. I always say with Rocko, the inmates were running the asylum to a pretty crazy degree. As long as they delivered the product and there weren’t any big content problems, you kind of are just left alone to make your quilt.
CAROLYN LAWRENCE: Lot of creative freedom. And now…
KENNY: It’s a little less so now. It’s a double-edged sword: If something gets gigantic, there is a lot more at stake. A lot more eyeballs. That’s what I give [the writers] a lot of credit for, still having that subversive [quality]. SpongeBob still feels like a subversive show, even though it’s kind of the most mainstream show of all.
CECCARELLI: We’ve been grandfathered in and protected by the fact that the show was so good and successful from the beginning. They don’t really mess with us so much, content-wise, even to this day.
BROWN: I also think it’s because nobody really knows how to f— with it.
BROWN: The stunt-casting sessions are always strange. You never know when somebody comes in what they’re going to be like. We’ve got our thing, but then you add somebody in who’s a stunt.
CAROLYN LAWRENCE: Early on, didn’t it make Steve crazy? Everyone called him wanting to be on his show and he didn’t want them.
BUMPASS: Bruce Willis wanted to be on.
FAGERBAKKE: We’re not accustomed to it. It’s not like in every episode there’s a wacky guest.
KENNY: [Speaking] as the voice director, it’s interesting too, because it’s a little bit like celebrity roulette. “Wheel of Celebrities!” You had to give them almost a tutorial. Many of them have seen SpongeBob, but even if they have, you have to go, “Whatever you think you’re going to do, go bigger.” It’s a heightened reality. You probably won’t be too big. And if you are, we’ll tell you. But you probably won’t.
BROWN: Did you ever have to tell someone to pull back?
BROWN: Dennis Quaid came in pretty hot.
KENNY: That’s true.
CAROLYN LAWRENCE: I like when Ernest Borgnine [Mermaid Man] was in and he just kept going and going. We all just hung out and waited until he was done.
KENNY: Same with Tim Conway [Barnacle Boy]. It was the first thing they’d done together since McHale’s Navy, so that was fun to watch.
MR. LAWRENCE: It was arresting. For me, it was like if someone squeezed in your stomach. You’re seeing these two guys in that room. Just like, wow.
FAGERBAKKE: Jon Hamm was awesome. He clearly was enjoying himself.
KENNY: He actually stayed after he was done recording. We were like, “Okay, that’s it, Jon.” He goes, “You mind if I stay?”
MR. LAWRENCE: I remember Scarlett Johansson coming into the first movie we did [released in 2004]. She was so excited. We all got into the booth, and we were all there at the same time. She had her headphones on, ready to do her line, but as soon as we started talking…she looked like she was watching a pinball machine. She got to her line and she said, “I don’t know if I can do that.” You could see she was scared. Just the intimidation of watching us all do it at once, up front. And then: She was great!
CAROLYN LAWRENCE: I think my new favorite [installment] is going to be [SpongeBob’s Big Birthday Blowout]. It was so much fun for us to do something so wild.
MR. LAWRENCE: We keep surprising. We’re trying to keep a surprise going with things. And…it’s going to be hard to surprise people after this one.
KENNY: It’s like being married for a long time. You’re like, “We’ve gotta spice things up! Here, put this on! Dress like me!”
MR. LAWRENCE: Like we just did an episode about “My leg!” recently. The idea was “How much can we abuse the audience in repeating a line over and over again?” [Laughs] There was something to creating a new structure to that, so it would hold that joke for 11 minutes.
CECCARELLI: Personally I like the two stop-motion specials we did. Back when I was 10 years old, I wanted to be Ray Harryhausen. That was my entry point into this fantasy world.
FAGERBAKKE: And that’s probably the only chance you’ll ever get to do stop-motion animation. It doesn’t happen very often.
KENNY: I love those episodes, too, because it’s kind of imperfect. It’s skittery. Like the 1933 King Kong versus some CGI, “Oh, okay, there’s Jack Black standing in front of a green screen.” There’s an imperfection to that the 2D version of SpongeBob has too. You can see people’s thumbprints. In the stop-motion and the 2D version of it, it’s imperfect. I went to Pixar once, and they had this giant bank of computers. I was just like, “That’s to make sure [for] this character, every hair flows like real hair.” I like imperfection. I like records with bad notes, where the drummer misses a beat. Spongebob has still got that.
FAGERBAKKE: The discovery of the show, the nature of the show, I had no idea [when I first was cast], and I was very surprised until I saw it.
KENNY: SpongeBob is one of the last remaining super-visual cartoons. There’s just not a whole lot of shows like that anymore. In some ways, I feel like I’m working in this time-machine job. Like working on a radio show or Looney Tunes. It’s pretty cool that we’re still able to be employed as milkmen in 2019.