With a batch of episodes from Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time hitting DVD this week under the title Adventure Time: My Two Favorite People, at MTV Geek we thought it’d be great to chat with one of heroic boy Finn’s least favorite people, the socially awkward, princess kidnapping prone Ice King. And since the Ice King isn’t a real person, we did the next best thing and spoke to the voice actor behind him, Tom Kenny. Kenny has been in fixture in voice over work since taking on additional voices in the English language version of Studio Ghibli’s Porco Rosso back in 1992.
Since then, Kenny’s become most well known for his most enduring character: Spongebob Squarepants, whose shows enters its astounding 13th season this year. But if you’re a viewer of a certain age, you might also remember him as Heffer Wolfe from the brilliantly dark Rocko’s Modern Life as well as work in front of the camera as a regular on the short-lived sketch series, Mr. Show. Looking at his list of credits, the breadth of roles he’s taken on in his nearly 20 year career of voice acting is staggering.
We spoke to Mr. Kenny about voice acting and his current roles, the longevity of Spongebob, the subversive nature of Bugs Bunny, and what the Ice King has in common with some serial killers.
MTV Geek: How did you find your voice for the Ice King?
Tom Kenny: You know, the picture kind of drove it. One thing I tried not to do was go back and look at the original short where the Ice King was voiced by somebody else because I didn’t want to be infected by any kind of subconscious earwigs.
But my approach to the Ice King is that he’s a very real psychopath [laughs]. He’s the kind of guy that they would do a 48 Hours Investigates about, where none of his neighbors know that much about him but they realize there’s that weird smell coming from his house and they dig up a bunch of weird stuff in the basement. That’s definitely the Ice King. And then when they capture the psychotic killer, he can’t realize why everybody’s mad at him.
Geek: That’s a pretty dark take on the character.
Kenny: It is, but I think with voice over in general and any of this stuff—even though it takes place in this stylized world—you have to approach it as though that world really exists and then play that role according to the rules of that world. You know, whether that’s a dark and nihilistic Frank Miller-esque world or whether it’s a weird, bubbly, saturated color Spongebob world or the world of Oo in Adventure Time.
He’s one of those guys who’s so pathological that he doesn’t realize why anyone would be angry at him. I mean, all he’s doing is taking women and holding them captive so they’ll be his friends. Is there anything so wrong with that? There’s quote around that, by the way [laughs]. Tom Kenny thinks there’s something wrong with that, just to be very clear.
But you know what I mean? Occasionally, criminals will go, “Yes, I had these women chained in my basement, but I fed them, they had a bucket to go to the bathroom in—they were living the life down there in my dungeon.
Geek: So I take it it’s not a surprise that the show has such a strong adult following?
Kenny: No, I’m not surprised that adults gravitate towards the show because it’s obviously not a show expressly for kids—I have kids who both love Adventure Time—but it’s rated TV-10, so you can go some places that TV-G or whatever the hell the dumb, arbitrary rating is. You can go places that those shows don’t, you know? I think the folks at Cartoon Network were smart enough to see that Pen Ward has this world, he’s the architect of this world and he’s got to be the one to show you around it. And he’ll decide what’s in it.
Geek: Are your kids old enough to get the jokes in the show, or do you have to explain any of the humor to them?
Kenny: No, not at all. My 13-year-old is right in the pocket for that show. He gets all the references to game-playing culture—old-school, first generation video games, which, to these kids, is ancient history, but they still know a lot about old Nintendo games and things like that. They’re amazingly knowledgeable about the history of that stuff. And obviously, that’s part of Pen Ward’s obsession list, too—you know, early video games, role-playing games.
He always lists The Simpsons in terms of being a place that feels very real and has tons of people in it, some of whom you see and meet, occasionally, and a lot of them you don’t. But they’re all kind of lurking there.
And I don’t think—my kids don’t need jokes explained. For me as a parent and as a former kid, a lot of jokes are time released, anyway. A lot of jokes from Looney Tunes that you watch as a kid and then look them up 30 years later and you saw the thing they were making fun of. You go, “Oh! That’s from that joke in that Bugs Bunny cartoon! Duh!”
Geek: Do you feel like cartoon humor is any more subversive than it was back when they were making Looney Tunes?
Kenny: Well, I think that people who make cartoons in general tend to have a subversive element to them, otherwise they wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing [and would be] working some Dilbert-type job in a cubicle [Note: Kenny actually provided the voice of Ratbert for the animated Dilbert series]. So it’s almost like you have to be subversive just to be crazy enough to storm the barricades of this nutty business.
I would say that pretty much every show creator that I’ve ever worked with was subversive in a certain way. And a lot of times, creating a show comes out of discontentment with what’s out there already, or you don’t see the kind of show that you’d like to see and you go “Hey, I’ll just make the show that I want to see.”
Geek: Was animation always a career track for you? Was it always something you were attracted to doing?
Kenny: Very much so. Ever since I was a kid that was my fantasy baseball career.
Geek: Who did you look up to in the animation world?
Kenny: Yeah, I was the weird kid. Voice over-wise, I mean the usual suspects: Mel Blanc and Stan Freberg, Dawes Butler, June Foray, people like that were very much on my radar when I was a kid in a way that I realize now was extremely odd.
Geek: Do you find there are just as many young people interested in voice acting like you were?
Kenny: Oh yeah, there’s a million people interested in it. A lot of them are movie stars, or they’re already movie stars I should say.
But there are a lot of really talented younger actors that you work with and go, “Wow, that guy’s great. In a couple of years, he’s going to be one of us!” There definitely is new blood coming in that’s really gifted. Then you kind of see the ones that aren’t going to make it and you go, “Wow, she really shouldn’t be cleaning out her purse while the director’s trying to direct her!”
Geek: What do you think the thing is that a voice actor needs more than anything else?
Kenny: Um, I would say probably, more than anything else, the skill that comes in handy—and a lot of it is due to the great work of the writers and show creators—is to just immerse yourself into the world that they put before you. And just don’t be afraid to take it as far as you feel like taking it, and if it’s too much, they’ll pull you back, and if it’s not enough, they’ll say “Amp it up a little bit.”
These guys are very clear on their creations and how they want them to come across. So there’s definitely no shortage of input from the creators, which is as it should be since, you know, it’s their baby. Voice actors are just one of the tools in their box.
Geek: Have you ever thought about striking out on your own and creating your own character or show?
Kenny: Yeah, I’ve done that a couple of times, here and there. Once and a while I get hornswoggled into it. But I have to do it every so often just to remind myself how hard on your psyche being a creator of a show is and how many battles you have to fight with various people in charge of things and how wearing that kind of stuff could be. Especially if, like me, you’re used to going in, playing your drums, and leaving.
Geek: What else do you have coming up that you’re really excited about?
Kenny: Yeah, I’m always working on something. Spongebob is still going strong—stronger than ever, actually. The ratings—they told us yesterday—they keep getting higher, which is extremely strange and unusual. I don’t even try to figure it out. I just accept it as the bizarre gift from wherever—like the soda bottle that comes down and hits the guy in the head in The Gods Must Be Crazy, that’s kind of what Spongebob is for me.
And I do a lot of stuff for Disney, I do Rabbit for Winnie the Pooh, I do Ice King for Adventure Time, I do Dr. Octopus in the upcoming Ultimate Spider-Man series. I do one of the main villains, Zilius Zoxx in the Green Lantern animated series, so pretty much every day of my life is running around screaming my brains out!
Sometimes I’ve got stuff that’s funny, sometimes I’ve got stuff that’s really dark and end of the world, and some of it’s for four-year-olds, and some of it’s for Adult Swim audiences.
And, you know, it’s all fun.
Adventure Time: My Two Favorite People is on shelves this week. New episodes of Adventure Time air Mondays at 8 on Cartoon Network.