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Interview: Spongebob Goes Stop-Motion For Christmas… And Tom Kenny Is Writing It!

While it’s not unusual, it’s still kind of a surprise to think that in the 13 years he’s been voicing the character, actor Tom Kenny hasn’t had the opportunity to write Spongebob Squarepants. Well, that all changes tonight as the series gets the Rankin-Bass treatment in the half-hour “It’s A SpongeBob Christmas!” which Kenny co-wrote with “Spongebob Squarepants” musical contributor Andy Paley as well as writer/Plankton voice actor Doug Lawrence.

The stop-motion episode, which airs tonight on Nickelodeon, not only features a guest appearance by John Goodman as the voice of Santa Claus, but also includes a song by Paley and Kenny called “Don’t Be A Jerk (It’s Christmas)” as Bikini Bottom suffers from an outbreak of bad feelings as the villainous Plankton taints the local holiday fruitcake supply with a dose of his patented jerktonium forumla. And of course, it’s up to Spongebob to save the day.

But at one point–if the special had stuck with Kenny and Paley’s original script–it might have had a darker ending.

But let’s rewind a bit–this is all kind of new for Kenny, the voice actor behind not only Spongebob but the Ice King on “Adventure Time,” and Doc Ock over in “Ultimate Spider-Man.” “This is the first time I’ve sat down and said ’Here’s a premise, what do you think” Kenny says about his first time writing for the show.

The path to writing a “Spongebob Squarepants” Christmas special began all the way back in 2009 after he and Paley co-wrote the song “Don’t Be A Jerk (It’s Christmas)” as a gift for some of the behind-the-scenes talent responsible for the series. He and Paley dropped the song off on various desks around the Nickelodeon offices before that year’s Christmas break, never imagining it would spawn a half-hour stop-motion special.

The idea for the special came from Kenny’s pitch for jerktonium, a mineral which would just turn the average person into a raging bullies around the holidays. The story evolved into Plankton using the mineral in a plot to get the Krabby Patty recipe. Kenny joked that jerktonium is like alcohol, “like hooch, times ten.” But how would it affect someone so pure of heart like Spongebob? Or what about someone like Mr. Krabs or Squidward who are already kind of sour in their dispositions? You’ll have to watch the special to find out, but Kenny teases that Spongebob might be the only person in Bikini Bottom not susceptible to the mineral’s effects.

I asked him what it was like being part of the full cycle of writing an episode–typically, a writer would be hands-off after getting it out to the director and voice actors, but in this case, Kenny was creating a loop where he and Paley were responsible for the story with a little tweaking as it went along through the VO process. Along the way, he Paley, and Lawrence tweaked the story a bit, dropping a slightly darker, more meaningful ending in the process. “I thought it would be interesting to [have] an added layer where the jerktonium turned out to be fool’s jerktonium and therefore not the thing people could blame their crappy behavior on,” Kenny says, adding that the denizens of Bikini Bottom were just being jerks on their own, and would need to try to be better to one another.

When we walked about the origins of the stop-motion style for the special, Kenny says that the labor-intensive process was really appealing to the showrunners and feels essential to a Christmas special. He joked that he’s maybe the only voice actor out there with two stop motion credits under his belt in 2012 with this and his work in Tim Burton’s “Frankenweenie.”

I asked which character worked the best in stop-motion, but Kenny was hesitant to single out just one: “They all work remarkably well and I think a lot of that is a testament to Screen Novelties who did the animation […] I think they did a great job of merging that squash and stretch style of animation with the more tactile, herky-jerky animation.”

“It’s A SpongeBob Christmas!” airs tonight at 8 ET on Nickelodeon. The Christmas album will be available as an iTunes download.

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