This Monday, January 25th, Playhouse Disney are rolling out a new series of shorts based around the ever popular preschooler’s show, ‘Handy Manny’ called ‘Handy Manny’s School for Tools.’ The three-minute episodes feature 11 new tools, and to introduce us to the series, GeekDad was fortunate enough to get to talk to animation voiceover legend Tom Kenny about his role in the new shorts, his roles as Pat and Mr. Lopart in the main Handy Manny episodes, certain squeaky voiced sea sponge and his geeky tendencies.
GeekDad: So in these new shorts, you play Sneeze the Shop Vac.
Tom Kenny: Yes, I’m the always adenoidal and stuffed up Sneeze, the shop vac. He always has little bits of dust and other unmentionables that a shop vac might pick up off the floor of a construction site. The shorts are fun, it’s pretty much what the title implies – Handy Manny’s School for Tools. They’re two minute video lessons on how to be handy, which since I’m third generation un-handy, I really need. Mostly they’re lessons on how to be handy, how to be good with tools. Not only am I bad at that stuff, but my father and grandfather before me were also horrible at it, however hard they tried.
GD: I’m first generation unhandy. My father and his father were great at all that, but I’m considerably less so
TK: Oh, so you’re a trailblazer! My grandfather was pretty good, my father was… well, he tried. I call a guy to hang a picture. I should have Handy Manny on speed dial. You can’t fight your nature – I saw my dad drive himself to insanity trying to be as good as the guy across the street who could build a patio on his house in 48 hours. Singlehandedly. Do not try to keep up with these people. If you’re like Manny, and you have the shining for that kind of thing, go right ahead. Otherwise, I think Handy Manny’s in the phone book.
GD: And in the main show, you play my two favorites – Pat the Hammer and Mr. Lopart.
TK: Is that right? You said that to me earlier, and I thought you were just being facetious. Thank you. They’re fun characters and it’s a fun show. TO me the animated series that are the most fun to work on are the ones where everybody’s there at the same time and you record as an ensemble. I think a show that’s about camaraderie and combined efforts really benefits from the tools all being in the same recording studio at the same time.
GD: That’s something I find fascinating about ‘Handy Manny’ – the pedigree of voice talent is amazing.
TK: I guess in that little tide pool of acting – it’s kind of funny, the whole voice-acting world is its own subset, it’s own skill set. It’s what I always wanted to do ever since I was a little kid, so it’s kind of nice to finally be in that inner circle of ‘Navy SEALs’, that relatively small number of people that does the majority of voices on animated shows.
GD: Does it get at all competitive? Do you try and make each other laugh or put each other off in the studio?
TK: I wouldn’t call it competitive – I think one of the perks of the job is that five days a week I get to work on various shows surrounded by interesting and funny people who don’t really have to try that hard to be amusing and entertaining because they just, y’know, are. Dee Bradley Baker and Kath Soucie and Carlos Alazraqui and Grey DeLisle and Fred Stoller and Nika Futterman, they’re all very amusing and entertaining people, and also great people in conversations where you’re not trying to be funny all the time as well.
GD: Who’s your favorite character?
TK: I enjoy Lopart. There are deeper waters to Mr. Lopart than have been plumbed on the show. He has his mother fixation, his big dreams that come to naught and he also has that thing of being a fairly unhandy person who has to contend with his friend Manny who has this incredible aptitude. Nothing would please Mr. Lopart more than to be able to do what Manny does. But he just falls short, so his solution is to swagger around, and be a know-it-all, and act like he doesn’t need any help and to not accept any help from anyone, until it’s at a crisis point. Lopart’s interesting. I look at him to be very multi-faceted. He’s more than one note, for sure. He’s very fun to do, and I would say of all the characters on the show he’s kind of allowed to adlib the most. His character lends himself to ad-libbing more than others. They’re all in a gaggle, cross talking to one another. There are usually not less than three or four tools in a scene so they have to divide up the dialogue, whereas Mr. Lopart is usually on his own making a mess of things. Luckily Rick Gitelson and the people on the show give me a pretty long leash to mess around with Lopart.
GD: What’s been your favorite episode to do?
TK: I like [‘Handy Manny’s Motorcycle Adventure’]. Where Pat the Hammer is looking for his family. Looking for people like him, I should say. That was fun to do – we had a little bit of extra time and budget to do things like dancing tools, like a Broadway production number. Busby Berkeley meets Home Depot.
GD: There are a lot of similarities in some of the voices you do – Pat, Mr. Lopart, SpongeBob all have a similar base. What do you do to differentiate them?
TK: Well, Pat started out being a lot more like Lou Costello from Abbot and Costello – “Aw, gee, I gotta get in the toolbox Manny!” Over time he’s gotten a little deeper and a little richer and a little more rounded. SpongeBob is way up here in the helium, way up in the nose. Mr. Lopart is, well, he’s Lopart. He’s more in the back of the throat. Also with Mr. Lopart, with his false, unfounded sense of self-confidence, we’re also accessing Don Knotts from the old ‘Andy Griffith Show’, y’know, the Barney Fife character as the kind of swaggering, deputy sheriff who didn’t really know how to do anything. That attitude of Don Knotts from that old sitcom really comes into play with Mr. Lopart for sure, where he’s always just hiking up his shorts and trying to convince everyone that he’s completely in control, nothing to see here, move along. But really everything’s about to hit the fan.
(Author’s note: it kills me that my recorder doesn’t output high enough quality that I can reproduce Tom’s answer as an audio clip here. Tom switching between Pat’s, SpongeBob’s and Lopart’s voices is both amazing and hilarious and neither text nor my crackly recording can do it justice. Sorry to tease, but it had to be mentioned.)
GD: Is it a conscious decision to evolve a character’s voice, or does it just happen? Do you look back on old episodes and think “Man, that’s the voice I’ve been doing? I have to change that!”
TK: Well, other than ‘SpongeBob’, I think Handy Manny’s the longest show I’ve been on. I’ve never been a show that lasts where the voice is the same a few seasons in as it was at the beginning. Aspects of their personality come out. SpongeBob is markedly different from how it was at the beginning. But I see that as natural – Every character, be it Homer Simpson or Bugs Bunny develops incrementally and finds their sweet spot as the shows go on.
GD: Have you heard any of the foreign language versions of your characters? ‘SpongeBob’ in particular seems omnipresent.
TK: I haven’t heard every language, but that show I’ve heard in many languages. I haven’t heard ‘Handy Manny’ in any of the dubbed languages, but that is something that’s very interesting to me, because a lot of times they’re using your voice as a starting point. It’s kind of interesting to hear something that tonally sounds a bit like yourself speaking a language that tonally you have no way of knowing or speaking. I’ve done some of that for Japanese language shows and anime, where they dub them into English, and you’re listening to the tone of voice of the Japanese actor and trying to channel that into English language reads.
GD: How does recording a known character compare to an all-new one with an all-new voice?
TK: I suppose it depends on the actor’s aptitude. I know some guys who are great at what’s called voice matching – they do a dead-on Pooh or a dead-on Tigger and they’re often the guy who ends up inheriting the voice when the original guy passes on to the big animated show in the sky. That was never my forte – although there are some voices I do. For some of the old Hanna-Barbera characters; I’m the voice match for Boo-Boo from ‘Yogi and Boo-Boo’ and Top Cat – and Elroy Jetson, I’m the voice for him. But I don’t consider that to be what I’m good at. If I have a skill it’s that I can look at a description or a picture of a character and process what I think the creator is hearing in his head. Often times talking to the creator is helpful. Rick Gitelson knew exactly what he wanted, as did Steven Hillenburg with SpongeBob. ‘Handy Manny’ is quite a character driven show, and it’s just about becoming the character and deciding what voice fits this picture, and how do you get the personality that’s described in the paragraph on the page for you across aurally. I like that part of the job, the kind of Rubik’s Cube, crossword puzzle of how to be the person that when they listen to you they go “yeah, that guy”, because obviously there are a lot of talented voice actors out there, and they’re all auditioning in the same way that you are. It’s fun, and a lot of it is challenging that personality. I just started doing Rabbit for the Winnie the Pooh movie, and that’s been a lot of fun. They told me to not even try to sound like the original guy – Rabbit’s personality was more important to them than a dead-on voice match. They listened to a lot of actors and [John] Lasseter picked mine. I guess if I’m good at anything, it’s that – figuring out how to marry those things in a way that the creators hear.
GD: Do you ever look at other characters and think ‘I want to play that!’?
TK: There are animated characters I really enjoy. I have a six year old and a twelve year old, so sometimes I’m watching the preschool stuff with the six year old, and with the twelve year old it’s more stuff of a Simpsons nature. And there’s so much great stuff out there. But I don’t think there’s any existing animated character that I look at and think, “Man, I wish I could be doing that.” I almost like my job a little too much. I’m really satisfied with what I do – Handy Manny’s a really satisfying way to spend your Thursdays.
GD: You got your start playing in rock bands, and then switched to comedy?
TK: It was kind of both – I started playing in garage bands and doing stand up comedy when I was a teenager. Y’know, playing in bands in nightclubs I was too young to get into and then doing stand up at open mike nights in Syracuse, New York, which is where I’m from. I sort of had a vague idea of what I wanted to do in a very general sense. I started young enough that I was able to blunder around and figure it out before I got too long in the tooth. And all that comes in handy at some point – my songwriting partner and I do some songs for Handy Manny once in a while, when they allow us to, which is very nice of them. One gets to wear a different style of hat on one’s hammer head.
GD: Do you still do stand up and/or music shows?
TK: I haven’t done stand up in about 15 years – there are not enough hours in the day and the nocturnal aspect makes it kind of a drag when you have kids! You don’t want to go to the improv and hang around with comedians at two in the morning, because you want to hang around with your kids and get them ready for school in the morning and all that. It’s such a nocturnal and somewhat solitary lifestyle, and I don’t know that I was ever really cut out for it. I much more enjoy teamwork. Once in a while I do rock and roll. I was just part of a Ramones tribute out here in California this past Saturday evening as part of this big guitar trade show that happens right next to Disneyland in Anaheim. I got to be Joey Ramone for the night. And we did a ‘SpongeBob’ show at the Mall of America on New Year’s Eve – that was really enjoyable, despite about 35 degrees below zero wind chill. It was fun – we had a big 12-piece band. That was really great.
GD: Well, this blog is called GeekDad. We know you’re a Dad, but are you also a Geek?
TK: It’s funny, that show we appeared in on Saturday night was for the Guitar Geek Festival! I’m not a geek in the sense that I’m not a gadget head. There are different definitions of geek, right? Like one would be you’re into all the latest technology, and you’re online savvy and all that? That’s not me. But I am a geek in that I’m really into pop cultural ephemera. I collect records – 45s, 78s, rock and roll, blues, jazz, all that stuff. And comic books of course. 1920s and 1930s newspaper strip original art. I guess I’m geeky in a retro way than a techno way. I’m a retro geek. Give me time; I’m a late adapter. I don’t even have an iPhone or anything like that.
GD: I don’t think I’ll be allowed write here again if I don’t ask you what comics you read.
TK: I buy a lot more than I read, with time limitations and all that. But there’s so much great stuff. There’s one call Criminal that’s out right now, it’s kind of hard-boiled noir and it’s really well written. I still like all the classics, the stuff I grew up with – all that’s being reprinted now. It’s nice to have kids, because you can just buy all that stuff and force that down their throats – “Here, it’s Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko! You’ll like it, it’s the best! Worship Steve Ditko!” And all the ‘Popeye’ newspaper strips are being reprinted these days too – I’ve been dreaming about that since I was a kid: “Someday they’ll reprint the entire E.C. Segar ‘Popeye’ strips!” and they are! My kids are so down with that. I guess just by virtue of living in my house they’re as likely to watch a Laurel and Hardy movie as they are to see ‘Up’. But they see it all – they love it all. They don ‘t look down their noses at old stuff.
GD: When I mentioned on Facebook and Twitter that I’d be talking to you, I got sent a clip of the ‘SpongeBob’ cast redubbing old movies.
TK: (Laughs) Oh, that! I host the Annie Awards here in Los Angeles, this is actually the first year I won’t be doing it in like, five years, just because my schedule is too insane. That was just a little film piece we made to show at that, and it wound up online – much to the consternation of the copyright holders of those movies! If I’d been thinking I would have just used all Paramount movies, Paramount and SpongeBob both being owned by Viacom. That was one of those things where we just came in the studio and did it. It was kind of a one-time gag to show at this awards show – you talk about geeks, these were all animators and character designers and background designers, kind of the geekiest crowd in the world.This year is the first year that I’ve had to say no. It’s sponsored by ASIFA, the international animation society. But it’s so much work – if you’re the host you have to write the whole show yourself, you gotta write all your own jokes and produce all your own film pieces. It’s kind of a backbreaking undertaking. In order to save my family’s sanity I said yeah, I better take a year off from this.
But it’s hard for me to say no to anything, I like animation so much and anything to do with it and the people involved with it that the word no is usually not in my vocabulary. I lay awake nights before I told them I couldn’t host this year.
GD: You sound like you’re kind of a workaholic.
TK: Only in the sense that I really like my work and I want to do as much as I can of it for as long as I can. It’s what I’d wanted to do since I was a child, and it’s so fun I guess it is kind of addictive. But the great thing about animation voiceover is that it happens pretty much during conventional business hours. So unlike a stand up comedian, or some of my other friends who are on-camera actors and find themselves say, on location in Budapest shooting a movie and are away from their families for six months, the voiceover thing is as close you can get to a ‘Honey, I’m Home’ conventional, nine-to-five job in show business. I know writers and producers in animation are keeping much more late night, redeye hours than I am, but the actual recordings happen nine to six. I get to drop the kids off at school and I’m home for dinner. It’s all the fun of being an actor, and none of the mess.
‘Handy Manny’s School for Tools’ premieres Monday January 25th on Disney Channel at 8.25am. UK viewers can cache them when they premiere on April 19th, on Playhouse Disney.