Tom Kenny is known for the fantastic voices he gives life to in many of the well-known cartoon and animated series, like SpongeBob SquarePants, Heffer Wolfe in Rocko’s Modern Life, the Ice King in Adventure Time, the Mayor in The Powerpuff Girls, Dog in CatDog, and Spyro from the Spyro the Dragon franchise. His live-action work includes the comedies The Edge and Mr. Show. Now Tom is starring in a new animated series called Niko and the Sword of Light.
Niko and the Sword of Light follows 10-year-old Niko who is the last of his kind in a strange, fantastical world. He must embark on an epic quest to defeat the darkness and bring the light back to his land. Armed with his magic sword, brave Niko journeys to the Cursed Volcano, making new friends and powerful foes along the way, all while uncovering secrets about his mysterious past.
Tom was kind enough to sit down and chat with me about Niko and the Sword of Light, voice acting and fatherhood. Tom and his wife, Jill have two kids.
Art Eddy: Let’s first talk about the new series you are on called Niko and the Sword of Light. You play the role of Mandok. Can you talk about the series and your character?
Tom Kenny: Sure. The series is called Niko and the Sword of Light. It is on Amazon Prime Video. The whole first season just dropped so you can watch the whole season. It is high adventure that is family friendly and kid friendly, but not in a namby-pamby sort of way. It is really an exciting show. That is a genre that I think gets ill served these days. When we were kids there were all kinds of adventure cartoons. There was Space Ghost and Johnny Quest. I am betraying my 55 year old age with the references that I am dropping.
For the people that were a bit younger than me there was He-Man and Thundarr the Barbarian. All of that stuff is in this show. There is a little bit of Avatar in this show. It is really this positive adventure and almost Tolkienesque in many ways. It is really fun to do something in that genre.
My character is Mandok. He is this little creature. Very small. So he always had to rely on his wits. He is crafty. He is a little bit shifty. He is self-serving. He is always looking out for himself. He falls into this kid named Niko, who has been chosen to defeat this great evil that has been unleashed out into the world. (In Mandok’s voice) He is sort of patterned from a Borscht Belt comedian with a little bit of my friend Richard Kind thrown in there. I was channeling him in my audition. So I probably owe him money for booking this series.
Mandok like all the characters in Niko’s fellowship has to learn to be not so self-serving. Be part of a collective. Be part of a family. Be part of a united effort. He really never had to do that before. All of the characters have things that they have to go through. I have to say the character arcs are much more nuance than often happens in kids cartoons. It is definitely much more sophisticated than anything I saw in Johnny Quest or Space Ghost when I was a kid. It is really fun to be in that genre. Even that type of voice and that kind of guy that Mandok is, is the kind of thing that I don’t get to traffic in that much. (In Mandok’s voice) It is fun to be that shifty guy. Let me make you a deal. (Both laugh.) He is always looking at the angles. He is looking how to try to escape and how to escape with a little extra for himself.
AE: I love the cast that you are working with for Niko and the Sword of Light. I am always curious about these shows. Do you work by yourself when recording the series or are you all together? I am guessing it might be hard to be by yourself on a show like this.
TK: That is a great question. A lot of times as you know I work on a lot of shows just like the other members in this cast. I like to call it the Navy SEALs of voiceover. With all due modesty it will probably be the closest I will be to a Navy SEAL. I guess if you were a session musician like bass players my musician friends call it the first call. You want to be the first call saxophone player. It would be like hey we need a sax player call Tom. You are front of their mind.
These are all first call voice over people. The schedules are such that it would be a lot easier if you come in separately and do your stuff. Then you cut it all together. Great efforts have been made on this show to have us record as ensemble. I think it really, really makes a big difference in how the stuff sounds. Not that everyone on the show isn’t capable of doing it in a bubble and making it sounds committed and good. We can do that. It is not easy. It is not easy in a room by yourself and think about how the finish product is going to sound.
I guess it is like an on camera actor working in front of a green screen. I have to picture what is going to be here when this Transformers movie is done rather than this blank green screen that I am looking at now where my performance will look weird. So we are really capable of doing it, but I really love doing it ensemble. That is how Niko has been doing it. I think it has been really helpful for all of us. It really just a lot more fun to do a radio play then go into a studio by yourself and try and pretend that the other actors are in there with you.
I think it has been good for Andre Robinson, our young Niko. He has been really growing by leaps and bounds as a voice actor. I think his performances have just been terrific. It has really gotten great as the series has gone on. A lot of that is due to Andrea Romano, who is one of the greatest voice acting directors of all time and has Emmy’s to prove it.
It is great. I am lucky enough to work on shows that are done on that ensemble style. Niko does it that way. SpongeBob does it that way. Powerpuff Girls does it that way. Dorothy of Oz a Warner Brothers series that I am doing does it that way. It is funny because I keep hearing that is unusual these days for shows to be ensemble. I guess it us just luck of the draw or maybe I just audition well for series that will be group records. I am lucky enough that the majority of stuff that I am on record in that fashion. It is much more rewarding. I think it gives you an indefinable something that you don’t get. It is something that you wouldn’t know consciously, but I can always notice it subatomically. I am always amazed that they point out the fact that the artists never met.
It is fun to act. Getting in a room with Steve Blum, Jim Cummings, Dee Bradley Baker, Kari Wahlgren and Andre Robinson. It is really the greatest job ever. I can’t think of anything that I would rather be doing. If a genie were to suddenly appear and give me a choice of a dream job it would be the exact job that I am doing. I would be like okay genie you can go. (Both laugh.)
AE: It definitely shows in your work. You mentioned SpongeBob and Powerpuff Girls. To me you are one of the iconic voice actors. I am guessing you grew up watching certain shows and idolizing people.
TK: Yes, including the recently departed June Foray. Just to put her name out in the cosmos. She was a great influence on me. It was somebody that I knew and worked with and got to see socially from time to time. One of the greatest ladies. She was bigger to me than any movie star could ever be.
AE: What popped into your mind when you found out that you were going to be a father for the first time?
TK: My oldest in now 19 and sporting a beard. He is five inches taller than me and 80 pounds lighter than me. My daughter is 14. So it has been a little bit. I would say that my first thoughts when I found out that I was going to be a dad was like yikes. Wow. Suddenly I am the CEO of Dad Co. I am going to be responsible for a lot of stuff.
It is funny I was just telling an expectant parent that I work with that everything is going to be fine. You have to talk him down. Everything is going to be fine. It is going to be great. It is quite an adventure. Keep your eye on the ball. The thing that still amazes me and even at my kids’ ages now 19 and 14 is that the stuff that I think is going to be hard usually doesn’t turn out as hard as I thought it would be. The stuff that wasn’t on my radar because I thought it was going to be a breeze was the stuff where you go oh crap I never knew that this was going to be that hard. (Both laugh.) Now it is like the hardest thing.
You are just stepping up to the plate and swinging at all of those crazy pitches that are going to be coming across the home plate for the next 20 some years. You are just trying to connect with the ball as often as you can and do a good job and be honest. Sorry, I just gave you the most trite parenting advice in the world. It is just a very daunting task. It is a science fair project that you are never quite sure where it is going. I hope this crazy experiment works. I guess we will find out. (Both laugh.) Once it is out in the world there is no putting it back. (Both laugh.)
AE: What are some of the core values you look to instill into your kids as they grow up?
TK: Just morality. I am not really a spiritual person at all. I am just saying really golden rule stuff. Just look out for other people. Stick up for people that are weaker than you. Be mindful of what other people are feeling. Stick up for yourself. Don’t let anybody make you feel small, but stick up for the small. Especially in today’s world with the current climate of things.
There is bullying at the highest of levels. Putting people down and insulting people. Everyone is in an attack mode all the time it seems at the highest levels. These are world leaders that people are supposedly looking up to. As you can tell I am alluding to one world leader in particular. Maybe two.
I feel like just human decency and manners and civil discourse are under assault at all times like never before. My folks were really good about instilling that in me. They also instilled in me, because they are both funny people a sense of humor and ridiculousness and satirical thinking that really comes in handy when stuff is going really crazy and things seem bad. I think being able to smile at a funeral is a great life skill.
Life of Dad Quick Five
AE: Do you guys have a favorite family movie that you all love to watch together?
TK: Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.
AE: Do you guys have a favorite song that you all like to sing to or dance to as a family?
TK: I would have to say Rockaway Beach by The Ramones.
AE: Describe the perfect family vacation.
TK: Anywhere but home. I don’t like staycations.
AE: Do you remember the first voice you landed that started your voice acting profession?
TK: I do. My first voice that I landed was on the short lived Dumb and Dumber cartoon. My first series character was Heffer on Rockos Modern Life. It is about to make a return to television as a stand-alone movie on Nickelodeon.
AE: Favorite line to say from any character you have voiced is….
TK: Oh man. I would have to say SpongeBob. (In the SpongeBob voice.) You don’t need a license to drive a sandwich. (Laughs.)
Follow Tom Kenny on Twitter at @RealTomKenny and for more on Niko and the Sword of Light go to the Amazon Prime.