Nickelodeon is kicking off SpongeBob's "Best Year Ever" tonight to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the premiere of "SpongeBob Squarepants," their highest-rated show.
We talked with Rodger Bumpass, the Little Rock native who has spent two decades voicing SpongeBob's sarcastic octopus neighbor Squidward Tentacles.
How often do you get back to Little Rock?
That’s an interesting question because I usually come back about once a year or so. However, in 16 days I will be getting married in Little Rock on the steps of the old State House. We’ll have the reception over at the Capital Hotel and all that.
A former classmate of mine, who’s in broadcast, is going to be speaking at the ceremony. It’s going to be quite the affair. Now, my family has passed away but in getting closer to my fiancé, I made more trips to Little Rock. We both went to Central High School.
How has your Arkansas upbringing, which is probably different than a lot of your peers, influenced your work?
That's a very interesting question. I don't think I've ever been asked that before. Just off the top of my head, it was just the way that I grew up. I was always interested in comedy, TV and movies. My heroes were people like Jerry Lewis and Red Skelton and Dick Van Dyke, and The Three Stooges, and all that. I would sit in my home in Little Rock and watch these shows. I had a very good family experience. So, I never was burdened by contention or bad things happening in our family.
They didn't have anything to do with show business so I never really got a whole lot of encouragement because no one ever used the word "actor" without using the word "starving" before it. Only after I got some good reviews in New York, my parents started saying, "Hey, maybe he's got some ability here."
I was brought up to be a polite kid and actually, am very thankful for that because some kids weren't brought up that way and they're lives will reflect that also. Growing up in the South, all that you think it is, the stereotype or not, shape me to be as good a person as I can be. Now that I'm thinking about it, I’m very grateful for being brought up right.
How did you land the role on SpongeBob?
You know, it was just another audition. You know, back then a whole lot of people did not have the recording studios in their houses. They would go to their agent's office or go to some third party casting place, and you just read it – look at the breakdowns, read it and then just go away. And if you get a job, you get a job. Nothing portentous to it whatsoever.
I wish I had a great Hollywood story about it, but it was just another audition. I did see the breakdown and that's how I got the idea for his particular type of voice. He had this big honking nose and it was supposed to be sarcastic. So I kind of put him in the back of my throat and made him very sarcastic. It just happened to be what Stephen Hillenburg ( the show's creator) was looking for. The rest is history there.
So, you developed the voice of Squidward?
What I gave them was a very one-note kind of character. He was "blah, blah, blah, sarcastic, blah, blah, blah, blah." And they liked the general tone of it. But as the show went along, I was given more and more different emotional situations to do. So I got to spread my wings and he became much more fleshed out. Which of course is the evolution of most long-running characters and shows, that you have to look for new things to put in there and then it really just kinda just fleshes the character out so much more fully.
What did you do before becoming Squidward?
Well, it wasn't the first. I've been doing this for 45 years. I worked on countless movies, TV shows, commercials, cartoons, and well, whatever came my way. I worked on a lot of the Pixar films, Disney films and lots of games. But this is the biggest project I've ever been a part of.
When I left Arkansas for New York, I had this vague goal, I wanted to do something on a national level, on a national scale. There just wasn't that opportunity in Arkansas, unfortunately. And so I was able to finally get something like this that was not only national but global.
So it's one of those things, you just have to sit back and say, "Thank you, God, for this." To be a part of such an iconic project and product, that’s something to just be grateful for and I am.
What is it like to be part of something as iconic as SpongeBob?
When we premiered in '99, a lot of people that are your age were three, four or five, six years old. And so, that was very much part of their formative years. And so we chaperoned them through their childhood. When I go to comic cons where I get to actually meet the fans, that story is a very common refrain from people – they come and thank us for their childhood. And being a part of that legacy is a very cherished thing because that’s what I would've said to Mel Blanc because Looney Tunes did the same thing for me.
We’re a short cartoon and people from different ages and different intellects and different senses of humor get different things from the comedy that's in our show. Different people will get different jokes and appreciate them. So it's the overall thankfulness to be a part of something like this that affected so many people positively. We're not a show that gets dirty, cutesy maybe – we talk about butts sometimes. But we don't go into the dark side of comedy like that to keep it wholesome.
It’s one of those things that you just, every so often, have to step back and say, "I'm a part of the character, this show, that everybody knows."
Is it a lot of pressure for you to have everyone know your voice so intimately? Is it bizarre?
Actually, that's one of the perks – one of the great things. Because when I'm out and somebody says, "Hey, that’s the guys that does Squidward!" They go, "really?" Then I do the voice, and there’s this explosion of recognition. The eyes get huge and the jaw drops and they inevitably say "No way!" and that’s nice.
It’s one of those little perks of being in show business. Once you do the voice, that’s what people want. It's like going to a rock concert. You want your band to play, not something new, you want them to play what you know and love. People want that familiarity and all of a sudden, when they’re in front of you, it’s thrilling for some people. And, in a different way, it’s thrilling for me – I gave them that moment.
What character do you think you relate to the most?
Oh, completely Squidward, absolutely. I love being sarcastic and I love being that sarcastic observer of the insanity around me. I have a very dry sense of humor. My favorite comedians are people like Steven Wright and Rodney Dangerfield who are just so great with those one-liners. I used to say Squidward was my alter-ego. But, I'm incorporating more and more of my general acting technique and proclivities, that he's becoming more me. And vice versa. You know, it's pretty much I am he and he is me.
There’s an evolution that I hear about quite frequently that when people your age, where they were younger, they identified with SpongeBob. His energy, it's fun-loving stuff. Then, as they get to be in a job and they see the realities of adulthood and adult life and all those negative things, they become more like Squidward.
Do you have a favorite episode?
We have several. There's one that's actually a crowd favorite, which is called “Band Geeks” where they play the Bubble Bowl. It produced some of the more iconic lines like from Patrick saying, “Is mayonnaise an instrument?” There’s a song at the end, the "Sweet, Sweet Victory" song. It was told to me that the animators came across this song and they thought it was so stupid that they decided to write the episode building up to it – it turns out to be a pretty good production too.
In a recent episode, “Goons on the Moon,” Squidward goes to the moon and gets lost in a cave and he’s sticking his head into different universes trying to get out. The last universe, he pops out into live-action at one of the Nickelodeon animator’s workstations. I had the idea, that they fell for, to use me as the animator. So when Squidward pops out and sees me, he screams. And when I see him, I scream. And it’s the same scream. It was a nice little moment.
After 20 years, do you get tired of being Squidward?
No. But, once they learned that I scream well, they made me scream a lot. Every shot I have to scream and that’s a lot. There was only one episode that really tired me out and that was the “Lemonade Stand” episode where they scare Squidward and he exuded his ink for the first time ever. I had to do this terribly tiring, exhausting series of screams.
As far as getting tired of the character? No. He's been too good to me. And has been too much fun for all these years that I will never ever get tired of this, this little guy. He's such a familiar friend that has done well for me.
One of the things that is weird, I mentioned Comic-Con, when you're on the floor at Comic-Con, I do my voice constantly. So, by the end of three days, I find it difficult to get out of the character and speak like myself.
Like a second language?
Right, a second language: cephalopod.
What would fans be surprised to know about Squidward?
Well, if we ever come across those things, we'll put them in a show. We've explored a whole lot about him. He loves canned bread, interpretive dance, he likes to ride his bicycle – which by the way, was inspired by my bicycle. I ride a recumbent bicycle where you kind of leaning back a little bit. So, Stephen Hilenburg and his son, came across me riding outside and I let him ride it. Ever since that moment he always had Squidward riding that particular type of bicycle.
You really are becoming the same.
Oh, we are absolutely the same. All my license plates on my cars are all versions of Squidward. I have what I'm calling the world's largest collection of SpongeBob memorabilia and merchandise. It's surrounding me right now. There's an excess of 2,000 pieces here. So I'm submitting it to Guinness.
There are some conspiracies on the internet about Squidward being dangerously depressed and suicidal messages surrounding his character. Is there any validity to those?
To my knowledge, it is fully conspiracy. You wouldn’t want to go seriously dark, you could do it in a comic sense because he is pretty depressed, to begin with, it’s a short jump. But, I've seen some of the Internet stuff, it's totally manufactured by fans. Whatever there is out there is going to be corrupted by someone, no matter how good.
What is your favorite thing about Squidward?
One of the fun things to do about him is, he is on two ends of the spectrum here. He gets to be this sarcastic observer of the insanity around him, which brings up some of the most fun moments for me. But then when things get too much for him, once things get too crazy, he gets to go completely apoplectic and scream. That's just so therapeutic for me. I've saved a lot of money on psychiatry.
What is the community like within the cast of SpongeBob?
This is kind of an unusual thing. With cartoons, especially television cartoons, you don't get to spend this much time, as far as the years go. When you're doing a show, it's usually a four-hour span of time together once in a while. But we all get along exceedingly well, which is very refreshing because that's not always the case in Hollywood, that's for sure. And so we are definitely a family and Nickelodeon expressed that terminology to all of us too – that we are all part of the Nickelodeon family. It's the most benign, supportive group that you would want to be in, especially for a long period of time. So here again, I'm just grateful to be a part of this.
How do you feel celebrating 20 years of SpongeBob?
It's been a lot, and there will be more. We're celebrating all year with "The Best Year Ever." It's just all of a sudden, the concentration of all this press and interviews and filming. It’s nice getting out there and then telling everybody what it’s been like all this time.
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