Schenectady will get a closer look at the world of Bikini Bottom this weekend thanks to Rodger Bumpass, the man behind the nasal-voiced, ever-sarcastic “SpongeBob SquarePants” character Squidward Tentacles.
The voice actor will be in the Electric City as part of Fandom Fest. Organized by Proctors, the weekend-long festival includes celebrity guests such as Bumpass, James Marsters (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel”), Amber Benson (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) and many others. It will also feature panels, games, a cosplay contest, film/anime screenings, trivia, paint and sip, vendors and more. This is the first year the event has been held.
Bumpass will speak on the panel “What’s Bikini Bottom really like?” on Sunday.
An Arkansas native, the actor studied radio and television as well as theater at Arkansas State University, and went on to win a role in the National Lampoon music and comedy road show “That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick.”
Shortly after that, he began landing more voice-acting gigs, including in movies and cartoons such as “The New Scooby-Doo Mysteries,” “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” and “Batman: The Animated Series.”
Bumpass went on to play Squidward on Nickelodeon’s animated comedy series “SpongeBob SquarePants,” giving voice to the misanthropic octopus who has become one of the most recognizable cartoon characters of today. He has also played a variety of incidental characters on the show, which has been on the air since 1999.
The Daily Gazette caught up with Bumpass shortly before his journey to Fandom Fest and spoke about the surprising success of “SpongeBob,” the recording process, ad-libbing on the show and his favorite episodes, among other things.
Question: By the time “SpongeBob” came along in your career, you had already done “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego” and many other shows, correct?
Answer: I had done just scores upon scores of things and I worked with a lot of looping groups. So I worked on a whole bunch of movies. I was a completely working actor. I was making a fine living before [“SpongeBob”] happened. But this was just the biggest thing I’ve ever been part of.
In fact, up until “SpongeBob,” “Carmen Sandiego” was the longest running cartoon I had ever been a part of, which was four years. So that was a big deal for me back then. Nobody had any idea this would become what it became.
Q: When you first started working on it, did you think, “This is kind of fun. It might be a one-off show. We’ll see where it goes”?
A: That’s pretty much what I thought. It was just another audition. Back then you would travel across town to your agent’s office, and they have a little booth and you go in there and read whatever copy came to them. Then you either get it or you don’t, and you go on to the next thing.
That was just one of those things I read for. I got the part. We did the pilot, I got a copy of the pilot. I took it home to my family and played it for them, and they all fell asleep.
And so I said to myself, “Well, it’s funny, it’s OK. It’s nice. It’s work.”
Then two years after that I was on the street and I just casually mentioned to someone that I worked on the show, and their eyes got just gigantic and their jaw dropped, and they said, “No way. You guys are so hip.” And I didn’t even know that young people knew what that word meant. So that’s when I said, “Maybe we’re onto something here.”
People always ask, “What’s the thing that makes it fun and good and desirable for people to watch?” And I always draw the comparison of “Looney Tunes.”
They’re both 11-minute cartoons, not half-hours. And they both use what we call cartoon animation … [where] when you get hit with a frying pan your face takes the shape of the frying pan. We just did what “Looney Tunes” did and they had great characters, too, and we’ve got pretty good characters ourselves.
But it’s just funny and it’s silly.
It struck a note at that particular time. Maybe it was the cartoon version of The Beatles, just the right group at the right time. It just kind of clicked, and it was very much a surprise to all of us, even the creator of the show.
Q: When you first auditioned for the role, did they provide any direction for how Squidward should sound?
A: The sound was all me. But when you go to an audition, especially for cartoons, they’ll give you a written description of the character. [Squidward is] artistic, he’s finicky. He’s fussy. He is very frustrated. He thinks he’s better than everybody else around him.
I saw the picture of him, in which he had this big honking nose, and so I made him a bit nasal and … just condescending sarcasm about everything around him.
The creator Stephen Hillenburg had heard my stuff in an audition before. So he was somewhat familiar with me. But that was just pretty much what he wanted. One of the great things about him, when he knew what he wanted, he didn’t mess around. So he brought me in.
Q: As you’ve gotten to know Squidward more and more over the years, are there aspects of his character that you either identify with or just really enjoy portraying?
A: I used to describe him as my alter ego and now I’m his alter ego. I’ve become more and more sarcastic, because you can get away with being sarcastic when you’re a part of something that’s your character.
I’m never hurtful to anybody but I can be really sarcastic. I have a shirt that says “Sarcasm: It’s how I hug.”
Q: When you’re recording the show is there any room for ad-libbing or changing lines?
A: Through the years we have evolved into a very nice way of doing things. Early on we ad-libbed a lot, and of course the writers give us the script and they would like to have their script at least in one or two takes as written.
We developed a three-tier way of recording. We’ll do two or three pages exactly as written. And then we’ll go back and do what we call the crazy take, in which we can do anything we want to do and we can ad-lib. Oftentimes we go off-color just for our own amusement. So somewhere in Nickelodeon, there’s a very blue kind of tape.
It gives us great freedom [and] that’s very liberating, but it also covers, in a very efficient way, getting the writers what they want and then we get to do what we want, and oftentimes our improvisations and our changes make their way into the final product. So we like the way we do that. We’re not under some sort of dictatorial rule whatsoever.
There’s an episode called “Sailor Mouth” where Sponge and Pat learn how to cuss, and every time they do that they insert dolphin sounds and whatever. In the end, Krabs, who has been chastising them for having these potty mouths, stubs his toe and then he goes off on his own tirade.
Stephen, who was still directing the show at that point, told Clancy Brown [the voice actor who plays Mr. Krabs], “It sounds like you’re trying to make it up. I tell you what, as we’re recording, you go ahead and really cuss.”
So next time you watch that, know that there is a tape somewhere of Clancy Brown really cussing. I learned new words that day. It’s just one of those neat little moments that we’ve had through the course of our run.
Q: Are most of the actors in the studio at the same time while you’re recording?
A: Well, once COVID hit we couldn’t come into the studio anymore. Nickelodeon gave us all high-quality microphones and laptops, and it just so happened to be good timing for me: I had just bought a voice booth to put in my garage. So we’ve been recording from home since 2020. Every so often one of us can go back into the studio because they live far out or whatever.
When we’re recording, [on] Zoom, you see thumbnails of the other actors. That’s about as close as you get. So that’s something, but it’s just not the same.
We’re hoping things will ease up and we can all go back into the studio again. Although I am liking my eight-second commute to my garage. It’s actually a pretty nice thing.
Q: Has the cast changed very much over the years?
A: It hasn’t changed much. We’re all the original members. Sadly, we have lost members. Stephen Hillenburg died, and Ernest Borgnine and Tim Conway, who were Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy, passed away also. And we retired the characters in tribute to them because of that.
We have a couple of what I call our journeyman players, Dee Bradley Baker and Sirena Irwin, who come in and just do the one-of-a-kind, one-time characters, the peripheral characters.
But we really haven’t hired new people for the main show. We have guests all the time. This is almost like the ’60s Batman show that celebrities actually asked to do cameos, and so we’ve had everybody from Johnny Depp to David Bowie and all in between. I never get to meet them of course; they’re always recording from their kitchens or something.
Q: Squidward’s voice is very particular. Do you have to take breaks during the recording process?
A: Not really. The one thing that they learned early on was that I can scream all day long and not have it really be terrible [for my voice]. That was the episode where SpongeBob comes across Mermaid Man’s utility belt and it flashes on Squidward and it shrinks him. Squidward demands that he turn him back, and as he keeps pushing the button, different rays come out and do horrible things to [Squidward]. So I had to scream and I took it upon myself to make every scream different.
From that point on, they make me scream every show.
Many times, especially in our post-production, I’ll look at the cues I’m supposed to do and there are no written words. It’s all just screams and yells and pain. It’s a running joke that I actually get to use words sometimes.
[Squidward’s voice] is pretty close to my natural voice. It’s a very comfortable voice to do. He was very monotone when we first started out, and then as time goes on you’re required to do more and more diverse things with your character.
So it enables us to spread our wings and develop a more fleshed-out cartoon character. I’ve gone really far afield now with what Squidward can do.
Q: What have been some of your favorite episodes over the years?
A: Well, I think everyone’s favorite episode is “Band Geeks,” the one where they played the Bubble Bowl. That song at the end, “Sweet Victory,” the story is that the writers came across that song and thought it was so stupid that they wrote the entire episode just to get to that song. It’s really everybody’s favorite.
For me personally, though, when Tom [Kenny] and I work together, just us, we have a nice chemistry.
The back and forth, it’s kind of like Jackie Gleason and Ed Norton in “The Honeymooners,” way back in the ’50s, where the stupid person does something just sufficiently long enough where the other guy blows up.
One of those episodes was “Dying for Pie,” where Squidward gave a pie that he thought had a bomb in it [to SpongeBob] and they just went back and forth, back and forth all during the episode.
The “Hash-slinging Slasher” is another favorite of people. I like that a lot.
Also, there’s another episode called “Goons on the Moon,” a fairly recent one, where Sandy’s rocket goes to the moon and Squidward is an accidental stowaway.
He gets out of the ship and falls into this cave system under the surface of the moon. He’s trying to get out and he pokes his head into a hole, and it’s something very bizarre. It cuts to a live-action [scene] where he’s inside a guitar at a country western bar, and the [next] time he pokes his head through the hole he’s coming out of the computer screen of a Nickelodeon animator. I talked them into letting me be the animator so that when Squidward pokes his head out he sees the real world, he screams, and then I, the animator, see him and I scream and it’s the same scream. So I’m gratified that they allowed me to do that part because I thought it was just a neat little inside joke.
Q: It seems like there have been a lot of spin-offs or side projects that have come along with the show. Has that been fun to be a part of?
A: It was great. Of course, we’ve done countless video games, and little behind-the-scenes things and stuff. But we do currently have two spin-offs, “The Patrick Star Show” and “Kamp Koral.” They’re fun to do [along with] the original show also.
It’s nice to have more projects in the pipeline and think that this thing still has legs.
It’s just a great thing to be a part of something that can be used with the word iconic because this show really is a part of American pop culture. One of the things that I do collect is newspaper comic strips that refer to SpongeBob, and you’d be amazed at how many there have been. It’s pretty interesting that we were a part of the pop-culture lexicon.
We’ve been in movies, we’re in Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds.” When there’s a TV playing [in a show or movie], oftentimes they’ll just throw in SpongeBob. The theme song or something. It’s just a part of American culture.
WHEN: 4 -10 p.m. Friday; 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Proctors, Schenectady
TICKETS: $50 for general admission day pass; $127.50 for three-day pass
MORE INFO: fandomfest.org