Before he played everyone’s favorite animated sea sponge SpongeBob SquarePants, Tom Kenny was the voice of Heffer Wolfe on Rocko’s Modern Life. To celebrate today's DVD release of Rocko’s Modern Life: Season 1, I spoke to Kenny about his experiences on the ‘90s Nickelodeon series. The voice actor offered insight not only on Rocko, but also on how it was influenced by classic animation and continues to shape current animated series.
What was your inspiration for the voice of Heffer?
You know, that was based on my—at the time—13-year-old nephew, my brother’s kid, who kind of had that way of talking. Not dead on, but some of his quirks I incorporated into the Heffer audition.
I read that early test audiences felt like Heffer was too weird. Did you ever feel as though he was especially out there?
I’ve never been privy to that particular piece of market research, but I’m sure it’s true. [laughs] I’m sure some suit probably said, “Eh, I dunno.” In animation, you wind up playing such a broad range of characters of varying degrees of intensity and weirdness. Rocko was the first series that I had ever done, so I didn’t really have anything to judge it against, but we all were fans of outrageous comedy, both animated and not animated. The Looney Tunes have really extreme, crazy characters, and so does SCTV, which is all the stuff that we were drawing upon, or the stuff that had a big influence on us. I’m sure if you asked [creator] Joe Murray or [writer, director, and voice of Filburt] Mr. Lawrence or any of those guys, especially in terms of animation, the weirdest cartoons would of course be our favorites—those weird ‘30s Fleischer brothers Betty Boop cartoons and stuff like that. Those are just psychotic.
It does seem that Rocko’s Modern Life was one of the early animated series for kids that had a much more adult sensibility. Do you see that influence in current cartoons?
Yeah, I think [Rocko] brought that back. Again, going back to Looney Tunes and Fleischer brothers cartoons and stuff like that, those had a certain adult sensibility, too, but were also enjoyed by kids because they were shown before movies, and so they were meant to appeal to a wide demographic. And the same with a lot of those primetime ‘60s cartoons that a lot of us grew up with: The Flinstones, The Jetsons, Top Cat, that Hanna-Barbera stuff. There’s an adult sensibility to that stuff, too. Even Yogi Bear and Huckleberry Hound were sometimes concerned with stuff that’s not childhood specific. So I think Rocko’s Modern Life was kind of a recurrence of that—kids can watch it, but it’s being written by adults and not specifically made for four-year-olds.
Rocko cast a pretty wide net just because it was so much one of those Petri dish shows where people who went on to do other things in animation cut their teeth on that show as their first gig—myself, [writer-producer-artist] Steve Hillenburg. It was a very early job for Mr. Lawrence, if not his first. And guys like [writers] Derek Drymon and Nick Jennings, who went on to be responsible for the tone and visual looks of a lot of very successful animated series that came later. I guess its influence continues to be felt. And also I think Joe Murray’s sensibility—he was very stubborn about his vision. He wanted the show to be the way he envisioned it, and I think that was a lesson that didn’t go unnoticed by people like Steve Hillenburg, long before he created SpongeBob. So I think it was very educational—it was this first gig for lots of people, myself included, in the world of animation. It was like Professor X’s School for Mutants.
What did you personally learn from your time on Rocko?
Well, I learned how to do voiceover for animation, which I’d not done a lot of up to that point. I learned that I loved animation voiceover and wanted to be doing that more than I wanted to be doing anything else. For me, it was a thrill to just be in that world and in that profession, because it was the thing I wanted to do. Along with the people who were getting their first jobs in animation, you also had some people who were more grizzled veterans, like Charlie Adler, who played both the Bigheads and a bunch of other people on that show. He had done a lot of stuff—he was one of the big guns in voiceover.
I’ve told this story before, but one of the first things I saw at the recording session was him having a two-way conversation with himself as two different characters, without any cuts, without any edits. “Do you want to do Mr. Bighead first and then pick up Bev Bighead?” “No, no, fuck it. We don’t fucking need to do that.” It was pretty dazzling. That was a moment where I was like, this is fun and I think I’ll do okay at this, but man, I’ve gotta work to be as good as guys that are at the top of the heap. There’s a reason those guys are the ones that are working all the time. They can kick my ass. It was not scary but eye-opening. If you want to do this, it takes a certain amount of ability and work.
You once said that you play “a lot of sweet, kind of dumb yellow characters.” Do you see other similarities between Heffer and SpongeBob?
Well, I guess there’s that dynamic of the two fast friends. Deep, abiding friendship is a comedy recipe that is very dependable and goes way back, whether it’s Laurel and Hardy or Fred and Barney or whoever. Rocko and Heffer were very much in that tradition of buddies. One of the things that comes across when I see Rocko these days is that, even though the world they live in is crazy, and one of them is a steer who’s yellow and the other is a wallaby with a shirt on, their relationship is very real. The friendship, I think, plays very believably.
And I think that was probably something that Steve Hillenburg saw as being a smart ingredient to have in a show [like SpongeBob SquarePants]. I guess there’s probably more corollaries between Heffer and Patrick than Heffer and SpongeBob. Rocko is kind of the smaller, slightly more excitable, slightly more intelligent friend who still respects his more quote-unquote doofus buddy, but doesn’t even think of his buddy as a doofus. SpongeBob doesn’t think Patrick’s a moron, and Rocky doesn’t think Bullwinkle’s a moron. But yeah, Patrick is kind of the Heffer of the SpongeBob show. [laughs]