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Coastal Commuter

Begin again . . . and again

Comedian, singer, voice actor Tom Kenny at the LA Animation Festival. Photo: The Conmunity - Pop Culture Geek

Dawn breaks on the first day of a new year, and all things seem possible — especially in a state like California with two big cities where, traditionally, people relocate to renew or reinvent themselves. Is there a town more open to innovation and revolutionary thinking than San Francisco? And is there a place more devoted to the idea of its denizens creating entirely new identities for themselves than L.A., particularly in the realm of show business? Actors, musicians, writers, producers, directors . . . there are probably more Jay Gatsbys in Hollywood — like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s antihero, leaving a shady past behind and embracing a more marketable, even glittering persona — than any other locale in the civilized world.

Of course, we can find countless examples of decent, wholesome Cali folks simply moving on to new phases in their lives, or adding more job titles or vocations to their resumes. I’ve never been particularly saint-like in my time, although I’ve never had to escape any unsavory life choices either. But I’ve managed to accumulate a variety of mini-careers over my extended time as a Californian, as you could see if you checked out my LinkedIn profile. All of this is my way of saying that change or trying something new can be good for the soul — and occasionally, the bank account. And San Francisco and Los Angeles were, are, and continue to be good places to explore one’s potential.

A COMIC’S PROGRESS

Consider the personal journey of Tom Kenny — the endlessly optimistic, whimsically original comedian and actor best known as the voice of the immensely popular cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants. I’ve known Tom since we were both starting out in our respective fields. It’s been a while. Let’s just say that our friendship is old enough to vote. Now and again, I shared airtime with him on Live 105 radio where I was doing a movie-review segment every Friday morning for The Alex Bennett Program, and Tom was a frequent guest.

Tom and I hit it off, in some part due to our mutual interests in classic animation and comic books, and vintage 45 rpm records. One of my fondest memories of bonding with him is an encounter we had at a now-defunct North Beach comic-book shop. As we perused the racks, he came upon an issue of legendary underground cartoonist R. Crumb’s Weirdo magazine, and leafed through it. He began laughing out loud, so much so that I went over to him to see what could be that funny. He passed me the comic, pointing to a specific page. I read it, and in short order, I began laughing as well — and I mean laughing hard enough that I began to convulsively weep. I kept reading the story, and panel after panel, I laughed harder. Eventually gasping for air, I handed the comic back to him, and, looking at the same pages I had read, he started laughing again. It was a perfect storm of hilarity that continued until my sides literally ached and exhaustion set in.

SPONGE-WORTHY

As fine and funny a stand-up comedian as Tom was back in the day, he harbored a desire to do voice work in the sort of cartoons he loved while growing up. His career led him to the entertainment-business Mecca of L.A. and some high-profile television gigs as an ensemble member on two sketch-comedy shows, Fox’s The Edge (where he performed alongside his wife-to-be Jill Talley, Wayne Knight, and Jennifer Aniston, among others) and HBO’s Mr. Show with Bob and David. Thus, he was in a position to audition for work on animated cartoons, and would soon be voicing a sizeable collection of characters, such as the bumbling mayor on The Powerpuff Girls, the villainous Penguin on one of the Batman ‘toons, the evil Doctor Octopus on a Spider-Man series, and, starting in 1999, good ol’ SpongeBob.

It was the role of SpongeBob — a lovable, anthropomorphic sponge on the blithely wacky Nickelodeon TV show bearing his name — that became the most significant of these voiceover gigs and more than a meal ticket for Tom. In fact, the series continues today, having spawned feature films and, recently, a Broadway musical. As the character’s popularity grew around the world, so did the demand for merchandise and ancillary material. Thus, a SpongeBob album featuring the insanely catchy title song from the series was commissioned, with a bunch of numbers from the show that featured vocals by actors who voiced the characters, especially Tom. By the fourth official album dedicated to the spongy little guy (“The Best Day Ever”), Tom would be co-authoring the songs with masterful producer/musician Andy Paley (of the new-wave duo the Paley Brothers). And that eventually led to Tom and Andy putting together a full-fledged band — Tom Kenny & The Hi-Seas, currently playing shows around the Los Angeles area.

SAILING THE HI-SEAS

If you ever wondered what it would be like if the jubilantly manic offspring of Tom Jones and Carol Burnett fronted an R&B revue featuring members of the Wrecking Crew and the Ronettes, that’s pretty much the Tom Kenny & The Hi-Seas experience. The elastic-voiced, high-energy Tom sings lead in convincingly fervent fashion, hitting all the notes like a pro, laying out glib, crowd-pleasing between-song patter, and bantering with his trio of female backup singers, the Damselles. Andy is the onstage musical director, overseeing a group of highly-skilled sidemen playing some of the greatest soul and rock ‘n’ roll songs ever: Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell,” Bobby Lewis’ “Tossin’ and Turnin,” Jessie Hill’s “Ooh Poo Pah Doo,” Sam Cooke’s “Twistin’ the Night Away,” and many more, including some obscure treasures unearthed from Tom’s collection of 45s and a few select Paley-Kenny originals.

Like the best of their ilk, they bring a roadhouse feel to places like Joe’s American Bar and Grill in Burbank and the Original Farmer’s Market in Hollywood. The Hi-Seas are pure fun, and Tom is the dynamo at the heart of the group. This unquestionably talented guy has embraced change, and enriched his life in the process, going from the comedy club, to the soundstage, and now back to the clubs where he properly honors music that he clearly loves with joy. It’s enough to make someone want to try something new, take a chance, maybe realize a dream — and the beginning of the year might be the perfect time for it.

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Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture on "Michael Snyder's Culture Blast," via GABnet.net, Roku, and YouTube, and on KPFK/Pacifica Radio’s “David Feldman Show.” You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster

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