"Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?" is a question that has been posed to our nation's youth for more than two decades. Even if you have never seen an episode of the children's show, odds are that you already know the answer is the bright yellow, big blue-eyed, humanoid sea sponge, SpongeBob SquarePants. The one thing you might not know about the Nickelodeon show that started all the way back in 1999, is that it has a pretty big Arkansas connection. SpongeBob's frequent antagonist and neighbor, the long-faced, pessimistic clarine-playing Squidward J.Q. Tentacles is played by Arkansas native Rodger Bumpass.
Bumpass' Squidward will be making a special appearance this Super Bowl Sunday on Nickelodeon's simulcast of the big game. CBS and Nickelodeon recently announced a partnership where SpongeBob and his fellow cartoon chums from Bikini Bottom will be calling the game alongside human CBS Sports analyst Nate Burleson and play-by-play announcer Noah Eagle. The simulcast will be using augmented AI to incorporate Squidward and pals onto the field and in the announcer's booth.
Recently I sat down with Bumpass to talk about his career, and his journey from Arkansas to being a mainstay on one of the longest-running cartoons on TV, which has 15 seasons and several films and even more movies that are in development. I met up with Bumpass at a local comic convention. He was obviously dressed for his fans, as he looked like a cartoon character, with a bright blue Hawaiian shirt and a comically long and cartoonish, Rip Van Winkle beard.
Al Topich: I think this is the first time I've ever interviewed a cartoon character. Plus you're one of the more famous Arkansans in the entertainment industry. I know you've been nominated for a daytime Emmy. A while back, the Arkansas State Legislature passed a resolution honoring your career, and you're even on the Arkansas Walk of Fame. It's quite the list of accomplishments. I know you're from Arkansas, but what part of the state are you from?
Rodger Bumpass: I was born and raised in Little Rock. I went to Central (Little Rock Central High School). I went up to ASU (Arkansas State University at Jonesboro) and got my degree in broadcasting. But I became more interested in acting. And then I left Arkansas for the canyons of New York City.
AT: That must have been quite the culture shock moving up north.
RB: It was, but I was ready for it. I had fellow students in theater that had made the trip first and had come back and encouraged me to do it. So I said, "you know, throw your marbles out and see what goes." And fortunately it turned out good.
AT: Before you went to ASU, were you interested in acting or were you more set on becoming a broadcaster?
RB: You know, at puberty my voice dropped like crazy. I had a really high voice as a kid, and it just dropped. Then I had this sound that we all connected to what an announcer sounds like. A voice technician would tell you it's a certain number of cycles that we as a society have said that that's what an announcer should sound like. I was like, "I could do that." I wouldn't have to be a journalist, I wouldn't have to do anything but just talk.
AT: You do have an incredibly appealing and distinctive voice. So you're on this route to being a broadcaster, then suddenly it's acting. What caused you to switch paths?
RB: There's a moment that I quote my director in college. After a theater competition, he was talking to each actor individually, telling us how proud he was of all of us and whatnot. And quite casually he just said, "and I look forward to seeing your work in professional theater." No one had ever suggested to me to pursue professional theater. Even my family thought the word ''actor'' was always preceded by "starving." So I was never encouraged, but that one little moment, that director saying that, it put me on this path. So I tell people, be careful what you say to young people, because you can either discourage or encourage with one little sentence.
AT: When you made it to New York, how were you and your voice perceived?
RB: When I got up there, I was considered an alien, even though, because of broadcasting, I had shed most of my Southern accent. And the reason I chose New York is because you could pick up the trades every day, and they would have the open auditions listed, where you didn't have to have an agent. And I finally found this audition for National Lampoon, which was my favorite magazine, other than Mad magazine, at the time. This was around when "Animal House" was about to come out. And they were putting together a rock 'n roll and comedy roadshow, basically promoting the National Lampoon brand, and I got a part in that. I toured the whole country. Fortunately I got these nice reviews wherever I went.
AT: And then eventually you get cast in SpongeBob, which, if I'm honest, was a little after my time. I grew up on things like "Ren and Stimpy" and "Rugrats." But my nieces and nephews love the show. And I'm a pretty big fan of the cast. You've got Tom Kenny as the sponge and Clancy Brown as Mr. Krabs. How has this cartoon lasted 20-plus years?
RB: Funny is funny, and it struck a nerve. I find that it mimics Looney Tunes. They're both 11-minute cartoons, short cartoons. And SpongeBob utilizes animation like the older toons -- like where you get hit in the face with a frying pan, then your face takes the shape of the pan. And when SpongeBob cries, he turns into a lawn sprinkler. It's that kind of thing that's exclusive to animation. And it's so much fun coming to these comic cons and having young adults come up and thank us for their childhood, which is something that I would have done if I had ever had the chance to meet Mel Blanc. But I still watch cartoons even today. I watch a lot of SpongeBob just to see if the older episodes still hold up. And they do.