‘Adventure Time’ actor Tom Kenny on Ice King’s loneliness, tragic past
In the massively popular Cartoon Network series “Adventure Time,” veteran voice actor Tom Kenny plays Ice King, a curmudgeonly wizard who lives in a snow fortress with a legion of penguins and whichever princess he has most recently kidnapped. For Kenny, the Ice King is the latest in a long line of zany characters; during his 20-plus years in the industry, he has lent his voice to more than 200 productions, including such landmark series as “Rocko’s Modern Life,” “Dexter’s Laboratory,” “The Powerpuff Girls” and “SpongeBob SquarePants,” in which he played SpongeBob.
Like those groundbreaking predecessors, “Adventure Time” has earned a loyal audience by defying the tropes typical to children’s television shows. The series, created by Pendleton Ward, follows Finn, a human boy, and Jake, his magical shape-shifting dog, as they fight monsters and rescue princesses in a whimsical, post-apocalyptic candyland. Monday’s episode focused on the Ice King’s fan fiction adventures of Fionna and Cake — girl versions of the show’s heroes in a gender-inverted story-within-a-story.
Hero Complex caught up with Kenny to talk about the villainous Ice King, the popularity of Fionna and Cake, and his prolific career.
HC: “Adventure Time” has become so popular, and not just among children.
TK: Yeah, and that’s something I’m kind of familiar with from my past. It’s pretty amazing how it’s just blown up and in the best way, just kind of a gradual word-of-mouth way that I think is really more about the content of the show and the connection that people feel with it than anything else.
HC: Did you have any idea the show would become such a phenomenon?
TK: Well, I guess you could say a little bit, because my son, who’s now 15, some of his friends had watched the original short on YouTube hundreds of times, and this is before it was picked up by any network. So there was something about that particular short and the characters of Finn and Jake, and the relationship that they had, and the banter between them, as well as the outrageousness of the world that they were inhabiting, and that tantalizing glimpse that you got of it in that short that really spoke to them. They thought it was really funny and cool and interesting, so before it was a glimmer in Cartoon Network’s eye, I kind of knew about it through my teenage son. That was a few years ago. This thing has been gestating for a while, I guess like most things that seem like they came out of nowhere, there’s usually a much slower build than people realize that’s occurred. So that was kind of circling the airport, waiting to land as a show for a little while, and when it finally got on Cartoon Network, it’s kind of been a steady build. And I see it reflected in things like the size and response of the audience at something like San Diego Comic-Con.
HC: There have been so many “Adventure Time” costumes at Comic-Con the past few years!
TK: Yeah, exactly. And that’s a real bellwether that you can use for this kind of pop-cultural stuff. How many Ice Kings came to my door at Halloween this year? How many Finns, Jakes and Ice Kings came to my door as trick-or-treaters — I’m sure there’s some mathematical formula you can work out in terms of how well the show is doing. But I love that it’s one of those things that people are still finding out about. There are still people just getting acquainted with it that are jumping aboard and going, “Yeah, wow. I heard about it,” or “My cousin was watching it,” and then they go back in almost a “Star Trek” way, and just binge on it. It’s really quite fun.
HC: Did you audition for the role of the Ice King? Or were you involved from the start?
TK: I did audition. The original short had a different actor playing the Ice King, not me — a guy named John Kassir, probably best known as the Crypt Keeper on the HBO series “Tales From the Crypt”; you know, a voiceover guy, one of us journeymen. For whatever reason, they were wanting to go in a different direction, so as usual with these things they were just listening to a ton of people audition. I think it was a pretty standard-issue story; I auditioned, I got called back, I came and met with the creator, and we did a couple of things. Pen [Ward] liked my approach, and the next thing I know, I’m five seasons in.
HC: How did you develop the Ice King’s voice? It’s so distinctive.
TK: I was trying not to voice-match the original one, which is kind of more high and reedy. I know he’s old, he’s cranky, [slipping into Ice King's voice] he thinks he’s hip, he sort of tries to be all groovy and hip with the kids and speak their lingo. But the thing that I really got, even from the audition, and now that’s been expanded upon even much, much more, is aside from like a big burlesque-y, funny, over-the-top weirdo villain, there’s this core of loneliness and wanting to be friends with people, which he does not possess the requisite skills to be friends with anyone. You know, he’s a control freak, he’s lived alone too long, he’s super self-obsessed. He actually sounds like a lot of the actors and comedians I know — kind of entertaining in small doses, but not good boyfriend or husband material, ha ha. So I guess I tapped into that.
HC: He’s a very tragic character.
TK: I remember Pen Ward and I talking about that, and saying, “He’s lonely.” He’s a guy who thinks that kidnapping a woman and keeping her in a cage and talking to her through the bars is fine. That’s an acceptable form of dating. It’s quality time. He doesn’t realize how messed up and wrong that is. He’s the kind of guy you see on like “48 Hours” investigations, or like those true crime shows. He just doesn’t have any social skills and also is so insane and broken that he doesn’t even have the self-knowledge to realize that what he’s doing is wrong. And at the same time, he is powerful. He’s not a weakling. He’s not a powerless guy. He can summon up ice storms and ice balls and snow and weather and wind and lightning and all this stuff. So he’s not a doofus, either. He’s kind of unpredictable. I think the thing that sets him apart from the kind of villain that I’ve voiced on superhero kinds of shows, like Doctor Octopus in “Ultimate Spider-Man” or something like that, is that this guy is just kind of likeable and lonely and sad and pitiable. And then they’ve expanded largely on that, giving him a back story that I didn’t even suspect at the time. Maybe they didn’t either. But he kind of used to be a good guy with good relationships and empathy and kindness.
HC: So you didn’t have that insight into your character’s history ahead of time? You found out as the show went along?
TK: It’s animation, so you kind of never know what’s coming at you until FedEx brings the storyboard the night before the gig, and then you go, “Wooow, this is awesome!” You have a little less time to prepare than, say, Daniel Day-Lewis did for “Lincoln,” ha ha. I was actually very surprised and continue to be at the expanding and the flashbacks.
HC: Some of the flashbacks are heartbreaking, like with Marceline in “I Remember You.”
TK: Absolutely. I love that episode, and I love that the people making the show have the courage and the faith in their fan base to step outside of the usual, expected episode tropes and occasionally do one like that. There’s really not a lot of yuks in that episode. It’s a very sad episode. There’s a lot of sorrow. I think that’s great. It’s fun to go in there and try to make that storyboard that you’ve read, and make it — at least in a vocal, oral, speaking sense — live and breathe, and hopefully invest it with all that good stuff that’s on the page and in those drawings. Or I should say help it along and be one of the components that helps move it along. That’s one of those ones that you’re recording it and looking at the storyboard and going, “Yeah, I can’t wait until the fans see this. How are they going to react?” Some people probably will be confused, some people will love it, some people won’t be sure. Props to Cartoon Network, too, for letting the creators be creators.
HC: It seems that throughout your career, you’ve worked on a lot of shows that don’t rely on the typical tropes.
TK: I’ve been very, very lucky and just fortunate in my work life, which when I look at the dates is longer than I realize, managing to just become affiliated with shows that are very creator driven. People like Joe Murray and Genndy Tartakovsky and Craig McCracken and people like that who are very have a vision and they know exactly what their show is, and they know exactly what they want it to look like, and they know exactly what they want it to sound like. And getting it to the air in that form is not easy. There’s a million ways for it to go wrong and for it to go off track. There’s more ways for it to go wrong than to go right. And so I’ve been very fortunate, and Pendleton Ward is definitely in that pantheon of people — like Genndy Tartakovsky with “Dexter’s Laboratory” and “Samurai Jack” and all of that, and now look at him, he’s a big Hollywood feature director. And Craig McCracken with “Powerpuff Girls.” It’s been great. They’re actually shows that I like and enjoy and am proud to be associated with. Which is a luxury you don’t always have as an actor to be like, “Wow, I would actually watch this thing that I’m in.”
HC: Is there a project you’re most proud of?
TK: I’m just happy to be working. Actors are basically migrant fruit pickers, and if the crops have been pretty good for a bunch of seasons, you’re just very gratified and going, “Great, I’m still keeping it going. This train hasn’t jumped of the rails yet!” My fantasy job was always to be a voiceover guy in animation, and so now that I’ve been doing that for a long time, it’s still as much of a blast as ever …. I love that this show is popular, and that these people are here, and that these characters are warping the minds of young and old everywhere. It’s really fun. I’ve got a really good job, and I feel like I’m pretty good at it, and it’s really fulfilling artistically and fun, and it works for me on a bunch of levels. You can be a successful actor without the more horrible aspects of being famous.
HC: You’ve played SpongeBob and the Ice King and Doctor Octopus and Zilius Zox. Do you prefer playing heroes or villains?
TK: They’re both fun in their own way. I’ve done Iron Man and Captain America, and I’ve even been Spider-Man. I’ve done a lot of good guys and a lot of bad guys. I guess the thing that I enjoy with that is not being pigeonholed 100% as either. It’s really fun to be the hero, and the great thing about the animation voiceover job is that you don’t have to look like a superhero to be playing one, so that’s really great. But I get to go in for a little more opportunities for plummy, over-the-top antics. The good guys are more often the straight men in their own show a lot of times, and then the villains bring the crazy. I mean, Dick Tracy was the dullest guy in his own comic strip. And all the villains were just really over-the-top, physically deformed, interesting sickos. So it’s fun to play the malformed mutant sicko, too.
HC: When you’re making the show, do you record with the other artists all together? Does that make a difference in your performance?
TK: Generally, yeah. To me it does. I much, much, much prefer to be in the same room with everybody, and maybe that’s because all the stuff that’s been really seminal for me was recorded that way. You know, “Looney Tunes” and “Rocky and Bullwinkle,” all that classic stuff, “Flintstones” and “Jetsons.” That stuff was all done with all the actors in a room, crushed around a mic like 1940s radio show-style. To me, that still works. Some shows do it the other way, and features definitely do it the other way. But standing in a room by yourself just reading your half of a conversation, or trading lines with a voice director or a casting director that’s reading in for the other person, it’s fine, it’s doable, it’s painless. But there’s really no substitute for having a bunch of people around a mic, and riffing with each other and playing off each other. Jeremy Shada and John DiMaggio are in the room, and it’s really preferable for me, personally. “Adventure Time” is recorded a little differently than some shows, in that a storyboard is projected on a TV in the room, so you’re looking at least a shorthand story.
HC: It seems like your lines wouldn’t make sense without that visual guide.
TK: Well, not on “Adventure Time,” or “SpongeBob” for that matter. Some shows are more word-oriented or prose-oriented, but “Adventure Time” is so out there that it really helps to see what’s happening, instead of just saying the words and only having a vague sense or having to have somebody on the other side of the glass explain what’s happening — “The door opens, and then a demon comes out, and then another little guy comes out of the demon’s face ….” To me, “Adventure Time” is really about the world and the relationships. I remember as a teenager reading this Harlan Ellison story called “A Boy and His Dog” about a kid and his telepathic dog, wandering a post-apocalyptic world. When I saw that first “Adventure Time,” it made me remember that. It kind of was a combination of that and “Mad Max” and “The Simpsons,” in that it’s a really populated world with tons of people in it, and once in a while the show will take a turn, and you’ll get to see more of these people that you’ve really only seen in passing. It’s the same way in Springfield [home of "The Simpsons"]; you see one of those posters of everyone who’s ever been on the show, and you’re like, “Wow this is a really well-realized world that’s packed with people,” and it’s just kind of been added to over the years. And that’s kind of how “Adventure Time” is. It’s gone from just being Finn and Jake and Ice King and Princess Bubblegum to this really large extended universe of weird, interesting things. And some you’ve just got these tantalizing glimpses of, and then you get to go more in-depth.
Who's who in the Land of Ooo? Click through this gallery to meet some of the zany characters in "Adventure Time." (Cartoon Network)Link
Finn, a human boy who was found in the wild and adopted by a dog family, is passionate about being a hero. He spends his time rescuing princesses and battling evil monsters and wizards. As far as we know, Finn is the only human in the Land of Ooo. (Cartoon Network)Link
Jake, a dog with magical stretching powers, is Finn's adopted older brother, best friend and adventuring buddy in "Adventure Time." (Cartoon Network)Link
The Ice King is Finn's nemesis. He lives in an ice castle with penguins, who are his pets and henchmen. He uses his magical crown to shoot icy lightning bolts at anyone who stands in his way of finding a princess to marry. Upon closer inspection, though, it would appear the seemingly evil Ice King may just be a victim of circumstance. (Cartoon Network)Link
Princess Bubblegum is a scientist, turtle farmer and ruler of the Candy Kingdom. She's good friends with Finn and Jake, and they've helped each other out of a series of pickles. Finn has fostered a lifelong crush on PB, but except for a few short episodes in which the princess is reverted to age 13, she hasn't reciprocated. (Cartoon Network)Link
Marceline is a mischievous prankster, rocker girl and fearless vampire queen who feasts on the color red. She gives Jake and Finn a hard time, but isn't as bad as she'd like people to think. Marceline is more than 1,000 years old, and her dad is the Lord of Evil and ruler of the Nightosphere. (Cartoon Network)Link
Lumpy Space Princess, voiced by Pendleton Ward, is the Land of Ooo's resident drama queen. LSP comes from the cloud-like kingdom of Lumpy Space and is friends with the other princesses as well as Finn and Jake. She loves to be the center of attention and spends a lot of time gossiping and complaining on her phone. (Cartoon Network)Link
Beemo is Finn and Jake's roommate, loyal and protective friend, camera, alarm clock and video game system. Beemo is genderless, speaks with an East Asian accent and pretends to be human when nobody else is around. (Cartoon Network)Link
Flame Princess is the hotheaded daughter of the Fire Kingdom's Flame King and Finn's girlfriend (though he gets burned if they hold hands or kiss). Her fiery powers are tied to her emotions, and she's a formidable force of nature when she's angry. (Cartoon Network)Link
Lady Rainicorn is Princess Bubblegum's loyal and majestic pet and primary means of transportation. Rainicorn, who speaks Korean, is also Jake's girlfriend and the pair share a love of music. The couple are expecting puppies. (Cartoon Network)Link
The Land of Ooo is home to a host of princesses, each the ruler of her own dominion. Among the princesses are Lumpy Space Princess, Wildberry Princess, Slime Princess, Hot Dog Princess, Breakfast Princess, Ghost Princess, Embryo Princess, Muscle Princess and many more. They're all targets for Ice King's unwanted advances. (Cartoon Network)Link
HC: So the name-changing penguin gag — Gunter, Günter, Gunther — was that your idea?
TK: No, it wasn’t, there was some confusion. The script had an umlaut over the U, so I’d always call him “Goon-ter.” And then sometimes it wouldn’t have an umlaut , and I’d just say “Gun-ther.” So then I was like, “How have I been saying this word? I’m having a brain fart,” and they go, “You know what, there are a whole bunch of penguins with really similar names.” And I go, “Oh, there are?” And they say, “Yeah, now there are.” And they all say, “Wenk.” In the script, it’s always written that way.
HC: Do you do any of the voices in the gender-flip episodes?
TK: Yeah, I’m various characters. Obviously there’s the Ice Queen in that reality. That was kind of fun. They had me do my lines, and then Grey DeLisle parrots them back as the Ice King would, and Grey does her brilliant takes. So that has really taken off. There were Fionnas coming to my door for Halloween. There were girls making their own Fionna costumes, and it was great. I love it. And I love that she’s big-boned for a change on TV.
HC: Why do you think people love these gender-swapping episodes so much?
TK: I was trying to figure that out. That episode really did surprise everybody with the gigantic response — “Please do more of these!” — and now there’s a Fionna and Cake comic book series. I think the show has a lot of fans of both genders. I don’t think it’s really a “boys’ show” or a “girls’ show.” I think people just love seeing that gender flip. Maybe it speaks to the lack of animated shows with strong female heroes in them. Maybe there is a shortage.
HC: Has there really been once since the “Power Puff Girls”?
TK: Exactly! Of course, that’s what I immediately thought of. “Power Puff Girls” is right there, right place, right time with the girl power zeitgeist. I think a lot of those female fans enjoy seeing those strong, funny female characters. Yeah, why should all the strong, funny characters be male? But “Adventure Time” is one of the few shows that does have really strong, well-realized female characters. Princess Bubblegum, like the Ice King, I think she’s progressed into something quite a bit different than she was at the beginning — much darker, way more control-freaky and bossy and sure of herself. And Flame Princess is great and a really strong character. Marceline obviously is both a fan favorite and a really strong character, and it’s interesting that Flame Princess and Marceline both have major issues with their fathers, I’ve been noticing in the scripts. I don’t know what that means. [The gender flip episodes are] kind of like getting back to “Star Trek.” My kids and I just watched that episode where there’s a transporter malfunction and crew members from like the alternate universe wind up on the Enterprise, and they’re super evil, and they have facial hair. This must be evil, Spock has a goatee! So I think that kind of thing has always been popular. In an alternate universe timeline, what are these characters saying or doing or thinking? But it’s really a brilliant gender inversion of the series. It’s almost like its own series. It’s kind of different enough that it actually could be its own show.
HC: It has a very different feel.
TK: Yeah, and a lot of that probably has to do with having actually female writers and artists having a huge hand in those episodes, which, unfortunately, is not as common as you would want in the boys club of television in general and animation in particular.
HC: So what’s next for the Ice King?
TK: I can’t say too much about it, but there are more revelations. You’ll probably feel a little sorry for him and hate him a little less. I’m always excited kind of look into his old photo album and see what’s been up with myself.
– Noelene Clark
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