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Spongebob's Alter Ego

Sqaure pants sponge bob
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Nickelodeon's "Spongebob Squarepants" has made a starfish named Patrick a TV star and a cynical squid called Squidward a household name. But the most famous resident of Bikini Bottom is the yellow one himself, Spongebob. As National Correspondent Hattie Kauffman found, Spongebob's alter ego is having the time of his life.

It's likely you know at least a little about "Spongebob Squarepants!" But you probably don't know much about Tom Kenny.

"This is where stars have their footprints, their handprints. Do you think there will ever be a Spongebob headprint on the sidewalk? I have to be honest. Spongebob has never been asked to do the footprint, handprint, head print -- that sounds like that would hurt," says Kenny as he points to the famous sidewalk.

Kenny provides the voice for the world's most famous cartoon sea creature.

"Spongebob has taken off in a way none of us could have foreseen," he says.

The show is a blockbuster for Nickelodeon. Half of the top 25 shows on basic cable last spring were episodes of Spongebob Squarepants.

Stores also have toys of the cartoon. Even walking in some of them is unbelievable to Kenny, he says. "It's weird. It's unbelievable crazy."

And sales this year of Spongebob merchandise may reach $600 million.

As he holds Spongebob panties, he says, "This is rather strange. This is the kind of thing I could not have foreseen when I wanted to get into the business. I never had any intention of entering the women's panty business at any level."

The doll also is not what he envisioned. "It almost looks like Spongebob has excema. Spongebob -- now with psoriasis!" he exclaims.

It is all a dream come true for the 40-year-old from Syracuse, N.Y. One of his idols is Clarence "Ducky" Nash, who did the voice of Donald Duck for decades, he says. "There were a lot of voice-over guys I looked up to as a kid," he adds. Now, he is following in their footsteps.

"What you have here is a room of people who can channel their psychosis into a way to make a living," he explains, as he gets ready to work in his recording studio at the Cartoon Network. He's recording for "Powerpuff Girls," another hit on his growing resume.

"They streak across the sky, their swiftness severe. They would have been envied by 8 famous reindeer," he explains. Kenny is the cartoon's narrator and also the voice of Townsville's Mayor.

"I tend to play a lot of sweet, not-very-bright characters," he adds.

Before he broke into cartoon voice work in 1993, Kenny did standup comedy and commercials.

"It's a weird sort of dumb skill that would have been useless 100 years ago before cartoons. But I'm glad that I'm living now," he says.

And he's still stunned by his good luck to have been chosen by Spongebob's creator to bring the character to life.

"I just wanted to be in it so badly, even if I didn't get the part of Spongebob," Kenny says. "We just played with voices and pitched it up and pitched it down and we sort of knew the zone we wanted and then it was time to focus when he cried or when he laughed."

As Kenny demonstrates his laugh, he adds, "The laugh was interesting because we wanted it to be in the tradition of annoying, I want to strangle this guy with the annoying laugh - like Popeye or Woody Woodpecker."

And kids like to imitate it. "Oh, oh. I might not have a job on Monday," Kenny says, but he really shouldn't worry. A Spongebob feature film is on the drawing board.

Kenny says the character probably struck such a chord because he wants to do the best job possible.

"His first words when the alarm clock blows him out of bed are, 'I'm ready!' That's his mantra. And he runs out the door, ready to face anything the world throws at him, 'cause his personality is so positive, and his motive so pure, and he's so caffeinated that he'll be able to bulldoze through anything in his day."

But things do reach a peak. And then?

"I think there will always be people who grew up with him and turn their children on to him, and I think he has staying power. Maybe I'm crazy, but I think the yellow sponge is evergreen. I do," Kenny says.

An "evergreen" under the sea.

Nickelodeon estimates that a quarter of Spongebob Squarepants' regular audience is 18 years and older. No other program on the channel attracts so many grownups.