LOS ANGELES — How does "It's a SpongeBob Christmas!" squeeze even more fun out of our porous little hero and the Bikini Bottom gang? By turning the animated characters three-dimensional for their holiday special.
In a tribute to classic fare such as "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," the "SpongeBob SquarePants" crew has been re-imagined as puppets and put through their comedy paces for stop-motion photography.
The story line as dreamed up by Tom Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob, and his musical collaborator Andy Paley: The denizens of Bikini Bottom are suddenly rude because of exposure to jerktonium, a plot by naughty Plankton to get on Santa's (voiced by guest star John Goodman) nice list.
Plankton "wants to put everyone on their worst behavior when they should be on their best behavior, and zany mayhem ensues," Kenny said.
"It's a SpongeBob Christmas!" debuted at 9:30 p.m. Friday on CBS. It will have an encore on the show's home network, Nickelodeon, at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 9.
The first-time foray into stop-motion is a welcome change for the 13-year-old "SpongeBob," Kenny said.
"It's fun that after all these years we can still do stuff that's a little different. It's like reinventing the wheel a little bit — if you can refer to a square character as a wheel," he added, unable to resist the quip.
The actor looks back fondly on childhood memories of "Rudolph" from the Rankin-Bass studio and other stop-action projects. Even the TV commercial that put Santa on an electric razor subbing for a sleigh gets a Kenny shoutout.
Asked if young viewers might be fazed by seeing the familiar characters in a new guise, Kenny mulled the question before rebutting it.
"The characters act the same, the recording process is exactly the same. Our job is exactly the same. ... There's still plenty of the animated mayhem and anarchy that happens in the 2-D version of the show."
Screen Novelties, the Los Angeles studio that produced the Christmas special, made a feast out of the job. In just one of their inventive approaches, filmmakers used fruit-flavored cereal to create a coral reef.
"I came to the studio and they had hundreds of boxes of cereal open and were hot-gluing it together," Kenny recalled.
The Patrick Star puppet was covered in wool-like material and SpongeBob "wasn't a sponge but some kind of weird material they found somewhere," he said. "They're like 'MacGyver,' always repurposing something."
The TV special has a small element of recycling. Kenny calls it a testament to "a goofy little song" he and Paley wrote three years ago — "Don't Be a Jerk, (It's Christmas)."
"Bring joy to the world, it's the thing to do. But the world does not revolve around you. Don't be a jerk, it's Christmas" is among its bouncy yet cautionary verses.
The tune is among a dozen included on the digital release "It's a SpongeBob Christmas! Album," most written by Kenny and Paley (a songwriter-producer who's worked with artists including Brian Wilson and Blondie). Four songs are part of the special.
Music fans might want to check out the album for its craftsmanship. The veterans who play on it include harpist Corky Hale and harmonica player Tommy Morgan, both of whom have backed a roster of big stars, including Billie Holliday and Frank Sinatra.
The recording sessions proved an early holiday gift for Kenny.
"We'd spend a half-hour working and then make the musicians tell stories about who they played with," he said.