Stephen Hillenburg, creator of SpongeBob SquarePants passed away after a long battle with ALS on Monday, November 26th. The rectangle prism who lived in a pineapple that sat on a nuclear testing ground was a revelation when it was released in 1999. Nineteen years later, Hillenburg has one of the most profound impacts on the animation world in the 21st century.
Hillenburg was working as a marine biology teacher with a passion that could be traced back to his own childhood. When he was accepted into Cal Arts, marine life began popping up in his doodles and projects. Once at Nickelodeon, he began working marsupials and other land animals into Rocko’s Modern Life. His greatest episode was “Keeping up with the Bigheads.” The culmination of the events eventually led to SpongeBob SquarePants.
It’s difficult to understate the immediate impact. Back in those days, Nickelodeon would run a pilot months before a show was scheduled to be released. “Help Wanted” originally premiered after the Kid’s Choice Awards. The Tiny Tim song “Livin’ in the Sunlight, Lovin’ in the Moonlight” brings a melodic soothing salve to the business overrun by sardines demanding lunch. Heightened with island music, “Help Wanted” invited the audience to explore the scenic world of Bikini Bottom. Everyone, including the French pirate narrator, Gary the snail, Patrick Star, Squidward, and Mr. Krabs were introduced in the first episode, illuminating a new world of fun and adventure. About as perfect as a pilot can be, the clamor for more was instantaneous.
Two months later, “Bubble Stand” and “Reef Blower” were released. Exploring the Looney Tunes style of slap-stick comedy and using minimal dialogue “Reef Blower” was a revelation, the kind of episode that had parents sitting down to watch with their kids. “Bubble Stand” is still quoted 19 years later. SpongeBob’s technique for blowing the perfect bubble had a silly sing-song vibe to it and sweet dance moves. “Stop on one foot, don’t forget it!”
In fact, it’s hard to find a bad episode in the first 100 episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants. “Ripped Pants” taught young minds to be truthful and turn their pain into art. “Tea at the Treedome” explained entering new environments and making new friends. The first time children spend the night at a friend’s house can be a traumatic experience. Sandy Cheeks, the Texas-loving squirrel, learned that when her friends visit they need water. This episode also gave us the timeless line, “I don’t need it. I don’t need it. I NEED it!”
“Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy I and II,” “Rock Bottom,” “Hall Monitor,” “Suds,” “Karate Choppers,” “The Paper,” “Neptune’s Spatula,” and “Frankendoodle” appeared in the first 100 episodes. The best episode in the first 100 is “The Band.” Using the entire cast of Bikini Bottom, the writing and animation team of Aaron Springer, C.H. Greenblatt, and Merriwether Williams brought the town together to support Squidward’s dream. It was rough. No one takes music as seriously as Squidward in his hometown.
SpongeBob felt like the first cartoon that belonged to millennials. Landing in the sweet spot between Generation X and Generation Z, SpongeBob provided kids with a new type of cartoon hero. Not an intentional jerk like Bugs Bunny, nor a pushover like Tommy Pickles; richer storytelling than any of the ’80s animated series, nor as disgusting as Ren and Stimpy, SpongeBob was unique.
He went to work every day excited to flip burgers. The same way teens are often excited to begin their first jobs, SpongeBob entered the Krusty Krab eager to make people happy. Even Squidward, the perpetually depressed squid, was worthy of love and adoration. SpongeBob couldn’t be rejected, not because he was stupid but because he was that filled with love and immmaaaagination.
Love was a turning point for cartoons, which were focused on taking out bad guys, little-kid adventures, and pranks. In their early years, Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network were keeping kids watching cartoons past 10 am and 8 pm. Hard to imagine in today’s world of multiple cartoons for adults and teens, but there was a time when people aged out of cartoons. Sure, the odd person over 15 was still checking into Masters of the Universe, but they were often relegated to conventions and seen as odd. SpongeBob was able to keep the attention of children and adults alike with little shame. After SpongeBob, shows like The Kids Next Door, Recess, and Avatar: The Last Airbender sprang to popularity.
Artists and writers who began their career on SpongeBob SquarePants would later go on to have significant roles on shows like Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, Steven Universe, The Amazing World of Gumball, The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack, Adventure Time, Chowder, Harvey Beaks, Star VS the Forces of Evil, The Fairly Odd Parents, South Park, Sanjay and Craig, and The Loud House.
SpongeBob SquarePants has spawned two movies, hundreds of hours of television, 20+ video games, a hit Broadway musical, and a dozen or so fantastic memes and gifs. Mostly, SpongeBob brought a little love into the hearts of viewers everywhere. Thank you, Stephen Hillenburg, for bringing the world of Bikini Bottom and a lot of light into all of our lives. Rest well.
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