SpongeBob SquarePants built its undersea empire on nonsense and enthusiasm

SpongeBob SquarePants built its undersea empire on nonsense and enthusiasm

For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodeswe examine the shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced and reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity.

They aren’t clouds. Strange symbols dot the backgrounds of Bikini Bottom, home to SpongeBob SquarePants, Squidward Tentacles, Patrick Star, Eugene Krabs, and Sandy Cheeks—but they aren’t clouds. You could call them “sky flowers,” but that doesn’t really make sense either—after all, the faded blue behind each squiggle is water, not sky, and the squiggles themselves don’t represent solid objects in any tangible, meaningful way. But they look right. The reds and greens and yellows add life and color in a way that a flat blue might not. Those odd shapes, suspended motionless with no clear reason or value, establish a tone.

There are a lot of things that don’t make sense on SpongeBob SquarePants. But there’s a clear and coherent vision that runs through the entire show, from the design of SpongeBob’s kitchen-sponge body down to the squeaky-balloon sound of his footsteps. It’s a perspective, and a warm, specific, crazy little world. Of course it has sky flowers in it. What else would be up there?

The brainchild of a marine biologist turned animator, SpongeBob SquarePants made its debut on Nickelodeon in May of 1999. The show arrived at the end of a decade of cartoon hits for the network, including The Ren & Stimpy, Rugrats, Aaahh!!! Real Monsters, and Rocko’s Modern Life. SpongeBob itself would go on to be one of Nickelodeon’s greatest success stories, running nine seasons (and counting), and managing one big-screen film, aptly titled The Spongebob SquarePants Movie. The show’s appeal stems from the fundamental simplicity of its attitude, a pervasive geniality that embraces the broad, the subtle, the absurd, and the surreal without ever seeming to strain. Its fantasy environment provides home for archetypes that have been a staple of comic storytelling for centuries, like the grouch, the miser, and the cowgirl squirrel.

When it came time to pitch the series, creator Steve Hillenburg had a vision. Coming fresh off a stint on Rocko’s Modern Life (a show that would eventually provide SpongeBob with a number of its key personnel, including Tom Kenny, the actor and voice artist who gives SpongeBob his distinctive nasal chirp), Hillenburg brought together ideas he’d been planning for years, a mixture of tiki culture (SpongeBob lives in a pineapple; ukulele music waves goodbye through the closing credits), his own passion for marine life, and a main character distinguished by his relentless optimism and fundamental sweetness. Hillenburg even wore a Hawaiian shirt to the pitch meeting. One of the elements that set the show apart from the very beginning was a consistent, confident commitment to these ideas, a kind of texture brought to life by the various, dedicated artists working behind the scenes.

Take the first-season segment “Rock Bottom” for example. In it, SpongeBob and his best friend Patrick (a lovably dim-witted starfish voiced by Bill Fagerbakke) take the wrong bus after a trip to the amusement park, and find themselves stranded in an unfamiliar—and scary—part of town. Patrick manages to catch a ride home, but SpongeBob finds himself alone for the night, trying to catch a series of buses that seem sadistically intent on avoiding him. Eventually, a nice man helps him on his way, and SpongeBob arrives back in Bikini Bottom just in time to see Patrick riding yet another bus out to rescue him.

It’s simple stuff, and a lot of the best episodes of the show are simple—because the structure allows ample room for gags, as well as providing a strong emotional base for those gags to grow from. There are the usual, inspired silly touches, like SpongeBob and Patrick leaving not just any amusement park, but Glove World, and SpongeBob is appropriately decked out in a rubber glove hat, and carrying a rubber glove balloon. When SpongeBob tries to find money for his bus far, he inadvertently bludgeons the driver with his balloon, a slapstick set piece, which is a good example of the flexibility of the show’s protagonist. SpongeBob’s cheerful goodwill can be inspiring, or it can make him into an unintentional tormenter, depending on the needs of the story and the viewpoint of that story’s central figure. There are few villains on the show; even Squidward, SpongeBob’s perpetually grouchy neighbor, is allowed his fair share of pathos. The only legitimate bad guy in Bikini Bottom is Plankton, a minuscule tyrant obsessed with swiping a secret recipe from rival restaurateur Mr. Krabs. Even then, the humor of Plankton comes from how his operative ambitions are constantly thwarted by a naïve, trusting kid.

The real heart of “Rock Bottom” comes from SpongeBob’s increasingly desperate efforts to get home. While these efforts are filtered through the exaggerated lens of animated silliness (fickle buses, a shape-shifting protagonist, a ploy involving a SpongeBob decoy), they stem from the entirely understandable and relatable fears of being lost in a strange place, not having anyone to call, and just wanting to get back home. The episode doesn’t go out of its way to stress these feelings, but the inherent tension of the scenario is conveyed through shadows and mood and freakish design work. The shaggy, laid-back style of the series suddenly peels back to reveal a hint of danger. And SpongeBob’s reaction to what he sees demonstrates an effective complexity of character. He gets nervous, and then he gets angry, and even ungenerous; the humor comes from both the inevitable deflation of each fit of pouting, and from the recognition that that’s how the viewer would react in a similar situation. (Minus the cardboard stand-up, presumably.)

While the rest of the cast sticks to a narrower range of emotional responses, there’s still an engaging depth for such a seemingly straightforward show. SpongeBob often hits the rhythms of a classic sitcom, taking scenarios that pair characters of disparate motivations—like, say, sending SpongeBob and Squidward off together to deliver a pizza in “Pizza Delivery”—and then turning the screws to see what happens. By combining clearly developed personalities with a well-established world in which almost anything can happen (but only certain kinds of things do happen) the storyboard artists have the freedom to explore a wide variety of humor. (SpongeBob episodes are storyboard-driven rather than scripted.) SpongeBob’s malleability provides tremendous opportunity for creative manipulation, and the show takes any chance it gets to drop puns, wit, and left-field pop culture absurdity. None of these elements would work without the clear sense of care and craft that underlines the show’s design. The best series, animated or otherwise, are built out of a clear vision of character and purpose, and SpongeBob has both in spades.

But “purpose” is a vague, pompous term; it doesn’t reconcile easily with the show’s stinging jellyfish, senile crime-fighters, and money-obsessed crustaceans. So why not double-down on the pomposity and call it more of an “ethos” instead, an ethos that helped transform a small, chipper cartoon into a merchandising-rich cultural juggernaut. (You could probably find someone who’s never seen an episode of SpongeBob, but it would be a trick to find someone who’s never heard of the character at all.) The run of the show leaves a warm, welcoming, and unexpectedly kind impression—a winning friendliness and good cheer that’s more than willing to laugh at its own excesses. SpongeBob can be a bit much, but his enthusiasm is balanced by a likeable vulnerability, and plenty of episodes find humor in the character’s inherent over-the-top intensity without undermining his fundamental decency. Whereas something like Ren & Stimpy found comedy in the alienating ugliness of extremes, SpongeBob allows us to like its characters even as we laugh at them, wearing its heart on its sleeve without ever sacrificing the slight edge required for broader appeal.

That philosophy reached its peak in the show’s jump to the big screen in 2004. Hillenburg put the show on hiatus in order to focus his attentions on the film. The result is over an hour of pure bliss, a riff on childhood insecurity, maniacal evil genius, heroism, and David Hasselhoff. It’s not perfect: Scarlett Johansson’s character—who could be nicknamed Girl Who Is Basically There To Give The Heroes Pep Talks—doesn’t work, and there’s evident strain in stretching what usually runs no longer than 11 minutes to almost seven times that length. But it’s still a very good, and often great, movie, building to a gleefully unabashed climax of pure rock triumph that captures much of what makes the show so great. There’s a thrill to watching something that embraces its potential corniness so utterly that it transcends irony and camp. Yes, it’s utterly cheesy to see SpongeBob dressed as a wizard performing the most righteous of guitar solos ever shredded; it is also awesome. That the talent involved clearly understands both sides of the equation is what makes it so exhilarating and fun.

Hillenburg left SpongeBob after the show’s third season, and the diminishing returns, especially in later seasons, are hard to ignore; characters settled into stock types, the pacing slowed, and shagginess gave way to a pristine airlessness. Plots became less personal, and more driven by standard cartoon cliché. But at his heart, SpongeBob remains SpongeBob: a dreamer who won’t let anything get him down for very long. It’s not hard to see why such a character would capture so many hearts and minds. In an episode from season two, Squidward finally gets his chance at the big time when he’s invited to form and conduct a band for a halftime show. At first, it looks like a disaster, which is typically the joke in Squidward stories—as a perpetual sourpuss, he’s frequently humiliated, often to great comic effect. Yet, when SpongeBob realizes how important the concert is to his friend, he’s inspired to pull everyone together and deliver a stirring 1980s power ballad called “Sweet Victory,” much to Squidward’s surprise and delight. Like those sky flowers, it doesn’t make perfect sense. But it’s perfect nonetheless.

Next time: Carrie Raisler doesn’t want to wait for her life to be over, so she’s taking a look at the full run of Dawson’s Creek.

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