Soaking in Genius

How SpongeBob SquarePants evolved from being a clever little toon on Nickelodeon to one of the most popular characters in the history of animation in 10 incredible years.

SpongeBob SquarePants, Sunder Bob Kockalone, SpongeBob Schwammkopf, Sponji Bobu, SvampBob Fyrkant, Bob Esponj! No matter what what language you speak, somehow it’s tough to believe that Stephen Hillenburg’s delightfully goofy, slightly surreal character has only been part of our lives for a decade. Yet, this summer marks the 10th anniversary of the premiere of SpongeBob SquarePants on Nickelodeon. (Although the show’s pilot aired after the Nick’s Kids Choice Awards in May of 1999, the show officially debuted on July 17 of that year.)

That means we’ve seen our indefatigable hero jump out of his undersea bed and join his buddy Patrick the starfish for many, many little adventures (seven seasons, 120-plus episodes) and one awesome theatrical movie which put a stupid smile on our faces through the 2004 holiday season. Just like those other yellow-colored toons, The Simpsons clan, SpongeBob isn’t showing any sign of audience fatigue. Even President Obama confessed last year that SpongeBob is his favorite TV character of all time.

While the show continues to be one of basic cable’s most watched shows week after week, the property’s ginormous licensing empire brings in about 8 billion dollars in retail sales each year. Now, that buys you a whole lot of pineapple properties under the sea, not to mention enough Krabbie Patties to feed the whole world!

By now there are few animation fans who don’t know the incredible story of how a former marine biologist and CalArts grad Stephen Hillenburg pitched his show to Nick execs with the aid of an aquarium and a famous theme song. ‘The spark came from working on Nickelodeon’s Rocko’s Modern Life,’ recalls the always-down-to-earth Hillenburg. ‘When I started to think about what type of animated show I could do to be unique, I thought of something underwater, something that was different, like an odd animal invertebrate. That was when I thought of a sponge.’

Hillenburg recalls the heady days of the mid to late ’90s, when thanks to the success of shows such as Rocko’s Modern Life and Ren & Stimpy, artists were actually in charge of writing top-notch toons for TV. ‘There was new excitement about TV animation primarily because of The Simpsons and Ren & Stimpy. It was toward the end of Rocko that I began thinking about an animal show starring lesser-known undersea characters. My vision was basically to have a nerdy goofball … an innocent be the star of a show which takes place in a surreal undersea world inspired by surf/tiki kitsch and nautical nonsense.’

Tom Kenny: The iconic voice of SpongeBob keeps us laughing!

When it comes to explaining the distinctive comedy of the show, Hillenburg credits the fact that it comes from character and not from topical humor. ‘The shows are not written from scripts and written by the storyboard artists. Naturally this results in an emphasis on visual or physical comedy,’ he explains.

Of course, SpongeBob wouldn’t be what it is today without the amazing freshness, originality and distinctive personality voice-over actor Tom Kenny brings to the character. ‘I worked with Tom on Rocko’s Modern Life where he played Rocko’s sidekick, Heffer. He was such an amazing, quick-witted performer that he was constantly stealing the show. I thought if I could dial him into the main role of my show, he would be able to hold his own against the other secondary characters. Tom is also a well-meaning, good-natured guy and I thought we would naturally be able to tap into the personality of an innocent character like SpongeBob.’

After Hillenberg met Kenny and explained the character, Kenny imitated a conversation he’d heard from a Santa’s elf in a mall, and instantly, a toon icon’s voice was born. ‘He’s hyperactive and eager to please and tries really hard to keep on those rose-colored glasses,’ notes Kenny. It’s nice to have a character like that in the age of wisecracking, cynical characters.”

So has the mind-blowing success of the show changed Hillenburg at all? Those who know the soft-spoken, at times introverted creator say that he is remarkably centered, and likes to stay away from the limelight and spend quiet time with his family in Pasadena. He has said that it’s mind-blowing to realize what a huge impact his character has had on the global pop culture scene. ‘I was in a remote village in Sumatra about as far as from the U.S. as I could imagine, and I saw a young schoolgirl holding a bright pink bootleg SpongeBob book bag, and that’s when I realized how big the show was becoming worldwide.’

In the past 10 years, SpongeBob has meant a lot of things to a whole lot of people around the world. However, Hillenburg believes that he and his team were, and still are, just trying to be funny. ‘It’s great to know what we can all laugh at the same things,’ he says modestly. Now that’s a sentiment with which even the crabby Squidward Tentacles of the world would have to agree!