Personally, I can’t get over the image of someone walking into a room of producers 22 years ago and pitching their idea for a cute new show, “Spongebob Squarepants.”
“Okay, so imagine a happy-go-lucky sea sponge fry-cook with a grumpy squid neighbor and empty-headed starfish best friend. The sponge loves his job, and he works for a cheapskate crab who protects the formula to his special burgers from his rival, Plankton. Oh, and he lives in a pineapple, because that’s where sponges live, obviously.” Then, after the producers heard this pitch, they ran with it and created a series that has been the number one kids’ animated series for 17 consecutive years.
This is a story that makes no sense, but somehow also makes perfect sense. The truth is, since its 1999 release, few television shows have maintained pop-cultural relevance the way Nickelodeon’s iconic series “Spongebob Squarepants” has. So let’s talk about the story of this iconic show and why generation after generation can’t get enough of the optimistic sea sponge.
First and foremost, the story behind the show is part of why it works so well. The show’s creator, Stephen Hillenburg, was a marine science educator whose passion for teaching kids about marine biology spilled into his other interests, most notably his art.
Hillenburg first created his unpublished comic book “The Intertidal Zone,” featuring Bob the Sponge, to share his fascination with ocean life with a wider audience than just his students. Later, after studying experimental animation at the California Institute of the Arts, Hillenburg got the idea to create a series about marine animals, which included some animals from his original “The Intertidal Zone” comic. And the fact that the show stems from a sincere passion for the show’s characters is palpable in every watch.
The success of “Spongebob” can also be attributed to what can only be described as universally appreciated “random” humor. It’s the kind of comedy based on things being ridiculous for the sake of being ridiculous and its humor has been appreciated by kids no matter the generation. There’s no explaining what makes Spongebob (Tom Kenny, “Adventure Time”) and Patrick (Bill Faggerbakke, “How I Met Your Mother”) arguing over who gets to be Pinhead Larry or watching Plankton (Mr. Lawrence, “Rocko’s Modern Life”) turn a song about fun into a song about uranium bombs and murder so funny, but it is. Even as adults, it’s hard not to appreciate the thoughtful silliness every episode of “Spongebob” brings.
“Spongebob Squarepants” is able to patent its own brand of ridiculous, iconic humor thanks to its cast of goofy characters and the remarkable talent of the voice actors. Each character takes their personality to the extreme, which catalyzes hilarious encounters. Who could forget the countless tense interactions between neighbors Spongebob and Squidward that Spongebob remained blissfully unaware of? What’s even more impressive is how, while each character is a caricature of the personality they represent, they still have realistic emotional range within their archetypes. We’ve seen the ever-enthusiastic Spongebob cry 42 times on a single day and cynical Squidward ecstatically happy after his band’s impressive halftime performance.
These personalities are only heightened by the iconic voice acting behind every character, particularly in the titular character’s high-pitched shrill. Spongebob’s voice and his distinct laughter have been imitated far and wide, a testament to how recognizable the franchise has become.
Then, of course, there’s the real reason “Spongebob Squarepants” can’t seem to fade away: It’s just too damn quotable. From “No, this is Patrick” to “Imaginaaaation,” “Spongebob Squarepants” has endlessly quotable non-sequiturs, where simply recognizing them is tantamount to “getting the joke.” Outside of bits and one-liners, Spongebob’s discography is also a thing to behold. The series features genuinely catchy songs unlike any other contemporary animated series, paving the way for other series like “Phineas and Ferb” to incorporate elaborate musical numbers within their regular narratives.
“Spongebob” also dominates the pinnacle of modern pop culture — memes. Year after year, old screengrabs of Spongebob spontaneously appear on every social media platform before the format dies out, and the image joins a sea of Spongebob memes that came before it. TIME magazine reported that there are 4,635 unique Spongebob memes, and this number will presumably only grow in the coming years. For reference, other iconic series like “The Simpsons” has 1,116 images and the Marvel Cinematic Universe has 276.
The vast memage of the “Spongebob Squarepants” series reflects the extent to which it speaks to those niche human experiences that make a good meme. “Spongebob Squarepants” screencaps are notably expressive, depicting emotions with exaggerated expression and physicality. At the end of the day, the ability to make memes out of “Spongebob” is just a reflection of all the reasons we love the series — vibrant characters, funny lines and big personalities.
It’s clear that even 22 years after its original release, “Spongebob Squarepants” still speaks to the hearts and souls of today’s youth. It’s pretty magical that adults and children alike can unite over a common social lore, showing us that beneath it all we can’t be that different. After all, we’re all laughing at the same jokes about a silly little sea sponge.
Daily Arts Writer Sarah Rahman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.