In Bob We Trust

21 April 2015 Katherine Smyrk

In Bob We Trust

Who lives in a pineapple under the sea? C’mon, you know. I’ll give you a clue: absorbent and yellow… Just admit it. You are a fan of that googly-eyed cartoon character who just happens to be a kitchen sponge wearing pants, and living underwater in Bikini Bottom. There’s no shame in that. I’m with you. I, too, love SpongeBob SquarePants.

We never had cable television, and American shows were frowned upon in my household, (The Simpsons being the only, hard-won exception), so it took me a while to discover the world of SpongeBob. It was only on my birthday one year, spent with family in a sleepy beachside town, that I finally stumbled upon the cartoon character. It was pouring – horrible beach weather – so we went to the movies. We randomly bought tickets to The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, which had the tagline ‘Hero. Legend. Sponge.’ At 15,
I actually thought myself too ‘grown-up’ to be going to a SpongeBob movie for my birthday, but we were in a different state and there was no possibility of being sprung by schoolmates. Besides,
I wanted a choc-top. 

I came out of those riotous 87 minutes of primary colours, bubbles and underwater puns a SpongeBob fan. My fandom didn’t lessen over the ensuing years, and probably peaked in my early twenties when I acquired a bright yellow sandwich maker that burns SpongeBob’s toothy grin onto the back of the bread (I still have it).

Yes, now I’m in my mid-twenties and I like a Nickelodeon cartoon. And I’m not alone: this sponge has conquered the world.

The origins of the SpongeBob SquarePants phenomenon are quite simple, if not a little strange. Our favourite sponge was created in 1996 by an American named Stephen Hillenburg, who is a marine biologist as well as an animator. For a time, Hillenburg did some work with the Ocean Institute, an organisation in California dedicated to educating the public about marine science. While there, he created a comic book called The Intertidal Zone. The comic starred various anthropomorphic sea creatures and was used to teach visiting students about life in tide pools.

Later, after he had worked as an animator for TV programs such as Rocko’s Modern Life, Hillenburg created a cartoon inspired by The Intertidal Zone. The main character was originally called SpongeBoy, but the name was already trademarked to a mop product. The character also initially resembled a sea sponge, but it didn’t seem to fit quite right. Hillenburg soon realised that a kitchen sponge perfectly matched Bob’s squeaky clean and square personality (and lent itself to many, many, sponge puns). And so the SpongeBob we now know and love was born.

On 17 July 1999, the world was officially introduced to the world of SpongeBob, who (for the very few uninitiated) is a hopelessly optimistic sponge who lives in a pineapple in Bikini Bottom. His neighbours are his best friend, Patrick Star (a giant pink starfish who lives under a rock), and his colleague, Squidward Tentacles (an octopus who lives in an Easter Island stone head). SpongeBob works as a fry cook at The Krusty Krab, which is run by the money-obsessed Mr Krabs.

SpongeBob and Patrick are cheerful, innocent and perhaps a few fish short of a school. They are always getting into colourful adventures that thoroughly annoy Squidward but entertain everyone else, including their friend, Sandy Cheeks, a squirrel who has to wear a spacesuit so she can live underwater. Occasionally Plankton, a tiny evil underwater organism, tries to steal the recipe for Mr Krabs’ amazing burgers (Krabby Patties), but is always thwarted, usually by SpongeBob.

Simple, yes. Odd, indeed. But the whole thing took off. The cartoon has been on television for almost 16 years and has screened close to 200 episodes, making it the longest running – and one of the highest-rated – series ever to air on the Nickelodeon channel. The media franchise, including merchandising, has generated up to US$8 billion. There are versions of SpongeBob all over the world, his odd name being translated into countless languages: Bob L’Éponge in French, Svampebob Firkant in Danish, Buretele Bob Pantaloni Pătrați in Romanian… In 2009, Madame Tussauds museum in New York created a sculpture of SpongeBob in celebration of the series’ 10th anniversary, making him the first animated character to receive the wax treatment.

And, now, SpongeBob is (so the posters say) ‘Bigger. Better. More Absorbent.’ He is on the big screen for the second time in The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge out of Water 3D.

As a longtime fan, I was looking forward to the second film. But when I attended a preview of Sponge out of Water, I was very conscious of the fact that I was the oldest person there who wasn’t chaperoning a minor. There was fairy floss and popcorn (of which I partook) and a jumping castle (of which I could not partake, due to unfair age restrictions). The movie itself was flashy, using 3D, to take SpongeBob and friends into the real world, and there were some very funny moments. But there was perhaps too much emphasis on production and not enough on plot. I left the screening full of sugar, but a little disappointed and quite confused (especially by the rap battle at the end of the movie, between a magic dolphin and a flock of seagulls). Sponge Out of Water just didn’t quite hit the mark.

The first film had been just like one long, hilarious episode of the show. The second film seemed much more like a frenetic mix of wholesome rainbows and someone’s acid trip, including a strange cameo by Antonio Banderas, playing a pirate called Burger Beard. The delightful embrace of nonsense is what makes SpongeBob great, but this was just weird. And, most importantly, it was unmistakably for children. Which is a little odd.

The most fascinating thing about SpongeBob SquarePants, and possibly the reason it has had such extraordinary success, is that it is a cartoon that appeals to adults as well as kids. When the show first started gaining popularity during the second season (launched in 2000), nearly 40% of the show’s audience of 2.2 million people were aged 18 to 34. US President Barack Obama has said that SpongeBob is his favourite TV character. And the show’s catchy, nonsensical theme song has become a marching song for the Russian Army (do yourself a favour and look up ‘Russian Army: SpongeBob SquarePants song’ on YouTube).

The New York Times critic Joyce Millman summed up SpongeBob’s appeal perfectly: “It’s clever without being impenetrable to young viewers and goofy without boring grown-ups to tears. His relentless good cheer would be irritating if he weren’t so darned loveable and his world so excellently strange... SpongeBob joyfully dances on the fine line between childhood and adulthood, guilelessness and camp, the warped and the sweet.”

The cartoon is indeed appealing for kids, with slapstick humour, bright colours and funny voices. But at the same time it has always had something for adults: simple and appealing wit, hints of slight grotesquery and plenty of aquatic double entendres. Sponge Out of Water, however, flipped between a lame joke for kids and a very adult joke that would have completely gone over children’s heads, giving the film a disjointed feel and making it a little boring. 

The first SpongeBob film was intended to be the final instalment of the TV series. Due to its extreme popularity, however, Nickelodeon wanted to keep going. New audiences were coming to the cartoon. And importantly, they were young audiences – the cash cow of the entertainment business. Hillenburg decided to leave the show after that, and there has been a growing suspicion that things in Bikini Bottom haven’t been the same since. Unfortunately, the new film seems to be continuing this trend, and will probably cause more adult fans to turn away from the strange underwater world they had grown to love. 

Although disappointed by the film, I still hold a deep affection for that ridiculous little guy. SpongeBob’s blinking blue eyes, absurd innocence and maniacal giggle still make me laugh. And I will continue to make sandwiches with his face burned on them.

Perhaps SpongeBob’s reign as Cartoon King is over, at least in the adult world. The show may still make a lot more money, but I’m not sure Nickelodeon will ever be able to recreate that curious balance of humour that people from many generations and demographics found so amusing. But at least the show’s original creators, and those millions of fans, can take comfort in the fact that SpongeBob is, and will probably always be, the World’s Most Popular Sponge.

» Katherine Smyrk is The Big Issue's Staff Writer/Editor. SpongeBob SquarePants: Sponge out of Water 3D is in cinemas now.


This article first appeared in Ed#481