The Nautical Nonsense and Childlike Heart of SpongeBob SquarePants

We honor Stephen Hillenburg by appreciating all the wonderful under-the-sea magic he left behind.

Spongebob Rainbow

“SpongeBob makes you stupid.” My aunt told me this before she changed the channel to a more didactic children’s cartoon. She did not understand weirdness that only existed to make you laugh. When I was a kid, SpongeBob SquarePants was the best antidepressant before I knew of antidepressant, before the word depression entered my vocabulary.

What is SpongeBob SquarePants about? It’s about an anthropomorphic sea sponge as rectangle and yellow as a kitchen sponge. He lives in a pineapple under the sea, as the theme song goes. With bulgy eyes, stretchy limbs, and signature “Da-HAHA” laugh, he lives life to its fullest. The plot takes him from shenanigans to shenanigans in the underwater city of Bikini Bottom where the nonsensical is normal. Scallops are chirping birds. Outlines of flowers pattern the skies like clouds. Anthropomorphic sea creatures make up the citizenry of Bikini Bottom.

In the show’s debut on Nickelodeon in 1999, marine biologist Stephen Hillenburg pooled his aquatic knowledge and love of animation into a one-of-a-kind show that ingrained itself into the memory of children. He and his team spin the real-life physicality of sea creatures for cartoony effect, such as the way SpongeBob stretches or his not-so-bright pal Patrick the starfish lazes under his rock. The animation had a knack for seamlessly integrating randomness into situations, as quick as the classic gag of a random piano falling from the sky. The comedic timing is impeccable in how characters or objects slip in and out of frame or pop out of nowhere. It’s no surprise that SpongeBob was also born out of Hillenburg’s affection for Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Jerry Lewis, and Pee-wee Herman.

SpongeBob SquarePants was no high-brow show. It was too didactic-free for some of my adult family members to see it as productive viewing for children. Yet for a show about nonsense, it made me think too much of the magic. Why does SpongeBob live in a pineapple under the sea? Why pineapple? How can he produce mountains of Krabby Patty burgers? How does Squidward, SpongeBob’s celopod neighbor, play the clarinet underwater? Those nonsensical mystics was appealing because it forced my child brain reel around the laughable logic. In the end of the classic episode “I Had An Accident,” a live-action sea gorilla jumps on his zebra and rides off into the sunset. In a stroke of masterful meta, it cuts to a baffled live-action family watching the scene before flicking off the television. For many children like me, SpongeBob’s most memorable trademarks come from its seamless elaborate close-ups to punctuate a comedic detail and cutaway gags to live-action for doses of insanity.

For a child, SpongeBob represented being wacky for sake of wackiness through his simple love for blowing bubbles, imagining worlds in a cardbox box, or jellyfishing. As an adult facing more cynicism, I view his spirit and freedom in his realm as almost enviable. It was far from teaching kids values but SpongeBob was a walking and dancing example about living as your best self, even if it leads to comedic havoc. Even without the screenshots and memes to guide me, I echo its one-liners till this day. Classics include, “My leg!” or “steppin’ on the beach” or “I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready.” Kenny’s inflection was so infectious that any child, or adults with a child’s heart, would have a ball mimicking SpongeBob’s words.

Hillenberg intended the 2004 theatrical SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, which he wrote and directed, to serve as a finale. It would have capped the series on a high note after three seasons. As Hillenberg stepped down as showrunner after the first movie, Nickelodeon ordered more productions of episodes to milk its presence into a franchise raking in billions. Beyond the third season, plenty of fans found that SpongeBob had aged from its former quality. Plenty has been said about the staleness of its subsequent episodes, its over-saturation on Nickelodeon’s time slot, gags dissolved into humorless mean-spiritedness, and the decline of character charm.

Whatever there is to be said of the post-golden age episodes, what is constant is youthful days where SpongeBob’s innocence and zaniness were still potent. In the movie that was the intended finale, SpongeBob found himself at odds at a society that tells him, “You’re just a kid.” He ventures on the impossible journey which yields deep sea terror, eccentric song numbers, a gift shop on land, and David Hasselhoff (which was a dig at Baywatch which flew over my head when I was a kid). It is quite the unorthodox bildungsroman. By the end, SpongeBob does not become a man as opposed to traditional coming-of-age stories, but he’s still a kid in the end. The only thing that’s changed is that he and his friends learn to value his kiddish spirit. That’s how I remember SpongeBob SquarePants concluded–with him making peace with the constancy of his kid spirit.

Spongebob Crying

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