‘SpongeBob SquarePants’ celebrates 10 years of nautical nonsense

[13 July 2009]

By Daniel Bubbeo

Newsday (MCT)

It’s a recipe as tasty as the one for a Krabby Patty: Take one naive yellow sponge with a disposition so sunny that he makes Pollyanna seem like an old grouch and dress him in a pair of square pants. Season with some crazy characters, including a grumpy octopus named Squidward, the dumber-than-driftwood starfish Patrick, the penny-pinching crustacean Mr. Krabs and a meowing snail named Gary. Sweeten with a touch of innocence and toss in a dash of edgy humor for the grown-ups and, voila!, you’ve got “SpongeBob SquarePants.”

And with all those makings for a hit, “SpongeBob” has been wearing the pants for 10 years when it comes to animation domination. Now Bikini Bottom’s master fry cook and those Krabby Patties are about to get super-sized. To mark “SpongeBob’s” 10th anniversary, Nickelodeon and sister channel VH1 are throwing a massive celebration that would even put a smile on Squidward’s face.

Tuesday at 9 p.m., VH1 premieres “Square Roots: The Story of SpongeBob SquarePants,” an original documentary that dives into the history of the show. But that’s just an appetizer for the week’s main course: Nickelodeon’s 50-hour “Ultimate SpongeBob SpongeBash Weekend,” which begins Friday at 8 p.m. with a brand-new episode, “To SquarePants or Not to SquarePants.” To paraphrase Squidward, “SpongeBob” has arrived.

Not that the show hadn’t made a few ripples before this. It’s been the No. 1 show with kids ages 2 to 11 for seven consecutive years and typically draws an average of 70 million viewers each month. Nickelodeon has soaked up a lot of cash with this sponge in the forms of everything from SpongeBob macaroni and cheese to SpongeBob underwear, and a 2004 feature film that raked in $118 million. It’s even got the president’s seal of approval. Last summer, when Barack Obama was on the campaign trail, he told TV Guide that his favorite TV character of all time is the lovable sponge “because ‘SpongeBob’ is the show I watch with my daughters.”

All that hoopla for a show that its creators and cast figured would last only a year or two. “We did a seven-minute pilot, which we all thought was very funny, and that alone would have been enough of an accomplishment,” says Tom Kenny, who provides the voices of SpongeBob and Gary. “But because it was funny to us, we didn’t know if anyone else would think so.”

“SpongeBob” was the brainchild of Stephen Hillenburg, a marine biologist whose second passion, animation, led to a job on the creative team of the Nicktoon “Rocko’s Modern Life,” which ran from 1993 to 1996. It was during the run of “Rocko” that Hillenburg began thinking about a cartoon that would take place amid the world of marine life.

“Steve Hillenburg was a known entity — he had run ‘Rocko’s Modern Life’ — we knew he was talented,” says Marjorie Cohn, executive vice president of development and original programming for Nickelodeon. “The idea was fresh and funny and so well thought out it was hard to resist. But it was the delivery of the hilarious pilot that sealed the deal.”

Still, the idea of a sponge as a cartoon hero and the way “SpongeBob” defied logic (who knew a squirrel with her own rocket could live underwater?) made the show a bit of a risk. “No one, including the people at the network, knew if it would last,” says Paul Tibbitt, “SpongeBob’s” executive producer. “You can make a few shows and never know when you’re going to strike a nerve. It’s nice that it happened.”

From the start, the show’s quirky blend of innocence and edginess was irresistible, though it took some time to grow on viewers. “In conventional wisdom in the world of cable cartoons, you do about 52 half-hours and that’s enough. By then, there’s enough of a backlog,” says Kenny. “By the time a kid sees every episode X amount of times, they will have moved onto something else and then the next generation will watch them. For the first year or two we were on, no one really paid much attention to us. Then about the third year, we suddenly started seeing the show hit the radar and grow and become a part of pop culture, and that was another of those high-five moments.”

By the early 2000s, it became clear it wasn’t only kids who were SpongeHeads. References to “SpongeBob” began popping up all over the tube in shows from “Two and a Half Men” to “American Idol.” Celebrities including Scarlett Johansson, Johnny Depp and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who in a 2001 interview said Hillenburg was the one man who was “truly Sponge-worthy,” made no secret of their love for the yellow guy. Even convicts love him: In “Square Roots,” Rodger Bumpass, who voices Squidward, says he gets a huge number of letters from prisons.

“Steve made a show that was funny in an old-fashioned way with really likable characters in a pleasing graphic. The color of the show, the ‘Dating Game’ flowers in the background, a lot of things that had to do with Steve’s liking of tiki culture,” Kenny says. “What makes the show funny is that SpongeBob is always doing the right thing while driving everyone else around him crazy.

“The show also came along at time in the ‘90s when you had ‘South Park’ and ‘Ren and Stimpy.’ SpongeBob was much kinder,” Kenny says. “He’s always optimistic and I think people could relate to that. There’s a yearning for positivity and kindness and a nicer, more appreciative, more inclusive approach to the world.”

And “SpongeBob” shows no signs of drying up any time soon. A special episode featuring the voice of Depp that aired in April racked up 5.8 million viewers, and an hourlong TV movie, “Truth or Square,” which will feature the voices of Will Ferrell, Ricky Gervais, Robin Williams and Craig Ferguson, is slated for the fall.

“What I’m most proud of is that kids still really like it and care about it,” Kenny says. “They eagerly await new episodes. People who were young children when it started 10 years ago are still watching it and digging it and think it’s funny. That’s the loving cup for me.”



If nautical nonsense be something you wish, go overboard this week as Spongemania hits a high-water mark for “SpongeBob’s” 10th anniversary.


“Square Roots: The Story of SpongeBob SquarePants” (Tuesday at 9 p.m., VH1) — An original documentary that looks at “SpongeBob” from top to Bikini Bottom and features interviews with the show’s creators, cast members and celeb fans like Will Ferrell and Ricky Gervais.

“The Ultimate SpongeBob SpongeBash Weekend” (Friday at 8 p.m.) — The 50-hour Spongeathon kicks off with “To SquarePants or Not to SquarePants,” a new episode in which SpongeBob must wear round pants after his L-7 trousers shrink in the dryer. Other highlights include fans’ top 10 episodes (Saturday at 10 a.m.), “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie” (Saturday at 8 p.m.), a top-10 countdown of celebrities’ favorite episodes (next Sunday at 10 a.m.) and the premieres of 10 more “SpongeBobs” (next Sunday at 7 p.m.). All on Nickelodeon.


“SpongeBob’s Greatest Hits” CD — A mix of 17 tracks including favorites ("Ripped Pants,” “The F.U.N. Song” and new tunes ("We’ve Got Scurvy” by Pink).

Board games — SpongeBob editions of Connect 4, Operation, Sorry, Memory and Memory are at toy stores now. Kid Cranium drops on the deck in the fall.



SpongeBob is just like pie — everybody loves him, especially Tom Kenny, who voices the Absorbent One. Here are five of his favorite “SpongeBob SquarePants” episodes.

“Help Wanted” (the pilot) — “It’s hard to believe that when we started work on this, maybe a dozen people knew what the heck a ‘SpongeBob’ was. I fell in love with the characters and drawings at first sight. ‘Having a Wonderful Time’ by Tiny Tim is one of the greatest songs ever recorded (sorry, Beatles!).”

“Valentine’s Day” — “The first great Patrick episode. I love how Patrick instantly goes from having his feelings hurt to Incredible Hulk-like rage.”

“Toy Store of Doom” — “I love when hilarity and disturbing creepiness mingle. This one is like an episode of “Night Gallery” starring SpongeBob and Patrick, directed by Rob Zombie!”

“The Camping Episode” — “Fabulous Squidward abuse in this one. I always laugh even though I know the sea bear attacks are coming. . . . SpongeBob singing the ever-accelerating verses of ‘The Campfire Song’ is NOT artificially sped up.”

“SpongeBob BC” — “Lots of extreme, twisted drawings in this one. Just looking at the character designs of SpongeGar, Patar and Squog cracks me up, with their Fred Flintstone stubble and snaggly teeth.”

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