In very unfortunate news, creator of SpongeBob Squarepants Stephen Hillenburg passed away from a battle with ALS. Hillenburg taught a class in marine biology and was able to combine his career and his passion of animation and writing to create something truly fantastical that shaped how I view the world, and what kind of person I have and will become.
I grew up in a golden generation of SpongeBob Squarepants. Not the new age SpongeBob that is downright… weird. No. Born in the late 90s I was fortunately subjected to the Hillenburg episodes of SpongeBob. Hillenburg was in control of the show from its premiere in 1999 and up until after the first movie in 2004. The first movie, The SpongeBob Squarepants Movie, was originally intended to be the finale to the series. However, the network fought to continue producing the show because… why wouldn’t they? It was money waiting to be made.
Hillenburg was reluctant to stay on the staff, so over the course of the next few seasons, he gradually released his influence on the show (and the show noticeably got worse over this period of time). But that stretch from its origins in 1999, to the first movie in 2004 was completely and utterly phenomenal.
As an owner of the first three seasons of the show on DVD, the movie, the SpongeBob edition of Monopoly, the various video games for GameCube and much more paraphernalia, I can’t even begin to list the ways that Hillenburg’s comedic approach has positively impacted my life. The time I’ve spent watching the show with family, the niche references that only few could pick out and understand, the hours I’ve spent playing (and replaying) the SpongeBob Movie video game this last summer my friends basement. All of it, absolutely all of it affected me in a way that elicits pure happiness and joy.
It seems ludicrous that a kids cartoon could affect me and so many others in such a significant way, but Stephen Hillenburg and his team created something so magically childish that an entire generation that was on the border of being pure 90s kids and being lumped in with Gen-Z could identify with. That lost generation of kids born in 1997-2002 (rough estimate) was the generation that spent their childhood with SpongeBob.
A beautiful thing about SpongeBob was that the show wasn’t just for that lost generation of kids. The multigenerational appeal of the show extended to audiences of every age. Young children, teenagers, parents, and even adults without kids could connect to a show that subtly peppered adult humor into a Nickelodeon show with a child-targeted storyline.
Somehow, a show with vibrantly animated colors, cutely animated sea creatures, main characters that often cry and show immense vulnerability, was a show that adults would come to love. It was partly because of the sharp, witty, and niche jokes the writers and animators would sneak into the final cut of the show. One-liners in the script and innuendos in the animation give it an edge over shows that lack it. Take the scene from the movie that takes place at Goofy Goobers Ice Cream Party Boat for example.
SpongeBob was just denied a promotion at his job, something that no kid can relate to, but the majority of parents and adults probably could. In a state of depression, he goes to an ice cream parlor disguised as a bar.
Over the course of the night, SpongeBob and Patrick drown Spongebob’s sorrows by getting absolutely hammered off Triple Gooberberry Sunrise Ice Cream Sundaes, and the duo eventually climbs on stage and sing karaoke with a giant peanut. The next morning, SpongeBob wakes up, extremely groggy and hungover as he gathers himself and gets ready for work.
I was six years old when this movie came out. Obviously, I had no clue about the “real life” connections that were going on in this scene. It didn’t matter, I loved it. In my young eyes, I saw two lively characters eating ample amounts of ice cream and singing with a peanut. It was awesome.
My dad equally loved it, and he was 43 when we saw it in theaters. He was able to see the adult insinuations that the animators and writers so seamlessly intertwined with the kid-friendly dynamics of it all.
But it was more than just the multigenerational appeal. The writing on the show was jam-packed with lines, jokes, and even songs that can act as buzzwords for other mega fans of the show. Lines like:
“Oh boy 3 am!”
“Oh these aren’t pies, these are bombs”
“This is a load of barnacles…”
“You used me… FOR LAND DEVELOPMENT”
“BECAUSE YOU TOLD ME TOOOOOOO”
“That’s his… eager face”
“The inner machinations of my mind are an enigma”
“And HERE COMES THE GIANT FIST”
“Now you must acquire a taste for… freeform jazz”
And the list can go on quite literally, forever; Hillenburg’s creativity and originality knew no bounds and the uniqueness and bravery of the jokes landed hard with a young generation of children.
Creating a series that appeals to that wide of audiences is not easy by any means. Taking a step back and seeing how well Hillenburg and crew pulled it off is something to marvel at. The show truly extends beyond the label of “just a kids show” as it has impacted and shaped millions of people across the world.
I can confidently say that I wouldn’t be the same person I am today without the influence of Stephen Hillenburg and SpongeBob Squarepants and truthfully, I think the statement Nickelodeon released after the news of Hillenburg’s passing sum up what kind of person he was and the kind of influence he had.
“He was a beloved friend and long-time creative partner to everyone at Nickelodeon, and our hearts go out to his entire family. Steve imbued ‘SpongeBob Squarepants’ with a unique sense of humor and innocence that has brought joy to generations of kids and families everywhere. His utterly original characters and the world of Bikini Bottom will long stand as a reminder of the value of optimism, friendship and the limitless power of imagination.”
I have met countless people who share the genuine and emotional bond that Hillenburg created. I write this as a 20-year-old college student, thanking Stephen for the marvelous show he produced. At the end of the day, it was much more than just a show, he created a bond that brought eternal joy to me, my family, my friends, and millions of others. His legacy reaches all ends of the earth, and down to the depths of the deep blue sea.
RIP Stephen Hillenburg.