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25 Years Ago, SpongeBob SquarePants Changed TV Forever

The jewel in Nickelodeon's crown continues to cast a major shadow over American television and animation.
  • SpongeBob SquarePants (Photo: Everett Collection)
    SpongeBob SquarePants (Photo: Everett Collection)

    Who lives in a pineapple under the sea? The king of American children’s animation, that’s who. 

    It’s been 25 years since Nickelodeon premiered SpongeBob SquarePants, the aquatic comedy about Bikini Bottom’s finest porous line cook, and we still live under his vast shadow. While 21st-century television has largely been distinguished by difficult men, serious artists, and glossy prestige, the most indomitable titan of the medium from the past quarter century is a chipper sea sponge, the anti-Tony Soprano in every possible way. Millennial and Gen Z vernacular is defined by the series’s memes. Its franchise offerings have grossed more money than Despicable Me and Star Trek. The more pop culture went grimdark, the more the yellow optimist with a slide-whistle nose made the case for optimism. It’s SpongeBob’s world and we just live in it.

    Before attending CalArts and moving into animation, series creator Stephen Hillenburg worked in marine biology. He taught kids about ocean life and found that it was something that children were naturally fascinated by. While working at the Orange County Marine Institute, he created educational comics that included anthropomorphic forms of sea life such as "Bob the Sponge." 

    A career change led him to move into cartoons and he ended up working on the Nickelodeon series Rocko’s Modern Life. One of his colleagues read his marine biology comics and told him it'd make a great series. Hillenburg realized it was the perfect opportunity for him to blend together not only all of the things he was fascinated by but the stuff that had enamored the kids who visited the Ocean Institute. Nickelodeon got on board and production for their brand new series, SpongeBob SquarePants, began.

    And so a star was born. Initial reviews were mixed, but kids adored it. Within its first month of broadcast, SpongeBob had overtaken Pokémon as the highest-rated Saturday morning kids' show. In its first two years, it was the highest-rated children's series on American TV. Now, 14 seasons in, it’s Nickelodeon’s longest-running show and a seemingly unstoppable cultural juggernaut, with three feature films, a Broadway musical, a Super Bowl commentary special, two spin-offs, and many comic books, theme park rides, and toys. So many toys. By 2019, SpongeBob had generated over $13 billion in merchandising revenue.

    Trying to offer a dense cultural analysis of SpongeBob SquarePants almost feels beside the point. It is a show that is proudly silly and often giddily stupid. The humor is built on slapstick, strange non sequiturs, moments of sharp grotesquery, puns, and occasional bouts of scathing social commentary. There’s a consistent logic to this deeply illogic world, one where it snows underwater, a Texan squirrel lives in a dome, and a one-eyed copepod has a computer wife. The only expected thing is the unexpected. And laughs. Lots of laughs.

    The ’90s were a busy time for American animation. Nickelodeon had thoroughly established itself as the home of cool kids TV. Disney’s renaissance had reinvented the ailing company’s troubles. A little show called The Simpsons reinvigorated primetime comedy and inspired a slew of wannabes (remember Fish Police, a very real show that’s about exactly what you think it is?) The medium had reached new peaks of critical and commercial prowess.

    Yet even amid this saturated field, SpongeBob feels unique, more a throwback to the days of Looney Tunes and Marx Brothers than the Gen X attitude of its pre-millennial contemporaries. There are pop culture references littered throughout its run, sure, but it’s not as enamored with self-referential smartness as its contemporaries. Rather, the focus is almost visceral: visuals, noise, to-the-bone jokes. If one gag doesn’t make you laugh, don’t worry because there will be another in about three seconds.

    Time Magazine once described SpongeBob as "the anti-Bart Simpson." It’s a description that gets to the heart of the show’s appeal. Where much of the decade’s animation relied on cooler-than-thou attitude and caustic satire, SpongeBob embodies a giddy guilelessness that opposes the notion of cynicism. He’s so blissfully satisfied with his simple life with his friends, job, pet snail, and adventures of varying drama. He’s not a child (there’s always been debate about SpongeBob’s actual age), but his youthful view of the world is one of wide-eyed joy at every mundane surprise. Everything can be a game. The most absurd things are to be taken literally.

    It makes for a series that appeals to people of all ages. Young kids like the loud noises and pratfalls while their parents relate to the beleaguered “adults” who are stuck in dead-end jobs and have zero chill. It is, however, the millennial and Gen Z fanbases who have latched most enthusiastically onto the show, and who have turned it into a unique form of internet vernacular.

    It’s literally impossible to spend any amount of time on social media and not encounter at least one SpongeBob meme. There is truly a screenshot for every moment, so malleable is this underwater caper’s style, and you don’t have to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the lore to understand them. A shoal of disapproving fish in a comedy club is our generation’s most effective embodiment of side-eye. As Know Your Meme managing editor Don Caldwell told Wired in 2018, "SpongeBob is one of the most significant television series in meme history." 

    Nostalgia is at the root of much of this power, but it also speaks to the sheer expressiveness of the series itself, like silent slapstick films from the '20s where there was no such thing as going too big. The best memes of The Simpsons require you to know deep-cut jokes and crossover references. SpongeBob is its own vernacular, as much a part of internet speak as lolcats.

    Through it all, regardless of how messy everything gets or how much Squidward clearly wants him gone, SpongeBob himself believes in the indelible power of his own imagination. Times will be tough, people will laugh at you rather than with you, but in the end it’ll all be okay, as long as you can imagine something weirder, sillier, so unabashedly of your own mind. 

    As prestige TV got darker and more morally tangled, SpongeBob stayed himself. He wasn’t just the anti-Bart Simpson; he was the anti-Tony Soprano, the anti-Walter White, the sunshine to a sea of scowling difficult men whose lives were shrouded in subterfuge and cruelty. As the TV of the early 2000s became widely defined by dark men of complex villainy, there remained SpongeBob with his perennial smile. 

    It wasn’t just drama either. SpongeBob premiered as the TV sitcom plundered the awkwardness and glass-half-empty worlds of shows like Arrested Development, My Name Is Earl, and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Adult Swim became the platform for shaggy dog animated comedy that proudly broke the rules of the form, to the point where many of its most notable cult hits, like Metalocalypse and Morel Orel, became more penetrating dramas than HBO’s bleakest offerings. By contrast, the simplicity of Bikini Bottom became a welcome constant. Comedy has swung back in the sponge’s direction, with optimists in the spotlight over too-cool-for-school attitude. One could easily draw a line between SpongeBob, Leslie Knope, and Ted Lasso.

    SpongeBob SquarePants prevails even as the shows it inspired — including The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack, The Amazing World of Gumball, Chowder — are resigned to the chum-bucket of cancellation. Nickelodeon is certainly keen to keep it going, alongside its spin-offs and endless assembly line of plushies. But even when the series ends, it will live on as one of the great shows in American animation. In the face of darkness, there’s something to be said about putting a smile on your face and being as proudly weird as possible. Millennials can relate. 

    Kayleigh Donaldson is a writer of film and pop culture features for Screen Rant and Pajiba. Also seen at SyFy Fangrrls and Bright Wall Dark Room.

    TOPICS: SpongeBob SquarePants, Nickelodeon, Bill Fagerbakke, Clancy Brown, Stephen Hillenburg, Tom Kenny, Animation