The Young Man and the Sea Sponge

SpongeBob SquarePants turned 20 this summer. This is the story of how a marine biology teacher named Stephen Hillenburg gave life to an animated character who continues to delight fans worldwide.

Darryn King | Longreads | August 2018 | 13 minutes (3,214 words)

In January 2012, Eric Bettanin, an Australian Army officer, took his brother-in-law’s Jet Ski out for a spin off the coast of Victoria. About 10 minutes in, the engine failed. As night fell, he drifted away from the beach and out of sight of family and friends. He spent the night bobbing around in the Southern Ocean, battered by large waves and howling winds.

Fortunately, Bettanin was wearing a pair of bright yellow SpongeBob SquarePants board shorts. He had picked them up for five Australian dollars, thinking they would get some laughs over the Christmas holidays with the family. As temperatures dropped, he took the shorts off and wrapped them around his head.

The next morning, one of the search boats fruitlessly trying to locate Bettanin was on its way back to shore. They had all but given hope when they spotted it — a telltale speck of SpongeBob yellow on the ocean.

That’s what the internet said anyway. If the headlines that week were slightly overblown, they were in keeping with the upbeat and outlandish spirit of the Nickelodeon cartoon. “SpongeBob SquarePants saved my life.” “SpongeBob Saves.” “SpongeBob SavePants.”

* * *

In July, SpongeBob SquarePants, the cartoon phenomenon, celebrated his 20th year.

According to Nickelodeon, the show, about a single male sponge who lives in a fully furnished pineapple and works as a fry cook, has generated $13 billion in lifetime retail sales of consumer products. The character’s wide eyes, apple cheeks, and toothy grin have graced everything from bait buckets to women’s underwear to a $75,000 diamond-encrusted pendant. It’s the face that launched a million memes, a Broadway musical, and the first square-shaped balloon in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. (Well, rectangular, technically.) 

The likes of Barack Obama, David Bowie, Ariana Grande, Lebron James, and Marc Jacobs are fans; Isaac Hempstead-Wright habitually sang songs from the show on the set of Game of Thrones. In France, he is Bob l’eponge; in Hungary, SpongyaBob Kockanadrag; in Germany, SpongeBob SchwammKopf.

When the show premiered in 1999, it was shocking for its cheery innocence. Conceived in intentional contrast to the scabrous antics of the original Nickelodeon buddy cartoon The Ren & Stimpy Show, it was closer in tone to the Hanna-Barbera cartoons of old than the lewdness of The Simpsons, South Park, and Family Guy. It was, one cultural commentator suggested, as comforting and contained as an aquarium in your living room. The character’s biggest surge in popularity occurred around 2001; like Depression-era America delighted by the pluck of Mickey Mouse, SpongeBob brought laughter and lightness of heart into American households when they were needed most.

It appealed to adults without intentionally going over kids’ heads. It was also joyously, wittily animated, owing as much of a debt to the zaniness of Dr. Seuss as to the surrealism of Salvador Dali and grotesqueries of Robert Crumb. Talk about visual wit — the design of SpongeBob himself remains an impeccable visual gag.

Tom Kenny, the voice actor behind SpongeBob’s perpetually enthused munchkin tones (he has sometimes called himself the character’s “host body”) has always delighted in the show’s abundance of positive energy.

“It was intoxicating in 1997,” he says, referring to the year the show was developed and pitched. “It’s still intoxicating after 20 years. I don’t know that I can think of a better word than that. I mean, it really is like, I don’t know, a hit of pure oxygen.”

Reflecting on the legacy and impact of the show, Kenny doesn’t cite awards, ratings, or celebrity admirers. It’s the stories he’s heard from fans of all ages, at years of signings and conventions and other appearances, that linger with him most. SpongeBob has been a comfort to the sick and the lonely and the desperate, brought people together, rescued others from the brink.

“It’s just this thing that gives people a little bit of respite from awfulness. When you do hospital visits and things like that, you see that 11 minutes of non-awfulness can be huge for people.”

* * *

Stephen Hillenburg, the creator of SpongeBob SquarePants, was 14 when he went scuba diving for the first time. Wood’s Cove, in Laguna Beach, California, with its rocks and riptides, wasn’t ideal for swimming. But it was spectacular for diving: The reefs were alive with sea stars, urchins, anemones; schools of opaleye fish, perch, and jack mackerel swam through forests of kelp.

Then there was the beach’s array of tide pools, which become exposed at low tide. He would poke around and marvel at the strangeness of the snails, limpets, crabs, and barnacles he found in the pools among the tiny juvenile fish. Not knowing better, he even took some of his favorite discoveries home, where they met a rotting, stinking fate while he raptly watched episodes of the aquatic documentary series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.

After earning a degree from Humboldt State University in natural resource planning, with a focus on marine resources, he got a job as a teacher at the Orange County Marine Institute (now the Ocean Institute), a marine science and marine history education center on the edge of Dana Point Harbor. There he created exhibits for the kids and occasionally dressed as a 19th-century seafarer — loose trousers, billowy shirt, and tarpaulin hat — to accompany them on sailing excursions on the center’s floating laboratory. He developed a knack for talking to kids without talking down to them.

He was a passionate surfer by then, launching into the waves with whoever he could persuade to join him. One of them was his employer, Harry Helling, who drew cartoons as a hobby. One day, Helling suggested that he and Hillenburg collaborate on a comic book to teach children about tide pools. Hillenburg took the idea and ran with it. “Steve’s talent quickly overtook mine,” says Helling.

The result was The Intertidal Zone, a comic “hosted” by a sunglasses-wearing blob named Bob the Sponge. When a popular artist of glossy marine scenes named Robert Wyland visited the Institute to speak with the kids, Hillenburg proudly showed off his work. “Don’t quit your day job,” Wyland advised him.

Hillenburg quit his day job. Despite having no luck finding a publisher for The Intertidal Zone, he was accepted for an animation course on the strength of it: the Experimental Animation program at the California Institute of the Arts, also known as CalArts.

It was an invigorating time to be studying the art form — 1989 was the year America liked animation again. Who Framed Roger Rabbit had just won four Academy Awards, The Little Mermaid heralded what would later be known as the renaissance of Disney feature animation, the anime Akira had a limited release stateside, and Fox’s animated sitcom The Simpsons premiered on television. Mike Judge, a young aspiring director, purchased a Bolex 16 mm film and began creating his own animated shorts, and a writer-animator named John Kricfalusi began pitching the show that would become The Ren & Stimpy Show. Theme park visitors to the newly opened Disney-MGM Studios Park in Florida could watch real Disney animators at work through glass, and even Mickey Mouse was back on television, on The All-New Mickey Mouse Club.

CalArts was the school that produced such animation luminaries as John Musker (The Little Mermaid), Rob Minkoff (The Lion King), Tim Burton, and key Pixar figures John Lasseter, Brad Bird, Andrew Stanton, and Pete Docter — all students in the character animation program.

The experimental animation program cultivated more eccentric talents. The head of the program was Hungarian-born animator Jules Engel, who had worked on everything from the tutu-clad hippopotamuses in Fantasia to the starkly modern graphics of Gerald McBoing Boing, Madeline, and Mr. Magoo. Engel called his young pupils his “artists” and stressed the importance of personal expression. 

Even among the animation nuts of CalArts, the intensity of Hillenburg’s commitment — and his volcanic outpouring of creativity — was remarkable. He became especially close to Engel, whom he came to refer to as his “Art Dad,” and doodled constantly, during mealtimes, while hanging out with friends, and into the night.

“The most distinct image of Steve I remember from CalArts,” says classmate David Fain, “is him sitting at a table by his desk working on drawings for one of his films, and having a huge pile of pencil shavings and his hands black from graphite.”

Another classmate, Carlos Palazio, concurs: “He was always, always, always working on animation at CalArts.”

In his downtime, Hillenburg jammed raucously with friends, scoured the Saugus Swap Meet for weird toys, and searched for Walt Disney’s cryogenic tomb, which was only half-jokingly rumored to be secreted away on campus. And he surfed, alone or with company, sharing his lifelong passion with anyone who was interested. “I’ll never forget the day he got me to stand up on his surfboard,” says Nicole Tostevin, Hillenburg’s girlfriend during the CalArts years. “He loved being out on the water. Not really thinking, just feeling one with the waves and losing track of time.

“He was super shy. Super private, super shy. But once you got him talking: hilarious. Everyone loved him.”

One of Hillenburg’s CalArts shorts was Wormholes — a swirling electrical storm of a cartoon with the look of a Saul Steinberg illustration come to life. It was a dazzling exercise in perspective that plunged the viewer through time and space. The film was selected for the Ottawa International Animation Festival, where it won the award for Best Animated Concept. In Ottawa, Hillenburg met Joe Murray, an independent animator who was scouting for interesting independent animators for a new animated series, Rocko’s Modern Life, which he was developing for the then nascent animation sector of Nickelodeon.

“Nickelodeon didn’t want me to bring Steve on,” says Murray, “since he’d never worked on television, or in that environment. I talked them into it. He was an easy choice.” Hillenburg eventually became the show’s creative director.

By the time Nickelodeon canceled Rocko, Hillenburg already had another idea percolating. Rocko writer Martin Olson had noticed a copy of The Intertidal Zone in Hillenburg’s office and told him: “This is your show, man!” The idea properly crystalized, Hillenburg would later say, during a drive to the beach.

In 1997, he and writer-collaborator Derek Drymon, dressed in Hawaiian shirts and playing Polynesian music, wheeled a large sheet-draped object into an office at Nickelodeon to pitch their show. They lifted off the sheet to reveal a fish tank, an aquarium diorama of an underwater scene — there was a singing seashell, a starfish glued onto the side of the glass, a squid-like thing with tentacles, and an ordinary kitchen sink sponge with googly eyes sitting on a barrel.

SpongeBob SquarePants was instilled with its creator’s own buoyant spirit, capacity for silliness, and child’s-eye view of the world. Hillenburg had even designed the title character with a prominent gap between his front teeth — like his younger self, he later realized.

Nickelodeon picked up the show with more of a shrug than a whoop.

“One Nickelodeon executive didn’t even like the show when it first aired,” says Steven Banks, the show’s head writer for several years, “and now says they are part of the legacy. That’s show biz!”

* * *

From the beginning, Hillenburg was as certain of his creative vision as he was fiercely protective of it.

There were executives who insisted that SpongeBob should be an actual child rather than merely childlike, that he should go to school rather than have a job. Someone suggested, “SpongeBob should be cool and wear sun glasses and surf,” while another knowledgeably informed Hillenburg that “pirates were out.”

Burger King wanted SpongeBob flipping burgers on a Burger King–style flame broiler, and Target wanted to market its SpongeBob products with the slogan, “It’s hip to be square,” which Hillenburg coolly rejected on the basis that SpongeBob wasn’t hip. Hillenburg was especially tickled — and horrified — by a pitch for SpongeBob fish sticks.

“Steve was like a Zen master,” says Peter Hannan, creator of the Nickelodeon cartoon CatDog, which the network expected to outshine SpongeBob. “He had perfect focus.”

  

In July 2001, Nickelodeon started running SpongeBob SquarePants four nights a week during prime time. Ten months later, 61.1 million viewers were tuning in per episode, surpassing the viewership for Pokémon. The annual earnings from SpongeBob merchandise were estimated at $500 million; he topped not only Halloween costume sales but sales of adult loungewear. 

“I wanted to create something new and original,” Hillenburg told the Sydney Morning Herald in 2004, at the height of Sponge-mania. “I figured we’d have a cult following for this weird little show. It still is a weird little show. It just got big.”

Like everyone else, Hillenburg started seeing SpongeBob everywhere. Over time, he went from feeling amused — he acquired some bootleg SpongeBob merchandise from Mexico, watched the YouTube clips of Russian soldiers singing the theme song — to feeling trapped in a brightly colored personal nightmare. His greatest fear, he told the New York Times, was that he’d come across some of that nonbiodegradable SpongeBob paraphernalia washed up on the beach.

“At first, it’s both weird and flattering, and then after a while you get tired of seeing it. It loses preciousness after a while,” he explained. “One night I was really beat, we worked really late and went to get food at some takeout place. And I leaned over against this gumball machine, just exhausted, and there was a SpongeBob looking back at me. And it’s just, like, ‘Oh, brother.’”

“Whenever I attempted to introduce him as the creator of SpongeBob he brushed it aside,” says CalArts classmate Sheila Sofian. “After a while I decided not to make him uncomfortable.”

The mania invaded the family home too; his young son Clay became a fan. “To my chagrin,” said Hillenburg.

Hillenburg decided not to renew his contract with Nickelodeon, which ended in 2004; Nickelodeon, in turn, decided the show would continue without him. Hillenburg retained an executive producer title and continued to keep a watchful eye on the brand, as well as the show itself — he once vetoed a story divulging the origins of Mr. Krabs and his adopted daughter, Pearl — but his main priority was spending more time with Clay and his wife, Karen.

Hillenburg’s subsequent years seem like an attempt to recapture the summery bliss of life pre-SpongeBob. He traveled and surfed and whiled away afternoons jamming surf rock tunes in a rented rehearsal space with old CalArts friends. Hillenburg created a hand-drawn short animated film, Hollywood Blvd. USA, which evoked the looseness and carefreeness of his early shorts, and painted vast ocean murals, in which a rectangular sea sponge sometimes made subtle cameo appearances. He and Karen also set up the United Plankton Charitable Trust, through which they lent support to myriad arts and educational institutions, medical research, and social justice causes.

The family had a place, decorated with a huge collage of thrift store–bought seascapes, in Paradise Cove, a private waterfront community in Malibu, within walking distance of a secluded stretch of beach.

In 2015, as if sensing there was a need for some course correction, Hillenburg took a more active role behind the scenes of SpongeBob SquarePants. But it wasn’t long before friends and colleagues became aware that there was something different about him. He became more reserved in conversation, and his email correspondence became shorter, blunter. He stopped responding to invitations to go surfing, and mobility became an issue.

“He was still the same Steve deep down,” says director-animator Mark Osborne, “but communication was difficult.”

“Parts of him were leaving the building,” says Kenny.

In 2017, Hillenburg published a statement in Variety, disclosing that he had been diagnosed with ALS. “Anyone who knows me knows that I will continue to work on SpongeBob SquarePants and my other passions for as long as I am able. My family and I are grateful for the outpouring of love and support. We ask that our sincere request for privacy be honored during this time.”

Though he was eventually unable to come in to the office, Hillenburg remained in characteristically good spirits.

“Even when he stopped being able to kind of talk and things like that, he was still able to smile and keep a cheery face on,” says Paul Tibbitt, who took over Hillenburg as showrunner in 2004.

“Up until the last time I saw him,” says Osborne, “he maintained his sense of humor, his kindness, his presence in the conversation, and his warmth as a caring human being.”

Hillenburg died of complications related to ALS in November 2018, at 57. His ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean. Nickelodeon’s statement read, in part, “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’m still formulating what he meant to me,” says Kenny, “or how I feel about it, or what it’s like to have him gone. Going forward, you know … There’s not really a paradigm for it, you know, in my life.”

For those closest to the show, it’s hard to shake the sense that an essential part of its joy and wonder — the joy and wonder of a kid peering into tide pools at the beach — is in danger of being lost at sea.

“The show is Steve,” continues Kenny. “And there’s always a little fear that when a creator is gone that the show just becomes a corporate property, where it’s just golden arches or mouse ears or something. It’s very strange not having the captain at the helm.”

SpongeBob will carry on. It’s partly a testament to the enduring brilliance of Hillenburg’s creation that, in a sense, it looks set to become bigger than ever.

In 2019 so far, Nickelodeon has announced the launch of a dedicated SpongeBob YouTube channel, a new mobile game, a new toy line, SpongeBob Nike sneakers, the SpongeBob Smarty Pants Game Show, collaborations with designer Cynthia Rowley and artists Romero Britto and Jon Burgerman and the Pantone Color Institute — who inaugurated the color “SpongeBob Yellow” — and SpongeBob cosmetics.

For a one-hour mixed live-action and animation special episode that aired on July 12, the show’s voice actors played their characters on camera and in costume. Clancy Brown, who voices Mr. Krabs, likened the experience to “having sex with the lights on.” And, in addition to the new feature film, It’s a Wonderful Sponge, slated for release in 2020, Nickelodeon president Brian Robbins — calling SpongeBob SquarePants “our Marvel universe” — has promised spin-off shows. The first of these is the CG-animated prequel Kamp Koral, centering on a 10-year-old SpongeBob SquarePants, which has been given a 13-episode series order. “I think fans are clamoring for it,” he says.

“In the animation business, you know, there always used to be the sort of joke,” says Tibbitt. “When you run out of ideas, you just do Muppet Babies. Steve would always say to me, ‘You know, one of these days, they’re going to want to make SpongeBob Babies. That’s when I’m out of here.’”

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Darryn King is a writer based in New York City.

Editor: Mike Dang
Fact-checker: Samantha Schuyler

Copy editor: Jacob Gross