Ocean Man: Stephen Hillenburg 1961-2018

Image from Consequence of Sound and owned by Nickelodeon

If Nickelodeon has a Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny, it is undeniably Spongebob Squarepants, still running after debuting 19 years ago. The show is also Nick’s Animaniacs in the same way Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra is their Batman Animated Series, though the former is lit much more brightly and differs thematically, in all fairness. Perhaps the greatest miracle of Stephen Hillenburg’s defining creation is how such an intentionally annoying figure like the titular Spongebob has endured in the hearts and minds of children and adults for so long, even after the series has long since peaked in quality, from its golden years of 1999 to 2005, in which Hillenburg worked as show-runner. The show received an award winning Broadway show, that must mean something has gone seriously right.

Hillenburg started off working for a Marine institute in Orange County, where in an educational comic for the Institute, the Intertidal Zone, a progenitor for his porous creation, was featured, as Bob the Sponge. Eventually, after working on an early Nickelodeon show, Rocko’s Modern Life, he eventually came up with Spongeboy, who would later become the aquatic icon we all know today. The rest is 11 seasons and counting of nautical nonsense of varying degrees of quality, a legion of internet memery that endures in popularity and applicability and even two critically and commercially films, with a third planned for 2020.

As his time working at a Marine Institute implies, he had a lifelong fascination with the great deep blue, and credits the famous undersea explorer, Jacques Cousteau, as an influence on his career. Spongebob Squarepants is deliberately absurd and inaccurate in its depiction of underwater life. For one, gravity as we land-based creatures know it exists to often humorous effect and the titular character is based not on an actual sea sponge but clearly, a sink’s. It’s a fun way to pique an audience’s interest in the ocean and its denizens, and save for Finding Nemo, no other piece of popular culture has been as successful. Suck it, Aquaman.

What perhaps ties up Spongebob’s enduring legacy is not so much the pseudo-realistic world of Bikini Bottom, but the characters Hillenburg placed in it. The main cast has been connected to a popular and even widely accepted by the cast and crew fan theory that seven of the cast, in this instance Spongebob, Patrick the starfish, Squidward, Sandy the Texan squirrel, Mr. Krabs, Plankton, and SB’s pet snail Gary, all represent the seven deadly sins. Comedy is often successful due to the flaws of characters sympathetic or otherwise, and the theory which Hillenburg suggested in the DVD commentary of the first season works very well.

Spongebob represents a nonsexual lust, in the sense he craves the love and respect of everyone in Bikini Bottom, especially Squidward. Squidward, often wanting to be left alone by everyone, especially Spongebob and Patrick, is wrath, apparent in his great anger and frustration that follows. Mr. Krabs, Spongebob’s boss at his job at the fast food restaurant, the Krusty Krab, is the easiest to guess, in that he is greed, due to his memetic love for money. His entrepreneurial rival, Plankton, wants the formula to Krabs’ coveted Krabby Patty formula, the secret sauce that makes the Krusty Krab a success. Plankton is envy. Spongebob’s best friend, Patrick, is incredibly lazy, despite his companionship with Spongebob and considerable strength. Though he is quite the eater, he represents sloth much more than gluttony. Gluttony goes to Spongebob’s Gary, who like most pets, loves you mostly for your ability to feed them. Gary is shown to be considerably smarter than other pets, which might imply that it is more than instinct that drives his hunger. Finally, there is Sandy Cheeks, a female Texan squirrel and the only non marine character in the show. She is shown to be fervently proud to be a Texan as well as an adventurer and often takes considerable risks for her ego. She is pride.

With exception to Plankton and maybe Mr. Krabs, none of the cast is necessarily villainous and that makes it all the more enjoyable when a show once dismissed as black and white kids’ fair or worse mindless entertainment, can convince with a comedic, all ages look at some of our own everlasting hangups. No show is ever memorable if everyone is perfect. Though not explicitly about screwing up, as is the underlying theme of the much more adult Venture Bros., it helps that something concrete and relatable is in Stephen Hillenburg’s legacy work, and perhaps as the decades continue on, Spongebob Squarepants will last because he made one of the most well known family shows of all time chaotic yet paradoxically concise. Paradoxes are often at the heart of some of the best things in life. For one, it makes life and its creations all the more interesting. Say what you will for the overall package of Stephen Hillenburg’s Spongebob, it grabbed and held your attention even if you were over the age of 15. That’s an accomplishment few do and ever achieve.

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