By Alex MacDougall
BU News Service
In the wake of the passing of Stephen Hillenburg, the creator of the famed kids’ series SpongeBob SquarePants, I decided to go back and rewatch the first few episodes of the series. Though I had seen the first and pilot episode, “Help Wanted”, countless times, it was watching the episode while keeping in mind the man who had created it that it began to take on a new meaning to me.
In the pilot, SpongeBob is not yet employed at the Krusty Krab (“the finest eating establishment ever established for eating”) and must prove his worth in order for the boss, the money-loving Mr. Krabs, to hire him. Though initially scoffed at, SpongeBob saves the day when the restaurant is swarmed by an army of hungry anchovies, and only he is able to feed every last one of them.
Watching again, I realized how much this perhaps could have been a parallel for Hillenburg’s own career. This is, after all, the episode which Nickelodeon executives watched to determine if the show would ever see airtime, and so Hillenburg, like SpongeBob, perhaps was trying to prove to his money-loving employers to hire him, because he was the one capable of feeding the army of hungry consumers in the target audience.
Today of course, we know Hillenburg proved right: More than just a successful series, SpongeBob SquarePants became a global cultural phenomenon, appearing on nearly every piece of merchandise you can possibly think of, and inspired an entire generation of children, the oldest now in their young twenties, who despite being seeped in a variety of hostile disagreements amongst each other seem to be united in the consensus that the show is simply a work of art. No matter if you grew up rich or poor, black or white, male or female, gay or straight, the yellow square man who lives in a pineapple had an irresistible pull. But what made the show so appealing to such a diverse crowd of people?
For one, the humor of the show is timeless. No matter how many times you watch it, when Patrick asks “Is mayonnaise an instrument?”, you laugh. Whenever you hear the F.U.N. song, you smile and sing along. Among the first three seasons of the show (when Hillenburg served as the show-runner for the series,) nearly every gag is original and funny. These jokes appeal not just to young children, but also to fully-seasoned adults.
My mom always found it hilarious whenever the show featured Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy, a parody of the Adam West Batman series and voiced by Ernest Borgnine and Tim Conway, who co-starred in the sea-faring 1960s series McHale’s Navy. No matter if he’s throwing a rave party with a jellyfish or repeatedly failing to get his driver’s license, SpongeBob’s antics are always humorous and relatable.
This brings me to my second, more abstract theory as to why the show remains so popular. Despite the completely absurd and nonsensical nature of the show, we find ourselves quoting and relating to it constantly in our everyday lives. Most college students can’t help but think of SpongeBob trying for hours to write an 800-word essay but only managing to come up with a highly calligraphic “The.” Working a mindless office job brings to mind Squidward’s line of “We do this for forty years, and then we die.” There are videos on the internet which scenes from SpongeBob are used, rather accurately, to describe things like countries, academic majors, and even World War II. With so much relatability, perhaps we should ask ourselves: “How absurd and nonsensical is the world we ourselves live in?”
I don’t know what Hillenburg was thinking when he created SpongeBob, or if he knew how his creation would be received by the world. But one thing is clear: The show has left a permanent mark upon American culture, and we are all better of for it. Rest in peace, Stephen. Just like Smitty Werbenjagermanjensen, you were Number One.