SpongeBob has been sharing his childlike outlook on life since 1999. With a third movie coming in 2020, the famous sponge won’t be stopping anytime soon.
SpongeBob SquarePants has been around my entire childhood and adulthood. I spent many evenings watching SpongeBob reruns while babysitting the kids in my neighborhood, watching their faces light up when he outsmarted Plankton’s latest scheme. It seemed no matter how many times they saw the same episode, they could still find something new to giggle at. Throughout my high school years, he became more of a symbol, and I watched him show up on peers’ clothes, backpacks and cars.
Since 1999, Nickelodeon Animation Studios’ character SpongeBob SquarePants has been living it up in his pineapple under the sea in his home of Bikini Bottom. He’s a lovable sponge whose greatest joys in life are going on adventures with his best friend Patrick and making the perfect Krabby Patty at his burger-flipping job. Like any good protagonist, he is always getting into messes, ruining the town, destroying his house or annoying his character foil — the clarinet-playing, often depressed Squidward. But no matter how big SpongeBob’s freak-outs get, or how hard villainous Plankton tries to steal the super-secret Krabby Patty formula, SpongeBob can always find something to laugh about — even if he’s the only one finding humor in the situation.
The show of nautical nonsense has won nine Primetime Emmy Awards as well as many other accolades for voice acting, producing and songs. At Nickelodeon’s Kids’ Choice Awards, the show has been named Favorite Cartoon for the past 10 years in a row. SpongeBob SquarePants has a connection to another popular animated series: Voice actor Tom Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob and his pet snail, Gary, also voices Adventure Time’s Ice King and other characters. Celebrities such as David Bowie, Robin Williams, Gene Simmons, Amy Sedaris and Jon Hamm have also shared their voice talents with SpongeBob SquarePants.
Before the popular Broadway musical adaptation featuring an actor screaming while running around in a full-sized Krabby Patty costume, SpongeBob was the star of two movies. The first was The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie (2004) featuring a South Park–inspired poster that declares, “Bigger. Better. More Absorbent.” Then in The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water (2015), the Krabby Patty formula is stolen, leaving the main character and friends to go onshore to battle the pirate owner of Beard Burgers. In this movie, the underwater squirrel scientist Sandy Cheeks is transformed into a regular, non-clothes-wearing fox squirrel. The third movie’s release has been delayed until July 31, 2020, but the movie’s title, It’s a Wonderful Sponge, seems like a promising start.
The show’s theme song has also stood the test of time, as campy and corny as ever. Fans of all ages are known to happily sing along to the framed picture of the pirate captain asking, “Are you ready, kids?” (“Aye, aye, Captain!”) From the moment each episode begins, viewers are encouraged to be a part of the experience and get onboard with the silliness of Bikini Bottom. Though the show’s animation has seen some upgrades in detail and color since the first episode in 1999, the core of the show remains the same. The newer seasons feature brighter color palettes in both background and characters, along with a greater frequency of exaggerated facial expressions.
As with many great animated series, SpongeBob thrives with jokes and story lines that work for kids and adults, where younger children may not pick up on all of the meta-references or dark humor.
SpongeBob SquarePants hasn’t been without controversy, however.
Certain episodes have been banned in different countries over the years. The United Kingdom and Australia banned season two’s “Shanghaied / Gary Takes a Bath” because Squidward’s surreal nightmare in “Shanghaied” was too scary for children’s TV. “Gary Takes a Bath” follows our hero’s saga of trying to get a reluctant, catlike Gary to take a bath. After trying a variety of tricks and pleading, an exasperated SpongeBob tries to convince Gary there’s a pirate treasure hidden in the bathtub and calls the bars of soap “doubloons.” As part of this joke, SpongeBob warns Gary “not to drop them,” referencing the common but offensive euphemism for unwanted sexual contact in prisons. While this joke would likely have gone over kids’ heads, it still earned the show a ban in these countries.
In 2011 SpongeBob SquarePants faced heavy backlash after “SpongeBob, You’re Fired!” aired. In the episode, our hero is fired from the Krusty Krab after 15 years. Within days of not having a job, SpongeBob is clearly not himself and is portrayed as a beggar. Patrick reassures him that “glorious unemployment” can be great and will be filled with free stuff. In the U.S., some critics felt the episode devalued the worth of social services, such as unemployment funds and access to free meals for those in need. Others argued his firing so that Mr. Krabs could save one nickel was an attack on labor laws. In response, Nickelodeon’s president of content, development and production at the time stated, “Despite this momentary setback, SpongeBob’s eternal optimism prevails, which is always a great message for everyone.” One pundit chimed in, saying, “The harsh economic climate has hit the underwater community…but instead of mooching off social services at Bikini Bottom…SpongeBob sets out to return to the workforce.” However, critics felt the implication that all one needs is optimism and a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” attitude failed to include the many reasons a person may need, or be stuck in, dire circumstances like unemployment.
Another source of controversy centered on rumors and interpretations of SpongeBob and Patrick’s friendship being a romantic relationship. The Ukraine’s National Expert Commission for Protecting Public Morality criticized the show for its “promotion of homosexuality” because of SpongeBob and Patrick holding hands. In 2002 creator Stephen Hillenburg stated that he always thought of SpongeBob as being “asexual.” Regardless of the official status of his and Patrick’s affectionate relationship, the show certainly takes opportunities to push against gender norms and expectations. Debaters point to smaller things, like SpongeBob’s affinity for dressing up in different costumes, to episodes like season three’s “Rock-A-Bye-Bivalve,” where he and Patrick adopt an abandoned clam and debate over who should be the mom and who should be the dad. The characters’ argument ends with Patrick yelling, “Just call me Daddy!” and SpongeBob resolving to wear a colorful dress. Their new family relationship quickly disintegrates into the common tropes of an exhausted stay-at-home mother (complete with SpongeBob sprouting extra hands to multitask-clean) and an overworked father. SpongeBob pleads for a break, with Patrick continuing to promise it “tomorrow,” until SpongeBob’s reveal of a literal mountain of dirty diapers shows Patrick the error of his ways, poking fun at unrealistic standards for nuclear families.
Sometimes controversy makes for a great meme. Take season two’s episode “Your Shoes Untied,” where SpongeBob is watching a pink coral dance until his pet snail Gary comes into the room. Our hero panics and changes the channel to a football game and tells Gary he was “just looking for the sports channel.” This moment turned into a meme in the early 2000s, with fans editing what SpongeBob is “caught” watching.
The prevalence of SpongeBob memes is astounding considering that the show is neither new nor unpredictable. Perhaps these qualities create a comfort zone for the creation of memes, where SpongeBob or any of his costars can provide the perfect reaction for how we feel. Classics like the “No, this is Patrick” meme have been endlessly remixed and recycled. And according to a 2018 timeline of SpongeBob memes, we are currently in the aftermath of “Krusty Krab vs. Chum Bucket” and “Savage Patrick.” Most of the memes created have little to do with the episode they’re pulled from, but perhaps the tendency for our hero and friends to have exaggerated facial expressions and reactions, combined with the oddity of being underwater sea creatures, just make for good entertainment. One of my personal favorites is the SpongeBob Time Card meme, perfect for expressing utter disappointment, sass or general disbelief. Reading the time cards in the same French accent as the show’s voiceover is key.
SpongeBob SquarePants has played a large role in pop culture for the past two decades, even inspiring the name of a new mushroom species — Spongiforma squarepantsii. For millennials and Gen Z, the absorbent, porous, yellow sponge continues to inspire and entertain us, all while providing plenty of meme-able moments every season. SpongeBob’s character highlights the possibilities of bringing a childlike, optimistic outlook into a mediocre adulthood, a sure way to make any task that much more fun. SpongeBob provides a fast-paced, tongue-in-cheek escape that is sure to elicit a laugh.