SpongeBob SquarePants has been called "goofy," "nerdy," and "lovable." He's also been called the most popular animated sitcom on TV and the top TV series on Nickelodeon. So just how has this sea sponge soaked up so many viewers from age two to adults since his premiere on Saturday morning, July 17, 1999?
Perhaps it's the intelligence and sophistication of the writing and the more than 50 people who work to create a single episode. With the childlike nature of SpongeBob and his best friend Patrick the Starfish, enhanced by a vocal cast that includes veteran stars Tim Conway, Ernest Borgnine, and Marion Ross, the cartoon appeals to children and adults alike. The show's creator, Stephen Hillenburg, has been quoted as saying, "We just try to make ourselves laugh, then ask ourselves if it's appropriate for children."
In our conversation with Nicole Parker, senior director of communications for Nickelodeon and Nicktoons Network, she said, "Since 'SpongeBob SquarePants' was launched in July 1999, it has emerged as a pop culture phenomenon and one of the most popular series in kids' television history. The Saturday morning play of the series currently ranks as the No. 1-rated program among kids [ages] two to eleven. Nearly 61.4 million viewers tune into the show each month. Adult viewers also continue to tune-in and have increased by 76% since the premiere of the show."
The show is set deep in the Pacific Ocean in a city called Bikini Bottom. The inhabitants of the city include SpongeBob SquarePants, a square yellow sea sponge who lives in a pineapple; SpongeBob's pet snail, Gary, who happens to meow like a cat; Squidward Tentacles, a grumpy neighbor who lives in a moai (an Easter Island head); SpongeBob's best friend Patrick, who lives under a rock; Mr. Krabs, SpongeBob's boss and owner of the Krusty Krab; Plankton, owner of the Krusty Krab's rival restaurant, the Chum Bucket; and Sandy Cheeks, a sea-dome-dwelling squirrel.
Jellyfish buzz and sting like bees, worms bark like dogs, scallops act like birds, and SpongeBob talks on a "shell phone" and eats "sea-nut butter." Undersea puns bubble up throughout the program, even as life underwater seems very familiar to life above.
Stephen Hillenburg, the Creator of "SpongeBob"
Hillenburg is the real-life character who came up with the unusual group of SpongeBob SquarePants and friends.
Hillenburg is one of those people who proves the adage that every interest and experience is a brick in the building one becomes. His combined interests in marine biology and animation are what eventually led him to create "SpongeBob SquarePants."
"Working as a marine science educator, I had the chance to see how enamored kids are with undersea life, especially tide pool creatures. By combining this knowledge with my love for animation, I came up with SpongeBob SquarePants," Hillenburg said in a Washington Post interview.
"At first I drew a few natural sponges -- amorphous shapes, blobs -- which was the correct thing to do biologically as a marine science teacher." Hillenburg continued. "Then I drew a square sponge and it looked so funny. I think as far as cartoon language goes he was easier to recognize. He seemed to fit the character type I was looking for. Even the villainous Plankton, he's still flawed and you still root for him in a way, and the style of humor is simple and it's about human behavior, and everybody can identify with that." For more about creator Stephen Hillenburg, check out our profile of him.
So, how did the show get started? We'll tell you in the next section.
In 1993, six years before "SpongeBob SquarePants" debuted, creator Stephen Hillenburg was one of the producers on another Nickelodeon cartoon, "Rocko's Modern Life." When that show completed production in 1996, Hillenburg began working on "SpongeBob." To get the project off the ground, Hillenburg put together a team. Creative Director, Derek Drymon, writer Tim Hill, and voice actors Tom Kenny and Doug Lawrence had all worked on "Rocko's Modern Life" with Hillenburg. In addition, Merriwether Williams, who had Nickelodeon cartoon experience as a story editor for "Angry Beavers," joined the "SpongeBob" team of creators.
Hillenburg created a cast of characters. He filled the undersea town with places for the characters to live, work, and get into situations that would make them famous. When Hillenburg was ready to present the show's concept to Nickelodeon, he used all of his interests and skills to make a presentation that would sell the concept. He brought in an aquarium, artwork, sculpted characters, and an original theme song that explained the storyline of the cartoon.
"We know that children have an appetite for new stuff; we are always on a mission to bring them new stuff. But we also know that one of the things that make them come back for more is having real characters that they can connect to emotionally," said Cyma Zarghami, Nickelodeon's president and the head of MTVN Kids and Family Group, in an interview with Worldscreen. "We pay a lot of attention to story and character. 'SpongeBob' came along at a time when people seemed to really need an optimistic character to rally behind."
The rest is animated sitcom history. "SpongeBob" has been soaking up rave reviews ever since. Nicole Parker, senior director of communications for Nickelodeon and Nicktoons Network, told us that even after four successful seasons, Hillenburg weighs in on every show to ensure the scripts remain true to his original vision.
How the 'SpongeBob SquarePants' Production Process Works
Story editor Steven Banks and writing coordinator Melissa Webster, both in the Burbank offices of Nickelodeon where "SpongeBob SquarePants" is produced, spoke with us about how they create a show from start to finish.
"From beginning to end, it takes ten or eleven months to create one eleven-minute long episode." Webster said. "Writers submit premises and outlines for stories, but they don't write the script. Their story ideas must then be submitted to the Network for approval. Once a premise is approved it goes to the storyboard directors who write the dialogue and draw all the pictures."
"It's a board-driven show," Banks said. In other words, the storyboards are followed for dialogue, action, and sound effects. But before the storyboard stage, Banks and the three writers who work under him must create stories and "pitch" or present them to the co-cxecutive producer, Paul TIbbitt.
"It's very challenging to come up with 40 different stories per season. Each show features two stories. In the four seasons the show has been running, that adds up to 160 different stories," Banks said. "One of the things that makes 'SpongeBob' work so well is the fact that there are not too many characters to keep track of. However, that is also what makes creating new stories all the time more difficult."
Once the storyboards are completed and approved, they are sent to Korea, where the animation is done. "When animation is complete, it is sent back to us, and Paul Tibbitt decides where music should be added and where the sound effects fit in. He turns it over to Nick Carr, who selects the music. Sound effects are added last, the final mix is done, and the show is finished," Banks said.
In the next section, we'll introduce you to the characters and voice talent that bring them to life.
What makes "SpongeBob SquarePants" popular everywhere? It starts with the characters themselves.
SpongeBob SquarePants is a sea sponge who looks very much like a kitchen sponge. He lives with his pet snail, Gary, in a two-bedroom, fully furnished pineapple. He loves his job at a "burger" place called the Krusty Krab, where he serves up Krabby Patties. He is an optimistic sponge who always looks on the bright side of life despite his real knack for getting himself and others into sticky situations. Although his best friend, Patrick, is a starfish, SpongeBob is the real star of the ensemble cast of undersea characters.
Patrick Star is SpongeBob's neighbor and best friend. He's quick to offer advice and even quicker to help his best buddy end up in trouble.
Sandy Cheeks is a sea-dome-dwelling squirrel who lives for action and adventure. Having attempted just about every death-defying stunt under the ocean, she has accepted the ultimate challenge: living underneath it in an oxygen-filled dome. Sandy is Bikini Bottom's only resident rodent, and SpongeBob's karate sparring partner. For Sandy, SpongeBob is the sea bottom's best stunt buddy, and when they get together, crash helmets and parachutes are usually required.
Squidward Tentacles is as mean as his name sounds. He's annoyed by everything and everybody, especially SpongeBob. He also works at the Krusty Krab and lives next door to SpongeBob. SpongeBob seems unaware of Squidward's feelings toward him and even likes listening to him playing the clarinet. SpongeBob believes he and Squidward make a great team at the restaurant.
Mr. Krabs (Eugene H. Krabs) is SpongeBob's boss and the owner of The Krusty Krab. His biggest concern is making money, and he spends his day counting up the cash from the Krusty Krab receipts. Mr. Krabs likes that SpongeBob is willing to work long hours for little pay, even though he is usually annoyed with SpongeBob. Mr. Krabs hates his fast food rival Plankton, the owner of the Chum Bucket, but not as much as Plankton hates him. The only thing more important to Krabs than money is his teenage daughter, Pearl.
Plankton is Mr. Krabs's nemesis. Plankton is a little guy with a big attitude. He's the owner of a rival restaurant, the Chum Bucket, and he's always scheming to take away the Krusty Krab's customers.
Gary is SpongeBob's pet snail. Even undersea, he leaves a trail of slime, but that doesn't make him any less lovable to his master.
Pearl Krabs is the teenage daughter of Eugene H. Krabs. Although her father is a crab, she herself is a gray whale. How or why this is the case has not been explained. She's popular, likes shopping, and acts like a typical human teenager.
Barnacle Boy (actual name Kyle) is a semi-retired superhero. His powers include being able to summon creatures from the deep sea. He also has a sort of laser vision referred to as "sulfur" vision. The Emmy Award-winning comedian and actor Tim Conway is the voice of Barnacle Boy.
Mermaid Man is the mentor to Barnacle Boy. These two characters add physical comedy in the genre of old comedy teams such as Laurel and Hardy. Ernest Borgnine is the voice of Mermaid Man.
Mrs. Poppy Puff works as a Boating School Driving instructor who teaches students (including SpongeBob) how to drive a boat. She is a pufferfish who inflates herself when something bad happens.
Larry the Lobster is a lifeguard at Goo Lagoon, the beach at Bikini Bottom. Larry is good friends with SpongeBob and Sandy.
Meet the Voices Behind the Main Cartoon Characters in "SpongeBob SquarePants"
Tom Kenny (SpongeBob SquarePants/Gary/Mr. SquarePants/Narrator/Patchy the Pirate/Others)
As a youngster, Kenny was a fan of comic books and animated shows. Although he did everything he could to learn about animation, he never imitated the voices of others, but preferred to create his own voices. He began his career in entertainment as a stand-up comedian. One night when he was performing stand-up in a California club, executives from Nickelodeon and Hanna-Barbera offered him the opportunity to work for them doing voices. Kenny's life hasn't been the same since. And here's a little inside info: Tom Kenny is married to another SpongeBob character Karen the Computer ... better known in real life as Jill Talley.
Bill Fagerbakke (Patrick Star)
Fagerbakke is a television, film, and Broadway actor who currently lends his voice to the character of Patrick.
Rodger Bumpass (Squidward Tentacles)
Bumpass is a voice talent with credits that go as far back as "The Jetsons." He has more than 120 films to his credit and he is the father of eight children.
Carolyn Lawrence (Sandy Cheeks)
Lawrence is a voice actress who may also be recognized as the voice of Cindy Vortex on "The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius."
Doug Lawrence (Plankton/Larry the Lobster/other voices)
Lawrence is the voice of the crotchety Plankton, but has also been known as Filburt from "Rocko's Modern Life." In addition to doing voice work, he is a cartoonist.
"SpongeBob SquarePants" Cast List
- Clancy Brown (Mr. Eugene H. Krabs)
- Rodger Bumpass (Squidward Tentacles)
- Bill Fagerbakke (Patrick Star)
- Tom Kenny (Spongebob Squarepants)
- Carolyn Lawrence (Sandy Cheeks)
- Mary Jo Catlett (Mrs. Poppy Puff)
- Mr. Lawrence (Plankton)
- Tim Conway (Barnacle Boy)
- Ernest Borgnine (Mermaid Man)
- Charles Nelson Reilly (The Dirty Bubble)
- Lori Alan (Pearl Krabs)
- Jill Talley (Karen the Computer)
- Patrick Pinney (Painty the Pirate)
- Carlos Alazraqui (Scooter/Teen-age Fish/Dr. Fish/Announcer
- Brian Doyle-Murray (The Flying Dutchman)
- Sirena Irwin (Mrs. SquarePants)
Looking for a particular "SpongeBob SquarePants" episode? We cover many of the highlights on the next page.
In the first four seasons of "SpongeBob SquarePants," 82 shows and a full-length movie were created. Each show features two episodes for a total of 164 episodes. Here is a sampling of the episodes.
001 (pilot). First aired: Saturday, May 1, 1999
SpongeBob applies for a job at the local burger place, the Krusty Krab. His lifelong dream has been to work there, but can he prove to Mr. Krabs and Squidward that he's worthy?
SpongeBob tries to get rid of a pesky clam shell at the front of his lawn, which usually annoys Squidward because all the mess ends up on his lawn.
"Tea at the Treedome"
SpongeBob meets a squirrel named Sandy, who invites him to her undersea treedome for tea one afternoon. Only problem is, it's inside, and SpongeBob runs the risk of drying out completely if he attends.
009. First aired: Saturday, September 11, 1999
SpongeBob decides to leave his civilized life in Bikini Bottom and go live uninhibited and free among a pack of wild jellyfish. Meanwhile, Sandy and Patrick try to come up with plans to try to get SpongeBob back.
Squidward wants to sell his house and move away, but he knows that no one will buy it if they see rambunctious SpongeBob around. So Squidward decides to tell SpongeBob that it's "Opposite Day," in hopes that he will behave around the real estate agent.
015. First aired: Monday, January 17, 2000
SpongeBob discovers the means to enter the dreams of his friends. But every time he enters a dream, he ruins it, so his friends come to his house and tell him to stop messing with their dreams.
SpongeBob comes down with a case of the SUDS -- a flu-like illness in which bubbles escape through pores in the body. Then "Dr." Patrick comes over and tries to convince SpongeBob that he can't go to the doctor, telling him about all the bad things that might happen, such as having to read old magazines.
021. First aired: Thursday, October 26, 2000
SpongeBob eats a peanut onion sundae and acquires a hideous case of bad breath. He can't understand why everyone runs away from him whenever he talks to them.
When Pearl remodels the Krusty Krab into a hip hangout, SpongeBob worries about the fate of the original restaurant (not to mention, his position as fry cook).
030. First aired: Wednesday, March 7, 2001
"No Free Rides"
SpongeBob fails his driving test.
"I'm Your Biggest Fanatic"
SpongeBob and Patrick go to a fan convention. They meet Kevin C. Cucumber, the leader of the Jellyspotters club, and SpongeBob vows to try his best to earn ranks with them.
036. First aired: Friday, September 28, 2001
Mr. Krabs turns SpongeBob's idea for Jelly Krabby Patties into a colossal customer favorite, and it leads to trouble when the local population of jellyfish becomes hunted to near-extinction.
"The Fry Cook Games"
SpongeBob and Patrick compete in the Annual Fry Cook Games.
039. First aired: Friday, November 30, 2001
SpongeBob has to write an essay and tries to find things to distract himself from doing it. Then he dozes off and has a scary dream.
"I'm With Stupid"
Patrick's parents are coming over. Patrick doesn't want to look stupid, so he tells SpongeBob to be stupider than him.
043. First aired: Friday, March 1, 2002
A health inspector shows up at the Krusty Krab, and while he is there, SpongeBob and Mr. Krabs see the news about a guy passing himself off as a health inspector to get free food. Mr. Krabs is so mad that he and SpongeBob make a Krabby Patty made with a bunch of nasty things. After it is served to the inspector, he chokes to death on a fly; however, the two think he died from the patty. They later find out that he was a real health inspector.
"The Idiot Box"
SpongeBob and Patrick buy a big-screen TV only so that they can play inside its box.
056. First aired: Saturday, October 4, 2003
"Born Again Krabs"
SpongeBob finds a rotten Krabby Patty under the grill, and Mr. Krabs tries it and says that it still tastes good. After Mr. Krabs gets out of the hospital, he says he'll never be cheap again. Of course, he doesn't keep his promise.
"I Had An Accident"
SpongeBob fears getting hurt in the outside world, so he decides to stay indoors forever.
First aired: Friday, November 19, 2004
"The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie"
Plankton steals King Neptune's crown and frames Mr. Krabs. Now lacking something to cover his receding hairline, a furious Neptune goes after Krabs. SpongeBob manages to strike a deal with the god of the sea: He and Patrick will embark on a perilous journey to faraway Shell City to recover the crown if Neptune spares Mr. Krabs's life. On their journey, they encounter creepy monsters, fishy thugs, and Plankton's ruthless hitman, Dennis. With SpongeBob and Patrick otherwise occupied, Plankton initiates "Plan Z," his ultimate plan to steal the secret Krabby Patty formula and rule the world.
065. First aired: Friday, September 23, 2005
Mr. Krabs sells the Krusty Krab to a conglomerate, but his retirement doesn't wind up being what he thought it would be.
071. First aired: Friday, November, 11, 2005
"Have You Seen This Snail"
While trying to beat a paddle-ball world record, SpongeBob forgets to feed Gary -- for 10 days. So Gary runs away to downtown Bikini Bottom, where he is taken in by a kindly old woman who confuses him with one of her many deceased pets. Once SpongeBob realizes he has neglected Gary, he sets out to find his pet.
074. First aired: Saturday, April 1, 2006
After Mr. Krabs gets a huge hotel bill, he decides he can make a profit from opening his own hotel. The plan, of course, backfires.
"Mrs. Puff, You're Fired"
Mrs. Puff gets fired from her boating school job because she didn't pass SpongeBob on his driving test. A more intense instructor then takes her place.
080. First aired: Friday, October 13, 2006
Mr. Krabs forces SpongeBob to take his very first vacation, and SpongeBob doesn't know what to do with his spare time.
Those are the highlights of "SpongeBob" thus far. What's next? Find out on the following page.
Although Nickelodeon executives were told for a long time that "SpongeBob SquarePants" would never catch on in other countries, they learned that what kids anywhere understand is honesty. Story editor Steven Banks explained why "SpongeBob" crosses all cultural barriers: "It takes place in its own self-enclosed world. It exists in a very self-contained environment that is not necessarily American."
In fact, "SpongeBob SquarePants" by any other name would be just as popular. The senior director of Communications for Nickelodeon, Nicole Parker, told us that "the most widely distributed property in MTV Networks history, SpongeBob SquarePants is syndicated in 171 markets in 25 languages and consistently rates in the top three in every major market it currently airs in across Europe, Asia, Australia, Latin America, and the United States."
Indeed, "SpongeBob" is a hot commodity across the globe. In addition to the United States, the program airs in the following countries:
Afghanistan, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Denmark (SvampeBob Firkant), Ecuador, Finland, France (where it's called "Bob L'eponge") Germany ("SpongeBob Schwammkopf," which means "SpongeBob Spongehead"), Greece, Iceland ("Svampur Sveinsson"), India, Indonesia, Iraq, Ireland, Israel, Japan, Lithuania ("Kempiniukas Plaiakelnis, which means "SpongeBob WidePants"), Malaysia, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Serbia ("SunderBob Kockalone"), Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Sweden (SvampBob Fyrkant), Switzerland, Thailand, Turkey, United Kingdom, Uruguay, and Venezuela.
The Future for "SpongeBob SquarePants"
When we asked Banks what the future holds for "SpongeBob," he replied, "To delight children forever!" He also hinted at a few surprise guest voices coming from the music world as well as storylines that play on old movies that are more familiar to parents than children.
Parker gave us a heads up on a big "SpongeBob SquarePants" event titled "Best Day Ever!" It will air on Nickelodeon and feature a 24-hour "SpongeBob" marathon/countdown (45 total episodes selected by kids online) beginning at 8 pm on Thursday, November 9, and ending the following day at 8 pm. The extravaganza will culminate with a special "Best Day Ever"-themed special episode. Patchy the Pirate will host the marathon, which will include on-air appearances throughout the countdown from SB's biggest fans (kids, celebrities, etc).
You can be sure that people all around the globe will be watching, from young children to adults. Such is the surprisingly mass apeal of "SpongeBob SquarePants."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
A publishing professional for the past 30 years, Linda Williams Aber, the former editor of Scholastic's Dynamite Magazine, is a writer, editor, and packager of more than 150 novels, activity books, and humor books for clients including Scholastic Inc., Random House, Readers Digest Children's Publishing, Kane Press, The Putnam & Grosset Group, St. Martin's Press, Harcourt Brace, Publications International, and Pocket Books.