I heard the news on my way to work last week. I was on the train, mindlessly scrolling through Twitter as usual, when I saw that Nickelodeon had posted something much less cheerful than their usual real-time content. It read: “We are sad to hear of the news of the passing of Stephen Hillenburg, the creator of SpongeBob SquarePants. Today, we are observing a moment of silence to honor his life and work.” The tweet was surrounded by yellow heart emojis. Next thing I knew, I was forcing back tears on the MTA, trying not to look like a complete basket case.
I certainly wasn’t the only person who felt this emotional upon hearing the news. Dozens upon dozens of tweets, posts and articles were being shared by the minute about the passing of the Nickelodeon veteran, from television networks and fans alike. Every single one of these posts seemed to have something in common – They were all honoring the legacy that Hillenburg had created in his simple little slice of life show about a talking yellow sea sponge who flips burgers and loves life.
When you think about cartoons from the past 20 years or so, animation fan or not, what is one of the first shows that comes to mind? The one that has left the greatest cultural impact in our daily lives? The one that everyone, child and adult, can quote regularly, and have almost everyone in the room recognize the source of the quote? If you thought The Simpsons, well, you wouldn’t be wrong, but c’mon. Of course I’m talking about SpongeBob SquarePants!
When this show debuted on Nickelodeon back in the late 90s, it aired alongside several major players on the network. I’m talking Rugrats, Ren and Stimpy, Rocko’s Modern Life, Rocket Power. Nickelodeon was already well established as a leading pioneer in children’s networking, with each of these clever cartoons showcasing their passion for creativity above all else. Spongebob Squarepants was no different, and before we could even shout “I’m ready!” Hillenburg’s show blew up and became a cultural phenomenon.
SpongeBob was definitely a show that was always in my cartoon lineup when I was a child. It was one of those few shows that my whole family could agree on watching at any given time, because there was something there for all of us. It was universal. The humor and storylines didn’t cater to just one specific age group or personality type; SpongeBob was for everyone. The jokes were laugh-out-loud funny, but never in your face or tired-out until they became annoying. They were smart, and often quite subtle, sometimes going over my five-year-old head, but clicking with my parents instead. Just a couple weeks ago, my dad and I were having a laugh over the joke in the classic, farcical episode “Chocolate with Nuts,” where SpongeBob tries to flatter a geriatric lady by asking if her mother is home, only to find out that she is indeed in the house, alive, but shriveled up as nothing more than a leathery fish head with a spinal cord attached (and she inexplicably hates chocolate). Thinking about it now, that joke was a bit dark for a kid’s cartoon, but it never felt like it was coming from a bad place. It was just really absurd and funny.
One of my favorite aspects about the show was how the atmosphere it created was so lazy. When I say lazy, I mean this in the best possible way. Plotlines weren’t these grand epic tales or heart-pumping, action-packed adventures. They were about the most mundane topics, like selling chocolate, playing with leaf blowers, and having issues with your greedy boss at work. They were stories that you could easily unwind with, and not have to put too much thought into to enjoy. It was also fascinating how, unlike most other children’s cartoons, the characters were all adults, albeit somewhat childish ones for obvious reasons. It really is no wonder that adults loved and still love this show, with several relatable tales about the different struggles of adulthood under the sea.
Re-watching these episodes now, I find myself relating to some of the stories much more than I did as a kid. An example of this would be the episode, “Tea at the Treedome,” when SpongeBob first meets Sandy the Squirrel. Our hero goes to extreme and detrimental lengths to try and make a good impression on her, even though he’s clearly in a lot of discomfort while doing so. While I’ve never deprived myself of breathing while around new people, I’ve certainly had to step out of my comfort zone a bit, because I just was anxious to make a new friend.
I think everyone can find those one or two episodes that they relate to, or at the very least, a single joke about the strenuous, unforgiving world that is working a minimum wage job. You might even have a character who resonates for you. As a child, I could definitely see the big, strange world around me through someone like SpongeBob or Patrick’s eyes, full of wonder, curiosity and amazement, while now, I definitely see things a lot more like how curmudgeonly Squidward does. Life can be a bit of a chore sometimes, and all I want to do is make art that others will appreciate as much as I do. If only the world around me wasn’t so annoying sometimes.
Now that I think about it, I probably wouldn’t be the same person I am currently without shows like SpongeBob. It certainly helped shape my offbeat sense of humor, it helped me make many of the friends that I have today, and it is also a huge inspiration in my writing work. I love to write stories where my main characters live rather mundane lives, or even lives that involve some struggle, but they ultimately make it work because they enjoy elements of their daily lives and routines. Now all I need to do is learn how to draw and I’m golden.
So, thank you Stephen Hillenburg. You have inspired so many individuals to keep on creating what they love, find happiness in the little things, and continue to laugh about life and friendship. Without your passion for marine biology, your kindness, your boundless creativity, and your love of cartoons, our culture would be a lot less strange and a lot less funny.
Rest in peace, Ocean Man.