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The Greatness of Stephen Hillenburg and ‘SpongeBob SquarePants’

The Ringer staff remembers some of the creator’s most enduring work

Nickelodeon/Ringer illustration

On Tuesday, Stephen Hillenburg died at the age of 57 from ALS. The creator of SpongeBob SquarePants, Hillenburg is responsible for one of the most iconic, indelible cartoon characters and animated television shows of the 21st century, a beacon of creativity, hilarity, and feeling. “He was a beloved friend and long-time creative partner to everyone at Nickelodeon, and our hearts go out to his entire family,” Nickelodeon said in a statement. “Steve imbued SpongeBob SquarePants with a unique sense of humor and innocence that has brought joy to generations of kids and families everywhere. His utterly original characters and the world of Bikini Bottom will long stand as a reminder of the value of optimism, friendship, and the limitless power of imagination.” In honor of Hillenburg, the Ringer staff recalled some of the greatest moments, characters, and memes he spawned.


“F.U.N.”

Julie Kliegman: Growing up, I appreciated Rugrats for its creepiness and Rocko’s Modern Life for its crudeness. But just when I should have been growing out of Nickelodeon (if anyone has ever done such a thing), SpongeBob premiered, expertly folding in the elements of those iconic Nicktoons while hooking me on an absurdist, boisterous underwater town. The show’s worldview often leaned more toward “fire that burns down the whole town” cynicism than “frolic through all the flowers” goodness, which is exactly why moments like “F.U.N.” matter.

The Season 1 song is SpongeBob distilled to its goofy, pure core. Our porous protagonist spends the episode teaching Plankton about the meaning of friendship, convinced that love will prevail over greed—specifically, a lifelong plot to steal the Krabby Patty formula. SpongeBob may have been wrong in the end, but Plankton didn’t fare too well either. After that brief setback, the fry cook spends the rest of the series showing Bikini Bottom and viewers alike the merits of aggressive kindness and optimism amid a sea of chum.

Squidward

Miles Surrey: At the risk of stating the obvious, the show that took place in an underwater town where a sentient sponge and his feline-like snail lived inside a pineapple was … weird, even by animated programming standards. But the antics of SpongeBob and Patrick, as well as their intensely vibrant optimism, was what kept me glued to the screen as a kid. So it was always a bummer when Squidward—anthropomorphic misanthrope and SpongeBob’s neighbor—would spoil whatever fun they were having. He was a mood killer; what kind of SpongeBob-watching child liked Squidward?

Well, much like a Pixar movie attacking your tear ducts for very different reasons when you’re an adult, I now see the light. Squidward is the most relatable and human SpongeBob character of them all. SpongeBob was always in an upbeat mood—good for him, but that would be exhausting on a daily basis—and Squidward was constantly dealing with the conflicting emotions of hanging outside with an annoying duo, or staying at home playing his clarinet (very poorly). Sometimes Squidward wanted to be left alone; other times he was lonely and felt alienated; sometimes, that itself was a conflict (see: the versatile window meme).

From one introvert to another, there is something deeply moving about Squidward’s whole deal, and I’ve grown to relate to him more with each passing year. I’d hang out with Squidward in a heartbeat (if he didn’t want to admire some art by himself, of course) and I’m so appreciative of Hillenburg sharing him—and so many other idiosyncratic characters living under the sea—with us over the years.

Boating School

Richie Bozek: A cartoon I watched growing up is more present and relatable today than I ever would’ve thought. And the one thing about SpongeBob SquarePants that I keep coming back to is boating school, and SpongeBob’s neverending quest to obtain his driver’s license. The saga is stacked with great moments and quotes, like:

  • When SpongeBob needs to write his essay, and after struggling to start, he’s shown putting in a ton of effort only to come out with the word “The.”
  • When Patrick attends class with SpongeBob, which results in the iconic “You know what’s funnier than 24?” conversation.
  • When SpongeBob’s bully, Flats the Flounder, is in class and SpongeBob raises his hand to ask “Can I be excused for the rest of my life?”

As I’m writing this, 19 years after the show’s debut, SpongeBob has yet to pass his driver’s test. My goal is to one day be as passionate about something as SpongeBob is about getting that boating permit. Thanks to Stephen Hillenburg for the laughs and the unexpected lessons.

Rocko’s Modern Life

Victor Luckerson: Hillenburg’s first professional job in animation was on Rocko’s Modern Life, the off-kilter Nicktoon that perfected a kid’s-eye-view of early adulthood years before SpongeBob made his first Krabby Patty. Rocko occupied a middle ground between the horror of The Ren & Stimpy Show and the whimsy of SpongeBob SquarePants. The true villain of the show was consumerism—in one episode directed by Hillenburg, Rocko is tricked by a commercial into buying an evil vacuum cleaner that sucks up his entire house. In another, his best friend Heffer binge-watches videos for so long that his brain literally gets sucked into Rocko’s big-screen TV.

But my favorite from Hillenberg’s catalog is “Power Trip,” in which Rocko is briefly put in charge of the comic book store where he works as a cashier. His curmudgeonly boss gives him one directive: don’t press the green button on his office chair. Rocko immediately presses said button, launching a luxurious massage setting. Comfort immediately turns Rocko into a craven capitalist—he proceeds to verbally abuse his poor coworker, Filburt, while extolling the virtues of seeking profit at all costs. Filburt is fired as a crazed Rocko dons the suspenders and cigar of his asshole boss. I don’t wanna get too “we are all Waluigi” here, but Rocko’s critique of modern American life remains darkly funny now that I actually understand the problems that wallaby was going through. Hillenburg played a key role developing a show that really does resonate with all ages.

The Memes

Alison Herman: Freeze frame Mr. Krabs. Do y’all hear sumn? Krusty Krab vs. Chum Bucket. Tired SpongeBob. Mocking SpongeBob. Like most memes, these templates have little to do with their original context—you don’t need to know anything about Mr. Krabs’s personality to use him as a shorthand for disorientation, just as SpongeBob’s sunny demeanor on the show doesn’t stop him from serving as a sardonic reply to terrible takes on Twitter. But the overall meme-ability of SpongeBob SquarePants does speak to at least one aspect of the show: its universal appeal to those raised on a steady diet of 2000s Nickelodeon, who then grew up to go online and … make memes. Monoculture may be dead in the present, but at least for now, we can still turn to the past, then use its beloved touchstones to make stupid jokes with our friends. SpongeBob remains a millennial lingua franca, and we’ll continue to honor it the only way millennials know how—by creating viral content.

Plankton’s Neverending Quest

Amelia Wedemeyer: In the history of the Will-They-or-Won’t-They trope, one TV couple stands alone in its absurd, albeit one-sided, perseverance: Plankton and his unceasing desire to obtain the secret Krabby Patty formula. Over the years we’ve witnessed Plankton’s numerous attempts to steal the formula, doing everything from donning disguises to winning prized fry cook SpongeBob in a bet to even having his robot wife Karen actually obtain the recipe before shorting out; each effort gleefully more absurd and creative than the next.

And while Plankton will probably never acquire the Krabby Patty formula for the sake of a running gag, there’s something to be commended in the earnest and real idea of never giving up on your dreams. It’s a theme familiar to Hillenburg, who worked as a marine biology teacher for a few years before deciding to pursue a career in animation. Thankfully for the millions of people who enjoyed all of his wacky characters, Hillenburg was able to use the time he spent in marine biology to create a fully realized world.

“Frankendoodle”

Micah Peters: You can surmise this from the second life that SpongeBob has found in memes, but the show was quietly brilliant, and had a way of hiding the profound inside of the ridiculous. Case in point: “Frankendoodle.” A magic pencil descends on the unwitting residents of Bikini Bottom, and what follows is an old Hollywood monster tale—arrogant inventor plays God, only to have his (crudely drawn) creation become both too powerful and too aware of itself for the inventor to handle. This creation also runs around arms akimbo yelling “YOIMYOIMIYOYOYOYOY.” The thing is, although “Frankendoodle” is an episode about SpongeBob’s struggle against a living sketch, it’s also sort of an episode about making a cartoon, or any piece of art, and similarly what an artist owes any particular piece of work.

“Band Geeks”

Sean Yoo: The general plot of this stupidly funny episode: Squidward gets a call from a former high school rival named Squilliam Fancyson, who reveals that his band was scheduled to play the Bubble Bowl but can no longer make it, and wants to see whether Squidward and his band can fill in. Squidward says yes even though he doesn’t have a band, and then proceeds to create one within a week, recruiting citizens of Bikini Bottom. From start to finish, the episode is jam-packed with incredibly funny moments: Squidward’s constant band-related puns, Patrick’s inability to know what an instrument is, the death of the flag twirlers, and Plankton’s near-death harmonica solo, just to name a few. (Here are two more.)

While all of these moments are funny, the episode culminates with an iconic scene that can simply be referred to as “Sweet Victory.” SpongeBob and the gang somehow become a real band, and to Squidward’s surprise, they absolutely crush their performance and blow away the audience at the Bubble Bowl. The scene perfectly mirrors Hillenburg’s career and the immense success of this show. SpongeBob came on the scene as a strange, almost indie cartoon by Nickelodeon’s standards, and to everyone’s surprise it blossomed into one of greatest and longest-running cartoon series of all time. It was a sweet victory for Stephen indeed, and one that will always be remembered.