How we made SpongeBob SquarePants

‘We sucked on a tank of helium to do the voices of the ravenous anchovies’

Tom Kenny, voice of SpongeBob

In 1997, Steve Hillenburg showed me what he was intending to pitch to the children’s network Nickelodeon: an apple-cheeked sponge who lived under the sea. I thought it was just fabulous. If I don’t voice this character, I remember thinking, “I’m going to be really sad.”

Steve gave me a concrete description of the show, which had comedic archetypes that have worked for hundreds of years, further back than Shakespeare. SpongeBob is the naif: extremely innocent, and everything manages to be OK for him in the end because he’s so guileless. Then there’s Patrick the starfish, the not-so-smart friend, larger and stronger. Squidward is driven crazy by SpongeBob’s innocence and imagination, because he lacks both. And there’s the super-avaricious Mr Krabs.

Steve’s vision was 100%. He was very sure of it. He saw that I had some SpongeBob characteristics. I’m kind of frantic, especially if working on cartoons – flailing around, screaming, very physical. We also discussed men-children in comedy – Stan Laurel, Jerry Lewis, Pee-wee Herman – people in ostensibly adult bodies, who function in the adult world, but who are childlike. SpongeBob is like that. He believes the next day is going to be the best day ever, but he lives by himself and has a job and responsibilities. That was an interesting part of his personality to me.

I got his voice on the first or second try. We then looked at laughs, like Popeye’s or Woody Woodpecker’s, and tried dolphin noises. That irritating laugh has now become so identified with him. It’s his “What’s up, Doc?” Steve cast the rest like an orchestra: this guy is woodwind, this guy is percussion.

Watch a clip from SpongeBob SquarePants

The pilot was about a tour bus full of hungry anchovies pulling up to the Krusty Krab restaurant, which runs out of food. SpongeBob is sent to the store to get a spatula, just to get rid of him, because they don’t think he’s useful. He comes back and ends up being this champion cook who just provides – loaves-and-fishes style – for these anchovies who are tearing up the Krusty Krab because they’re so ravenous. The anchovies just said “meep” so we thought it would be a good idea to suck on a tank of helium before we recorded the take. It was very controlled and completely weird.

When I got the call saying the show had been green-lit, I was shooting on a farm somewhere, wearing a wizard beard painstakingly applied clump by clump. It was hot and everything smelled like animal poop. A career in voiceover seemed great.

The show was sweet and kind-hearted, but not candy-assed in a Care Bears way. It had everything. It had this knockabout Three Stooges kind of comedy, but also had a Seinfeld vibe: a show about nothing. Sometimes episodes would just be about SpongeBob trying to tie his shoes, but other times he’d be going on quests to find lost cities. I loved that juxtaposition. There was nothing like that on TV, but nobody ever thought it would get this big.

Twentysomethings thank me for their childhood. People say: “This is my best friend and we met because of SpongeBob. People call me SpongeBob and him Patrick.” If you’re working on CSI, or some dumb sitcom, I don’t know if that would happen. And my family just communicates with each other in SpongeBob jokes and references – if you walked into our house, you’d think we were speaking a foreign language. SpongeBob lives at the bottom of the sea, but he brings a lot of great stuff to the surface.

The 2015 SpongeBob film with, from left, Squidward, SpongeBob, Sandy and Mr Krabs.
The 2015 SpongeBob film with, from left, Squidward, SpongeBob, Sandy and Mr Krabs. Photograph: Rex

Stephen Hillenburg, creator

I was into Jacques Cousteau as a kid and started scuba-diving around 14, which blew my mind. It was all colour, another world. I studied natural resources planning and thought I could get a job at some marine park. But I was great at art and so-so at marine biology. It’s funny how the two eventually came together.

I got a job on a Nickelodeon cartoon called Rocko’s Modern Life. I had written an educational comic book about tide pools called The Intertidal Zone, which had a talking sponge. One of the guys saw it and said: “This should be your own show.”

In The Intertidal Zone the character was a natural sponge, but I thought an artificial square sponge was funnier. SpongeBob is just made of cellulose, but he has parents who are natural sponges – he got the square gene. The original name was Spongeboy, but I couldn’t use that because it was copyrighted by a mop company. I eventually thought of SpongeBob, but he needed a last name. SquarePants came to mind.

I then came up with the other characters. I wanted Patrick the starfish to be really stupid, the perfect friend, because SpongeBob is an innocent, and he doesn’t think Patrick is dumb. So when these two guys get together, it’s like fire and gas. Squidward, meanwhile, lives between SpongeBob and Patrick. He’s the one in the middle getting driven crazy.

I wanted SpongeBob to love his job. I always imagined a kid going into McDonald’s and seeing a guy cooking and thinking it was the best job in the world: “You can eat hamburgers all the time!” I had just been to Tahiti and that influenced the flowers in the sky, while the tiki elements, like the pineapple SpongeBob lives in, are influenced by Hawaii.

When I pitched the show, I made this special seashell. You could pick it up and hear me singing: “Spongeboy, Spongeboy!” I also made an aquarium with Patrick planted on the side, SpongeBob sitting on a barrel, and Squidward inside. I wore a Hawaiian shirt. I don’t know what they thought of it. Eventually we pitched with a storyboard. The executive, Albie Hecht, walked out – then walked straight back in and said: “Let’s make this.”

Watch a clip from SpongeBob SquarePants

The first season was difficult. Everyone was new and we didn’t use scripts. The storyboard artists figured out the plot as they went along and we added dialogue to that. But some of the second season’s episodes were actually good, like Sailor Mouth. I pitched the idea that SpongeBob and Patrick learn a swearword. Everyone said no. I couldn’t even use a bleep. So I used a dolphin sound instead.

I thought we’d get four seasons, but it’s still going. I see SpongeBob on ice-cream trucks a lot and I’ve got bootleg SpongeBob merchandise from Mexico. In Egypt, they even wear hijabs with SpongeBob on them.

• It’s a SpongeBob Christmas! is on NickToons on 11 December and Boxing Day. The SpongeBob SquarePants Christmas Special is on 3 December and Christmas Day.


Interviews by Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
How we made Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
‘The question was: if Bruce Lee was an animal, what’s the silliest one he would be?’

Interviews by Graeme Virtue

10, May, 2016 @6:00 AM

Article image
Is SpongeBob SquarePants gay? Tweet creates rainbow of speculation
Nickelodeon has depicted the character in LGBTQ+ colours for Pride month, stoking fresh discussion about his sexuality

15, Jun, 2020 @2:17 PM

Article image
How we made Peppa Pig
‘After its success, we’d go to meetings with lots of ideas for other shows – but they just wanted 3,000 more episodes of Peppa Pig’

Interviews by Ben Beaumont-Thomas

19, Feb, 2018 @6:36 PM

Article image
How we made Captain Planet and the Planeteers
‘Never in our wildest dreams did we think our over-the-top storylines about floods and food shortages would come true’

Interviews by George Bass

20, Jan, 2020 @5:09 PM

Article image
How we made Danger Mouse – by David Jason and Brian Cosgrove
‘For the US, we had to change Stiletto the crow’s comical Italian accent – because the mafia wouldn’t have liked it’

Interviews by Rich Pelley

06, Jan, 2020 @3:11 PM

Article image
‘I bought two dog encyclopedias’: how we made Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds
‘When I give my name to make a restaurant reservation, everyone starts singing the Dogtanian theme song at me. The same happens in Portugal, in France, in Italy. It’s unbelievable’

Interviews by Rich Pelley

05, Jul, 2021 @1:25 PM

Article image
Stephen Hillenburg: the naive genius who made SpongeBob a cultural titan
The creator of SpongeBob SquarePants, who has died aged 57, channelled the surrealism of 90s animation and his own childlike zest for life into a show that brought joy to millions

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

27, Nov, 2018 @9:43 PM

Article image
How we made Morph
‘Our great fear was that he’d fall over. When I nipped to the loo, I had to prop him up with lots of mugs’

Interviews by Andrew Dickson

28, Jul, 2015 @7:00 AM

Article image
How we made Fireman Sam
Dave Jones: ‘There was a gap in children’s TV for a hero like Sam. Postman Pat was around, but how much can a postman really do?

Interviews by Ben Beaumont-Thomas

27, Oct, 2015 @8:00 AM

Article image
How we made: Tramm Wigzell and Matt Youngberg on Ben 10
The team behind the hit cartoon on their boy with a magic watch, and drawing crazy-coloured alien life

Interviews by Bibi van der Zee

01, Oct, 2012 @7:06 PM