SpongeBob at 20: how the pineapple-dwelling fry cook endured

Ever since his debut in 1999, the cartoon has remained a constant in popular culture, inspiring impassioned fandom and endless memes

Until Esperanto catches on, the closest thing the millennials have to a universal language is SpongeBob SquarePants. In the 20 years since Nickelodeon first ran the cartoon about a congenial sponge who lives in a pineapple under the sea, it has spawned a pictorial shorthand that children of the 90s and early 00s understand with native-tongue fluency. There’s no form of mockery more withering than the chicken SpongeBob, stating your own words back to you with haywire capitalization as if in a nasally tease. The screenshot of cranky cephalopod Squidward gazing through his window blinds at SpongeBob frolicking with starfish buddy Patrick captures 21st-century yearning and isolation just as Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks captured them for the 20th. For every occasion, for every emotion – exhaustion, indifference, malevolence, anxiety – a SpongeBob mot juste.

At a time when the collective pop-cultural consciousness splits into a hundred new pieces with every year, when in-depth features mourn the death of the monoculture on TV, chipper little dork SpongeBob stands tall. The show has had a curious staying power not just among the twentysomethings able to quote long stretches from memory, but with a new wave of young people watching the currently airing 12th season (the last produced by Stephen Hillenburg before his death in November) and yelling at Squidward to dab. Something about this yellow, absorbent, porous hero struck a chord with the zeitgeist in a way that popular Nicktoons such as The Fairly OddParents or even flagship series Rugrats have not. Tommy Pickles may predate SpongeBob, but he never inspired a filthy viral rap hit.

Absurdity plays a big part both in SpongeBob’s cozy oceanic universe and the legacy of connection to it. The nature of kids’ programming is such that it tends to have a relatively elastic relationship to reality and reason, but Hillenburg actively reveled in the collapse of all sense. A brief sampling of episode premises: Squidward cryogenically slumbers for 2,000 years, and in trying to use a time machine to get home, inadvertently launches himself into an surrealist realm of pure nothingness. SpongeBob gains the ability of astral projection and infiltrates his friends’ dreams as if on a safari through the subconscious. He adopts a pet jellyfish, which overstays its welcome by listening to house music at top volume 24 hours a day. Our rectangular boy takes the wrong bus, and winds up in a twilight zone abyss where everyone speaks by blowing raspberries. (And that’s just the first season!)

SpongeBob SquarePants’ balloon floats during the 90th annual Thanksgiving parade in New York City.
SpongeBob SquarePants’ balloon floats during the 90th annual Thanksgiving parade in New York City. Photograph: Alba Vigaray/EPA

The internet has provided a breeding ground for a new dadaism, or something like it, among millennials taking the edge off of all the modern despair with a bit of silliness. As the kids reared on this series have matured into young adults, the same nostalgic impulse yielding all those “Only 90s Kids Remember This!” listicles has refashioned SpongeBob as an avatar of the shared delirium that binds together the generation. The specific register of the show’s humor, a few leagues farther into the briny deep of camp, favored the inexplicable and outlandish. The Fairly Oddparents were always weird on paper, as expected of magical beings capable of bending the fabric of existence, but SpongeBob soaked the weirdness right up.

The watery choice of setting invited a host of reference points harkening back to the kitschiest parts of the 50s and 60s: surf rock, American International Pictures’ beach party movies, second-generation sitcoms like Gidget. The fascination with obscure detritus extended to an eclectic soundtrack including falsetto-voiced ukulele virtuoso Tiny Tim, and strategically deployed B-roll stock footage breaking up the animation with snippets of live action. A spirit of boisterous experimentalism enlivens each episode; in some, entire segments play out free of dialogue, like ballet by way of Looney Tunes. In others, a heavily accented French narrator provides wry commentary from an unseen remove, until he’s revealed years later to be a stand-in for Jacques Cousteau. (Hillenburg made his marine biology degree known through a detailed, abiding love for the ocean as a place and idea unto itself, as well as a home to its many inhabitants.)

The secret to SpongeBob SquarePants’ power is that there’s remotely nothing cool about him. He dresses like a poindexter, he loves nothing more than going to work and he’s blissfully oblivious about approximately 50% of what’s happening around him at any given time. He encouraged children to be their most enthusiastic, overexcitable selves, to pursue their obscurest passions with every fiber of their being, to laugh so loudly it grates on everyone in earshot. And for the former children, he has created a channel through which that un-self-consciousness can survive in the grownup world. This is a happy sort of arrested development, a therapeutic and nourishing way to keep in touch with one’s frivolity in the face of ascendant fascism, the heat-death of the planet, taxes, what-have-you. Every millennial has an inner sponge, soft enough to absorb the shock of whatever adulthood can throw at us.


Charles Bramesco

The GuardianTramp

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