Yesterday America lost one of its visionaries: Stephen Hillenburg, creator of SpongeBob, lost his struggle with ALS at age 57.
I don’t actually know a whole lot about Mr. Hillenburg. I believe he trained as a marine biologist, and I think he has said he was seeking a way to make marine life more accessible to young people when he came up with his iconic cartoon character.
My vision of this auspicious moment in history is less cerebral: I always picture someone in his kitchen, spotting a household sponge and a dried sea star, picking up both and making them talk to each other.
Whatever the impetus, Stephen Hillenburg struck a nerve in American pop culture. SpongeBob SquarePants debuted in 1999; new episodes are still being turned out. But SpongeBob became ubiquitous through marketing. Licensing was provided for nearly every product you can think of, and some that would never occur to you. I own a SpongeBob spoon. I have pillows, sheets, tablecloth, hand towels and a bathmat. Pencil toppers. Keychains. CD holders and boxer shorts. Stuffed replicas. Plastic replicas. Foam replicas. Halloween decorations. Christmas doodads. If you can think of it, you can probably find SpongeBob stamped on it somewhere in this world.
(It’s the antithesis of Bill Watterson, creator of the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, who never licensed anything featuring his characters other than books of the strips.)
My relationship with SpongeBob goes back to the beginning, although I don’t recall how it started. I can’t tell you which episode I saw first, or where I was, or when it was. It was a seminal moment in my life, and I missed it.
Right about the time SpongeBob was getting his start, I was doing a bit of adjunct teaching at what was then Western State College (later Western State Colorado University and now — although not officially — Western Colorado University. Try to keep up.), mostly for an entry-level writing class.
For an early-semester assignment, to try to introduce the concept of support for one’s arguments, I would show an episode of SpongeBob and ask the students to write whether they liked it or not and why. The assignment never worked as well as I wanted it to, although I have to say, since I heard the news about Mr. Hillenburg yesterday, I’ve been trying to articulate what it is about SpongeBob that moves me — and not getting very far.
I like cartoons, and given that I fall asleep shortly after coming to rest, the episodes are short (two 11.5 minute cartoons per half-hour) so as not to tax my attention span. And as I say that, I routinely use SpongeBob as my nightly sedative, falling asleep to whatever episodes are on Nicktoons.
The colors are bright, and the backgrounds aren’t overwhelming (Lego movies drive me nuts with all the crap in back of the action). The characters are engagingly drawn and voiced. Their personalities are all rather one-note, but somehow this has carried everyone through two decades.
SpongeBob, who lives in Bikini Bottom, loves his job at the Krusty Krab fast-food restaurant more than anything in the world except his pet snail, Gary. He believes the best of everyone, including his next-door neighbor and co-worker Squidward, who is SpongeBob’s dour opposite. (And while some evangelical made headlines in a previous decade for declaring SpongeBob to be gay, he clearly missed the mark: if Squidward isn’t gay, he’s certainly metrosexual.)
SpongeBob’s boss, Mr. Krabs, loves nothing but money, while his competitor across the street, Plankton, devotes his entire existence to acquiring the secret formula for the popular Krabby Patty.
But it’s SpongeBob’s best friend Patrick who is my favorite. He’s a chubby pink starfish in green Hawaiian shorts who is rather lacking in the brain department. “The inner machinations of my mind are an enigma,” he once told his friend. He is always there to amiably support SpongeBob in whatever adventure they tackle, and he rarely worries about anything, although he did once decide he wanted a nose like everyone else, and he was sad to have missed out on the scented pine cone sale at a craft store.
Dying of ALS seems to me a horrible way to go, but I hope that in his final year, Mr. Hillenburg was able to draw comfort from all the joy he has brought to people like me for nearly two decades. His legacy, in all its pink and yellow glory, lives on. Rest in peace, Stephen Hillenburg.