The rise and fall of a childhood icon
In 1999, a marine biologist named Stephen Hillenburg graced the world with a childhood cartoon that in many ways would define a generation--“Spongebob Squarepants.”
After airing only one episode, the loveable sponge had entrapped the minds of his youthful audience with his likeable character design and passion for fry cooking. As the first season progressed, adults and children alike fell in love with this simple show because it had something for everyone. Children could sit mindlessly and laugh as Patrick idiotically hammers a board into the base of his skull while parents subtly chuckle at the less school appropriate double entendres. Spongebob served as a divergence from some of the lackluster children's entertainment that already existed. It was a show parents would not need to be ashamed of their kids for watching. And for those kids, it was a joy only a child could truly understand. The early seasons of Spongebob were unanimously considered some of the best children's television out there; something that even the stingiest critics would conceed to be quality.
Three seasons aired before Spongebob would make his way to the cinema in the feature film “The Spongebob Squarepants Movie,” and every new episode that aired brought the same feelings of adventure and excitement as the one before. During these three seasons, Hillenburg held the reigns on his show, making sure every line, joke, and scene played out with the same comedic energy expected from his audience, and largely he succeeded. Almost every outing in Bikini Bottom from this “golden-era” brought new laughs and for those who were fortunate enough to grow up during it; these episodes made a lasting impression.
Sadly, the good times must always come to an end. After the end of production on season three and the movie, Hillenburg departed from “Spongebob Squarepants,” leaving it in the hands of Paul Tibbitt. Initially, Hillenburg wanted Spongebob to end with the movie. Having seen too many shows continue far beyond their prime only to become a debasement of the initial vision, Hillengurg thought that continuing the show would lead to declining quality. Nickelodeon executives, scared to lose their cash cow, insisted the show continue, so it did with Hillenburg no longer at the helm.
Season four, while not a complete failure, was widely considered to be the turning point for the show’s quality. Characterizations started to become disjointed and one-noted. Episode arcs failed to capture what made “Spongebob Squarepants” a good show in the first place. And, relatively sophisticated humor was degraded to “laugh-track” slabstick.
Beyond season four, the show only degraded more. Like many shows before, the exit of the show's creator left writers confused with Spongebob’s identity. The show struggled to reignite the comedic and story-telling genius cultivated by its creator. Characters began to become stereotypes of themselves and lost all redeeming and relatable qualities. By attempting to lean into its child audience more, the show just became worse. Gross out moments replaced the adult jokes and characters hurting themselves plagued every episode. The adult audience quickly disappeared, and much of the child audience was turned off by the noticeable decline. With no more memorable episodes being made, there was nothing left of the show at this point worth getting excited over. Ratings continued to fall, but the show kept going on.
A second movie was made entitled, “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water.” It was popular with audiences, and it earned the show a much higher budget. In turn, the show lost its last glimmer of quality left over from the Hillenburg days, its animation. With more money to be spent, every episode turned into an art project. Character models went by the wayside as freshman animators spent every cent of the budget on over the top character mutations that are enough to give an adult nausea and keep even the shortest attention span hooked.
Hillenburg returned to the show in 2014, and he brought with him some of the quality the show had lost in recent years. Even with his return, the show's golden-era was long in the past. On November 26, 2018 Stephen Hillenburg died of complications from ALS. Despite his death, “Spongebob Squarepants'' is still airing new episodes today. On July 12, 2019, the show celebrated its 20th anniversary and honored its fallen creator. His death was mourned by young adults and adolescents all over the world as they remembered how much a simple, happy yellow sponge, idiodic pink star, and sarcastic blue squid had meant to them.
“Spongebob means a lot to me because he essentially shaped the entire core of my personality through means of its humar, brilliant writing, and sometimes surprisingly thoughtful moral lessons throughout the show. It has not only affected the entire culture of my generation through memes, but also the show’s ability to be reinvented by its fans that grew up with it years later through means of remixing episodes in such a way that gives the show new life years later. Of all the cartoons and TV in general that I have watched as a kid, Spongebob was the one that stuck with me into adulthood,” said Michael Weber, senior.
Now grown up, those who lived during Spongebob’s heyday remember the show for its good times, its happy memories, and the laughs they had along the way. Many celebrate the comedy of early “Spongebob Squarepants” through memes that remix its jokes. Spongebob has been held up as a cultural icon for a generation that was shaped by its impact. While adults stood by the water cooler and talked of “The Sopranos,” children stood in the playground and talked about Spongebob.
Today, what “Spongebob Squarepants” used to be is a distant memory, but a strong one nevertheless. Thanks to those who loved it, the show will not be forgotten. These memories are important, because there may never be another show like Spongebob.
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Articles are written by writers for The Freedom Forum and journalism students.