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20 Years Later How SpongeBob SquarePants Still Feels Fresh

first_imgStaying PowerDespite losing some steam with creative turnover, those first three seasons of SpongeBob SquarePants still feel fresh and relevant over two decades later. There’s just something synergistic about the team Hillenburg put together on those early shows. One of the most vital elements has to do with the characters themselves. While most children’s cartoons feature kids as their main characters, SpongeBob and his undersea friends were all adults. Sure, the protagonist was naive and foolish, and his best friend wasn’t terribly smart, but they had to deal with grown-up problems like working an unrewarding job and navigating social spaces. Watching characters who were meant to be adults behave in surreal and hilarious manners gave those early SpongeBobs a unique feeling.The loss of that feeling in the middle seasons, as characters sort of “flattened out” and became parodies of themselves, is something that’s very common in animation (The Simpsons has been doing it for decades). Interestingly enough, when Hillenburg came back to the show in 2015 after a hiatus to make short films and work on other projects, he brought that spirit back with him, and some of the more recent seasons have been more true to the original vision.Finally, the staff assembled to work on the show was a unique one for Nickelodeon. In addition to veteran animators, SpongeBob brought in talent from many different mediums. Underground cartoonists Kaz and Sam Henderson both wrote and drew storyboards. Nickelodeon junior executive Merriwether Williams would make the jump to the creative side, becoming one of the show’s most dependable early episode writers. That diversity of perspective helped make the show feel different from anything else on the air.Of course, that difference wouldn’t last. SpongeBob‘s success inspired a tidal wave of imitators working the same ground. Shows like Coconut Fred’s Fruit Salad Island tried to capture the mix of antic surrealism and clear, recognizable characters and mostly failed. Other, less-derivative programs like Gumball showed you could learn from Nickelodeon’s hit while still having your own identity, and it’s hard to find a show on kids’ TV now that doesn’t have some element you could trace back to SpongeBob.Photo Credit: NickelodeonMillions of MemesIt’s fair to say that SpongeBob SquarePants is second only to The Simpsons in sheer volume of Internet memes created. Hell, the New York Times even wrote an article about it. The show’s lasting appeal on the Internet is pretty simple: the kids who grew up with SpongeBob are the same ones creating content in mass quantities today, and the visual language of the show is both familiar and strange.One of the earliest major SpongeBob memes involved a screenshot of Mr. Krabs from second-season episode “Patty Hype” surrounded by a spin-blurred background. That visual was first tweeted out in 2016 with the caption “When you just wake up from a nap and your parents already yelling at you,” and it swiftly became Twitter and Tumblr shorthand for being in a situation where things were spiraling out of control.But there are more SpongeBob memes than we could ever list here. Dozens and dozens of them, from “Chicken Spongebob” used for repeating inane statements back in ThIs AnNoYiNg FoNt, to “handsome Squidward” and even the “time cards” used by the narrator to depict the passage of hours. The contributions to meme vocabulary from SpongeBob are legion, and new ones are still being created.SpongeBob creator Stephen Hillenburg passed away last year from complications relating to ALS. He left behind a show that not only let Nickelodeon recapture their dominance over the animation world, but also became a cultural touchstone for a whole generation. Not too bad for a marine biologist.More on Geek.com:Mock Your Friends With SpongeBob Meme ToysStephen Hillenburg, ‘SpongeBob SquarePants’ Creator, Dies at 57The Future Looks Bright for ‘Power Rangers: Beast Morphers’ Stay on target Twenty years ago today, a cartoon series debuted that would have effects far beyond its humble beginnings. It would almost single-handedly keep a network afloat, inspire a feature film and a Broadway musical, sell over $13 billion in merchandise, and spawn countless number of memes. And it started with one of the most ludicrous premises ever: what if a sponge worked at a fast food restaurant?How did SpongeBob SquarePants come to be, and what was behind its wild success? Let’s dive deep into the history of the cartoon and learn more.Photo Credit: NickelodeonThe Dawn of NickelodeonThe early days of cable programming had a lot of Wild West mentality. Networks were launched on shoestring budgets with made-up mandates, and Nickelodeon was no different. Seeing a void in programming exclusively targeted to kids, Warner Cable launched the channel in 1979 devoid of commercials as what’s called a “loss leader,” meaning that the benefit to gaining new subscribers was worth the cost of running the station. The majority of its initial programming came from Columbus, Ohio-based QUBE. Instead of commercials, the channel filled breaks with filmed footage of mime performances.By 1984, Nickelodeon was unsurprisingly losing $10 million a year.The company hired an advertising firm to rebrand the fledgling channel and began accepting whatever advertising they could sell. They also established a late-night block, Nick at Nite, showing retro shows from the 50s and 60s. A few years later, Nickelodeon was sold to Viacom (along with MTV and VH1).It took the new network some time to find its footing, but the first tipping point came in 1991 with the premieres of three original animated series — Doug, Rugrats, and The Ren & Stimpy Show. The three initial “Nicktoons” helped the channel develop its own identity and stake out a place in the market beyond re-runs and slime drops. But two of those three series fell off the air, leaving Rugrats to do the heavy lifting. Nick needed a new series that would grab the zeitgeist, and they found it in a very unusual place.Photo Credit: NickelodeonEnter the SpongeStephen Hillenburg wasn’t your average cartoon creator. Born in Oklahoma, he had a love for marine animals as a child and after graduating from Humboldt State University he worked at the Orange County Marine Institute in Dana Point as a biology instructor, teaching visitors about the complex and fascinating ecology of the sea. While there, he also used his artistic talents to create an educational comic book for the Institute called The Intertidal Zone. After a few years, he realized that his true passion was for art, and enrolled in Cal Arts’ prestigious animation program.After graduation, Hillenburg made a few experimental shorts before being hired as a director on Nickelodeon’s Rocko’s Modern Life. When that series went off the air, some of his co-workers started pressing him to put a pitch together for his own show. One of the characters from The Intertidal Zone, Bob the Sponge, would be the core. He put a presentation together complete with a underwater terrarium with character models in it and it impressed Nick executives enough for them to fund a pilot in 1997.They had two weeks to put it together, and Hillenburg and creative director Derek Drymon were panicked that it wouldn’t go over. But that first 11 minute clip was so solid that the Nick brass immediately watched it again and then decided to make SpongeBob SquarePants the network’s first original Saturday morning cartoon.The first episode aired after the Kids Choice Awards on May 1, 1999, and everybody knew they were watching something special. But could Nickelodeon break the broadcast networks’ stranglehold on Saturday morning programming?Yes, and it didn’t take long. Within a month of its premiere, SpongeBob SquarePants toppled Pokemon as the highest-ranked Saturday morning cartoon on television. Even more interesting, it helped push Nickelodeon’s demographic in an unexpected direction. Of each episode’s 2.2 million average viewers, 40 percent were over the age of 18. Hillenburg had wanted to make a series that was accessible to kids but also nodded to adults that might be watching, much like Ren & Stimpy but with a warmer heart.That cross-generational appeal would lead to some pretty unusual outings for the residents of Bikini Bottom, including airing late nights on MTV in the mid-2000s.Photo Credit: NickelodeonTrust the ProcessMany aspects of SpongeBob SquarePants‘s production were unusual for the time. Most animated series were created script-first — a writer would put down all the jokes and dialogue in text format, and then it would be sent off to storyboard artists. But Hillenburg wanted to look back at the early days of animation, where the initial creative force was visual, not verbal. After a basic premise was generated for each story, it would be taken over by storyboard directors who would map out the whole thing in rough drawings. After that, writers would riff off the storyboards to write dialogue.That let the show have breathing room to play with visual gags created by visual artists as well as dialogue by gifted comedy writers. It employed a wide variety of illustrative approaches, from painted Ren & Stimpy-esque gross-outs to surreal live-action, public domain footage and puppet sequences. That visual freedom was a major inspiration on the generation of animators that followed. That same freedom also extended to the voice actors, who folded in a good deal of improvisation when recording their lines. The sessions are always held as a group, more like an old radio serial than the modern one-at-a-time process. Unlike so many kids’ cartoons, which felt like they were focus grouped into oblivion, SpongeBob SquarePants felt loose, funky, and very personal.Hillenburg left the day-to-day of SpongeBob after the show’s third season, moving to an executive producer role, and most dedicated fans agree that it started to slip in quality after that. Nickelodeon wasn’t about to let them stop at 60 episodes, though, and a new crew has continued to produce new episodes into the show’s eleventh season, which is currently airing. Although there have been flashes of brilliance, SBSP has fallen prey to the same curse that strikes most long-running series, repeating plot lines and running out of originality.That didn’t slow the franchise down, though. SpongeBob and the rest of the Bikini Bottom dwellers still make bank for Nickelodeon across reruns, merchandise, and other odd tie-ins like a full-on Broadway musical. It’s easily the most successful franchise the network has ever created, and the character has become synonymous with the channel.center_img Timberland Announces SpongeBob SquarePants CollaborationHere’s a Closer Look at the Nike Kyrie 5 SpongeBob Pack last_img

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