Are you ready kids?
*Aye aye, Captain!*
I can't heeear youu!
*AYE AYE, CAPTAIN!*
OOOOOOOOOOH – Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?
The jaunty nautical pipes frolicking in your minds ear guide you only to one name, a name that you can only shout out loud, in a chorus of children. Unashamedly you encourage the small tremor to rise up through your chest and do not blanch as it launches uncontrollably outward through your mouth and also somehow a little bit through your nose, for some reason:
*SPONGE – BOB – SQUARE – PANTS*
Yes of course, the overzealous talking sponge who lives in the pareidolia-inducing pineapple house. His town is made up of talking fish and the psychedelic remnants left underneath the Hawaiian island of Bikini Atoll, where the American military tested atomic bombs between the 1940s and ‘50s. Or Bikini Bottom, as it's known in the show. His best friends are an endlessly loyal starfish called Patrick and an ennui-filled clarinet-playing squid called Squidward. He may or may not be romantically linked with a squirrel scientist from Texas called Sandy who spends 90% of her time in an walking diving bell. The sponge works as a fry cook at a successful fast food restaurant called the Krusty Krab, owned by the avarice-driven crab called Mr Krabs, who is at constant war with a power driven plankter called Plankton, who in turn operates a less successful fast food restaurant called the Chum Bucket. Our sponge regularly becomes innocent collateral in this Cold War-esque battle, in which Plankton repeatedly attempts to steal the secrets to Mr Krabs' success in the form of the Krabby Patty formula, so that he can replace Mr Krabs' capitalist brand of consumer driven monopoly with his own essentially communist brand of megalomania, whereby everyone is a robotic slave under his singular iron fist.
So, that's my personal interpretation of the show SpongeBob SquarePants that airs regularly on children's telly channel Nickelodeon.
Satire of global political power struggles with constant referrals to apocalyptic military history aside, SpongeBob has always been one of my favourite ever cartoon characters, up there with Ren Hoek, Rainier Wolfcastle and Mr Poopy Butthole. Although SpongeBob is easily the most family friendly of my favourite cartoons, it's also the one that makes me laugh the hardest – and most often. Yet I am often looked at like a childish, idiotic, idiotic man-child every time I confess my love for The Sponge in public. Unlike the other cartoons it closely orbits, like Dexter's Lab, Cow & Chicken and Rocko's Modern Life, it hasn't made the official jump to 'OK to enjoy as an adult nostalgically and therefore not ironically', unless in a seemingly kitsch way. Well, I want to tell you now, with the help of those that work on the show, that SpongeBob is one of the greatest cartoons ever made, for children or adults.
SpongeBob is the spiritual successor to an illustrious history of Nickelodeon cartoons like Ren & Stimpy, Hey Arnold, Rugrats and Ahh! Real Monsters. But if you had to pick one cartoon it really feels like the successor to, it's Rocko's Modern Life, with it's naïve protagonist, lumbering sidekick and manic, hypercolour world. And that makes sense, as it has a lot of the same people behind it – including creator Stephen Hillenberg and the voice of SpongeBob himself, Tom Kenny.
“The first time I laid eyes on Steve's (Hillenberg) concept drawings of the characters and locales, and he told me about what he had in mind for them, and what life in Bikini Bottom was like, I was smitten,” explains Tom. “You have to remember, there was not one smidgen of animation with SpongeBob at that time; I just thought that what Steve was describing to me; comedically, graphically, musically, his whole vision, was so funny and charming and soulful and entertaining that I really, really wanted to be a part of it in any way that I could. Steve and his sponge changed my life!”
All of our consumable culture is subjected to a cornucopia of over-analysis these days, from telly to music to films. I guess we all want to briefly snag ourselves on some kind of meaning as we are irrevocably dragged along the white water rapids of modern media. But the reason I adore SpongeBob so much is precisely because it doesn't lend itself to this kind of scrutiny, except by me, in this very article. It's the cartoon equivalent of Carly Rae Jepsen songs or Marvel Avengers films – just really well crafted and fun.
“I was drawn to SpongeBob because it felt like a show that was only interested in being funny, no heavy-handed messages or ‘teachable’ moments weighing it down,” explains the show’s supervising producer Marc Ceccarelli, who has worked on the show since 2010. “Just well-written, funny characters, doing funny stuff. The way cartoons used to be designed when they were made for the whole family.”
And it's true to say that SpongeBob relies heavily on a classic form of visual humour that you used to see in older cartoons, though made with a modern twist. You'll often be watching an episode when the screen with flash for a split second with SpongeBob's face morphed into a rosy-cheeked anime blush, or a brief but extremely well animated snippet of The Square Bob crying so much that his tears form fountains that loop back into his mouth, filling him up with more tears to cry. It's that same kind of shocking freeze frame visual comedy that Ren & Stimpy used to do so well, but less intense and vaguely threatening.
“The humour of SpongeBob is very much visually driven,” says supervising producer Vince Waller, who has worked on the show from the beginning. “Most of our writers have spent long hours drawing storyboards, so they are well-versed in visual humour. It starts in a room full of crazy cartoonists sitting in a room saying 'OK what have we done, what have we not done?' and we start bouncing ideas around, writing them down and putting them on the whiteboard. Then we start just building the story in the room. The only rules we really have are character-based ones.”
And I guess that is the reason I find My Sponge so endearing. In the same way I love the early Simpsons or Futurama, Little Bob's world is for the most part shut off from trending external influences. I don't find things in the show funny because they satirise real life contemporary events, I find them funny because they are ridiculous. I guess that’s part of the reason shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy ended up losing their way, because instead of trying to find innate humour, situationally, audibly, visually, they just relied on tired modern pop culture references to see them through. It's probably why some adults see The Square Sponge as more for younger audiences, when really, if you can find a more enjoyable show to watch when you're spending the night in getting stoned with your partner, I'd like to hear about it.
“Our team is constantly thinking of ways to make the show entertaining enough that the parents will happily join their children on the couch to watch an episode of SpongeBob” says Vince.
“We have never really thought of SpongeBob as being a 'children's show' per se,” adds Tom. “We always thought about it as being a funny, silly show that happens to be on a network that deals in kids’ programming. SpongeBob is just kind of its own lifeform; it is what it is and hopefully people at all stages of life can enjoy it.”
For me, more than anything, I find solace in Our Bob. He has a blissfully ignorant and harmoniously simplistic world view that I, trapped in this increasingly dystopian late capitalist reality, can only envy. He loves his job, he wears his heart on his sleeve, he only sees the best in everyone. He brims with a positivity that stems from true contentment. It's a lifestyle I wish I could attain, and an emotional state I wish I could be confident enough to replicate without external substances. You often hear of how we are all unhappy, in our gleaming western world, with the distractions, the complications, the notifications, the heartaches. SpongeBob is caught in the same vague structure: of winners, losers; of good, bad; of overarching injustice, yet still gives every day his full, undivided love and attention. “I'm Ready!”, he cries every morning, joyfully, repeatedly.
Without getting too melancholy about my own situation and inexplicably claiming that an animated Sponge who cleans himself every morning by eating a bar of soap and violently exfoliating the bubbles out of his face is the paragon of modern existence, I really do think that an animated Sponge who cleans himself every morning by eating a bar of soap and violently exfoliating the bubbles out of his face is the paragon of modern existence.
“I feel a sense of accomplishment at being a part of this team of people that puts something silly and upbeat and joyful out into the universe.” says Tom.
“The main thing I hope people learn from watching SpongeBob is how to laugh at life, at themselves and at this wild and wacky world in which we live,” adds Vince, somewhat poetically.
When I laugh at SpongeBob, I never think twice. My laughter is always immediate, subconscious, unthinking, like a burp or a fart. And like all of the classic cartoons, the ones that will be etched into a quivering human history, the beauty of Your Sponge And Mine is in its simplicity. It's here to make us all laugh, and appreciate the silliness and absurdity of life, and for that I am forever grateful to it.