Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?
On May 1, 1999, Stephen Hillenburg answered this question with the release of his underwater animated sitcom: SpongeBob SquarePants. 19 years later, on Nov. 26, 2018, the marine-biology-teacher-turned-animator died at 57.
“I heard about Stephen's passing through Facebook the day it happened, and it felt like a large part of my childhood suddenly dropped,” Kayla VanTassel, junior psychology and sociology major, said.
VanTassel, along with two other life-long SpongeBob fans, mused on the show.
“To our generation, SpongeBob is a common thread that ties every one of us together,” Trenton Maher, senior history education major, said.
The show, Maher explained, has a strong presence on campus.
“I probably reference the quote ‘we forgot his name’ at least twice a week,” he said. “Just today in the elevator a student made a reference to when a character said ‘how many times do we have to teach you this lesson old man?’ The whole elevator laughed.”
Michael Mondock, junior history major, said the cartoon has a connecting effect among his generation. He compared it to historical anecdotes, such as Aesop’s Fables, which “everyone” knew and used as “cultural examples of things.”
“In general, you can’t go very far in the millennial cultural landscape without contacting SpongeBob at all,” Mondock said. “I think there’s people who have never seen the show that have seen, perhaps, at least one or two of the memes that have come out of it.”
He said the cartoon’s connecting effect is why the show has inspired so many memes.
Mondock also said part of what makes SpongeBob a great show is the rapid-fire consistency of the jokes.
“Every chance any character gets, it seems like they’re trying to crack something that will contribute to a laugh,” he said. “And a lot of it’s just really good.”
The characterization among several of the characters is interesting – most notably being between the optimist SpongeBob and pessimist Squidward, who “form a very strange and unique almost-friendship,” Mondock said.
VanTassel said that, while the show ordinally seemed meaningless to her, she eventually found the show to teach valuable lessons.
First, she said, SpongeBob never quits even though he repeatedly fails to get his driving license – a message of persistence VanTassel said she lives by.
And second, even though characters notice that SpongeBob is not “exactly a smart character,” he never lets it bother him.
“He was never upset about it, and never questioned his meaning as a person,” VanTassel said.
Mondock noted, however, that most people only like the first three seasons of SpongeBob.
“After Hillenburg left [after season three], the series seemed to go a bit downhill,” he said. “I think there was something that was missing.”
Many of these episodes, Mondock said, lacked the original wit the show had, and used gross-out gags that did not work.
Mondock said he is thankful for Hillenburg sharing his idea about SpongeBob.
“He could have just kept it to himself,” he said. “And that would have deprived our generation of something truly remarkable.”
Mondock speculated on the staying power of SpongeBob – which is on its 12 season, has spawned two movies and a Broadway musical, and has a third movie planned for 2020.
“He’s Nickelodeon’s perennial character now,” he said. “So many titans have risen and fallen, and there’s this little sponge that’s stood it all.”
Mondock said he hopes the character SpongeBob lasts the way Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny have.
“I hope future generations can get that same joy out of
that we could. I think, if that happens, the greater Hillenburg’s legacy,” he said. “But at the very least, he’s touched our hearts, so maybe that’s what matters.”