Ode to Stephen Hillenburg

Stephen Hillenburg, the creator of beloved cartoon Spongebob Squarepants, died last week.  It’s hard to sum up in a few words what this man meant to my generation and those younger than me, but I’ll try my best.

For Millennials and Generation Z, Spongebob is a staple of our childhood.  He is to us what Scooby Doo or Bugs Bunny was to past generations.  He is our icon, and we have Stephen Hillenburg to thank.

Spongebob Squarepants premiered in 1999 when I was six-years-old, and it instantly blew me and others away with their likable strange characters and remarkably odd sense of humor that we can still look back on and laugh, at least for the first three seasons.  The quality dropped after that.

The show became a huge hit arguably for the quirky characters, weird world, the odd comedy, and its optimism.  In other words, it all comes down to simplicity, quirkiness, and optimism.

First, the characters of Spongebob Squarepants are simple yet relatable and unbelievably weird.

Spongebob is a tenaciously optimistic and sincere though naïve young sponge who loves his minimum-wage job at the Krusty Krab and always tries his best to make other people happy.  His best friend Patrick Star is a dimwitted yet supportive starfish whose IQ drops more by the season.  Sandy is an intelligent, good-natured, down-to-earth, tough, over-confident, and eager squirrel scientist with a temper that flares hilariously when pushed too far.  Squidward is Spongebob’s cynical and exasperated co-worker and neighbor who’s malicious at times but has a good heart deep down that also seems to shrink more by the season.  Mr. Krabs is their ridiculously cheap boss with a heart of gold that also seems to shrink with the seasons.  Plankton is his highly intelligent but hilariously inept arch-rival who’s married to an AI named Karen.

For us, these characters were unbelievably quirky and fun to watch.  And as I and my generation have grown older, we have found these characters more and more relatable.  I mean, who can’t relate to feeling like Spongebob or to Squidward at some point?  Again, the characters are not that complicated, but they’re likable, quirky, and relatable enough to follow in their comedic antics in the bizarre world that Hillenburg set up for them, which leads me to the second reason Spongebob works.

Spongebob works because of its odd set-up.

Spongebob lives in a pineapple under the sea and his friends are, mostly, sea creatures.  That alone was something different and still stands out as the odd type of set-up that isn’t done very often.  We were more used to seeing kids living in suburban neighborhoods and going on adventures, not the underwater world that Hillenburg’s love of marine biology inspired.

Furthermore, the adventures Spongebob and his friends went on were not typical either.  They were really odd and strange.

In one episode, Squidward manages to convince his neighbors that he’s a ghost and they have to serve him for all eternity.  In another episode, Spongebob and Patrick are trying to reform a supervillain.  In another episode, Mr. Krabs is convinced that a board game’s treasure map is real and ropes Spongebob and Patrick into going on a quest with him.

You get the picture.  These were not normal adventures.  They were bizarre.  They were different.  Sometimes, they were unbelievably dark, like that one episode where Spongebob and his boss think they wrongly killed a health inspector and try to hide his body from the police.  These adventures were so remarkably odd that it was impossible not to get sucked into them.  Whenever a new episode premiered, we didn’t know what the result would be since these were such atypical stories.  Then even when we did, we enjoyed rewatching them just because the ride was so much fun.

Third, Spongebob worked for its odd sense of humor.

The humor of the show’s earliest seasons was weird to say the least.  The jokes were random and all over the place.  There were visual gags, cutaways, situational irony, dark humor, and witty dialogue that ran the gamut from high bar to low bar.  It was odd.  It was stupid.  It was just out there enough to get a laugh out of us no matter how many times we watched it.  It always made us happy, which brings me to my last point.

Fourth and finally, Spongebob had a relentless optimism that kept us coming back.

The world Spongebob lives in is cynical and full of danger, much like our own.  It was never overbearingly so in the earlier seasons, like the later seasons, but it was obvious that Spongebob was considered a naïve weirdo by his own community’s standards even if he was generally well-liked.  As such, his life was not easy.

Spongebob was picked on.  He was taken advantage of.  He was sometimes far too nice and it came back to bite him.  He made mistakes that hurt his friends and would have to make things right.  Sometimes, Spongebob was too naïve to notice when he was being looked down on, but when he figured it out, he would get upset or he would work harder to prove himself so he would be taken seriously.  Other times, his friends would have problems he didn’t really know how to solve but kept working harder until he found a solution.  Sometimes, he could be just plain stupid.  Sometimes, he could be pushed way too hard and snap.  Spongebob was identifiably insecure and imperfect, but he was still admirable because of his optimism that kept him and us going.

Spongebob was not always treated well, but no matter how many times he was hurt, he never let it stop him from being kind to people.  His kindness often moved people into being kind themselves, even people as grouchy and mean-spirited as Squidward.  No matter how rough life got for him, Spongebob kept going.  Even when he made mistakes, Spongebob never gave up.  He was a person that kids and adults could and still look up to and identify with.  That is why Spongebob remains an inspiration to generations of kids, despite Nickelodeon’s best efforts.

That is the legacy that Stephen Hillenburg leaves behind, and for that, we thank you.  May you rest in peace.

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