17 Years at Bikini Bottom
By Steve Herte
SpongeBob SquarePants (Nickelodeon Network, 1999-present) – Creators: Stephen Hillenburg, Derek Drymon, Tim Hill, & Nick Jennings. Voices: Tom Kenny, Rodger Bumpass, Bill Fagerbakke, Clancy Brown, Dee Bradley Baker, Mr. Lawrence, Carolyn Lawrence, Sirena Irwin, Lori Alan, Mary Jo Catlett, Ernest Borgnine, Tim Conway, Paul Tibbitt, Bob Joles, Guy Siner, John Rhys-Davies, & Jill Talley. Color, Rated TV-Y7.
Most animation fans know the answer to “Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?” when Patrick Pinney starts the theme song, and shout “SpongeBob Squarepants!” at the appropriate time. Created by Stephen Hillenberg and released on May 1, 1999, the yellow, porous, and absorbent character with the annoying laugh is now 17 years old and his nautical nonsense continues to the delight of fans everywhere.
My admiration for the art of animation goes back to my childhood. I grew up with Warner Brothers’ cartoons and preferred them to the Disney characters who, by comparison to Bugs Bunny and his crew, were more for children and less sophisticated. And like other WB fans, a great part of my appreciation for classical music comes from background music to their cartoons. This love affair took me to the early 1990s, when the supply of new episodes petered out. Fortunately, in 1993, Animaniacs took center stage and renewed my love of the clever, hilarious WB wit and the flawless animation. That lasted until 1998, when again I had to search for a comparable quality cartoon. Then, seemingly in the “nick” of time, along came SpongeBob.
Why SpongeBob (voiced by Kenny)? He’s only an innocent, childish character who loves his job flipping Krabby Patties at a fast food joint called the Krusty Krab. His best friend Patrick Starfish (Fagerbakke) is one step up from a total ignoramus and he continually drives his clarinet-playing, would-be-sophisticated next-door neighbor Squidward Tentacles (Bumpass) completely crazy. And that laugh of his!
There’s something beyond the basic premise of SpongeBob. Those who’ve seen the Warner Brothers' 1992 cartoon Invasion of the Bunny Snatchers, directed by Greg Ford and Terry Lennon, know what I mean. In that cartoon, anyone who eats a radioactive carrot becomes a “badly drawn” automaton. Bugs Bunny notices all of his friends going from three-dimensional to two, and it’s more like a scribble than a clearly defined figure. When put side-by-side with many other cartoons created since 1999, SpongeBob is definitely not flat and not “badly drawn.” That was the first thing that drew me to the series.
With a combined staff of about 40 writers, the dialogue is funny, sometimes hilarious, and many times as clever as a Bugs Bunny aside. My favorite example is in Season 1, Episode 11b, Squidward, the Unfriendly Ghost, that has Squidward coated in a white substance and SpongeBob and Patrick convinced he’s a ghost. They think they’re responsible and wind up obeying Squidward’s every command. While carrying him around on a litter, they repeatedly ask him where he’d like to be set down. Squidward is fully taking advantage of this situation. “No, too wet!” “No, too dry!” (remember, this all takes place under the sea) Then they walk onto a scene recognizable from a poster of Moulin Rouge, and Squidward negates, “No, Toulouse Lautrec!” Excellent! I can hear children saying, “Why is that funny?” This sort of writing is the link for me between Warner Brothers and Nickelodeon.
What also draws me in is the big element of absurdity – both in the various plots and the cartoon as a whole. SpongeBob’s other best friend is the karate-chopping squirrel Sandy Cheeks (Carolyn Lawrence), who prefers living in her underwater home to living on land. She wears an underwater suit when she leaves her glass home and SpongeBob and Patrick have to don water-filled helmets to visit her.
SpongeBob’s boss, the pirate-accented, penny-pinching Eugene H. Krabs (Brown), has a daughter Pearl Krabs (Alan) who is quite obviously a sperm whale. His mother Mama Betsy Krabs (Tibbitt), the widow of Victor Krabs is undeniably a crab. You have to wonder what Eugene’s wife was (hopefully a whale, but we don’t even want to think about that). And we mustn’t forget SpongeBob’s pet snail Gary (also Kenny) who meows.
The absurdity continues in the second SpongeBob Movie; A Sponge Out of Water (2015) (read our review here) when a pirate steals the secret formula for Krabby Patties and causes chaos to break out in Bikini Bottom, including gang warfare and houses being set on fire (we’re still under the sea, mind you). In a few episodes of the television show, campfires are lit as well. It’s a part of the unique attraction of the cartoon.
But what about conflict? Besides the usual head-butting between SpongeBob and Squidward, there is Sheldon J. Plankton (voiced by Mr. Lawrence), the owner of the Chum Bucket restaurant just across the way from the Krusty Krab. He never has customers because his food is ... well … chum! With his W.I.F.E. (Wired Integrated Female Electroencephalograph) Karen (Talley), Plankton (also the smallest character in the cartoon) is always plotting to steal Mr. Krabs’ recipe. We also occasionally meet the master villain ManRay (voiced at various times by Bob Joles, Guy Siner, and John Rhys-Davies) and reinforcements have to be called in (sort of). SpongeBob’s superhero favorites Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy (guest stars Adam West and Burt Ward) are now almost senile (Borgnine and Conway, respectively) but still fighting crime. Absurd, no?
Among the cast of wacky characters, we can’t forget Driving Instructress Mrs. Poppy Puffs (Catlett), appropriately a blowfish who inflates with terror whenever SpongeBob is behind the wheel. Oh, and by the way, everyone drives in wheeled boats in Bikini Bottom. There’s the body-builder Larry the Lobster (voiced again by Mr. Lawrence) who, strong as he is, cannot defeat Sandy. In one episode, we see Squidward’s former classmate, the debonair, successful Squilliam Fancyson (Baker) and Squidward is embarrassed to be seen by him as a mere cashier in a fast food restaurant – a fun episode.
Besides the regular characters the voices of other famous people, some because they are fans, are heard in various episodes. The list includes Marion Ross and Amy Poehler as Grandma SquarePants, John Hurley and Jeffrey Tambor (in the movie) as King Neptune, Ray Liotta as Bubble Poppin Leader, Charles Nelson Reilly as the Dirty Bubble, David Bowie as Lord Royal Highness, Johnny Depp as Jack Kahuna Laguna, Henry Winkler as Sharkface, Mark Hamill as the Moth, Ricky Gervais as a narrator, Dennis Quaid as Mr. Krabs’ Grandpa Redbeard, Laraine Newman as Plankton’s Grandma, John Goodman as the Imaginary Santa, Gene Simmons of Kiss as the Sea Monster alongside his wife, Shannon Tweed, Betty White as the aged Beatrice, a fish who owns a store called Grandma’s Apron, and Pat Morita as Karate Master Udon.
Playing themselves in cameos on the SpongeBob series are: Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, LeBron James, Pink, Robin Williams, Gene Shalit, and – strangely and appropriately – Davy Jones of The Monkees.
If this were not enough, like Warner Brothers, the cartoons are still funny after multiple viewings. Whenever I’m away from home and just want to rest and watch TV, if I find SpongeBob, I’m hooked. (pun intended.) The series has been nominated for 16 Emmy Awards, winning two. It’s not a substitute for Warner Brothers and it's had tough competition with The Simpsons, which is 10 years older, but when you want laughs and you don’t want to think about it, SpongeBob is waiting for you in a pineapple under the sea.