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The New York Times
WEEK IN REVIEW
How to Succeed Without Attitude
By TOM ZELLER
pop-culture quiz: "Do you smell it? That smell? That kind of smelly smell?
The smelly smell that smells . . . smelly?" A good number of children in
the 2-to-11 range, as the Nielsen ratings group them, will know the smell.
So will many of their parents, a fair number of college students, and
assorted hipsters of indeterminate age who surfed or stumbled into the
undersea universe of a yellow kitchen sponge and got hooked.
For those who don't know, the sponge is SpongeBob
SquarePants, the title character of the most popular cartoon on cable
television. The "smell" was that of invading anchovy hordes — as detected
by SpongeBob's boss, Mr. Krabs. He owns a restaurant where SpongeBob is a
fry cook. Really.
For those, on the other hand, whose lives require
fluency in Rugrats and Catdog, the fact that SpongeBob reels in 2 million
children every night is a no-brainer. The show, which debuted on
Nickelodeon three years ago and has since gobbled up the children's cable
television market, is a loopy half-hour ride that youngsters clearly
enjoy. It also has been aggressively marketed. Young fans can strap on
SpongeBob backpacks each morning and tuck into SpongeBob sheets every
But it's that other part of the audience — the nearly 5
million adults who also tune in every week (and who purchase millions of
dollars worth of the merchandise for themselves) — that is elevating
SpongeBob from child's confection to cult classic.
Why that should be so isn't entirely obvious. The tenor
of "SpongeBob SquarePants" is distinctly sweet and silly. It lacks most of
the blatant scatology of recent crossover hits like "Ren & Stimpy," and
avoids the acerbic social commentary of adults-only cartoons like "The
Simpsons" and "South Park." SpongeBob, in contrast, "lives in a pineapple
under the sea" (were you singing along?) with his pet snail, Gary. He is a
relentlessly optimistic naf with a sound work ethic and an affinity for
tighty-whitey underwear who basically has fun and plays nice. And that in
the end, may have been a shrewd — or lucky — stroke, as it seems to have
tapped into something that the culture was ripe to consume.
"Virtually every great cartoon, both in the sense of
being commercially successful and artistically successful, somehow has a
simultaneous appeal to both adults and kids," said Timothy Burke, a
professor of history at Swarthmore College and an author of "Saturday
Morning Fever: Growing Up With Cartoon Culture" (St. Martins, 1998).
"SpongeBob seems to have a different formula for doing that than most of
the shows that have pulled off the same trick in recent times."
For most successful cartoons in the last decade or so,
that formula has involved giving children fun characters, plot lines that
}“µúon't condescend, and knowing winks to the adults in the audience. Popular
shows like "The PowerPuff Girls," Professor Burke says, do this extremely
well. "They'll have giant monsters destroying a city, and they know
there's a portion of their audience that has seen Godzilla movies and
knows all the tropes and plot turns associated with Godzilla movies, so
they play that for laughs."
Of course, variations on that formula are at least as
old as Bugs Bunny and the Warner Bros. cartoons from the 1930's and 40's,
which routinely lobbed knowing, often irreverent tidbits over the heads of
children and into the laps of adults who recognized — and appreciated —
SpongeBob is rarely so overt in its subversion. The
characters are all somewhat stupid and unaware of themselves. Some are
grumpy and mean, but rarely malicious. But that's not to say that the show
lacks a barbed wit that is firmly contemporary. There are plenty of subtle
scatological riffs and sly references to the banality of middle-American
life, for instance. Still, the show ends up evoking a civility that is
unusual in modern cartoons.
"There is something kind of unique about this," said
Robert Thompson, a professor of communications and director of the Center
for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "It seems to
be a refreshing breath from the pre-irony era. There's no sense of the
elbow-in-rib, tongue-in-cheek aesthetic that so permeates the rest of
American culture — including kids' shows like the `Rugrats.' "
BUT that apparent lack of sardonic self-awareness in a
culture defined by wiseguy knowingness may be exactly what works for
SpongeBob. Adults — and even kids — know the wink-and-nudge routine all
too well. "I think what's subversive about it is it's so incredibly nave —
deliberately," said Professor Thompson. "Because there's nothing in it
that's trying to be hip or cool or anything else, hipness can be grafted
Not surprisingly, SpongeBob's creator, Stephen
Hillenburg, says he's simply trying to make people laugh. He drew
inspiration, he says, from Charlie Chaplin, and from Peewee Herman — both
of whom made naiveté the core of their comedy. He also mentions Laurel and
Hardy. "Stan was always like this kid with this innocent view, and there's
always a certain amount of comedy that you can derive from that in a
setting where other characters are a little more jaded."
Mr. Hillenburg is also careful to point out that
SpongeBob is a product of many creative minds coming together with a
simple mission: fun. "We try to write the show to make ourselves laugh,"
he said. "And we're not thinking about how to analyze it afterward or how
it fits into the pop culture now. It's really just a matter of what do we
think is creative and hopefully funny."
So far so good — and the imitators are surely on their
"Every time something like this succeeds TV executives
have meetings and they sit around tables and they try to figure out why it
succeeded," Professor Burke said, "and they invariably miss the point:
That it succeeded because you gave some good creative people the freedom
to make something creative. Instead, they sort of boil it down to a list
of things and say `well, do more of that.' "
"But you try to make SpongeBob to order," he said, "and
I almost guarantee you can't."
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AT BIKINI BOTTOM
By DON KAPLAN
April 16, 2002 -- IT looks like
the most-watched kids' show on TV, "SpongeBob
Squarepants," is on the verge of drying up.
Steve Hillenburg, the show's creator, executive
producer and head writer, says he's quitting when
his deal with Nickelodeon is up later this year.
But since Hillenburg sold all of his "SpongeBob"
rights to Nickelodeon years ago - in exchange for
seeing his concept make it onto TV - the show
could theoretically go on with out him.
A Nickelodeon spokesman confirmed that the future
of the show - which is seen each week by about 3
million kids - is up in the air.
"I definitely need a break," Hillenburg told the
Los Angeles Times. "I want to try something new."
Nickelodeon could continue to produce new episodes
without Hillenburg, as it did years ago another
one of the channel's animated show's "Ren & Stimpy,"
a move Nickelodeon staffers acknowledge probably
contributed to the show's demise.
Hillenburg thinks that once he leaves, it's not
likely that the network would continue the show
"I think they respect that my contribution is
important," Hillenburg said. "I think they would
want to maintain the original concept and
Nickelodeon sources said yesterday that the
programming execs have admitted they made a
mistake with "Ren & Stimpy" and probably won't do
the same to "SpongeBob."
Hillenburg said there's still 20 unseen episodes
of the show that should keep it fresh though most
of this year.
The show, which has been on the air since 1999,
follows the adventures of a yellow sink sponge and
his friends who live in the underwater town of
The show has become a major hit with both kids and
adults and resulted in a merchandise line that has
generated about $500 million for Nickelodeon.
"I think the network wants to make a 'SpongeBob'
movie," Hillenburg said. "I also want to make a
movie. I wouldn't want to try and work on the
series concurrently with the film."
It's not an unusual time to stop working on
"SpongeBob," Hillenburg said. Many animation shows
end at around 60 episodes. Some resume production
at a later date. Nickelodeon's earlier mega-hit "Rugrats,"
stopped at 65 shows.
"Then they made a movie, and after that they came
back and made more episodes for TV. That could
eventually happen with ‘SpongeBob' too,"
Hillenburg said, "although I really have no idea
what I'll do."
Copyright 2002 NYP Holdings,
Inc. All rights reserved.
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Soaking Up Attention
indomitable invertebrate, floats to the top of the sea of kids'
Dec. 17, 2001
In America, if you want to be successful, you go to college, study hard
and pack your head full of arcane knowledge. Then you head for Hollywood
and learn to tell plankton jokes. That, anyway, was the route to fame and
fortune for Stephen Hillenburg, an avid surfer, scuba diver and
marine-biology teacher fascinated with tide-pool life. After he later went
to art school and became an animator, he decided to base his debut
cartoon, loosely, on the creatures that he had made his life's study. Very
loosely. His star: a talking sponge who wears a tie, flips Krabbie Patties
at a submarine fast-food joint and resembles a slice of Swiss cheese more
than his real-water counterparts.
Hail SpongeBob SquarePants: delightfully biologically incorrect and the
new invertebrate king of children's television. Launched in 1999, his
sweet, surrealistic, self-titled Nickelodeon cartoon recently unseated the
long-reigning Rugrats as the most popular kids' show on TV, attracting an
average of 10 million kids ages 2 to 11 (and more than 5 million adults)
Not bad for a complete nerd. Hillenburg says he conceived SpongeBob as
an offbeat, dweeby child-man in the mold of Pee-wee Herman. (Hillenburg,
who wears a funky surfer haircut at age 40 and hangs sea-life mobiles
outside his office, fits the offbeat, dweeby child-man profile a bit
himself.) Like Pee-wee, the squeaky-voiced sponge lives in a colorful,
goofy wonderland--inside an undersea pineapple in the town of Bikini
Bottom. "I wanted to create a small town underwater where the characters
were more like us than like fish," Hillenburg says. "They have fire. They
take walks. They drive. They have pets and holidays." Of course, there are
a few differences. In Bikini Bottom, no one thinks it's strange that the
town villain, the megalomaniacal Plankton, is a one-celled organism, or
that SpongeBob's boss, a crab, has a daughter who's a whale (literally).
Like Pee-wee's appeal, SpongeBob's lies in his innocence. He's the
anti-Bart Simpson, temperamentally and physically: his head is as
squared-off and neat as Bart's is unruly, and he has a personality to
match--conscientious, optimistic and blind to the faults in the world and
those around him. He never seems to notice that his cynical neighbor and
co-worker Squidward (an octopus) drips contempt toward everything
SpongeBob does, or that his best friend Patrick Starfish is a certified
nitwit. Kids are drawn by the show's loopy slapstick, grownups by its dry
(so to speak) wit: "I order the food, and you cook the food," Squidward
tells SpongeBob, describing their jobs at the restaurant. "We do that for
40 years, and then we die."
That dual appeal is a sign of a welcome change in animation. Cartoons
have bridged kids' and adult entertainment since the heyday of Walt Disney
and Chuck Jones, but the field went through a long creative slump in the
'70s and '80s, as programmers churned out Saturday-morning knock-offs made
mainly to shill toys (My Little Pony) or repurpose sitcom characters (The
Fonz and the Happy Days Gang). Today cartoons have undergone a
renaissance, as kids' channels such as Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network
have given their animators the freedom of auteurs. Smarter and more
idiosyncratic, these animators have created shows like Cartoon Network's
The Powerpuff Girls that have become not just hits but cultural icons. "It
harkens back to the old days at Warner Bros., when guys were creating
Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny, and they had free rein," says Powerpuff creator
Craig McCracken. There's still plenty of toy-driven junk, particularly in
the anime-action category, but cartoons have also become more diverse
(with new entries like Disney Channel's African-American The Proud Family)
and ambitious (Cartoon Network's epic Samurai Jack).
Of course, there's still cashing in to be done--SpongeBob has lent his
image to Target, Burger King and Nabisco Cheese Nips, and a SpongeBob
movie is in the works. But, Hillenburg says, the art comes first. "I could
get more money from a [broadcast] network," he says, but "I was interested
in doing the show the way I wanted." Now that creators like him can do
that, it is, in the world of cartoons at least, a great time to be a kid,
a grownup or--best of all--a little of each.
Reported by Jeanne McDowell/Los Angeles