Meet the creative genius behind SpongeBob

by Amy Wilson
Tue., Mar. 19, 2002

The man is spelling out "copepod."

That's the kind of plankton that Plankton is, and Stephen Hillenburg wants you to know that he knows that's the kind of plankton that Plankton is.

But if the spelling isn't really important, and, in point of fact, the educational correctness isn't much, either, it's just that, well, Hillenburg does know about plankton.

He also knows what makes a saltwater sponge work - and may have taught your children same.

Still, he is the one guy on the planet who figured out how to make that sponge funny. For starters, you make him a yellow household sponge who has a job as a fry cook.

Then - here's the tricky part - you put him in a pineapple house that is frequently visited by a stupid starfish - no stretch there maybe - and a cute girl squirrel from Texas who herself lives in an underwater biodome of some sort and breathes - there are no underwater squirrels, you know - with the aid of scuba or something.

Still, you have to get the spelling of copepod. He writes it out so it looks right.

With that, Hillenburg starts to really warm to the topic, which is, for the record, him. And he begins to tell about being from Anaheim, Calif., and getting to be this odd variation of famous and how the journey has something to do with naivete, thong underwear and the art of the joke.

It's really about what marine biology, experimental animation and silliness can combine to do to one man, then to the entire culture.

His head's in the sea

It's about what Stephen Hillenburg saw, and continues to see, when he looks under the water and into his soul at the same time.

It's about SpongeBob.

For you amateurs, "SpongeBob SquarePants" is a buck-toothed, bubble-blowing, highly absorbent optimist who is the star of the highest-rated series on broadcast and cable TV among kids 2-11. Each week, it has something like 10 million viewers under 11, and an additional 5.3 million who are 18 and older. Which, as one publication pointed out, makes SpongeBob more watched than "Sportscenter."

Hillenburg started out normal at Savanna High School in Anaheim and, at 15, found Woods Cove in Laguna Beach, where he snorkeled for the first time. That's where he saw everything that he had been missing.

His life changed then and there, he says, and he graduated a few years later from Humboldt State with a degree in marine resource planning and interpretation.

For three years in the late '80s, Hillenburg taught at the Ocean Institute in Dana Point and lived just about at the Dana Point Marina. He was also a full-time artist who liked that the institute understood the interplay of the two disciplines.

And he liked the kids he took down to the tidal pools every day.

That, too, was part of his education.

"It probably helped me get into the minds of kids without pandering to them," he says now. "The need to make a curriculum that was fun, that had a profound effect on me. That you could do both. But the show isn't designed to carry the allegiance of the science, though, if you watch 'SpongeBob,' you know that plankton are animals."

A world in his head

In 1992, Hillenburg got a master's degree in experimental animation from the California Institute of Arts. Then he worked on Nickelodeon's "Rocko's Modern Life." Where he met SpongeBob's voice, Tom Kenny, and where he started to write down this "whole world in my head."

The main idea was, he says, "to follow the life of an innocent." He'd always liked the classic funnymen, like Chaplin or Buster Keaton or PeeWee Herman.

"I needed to find what suited the character type," he says. Then he adds, really serious-like, "the square sponge, of course."

From there, he came up with what they call "a Bible" in the parlance, a whole world of creatures and characteristics and visuals and situations. To the Nickelodeon pitch, he brought an aquarium, sculpty characters, beautiful artwork, a shell you could lift up that played the theme song.

"Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?"

"SpongeBob SquarePants."

Top cable show for kids

After launching in July 1999, it wasn't long before "SpongeBob" was crowding "Rugrats" for Nickelodeon supremacy and there were no more hurdles to clear. (Still aren't. According to Nielsen Media Research, "SpongeBob" has, for five months running, been the top-rated cable show for children, and it continues to gain viewers.)

Then, not long after start-up, Target stores wanted SpongeBob. He is now their No. 1 character property. He's also in the shape of CheeseNips, specialty crackers that Nabisco is now stocking in such nontraditional places as college bookstores. He has been a Burger King prize, a popular GameBoy title, and the first Good Humor ice-cream pop to outsell Snoopy. His T-shirt outsold "South Park's" on He was the first milk ad to feature an animated character. (Every time he sipped the chocolate milk, he soaked clean through.)

And yeah, Stephen Hillenburg's buck-toothed buckaroo's got shirts, beanies, stickers, lunch boxes, backpacks and even thong underwear with his goofy likeness on them. There is considerable talk about a feature film.

Hillenburg is OK with all this. He does have some say, though he might have a gripe with some of merchandising's artwork here and there. And maybe with some of the ideas.

But no, the thong thing isn't a problem. In fact, Hillenburg kind of digs the idea of his guy being thong-worthy.

Creator and producer

The Nickelodeon studios look like you want them to. Three-dimensional lime-green slime painted on purple doors, red velvet geometric furniture, free latte and free soda in the bar, a basketball court, a miniature golf course, not even executives dare to wear ties.

Nickelodeon owns the show, of course, but Hillenburg, aside from being its almighty creator, is executive producer of "SpongeBob SquarePants."

Upstairs - the stairs also look like undulating slime - Hillenburg is hip-deep in doing just that for the third season of "SpongeBob," episodes 40 to 60 for your aficionados. (Further insider scoop: the next new episode airs on Friday.)

He's working in his small, windowless Burbank offices with bona-fide nautical charts near the door and a massive Hawaiian coastline poster on the wall. He's got a SpongeBob-yellow Barcalounger outside his office because it wouldn't fit inside. He's got his artists and his in-betweeners and his creative director and his very own real live aquarium within spitting distance.

A lot of the work on the cartoon is being done by hand because, as artist Todd White explains, "It's too expensive on a computer."

Labor-intensive fun

Each show takes about five weeks to outline for the animators.

From start to finish, each episode takes nine to 12 months to make.

In the recording studio, the day's voice recording for "SpongeBob" is nearly finished. Tom Kenny is grunting on cue and Hillenburg and creative director Derek Drymon stand by.

Larger than large

True story: The voice of SpongeBob is at the Sundance Film Festival last month in Utah. Up comes 'N Sync's Lance Bass. Bass is wildly excited to meet The Voice and hails his girlfriend over.

He tells the girlfriend to close her eyes and begs Kenny to speak like You-Know-Who. He does. The girl goes all haywire and hugs on everybody. Bass is so pleased he made the girl happy.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call your pinnacle moment. When you can help a teen god like Lance Bass impress women - because, jeez, he has so much trouble on his own - then you are in some pretty hallowed territory. You have arrived. You are larger than large.

Because you are now an Icon that Icons Iconize.

Hillenburg is hearing that story for the first time and he shakes his head. The publicist is telling now how Lance Bass had a couch made from SpongeBob stuffed animals.

Hillenburg says he's "flabbergasted" at all this - this, as he shows you his love letter from Jennifer Love Hewitt - but it's hard to read "flabbergasted" on his face.

He's just this laid-back 40-year-old guy in worn Hush Puppies who looks 30.

He's got this straight face, this scientist's bent, this educator's desire to explain stuff - yes, we find ourselves back at that copepod thing, "a common form of plankton, with one-eye and an antenna."

He also has this lazy smile that crops up to disavow that he is courting celebs or teaching science here. The most he ever hoped for was a cult following and a paycheck.. Hillenburg says his 3-year-old son knows his father works at Nickelodeon but has no idea what his daddy does there.

Hillenburg's been known to come home at night to find his kiddo enjoying the most porous of cartoon heroes.

"To my chagrin," Hillenburg says of his son, "he's a big SpongeBob fan."

Apparently, the kid's gonna have to take a number.