Adults Find Their Inner Sponge

Offbeat cartoon with a simple message has attracted a loyal grown-up following.
Times Staff Writer

April 7, 2002

We are at the Goo Lagoon, a sunny strand of shore beneath a flowered sky in the underwater town of Bikini Bottom. Our hero, SpongeBob SquarePants, is too weak to compete in the weightlifting contest. But he's too naive to know it. So he flashes his gap-tooth grin, optimistically pumps his spindly limbs--they're barely strong enough for his rectangular yellow sink-sponge body--and confronts this challenge as he does all others: squarely.

Alas, he cannot hoist the twig, which is weighted with a single marshmallow at either end. Worse yet, he rips his square, brown pants while trying. And so begins another episode in the excellent undersea life of America's newest cult cartoon hero.

About 50 million viewers watch SpongeBob SquarePants every month. About 30 million of them are children (the target audience is ages 2 to 11). The little yellow guy recently surpassed "Rugrats," becoming No. 1 in kids' TV ratings. But what of the other 20 million spongeheads--adults who say they compulsively tune in to this invertebrate cast of honest, upbeat, innocent characters? (SpongeBob and his starfish friend, Patrick, once took a free balloon without asking and then turned themselves in for stealing.)

The cartoon dreamed up for kids has turned out to be a kind of brain balm for stressed-out grown-ups, folks who are tired of swimming with the sharks, of dealing with red alerts, job wars, Enron. People who'd like to get away from it all--at least from the neck up.

Even SpongeBob's creator, Steve Hillenburg, 40, hasn't a handle on SpongeBob's success with adults. "I just dreamed him up. I can't say why he's popular," he says from his office at Nickelodeon's Burbank studios. Hillenburg, like his personable protagonist, turns out to be more visual than verbal--and has lots of marine expertise.

Tales are surfacing across the country of adult SpongeBobians who feel a need for daily therapy with the little yellow fellow. In San Francisco, painter Megan Archer, 31, and her artist friends are "really into SpongeBob" for his "cool look," for the music (she breaks into the SpongeBob theme song while being interviewed) and the story thrust. "It's silly and simple. It deals with feelings. Someone may be mad and they don't know why they're mad, and so they all try to figure it out together. They're like one big happy family."

The show airs four times a day (morning, noon, evening and night), so SpongeBob fans have ample choice of when to send their brains on vacation. Those who want an extended holiday can veg out for hours with Nickelodeon's occasional SpongeBob marathons--the longest so far has been seven hours.

Though many adults got hooked on SpongeBob all by themselves, others were reeled in by kids and soon fell into a multi-generation viewing pattern. A divorced father in Orange County, for example, enjoys the show on weekends with his 12-year-old son and 60-year-old father. In New York, attorney Andy Borden watches with his 6-year-old son, Matthew, and then they sometimes call Matthew's 40-year-old SpongeBob-fan aunt, who lives in Illinois, to discuss the episode. "It's a way for them to bond long distance. The plot is what a child can relate to, but it's bizarre enough to tickle adult funny bones," Borden says. A woman in Saugus, who first met SpongeBob as a screen saver on her grandchild's computer, says she tuned in to see what it was all about: "I find myself watching when I'm nervous. It calms me."

Since SpongeBob's image recently started appearing on merchandise--from small cuddle toys for toddlers to air freshener for adults--it has racked up impressive figures. So far, $500 million worth of T-shirts, key chains, stickers, video games and software has sold nationwide. SpongeBob is also perking up sales for firms that have licensed his image on fast food, breakfast cereal and ice cream containers. In the works: a feature-length SpongeBob movie.

Cyma Zarghami, Nickelodeon's New York-based executive vice president, says it took about 16 months for the SpongeBob phenomenon to take full hold. The first episode aired in 1999 as the network's first original Saturday morning kids' series.

The big question for industry types who would like to emulate SpongeBob's success is the same one some adults ponder as they watch: What's so compelling about these silly sea creatures who live, walk, drive, sing and talk in an environment that defies all laws of physics? What's so lovable about a sponge who lives in a pineapple, adores his job as an underpaid fry cook, and strives only to do it better each day?

Professor Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University in upstate New York, says watching SpongeBob is like having "a really nice aquarium in your living room--with voices and action."

"It's so gentle and soothing to watch," he says. "It's a kind of time machine that transports parents back to when they watched TV in their footies [pajamas]. It has the look of a classic old show and a certain innocence and wholesomeness of attitude that is clearly a throwback to a simpler time," he says.

"On the other hand, it's very hip in the way it's presented. It is very edgy to adults who know how to read and listen between the frames. There is irony and parody, but even that seems sincere and open." On campuses, he says, there are 19- and 20-year-olds who wouldn't be caught dead watching an episode of "Friends" who would not miss a single episode of SpongeBob.

Such popularity for a show that smartly hypes innocence and ethics is heartening to those who see the doomsday clock ticking and desperately want to turn it back. Indeed, if SpongeBob ruled, the worst that might ever happen is you'd get your burger without the pickle. (And he'd regret having ruined your dining experience.)

The basically six-character cast includes SpongeBob's best friend, Patrick--a pink starfish who lacks radial symmetry and dumbly suns himself until he turns rigid. And SpongeBob's pet snail, Gary, who meows like a cat and writes poetry. And the snide Squidward, an irritable octopus who works as a waiter, plays the clarinet and subscribes to Martha Stewart Living.

Sandy Cheeks, a girl squirrel from Texas (one of two vertebrates in the cast), lives in a pressurized dome and always wears diving attire. They are all squeaky-clean, lead simple lives and use their limited talents to enjoy life to its fullest, while earnestly trying to love one another.

Of course, there's the odd bit of violence, like a snowball to the head. Or bondage, as when SpongeBob is tied to a chair by the town meanie, one-eyed Plankton. But mean is different than evil. There is no evil, not even a sense of menace, in SpongeBob's soggy, safe world. Watching the show is no more subversive (or mentally challenging) than watching old films of Laurel and Hardy, who were two of Hillenburg's childhood idols. Every challenge SpongeBob meets is one he can beat by employing such old-fashioned virtues as hard work, honesty, humility and respect for his fellow creatures. Each silly, surreal episode amounts to a little morality play.

"The morality we all grew up with and are accustomed to is what feels right," says Hillenburg, who grew up in Anaheim in the '70s. "It's basically fair play. You shouldn't steal. Those sort of things. When SpongeBob's perseverance shines through, and you root for him--that's when the show is working."

It's easy to picture Hillenburg as a child. His face is still boyish and round, framed by longish brown hair reminiscent of a '60s surfer. His eyes are the shocker--an intense pale blue as luminous as the water in those Hawaiian coves he likes to imagine when he's stressed out. "For me personally, snorkeling in a cove in Hawaii--floating along and looking at all the animals and the colors. I mean, that's pretty peaceful. Everybody's got some fascination with undersea life, don't you think? It's so incredible.... "

Well, not exactly. What's really incredible is that he came up with this oddball, off-center concept that looks and sounds refreshingly new, even to grown-ups familiar with the total cartoon canon. From early Looney Tunes and Disney right up through "Ren & Stimpy," "The Simpsons" and "South Park," nothing is much like the land of Bikini Bottom. ("The name refers to the Pacific atoll," he says, ignoring reference to the nether end of a swimsuit.)

The cartoon's colors are quasi-Hawaiian, but not jarringly so. The music is likewise--island sounds mixed with old-fashioned sea ditties, tunes reminiscent of the Beach Boys, country, even diluted heavy metal. The look is bright and happy--but it does take place, after all, underwater. So there's a subliminal sense of submersion. The aquatic theme even extends to things not perceived by viewers as aquatic. The outlines of flowers in the sky, for example, are also the shapes of jellyfish floating in the ocean. Hillenburg is big on jellyfish. His cartoon hero hunts them--for the jelly.

Since he sold his SpongeBob concept to Nickelodeon in 1998, Hillenburg has worked in his own approximation of a dim, underwater world--a windowless, cozily cluttered room lit by a shaded lamp in the company's Burbank complex.

He says that at 40 he's the "old man" of the 50-person SpongeBob creative team he now heads, most of them guys in their 20s and 30s. "For some reason, not many women go into cartooning."

Even after all this time, though, Hillenburg looks like a fish out of water in this corporate condition. His childhood in Anaheim was marked by three loves, he says: "Diving, snorkeling and drawing. I got very fascinated with the ocean. I started diving at about 15. That's what really clicked me into wanting it to be a career."

He loved invertebrates from the beginning, he says. "They're bizarre and interesting because they're not all warm and cuddly. Their shapes are strange, they have hard shells, they have things growing on them." And so, of course, the characters in his wacky cartoon have the same strangeness.

Hillenburg's mother taught visually impaired students; his father was an aerospace draftsman and designer. After graduating Humboldt State in 1984, he started what he thought would be his life's work: teaching marine science to kids at the Orange County Marine Institute. "We taught tide-pool ecology, nautical history, diversity and adaptation," he says. "Working there, I saw how enamored kids are with undersea life, especially with tide-pool creatures." But three years was enough. He decided drawing might be the better career. He returned to school and in 1992 received a master's degree in experimental animation from California Institute of the Arts in Valencia.

He soon came up with the premise for his show. "Basically, the core premise is that innocence prevails--which I don't think it always does in real life," Hillenburg says.

Hillenburg works from about 9 to 7 each day, then heads for the Hollywood home he shares with his son, 3, and his wife, Karen, a chef who teaches at the New School of Cooking in Culver City.

His average day involves supervision on preliminary drawings, words, soundtracks, editing, color and other details. SpongeBob is put together in an unusual way, he says. First, a team comes up with each story premise, a kind of outline for the segment. That's handed off to another team of two who create a storyboard. This means they draw the action frames and come up with the words simultaneously on a board that looks "kind of like a comic book." Finished storyboards are sent to Rough Draft Studios in Korea, where the animation is done. The film comes back to Burbank, where the sound, music and editing are completed. Comedian Tom Kenny (who also plays the dog in the cartoon "CatDog") is the voice of SpongeBob. Bill Fagerbakke, who played Dauber in ABC's "Coach" series, is Patrick Starfish.

When complete, the words and pictures are inseparable. And they convey what many viewers see as a kind of sweetness that prevails, even when insults are hurled.

Andy Moseley, 20, a student at Georgia Southern University, says he heard about SpongeBob last April and was soon watching every night at 8. "I couldn't miss, or my day wouldn't be complete," he says. "The mood is so wonderful, happy and carefree." When Moseley wears his red SpongeBob T-shirt on campus, "it amazes me how many people know who he is. I think it's great to have SpongeBob around in America at this point is time."

SpongeBob is "pretty big" at Indiana University, where Vicki Berdon is working toward a doctorate in philosophy and foundations of math. "Almost everybody loves it. It's sort of insane. People wear the shirts, socks, have all sorts of paraphernalia. It's even popular with graduate students."

Berdon says she watches "because it's cute, sometimes even hysterically funny." She particularly likes the nutty touches, "like the crazy dance SpongeBob does when he's blowing his complicated bubbles, a dance to make sure they come out just right." Mostly, she says, she watches because "it's a relief. I find it's very good at distracting me from the news. Before I go to sleep, I don't want to think about the Middle East, the terrorist threats, the Afghan situation. This is all very present in my mind. So I turn SpongeBob on."