Soak up the fun!

With its goofy charm, 'SpongeBob SquarePants' is now TV's top-rated kids show - and a pop phenomenon

By Suzanne C. Ryan, Globe Staff, 7/7/2002

Soccer coach Rob Shepard knows something about child psychology. When his town's team, the Milton Machine, was practicing drills this spring, he didn't yell at poor performers. Instead, he called their wimpy shots "Squidward" kicks, their overly aggressive attempts "Mr. Krabs" kicks.

When they'd score, he'd give them the highest praise of all: "SpongeBob SquarePants" kicks. "They loved it," says Shepard. "All of them know about 'SpongeBob.'"

In the last year, Nickelodeon's animated "SpongeBob SquarePants" has become the No.1 kids' show on television, bumping "Rugrats" from its long-held perch. Along the way, this kind-of goofy, kind-of old-fashioned cartoon has grown into a pop-culture phenomenon. Besides becoming part of the language of kids, "SpongeBob" has reached well beyond its target audience to a cult base of grown-ups who watch the show - with or without their children.

The show has inspired fan clubs, Web sites, and an inevitable merchandising tornado that has put the yellow sea creature shaped like a kitchen sponge onto key chains, snack boxes, T-shirts, and bedroom sheets. More than 75 licensees are authorized to make products; total retail sales this year are expected to reach about $500 million, according to Nickelodeon.

Airing three times every weekday and twice a day on weekends, the program stars a good-natured sea sponge. He lives in a pineapple in an underwater village called Bikini Bottom and has a proclivity for getting himself, and everyone around him, in lots of trouble.

His best friend is Patrick Starfish, a dimwit who lives under a rock. Together, they have adventures with a handful of other sea-dwelling characters including Mr. Krabs (SpongeBob's greedy boss at The Krusty Krab fast-food joint) and Squidward Tentacles (SpongeBob's next-door neighbor and co-worker who complains a lot, mostly about SpongeBob).

The oddball program has been around since 1999 but didn't gain huge attention initially because it was airing only on Saturday mornings. Last July, Nickelodeon began running the show four nights a week during prime time. Within two months, viewership exploded. About 61.1 million viewers tuned in during the month of May, the most recent ratings available.

While Nickelodeon was obviously pleased with the ratings, what the children's network didn't expect was that so many adults and teenagers would embrace the cartoon too. Herb Scannell, Nickelodeon's president, says he was shocked to learn from his nephew that students at the University of Texas were singing the catchy "SpongeBob" song at parties.

Students at the University of Michigan had a "SpongeBob" Web site, he heard. "Then I got a call from Tony Bennett's office wanting some 'SpongeBob' stuff. People were coming out of the woodwork!"

In May, about 20.3 million adults 18 to 49 years old watched the show, as did 9.3 million 12- to 17-year-olds. Together, that surpassed the 26.4 million 2- to 11-year-olds who watched the show.

Rob and Eileen Shepard are two of those adults. Rob watches the show at least three times a week with his son Michael, 8, and daughter Hannah, 5. "'SpongeBob' is probably one of my favorite shows,'' he says. "It's just so stupid. It's ridiculous to the point of being absurd, which is why it grabs your attention."

The show's appeal, he says, is that it offers "caricatures of people you know" - in very different guises and settings. "Mr. Krabs is the money miser. Squidward is the guy who tries hard but is a total loser. Patrick acts stupid but outwits everyone," Shepard says.

And SpongeBob himself - like the low-key centerpiece in many sitcoms surrounded by a parade of much wackier supporting characters - "is innocent all the way through it."

Television experts say SpongeBob is a kind of "comfort-TV" star who is appealing to adults because he's an old-fashioned nice guy often placed in scenarios that adults can relate to. He's got a tough boss (a crab), a neighbor who's a jerk (an octopus), and a love interest who's not interested (a squirrel).

"After a full generation of all this incredibly hip children's programming - like 'Rugrats' - there's something about the laid-back innocence of 'SpongeBob' that is really kind of refreshing," said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "You flip through the dial and everything else is so drenched in this hip, tongue-in-cheek irony. 'SpongeBob' doesn't have a lot of pop-culture references. It doesn't seem to be trying hard to get your attention."

"Part of the beauty," adds Eileen Shepard, "is there's nothing about the plots that is any less sophisticated than a sitcom, but they're absurd because of these oddball characters. It seems to me a bunch of college students sat around after a few beers and wrote this thing and mailed it into the network."

Stephen Hillenburg created "SpongeBob" and he was quite sober. The animator - who had worked as creative director of Nickelodeon's animated series "Rocko's Modern Life" in the mid-1990s - came up with the concept of "SpongeBob" after he spent years working as a marine science educator.

"I had the chance to see how enamored kids are with undersea life, especially tide pool creatures," he says. "I thought, 'What about creating a world that starred these animals, crabs and starfish?'"

Hillenburg's original show was called "SpongeBoy" but that name was already copyrighted. "I wanted sponge in the name so people wouldn't mistake him for a piece of cheese,'' he says. "'SpongeBob SquarePants' was weird but it makes sense" because the character is square in shape and personality.

The creator says all of the characters' personalities are based on the traits of their real-life counterparts. "Starfish - a lot of times, if you turn them over, they're stuck to a rock. It seems like they're lazy." Crabs, he added, are crusty and opportunistically threatening with their claws.

Squidward was invented after Hillenburg drew an octopus. "I remember thinking that he has a large head and is taller than the others. It seemed he would be this aloof, snotty character."

Why the pineapple? "I was drawing various nautical things and the pineapple is a common image in Hawaiian prints. It fit the theme of nautical nonsense," he says.

The cult of Bob

Since last fall, a virtual SpongeBob cult has emerged on the Internet. There are episode guides, online polls tracking favorite characters, and dozens of Web sites, some of them downright strange.

The Church of SpongeBob SquarePants, for example, (, has rituals for what to do when the show is on. "Place your hands together, palms touching, fingers pointing upward. Hold your hands immediately in front of your chest, over your heart. Slowly bow at the waist."

There are also plenty of message boards such as the Jadadala SpongeBob SquarePants Forum ( Here participants are free to discuss "SpongeBob-ish things."

Typical comments include this one from June 7: "Too many preps like him," complains a member with the log-on "Harshdecember." "You know, I've liked SpongeBob since the VERY FIRST episode. Not many people can say that since they thought it was stupid. ... Now they like him just because everybody else does."

Zelda MacGregor started the I *heart* SpongeBob site last fall because she couldn't find an online fan club. Her site is a Web ring that allows SpongeBob lovers to link their sites to hers. MacGregor, a 19-year-old resident of Columbus, Ohio, says she has more than 100 sites in her ring. About 50 of those include SpongeBob photos and trivia.

Since it started, the I *heart* SpongeBob site has received more than 20,000 hits, says MacGregor, who watches the show every night and then goes to sleep on SpongeBob sheets. (She also has a SpongeBob screen saver, T-shirts, Band-Aids, toys, and a cat, Gary, who she named after SpongeBob's pet snail).

"I don't know anybody who doesn't like SpongeBob," she says, "except my grandmother."

The sales angle

Such enthusiasm hasn't gone unnoticed by marketing types. Nabisco is now offering SpongeBob cheese crackers and fruit snacks. Kraft offers macaroni in the shape of four of the characters. The retailer iparty is pushing SpongeBob party invitations, hats, plates, and favors. Target Stores is selling SpongeBob clothing, bedding, school supplies, video games, and books.

Its top-selling product? Men's SpongeBob loungewear, including cotton boxer shorts and short-sleeved shirts adorned with a colorful print of the sponge and a jellyfish.

Mattel Inc. has the talking doll Babbling SpongeBob, which it says is one of its best sellers this summer. "We can't keep them in stock in our factories," said spokeswoman Tami Cole.

Hillenburg is surprised by the success of the show. "How could you expect a show about a sponge to have mass appeal? It's just unbelievable," he says. "It's almost like having a picture of your mother appear on everything in the world. Not that SpongeBob is like my mother, but I created him. It's very strange and flattering."

Nickelodeon is running repeats of the show, but an original episode will air Friday at 8 p.m. as part of a special promotion. The new season will start this fall. Hillenburg says he and his staff have already written enough episodes to carry SpongeBob into 2004.

This fall, he will begin work as director of a SpongeBob movie.

After that, the future of the show is uncertain - a fact that has sparked protests on the Web. ''I guess it's good that people care,'' Hillenburg says. "But we really want to make a feature-length story."

Hard-core fans maintain that "SpongeBob" will never go away. "I don't think I'll ever have a 'SpongeBob' convention, like 'Star Trek,' but I do see myself buying videos at the store," says Zelda MacGregor. "Just because they cancel something doesn't mean it's not going to be around anymore. There's always syndication."