How Did SpongeBob SquarePants Become the Most Meme-able TV Show?

Photo: Nickelodeon

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Unless you live in an obscure corner of the internet, you’ve likely noticed that SpongeBob SquarePants occupies a special place in the heart of digital culture. Memes cut from memorable occasions in the show’s history are not new — veteran memes like “push it somewhere else,” the imagination rainbow, and confused Mr. Krabs have been around for years. But the past year seems particularly indulgent, gifting the internet with no less than five viral SpongeBob memes.

There’s SpongeBob thumbing through an assortment of clearly marked folders, or naked and winded, leaning against a nearby coral:

Patrick with a menacing smile:

Squidward staring out of the window:

The Krusty Krab, the superior establishment, contrasted with the lesser Chum Bucket:

Not a day goes by without a screenshot from this show coming down my timeline. As one user tweeted, “Spongebob, Patrick, and Squidward are single-handedly keeping this app alive.” Something about this show for children provides fodder for a range of very adult expressions and circumstances, from sex to pettiness, shade, grief, and all things in between. More than any other show (for now), SpongeBob relates to us in a way that sees digital culture return to it again and again and again.

Meme culture can be fickle. Crying Jordan, once ubiquitous, retreated into the good night, only to reemerge in the face of a 98-year-old Jesuit nun. Daniel Lara and Josh Holz are still living their best lives, but “Damn, Daniel,” after a wildfire popularity, died a quick death. The rules for who hits the jackpot — figuratively, but also literally — and for how long, are haphazard at best, though some (like myself) have ventured to guess. While footage from news segments, vines (RIP), and homemade videos are regularly unearthed to viral effect, a great bulk of images in circulation on social-media platforms come from film and television. Reaction images, for example, in both still and GIF form, borrow well-known characters and scenes for a more personal use. Or, in the case of unscripted television, reaction images replicate these shows’ tendency to amplify the petty and mundane. As The New Yorker’s Doreen St. Félix says of GIFs featuring Tiffany Pollard of Flavor of Love fame, “They mean what we need them to mean.”

Regardless of how precisely these cultural nuggets go mainstream, their popularity indicates the human element behind the digital artifact. Without human attachment, memes by definition do not exist. If the internet has determined SpongeBob the most meme-able show — again, for now — it is not merely a metric of retweets, but engagement in a real sense, a feeling shared. Some might attribute its popularity to the rise of millennial-tinged nostalgia, credited with the revival of so much late-’90s, early-’00s ephemera. But why, then, not Rocko’s Modern Life, Rugrats, Hey Arnold!, Fairly OddParents, or any other memorable, high-performing icons from Nickelodeon’s first decade of original animated programming, still in syndication on Teen Nick? Why not Kim Possible or any other beloved Disney Channel original series? Why not Recess? And though cartoons are especially primed for memes, with their crude, “shitpic” visuals, we could also ask why any number of live-action shows from that period haven’t been meme’d en masse. The profundity of this show in particular must go deeper than nostalgia. I’d venture to say that SpongeBob is better greased to circulate widely because of its spectacular realism.

Akin to Rocko’s Modern Life (and the inverse of say, Home Movies or South Park), SpongeBob is a show about the lives of adults made accessible and entertaining to children. I was 8 when the first episode premiered in 1999, well within the target demo and old enough to enjoy its antics past the effects of impeccable Foley work. With a brother several years my junior, I watched the show for several years longer than might be expected (though I swear my whole middle school was obsessed). It’s easy to call up memorable moments in the show’s history: the Krusty Krab talent show, “The Ugly Barnacle,” the “hash-slinging slasher,” the Bubble Bowl, the catchphrases (“my leg!”), cadences (“I wumbo. You wumbo. He, she, we wumbo”), and lyrics (“F.U.N.”). Watching SpongeBob now, though, I see how the sea-dwelling characters play back adulthood with all the damning comedy it deserves. Life is endlessly mundane, if you’re lucky, and ideally endured with a sense of humor. That type of humor is the lifeblood of so many jokes propagated online, so it makes sense that the internet would latch onto a show that embraces this sensibility. It’s still not quite nostalgia — teens, who weren’t yet born or verbal when the show was at its peak, love the memes. But if it’s memory in part that makes SpongeBob a worthy candidate for memes, it’s the show’s PG appreciation for life’s hilarious humorlessness that makes it adaptable to any and every situation.

Most of all, it’s SpongeBob’s characters that make it a natural fit for meme culture. An eternal grump and occasional Wile E.-esque nemesis, Squidward is a ready-made representative for the abject, antisocial figures whose humor thrives online. Tom Kenny’s SpongeBob, a virtuosic artisan working minimum wage for a miser who would better chance a lawsuit (or death, as in “Born Again Krabs”) than lose a penny, reads as sympathetic to anyone who graduated this side of the housing crisis. Patrick, though unmotivated in capitalist terms, just wants to have fun and be loved. Queer icon Sandy Cheeks is a whip-smart minority in an unfamiliar, male-dominated landscape. Plankton is a college-educated failure; Mrs. Puff suffers from chronic exhaustion, the list goes on and on.

In other words, once they’re cropped and frozen for online consumption, SpongeBob’s characters distill these feelings perfectly in image form.

As a show, SpongeBob didn’t exactly grow with its original viewership. It seems significant that so many of these memes are from the show’s first three seasons (notable exception: “Mocking SpongeBob” comes from the season-ten episode “Little Yellow Book”). Creator Stephen Hillenburg resigned from a showrunner capacity following the third season in 2004 and the subsequent dip in quality became apparent. (The show is now in its 11th season.) Were it not for a qualitative decline, SpongeBob might today be included in the ranks of Steven Universe or Adventure Time, shows ostensibly for children with intergenerational fan bases. But there’s something oddish and delightful about a redemption through this alternative life online, a renewed relevance among adults, among teens, among people who missed its critical heyday and can nonetheless receive a slice of the weirdness that made SpongeBob great.

How SpongeBob SquarePants Became the Most Meme-able TV Show