This essay originally ran in TV (The Book) by Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall. We’re republishing it today in honor and memory of SpongeBob SquarePants creator Stephen Hillenburg, who died Monday.
Who lives in a pineapple under the sea? Why, one of the stars of the most brilliantly imagined and sustained display of surreal humor in pop culture, that’s who. SpongeBob SquarePants: bug-eyed, buck-toothed exponent of the phylum Porifera, and the most indestructibly innocent ninny since Candide — an ebullient, yammering, shrieking dolt, playing nautical melodies on his slide-whistle nose; disassembling and reassembling and exploding and imploding from shock and joy; singing songs about the best day ever and the best time to wear a striped sweater (“All the time!”); frolicking through the best of all possible undersea worlds with his dear friends Patrick the starfish and Sandra “Sandy” Cheeks the squirrel; doting on his pet snail Gary; inadvertently tormenting his anal-retentive cephalopod neighbor Squidward and his penny-pinching boss, Mr. Krabs; improving and destroying and rebuilding and improving and destroying his underwater hometown, Bikini Bottom; and bringing joy to children and Dadaesque humor to adults both straight and stoned.
SpongeBob: Patrick, you’re a genius!
Patrick: Yeah, I get called that a lot.
SpongeBob: What? A genius?
Patrick: No. Patrick.
Created by animator and biologist Stephen Hillenburg, SpongeBob SquarePants is in every way a classic work of family entertainment, hitting the same conceptual sweet spot as the Marxes, Laurel and Hardy, Looney Tunes, The Simpsons, and The Muppet Show: silly creatures and voices and wild slapstick for little kids, outrageous puns and non sequiturs for slightly older kids, pop-culture parody and thinly veiled social commentary for grown-ups, and brazen inventiveness for all. The universe that contains Bikini Bottom maintains rigorous internal consistency by doing whatever the heck the writers and animators feel like doing; as in Duck Soup, or certain defiantly patched-together films from W. C. Fields, the show favors situations over stories and comic effects over messages, and given the choice between doing something expected yet clever and something that seems to have been released from the reincarnated id of Marcel Duchamp or Salvador Dalí, it goes with option B.
Squidward: Could you not stand so close? You’re making me claustrophobic!
Patrick: What does “claustrophobic” mean?
SpongeBob: It means he’s afraid of Santa Claus.
Patrick: Ho ho ho!
SpongeBob: Stop it, Patrick! You’re scaring him!
The show is set mostly underwater, but not so you’d notice — when characters get excited or scared or unduly exert themselves, you might or might not see bubble trails, depending on whether the artists feel like drawing them, perhaps — and for the most part, “under the sea” amounts to a Yellow Submarine–styled fantasy of life above the waterline. There are houses and office buildings, fast-food restaurants and schools, highways and railways, cars and trucks and bikes, swimming pools and beaches (!), and boats (!!). Sometimes it rains (!!!) or snows (!!!!). There are moments when humans or mammals somehow find their way down to the ocean floor; when they do, they’re usually played by human actors in ridiculous outfits or very cheap animal costumes. (A gorilla in a diving helmet that terrorizes our heroes seems to have been inspired by the titular beast from Robot Monster.) The passage of time is indicated by the monotonous mutterings of a French-accented narrator modeled on Gallic explorer Jacques Cousteau: “Three hours later.” “Four days later.” “So much later that the old narrator got tired of waiting and they had to hire a new one.” The hero is a good-natured, wandering peanut-brain, a perforated Gomer Pyle. “Well, it’s no secret that the best thing about a secret is secretly telling someone your secret, thereby secretly adding another secret to their secret collection of secrets,” he peals. “Secretly!” His laugh could curl your hair, even if your hair is already curly, and his fearful shriek could strip the barnacles from the deck of Mr. Krabs’s pirate ship, the Krusty Krab, which supposedly was reformatted into the Krusty Krab restaurant, but which might actually have once been a retirement home called the Rusty Krab, according to the Krusty Krab Training Video, which may or may not be a reliable source of information.
[Squidward asks if anyone can play an instrument.]
Patrick: Is mayonnaise an instrument?
Squidward: No, Patrick, mayonnaise is not an instrument.
[Patrick raises his fin.]
Squidward: Horseradish is not an instrument, either.
Bikini Bottom has its own fables and legends and myths and bedtime stories and detailed mythologies. In an episode that sends up campfire stories, Mr. Krabs decides he can make more money by staying open 24 hours, which traps the eager‑to‑please SpongeBob and the dour Squidward in the restaurant all night and causes Squidward to devise the blood-curdling tale of the Hash-Slinging Slasher (“The Slash-Bringing Hasher?” SpongeBob asks), a onetime fry cook who accidentally sliced off his hand and replaced it with a spatula. In another episode, Patrick and SpongeBob decide to go camping (which entails pitching a tent between SpongeBob’s pineapple and Squidward’s house, which looks like a tiki idol and has the exact address 122 Conch Street) and warn him not to do anything that might summon the dreaded Sea Bear. The list of summoning behaviors includes playing the clarinet badly, waving your flashlight back and forth really fast, stomping the ground, eating cubed cheese (sliced is safe), wearing a sombrero in a goofy fashion, wearing clown shoes or a hoop skirt, running, limping, crawling, and screeching like a chimpanzee. Of course Squidward insists on doing all of those things (and it’s impressive how he can rush offscreen and reappear moments later with clown shoes, a hoop skirt, and a sombrero — but hey, Bugs Bunny could produce a mallet out of thin air and bonk Elmer Fudd on the head with it, so give the squid a break), and lo and behold, a Sea Bear appears and subjects Squidward to a Scorsese-level beatdown (off camera, thankfully). SpongeBob and Patrick are safe because they’ve drawn a circle around themselves, but unfortunately this can’t insulate them from a follow‑up attack by the Sea Bear’s dreaded enemy, the Sea Rhinoceros, who is drawn by the sound of a Sea Bear attack and can be repelled only by Anti–Sea Rhinoceros Undergarments.
It all makes perfect nonsense. The more demented the visuals become, the more sublime SpongeBob is.
The highlight of the aforementioned Hash-Slinging Slasher episode is SpongeBob’s fearful reaction to Squidward’s patched-together story: First he chews his nails, then he eats his arms over and over (they make a buzz-saw sound as they arc into his gullet), and finally he pops an endless series of disembodied SpongeBob arms into his maw from a popcorn bucket. In the Fry Cook Games, a fast-food version of the Olympics, Patrick and SpongeBob compete in a chocolate high dive and grapple in a wrestling ring atop a giant sandwich bun. “The inner machinations of my mind are an enigma,” intones Patrick in one of the many moments when he becomes lost in thought or insists on being recognized for his intellect, whereupon we see a thought balloon of a carton of milk tipping over. In another episode, filled with dreams of material success by Fancy Living magazine, SpongeBob and Patrick envision owning a house with a swimming pool inside of another swimming pool and decide that the best way to get rich is by selling chocolate door‑to‑door, but get bamboozled by a con-fish who sells them individual zippered bags for every chocolate bar and still more bags to hold the bags, and then takes what’s left of their money by pretending that he’s in constant pain because he has glass bones and paper skin and injures himself whenever he moves.
And then there’s the Iron Butt.
At the core of all this situational and verbal absurdity lies very, very silly and very, very stupid humor, of a type that parents know is sure to delight a child who has been verbal for only two or three years and therefore hasn’t yet been conditioned by authority figures to demand that stories be consistent or scenarios “believable.” (“That smell … A kind of smelly smell … The smelly smell that smells smelly,” says Mr. Krabs, a mini-monologue equally likely to slay a 5-year-old or Salman Rushdie.) The same indestructible faith in the transformative power of imagination that can turn a refrigerator box into a spaceship or a bath towel into a Superman cape powers the imaginations of the show’s creative team. The apotheosis of SpongeBob’s methodical madness could be “Frankendoodle,” a segment in the spirit of Chuck Jones’s classic Duck Amuck, wherein SpongeBob and Patrick acquire a magic pencil accidentally dropped from a rowboat by an artistically inclined pirate and draw a black-and-white golemesque doppelgänger of SpongeBob who takes possession of the pencil and embarks on a campaign of eraser-driven terror, rubbing out portions of the animated landscape and — in a moment that distills the show’s aesthetic to a single gesture — SpongeBob’s crack. Always hold on to your magic pencil, kids, and remember that mayonnaise is not an instrument.