Trying to reflect on the year in comedy at the end of 2021 is like trying to look through a rearview mirror that’s got bird shit on it: There are trees and trucks and roadkill and a billboard with Bo Burnham’s face on it laid out behind you, but it’s all kind of obscured by the bird shit.
The bird shit is Dave Chappelle’s The Closer. Released in October as the last special of Chappelle’s multimillion-dollar deal with Netflix, much of the special consists of the stand-up defending transphobic jokes from his past specials, railing against cancel culture, comparing trans women presenting themselves in a gender-affirming way to blackface, siding with TERFs, misgendering a trans acquaintance who died by suicide, and then using his friendship with her as a scapegoat for why he’s allowed to make these jokes. It was upsetting to members of the trans community, the comedy community, and any erstwhile fans of Chappelle who have had to put up with years of this from him. Things escalated when Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos released a series of statements in defense of the special. He argued that the purpose of comedy was to “push boundaries” and wrote that Netflix has “a strong belief that content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm.” (Sarandos later walked back his comments and admitted that he “screwed up.”) It’s a condescendingly dumb argument, particularly to anyone who’s ever seen a map of states where the “gay and trans panic” defense is still admissible in court …
… or anyone who’s ever seen the season-two SpongeBob SquarePants episode “Squirrel Jokes.” The episode, which first aired in September 2001, shows SpongeBob winning over an audience at an open mic night by making “squirrel jokes” at the expense of his good squirrel friend, Sandy Cheeks. As he makes jokes about how squirrels are stupid and look strange, SpongeBob whips the crowd into a frenzy. Sandy is hurt and asks him to stop, but SpongeBob says that he knows she’s smart, and he’s only joking, and she shouldn’t take it so seriously, and she should be a supportive friend. But Sandy is a minority as the only squirrel in Bikini Bottom, and people begin to treat her differently in public, talking down to her like she’s stupid and not letting their children near her in the store. She ends up teaching SpongeBob the error of his ways via some trademark slapstick, and everything’s neatly wrapped up by the end of the 11-minute episode.
Two days after the release of The Closer, queer Black comedian Kid Fury tweeted, “Remember when Spongebob got into standup and kept telling the same lame ass squirrel jokes because that’s all his audience thought they wanted to hear … even though he knew it was harmful to the squirrel just minding her own damn business? Good episode.” The tweet was shared thousands of times, with more people sharing the sentiment that even kids can understand the message and sharing clips of the episode. It was apt for the Closer controversy, but it also illustrated how we’ve been having these conversations about punching down, albeit in different ways, for decades now.
“Squirrel Jokes” was written by Walt Dohrn, Paul Tibbitt, and Merriwether Williams. SpongeBob was only the second show Dohrn had worked on after graduating from CalArts, but during his time there he co-wrote classic episodes like “Frankendoodle” (2002), “Procrastination” (2001), and “Imitation Krabs” (2000). From there, he had a hand in basically every element of 2000s childhood: the Shrek films (in addition to working in the story department on the sequels, he voiced Rumpelstiltskin in the fourth film), Madagascar, and Dexter’s Laboratory. More recently, he directed the Trolls movies. Vulture spoke with Dohrn about comedy, cartoons, and what SpongeBob knew in 2001 that people like Chappelle and Sarandos still don’t get 20 years later.
What was the inspiration behind writing this episode?
I’m trying to remember. This was 21 years ago! I went back and watched the episode a couple of days ago to remind myself, and it did come back to me, as far as some of our discussions. Process-wise, SpongeBob creator Stephen Hillenburg and creative director and writer on all episodes Derek Drymon were a big part of writing and putting the episode together. So as far as the inspiration, it was kind of built-in by the time I got there; there was a list of things they wanted to make the show about.
This was my first TV gig, and as comedy writers, there was this complete commitment to jokes. It was boot camp for me. We would work all night long, like, What’s the funniest drawing? What’s the funniest idea? We were absorbed in the idea of comedy, and the conversation came to be about this desire to get the laugh. And we started talking about that — about how you could be so desperate in the moment that you’ll say or do anything to get the laugh. So I think that was really the core of the episode — the idea that you reach for this low-hanging fruit to get the laugh, especially if you’re bombing. Then we talked about the personal consequences of that and how in this desperation to get the laugh you could end up really hurting people.
It’s interesting that you were having those conversations on a show that isn’t necessarily associated, in my mind, with mean humor. What was it exactly that you were noticing in the writers’ room — or in media you were consuming at the time — that led to this angle of the dangers of finding the laugh at any expense?
I’m trying to get this right because it was so long ago, but a lot of it had to do with the nature of pitching the show as part of our job. It made me endlessly nervous because I was a very shy person, and I was learning how this is part of the process. Not only do you write the episode and draw it, but you have to put all your drawings on the wall. Paul and I would do this together because we were a team on all of our episodes. You’d have to stand up in front of the entire crew and perform the episode. And if you’re bombing, you may, in the room, go for the low-hanging fruit and do some humor that wasn’t part of the episode just to get the laugh. That was part of the conversation — this desperation to have the laugh at all costs.
But that scenario could have played out anywhere in a SpongeBob episode, like at the beach or work or whatever. Instead, you made the Krusty Krab an after-hours comedy club, and you made SpongeBob a stand-up, and you’re skewering a specific type of insult comedy. The jokes are specifically coded as being about a minority group.
I hadn’t thought about that episode since we made it. When you contacted me and I went back to watch it, I was shocked and surprised myself because obviously now we have this conversation all the time on the shows and movies I work on. But 21 years ago, it just wasn’t as common to have this conversation. We would try to tackle big themes and disguise them in kids’ entertainment or family entertainment, but it was surprising that it was a thin analogy to bigotry. Some of that comes from me, Paul, Steve Hillenburg, and Derek growing up watching An Evening at the Improv in the ’80s. It was so ubiquitous, that kind of stand-up — definitely the whole cliché of the person standing in front of the brick wall. It was the collective experience of growing up with that.
Did you know the episode had gone viral in relationship to the Chappelle controversy?
I didn’t until your contact. I was excited to see that it had that kind of relevance. It had been so long since I returned to those episodes. I’m just so heads-down, working in animation. I was excited that it was part of the conversation. Then when I watched the episode, I was like, Oh! I wasn’t surprised, but some of the conversation has changed since then. Because in the episode, he kind of ends with — it’s a nice sentiment — we can all laugh at ourselves. We definitely believed then and believe now that comedy should tackle more difficult parts of the human experience. That’s what comedy served then; that’s what it serves now. But I think the conversation is But at all costs, it shouldn’t be at someone else’s expense.
I liked the episode’s ending, but if I were to do it today, I think there would be a little bit more clarity about the responsibility we have to not perpetuate any kind of hurtful stereotype. Even if we’re saying, “We should be able to laugh at ourselves,” I just think the idea of laughing at someone else’s expense, we don’t need to do that. There’s plenty of material, plenty of odd and surreal and absolutely absurd things to talk about in comedy, whether it is a family show or anything else. We’re just very conscious now of who or what the jokes are directed at.
I’m glad you brought up that ending. It’s funny how people were holding clips of this episode up as an example of “Even a children’s show got the right idea 20 years ago,” but then you watch the full episode, and it ends on this very 2000s, South Park–era resolution of SpongeBob becoming an “equal opportunity offender.” It’s really indicative of the time.
Yeah, and it makes sense. Even not that long ago, we would have this sense as comedy-animation people of like, You know what? Nothing is off-limits. That’s what comedy is about. Equal opportunity. Everything is funny. And it’s just not the case. We’ve seen too many examples over the years of the kind of harm that can do, even to the point that self-deprecating humor feels kind of wrong now as well. Say you’re talking about yourself, and someone identifies with those things you’re making fun of in yourself? Then that’s hurtful to them.
What you’re saying is SpongeBob hadn’t seen Nanette at the time. Hannah Gadsby wasn’t around to teach him that.
You mentioned SpongeBob was your first TV writing job. What was your relationship to comedy at the time? Was anyone who co-wrote this episode involved in stand-up? I know Tom Kenny comes from the comedy world.
There was one story artist-writer. He’s the guy who does the voice of Plankton, Mr. Lawrence. I have this vague memory that he was involved in the stand-up scene. And definitely Tom Kenny. But I think — it’s almost a cliché — we all had this painful past. That’s where the comedy chops get developed, as a survival mechanism. It’s how me and most people that I would come in contact with in animation — these shy, introverted people — found an outlet. In comedy. We have to see the absurdity in the nightmare of growing up to make it through that stuff.
Do you remember a time where you pushed right up against the line, or crossed it, working on SpongeBob?
I think the line would be more on the surreal humor. The weirder it got, the stranger our drawings got. It felt psychedelic, drug-infused. At the time, we talked about how not only was it for kids and families but also for sleep-deprived college students. Anything that was so weird that it might turn off the core audience, there would be concern from the network or the studio. That would be the edge that we pushed: bizarre drawing, anything that felt like there was some odd innuendo.
How do you feel about the generation that grew up with things you worked on like SpongeBob, Shrek, and Dexter’s Lab becoming comedians and animators in their own right?
I’m so honored to have been a part of all these things that are so ubiquitous and make people feel good. That old adage that laughter is the best medicine is absolutely true. I was doing some presentation or something, and I looked into the science of what happens to your brain when you laugh, and comedy can really impact your physiology and improve your health. There’s a stigma attached to doing children’s entertainment, and maybe that’s more of a chip on my shoulder, but I just never looked at it like that. I made sure that it wasn’t too offensive, and that it was clear, but I never approached the humor any different way, whether it was for young people or families or sleep-deprived college students.
Do you have a favorite joke or visual gag from SpongeBob or from anything else that you worked on?
One thing that I have enjoyed doing and that I’ve been able to exercise is the performer part of myself, which is something I didn’t know I had until I was forced to do it on SpongeBob, and I would have to perform all the voices. Writing and directing is a hard thing to quantify for a lot of people, but I’ve been able to perform the characters. I was the antagonist of the fourth Shrek movie, which was very exciting and fun to do. Mike Mitchell and I made the first Trolls movie together, and I got to play this character called the Cloud Guy. That’s something I really like being able to do. Outside of pitching sequences on shows, that’s very close to stand-up comedy. Standing in front of a microphone and performing and improvising lines is the thing I’m definitely the most proud of.
You voicing Rumpelstiltskin in the fourth Shrek was a huge deal because by then there was this trend of only A-list celebs voicing these major animated studio movies in lieu of actual voice or character actors.
It was a real win at the time because we do all the voices before the celebrity marquee actors come in. It’s like workshopping a play. So people started getting it in their heads because I was doing that one role. So when I was awarded the role, regardless that I had no marquee value at all, there was this joke: “Myers! Murphy! Diaz! … Dohrn?” It felt like a win for the team, like the entire crew was that character.
Anyway, sorry for all these gotcha questions about an 11-minute episode of SpongeBob from 20 years ago.
I hope it was helpful! I think you opened up a little window into my brain. I’m going to go back and watch some of these episodes and kind of enjoy the people who enjoy them.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.