Josiah Martin | A&E Editor
Stephen Hillenburg, best known as the creator of SpongeBob SquarePants, died on Nov. 26 at age 57. He had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in 2017.
Hillenburg’s square, yellow opus hit television screens in 1999. Inspired and informed by Hillenburg’s love for marine biology and his experiences as a director on Rocko’s Modern Life, SpongeBob’s indescribable style and original concept made the series an immediate surprise hit for Nickelodeon.
While SpongeBob’s peers – Hey Arnold, The Angry Beavers and CatDog to name a few – were all well-received successes, none achieved the longevity, global recognition and cultural ubiquity of Hillenburg’s aquatic fry cook. Hundreds of people, from animators to actors, are responsible for Spongebob’s success. However, it is the vision and spirit of Hillenburg that has made the show stand the test of time.
“After college, I got a job at what was called the Orange County Marine Institute … at Dana Point, California,” Hillenburg said in an interview for the season 1 DVD box set of SpongeBob SquarePants.
While there, he created a comic book called The Intertidal Zone to teach about marine life. As it became clearer to him that art was his calling, he applied to California Institute of the Arts.
“I met with Jules Engle, who was the head of the experimental animation program there, and he looked at my work and said, ‘you belong here,’ immediately, and it totally changed my life,” Hillenburg said.
With a proper education in animation under his belt, Hillenburg was able to find work at Rocko’s Modern Life. There, a writer encouraged Hillenburg to take the underwater world of The Intertidal Zone to television.
During a visit to Duquesne in Feb. 2018, Tom Kenny, the voice of Spongebob SquarePants, said that Hillenburg initially approached him saying, “I’ve got this idea for a show, it’s really stupid, it’ll never go. It’s about a sponge that works at a restaurant.”
Hillenburg took this concept to Nickelodeon. Eric Coleman, then-vice president of animation development and production, recalled Hillenburg’s over-the-top pitch meeting in an interview for the aforementioned season 1 DVD.
“He had on his Hawaiian shirt, he had this whole underwater terrarium with little models of the characters, he had artwork, he had Hawaiian music playing,” Coleman said. “I think one of the most amazing things about his pitch, after all the funny stuff – he had character descriptions and an overview of the world that, it was so complete, he knew who his characters were. It was amazing, and if you look back now, these years later, it’s all there in the original documents.”
That consistency and concrete quality of Hillenburg’s characters helped carry SpongeBob through nearly two decades, even through Hillenburg’s infamous departure between the series’ two film adaptations in 2004 and 2015. As Kenny put it during his talk at Duquesne, Hillenburg needed to take time to “surf, paint and hang out with [his] wife and kid.”
Even without Hillenburg, the character of SpongeBob has remained just as he was presented to Nickelodeon 20 years ago. SpongeBob has no dark side – he is, simply, joy and innocence incarnate. He is completely oblivious to the idea that there is any wrong in the world that he cannot fix himself. We, as an audience, are still drawn to that, just as we were as children.
Even when Squidward, who for all intents and purposes is SpongeBob’s foil, sees an angry customer berate our childlike yellow hero to the point of tears in 1999’s “Pizza Delivery,” he returns to throw the customer’s pizza in his face. Nobody can resist SpongeBob, and nobody can help but empathize with him.
Hillenburg wanted to create a character this lovable. He succeeded, and his humble creation still brings that unbridled joy to its viewers – once a boardroom of Viacom executives, now a worldwide audience of people of all ages.
To reference a classic episode, Stephen Hillenburg was “number one.” While his death is a blow to all who were raised on his works, the joy and innocence of his most famous creation lives on.