Stephen Hillenburg, the creator of SpongeBob SquarePants died November 26, 2018 due to complications from ALS.
The sun shines a bit dimmer over Bikini Bottom as fans and colleagues begin to bid farewell to creator Stephen Hillenburg. In May 2019, SpongeBob SquarePants will celebrate its 20-year anniversary. It is the longest-running show on the network.
There is something to be said for the staying power of SpongeBob SquarePants. Ever the eternal optimist, the yellow sponge of the ocean floor captured its first audience in 1999, an audience that has stuck around for the last two decades.
I remember watching the first episode of SpongeBob SquarePants after the Kid’s Choice Awards when I was eight years old. There hasn’t been a time since then that the series has been out of reach and I cannot imagine it going away any time soon.
Nickelodeon issued a statement following Hillenburg’s passing:
“We are incredibly saddened by the news that Steve Hillenburg has passed away following a battle with ALS. He was a beloved friend and long-time creative partner to everyone at Nickelodeon, and our hearts go out to his entire family. Steve imbued ‘SpongeBob SquarePants’ with a unique sense of humor and innocence that has brought joy to generations of kids and families everywhere. His utterly original characters and the world of Bikini Bottom will long stand as a reminder of the value of optimism, friendship and the limitless power of imagination.”
Those last notes mentioned by Nickelodeon are Hillenburg and his creation in a nutshell. There is no SpongeBob without Hillenburg. He is intimately tied with the series, his influence ripples across each season even if he was not present full-time. And that is in large part why the series, merchandise, spinoffs all come across as a complete package. No matter how far off the deep end the series may dive, it’s always, always about optimism, friendship, and limitless imagination.
“I’m ready.” It starts and ends with that phrase. Say it three times (or more) times for good measure. There is no better phrase for the show or for the creator who took a death sentence and decided to charge forward and work until he could not give any more of himself to the task.
SpongeBob is always the show that can get me to laugh, or at the very least smirk, no matter what else is going on. It is, always a light spot. Even when it dives into some darker themes.
When Kyle Jarrow, who took the property from screen to the Broadway stage, was drafting the script, he discussed pitching a few ideas to both Nickelodeon and director Tina Landau. But it was the one that would face the characters with imminent death that took hold. “We get to see how all of these different characters face that and deal with that fear. It was by far the craziest idea and I threw it in the mix because I thought that SpongeBob is a super optimistic character. That’s his main trait, he is always optimistic, no matter how bad things are he always sees the bright side.”
Mind you, this is a show about sea creatures, who live in a town called Bikini Bottom, in pineapples and Easter Island heads, and make burgers for a living. How does a person even begin to unpack the existential crisis of a single-celled organism?
SpongeBob’s unique brightness is due in large part to Hillenburg. The rich tapestry that he created and the deeply unmoving character traits of his initial gang of tide-pool friends. There are outsiders, town villains, greedy bosses, and, of course, the hero. And while they take the form of a sponge, a sea star, a squirrel, a squid, a crab, and many, many background fish, it’s hard not to see the humanity in each of them.
Hillenburg rarely made himself a part of the SpongeBob mania. Instead he let the characters do the talking for him. Instead the purest of friendships that existed between Patrick Star and SpongeBob, the rockiest of friendships between Squidward and SpongeBob, and the weirdest friendship between Plankton and Mr. Crabs dominated the public conversation.
It’s also a show that creates community. Talk to almost anyone and they know who SpongeBob is either from the show, the Macy’s Parade balloon, attractions at the Universal Studios theme parks, or any of the thousands of pieces of merchandise created over the years.
And if you are not communication about the show directly, chances are you have used one of the many, many memes taken from the show to foster or contribute to a conversation. Everyone is welcome in Bikini Bottom to take what they need from the show when they need it.
Limitless power of imagination
No matter how far off your projected life path, the drive to chase your dream is also something Hillenburg instilled in his characters. Take the squid who spends his days behind the cash register, but dreams of painting fine art and playing famous concert halls. Or SpongeBob who, after 20 years, still does not have his boating license. While Hillenburg was not taking orders for burgers, he was teaching children all about marine while dabbling in animation and artistic interests on the side.
Though Hillenburg’s exact likeness does not make to the screen, his is a life reflected in art.
These interests sparked a career change into the field of animation, where he helped launch another Nickelodeon first, Rocko’s Modern Life as a director. While climbing the ranks on Rocko taught him a lot about the industry, it was creating SpongeBob SquarePants that threw Hillenburg into the deep end with running the whole shebang.
That’s what you get from watching any iteration of SpongeBob SquarePants — limitlessness. There is no task too big (push the entire town of Bikni Bottom away from the Alakan Bull Worm) or small (learn to blow a bubble) for the show to turn into an 11-minute segment.
There are episodes that poke fun at what the characters would look like out of the ocean, movies that turn them into CGI monstrosities, and one more recent nod to film noir that takes place entirely in black and white until the final scene where fan submitted colorings make their debut.
The show is never afraid to break the fourth wall or try something new. And that’s what keeps audiences coming back year after year, and why, even in syndication (can you believe it is part of Nick and Nite now?!) the episodes do not feel stale.
As season 12 of SpongeBob kicks off and a new movie is on the horizon for 2020, I bet the show will only continue to pick up steam, nurturing the seeds sown by their creator.
The outpouring of thanks from the animation community on Twitter following Hillenburg’s passing is a testament to his imagination and where the countless people involved with the series were able to go with it.
theres no words to describe how much spongebob has shaped my entire childhood and present, its still the base of my entire sense of humour today. ive made multiple friends through it and it made my life better in so many ways. rest in peace stephen hillenburg, thank u pic.twitter.com/ScoP9YD2gm
— Jo (@potajos) November 28, 2018
— Vincent Lovallo (@Vincredible_23) November 28, 2018
Up, up and awaaaaaayyy! Heart broken about Stephen Hillenburg. Spongebob was a huge part of my childhood. pic.twitter.com/m4wWcd504O
— Kirsten Shiel (@KirstenShielART) November 28, 2018
One more for Stephen Hillenburg today. I wanted a Krabby Patty SO badly as a kid. pic.twitter.com/WS5eQPu9MV
— Kirsten Shiel (@KirstenShielART) November 28, 2018
Thanks for the laughs and continued pleasure of joining friends in Bikini Bottom for the last 19 years, Hillenburg. Thank you for not sacrificing optimism for us cynics out there. As a result, the sun will continue to shine down on these beautiful Bikini Bottom days for years to come.