The 1999 Kids’ Choice Awards on Nickelodeon is famous on its own merits. NSYNC and Britney Spears performed as their ascents to stratospheric stardom continued; TLC also performed, doing “No Scrubs” in the midst of its four straight weeks as Billboard’s #1 song. But a great many people remember it most for what happened directly after the show. That’s when Nickelodeon debuted SpongeBob SquarePants, an animated series about an anthropomorphic sponge and his undersea friends that rapidly went from Saturday morning champion to adult cult favorite to pop culture phenomenon. Now, 20 years later, we look back at five fascinating facts about a character that’s still headlining television, film, and even Broadway.
1. SpongeBob Was Born from a Perfect Marriage of Interests
SpongeBob creator Stephen Hillenburg loved two things as a kid: drawing, and the ocean. He eventually majored in marine biology and minored in art, and worked at the Ocean Institute in California. While there, he created an early comic precursor to SpongeBob called The Intertidal Zone. Hillenburg later enrolled at the California Institute of the Arts to pursue animation. He landed a job on the popular series Rocko’s Modern Life , where one of the series’ writers, Martin Olson, would encourage Hillenburg to develop his comic as an animated series.
2. The Pitch Is the Stuff of Legend
When it came time for Hillenburg and the team he’d assembled to pitch the show to Nickelodeon, the crew went all out. As the crew explains on the Season One DVD, Hillenburg wore a Hawaiian shirt and played Hawaiian music, and they brought along an underwater terrarium that contained models of the various characters. Two executives had to leave the room to compose themselves from laughing. The network gave Hillenburg and company cash and two weeks to get the first episode written; they returned and killed it with a read-through that got the show its greenlight. When they screened the pilot, executives asked to watch it again immediately after the first showing. Everyone could feel that it was something special due to surreal humor, the quality of the voice-acting, and the fact that it didn’t look quite like anything else on TV.
3. It Was an Instant Success . . . Then Got Bigger
The opening sequence of the show. (Uploaded to YouTube by Nick Animation)
When the first episode was sneak previewed on May 1, 1999, following the Kids’ Choice Awards, buzz began to build around its fun design and quirky humor. By the time that the first regular episode ran in July, fans were waiting. It only took a month for the show to dethrone Pok émon as the most-watched Saturday morning cartoon in America. By 2001, Nickelodeon also began running the show in evening slots to accommodate a growing teen and adult audience; the show ended the year with a regular audience of 15 million, one-third of whom were adults.
4. It’s Grown Beyond the Show
The trailer for the 2015 film, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water (Uploaded to YouTube by Movieclips Trailers)
SpongeBob SquarePants has only grown in the telling. There have been musical albums, comic book series, two TV movies, two theatrical releases (with another pending), theme park rides (including a coaster at the Mall of America in Minnesota), video games, and even a Broadway musical adaptation (which received multiple Tony Award nominations in 2018).
5. The Fan Theories Get Pretty Wild
Fans have suggested all manner of theories related to the series since its earliest days, with some running from the mildly amusing to the extremely dark. Many have suggested that the main location, Bikini Bottom, is the result of either nuclear war or nuclear testing (the interaction with the surface world in the films would seem to rule out nuclear apocalypse). Some are fairly innocuous (the characters live in the remains of tiki bar props from a sunken cruise ship), while others are hilariously adult (one suggestion is that the episode where Sandy and SpongeBob become obsessed with karate is actually about sex, with the word “karate” allegedly serving as a substitute for the word “sex” in all conversations). Of course, nothing is certain, and television programs generally welcome theorizing that keep the fans engaged in the show.
Creator Hillenburg passed away last year as a result of cardiopulmonary failure due to ALS. The series itself will continue, with television spin-offs and a new film in development. Twenty years in, the silly guy with the square pants continues to entertain audiences of all ages. Now, if only they’d actually make the Krusty Krab into a real restaurant chain . . .
Featured Image: SpongeBob SquarePants turns 20. (©Viacom International, Inc.)