Medium: TV animation
Produced by: United Plankton Pictures
First Appeared: 1999
Creator: Stephen Hillenburg
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When Nickelodeon (Rugrats, Invader Zim) launched Spongebob Squarepants, it had only modest expectations for the relatively …

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… low-budget cartoon. But by the middle of the second season, it was becoming clear they had a hit, and it eventually proved to be the biggest hit they ever had, drawing viewers as diverse as those of Ren & Stimpy, the surprise hit that had originally brought the attention of adults to Nick's animated programming.

One thing that brought in the grown-ups was the absurdity of the situation. Spongebob's setting, the city of Bikini Bottom, exact position unspecified, was under water. But that didn't keep people from enjoying a day at the beach, where they'd frolic in the sunshine between dips in the water, which was somehow easily distinguished from the watery environment in which they conducted their daily business. It didn't keep anyone from enjoying a drink of whatever substance filled their glasses, which was apparently different, somehow, from the medium around them. It didn't even prevent the occasional fire breaking out.

Yet, Sandy Cheeks, a Bikini Bottom resident who happened to be a squirrel, had to wear a diving helmet just like any other land-dwelling creature in such a location; and the water dwellers who made up the bulk of Bikini Bottom's population needed water-filled enclosures on their heads when they visited Sandy in her air-filled dome.

But living in Bikini Bottom was a lot like living in any land-based community. The bicycles had rotary paddles instead of wheels and the cars looked like boats, but people worked and played just like on the surface. Spongebob worked in a leisure-time industry, food service — he was a fry cook at The Krusty Krab, one of Bikini Bottom's top greasy spoons. and there didn't seem to be anything unusual about working as a fry cook under water.

Spongebob's boss was a crustacean, Mr. Eugene H. Krabs, a greedy martinet who truly loved nobody but his daughter Pearl, a whale. His only co-worker was Squidward Tentacles, a squid who hated his job and found Spongebob himself annoying at best. Squidward was also Spongebob's next-door neighbor. Living next to Squidward, on the other side, was Spongebob's best friend, Patrick Star, a pink starfish who wasn't very bright. One of the show's few concessions to its sub-aqueous settimg was that Patrick and Spongebob liked to go jellyfishing together. This was a lot like butterfly collecting, but conducted in a wetter environment. Mr. Krabs's rival was fellow restaurateur Sheldon Plankton, owner of The Chum Bucket, who was always trying to steal the recipe for Krabby Patties, the Krusty Krab's signature dish. Plankton was married to a computer named Karen.

Spongebob's voice was Tom Kenny, whose other credits include Plastic Man in a 2006 Cartoon Network special, Nanobot in Jimmy Neutron, and the narrator in Powerpuff Girls. Mr. Krabs was Clancy Brown (Lex Luthor,, Cataclysm in Biker Mice from Mars), Squidward was Rodger Bumpass (Dr. Light in Teen Titans, several voices in Disney's Tarzan). Patrick was Bill Faggerbakke (Broadway in Gargoyles, Ted the Polar Bear in Madascar Penguins). Plankton was Douglas "Mr." Lawrence (Filburt in Rocko's Modern Life, an alien in The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy).

A recurring character was Bikini Bottom's aged former protector, Mermaid Man, who looked just like DC Comics' Aquaman, but with the addition of a small, non-functional seashell bra, like the functional ones worn by many fictional mermaids, such as Ariel. He was voiced by Ernest Borgnine, whose many face roles are leavened with an occasional voice part, such as playing himself on The Simpsons. His sidekick, the almost equally aged Barnacle Boy, was Tim Conway, also a face actor with an occasional minor voice role. When Nickelodeon magazine ran a Mermaid Man comics story as a Spongebob promotion, it was drawn by Ramona Fradon, the acclaimed 1950s Aquaman artist.

The show was created by animator Stephen Hillenburg, whose prior career as a marine biology instructor ensured total accuracy in its depiction of underwater living. Viewers could be absolutely sure everything was precisely as it would be if they themselves lived in the ocean, right down to the fires, explosions and pet snails that sounded like cats. Hillenburg produced a comic book called The Intertidal Zone while working in marine biology, and a friend suggested he redo it as animation. Nickelodeon aired it on May 1, 1999, and it became a series on July 17 of the same year. Spongebob's name was originally Spongeboy, but it was changed for legal reasons. Hillenburg formed the company "United Plankton Pictures" to produce Spongebob for Nickeledeon.

Spongebob's first movie was aired on November 19, 2004. About a dozen more followed, as did years of new episodes — Spongebob has remained in continuous production longer than any other Nickelodeon cartoon, shrugging off attacks from bluenoses alleging homosexuality because Spongebob and Patrick are such good friends.

Plus, there have been coloring books, fast-food tie-ins, toys and miscellaneous items of commercial exploitation galore — as befits a superstar like Spongebob.


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Text ©2009-10 Donald D. Markstein. Art © United Plankton Pictures.