By Gabriela Kalter
Photo courtesy of Richard Fraley.
Chicken Skin is a new column to the BreakThru Radio arsenal that gives our staff an outlet to discuss our not-so-guilty pleasures in music and pop culture. Why? Because when we’re not crafting podcasts full of the latest and greatest independent music for you all, our undying pre-adolescent affection for Limp Bizkit’s “Break Stuff” needs to be logged in the great annals of human experience that is the interwebs. That’s why. Without further ado, a little more on our favorite Nickelodeon protagonist…
“It’s part Laurel and Hardy, part Jacques Cousteau.” – Michael Cavna, The Washington Post
“The show is like The Honeymooners meets The Flintstones – on speed.” – Elizabeth Blair, NPR
In a world where television shows are crawling with ethically flawed characters and ex-convicts with tainted moral compasses, there’s a relief and refuge to be found in the simpler, more modest lifestyles of good-hearted and well-behaved protagonists of ostensibly lowbrow programming. I’m talking, of course, about Mr. American Icon, himself: Mr. SpongeBob SqaurePants.
In the depths of the Pacific Ocean in the small town of Bikini Bottom lives an always cheerful and good-natured bright yellow sponge who is so much more than just a porous kitchen appliance. SpongeBob is one of the most sincere and genuinely kind characters that I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know on television. His innocence and kindness make him a sponge (pun intended!) for all sorts of telling adventures and charming interactions that have fueled the continuation of the Nickelodeon cartoon for almost 15 years – that and an endlessly prolific licensing strategy.
SpongeBob SquarePants premiered in 1999 and has been one of the most successful franchises in MTV network history. Series creator Stephen Hillenburg animated SpongeBob based off of his first sponge kid illustration, Bob the Sponge, from his comic The Intertidal Zone.
Hillenburg’s background as a marine biologist turned experimental animator certainly gave him a unique path leading up to SpongeBob. His oddball character coupled with the voice over work of Tom Kenny have proven to be a recipe for a pop culture game-changer, soon to be seen of every school kid’s backpack and lunchbox, folder, bed sheets, pajamas, t-shirts, costumes, slippers… pretty much everywhere and on anything.
While the broad commercialization of the show and its somewhat excessive mass-marketing can sometimes be enough to make us never want to give SpongeBob a fair chance, there’s something to be said for his worldwide transcendence and overwhelming popularity. His pure heart and happy-go-lucky way of living speak to a goodness that lies within all of us, but somehow SpongeBob seems to be able to channel only that part of himself, like he doesn’t have a single bad bone in his body (assuming he had bones). He’s just so kind and positive all of the time that it makes his stories compelling to watch. It’s the kind of show that warms your heart, but in a silly and fun way that doesn’t make you want to cry or call your Mom or eat ice cream out of the carton.
In an interview with Vulture, the creator of the recently wrapped up AMC series Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan, discusses the cyclical viewing tastes of television audiences and the evolving popularity of the good guys vs. the bad guys when it comes to protagonists. When asked if there were any honest-to-God nice characters on TV that he still found interesting, Gilligan says:
SpongeBob SquarePants is a great show, and it centers on a character that is courageously nice. Why is SpongeBob interesting? It’s because he has passion. He has a passion for chasing jellyfish. I’m very glad people love Breaking Bad, but the harder character to write is the good character that’s as interesting and as engaging as the bad guy. My hat is off to the SpongeBob showrunners. It’s like how Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backward and in high heels. That’s kind of the struggle you face when you’re writing the good guy now instead of a bad guy.
SpongeBob SquarePants is a wide-eyed, buck-toothed weirdo who has a resilient sense of innocence about him. His distinctively high-pitched laugh exudes a childlike joy about being alive. Despite the fact that Spongebob is a 30-year-old-sponge with a shitty, minimum wage gig at the Krusty Krab and very low romantic prospects, he’s always smiling and ready to make the best out of every situation.
That’s such an honorable trait that should be emulated by more of us humans living on land. No matter the task or project at hand, SpongeBob gives it his all. Plus he’s the strange kind of kooky that relieves the exhausting pressure of trying to be cool. SpongeBob is not trying to be cool, and he’s not very smooth or suave. He’s a dork, but he’s his sincere self and that is the most awesome example to set for kids, or anyone for that matter.
Despite researchers who raise concerns about the harmful effects of fast-paced television on children, I think there’s ultimately more good being done from SpongeBob SqaurePants. Studies that have shown a decrease in the executive function of children after watching SpongeBob compared to watching Caillou on PBS are missing a key component and the essential point of the show: humor.
SpongeBob SquarePants is a good time. Simple as that. It’s weird, it’s quirky, it’s funny, and parents can appreciate the time their kids spend watching the cartoon as a productive development of an open-minded and good-natured sense of humor. Kids are not getting any funnier watching Caillou, trust me.
Thematically, the show follows SpongeBob’s innocence and the adventures he gets into with his idiotic best friend, Patrick, a chubby starfish who may be mentally defective but remains a loyal friend and good-hearted buddy just the same. SpongeBob and Patrick work together the way all the great buddy-duos do.
In an interview with The Washington Post, creator Stephen Hillenburg says, “SpongeBob is a complete innocent – not an idiot. SpongeBob never fully realizes how stupid Patrick is. They’re whipping themselves up into situations – that’s always where the humor comes from. The rule is: Follow the innocence and avoid topical humor.”
When asked about the worldwide success of the show, Hillenburg continues, “I think it’s because of it its simplicity. Everybody recognizes the childlike character. It’s universally understood – it’s physical comedy and you can understand.”
The deeper lessons that exist underneath the comedy, or alongside it, are what round out SpongeBob SquarePants and make the show such a success. Parents can rest assured that their kids are learning about the value of hard work when they watch their favorite oddball sponge who treats his job of making Krabby Patties as a true art form that deserves respect and attention.
Photo courtesy of John Ovington.
There’s wisdom to be gleaned about running a business and the integrity that entrepreneurs and employees should strive to emulate.
In addition to learning about occupational ethics and personal integrity, kids and adults alike can learn from SpongeBob about how to be a grateful citizen, a good neighbor, a true friend, and a good person (or sponge). But, perhaps most importantly, SpongeBob teaches us to be happy every day and to laugh and smile and be energetically positive no matter the circumstance.
It’s a show for both kids and adults because of the valuable lessons and positive examples SpongeBob sets forth in his attitude towards life. There’s also certain sophistication in the writing, which at times allows adults to enjoy certain wink-wink-nudge-nudge humor that might fly over their kids’ heads but succeeds in reaching their more evolved tastes. The show also manages to maintain its brand of funny without resorting to potty humor. SpongeBob respects everyone around him and, appropriately, the cartoon respects its viewers in turn.
SpongeBob is courageous, optimistic, hardworking, and pretty much the greatest and most dapper dressing sponge in the Pacific. Plus, he lives in a pineapple. How many of us can say that? Exactly. I think the description of SpongeBob on Spongepedia (an entire Wiki dedicated to the cartoon) sums it up best:
SpongeBob is said to be an adult, but he has a very childlike manner. He is not ashamed to enjoy things generally associated with younger children, such as cartoons and homemade cookies. He is not good at discerning sarcasm from sincerity, and, at times, is very literal-minded, which can lead to disaster for those around him. Despite these traits, his lightweight appearance, and his lack of physical strength, SpongeBob considers himself very mature, and has attempted – and failed – to prove his “manliness” on many occasions.
How great it he?! Is it wrong to love a sponge?!
It’s refreshing and somewhat strange to be able to look up to a cartoon character, but SpongeBob represents everything you want from a protagonist: The ability of innocence to prevail, to triumph over fear, negativity, and rejection. This animated gem allows us to believe in goodness for the sake of goodness, and the power of modesty and humility amidst so much self interest, greed, and snobbery.
There’s a lot to be learned from this little weirdo, and I for one am grateful for his undying innocence, something that like most of childhood, I’m sure we all wish we could hold onto a little longer.