An animator whose cartoons were as looney as his imagination, which knew no bounds.
…because a pineapple under the sea can be the setting for intelligent humor. “SpongeBob SquarePants” takes the ridiculous premise of an animated sponge and his starfish best friend, but adds elements of everyday life and childhood experience. Rather than trying to sneak obscenities past the censors, the show’s comedy relies on silly jokes and absurd situations. In fact, creator Stephen Hillenburg modeled SpongeBob’s character on the happy-go-lucky doofus archetype developed by Jerry Lewis.
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Like many successful, mass-marketed animated series, “SpongeBob SquarePants” is as much a personal expression of the storytellers as it is a plot to brainwash children (as well as, to be fair, a surprising number of adults who watch the series). In creating the world of “SpongeBob SquarePants,” Stephen Hillenburg drew on his background in marine biology, which he had studied before turning to animation. The series as a whole reflects his lifelong fascination with the ocean, particularly its unique quirks and oddities. This is probably most evident in the show’s central characters, a sponge and a starfish, both of which are largely inanimate species in their natural setting, yet animated through the power of, well, animation. Much of the humor in fact relies on aquatic-themed puns, such as Bikini Bottom – the setting is below the Bikini Atoll – or Krabby Patty. Hillenburg and his writing staff also used their own personal experiences from childhood as inspiration. While the world of Bikini Bottom is ostensibly strange and fictional, this gives the stories and characters a relatable quality. The show has also won praise for its themes of tolerance and diversity.
Although “SpongeBob SquarePants” aired as a traditional half-hour cartoon, the episodes actually consist of two separate parts. Hillenburg preferred the short-form narrative structure because it allowed for simpler stories that could be driven by the character’s actions without any elaborate plot devices or gimmicks. The show also used a storyboard format instead of a traditional television script. The writers would submit a short plot outline to the storyboard artists, who would then begin to visualize the show. This approach allows the animation to drive the story, as opposed to trying to work around the written gags and plot elements. The storyboard artists also add dialogue and jokes once the visual structure is in place for each episode. Perhaps this explains why “SpongeBob SquarePants” feels less like a network sitcom watered down for kids and more like a product of its own bizarrely imagined genre.
Despite the show’s adult appeal, the humor of “SpongeBob SquarePants” rarely gets any racier than PG-rated material. Sure, there may have been the occasional starfish buttocks, but for the most part, the show relied on ridiculous situations that were often driven by the character’s even more ridiculous actions. Perhaps foreseeing the trope of every single male-centered comedy, Spongebob is essentially an overgrown boy trying to make it in a world of adults. While he has a house (or at least a pineapple with some furniture) and a job, SpongeBob views the world in the same way a kid would, approaching every situation with an innocence that almost always causes complications. Similarly, his best friend Patrick has the naïve idiocy of a child, but believes himself to be smarter than he is, misleading SpongeBob with terrible advice. As a contrast, the main “adult” characters of the show are almost parodies of serious people. By poking fun of both the silliness of children and the uptightness of adults, the show manages to bridge both audiences together.
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