The New York Times July 19, 2009
It was ridiculous when some conservative religious leaders complained of a hidden homosexual agenda lurking behind the jellyfish and floating plankton of “SpongeBob SquarePants.”
Ridiculous, but not totally absurd. Adults have been trying to detect some sort of subtext to that cheerful, cheeky and almost inexplicably popular Nickelodeon cartoon series since it first bubbled to the surface a decade ago.
There have been books, dissertations and seminars dedicated to the study of the fun-loving yellow kitchen sponge who lives in a pineapple under the sea.
There was a theatrical-release movie version. President Obama said during the campaign that SpongeBob was his favorite television character. David Bowie and Johnny Depp are among the many stars who boast or blog about having been guest stars.
To fete the show’s 10th anniversary, Nickelodeon plans to wring “SpongeBob” of every drop with a 50-episode weekend marathon on Friday that will include 10 new episodes, while its sister network, VH1, plans on Tuesday to show a documentary, “Square Roots: The Story of ‘SpongeBob SquarePants,’ ” that interviews its creator, Stephen Hillenburg, an illustrator and marine biologist, and others.
The series celebrates its first decade as popular as ever and without having disclosed any higher meaning to Bikini Bottom, the name of the underwater city where it takes place..
SpongeBob’s zany charm is obvious and infectious, but his lasting popularity with children and grown-ups of all kinds is daunting.
Part of the show’s mystique is precisely that it has so little edge or subversive double-entendres. The writers send up all sorts of American quirks and conventions while placing them underwater, but gently and benignly. “SpongeBob” remains distinctive, if only for its retro look: Mr. Hillenburg and his colleagues say they were inspired by Bugs Bunny and other old-school cartoons, and their animation is hand-drawn in the same way as a Bugs Bunny or Road Runner cartoon, with each episode requiring more than 20,000 drawings.
Mostly it’s the sensibility that is a throwback to a loonier Looney Tunes era. “SpongeBob” became a huge hit in the early ’00s when some of the most popular cartoons, like “South Park,” had a cynical, perverse edge that appealed to both teenagers and adults.
SpongeBob is an optimist, a naïf and a child, and the unifying joke is that he is impervious to danger or dislike. SpongeBob loves his friends and doesn’t realize that some, notably his neighbor Squidward and even Mr. Krabs, his miserly boss at the Krusty Krab food shack, do not exactly reciprocate.
At times, however, the writers seem to poke fun at some of the sick humor so prevalent on “South Park” and other more sophisticated animated series.
In one episode SpongeBob inadvertently drives a school-crossing guard to abandon her post and flee; a line of tiny schoolchildren cross the street by themselves and right into oncoming traffic. They aren’t crushed and smeared across the sidewalk, as the setup suggests and as some “South Park” viewers have come to expect. Instead the approaching vehicles turn out to be a slow-moving, colorful parade, to the delight of SpongeBob and the children.
It’s been 10 years now, and “SpongeBob” still seems refreshing and innocent compared with so much other precocious children’s programming.
Edward Gorey, the master illustrator of the macabre, once said that there is no such thing as “happy nonsense.” “SpongeBob” could be the exception.