A Deep Dive Into The Origins Of SpongeBob SquarePants

It’s no question that SpongeBob SquarePants is Nickelodeon’s most beloved cartoon these days. Since his debut in 1999, the porous yellow sponge has been a childhood favorite for many, with a mass popularity that creator Stephen Hillenburg couldn’t have expected.

Now, there are hundreds of episodes of SpongeBob, as well as four movies and tons of merchandise. But for how extremely well-liked SpongeBob and the rest of the gang in Bikini Bottom are, not a lot is known about its origins or its quiet creator, who sadly passed away from ALS in 2018.

Stephen Hillenburg Passed Away At 57

Junko Kimura/Getty Images
Junko Kimura/Getty Images

In 2017, Variety published a grave announcement on behalf of Stephen Hillenburg, which read: “I wanted people to hear directly from me that I have been diagnosed with ALS. Anyone who knows me knows that I will continue to work on SpongeBob SquarePants and my other passions for as long as I am able.”

Sadly, a dark cloud passed over the animation world at the end of November 2018 when it was announced that Hillenburg had passed away in his home at the too-young age of 57. The following day, his ashes were appropriately scattered in the Pacific Ocean.

Steven Hillenburg Was A Marine Biologist

Anacleto Rapping/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Anacleto Rapping/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Stephen Hillenburg didn’t create SpongeBob SquarePants out of the blue. In fact, Hillenburg had a long relationship with the ocean. Hillenburg was an actual marine biologist before he went into animation and he even got a degree in natural resource planning with an emphasis on marine resources.

He taught Marine Biology at the Orange County Marine Institute, where he created a comic book called The Intertidal Zone that featured an early iteration of SpongeBob. It was just enough to reignite Hillenburg’s passion for animation, so he went back to school to study experimental animation at CalArts.

A Sponge By Any Other Name

Today we know him as SpongeBob SquarePants and you can’t really imagine his name as anything else. But before he was “SpongeBob,” Hillenburg actually called his porous main character “SpongeBoy.”

That name wasn’t going to work out, however, since the name was already copyrighted by a mop company. Hillenburg settled on SpongeBob, making sure to include “sponge” in the name so that kids wouldn’t mistake him for a block of cheese! Coincidentally, in his comic, The Intertidal Zone, Hillenburg had a sponge character named Bob.

Patrick Wasn’t Always The Starfish He Is Today

While Hillenberg and creative director Derek Drymon were developing a pilot to pitch to Nickelodeon executives, they originally wanted to create a road-trip situation involving SpongeBob and Squidward (it wasn’t used for the pilot, but would later become the episode “Pizza Delivery”).

Hillenberg came up with the idea that the guys would go to a roadside bar, the owner of which was a starfish with a “huge chip on his shoulder because he was pink.” This early conception of Patrick was also supposed to be a bully, but that obviously didn’t stick.

SpongeBob Was Inspired By Pee-Wee Herman And Jerry Lewis

Kevin Winter/ImageDirect
Kevin Winter/ImageDirect

SpongeBob isn’t exactly a boy, but he’s not exactly a man either. Sort of an adult with childlike tendencies, SpongeBob’s characteristics were carefully thought out by creator Stephen Hillenburg.

Tom Kenny, who voices the character of SpongeBob, recalled what Hillenburg told him while the show was still in development: “He’s not quite an adult, he’s not quite a kid. Think a Stan Laurel, Jerry Lewis kind of child-man… Maybe he mentioned Ed Norton from The Honeymooners, but Pee-Wee Herman, Jerry Lewis and Stan Laurel were go-to’s for us.”

SpongeBob Is Square Just For Laughs

As with any cartoon, the main characters went through many versions of themselves before coming to life. SpongeBob was inspired by the main character in Stephen Hillenburg’s comic The Intertidal Zone. Spongeboy, as he was called, was shaped like an actual sea sponge.

“In The Intertidal Zone the character was a natural sponge, but I thought an artificial square sponge was funnier. SpongeBob is just made of cellulose, but he has parents who are natural sponges – he got the square gene,” Hillenburg explained.

Hillenburg Was A Fan Of Jacques Cousteau

Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Stephen Hillenburg grew up being absolutely fascinated with the ocean. As a kid of the ’60s and ’70s, he watched plenty of Jacques Cousteau and he even took up scuba diving.

“I was into Jacques Cousteau as a kid and started scuba-diving around 14, which blew my mind. It was all [color], another world. I studied natural resources planning and thought I could get a job at some marine park. But I was great at art and so-so at marine biology. It’s funny how the two eventually came together,” Hillenburg told The Guardian.

The Reason SpongeBob Loves His Job So Much

Everyone knows that SpongeBob loves his job at the Krusty Krab. This may seem a bit odd to some, especially since SpongeBob works as a fry cook at a greasy spoon. But remember, SpongeBob is a bit naive and his loving his job was by design.

“I wanted SpongeBob to love his job,” Hillenburg told The Guardian. “I always imagined a kid going into McDonald’s and seeing a guy cooking and thinking it was the best job in the world: ‘You can eat hamburgers all the time!'”

Squidward Isn’t Technically A Squid

If you thought SpongeBob’s curmudgeonly neighbor Squidward was a squid, then think again. He’s often thought of as a squid and some might even say he’s an octopus, but both assumptions are wrong. Even though his name is Squidward, he technically only has six tentacles – two for his “arms” and four for his “legs.”

Since squid and octopi have eight tentacles, Squidward doesn’t classify as either. He’s simply just a cephalodpod. Animators believed that giving him any more than six tentacles would have “weigh him down too much visually.”

Hillenburg Purposely Avoided Having Celebrity Guests

The lengthy list of celebrity fans of SpongeBob SquarePants include the likes of Dr. Dre and Ellen DeGeneres. But Stephen Hillenburg never bothered to invite celebrity guests on the show.

“I deliberately avoided that. The Simpsons is a tough act to follow, so I thought it was best not to do what they do. But we’ve had a few exceptions. Ernest Borgnine and Tim Conway have regularly appeared as Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy, respectively,” Hillenburg told Entertainment Weekly. This lasted for the first three seasons. Since Hillenburg resigned as showrunner, there have been plenty of celebrity guests.

Bikini Bottom Is Based On A Real Place

Reinhard Dirscherl/ullstein bild via Getty Images
Reinhard Dirscherl/ullstein bild via Getty Images

SpongeBob SquarePants takes place in Bikini Bottom, which is actually based on a ring-shaped coral reef known as Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. In the ’40s and ’50s, the U.S. used Bikini Atoll as a site for nuclear testing, which led to the theory that SpongeBob and his friends are results of nuclear mutation.

But the people behind the scenes have denied the theory. “I think Bikini Bottom is like its own world… When the camera drops below the water and you go to Bikini Bottom, it’s almost like another planet,” voice actor Tom Kenny told Huffington Post.

The Flower Clouds Were Influenced By Tahiti

Have you ever noticed those flowers in the “sky” of Bikini Bottom? They don’t necessarily count as clouds since the show takes place underwater. “I had just been to Tahiti and that influenced the flowers in the sky,” Hillenburg once said.

Background designer Kenny Pittenger once clarified, “They function as clouds in a way, but since the show takes place underwater, they aren’t really clouds… So really, the sky flowers are mostly a whimsical design element that Steve came up with to evoke the look of a flower-print Hawaiian shirt – or something like that.”

Hillenburg Drew The Line At Promoting Fast Food

Larry W. Smith/Getty Images
Larry W. Smith/Getty Images

Many cartoons that become huge with children often spawn huge merchandising opportunities. Hillenburg, at first, was very particular about how far that could go and had quite an opinion on SpongeBob promoting fast food.

“In the show, the whole point of the fast-food – the fact that SpongeBob loves being part of the fast-food chain, and that being a manager is his ultimate dream: it’s ironic… we didn’t want to suddenly become the people serving up food that’s not good for you – especially kids,” Hillenburg told The New York Times in 2004.

Stephen Hillenburg Wasn’t A Fan Of The Merchandise

Theo Wargo/WireImage
Theo Wargo/WireImage

It’s no question that SpongeBob SquarePants was a hit, which is why there is tons of merchandise that bears his face.

Storyboard artist Sherm Cohen told The New York Times that Hillenburg had his doubts when merchandise started coming out: “He said, ‘My biggest nightmare is that I’m going to be at the beach one day, and one of these dolls is going to wash up on the shore like garbage.’ Being a marine biologist who also surfs, he doesn’t want to be responsible for bringing a glut of garbage into the world.”

Mr. Krabs Is Based On An Actual Restaurant Owner

It was only in recent years that people realized the Krusty Krab is actually shaped like a lobster trap. Stephen Hillenburg reportedly based Mr. Krabs off someone that he actually knew.

As a teen, Hillenburg had a summer job working at a lobster restaurant in Maine. His boss at the establishment reminded him of a pirate who had a strong Maine accent. Hillenburg used the experience to create the avaricious Mr. Krabs. “I added the cheap part (to Mr. Krabs) to give him more personality,” Hillenburg told The Mini Page.

All About Plankton

Plankton is one of the most integral characters in Bikini Bottom and in most episodes, you can see him just fine. But if you look back at the earliest episodes, the characters only see Plankton if they have a magnifying glass.

Doug Lawrence, who voices Plankton, explained in an interview that over time Plankton needed to be enlarged so that he could interact with the other characters better. Lawrence also explained that his inspirations for Plankton’s voice are Tony the Tiger, Gregory Peck, and Thurl Ravenscroft, who sang “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.”

Hillenburg Didn’t Want Anything To Do With Justin Timberlake

Junko Kimura/Getty Images
Junko Kimura/Getty Images

The Spongebob Squarepants Movie in 2004 has an epic soundtrack that features a lot of artists who are far from the mainstream and Hillenburg wanted to keep it that way.

When Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips recommended Justin Timberlake for a collaboration, Hillenburg wasn’t having it. “I actually suggested that maybe I could try to get Justin Timberlake to do a duet with us, as an off-the-cuff idea. But [Hillenburg] said, ‘I don’t want any of those sort of commercial weirdos on there. I don’t like those commercial people,'” reports Coyne.

SpongeBob Made Certain People Very Angry

For as innocent as SpongeBob SquarePants is meant to be, it was not without its fair share of controversy. When the show first started gaining traction in the early 2000s, kids loved it. Meanwhile, conservative adults were livid, oddly labeling the show “homosexual propaganda.”

This reached its height when SpongeBob and Patrick were featured in a video that taught people about tolerance and diversity. Ironically, the conservative organization Focus on Family wanted to ban it. For his part, Hillenburg has said he considers his characters to be “asexual,” if they were to have a sexual orientation at all.

Hillenburg Didn’t Believe SpongeBob Would Take Off

Jamie McCarthy/WireImage for Harrison & Shriftman
Jamie McCarthy/WireImage for Harrison & Shriftman

When Stephen Hillenburg pitched the idea for SpongeBob to Nickelodeon executives, he had no idea how huge it would become. After ten years of it being on the air in 2009, Hillenburg told The Washington Post, “I never imagined working on the show to this date and this long. It never was possible to conceive that… I really figured we might get a season and a cult following, and that might be it.”

Little did he know at the time, SpongeBob SquarePants would gain a cult following and then some.

SpongeBob SquarePants’ Nickelodeon Legacy

Since its premiere on May 1, 1999, SpongeBob SquarePants has become the longest-running original Nickelodeon cartoon to date, beating its predecessor Rugrats by a long shot. In its twelfth season as of 2018, there are a total of 242 episodes and counting.

Additionally, the success of SpongeBob has spawned two feature-length movies, The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie (2004) and its sequel The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water (2015). There have also been two made-for-TV movies including SpongeBob’s Atlantis SquarePants (2007) and SpongeBob’s Truth or Square (2009).