On November 26, 2018, the world lost a hero. Stephen Hillenburg was best known as the creator of SpongeBob SquarePants, the popular cartoon on Nickelodeon starring everyone’s favorite sea sponge. The biggest kids show of its time, it continues to rank as one of Nickelodeon’s most popular shows. In March 2018, Hillenburg revealed that he had been diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease Lou Gehrig’s Disease, specifically known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
Hillenburg was born August 21, 1961 in Lawton, Oklahoma. He developed a passion for the ocean as a child, as well as loving to draw. In 1984, he started with a career as a marine biology professor at the Orange County Marine Institute. In his time as a professor, he wrote and illustrated his first book, The Intertidal Zone. It was a comical book about tide-pool animals as a way to help his students learn. The main character of this book, Bob the Sponge, would later evolve into the one we all know and love, SpongeBob SquarePants. This book influenced Hillenburg to move on from teaching and pursue a career in art and animation. In 1989, he enrolled in the animation department at the California Institute of the Arts. Later, he was offered a position as an animator on the Nickelodeon show Rocko’s Modern Life.
Several years later, in 1994, Hillenburg started to develop The Intertidal Zone’s characters which would later become the characters of SpongeBob SquarePants. Come the end of Rocko’s Modern Life in 1996, Hillenburg went full force into creating the world of Bob the Sponge and Friends. In the early stages of development, the main character’s name was Spongeboy and the series was initially called Spongeboy Ahoy! In 1997, the series was given the green light for full production. The name was changed to SpongeBob SquarePants after finding out the other title was already trademarked.
The first episode of SpongeBob SquarePants aired on July 17, 1999. SpongeBob lived in a pineapple under the sea and got into nautical nonsense with all of his undersea friends. The show was the recipe of a typical kids show with a certain breath of uniqueness that captivated people of all ages. The plot line follows a sponge who cooks burgers for a greedy crab and does karate with a scientist squirrel who lives in an air dome. It’s the perfect recipe for a successful cartoon.
The show took Nickelodeon by storm, and was the most viewed cartoon in 1999. Throughout the early 2000’s, SpongeBob was a total phenomenon and became the token for a lot of branded items. He had toys, countless video games, bed set collections, and many more. The show continued for a second and third season, containing some of the most iconic lines from a television show that people still quote to this day. SpongeBob had been such a hit that in November 2004 the series saw a full fledged feature film that became a classic for the early 2000’s kids. However, despite such success in the movie and show thus far, trouble started to brew among the writers for the show.
By the time The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie was released, the show had been on the air for five years and Hillenburg was ready to wrap things up. He, along with several of the show’s writers, felt like the series had ran its course and the movie was the perfect ending for the series. They thought if the show went on any longer, it would lose its spark. Nickelodeon was insistent that the show stay on air because of great profit and publicity. In 2005, Season Four of SpongeBob was released.
The fourth season of SpongeBob was the first season where Hillenburg did not spearhead the production. He had stepped down from his showrunner position and became an executive producer for the show instead. He no longer had that hands-on involvement in the show, and a previous writer for SpongeBob became the showrunner. Paul Tibbitt took the wheel of the ship and started to take the show in a direction that was not authentic to the true SpongeBob storyline. At the time of change, it seemed to happen pretty smoothly, but many long time SpongeBob fans refer to season four as the beginning of the decline of SpongeBob. From 2005 to 2015, the show had released a whopping six more seasons and changed showrunner again from Tibbitt to Marc Ceccarelli and Vincent Waller in 2015 to the present.
The writers of the classic seasons of SpongeBob were long gone, and the show’s comedy and tone had turned a lot of adult viewers off from the content. The new seasons had lazier writing and more of the easy jokes as opposed to their original classic comedy. Fans thought the jokes became predictable and gross, the originality of the show flushed down the drain. On the beginning of SpongeBob’s decline, things started to turn around for the better. Come 2015 and SpongeBob had his second movie, Sponge Out of Water. For the movie, Hillenburg returned to production and had a major writing role for the first time in nearly a decade. After the success of the second movie, Hillenburg surprised fans across the nation and returned to the writing team for SpongeBob. Not only was Hillenburg back, but a lot of the writers from SpongeBob’s golden age were back on the team as well.
As a result of the return of the classic writers, seasons ten and eleven managed to get older viewers back on board. Old jokes and characters made a return and the references to older seasons that had pretty much been forgotten were back in full swing. SpongeBob maintained his spotlight as a media outlet, and recently had his own broadway production called SpongeBob the Musical. It is rumored that a third SpongeBob movie is being released in 2020 called It’s a Wonderful Sponge! SpongeBob has experienced a lot of ups and downs in the recent years. Upon the beginning of airing, the show was literally the most popular kids show on TV. Despite the show never really having a strong decline in ratings, the later seasons did tank the show’s reputation slightly. Going on 20 years on the air, the show is still so talked about and referenced because of the timeless comedy.
In honor of Hillenburg, a petition was created on change.org for SpongeBob to make an appearance at the 53rd Annual Super Bowl. He made a brief appearance before the main performers of the halftime show, Maroon 5 and Travis Scott, went on. The appearance did anger some viewers, as it was only a few short seconds from the popular SpongeBob episode “Band Geeks.” The episode showcased a mock Super Bowl called The Bubble Bowl, where Squidward and his band performed “Sweet Victory” by David Glen Eisley. It was hoped that the entire halftime show would star the sea sponge, and many saw it as a half-effort tribute to Hillenburg. Others were glad to see that recognition was rightfully given to the father of one of the most iconic cartoons of all time.
Hillenburg left a permanent mark on the cartoon world. Nickelodeon even premiered a commercial that compiled all of SpongeBob’s most iconic moments as a tribute to Hillenburg and the amazing impact he had on kids of all generations. The commercial, which can be viewed here, showcases moments including the F.U.N. song, Doodlebob, and SpongeBob’s “best day ever.” The ending of the commercial says, “Thank you, Steve Hillenburg, for making everyday the best day ever.” SpongeBob brought joy to children around the world, and his legacy will live on forever.