SpongeBob SquarePants creator Stephen Hillenburg passed away on Monday, following a battle with ALS. Many of us at Polygon have a lot to thank Hillenburg for, and to remember him by: Through favorite episodes (“Chocolate With Nuts” and “Krusty Krab Training Video” are the best, for the record), unforgettable jokes and trope-defying characters, SpongeBob dug its heavy spatula into our collective consciousness. We’re grateful for it; the Nickelodeon show has informed so much about who we are, both when we and the cartoon were at our youthful peaks and now in our childish adulthoods.
And while Hillenburg’s legacy continues on proudly through his most famous animated creation — which turns 20 next year — we at Polygon found now as good a time as ever to share our fondest SpongeBob memories. Below, a group of us share moments from one of our favorite cartoons of all time that still strike a chord.
Ashley: I will never forget seeing a crumbling, brown skull perched atop a shriveling spine yelling “WHAT? WHAT DID HE SAY?” when SpongeBob goes door-to-door selling chocolate. At the age of 11, It was a deeply harrowing sight, but one that I treasure well into adulthood.
There’s a zany aesthetic present in SpongeBob and Hillenburg’s work on Rocko’s Modern Life that we don’t really see anymore in Nickelodeon cartoons. So many episodes have deep, cynical digs at the dregs of adulthood masked by absurd animations. Even Plankton, the sometimes-villain, comes home to his robot wife and sighs deeply before asking, “Holographic meatloaf AGAIN, Karen?” The electrical whoosh as he passes a fork through it and eats with disdain still speaks to me. The characters are so expressive, timeless in their struggles and silly moments. Nearly 20 years later, I think I love the show more now than when I was a kid.
Emily: I was 12 years old when The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie came out in theaters. I thought it was the funniest thing I’d ever seen. I had the opportunity to see it on the big screen again this summer as part of the School of Visual Arts’s alumni film festival (co-writer Derek Drymon is an SVA alumnus) and laughed just as hard as I did when I first saw it 14 years ago. The jokes hold up — “You don’t need a license to drive a sandwich.” — and the voice cast is stellar. But what really stood out to me this time was the unconditional love between SpongeBob and Patrick.
I think at its core, SpongeBob is a show about friendship (there’s even a song about it). SpongeBob and Patrick are soulmates — they just get each other in a way that we don’t often get to see from platonic male friendships on TV. We all need a friend that we can be goofy with, that will support our dumb ideas but tell us when we’ve gone to far, that will celebrate our successes and eat too much ice cream with us when we lose a big promotion. I hope that this show taught me how to be that friend.
Brian: This show made me care about surrealism. Before I could get into shows like Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, SpongeBob SquarePants was there as a stepping stone, the training wheels I needed to appreciate absurdist humor.
My middle school art teacher was really into SpongeBob, and though I originally assumed it was because he was a goofy guy trying to relate to his students, he ended up spending a week of class pointing out every reference to dada artwork (e.g. Man Ray is a reference to the famous surrealist artist). Suddenly, this cartoon had legitimacy. An actual adult teacher was telling me that SpongeBob was not only cool, it was smart.
But the beauty of SpongeBob was how it never showed off how smart it was, and it never sacrificed a joke for the sake of being clever. Which is why I’m going to stop writing about how this show was the beginning of some neo-Dadaist movement and instead watch a supercut of every time someone yells, “My leg!”
Petrana: SpongeBob was a meme before we even had a word for memes. You couldn’t spend a single recess without hearing someone make a SpongeBob joke, couldn’t go a single field trip without singing one of the songs. It was an inside joke that everyone was in on. As someone whose parents were weirdly strict about television, I was left out of it.
But for someone who didn’t watch the show until middle school, I knew a lot about it just from what everyone was talking about, what everyone was joking about. It’s fitting, I think, that SpongeBob found a parallel life as a meme, that we’ve taken our childhood schoolyard jokes and applied them to our adult lives.
Austen: SpongeBob has always gotten praise for its clever jokes and the heart of its characters — and it deserves every bit of that praise — but the hold that the show has always had over me was its absurdity. Its ability to toss something completely random at the audience and smile like the joke made perfect sense.
There’s no better example of this than the episode “Graveyard Shift” and its bizarre throwaway joke about Nosferatu. It would have been easy to just throw in another punchline, but instead the show commits to the bit and cuts to a black and white footage of a vampire from a 1922 German horror movie instead, because that’s the kind of show SpongeBob is. It’s weird, disorienting and kind of terrifying and I absolutely loved it as a kid, even if I had no idea who or what Nosferatu was. And you know what? In 2018, 16 years after the episode originally came out, I know exactly who Nosferatu is and I still love the joke because it makes exactly the same amount of sense in the show that it did when I was a kid.
Julia: My extremely cursed brain thinks in images and memes, most of which come from SpongeBob. I never noticed the extreme ways SpongeBob influenced my life until it was pointed out that I will say, “Correct!” using the same inflection that Plankton does in the episode “Band Geeks.” SpongeBob provided ways to connect with just about everyone I met in my life. Even my friends, who didn’t have cable or weren’t allowed to watch cartoons, could talk to me about the show and make silly references to it throughout our conversations. The phrase, “I feel like I look like a SpongeBob close-up,” was frequently exchanged between friends and I in high school to note that we felt like we looked dirty and disgusting.
While I’m sure I could sit here and list all the SpongeBob references that my friends and I make on a daily basis (and boy, I really want to), the point is that this children’s cartoon that I watched every day as a kid slowly infiltrated my adult life in a way nothing else has. It gave us all something to joke and laugh about because we’re all hip to it and that’s really something special.
Karen: Though it may be more of an appendage to the greater SpongeBob canon than a proper entry (as, say, the films are), there’s no denying the sheer delight of SpongeBob SquarePants, the recent Broadway musical. Rather than being a cold-hearted corporate cash grab, it’s a pure, song-filled distillation of the joy and absurdity that makes the series so special, combining the best gags from the show with an out-of-the-box aesthetic that puts all other such transferrals to shame. (Every Disney musical except The Lion King, I’m looking at you.)
Each number could function as a showstopper — SpongeBob sings while suspended upside down in midair! Patrick has a religious revival number! — but the jewel in the musical’s crown is, of course, Squidward’s existential crisis of an 11 o’clock number, “I’m Not a Loser.” Written by They Might Be Giants (and honestly, who better to pen a nerd’s breakdown), the song is a perfect mélange of the nonsense and seemingly directly contradictory self-awareness that the show has always had, as well as, ultimately, the sweetness and hope that SpongeBob SquarePants has always dug out of the world’s sometimes oppressive insanity.
And, just broadly speaking, there are worse characters to share a name with than a megalomaniac’s computer wife.
Allegra: At its height, SpongeBob helped solidify my affection for absurdity, albeit a kind that does not sacrifice accessibility or heart. An intense love and knowledge of SpongeBob has bound me to friends, instantly connected me with acquaintances and kept my own spirits up for most of my life. I remember watching the premiere as a five year old, transfixed by its dreamlike logic. Which is to say, SpongeBob, at its best, had none. The difference is that, just like The Simpsons, SpongeBob grounds its bizarre sight gags with witty one-liners and lead characters who were very dumb and very lovable. Its appeal is broad, ageless, simple and smart, and it’s hardly matched by any other cartoons.
As I grew up and found other (less age-appropriate) cartoons to further define my taste — Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist wasn’t really popular with the other middle schoolers in 2007 — my love and recall for SpongeBob goofs kept me from feeling isolated. In Latin class, we mocked our declension homework by quoting the “Wumbo” scene in SpongeBob. We whispered “Is mayonnaise an instrument?” during boring band concerts. If someone asked us if we wanted some chocolate, we yelled “Chocolate?” back at them.
The inner machinations of my mind are an enigma. But SpongeBob is very good at making some of them more scrutable for the masses, and vice versa.