Happy Birthday SpongeBob SquarePants!
On May 1, 1999, Nickelodeon network aired its first pilot episode of SpongeBob SquarePants —introducing a generation of kids (and adults) to a world of ocean life never before explored on television. Despite the show’s nine seasons on TV, creator Stephen Hillenburg, who admits being as surprised as anyone about the show’s longevity, remains staunchly devoted to keeping SpongeBob and his wacky intertidal zone buddies as fresh and exciting as ever. In an interview with Stephen, a Princess Grace Awards winner, he reveals some intimate details about SpongeBob’s personal life, fun facts about working with actress Scarlett Johansson and the video about Russian soldiers that shocked him.
You were a marine biologist before you created SpongeBob. Can you tell us how you merged those two worlds?
As a kid, I was interested in art and painting and I was fascinated with marine biology. When I was about 15-years old I started scuba diving. The switch clicked and I decided I wanted to be a marine biologist, but I also liked being an artist. So I graduated from Humboldt State and my hope was to work in a national park on the coast. I eventually ended up working at the Orange County Marine Institute—which is now called the Ocean Institute.It was a great experience. I was a teacher there for three years. One of the educational directors saw I was able to draw and said to me, “Why don’t you make a comic book about The Intertidal Zone animals?” So I did. I made this comic and I sent it out—and people liked it, but they didn’t see how it would be a published item—you know, where they could make money from it. So I shelved the whole thing.
Then I went to Cal Arts in 1989 and studied animation. After graduating, I had some films that were in festivals and I was invited to be a director a show called Rocko’s Modern Life by Joe Murray, who I learned a lot from about creating a show. When I was working on Rocko, I had the comic book in my office and one of the writers, Martin Olsen, walked in and said, “This is your show.” It really wasn’t—because it was an educational comic, but it started me thinking about animals that I liked—which are weird invertebrates and sea animals. I finally fused the two things I am passionate about together: art and marine biology and created a show that would eventually be called SpongeBob SquarePants.
The show has been on TV for 15 years. How do you continue to create exciting new episodes?
It’s definitely gotten more challenging as time has gone on. We are actually making a movie right now [SpongeBob SquarePants 2], so we are on hiatus for the show. But the fact is – it gets harder and harder to come up with creative stories. I hired Paul Tibbett to direct the show for several seasons and he’s really creative and one of my favorite writers. He’s brought some fresh views to the characters. When we do talk about ideas for SpongeBob—we talk about stories from when we were young because SpongeBob is like a child, a man-child. There was one episode where SpongeBob and Patrick learn a curse word. When I first pitched the idea to Nickelodeon they said we can’t do bleeps. So I said, “What if the curse word is just a dolphin sound?” They were ok with that. Patrick and SpongeBob didn’t know what it meant and kept saying it and getting in trouble. Eventually they learned their lesson. We take our childhood experiences and create stories.
Unlike the Simpsons, you don’t write newsy story lines. Is that intentional?
The show is based in an area of the sea that may or may not exist. It’s at the bottom of the sea and they don’t really interact with humans that often. It’s kind of their own culture and own little world. I think in a way people like escaping to that little microcosm.
Why do you think the show resonates with so many people?
I certainly never imagined we would be making another movie and be on the air for nine seasons. When I first started in animation—the show I was working on aired for four seasons and I just imagined that would be our run too. I never imagined that this would blow up the way it did. The other day someone sent me a video of Russian soldiers singing SpongeBob SquarePants marching around. It was really unbelievable. They were just having fun. But it’s crazy to think they all knew the theme song. You never know what the public is going to gravitate towards. We’ve been really fortunate.
I noticed that some of the characters in SpongeBob are not fish at all like SpongeBob is a Sponge and Karen is a computer. And of course Sandy Cheeks is a squirrel. But Karen – how does a computer live under the sea?
Well it is a cartoon. Plankton is based on a small copepod and is so alone and has this Napoleon complex and he doesn’t have any friends. So he makes his own friend by making Karen. He’s kind of a solitary, angry character and his sole mission always is to steal the formula for Krabby Patties. But the other characters, SpongeBob is a sponge, Patrick is a sea star, Mr. Krabs is a crab, Squidward is an octopus – none of them are technically fish.
Do you have a favorite fish?
I like a lot of fish. I like the weird ones especially. I was snorkeling in Hawaii and we saw this fish called a frog fish and they are really ugly and walk on the ground. They actually use their fins to walk. In the first SpongeBob movie we made, which was about 10-years ago, we used that animal as the monster in the story. I’ve said it before but when you go snorkeling in the ocean it’s like you’re in another world.
Do you eat fish?
I do eat fish, but there is a watch list. I try to eat the right ones. Some are overfished. Supposedly Blue Fin tuna are endangered because of fishing habits. So I won’t eat those.
Is there any inside tidbits you can reveal about SpongeBob that has remained a secret until now?
He doesn’t have a driver’s license. In one episode he dreamed he had one, but he doesn’t. We have also never stated how old he is. Some sponges are two hundred years old. But I can say he’s a young man. And he’s never gone on a date. He’s not ready to do that.
How did you create SpongeBob’s character?
When I was a little kid I liked Laurel and Hardy and Charlie Chaplin. So I just based it on that kind of man-child personality. SpongeBob isn’t stupid. I think Patrick is—but SpongeBob is just naïve. It’s fun when they get together. SpongeBob doesn’t realize whatever Patrick is saying is a bad idea and he just goes along with it because he’s naïve.
Are you SpongeBob?
Well you know, I thought he was this fictional character because none of thecharacters were based on anyone. But recently I was looking back on grade school photos and I had this huge gap in my teeth before braces. It’s funny because I looked a lot like SpongeBob as a kid. And I was pretty naïve too. It really wasn’t intentional but we have similarities.
Who were your favorite celebrity guests?
I have to say Ernest Borgnine and Tim Conway. They played Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy until Ernest died last year. When we cast them we were looking for great actors who had worked together before and who could be partners. They were both on this show called McHale’s Navy. They were just so funny and worked brilliantly together.
Over the years have you had any memorable celebrity encounters?
Well we got an award at the Heal the Bay Foundation in Los Angeles, whose mission is to protect the ocean, and Julia Louis Dreyfus was one of the hosts. When she announced my name she said I was sponge-worthy. That was fun. And in the first movie, Scarlett Johansson played Mindy the Mermaid. She was pretty well known by then and had just finished Lost in Translation. What was great about her is that she’s a fan of animation. She loves Ren and Stimpy and SpongeBob. She was easy to work with and knew the difference between working in a film, which is really subtle verses animation, which is really big and over the top.
It seems like you genuinely like working on the show after all these years.
I do. The first movie was very stressful. But this time I’m not directing. I’m more involved with the writing and I’m an executive producer. I’m actually enjoying it. It’s going to be released in February.
Does it ever blow your mind that you created a show that’s not only successful, but the whole franchise is reportedly worth $8 billion?
Yeah, (laughs), Nickelodeon has that, not me. I mean, like I said, I never imagined we would still be on the air. It’s a very pleasant surprise. No one can anticipate this sort of thing.
Do you have any other projects you want to work on after the movie wraps?
Actually when it wraps, I want to get back to the show. As I mentioned it is getting harder and harder to come up with stories. So Paul and I are really going to brainstorm and come up with fresh material. And I made a short film that I’ve entered into film festivals called Hollywood Blvd-USA. I videotaped people on Hollywood Blvd and made walk cycles of all those people. It’s just a couple of minutes long.
What has it meant to you to be a Princess Grace Awards winner and what has been the impact on your career?
What really fundamentally helped me was the scholarship. My parents are middle class and Cal Arts is not a cheap school. And having the funds to make my thesis film was powerful for me. It basically propelled me into animation and get a professional job, which in turn helped me pay back all my loans. I don’t mean to be crass and just talk about the money. But it was a great to me to get to another station. I would say it allowed me to make the film I wanted to make as a grad student and that was huge. I’m very thankful for that.
April 25, 2014