By Tom Mailey
That laugh. That high-pitched “heheheheheheheh” laugh that sounded somewhere between Woody Woodpecker and a helium-powered machine gun was my first introduction to SpongeBob SquarePants. I was a parent, my three kids were little. There wasn’t much they agreed on back then: Emma, the oldest, thought she ran the place. Joe, the middle one, believed it was his job to drive his sister as crazy as possible. Sam was the detached little brother, was already developing an aloofness to chaos that continues to this day.
But the one thing they could all agree on….the only thing, in fact…was that little yellow square cartoon sponge with the rat-a-tat-tat laugh. Whenever the opening strains of the theme song came on (come on, sing it with me: “Ohhh, who lives in a pineapple under the sea…SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS!”), the three of them would put aside whatever differences were curdling their custard for the moment and plop down on the floor to share the one thing they all seem to have in common: an intense interest in what was happening in Bikini Bottom that day. Everyone had a favorite: Joe, SpongeBob himself. Sam was a fan of Patrick. Emma, Mr. Krabs, naturally.
I kinda liked Squidward.
And my kids weren’t the only ones. SpongeBob SquarePants was one of the most successful animated television shows of all time, earning a myriad of awards, including two Emmys, and launching a multi-million dollar merchandising empire. Its movies made more millions. It’s been on the air since 1999, making it the longest-running show in Nickelodeon history.
But none of it would have been possible (least of all the half-hour of peace in our house that it brought each day) had it not been for Stephen Hillenburg, a marine biology teacher (and Humboldt State grad) turned Nickelodeon animator.
I don’t know much about Mr. Hillenburg but reading up on him now I’ve learned that he was a gifted teacher who wrote and illustrated an educational comic book about tide pools called The Intertidal Zone for his students back in the 1980s. Many of the characters and concepts in that book became SpongeBob SquarePants, which he developed after leaving the teaching profession to pursue his love of animation.
I know that in 2017, he was diagnosed with ALS, which is what ultimately led to his death yesterday at the age of 57.
And I also know that his show ignited in all three of our kids not only a wacky sense of humor (which currently serves them well in their crazy young lives) but also an intense interest and love of the ocean, and what lies beneath. Because despite it’s obnoxiously manic zaniness, at it’s core SpongeBob SquarePants is still an educational show. It could have been set anywhere, using different but similar characters, and probably been just as funny and successful. But Mr. Hillenburg loved the sea, and so by making the characters sea creatures (mostly…Sandy of course was a scuba diving squirrel) and setting it in a fictional village at the bottom of the ocean, it gently suggested to its young viewers (and older ones, like me) to remember there is life everywhere, and that while some of it is absolutely bizarre and strange, it’s still life, and it’s worth learning more about. And if it’s worth learning more about, it’s worth preserving.
So thanks Mr. Hillenburg, for the laughs, for that laugh (heheheheheheh!), and for giving my kids a common touchstone that will always bring them a little peace and togetherness.