When I was a kid, my dad used to wake me up at 6:30 a.m. in the morning Monday through Friday, to catch the school bus that passed by my house at 7:00 a.m. We would eat breakfast, get dressed and spend the last 10 minutes watching an episode of "SpongeBob Squarepants."
Each morning we would sit on the couch together and giggle as Patrick Star said something stupid or Squidward Tentacles played the clarinet so poorly even his Easter-Island-shaped house would cringe.
At the time, my dad was a 40-something-year-old Romanian immigrant for whom English was a second language and I was a preteen girl going to middle school in Yonkers, New York. And yet, despite our different interests, backgrounds and age groups, we enjoyed watching "SpongeBob Squarepants" together.
"SpongeBob Squarepants" was one of the few shows for kids that didn't focus on appealing to a certain gender, demographic or ideology. Its jokes transcended age and entertained teens, children and even adults. The universality of the show is what made it a long-lasting cultural phenomenon.
What is this animated series actually about? The show follows our sponge protagonist, SpongeBob Squarepants, whose story bounces between hanging out with his friends, going to work at a burger joint, failing his driver’s test and other mundane tasks. And yet the short episodes manage to be captivating, intelligently written and a cultural gem.
Creator Stephen Hillenberg founded the show in the late 1990s in the midst of a career as a marine life educator and animator for Nickelodeon. The intersection of science and art that Hillenberg brought to the show made it complex. The marine biology double entendres permeate the show from the Chum Bucket to the aquatic characters, but what makes "SpongeBob Squarepants" special is not its scientific angle but rather its simplicity.
Robert Thompson, trustee professor at Syracuse University (much more qualified to explain that subtle quality that "SpongeBob Squarepants" has than I am), said that, “It seems to be a refreshing breath from the pre-irony era. There's no sense of the elbow-in-rib, tongue-in-cheek aesthetic that so permeates the rest of American culture … I think what's subversive about it is it's so incredibly naive — deliberately. Because there's nothing in it that's trying to be hip or cool or anything else, hipness can be grafted onto it.”
The comedy of "SpongeBob Squarepants" appeals to many demographics precisely because it isn’t trying to. The jokes are naive, but not childish. They’re not made at the expense of anyone but the characters in the show and common cultural enemies like the boss who overworks their employees or the stuffy neighbor.
"SpongeBob Squarepants" is lighthearted without being empty, and as much as I wish I could, I simply cannot describe how it is able to achieve the impossible. All I can say is thank you to Hillenberg and Nickelodeon for creating something that my father and I, and countless others, can enjoy over and over again.