Remembering Stephen Hillenburg, impact of “Spongebob Squarepants”

Stephen Hillenburg died following a battle with ALS on Nov. 26. He was 57 years old. As the creator of “Spongebob Squarepants,” Hillenburg is responsible for one of the most iconic, enduring cartoons of the 21st century. 

Spanning nearly two decades, “Spongebob” serves as a fount of joy, absurdity and surprising emotional depth. The show’s influence, and by extension Hillenburg’s, is more prevalent in contemporary pop culture than ever before. 

In a statement, Nickelodeon eulogized most exemplary contributors. 

“Steve imbued SpongeBob SquarePants with a unique sense of humor and innocence that has brought joy to generations of kids and families everywhere.” the company wrote. “His utterly original characters and the world of Bikini Bottom will long stand as a reminder of the value of optimism, friendship, and the limitless power of imagination.” 

Hillenburg’s legacy will surely carry on through his cartoon sponge. It is pertinent then, in the wake of his passing, to consider, examine and appreciate the particular impact that Spongebob’s unique brand of humor has had on a generation that prepares to enter the “real world.” 

What makes “Spongebob” unique is the same thing that allows it to remain relevant nearly 20 years after its premiere; its unabashed embrace of the absurd. Unbeknownst to fans of the show growing up, “Spongebob’s” surrealism served as a kind of stepping stone required in order to truly appreciate the absurdist humor that pervades popular culture in 2018. To put it plainly, nothing about the show makes any sense. 

As clever and smartly written the show’s humor can be, its strongest moments are almost always its most random. These moments highlight “Spongebob’s” ability to act like everything makes perfect sense, even at its most ridiculous. No moment better encapsulates this than when Patrick explains “wumbo” to Spongebob in the episode “Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy IV.” 

Spongebob expresses doubt over the made-up word, to which Patrick responds by conjugating wumbo, becoming more and more exasperated as he further explains the nonsense word until he yells about “wumbology, the study of wumbo.” This now iconic moment remains one of the show’s funniest and it somehow makes complete sense because, as Patrick explains, “it’s first grade, Spongebob.” 

Hillenburg’s influence is further felt when one reflects on modern meme culture. The show was a meme before memes were a thing; “Spongebob” jokes ran rampant across elementary school playgrounds and cafeterias before society had a way to describe those sorts of commonly held inside jokes. 

It is fitting then, that the show has found a second-life as meme fodder in 2018. This fact speaks to the show’s universal appeal to a generation that grew up with an array of increasingly bizarre cartoons, and Hillenburg’s surreal creation was the granddaddy of them all. 

Aside from its absurdity, nonsensical jokes and “memeability,” the show’s greatest impact is owed to its surprising emotional depth. Bikini Bottom is a town full of cynics and negativity, yet Spongebob is able to infect his neighbors with his unrelenting positivity time and time again. Spongebob, as a character, exhibits kindness, empathy and an unyielding love for everyone and everything around him. 

As “Spongebob” kids grow up, it can be easier for them to relate more to lonely, hardened Squidward than to the titular sponge, yet Hillenburg’s creation serves as a constant reminder that life is more enjoyable when everyone is willing to have a little F.U.N.