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The Uncanny Brilliance of "SpongeBob SquarePants"

SpongeBob SquarePants may be the most popular American cartoon character around today. But you probably don’t need me to tell you that. And he’s popular with people who are over seven years old, too. That’s something else you probably don’t need to hear from me.

And if you’ve watched the cheerful sponge and his slightly surreal adventures, it’s no mystery as to why he’s so popular.

So, frankly, I’m not sure whom I’m writing this for, except, maybe, cartoon creators and producers who are as impressed and puzzled by SpongeBob‘s amazingly consistent track record as I am. He’s been around for a couple of seasons now, and there’s hardly a bad or boring episode in the entire run. How do Stephen Hillenburg and his colleagues do it?

ImageWell, start with the fact that SpongeBob SquarePants is not a high concept show. It’s not about a boy genius (Dexter’s Laboratory, Jimmy Neutron) or kids with superpowers and geewhiz gadgets (The Powerpuff Girls, Kids Next Door). It doesn’t have a wacky premise that leads to gimmicky jokes (Duck Dodgers, The Fairly OddParents); it doesn’t have eye-popping designs or animation (Samurai Jack, Teen Titans). It is, actually, a rather plain show with rather plain drawings and rather plain storylines. But it is also, episode after episode after episode, always … good. Not drop-you-outta-your-chair great but always a heck of a lot of fun and never disappointing.

When you look at what it isn’t, though, what it is begins to come into focus. Lacking an outrageous premise, it’s just a show about an ordinary fellow (yes, he’s a sponge who lives in an underwater pineapple, but this is a cartoon) with an ordinary job living next to his ordinary neighbors and doing pretty ordinary things. So where’s the comedy? It’s in the characters.

So there’s SpongeBob, who’s eternally honest and eternally cheerful. There’s Squidward, his sour neighbor and co-worker. There’s Patrick Star, who’s sweet but stupid, and Sandy Cheeks, who’s sweet but smart. There’s Mr. Krabs, who’s genuinely warm-hearted and generous with everything except his own money. And there’s the gaggle of supporting characters: Mrs. Puff, Plankton, Pearl, Larry the Lobster, and the nameless residents of Bikini Bottom. They are, to one extent or another, stereotypes, and they’re not very deep. But we connect with them because their emotions, and their desires, fears, and joys are universal. You can’t watch and listen to them without muttering, “My God, I know exactly what that feels like.” At least, that’s what I mutter when I’m not laughing.

And it’s these emotions—whether it’s SpongeBob’s delight in play or Squidward’s annoyance with the jerk he lives next to—that drive the stories. In most cartoons, the story starts with some kooky situation that makes the characters feel or react comically. But in SpongeBob it works the other way: the characters follow their feelings into adventures, disasters, or triumphs. Take, for instance, “Sandy’s Rocket,” which turns into a wacky adventure when SpongeBob and Patrick, who think they’ve landed on the moon, go “alien hunting” in Bikini Bottom. Sure, it opens with the (kooky) idea that Sandy has a rocket ship, but the story only starts when SpongeBob, aching for adventure, wheedles her into taking him along. Or take “Band Geeks,” which begins when pride and humiliation lure Squidward into forming a marching band so that he can show up his old rival Squilliam. Because the stories start and end with the character’s emotions, and because these emotions are only cartoonish exaggerations of emotions we all feel, we are almost instantly “into” them.

Still, the show wouldn’t work as well as it does if the jokes weren’t bright and clever. Hillenburg and his crew aren’t above going for an easy laugh, but they’re not being lazy when they do—it feels as though they delight in the actual joke, cheap and obvious though it may be. But they can also discover oddball, left-field jokes. The highlight of “Employee of the Month” is a sequence that has SpongeBob and Squidward falling into traps set by the other. That the traps don’t make much physical sense—at one point Squidward discovers he’s somehow blundered into a glass bottle, and SpongeBob somehow gets encased in a brick wall—is what makes the sequence hilarious. The series isn’t a visual tour de force, but it’s full of the kind of stuff that reminds you the show is made by cartoonists, not comedy writers.

The stories are also helped by the work of performers like Tom Kenny, Roger Bumpass, Clancy Brown, and Bill Fagerbakke, who absolutely nail their lines and give their characters a vibrant personality. It’s no surprise that Kenny has slipped his leash as the title character, but Brown and Fagerbakke (as Mr. Krabs and Patrick, respectively) are right out there with him.

ImageI said the show is often pretty plain to look at, but it also knows when and how to goose you. It never dwells Kricfalusi-like on the outrageous “takes,” but the artists sometimes give SpongeBob expressive facial contortions that recall Ren and Stimpy. But, as with the verbal jokes, the visual jokes are bent to serve the characters. It’s never there for its own sake but instead illustrates what the character is feeling.

Nickelodeon has recently released another small DVD collection of SpongeBob episodes. SpongeBob SquarePants: Home Sweet Pineapple has eight of them: The title episode, in which SpongeBob’s pineapple house is devoured by worms, leaving him homeless, along with “Band Geeks,” “Sandy, SpongeBob and the Worm,” “Ripped Pants” (which has some great SpongeBob “takes”), “Sandy’s Rocket,” “Culture Shock,” “MuscleBob BuffPants,” and “Employee of the Month.” These aren’t the best of the series, but, they’re all par for the course. Which means that they are all very good.

Extras are minimal: character bios and endless previews which (annoyingly) have to be fast-forwarded through to get to the main menu. Despite the good selection of episodes, I’m not sure I can recommend the DVD. SpongeBob SquarePants isn’t ambitious but it’s always pleasing, and if you like the show (like I do) you’re probably better off going for the season sets. Speaking of which, I think I’ll be off to Best Buy to look into those …

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