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"Square Roots": No Math Can Solve This Puzzle

Do you want to know why SpongeBob SquarePants is such a popular and well-beloved character? Probably the best way to get an answer is to go find your grandmother (or great-grandmother) and ask her to tell you about Mickey Mouse.

It’s hard to remember these days, when the Mouse is (justly) satirized by South Park as a foul-mouthed, ball-breaking corporate thug, but Mickey was originally a sunny, good-natured innocent whose pluck carried him through all manner of cartoon hijinks. It didn’t matter if he was facing giants or spooks or the anthropomorphized furniture in a “looking glass” world—nothing could the dim the starburst “halo” that he seemed to carry with him off the title card. The Looney Tunes gang were usually aware that they were living in a cartoon, and liked to mock the conventions of the form. But Mickey took all the zaniness in stride, which in some ways made him even braver than Bugs Bunny. American audiences wanted Bugs’ sass and smarts when it came time to fight the Nazis, but Mickey’s preternatural cheerfulness was the medicine they needed during the Depression.

But Mickey’s appeal—cheerfulness, sincerity, a delight in simple pleasures—is timeless, which brings me back to SpongeBob. It’s strange that, seventy or so years after Mickey made his debut, Nickelodeon should have stumbled onto much the same formula. Not that there is anything “formulaic” about either character: that’s part of what makes them both so good. They are both just solid, unpretentious types who can find fun in any situation.

That much explains a lot of the appeal. But the immense popularity of SpongeBob’s show is also a good reminder of just how much talented cartoonists can get out of so little. Mack Sennett, one of the first producers of silent comedies, supposedly said that to make a comedy he only needed three things: a pretty girl, a policeman, and a park bench. SpongeBob (or, more accurately, his makers) only need their star and a bottle of bubbles. (Or a piece of paper or an empty cardboard box.) Imagination supplies the rest. Again, it’s strange that so many contemporary cartoonists, working in a medium that lets you do anything, decline to take advantage of the possibilities. The next time you watch a cartoon that relies on pop culture references, or on parody, or on “schtick,” remember how much that cartoon has to draw on others’ creativity.

Many of these points are made in “Square Roots,” a new, hour-long documentary about the show. As such things go, it’s a decently informative look at the series, its history, its creators, and how they go about producing it. The point is made, perhaps a bit too emphatically, at the beginning that SpongeBob SquarePants is a hard show to describe and would certainly have been hard to “pitch” to executives—a fact that says more about executives and the way they think than it says about SpongeBob. We get a little bit of background on the character’s first appearance in an informational comic book that creator Stephen Hillenburg made while teaching marine biology; we get quick introductions to the voice actors; we get clips of the storyboard artists describing the actions as they “pitch” the episodes to the rest of the staff.

It is also not shy about avoiding some of the more controversial bits of its history, such as the supposed “gay” vibe given off by certain episodes and the controversy generated by some remarks by James Dobson. It also mentions Hillenburg’s departure from the show, though it naturally glosses over any intimation that his series has suffered by his absence. As befits a documentary about a show that has had a large number of famous guest stars, it also includes on-camera comments from such like as LeBron James, David Hasselhoff, and Alec Baldwin. (But, maybe inevitably, the best bits come from Tim Conway and Marion Ross.) For “talking heads” we get appearances by Jerry Beck and a Syracuse University professor of television who does an amazingly good (though possibly unintentional) impression of Fred Willard.

It’s not a deep or probing documentary; it’s basically the kind of long-form featurette that would be released as part of a DVD set (as it undoubtedly will be), but is worth catching even if you aren’t the kind of SpongeBob fan who (like one person profiled in the documentary) sports twenty SpongeBob tattoos.

And, while looking at all the tchotchkes and listening to all the famous television personalities talking about SpongeBob, try not to think about Mickey, and the fate that ultimately befell him.

“Square Roots: The Story of SpongeBob SquarePants” airs on VH1 on Tuesday, July 14, at 9:00pm (ET/PT).

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