Moving Pictures June 2009

SpongeBob's Golden Dream

The mysterious allure of the fry cook from Bikini Bottom
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
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Video: "Postmodern Bikini Bottom"

James Parker deconstructs the tormented irony and contagious optimism of a SpongeBob episode.

Of the colors that have colonized the nursery over the past decade or so, blasting their spores across our children’s lunch boxes and pajamas—I’m talking about Hulk green, and Elmo red, and Barney purple, and Thomas-the-Tank-Engine blue—none is more stridently offensive to the adult eye than SpongeBob yellow. Poor parent, poor shattered schoolteacher, wherever you look in the general welter of 21st-century-consumer-kid-dom, there it is: cadmium yellow, Cheerios-box yellow, yellowcake yellow, striking its inhuman note of fervency. WAKE UP! GIMME GIMME! NOW!

SpongeBob SquarePants, the cartoon, turned 10 years old this spring. Doesn’t that make you feel tired? The little fry cook from Bikini Bottom, down in the benthic zone of the Pacific Ocean, has been with us longer than the iPod. His anniversary, naturally enough, has triggered a fresh avalanche of SpongeBob crapola: for the month of March, Wal-Mart stores nationwide featured a special freestanding SpongeBob shop called “The Happy Place” (clothes, DVDs, toys, books, etc.), and Hasbro and Mattel between them are rolling out seven new SpongeBob board games. At February’s Toy Fair in New York City, Barbie herself consented to be co-branded, appearing with SpongeBob T-shirt and accessories inside a new “Barbie Loves SpongeBob” window box.

The marketing of products to children is a dirty business, no doubt, but SpongeBob’s economic buoyancy has a very pure relation to his character and pursuits. The sponge is a one-man stimulus package, not just commercially but morally. If consumer confidence had a face, it would be the gleaming, avid face of SpongeBob SquarePants.

“SpongeBob is one of the greatest believers in the American dream in all of children’s entertainment,” says Greg Rowland, whose consultancy, Greg Rowland Semiotics, has performed brand analyses for Unilever, KFC, and Coca-Cola. “He’s courageous, he’s optimistic, he’s representing everything that Mickey Mouse should have represented but never did. There’s even something Jesus-like about him—a 9-year-old Jesus after 15 packets of Junior Mints.”

He made his debut on Nickelodeon on May 1, 1999, in a pilot episode called “Help Wanted.” The plot: a young sea sponge applies for a job at a grungy ocean-bottom diner called the Krusty Krab. Oh, how he wants this job—the position of fry cook represents the summit of his ambition. He is shaped, fortuitously, like a kitchen sponge. “I’m rea-dy! I’m rea-dy!” he chirrups, eyes and toecaps shining, while a moron starfish called Patrick cheers him on. The interview doesn’t go well: he is sniggered at, talked down to. Guess what, though? When the Krusty Krab is invaded by a mob of violently hungry anchovies, it is SpongeBob who saves the day, volleying Krabby Patties at incredible speed through the kitchen hatch and straight into their astonished pieholes. Hooray! “That was the finest fast-foodsmanship I’ve ever seen, Mr. SquarePants!” beams Mr. Krabs, the owner. “Welcome aboard!”

Contained in this nine-minute skit is the complete DNA of SpongeBob’s rise to power. His industrial ardor, his outrageous spatula skills, the terrible, idiotic brightness of his eyes. The atmosphere at the Krusty Krab has the monochrome tint of a Gen X workplace satire, a Clerks or an Office Space; Mr. Krabs cackles over his money, while Squidward, the tentacled sourpuss at the register, droops with ennui. But SpongeBob’s professional life is rainbow-colored. More than an adventure, it is a romance. “What is taking you so long?!” complains Squidward, head through the hatch, in an episode called “The Original Fry Cook.” “I’m adding the love!” says SpongeBob happily, squirting a little valentine of ketchup onto his latest Krabby Patty. Take that, Karl Marx!

So passionate an investment in the act of production brings its own risks, of course. In “To Love a Patty,” SpongeBob finds himself unable to send an especially attractive patty through the hatch. “Such perfection,” he murmurs. “From your little lettuce hair to your rosy ketchup cheeks, right down to your mustard smile.” He cannot part with it; he must take the patty home and cherish it, spend time with it, talk to it, even unto madness.

As a cartoon, SpongeBob SquarePants absorbed the advances made by John Kricfalusi’s The Ren and Stimpy Show—the mood swings, the fugue-like interludes, the surreal plasticity of the characters—but without the earlier show’s edge of psychic antagonism. There are plenty of gnashing monsters at the borders of Bikini Bottom, and deep-sea gulches where the breath of nothingness blows. SpongeBob is dismembered; SpongeBob explodes; intense emotion flays the sponge-flesh from his sponge-bones. But where Ren and Stimpy seemed bent on freaking out the more fragile (or stoned) sectors of its audience, the SquarePants writers are interested in stories, even in lessons. Again and again, a kind of innocence triumphs—over fear, over snobbery, and over skepticism.

Squidward, doomed and dichotomous, is the permanent foil. An upper-middlebrow elitist (“You can’t fool me!” he sneers in The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, “I listen to Public Radio!”), a wage slave who goes home and—like Tony Hancock in The Rebel—throws on a beret and expands into the world of Art, he curls his squid lip at the quacking, gleeful sponge. But at the auditions for the Bikini Bottom Men’s Chorus, it is Squidward who croaks out a disastrous “Figaro” and SpongeBob, borne aloft by a seraphic formation of jellyfish, whose radiant contralto has the choristers snuffling into their mustaches.

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James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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