Nickelodeon's 'SpongeBob SquarePants' Celebrates 25 Years: NPR

From Nickelodeon Spongebob Squarepants made its TV debut 25 years ago on May 1, 1999, before the series' official launch in July 1999.

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From Nickelodeon Spongebob Squarepants made its TV debut 25 years ago on May 1, 1999, before the series' official launch in July 1999.

Nickelodeon

Complete this number: Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?

If you answered correctly with “Spongebob Squarepants!“you've probably heard of the boxy, sponge cartoon that made its TV debut 25 years ago on May 1, 1999 (before the official series launch in July 1999).

But before the 'absorbent' and 'porous' SpongeBob took over the television and cinema screens, he was actually Bob the Sponge in an educational comic book.

Here's a look at the story behind SpongeBob.

From Bob the Sponge to SpongeBob

Spongebob Squarepants creator Stephen Hillenburg attended Humboldt University with a major in marine science and a minor in art. After graduating in 1984, Hillenburg eventually began working at the Ocean Institute in Dana Point, California. While working there as a marine science teacher, Hillenburg illustrated the flora and fauna of tide pools in the form of called an educational comic book The intertidal zone. And the comic book's narrator may look familiar: a sea sponge with sunglasses and a round face named “Bob the Sponge.”

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In 1989 Hillenburg registered for the California Institute of Art Experimental Animation Program. After completing the training, he gained more animation experience. He was eventually hired as director for the Nickelodeon cartoon Rocko's modern lifeaired from 1993 to 1996. While I was working on the show, he was encouraged to turn around The intertidal zone in an animated format, something he could pitch to Nickelodeon.

In conversation with NPR Morning edition in 2001, Hillenburg said he was working on developing the design and personalities of his characters, including Bob the Sponge.

He described the moment of inspiration: “It wasn't until I drew a square sponge, like a sink sponge, that it really seemed to fit the character I was looking for, that innocent, squeaky clean one you could say, I guess. the round hole.”

After approving Hillenburg's pitch, Nickelodeon set up Spongebob Squarepants to be the network's first Saturday morning cartoon.

Fun for all ages leads to a multi-billion dollar franchise

Spongebob Squarepants first aired as a preview after Nickelodeon's Children's choice prizes on May 1, 1999. The first part of this preview, titled “Help Wanted,” is only eight minutes long, yet introduces a robust group of residents to the fictional underwater town of Bikini Bottom.

From SpongeBob's best friend, a starfish named Patrick (voiced by Bill Fagerbakke); to Mr. Krabs, a greedy red crab voiced by veteran actor Clancy Brown; to a grumpy octopus named Squidward (voiced by Roger Bumpass); to two characters voiced by Tom Kenny: Gary, a meowing sea slug, and of course the optimistic and overzealous kitchen sponge and titular character SpongeBob SquarePants.

“Help Wanted” shows SpongeBob preparing for his dream job as a fry cook at Mr. Krabs' local greasy diner, “The Krusty Krab.”

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In promotional art from Nickelodeon, SpongeBob (center) serves “Krabby Patties” to customers: from left, Sandy Cheeks, Squidward, Mr. Krabs and Patrick.

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In promotional art from Nickelodeon, SpongeBob (center) serves “Krabby Patties” to customers: from left, Sandy Cheeks, Squidward, Mr. Krabs and Patrick.

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Tom Kenny, who worked with Hillenburg Rocko's modern life, took a unique approach to developing the voice for SpongeBob. Speak with Fresh air's Terry Gross in 2004 about the process, Kenny said:

“When it came time to come up with a voice, it was just a matter of finding a voice that was childlike and maybe childish, but not a child, not age-specific, enthusiastic and just a bit weird. And in the end we came to the conclusion that this elfin helium voice that SpongeBob eventually became.”

The first episode preview featured two more segments: “Reef Blowers” and “Tea At The Treedome”; the latter of which introduced a scientific squirrel living in a biodome named Sandy Cheeks, voiced by Carolyn Lawrence.

The series officially debuted on July 17, 1999. It was released the same year Spongebob Squarepants defeated the popular Saturday morning cartoon Pokemon in average viewing figures.

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The cast of Nickelodeon's SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical poses on stage during opening night on December 4, 2017 at the Palace Theater in New York City.

Jenny Anderson/Getty Images for Nickelodeon


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The cast of Nickelodeon's SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical poses on stage during opening night on December 4, 2017 at the Palace Theater in New York City.

Jenny Anderson/Getty Images for Nickelodeon

Spongebob Squarepants only grew in popularity. In 2002, the show had a total of almost 56 million viewers, almost a third of whom were between the ages of 18 and 49. Saint Petersburg Times reported that year. The first cinema release was released in 2004. The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, grossed $141 million worldwide.

Hillenburg left as showrunner after the film was released, but remained credited as one executive producer of the series And co-wrote the story for 2015 The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water.

The Emmy-winning series is in the middle of its fourteenth season. And the franchise has expanded with another theatrical release in 2020, two spin-off television series, more than two dozen video games and even theme park attractions.

A musical based on the underwater sponge and his friends went to Broadway in 2017 and had more than 300 performances before closing in 2018. The New York Times reported that the franchise had generated $13 billion in retail merchandise sales in 2017.

The Lasting Power of SpongeBob

In 2017, Hillenburg announced that he had been diagnosed with ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease. He died a year later. In tribute to Hillenburg, well over a million fans signed a petition for the show characters to act Halftime show of the 2019 Super Bowl.

Colleagues close to him attribute much of the cartoon's success to Hillenburg. Speak with Fresh air in 2004, Kenny said that Hillenburg balanced the attention to detail with the flexibility of the characters.

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From left to right actor Bill Fagerbakke, Spongebob Squarepants Creator Stephen Hillenburg and actor Tom Kenny attend the premiere of The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie on November 17, 2004 in New York City.

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From left to right actor Bill Fagerbakke, Spongebob Squarepants Creator Stephen Hillenburg and actor Tom Kenny attend the premiere of The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie on November 17, 2004 in New York City.

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“Steve Hillenburg is absolutely the great Kahuna and often has every vocal nuance, eye blink and twitch in his head down to the nanosecond,” he said. “And other times he just takes you off the leash and says, 'You know, I don't know where this is going. Just take it where it feels funny.' So you never know whether you're going to do math or jazz. It's kind of cool.”

Twenty-five years after its TV debut, the show continues. Spongebob Squarepants was renewed for its 15th season last fall and another movie (this one with Sandy Cheeks) is planned.

More moments in history

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