When Stephen Hillenburg premiered SpongeBob SquarePants in 1999, there’s no way he could’ve known what would become of his animated creation. Sure, he may have foreseen success: the cartoon's years on Nickelodeon, multiple feature films, even an eventual Broadway musical. What was less imaginable then, though, was the fact that Hillenburg's titular tetrahedral goofball and the rest of the gang from Bikini Bottom would cast such a sway over the meme-loving corners of the internet.
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The double helix of SpongeBob and the internet is so prevalent you don't even register it. Imagining the web without Hillenburg’s creation is like imagining it without Google or Facebook (where at least one post in your feed on any given day would feature SpongeBob, Patrick, Squidward or another undersea character.) The show is simply part of online culture's fabric—a part that Hillenburg, who died today at age 57 after a battle with ALS, built whether he knew he was doing it or not.
“ SpongeBob is one of the most significant television series in meme history,” says Know Your Meme managing editor Don Caldwell, noting that the show currently has 90 sub-entries and some 290 entry search results related to the show—that's more documented memes than either The Simpsons or My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic . "SpongeBob clearly resonates with a large part of internet culture like no other, and I don't think this is simply driven by nostalgia.”
Figuring out why the internet grew attached to SpongeBob is like trying to figure out why the internet likes (or dislikes) anything. It just happens . But something about Hillenburg's show proved irresistible to memery. The show’s characters—and its titular hero specifically—are expressive enough to communicate a mood in a single frame. The show's wholesome, if slyly subversive, tone makes recontextualizing those faces all the funnier. (My personal fave: An image of SpongeBob making a rainbow with his hands juxtaposed with the words “Nobody Cares” in bold Impact font.)
The result is memes like Evil Patrick (aka Savage Patrick or Angry Patrick), which uses an image of the pink starfish making a slightly sinister face to convey anything remotely devilish, Tired SpongeBob , which can basically relay any kind of exhaustion, and Krusty Krab vs. Chum Bucket , which illustrates any kind of rivalry where one thing is superior to the other (Marvel vs. DC, etc.). There are many, many more—far too many to count—and each one is as familiar to internet users as the last.
There’s a reason for that familiarity. Although Hillenburg originally came up with the idea for SpongeBob (then SpongeBoy) a few years before his debut, his cartoon hit just as internet access began to get faster and easier . As the web grew, so did the show's popularity; its fans are some of the first digital natives. Add to that the show's cross-generational appeal and international reach—at one point, it aired in 170 countries —and you've got a majority of the internet covered. Put an image of any of the SpongeBob characters online, and more will get the reference than won't. Scenes from Bikini Bottom are the lingua franca of the meme world.
And while the bulk of the show’s popularity amongst meme-makers is due to the creators themselves, a lot of credit also goes directly to Hillenberg. He stepped away from the show’s day-to-day operations in 2004 after the first animated feature and, as Caldwell points out, SpongeBob ’s early seasons provided a lot of the insightful commentary that the internet glommed onto. “The show's first three seasons, prior to Hillenburg's departure,” he says, “dealt with real issues in an authentic and clever way, which I suspect has a lot to do with its enduring cultural relevance online.”
Today, that is obvious. As news of Hillenberg’s passing hit the internet, social media, and the show’s subreddit filled with tributes, more than a few of which thanked the creator not just for his show but for the memes that came out of it. His character lived in a pineapple under the sea, but his legacy survives in a much bigger world.
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