Voice actors extraordinaire Tom Kenny (Spongebob) and Bill Fagerbakke (Patrick Star) with the Spongebob wax figure at Madame Tussaud's.There’s a new exhibit at Madame Tussaud’s wax museum these days.
It might come as a bit of a surprise to some, but not to animation fans. To paraphrase his theme song, “he lives in a pineapple under the sea…absorbent and yellow and porous is he.” If you don’t know who, you must have been hiding in the Mariana Trench.
The reason for all the hoo-haw is this year marks the 10th Anniversary of the debut of everyone’s favorite animated invertebrate, Spongebob Squarepants. Although his pilot episode took its bow on May 1. 1999 after a Nickelodeon Kids Choice Awards ceremony, the big N officially marks the supreme sponge’s debut date as July 17, 1999. That’s when the show officially went into series.
Since then, Nick’s parent company has been doing its darned best to insure that the show is further imprinted in the world’s subconscious. The latest entry is a deluxe box DVD set entitled “The First 100 Episodes.” It truly is a must-have for fans and serious animation aficionados alike.
As advertised, the 14-disk set includes the title’s first one hundred half-hours, from Episode 1’s “Help Wanted/Reef Blower/Tea at the Treedome” to 1997’s “Banned in Bikini Bottom/Stanley S. Squarepants.” As any set of this nature requires, there are a number of commentary tracks scattered throughout the first 13 disks. Still, it’s the 14th DVD that carries the real treasure here.
The last disk in the set contains not only a musical track from the late, great metal band Pantera, but an incredible in depth history of the origins of the underwater phenomenon. For fun, it also includes a poke at all the hubbub over Steven Hillenburg’s incredible creation entitled “Life Lessons from Bikini Bottom.” Also, for something truly mind-blowing, there’s an adaptation of the first episode, “Help Wanted,” done in every major language the show is currently aired in. You ain’t heard nothin’ until you heard SBSP in Chinese.
Still, it’s the documentary that gives many animation fans reason to pause. Suffice to say, the show’s success wasn’t smooth sailing, at least for the first half of its life.
To begin with, the series combined creator Steve Hillenburg’s two greatest loves. The first was the sea. Before working for Nickelodeon, he had attended, and graduated from, California’s Humboldt State University, where he earned a degree in marine biology in 1984. His other great love was animation. In 1992, he also earned a Masters in Fine Arts from Cal Arts, the school founded by no less than Walt Disney. From there, he refined his craft working for Nickelodeon on the series “Rocko’s Modern Life.”
As explained in the documentary, when Hillenburg and some of his Rocko cohorts decided to pitch Nick on Spongebob, no less than then-President Albie Hecht admits he had no idea in the world what to do with the show. Still, the presentation left Hecht, as he says in the doc, “rolling on the floor.” So, in 1998, Hecht green lit the project as a “low budget” production, which meant it wouldn’t get the push “high budget” shows ranging from “Rugrats” to “Avatar” would be afforded.
Even though SpongeBob did have an auspicious opening slot in 1999, that didn’t mean it would be smooth sailing for the series. The first season, which ended in 2000, was rewarded with a pick-up for a second season. It was then that the show picked up a large merchandising contract and the series began to slip out of its doldrums.
In looking over this second season, you can see why the series started to truly take off. Hillenburg had surrounded himself with a number of former Rocko veterans, most important of them voice actor extraordinaire Tom Kenny, director Paul Tibbett and storyman Derek Drymon. He also brought in other high caliber animation experts from other shows, such as the ever-innovative Vincent Waller (“2 Stupid Dogs,” “Ren & Stimpy” and “Duckman”).
While analyzing the show’s success is the kind of stuff that could make one crazier than a manatee in a manhole, there are solid reasons for it.
When you look over many of the names associated with the show, one thing comes apparent, these are all people schooled in classic animation. One thing that sets Spongebob apart is it displays some of the finest modern use of squash and stretch today. The SBSP crew will bend, spindle and mutilate their lead and his cast in inconceivable different shapes and forms, and always manage to have them snap back to their true forms in a way that totally suspends one’s disbelief. Their mastery of this skill sets them up there with Disney’s 9 Old Men and the Masters of Termite Terrace.
Another aspect of the show that makes it so unique is its ability to balance some of the most cynical observances with characters that are absolutely guileless. Spongebob and his best pal Patrick Star may be seen pumped up to the max walking around in each others’ underwear, but they still manage to do it in a way that’s anything but immoral or perverted. They are just two best friends, period.
If that isn’t enough, it seems the well of inspiration the creative team draws from is absolutely bottomless. Hillenburg and company created a self-contained universe that is only matched by the world Disney built around Donald Duck. It’s populated with incredible, truly unforgettable side characters, chief among them Squidward, Eugene Krabs, Gary the Snail, Plankton and Sandy. Each character has its own particular, and many rather unique, quirks, whether it’s Squidward’s clarinet playing or Sandy’s deep-fried southern accent.
This universe also includes innumerable visual and story references, from the layout of Spongebob’s home of Bikini Bottom to their “driving” boats from one point to another that probably would never work anywhere else. Spongebob and Patrick’s numerable jellyfish hunts are always a much-enjoyed routine, as is the recurring subplot of Plankton’s attempts at stealing Krabs’ Krabby Patty formula.
Lastly, the voice cast is probably one of the best ever assembled for a TV production. Everyone recognizes lead actor Tom Kenny for the unique and unforgettable voice he gave Spongebob, but he isn’t the only real star there. Among those who should not be ignored are Bill Fagerbakke as Patrick, Rodger Bumpass as Squidward, Clancy Brown (yes, the ultimate Lex Luthor) as Krabs and writer/storyboard artist Mr. Lawrence as the eternally evil Plankton. These voices are as easily identifiable as the original cast of the Flintstones to, most recently, the actors who worked on “Avatar: The Last Airbender.”
It’s no wonder the show took off with the start of the new millennium. As Spongebob slowly rose to the top of the pile though, new nautical mishaps were set in his way.
With the advent of a third season, the series was also rewarded with a movie contract. From the sounds of the documentary, it might have been a bit of too much success too fast. In the documentary, Hillenburg admits he probably stretched him and his crew a tad too far, and it’s intimated they nearly didn’t snap back. To compound this problem, Nickelodeon decided that rather than expand the crew, they would just stretch out the just-produced season for over two years. Compound it with a (unfounded) rumor that the show was facing cancellation, and all these combined factors nearly did kill the show.
Luckily for all, the movie, a true gag fest of mixed production methods and crazed concepts, turned around and made more than its $30 million budget back. In fact, Box Office Mojo states plainly it made over $85 million domestically, over $140 million when you add international revenues.
Still, the movie took its toll. During this time, Hillenburg stepped down as the showrunner of the series. Luckily for all, Drymon and Tibbett were selected to take over. Continuity was maintained, and the show even got better.
Yet that wasn’t the last patch of rough weather the show would ever face. A group of extreme right religious types accused Spongebob and Patrick of being homosexual. The shock horror this roused became a tempest in a teapot. The production crew plainly stated that the leads were actually asexual. They were true innocents being roasted to suit the political whims of those who previously attacked The Simpsons and other animated projects would lead its juvenile audience into moral turpitude.
As it now stands, the show is the most popular thing currently airing on Nick. Only two other series, “Avatar” and “Fairly Oddparents” have ever garnered higher Nielsen ratings.
Besides the exhibit at Madame Tussaud’s and this incredible boxed DVD set, there are plans for many more new Spongebob episodes. It will all culminate with a TV movie this November entitled “The Great Escape.” It will have SBSP, Patrick, Squidward and Krabs trapped in a freezer reminiscing about past episodes. Among the cameos will be the likes of Ricky Gervais, Robin Williams, Will Farrell and Victoria Beckham.
No doubt it will bring up more than its share of memories for Spongebob’s fans, too, and deservedly so.
NEXT COLUMN(S): Superman/Batman: Public Enemies hits the streets next week. We have interviews with director Sam Liu, screenwriter Stan Berkowitz and the true bearer of the mantle of the bat himself, Kevin Conroy coming at you.