I’m sure everybody has seen the cartoon Spongebob Squarepants, or is at least familiar with the character. Yet, few people know who the creator was, in part because he left the show after the third season. This show was the dreamchild of Stephen Hillenburg, a former marine biologist who became an animator.
As a child, Hillenburg was fascinated by marine life and art. Growing up in California, he often explored tide pools and snorkeled in local dive programs. His enthusiasm for aquatic life led him to study marine science at Humboldt State University. Originally, he wanted to go to art school and become a painter but he thought that it wouldn’t be a sustainable career. “Art was a tough way to make a living,” he stated.
After graduating with a degree in natural resources, he bounced around several odd jobs before becoming a teacher at the Ocean Institute. This is where he drafted the first iteration of the Spongebob character, Bob the Sponge, in the educational comic, The Intertidal Zone. His experiences from teaching by combining both his passions, marine biology and drawing, inspired him to return to school to pursue animation. He ultimately received a Masters in Fine Arts.
One of Hillenburg’s films were seen by a Nickelodeon executive who made him the director for their first in-house animated television show, Rocko’s Modern Life. While working on the cartoon, he began redeveloping characters from his old comic strip, wanting to create a show based around sea critters who live in an underwater town. Nickelodeon higher-ups were impressed by his pitch, for which he had brought in an aquarium with miniature models of the characters and set the mood with Hawaiian music. With his pitch accepted, he began to work on the show.
Spongebob Squarepants premiered in July of 1999 and it became an instant sensation with everyone, blasting past the viewership of Pokémon, the most popular animated television program at the time, according to Nielsen Holdings findings. The charming and witty nature of Spongebob attracted fans from all ages. Gags that would slip by the naive eyes of children would be picked up by adults. In fact, a third of the viewers were between the 18 to 30 age demographic. The initial success of the cartoon drove Nickelodeon to begin production of a feature-length movie.
After the success of The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie and the third season of the cartoon, Hillenburg thought he had exhausted his ideas and decided to leave to allow for new blood to course through, working behind the scenes as an advisor. Most of the creative staff also left, causing a massive restructuring of the show’s production. His influence on the cartoon was so great that many considered March 31, 2007, the day that Spongebob Squarepants died. The direction and overall feel of the show had changed: clever jokes were replaced by shocking and gross humour, character personalities became exaggerated and the dialogue was lazy. This had started the downfall of Spongebob.
The size of the audience dropped by almost 30% in the first quarter of 2011. Things were starting to look grim for Nickelodeon when suddenly, the new showrunner, Paul Tibbitt, announced that Hillenburg would return to work on their second flick, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water. After finishing production on the film, he came back to the series as an executive producer, getting a more hands-on role in the show. His input had a definite impact and ratings began to slowly climb back, starting a renaissance of sorts for Spongebob.
Stephen Hillenburg passed away on November 26, 2018, due to complications related to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.
He has entertained children for nearly two decades. The cultural influence of Spongebob has reached every part of the globe. Even though Hillenburg has left this world, he will still be remembered by all. His ashes have been scattered off the shores of California, where they will remain, down here in the deep blue sea.