Few cartoons have had the lasting impact that Spongebob Squarepants has had on popular culture and children’s television. Since its debut on Nickelodeon in, 1999, Spongebob has won four Emmys. There have been two motion pictures, with a third set to debut in 2020. The series has also launched a Tony-award winning Broadway show and Spongebob has appeared as a balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade 13 times.
On Mon, Nov. 26, fans of the iconic television mourned the loss of the show’s creator, Stephen Hillenburg. At the age of 57, he lost his tragic battle with ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. He is survived by his mother, Nancy, wife of 20 years, Karen, and son Clay.
Though he was born in Oklahoma, Hillenburg went to high school and college in California. He earned a degree in natural resource planning and taught marine biology, before going back to school and studied animation. Prior to creating Spongebob Squarepants, he worked on Rocko’s Modern Life, which was also on Nickelodeon. He first pitched the show to Nickelodeon in 1996. At that time, Spongebob was named “Sponge Boy” and shaped like an actual sea sponge instead of a kitchen sponge. Hillenburg was enthusiastic about aquatic and oceanic life, so in many ways, the show was the perfect combination of his passions for drawing and marine biology.
In the wake of this devastating news, Spongebob fan Isreal Colunga started a petition for Sweet Victory, a song performed during a memorable 2001 episode, to be played at the Feb. 2019 Super Bowl halftime show in his honor. Currently, the petition has over 500,000 signatures.
One of the many reasons for the show’s enduring success and longevity is that fans gravitated toward the friendly yellow character as an anchor of positivity. No matter how loudly Squidward played his clarinet, or how many times Plankton attempted to steal the Krabby Patty secret formula, Spongebob always found a way to make things work and keep his held high.
Hillenburg has left a legacy of laughter for generations of children around the world. Spongebob is ubiquitous and he brings people together with friends bonding over jokes from the series. The show is regularly discussed, and memes are shared all over social media.
This may be the end of the road for arguably one of the most successful animators of the last three decades, but it is not the end of the joy that his characters have brought.