Remembering SpongeBob and Looking To the Future

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I remember the night Spongebob premiered. It was right after the ’99 Kids Choice Awards. I was eating a strawberry poptart, sitting on the kitchen floor, looking up at a small TV on the counter next to the microwave.

I was at my grandfather’s house. I was there a lot when I was younger. Mostly on weekends. My father died when I was 2, which lead to a nasty custody battle between my mother and his family. My mother won custody, but his family was very adamant about visitation. So I went to my father’s family home many weekends, every holiday and on birthdays. Usually on days like Christmas or Easter I would spend the beginning of my day with my mother, brother, grandmother, cousin and whatever guy my mom happened to be dating at the time. Then around midday my aunt Yasmine would pick me up and I would spend the rest of the day with her, my other aunt, my cousin Kiara, my grandfather, great-grannie and any other family member that happened to be hanging around the house.

My father’s family was close-knit and had serious co-dependency issues. None of them could ever seem to leave the family home and get their own place. But I think they took pride in that. The house always had a sad air that didn’t make it the best place to play, but they tried to make up for it by buying me things. I was a chubby kid and my mother and grandmother were hard on me for it. But when I went to spend time with my father’s family, I could eat whatever I wanted. No limits.

Which is how I found myself sitting alone in the kitchen at night, eating a box of poptarts and watching this brand-new cartoon: Spongebob Squarepants. It was a hyped up premiere. I was on the edge of my seat during the awards show, waiting for this new mysterious cartoon to appear on my TV screen. And when it finally did, I was blown away. The art was fun and fluid. The characters were awkward misfits that reminded me of myself. Spongebob was a likable protagonist: His optimism and kindness was appealing.

It reminded me another show I loved, Rocko’s Modern Life, but the tone was less cynical. Rocko had a world-weary tone to it that I was way too young to understand. SpongeBob was more uplifting in comparison. Spongebob, the character, had an optimism about life and the future, and so did the show around him. When he yelled “I’m ready” I felt ready with him.

The first segment, “Help Wanted” was a triumphant story of Spongebob getting his job at the Krusty Krab. I loved it. It established all the basic characters viewers would grow to love: Mr. Krabs, the cheapskate boss. Squidward, the failed artist. Patrick, the not-so-smart but kind best friend. And SpongeBob, a little awkward, happy dude who just so happens to be very talented at the grill.

The second (much shorter) segment, “Reef Blower”, was a fun little short. It establishes the dynamic of SpongeBob unknowingly pissing off Squidward in strange and hilarious ways.

But the segment that really cemented my love for this cartoon was “Tea at the Treedome”. As a Southern black girl, I mentally coded Sandy Cheeks as black from the moment I saw her. (This obviously isn’t too far off, because she’s cast as black in the Spongebob Musical). Watching the episode, I immediately related to Sandy. I wasn’t into science, but I was a nerdy girl and I loved the idea of a Southern, female scientist brave enough to move underwater for her research.

The episode plays out like a romantic comedy for kids: Guy (SpongeBob) meets girl (Sandy). They hit it off. They even (physically) fight and they really click. So naturally, guy wants to impress girl. Guy talks to best friend (Patrick), hoping for advice on how to impress her. Guy makes a fool of himself, hurts himself, and generally messed up royally until he realizes all he needs to do is communicate. Once he talks to Sandy and tells her what’s wrong (that he needs water to breathe) the crisis is averted and Spongebob is able to be himself around Sandy.

It’s such an interesting execution of these romcom conventions. In “Tea at the Treedome” SpongeBob nearly DIES due to his lack of communication with Sandy.

The common theme between the two longer segments (excluding “Reef Blower”) is the importance of being yourself. As I found out later, a Spongebob Squarepants is very much about that. Watching this weird, quirky, sincere show was like medicine for me that night. I felt warm and comfortable sitting on that kitchen floor, meeting my new undersea friends. It made me feel less alone.

*

Now, 17 years later, I don’t think about Spongebob Squarepants that much anymore. At least, not in the fond way I remember from my childhood. These days, if you’re above the age of 12, Spongebob comes up for one reason and one reason only: To talk about how Nickelodeon has gone down the toilet. These days, Spongebob (and to a lesser extent, The Fairly Oddparents) is a symbol of how out-of-touch and stuck in the past Nickelodeon is.

Here it is 2017, and Spongebob Squarepants is 10 seasons (211 episodes) and 2 movies deep and there’s no sign of it ending anytime soon. The internet rage related to this fact is easy to find.

(You can spend an entire day watching YouTube videos about the “death of Nickelodeon”. I wouldn’t recommend it, but you can.)

Since that faithful night after the Kids Choice Awards I’ve graduated high school, college and graduate school. I’m 24 years-old with an MFA and Spongebob is still a thing. It’s not the craziest thing in the world, I suppose. The Simpsons is still on. So is South Park. Those are long-running cartoons as well, and they both premiered BEFORE Spongebob. So why do I have an ax to grind for this one show? Especially a show that used to give me such joy?

Well, it’s complicated.

The short answer is: Spongebob Squarepants is a bloated cash cow that needs to be put down.

Nickelodeon seems to be keeping it around because it’s been making them money, consistently, for about 8 years. It’s the show that gets the most airtime on the channel and it’s been coddled like a baby bird way past its time to leave the nest. This devotion to SpongeBob, according to public opinion, has been to the detriment of other cartoons and their creators. And there’s evidence to support that.

Hell, Nickelodeon rejected the Adventure Time pilot… TWICE.

That doesn’t seem like the choice a network dedicated to “fresh, new talent” would make. But, their loss was Cartoon Network’s gain (and they definitely needed it after their disastrous foray into live-action programming). Adventure Time saved Cartoon Network; there’s no question about that.

Nickelodeon doesn’t need saving, though. It’s doing fine. It just annoys me, as an angry adult, that it’s become The Spongebob Channel. Still, there’s nothing I can do about it.

I COULD be outraged about the way Spongebob has become an “institution” and not the quirky, sweet show I used to love. Especially considering… the writing.

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In my opinion (and also YouTube’s) the writing of SpongeBob Squarepants has gotten much meaner and more cynical over time. This is a sad phenomena that is rampant in long-running cartoons:

The characters become caricatures and the plots get progressively more cruel in an effort to “raise the stakes”. All the while the animation continues to improve. These cartoons become a bitter chocolate bar in an increasingly shiny package until there’s no chocolate left in it at all… just wrapping paper. That’s what happened to Family Guy. And I believe the same thing happened to SpongeBob Squarepants.

Still… my opinion no longer matters.

The truth is, I’m not a kid anymore and thus, the show is no longer “for” me. It originally premiered after the Kid’s Choice Awards. Kids choice. I’m not a kid anymore, so I don’t have the right to choose. I can angry about it all I want, but kids will still watch it. I’m just an angry nerd on the internet. Kids aren’t going to hear my opinions.

Nick keeps Spongebob around for money, and they’re making it. The recent Spongebob film did well critically and financially, so we’re probably in store for another one. It feels corporate and shrewd and gross, but it’s business. Networks need to thrive in the walk of the Rise of Streaming.

And as for all the little, quirky, nerdy, chubby black girls out there… I’m not worried about them missing out on how great Spongebob used to be. At the time, Spongebob Squarepants scratched an itch for me. It was something I had never seen before. It gave me a kooky, funny home to go to in 30-minute increments. I’ll always love it for that but it isn’t the end-all, be-all. No piece of entertainment is.

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But, it’s important to see where we are. Now, in 2017, I truly believe we’re in a new “golden age” of cartoons. Pendleton Ward, Rebecca Sugar, JG Quintel, Alex Hirsh, Lauren Faust, Daron Nefsy and so many other talented animators got us here. Cartoon creators are making more diverse, plot-driven and emotionally satisfying animated shows and I believe things will continue to move in that direction.

We have STEVEN UNIVERSE now. That’s INSANE.

We also have me (hello!) and other creatives who LOVE cartoons and want to see them diversify in race, religion, gender, sexual orientation and everything else.

As I move forward as a creative, I’m always going to remember that little chubby nerd girl sitting on the kitchen floor. I think if we keep kids in mind, not kids as a demographic, but real, flesh and blood kids… cartoons are only going to get better. Thinking of yourself as a kid is a great place to start. Kids aren’t stupid. They’ll remember what you onscreen for them when they’re older…

Just as vividly as I remember SpongeBob.

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