My earliest memory of SpongeBob SquarePants occurred several weeks before its premiere on the Canadian cable television channel YTV. In 2000, the American fast-food chain Wendy’s promoted the show by including branded toys in their kid’s meals. So along with my miniature baked potato, I brought home a hand-sized notepad chiseled in the shape of Nickelodeon’s newest would-be star. Back then, I had no idea who this cheese with knee-high socks was. But regardless, I made the rounds throughout my house, and pestered my relatives for their favorite foods and phone numbers so I could write their profiles in my new toy. If they found this constant hounding annoying, it was only going to get worse.
Growing up in a strict household, my siblings and I were forbidden from watching a lot of shows. According to my parents, the characters were either too disrespectful like some Disney stars, or the cartoon teenagers on dealt with too much drama. But SpongeBob successfully skirted under their radar. It was so far removed from the high school cliches that my parents had a hard time categorizing the the show into a single stereotype. SpongeBob was a madlibs of concepts: from an affinity for jellyfishing, the prowess of elderly superheroes, and incompetent tiny evil scientist, to a karate-kicking squirrel, and a sea snail as a pet, faced with this overstimulating menage of characters, my parents slapped the label “annoying” onto the show and called it a day.
To be fair, my siblings and I gave them every reason to think so. When SpongeBob’s popularity flooded the market, my grandfather bought us a VHS tape of Squirrel Jokes and Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy III. We wore it down with every feverish rewind until we could lip sync to the episodes perfectly. Thanks to the show’s self-contained comedic bits, we could pull scenes from our mindscapes and perform them on the spot, like Patrick and Manray’s infamous “Is this your wallet?” scene, or the nervous “muh-muh-muh-MUH-MUH-Muh-MANRAY” when Spongebob and Patrick discovered Barnacle Boy and Mermaid Man’s nemesis frozen in tartar sauce.
Fast forward over a decade and even though the show lost its glamour after its first feature-length film, SpongeBob’s bright yellow attitude lived on in the very adult situations a very adult me found myself in.
Fast forward over a decade and even though the show lost its glamour after its first feature-length film, SpongeBob’s bright yellow attitude lived on in the very adult situations a very adult me found myself in. SpongeBob’s life wasn’t glamorous: he didn’t have super powers, or a secret alter-ego, or any of the other characteristics typical of a leading animated protagonist. He was just a hustler—ambitious, almost to a fault; intensely interested in balancing his social life and hobbies; mindful of being a good friend; an eager student at boating school; and sometimes, secure enough in his family relationships to cry in front of his parents. In retrospect, he had transitioned from a hero into a role model throughout my childhood.
My biggest inspiration was someone who, on paper, I had seemingly nothing common with because I am a human being, and SpongeBob SquarePants is an animated sea sponge But Hillenburg’s show transcended all the differences, because it reminded me that if you were having fun and tried to see the good in everything, it no longer mattered that I was someone who lived in a suburb 20-minutes away from Toronto, or that he lived in a pineapple at the bottom of the sea.