Stephen Hillenburg: Shaping the Humor of a Generation
The creator of Spongebob has passed away, leaving behind an unmatched legacy in animation.
It has been a rough year for celebrity deaths, and sadly we have lost another pioneer. Impacting me personally, the death of Stephen Hillenburg feels like a gut-shot to my childhood as I rattle off quotes to my peers in remembrance. This is the man responsible for one of the most iconic cartoons of the last 20 years, SpongeBob SquarePants. A staple for the humor of an entire generation, SpongeBob has provided humor and comfort to its viewers since 1999. Today, the imagery and humor has transcended the show and has formed its own language through the Internet. A pioneer of the surrealist animation style that is frequented today, Stephen Hillenburg made a massive impact on television, and should be honored on the same level of the likes as Matt Groening (The Simpsons) and Matt Stone/Trey Parker (South Park). However, unlike the prior, Hillenburg made comedy that was (borderline) appropriate for all ages. After passing away from ALS on November 26th, 2018, we remember his legacy that produced a television show, multiple feature films, and countless video games.
A Passion for Aquatics & Animation
Stephen Hilleburg was born in Oklahoma, and located to Anaheim, California at the age of one. His love for the sea and the life that inhabits it can be traced to an early age, as well as his education. Attending Humboldt State University, Hilleburg obtained a degree in Natural Resource Planning and Interpretation with an emphasis in Marine Resources. From here, Hillenburg continued his passion for aquatic life by teaching at the Orange County Marine Institute as a Marine Biology teacher in 1984. It was here that the gears began to turn, and Hillenburg took his first steps in the creation of SpongeBob SquarePants where he created an informative comic for his students titled The Intertidal Zone, which focused on sea life that lived in tide pools. This stint in teaching lasted until 1987, and two years after that, Hillenburg enrolled at the California Institute of the Arts to obtain a degree in experimental animation. Following this passion for animation, he then went on to obtain a master’s degree in Fine Arts in 1992, and had his two animation shorts (Wormholes and Green Beret) made their rounds in the festival circuit.
After gaining some clout through his shorts and sporting a pair of animation degrees, Hillenburg was staffed on his first television show as a writer in 1993 on the bizarre adventures of an “Australian Wallaby” on Rocko’s Modern Life (1993-1996). Rocko’s Modern Life was pretty out there, and represented an age of Nickelodeon that was honestly pretty anarchic and might have been slightly inappropriate for a children’s show. Some of the questionable episodes include Rocko working as a phone sex operator, Heffer and Rocko attending a sleazy hotel, and Rocko frequenting a “Dr. Bendova.” During his time writing for the show, Hilleburg learned how to walk the line of adult humor and a children’s show—something that definitely benefited him when creating SponegBob; he made the show take on a new meaning when you watch it in your formative years. It was also here that Hillenburg met a massive contributor to the success of his career, Tom Kenny, who is the voice of SpongeBob and a multitude of other characters on the show. Hungry for his own creative impact on the genre, Hilleburg began to develop The Intertidal Zone into a full blown cartoon in 1994, and thus SpongeBob SquarePants was born and debuted in 1999.
Catching Magic in a Bottle
After its first season in 1999, SpongeBob SquarePants erupted in popularity. For the time, the show was unbelievably original, showcasing the life’s work of an animation auteur. The show follows the life of an underwater society of sea life—including a sponge, starfish, octopus, crab, and even a squirrel that found its way into the ocean. This originality of characters and world building was coupled with a unique animation style that only became more surreal as the show went on in years. This animation style includes the concept of hyper realism that is both disturbing and demands attention. This style of extreme closeups, showcasing the rough details of character’s faces, is something that Hillenburg pioneered and used in multiple cartoons in the following years. This gave the show a unique feel that the show runners only cranked up as the seasons went on. Like many animators and creators of children’s programming, Hillenburg was able to provide humor that went over a child’s head, but was nuanced in a way that made the show enjoyable for adults as well.
This was exhibited in a multitude of ways and featured references that I now appreciate watching in my 20s. These plots were about as dark as you can get on children’s television show, and some of the more memorable episodes for me include SpongeBob and Mr. Krabs thinking that they murdered a restaurant health inspector, the crew frequenting dive bars as a means of showing man hood, a believed murderer stalking the restaurant SpongeBob works at, and a lesson in inappropriate cursing. Other than the blending of adult and children’s humor, Hillenburg was able to capture human emotions through character interaction and plot lines that resonate with issues people deal with daily. These themes include depression, social anxiety, employment, jealously—and that’s just scratching the surface of the emotional depth hidden under a silly exterior. Each character exhibits a different set of emotions that apply to various aspects of life and adulthood. For example, Squidward and his negative attitude can be viewed as a stick in the mud, but as his core represents depression and anxiety over a lackluster life. Mr. Krabs is a symbol of corporate greed and the lack of compassion for employees. SpongeBob represents the naivety of young people early on in life, and the list goes on. The main reason for this is that the characters are based on influences on Hillenburg’s life, and the depth of emotion the show exhibits drives home this personal connection.
Today, SpongeBob SquarePants is represented in different ways by varying age groups. To those who grew up watching the early seasons of the show, the character SpongeBob has taken on a new meaning in the form of its own Internet language. Multiple iconic memes are repurposed stills of SpongeBob that once again represent a wide variety of emotions. Quoting episodes is a common practice for my generation, and if you grew up watching the show, you most likely will be able to communicate in this modern “language.” This influence that SpongeBob has had on Internet culture cannot be understated, as it has kept the show relevant despite many of us not watching the show in its later years. However, there is an entire new sect of fans of the show that are still children and are massive fans of the show. It is extremely rare for a show to be beloved by children and adults alike, but that is exactly what has transpired. Stephen Hilleburg is an icon of the genre, not only for creating one of the longest running animation programs of all time, but for bridging the gap between children and adult animation. His passion was unmatched, and as he was diagnosed with ALS in 2017, he continued to work on the show through his illness.
Rest in peace to Stephen Hillenburg, the man who is responsible for an entire generation’s sense of humor.