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But it's that other part of the audience — the nearly 5 million adults who also tune in every week (and who purchase millions of dollars worth of the merchandise for themselves) — that is elevating SpongeBob from child's confection to cult classic.
Why that should be so isn't entirely obvious. The tenor of "SpongeBob SquarePants" is distinctly sweet and silly. It lacks most of the blatant scatology of recent crossover hits like "Ren & Stimpy," and avoids the acerbic social commentary of adults-only cartoons like "The Simpsons" and "South Park." SpongeBob, in contrast, "lives in a pineapple under the sea" (were you singing along?) with his pet snail, Gary. He is a relentlessly optimistic naf with a sound work ethic and an affinity for tighty-whitey underwear who basically has fun and plays nice. And that in the end, may have been a shrewd — or lucky — stroke, as it seems to have tapped into something that the culture was ripe to consume.
"Virtually every great cartoon, both in the sense of being commercially successful and artistically successful, somehow has a simultaneous appeal to both adults and kids," said Timothy Burke, a professor of history at Swarthmore College and an author of "Saturday Morning Fever: Growing Up With Cartoon Culture" (St. Martins, 1998). "SpongeBob seems to have a different formula for doing that than most of the shows that have pulled off the same trick in recent times."
For most successful cartoons in the last decade or so, that formula has involved giving children fun characters, plot lines that }“µúon't condescend, and knowing winks to the adults in the audience. Popular shows like "The PowerPuff Girls," Professor Burke says, do this extremely well. "They'll have giant monsters destroying a city, and they know there's a portion of their audience that has seen Godzilla movies and knows all the tropes and plot turns associated with Godzilla movies, so they play that for laughs."
Of course, variations on that formula are at least as old as Bugs Bunny and the Warner Bros. cartoons from the 1930's and 40's, which routinely lobbed knowing, often irreverent tidbits over the heads of children and into the laps of adults who recognized — and appreciated — the favor.
SpongeBob is rarely so overt in its subversion. The characters are all somewhat stupid and unaware of themselves. Some are grumpy and mean, but rarely malicious. But that's not to say that the show lacks a barbed wit that is firmly contemporary. There are plenty of subtle scatological riffs and sly references to the banality of middle-American life, for instance. Still, the show ends up evoking a civility that is unusual in modern cartoons.
"There is something kind of unique about this," said Robert Thompson, a professor of communications and director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "It seems to be a refreshing breath from the pre-irony era. There's no sense of the elbow-in-rib, tongue-in-cheek aesthetic that so permeates the rest of American culture — including kids' shows like the `Rugrats.' "
BUT that apparent lack of sardonic self-awareness in a culture defined by wiseguy knowingness may be exactly what works for SpongeBob. Adults — and even kids — know the wink-and-nudge routine all too well. "I think what's subversive about it is it's so incredibly nave — deliberately," said Professor Thompson. "Because there's nothing in it that's trying to be hip or cool or anything else, hipness can be grafted onto it."
Not surprisingly, SpongeBob's creator, Stephen Hillenburg, says he's simply trying to make people laugh. He drew inspiration, he says, from Charlie Chaplin, and from Peewee Herman — both of whom made naiveté the core of their comedy. He also mentions Laurel and Hardy. "Stan was always like this kid with this innocent view, and there's always a certain amount of comedy that you can derive from that in a setting where other characters are a little more jaded."
Mr. Hillenburg is also careful to point out that SpongeBob is a product of many creative minds coming together with a simple mission: fun. "We try to write the show to make ourselves laugh," he said. "And we're not thinking about how to analyze it afterward or how it fits into the pop culture now. It's really just a matter of what do we think is creative and hopefully funny."
So far so good — and the imitators are surely on their way.
"Every time something like this succeeds TV executives have meetings and they sit around tables and they try to figure out why it succeeded," Professor Burke said, "and they invariably miss the point: That it succeeded because you gave some good creative people the freedom to make something creative. Instead, they sort of boil it down to a list of things and say `well, do more of that.' "
"But you try to make SpongeBob to order," he said, "and I almost guarantee you can't."
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AT BIKINI BOTTOM
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Soaking Up Attention
SpongeBob SquarePants, indomitable invertebrate, floats to the top of the sea of kids' programming
Dec. 17, 2001
Hail SpongeBob SquarePants: delightfully biologically incorrect and the new invertebrate king of children's television. Launched in 1999, his sweet, surrealistic, self-titled Nickelodeon cartoon recently unseated the long-reigning Rugrats as the most popular kids' show on TV, attracting an average of 10 million kids ages 2 to 11 (and more than 5 million adults) each week.
Not bad for a complete nerd. Hillenburg says he conceived SpongeBob as an offbeat, dweeby child-man in the mold of Pee-wee Herman. (Hillenburg, who wears a funky surfer haircut at age 40 and hangs sea-life mobiles outside his office, fits the offbeat, dweeby child-man profile a bit himself.) Like Pee-wee, the squeaky-voiced sponge lives in a colorful, goofy wonderland--inside an undersea pineapple in the town of Bikini Bottom. "I wanted to create a small town underwater where the characters were more like us than like fish," Hillenburg says. "They have fire. They take walks. They drive. They have pets and holidays." Of course, there are a few differences. In Bikini Bottom, no one thinks it's strange that the town villain, the megalomaniacal Plankton, is a one-celled organism, or that SpongeBob's boss, a crab, has a daughter who's a whale (literally).
Like Pee-wee's appeal, SpongeBob's lies in his innocence. He's the anti-Bart Simpson, temperamentally and physically: his head is as squared-off and neat as Bart's is unruly, and he has a personality to match--conscientious, optimistic and blind to the faults in the world and those around him. He never seems to notice that his cynical neighbor and co-worker Squidward (an octopus) drips contempt toward everything SpongeBob does, or that his best friend Patrick Starfish is a certified nitwit. Kids are drawn by the show's loopy slapstick, grownups by its dry (so to speak) wit: "I order the food, and you cook the food," Squidward tells SpongeBob, describing their jobs at the restaurant. "We do that for 40 years, and then we die."
That dual appeal is a sign of a welcome change in animation. Cartoons have bridged kids' and adult entertainment since the heyday of Walt Disney and Chuck Jones, but the field went through a long creative slump in the '70s and '80s, as programmers churned out Saturday-morning knock-offs made mainly to shill toys (My Little Pony) or repurpose sitcom characters (The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang). Today cartoons have undergone a renaissance, as kids' channels such as Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network have given their animators the freedom of auteurs. Smarter and more idiosyncratic, these animators have created shows like Cartoon Network's The Powerpuff Girls that have become not just hits but cultural icons. "It harkens back to the old days at Warner Bros., when guys were creating Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny, and they had free rein," says Powerpuff creator Craig McCracken. There's still plenty of toy-driven junk, particularly in the anime-action category, but cartoons have also become more diverse (with new entries like Disney Channel's African-American The Proud Family) and ambitious (Cartoon Network's epic Samurai Jack).
Of course, there's still cashing in to be done--SpongeBob has lent his image to Target, Burger King and Nabisco Cheese Nips, and a SpongeBob movie is in the works. But, Hillenburg says, the art comes first. "I could get more money from a [broadcast] network," he says, but "I was interested in doing the show the way I wanted." Now that creators like him can do that, it is, in the world of cartoons at least, a great time to be a kid, a grownup or--best of all--a little of each.
Reported by Jeanne McDowell/Los Angeles