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Absorbent And Yellow And Beloved At 10 Is He

By Michael Cavna
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Oceans already cover three-fourths of the Earth's surface, so perhaps it's not quite so miraculous that it took a rambunctious sea sponge only a decade to conquer the rest of the globe.

Still, you listen to the onetime doubters in "Square Roots: The Story of SpongeBob SquarePants," the irresistibly feel-good VH1 documentary (debuting tonight) that marks the 10th anniversary of the Nickelodeon phenomenon that is "SpongeBob," and it sounds as if the Charge of the Lighthearted Brigade was the unlikeliest of cultural victories.

"This is one weird puppy of a TV show," says omnipresent Syracuse University television scholar Robert Thompson in the film. "How do you know your audience is going to take to a sponge character?" chimes in animation historian Jerry Beck. And then there's the topper of a comment: "Just some inane pulp for preschoolers."

That last remark comes from Bill Fagerbakke (a.k.a. "Patrick"), who happens to be a voice actor on the would-be preschool pulp. Now, all those squares are converts.

In the beginning, when SpongeBob was merely a primordial print sketch in an oceanographic comic book, only one man seemed to fully understand the vision: the show's creator, Stephen Hillenburg, a marine biologist turned CalArts animation student who decided his character's sea legs might succeed on TV, too. Yet even he wasn't certain his childlike aquatic talker would catch on.

"Ten years. I never imagined working on the show to this date and this long . . . ," says Hillenburg, speaking by phone from Southern California. "I really figured we might get a season and a cult following, and that might be it."

Judging by the roster of fawning superfans on "Square Roots," this is some "cult" to have. Comic Ricky Gervais, deadpanning to the camera, says: "I like the fact that he's porous. I like the fact he wears pants." LeBron James, the gazillionaire NBA hoopster, cites his respect for Mr. Krabs (intriguingly, the show's resident tightwad) before pivoting into the infectiousness of Squidward Tentacles's laugh. And then there are the Benetton-like faces of schoolkids around the world -- China, Germany, Australia -- who, in various languages, literally speak to the show's global popularity. (The show, which draws 70 million viewers monthly, is seen in 171 markets in 25 languages -- and is the most widely distributed property in MTV Networks' history, generating $8 billion in worldwide retail sales to date.)

So just how does a wide-eyed sponge who refuses to be snarky or cynical or topical win over the cable-wired world? How does it happen that, in Thompson's words, the global "territory that had once been dominated by Mickey Mouse was now being rehabitated by SpongeBob SquarePants"?

Hillenburg -- whose Nickelodeon office sign has read: "Have Fun or You're Fired" -- believes the success is anchored by SpongeBob's sincerity and purity. Some businesses tout their Commitment to Excellence; Hillenburg and his creative team insist upon a Commitment to Innocence. "He's an innocent who's an oddball," the creator says.

Partly, "I think 'SpongeBob' is born out of my love of Laurel and Hardy shorts," says Hillenburg, citing the kidlike relationship between SpongeBob and sidekick Patrick the starfish as the show's comedic core. "You've got that kind of idiot-buddy situation -- that was a huge influence. SpongeBob was inspired by that kind of character: the Innocent -- a la Stan Laurel.

"In deliberately trying to do a buddy show, there had been 'Ren and Stimpy,' which was so amazing. So I thought: 'Where do we go after that?' "

Tom Kenny, the "man of a thousand voices" whose rubber gullet gives voice to SpongeBob, points squarely to Hillenburg's vision for this pure and fully formed environment. "It's really that everything is from the show's template -- that's Steve. That paradigm. It's that 'machine' he built in his garage -- long before he brought his show to Nickelodeon . . . ," Kenny says by phone. "Its popularity stems from Steve creating a world -- as surreal as it is -- that people like to spend time in."

That world of Bikini Bottom also will be celebrated this weekend, when Nickelodeon airs a 50-hour marathon that includes new shows, old episodes and the "SpongeBob SquarePants" theatrical film -- with a top-10 countdown of celebrities' favorite episodes.

"SpongeBob" has certainly drawn its share of A-list celebrity guest-voices over the years, including Johnny Depp, Amy Poehler and David Bowie ("Often their kids are fans," Hillenburg says.) Still, the show's acknowledged First Fan has yet to appear.

"Yeah, 'SpongeBob SquarePants' is his favorite TV cartoon," Hillenburg muses about President Obama's fandom, pausing on that fact as if it's some bizarre new coral. "That leaves me kind of speechless. There have been some administrations I wouldn't have been happy to hear that from."

So would Obama get a guest-voice gig if he called on the hotline? "I can say, President Obama's call certainly would get through," says Hillenburg, momentarily deflecting the question. "But we only would cast someone if they came right out of the story." In other words: No kowtowing to power here -- we've got a Higher Creative Mission to Accomplish.

That's right: Perhaps the only Hollywood actor never to have compromised himself -- the mega-celeb with the steeliest artistic spine ever -- is an invertebrate. He remains the sponge with the ideals of an innocent. And Hillenburg still guards SpongeBob's onscreen purity like a sparkly-eyed newborn.

That frothy spirit comes through in "Square Roots," which succeeds because it doesn't get too "behind-the-scenes" wonky -- no laboring over the analytics of animation's "squash and stretch" techniques, or long-winded lectures on why SpongeBob is So Very Funny. Fittingly, the hourlong film moves briskly with the in-the-moment attention span of a 12-year-old.

The old, too-oft-forgotten adage is: "Try to dissect comedy and it dies on the operating table." "Square Roots" comes not to dissect "SpongeBob's" genius, but merely -- more nobly -- to celebrate it. We get the hilarious images. We get the infectious joy. And we get Kenny's high, squeaky SpongeBob laugh, which warbles joyously over all the wacky proceedings.

Kenny notes in our interview, by the way, that the folks behind "SpongeBob" are scheduled to ring the Wall Street bell soon: "Wouldn't that be something -- if the economy soared after SpongeBob rang the bell?"

Stranger things have happened. Ten years in, the show's popularity continues to attest: The Squeak Shall Inherit the Earth.

"Square Roots" (one hour) debuts tonight at 9 on VH1; Nickelodeon's 50-hour marathon begins Friday at 8 p.m.

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