AMID THE deep divisive rifts and political eddies over the environment, the planet’s most famous marine cartoonist saw the ocean as a force for bringing us together.
For two decades, Stephen Hillenburg, creator of Nickelodeon’s animated phenomenon “SpongeBob SquarePants,” made viewers in more than 170 countries laugh at themselves, thanks to the show’s ability to plumb our common foibles — the human condition as reflected through a starfish, a crab, megalomaniacal plankton and the globe’s most wide-eyed sea sponge.
“Everybody recognizes the childlike character,” Hillenburg told me in 2009 about the title character of SpongeBob, upon the show’s 10th anniversary. The innocent, in a swirl of physical comedy, he said, is “universally understood.”
And perhaps it is that common element of illuminating laughter that will stand as the ultimate unifying legacy of Hillenburg, who died Monday of ALS at age 57. He wanted us to care about the undercurrents that bind us.
“People have to get together and [realize] how important our oceans are,” said Hillenburg, who stayed on with the show after announcing his ALS in March 2017. “One thing I’m hoping [will] come out of [a ‘SpongeBob’] documentary is the realization that the show came from something that’s precious and that we need to appreciate it. It takes care of us.”
“Hopefully, if you watch ‘SpongeBob,’ “ Hillenburg added, you’ll want to “take care of our oceans.”
“Steve imbued ‘SpongeBob SquarePants’ with a unique sense of humor and innocence that has brought joy to generations of kids and families everywhere,” Nickelodeon said in a statement, adding that his Bikini Bottom characters will stand as a “reminder of the value of optimism, friendship and the limitless power of imagination.”
It took a fair amount of imagination for Hillenburg even to envision a career in animation. Born in Oklahoma to a teacher and a draftsman, he headed to Northern California’s Humboldt State University to study marine resources, before becoming a marine biology teacher at what is now the Ocean Institute in California. Yet his interest in drawing still beckoned like a call to the sea.
"Honestly, I hadn’t looked into the logistics and income. I just knew that’s what I wanted to do,” Hillenburg told me. “I thought, at least, I could get a job cleaning up somebody’s drawings. . . . Then there was ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘Ren & Stimpy’ — everyone was excited about the rebirth of the form” in the ’90s.
Hillenburg received a degree in experimental animation from California Institute of the Arts, getting his MFA in 1992, fully prepared to be a starving artist as he took out loans to make a film.
As luck and pluck would have it, though, Joe Murray, the creator of Nickelodeon’s “Rocko’s Modern Life,” saw the young animator’s work and “took a huge chance,” Hillenburg said. “I didn’t know how to storyboard — I still don’t. It was like perfect timing.”
On “Rocko,” Hillenburg would meet the gifted gullet of Tom Kenny, who voices SpongeBob, and build the skills to create his own world of pineapple houses and Krabby Patty recipes. The allure of the most universal of comedy — silent films — propelled him still.
"I think ‘SpongeBob’ is born out of my love of Laurel and Hardy shorts,” he said during our phone interview. “You’ve got that kind of idiot-buddy situation — that was a huge influence. SpongeBob was inspired by that kind of character . . . a la Stan Laurel.”
What Hillenburg really built, however, was a world of clear character types in conflict — often roiling into high-pitched drama.
Yet the power of friendship has always served as the show’s anchored message. Whether SpongeBob’s kinetic excitability and youthful absence of guile were driving crazy a greedy boss or a driving instructor or a tiny villain or a nerve-frayed neighbor, it was his sweetness and love that remained forever buoyant.
“SpongeBob is a complete innocent — not an idiot. SpongeBob never fully realizes how stupid Patrick is,” Hillenburg said of his “absorbent and yellow and porous” creation and his slow-witted best friend. “They’re whipping themselves up into situations — that’s always where the humor comes from.”
Ultimately, though, he said: “The rule is: Follow the innocence.”
Amid our hot political climate, sometimes such warmth is needed to open our hearts.
Thank you, Mr. Hillenburg. May your “nautical nonsense” long make us laugh as we cherish who lives under the sea.