Stephen Hillenburg, a former marine biology teacher who created a children’s show that ballooned into an unlikely cultural phenomenon, ‘SpongeBob SquarePants,’ died on Monday at his home in Southern California. He was 57.
Hillenburg announced last year that he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the neurodegenerative condition known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Nickelodeon, the channel that has been the show’s home since its premiere in May 1999, announced his death.
“Steve imbued ‘SpongeBob SquarePants’ with a unique sense of humour and innocence that has brought joy to generations of kids and families everywhere,” the network said in its statement. “His utterly original characters and the world of Bikini Bottom will long stand as a reminder of the value of optimism, friendship and the limitless power of imagination.”
Bikini Bottom is the underwater home of the show’s title character, a good-natured yellow kitchen sponge, or sea creature, or both, who works as a fry cook, has a pet snail and lives in a pineapple.
With its frenetic 11-minute episodes (two per show), ‘SpongeBob’ proved irresistible to the 12-and-under crowd, and eventually to many much older fans as well.
“Those 11-minute episodes of Hawaiian-slacker whimsy,” critic David Edelstein wrote in The New York Times in 2004, “set against flower-cloud backdrops inspired by Polynesian fabrics and punctuated by ukulele music and SpongeBob’s dolphin-on-a-sugar-high chortle, have made Nickelodeon’s ‘SpongeBob SquarePants’ a phenomenon not only with little kids, but also with big kids, college students, stoners, gays — pretty much everyone who walks on land or shells out, so to speak, for the tie-in merchandise.”
The show spawned two movies, in 2004 and 2015, and, last year, a Broadway musical, which was nominated for 12 Tony Awards. (It won one, for scenic design.) It closed in September after 327 performances.
The ‘SpongeBob’ juggernaut stretched far and wide.
“Someone recently sent me a link to a video of Russian soldiers singing the ‘SpongeBob’ theme song while marching around,” Hillenburg said in 2013. “It wasn’t just one group, either. It was a bunch of them.”
Stephen McDannell Hillenburg was born on August 21, 1961, at Fort Sill in Lawton, Oklahoma, where his father, Kelly, was based. His mother, Nancy (Dufour) Hillenburg, taught visually impaired students.
Stephen Hillenburg graduated from Humboldt State University in California in 1984 with a bachelor’s degree in natural resource planning and interpretation, with an emphasis on marine resources. He then taught marine biology at the Orange County Marine Institute (now the Ocean Institute) in Dana Point, California.
He had always been interested in drawing as well, and he pursued studies in experimental animation at the California Institute of the Arts, receiving a master of fine arts degree there in 1992.
From 1993 to 1996 he was a writer and director on the Nickelodeon series ‘Rocko’s Modern Life,’ where he worked with a number of people who would help him develop ‘SpongeBob,’ including Tom Kenny, who provides the voice of the title character. In a 2001 interview with The Washington Post, Hillenburg described how the world’s most famous yellow sponge came to be.
“A sponge is a funny animal to centre a show on,” he said. “At first I drew a few natural sponges — amorphous shapes, blobs — which was the correct thing to do biologically as a marine science teacher. Then I drew a square sponge, and it looked so funny. I think as far as cartoon language goes he was easier to recognise. He seemed to fit the character type I was looking for — a somewhat nerdy, squeaky-clean oddball.”
He drew on the work of Jerry Lewis, Pee-wee Herman, and Laurel and Hardy for inspiration, he often said.
Over the years the show, which recently passed the 250-episode mark, has attracted a dizzying list of top stars as guest voices — David Bowie, Tina Fey, Mark Hamill, Lewis Black, Betty White and more. More stars turned up in the ‘SpongeBob’ movies, including Jeffrey Tambor, David Hasselhoff and Antonio Banderas.
Hillenburg was at first reluctant to adapt the ‘SpongeBob’ world for the big screen, but the idea of sending his yellow protagonist out of Bikini Bottom on a grand adventure eventually won him over. The result, in 2004, was ‘The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie,’ which he directed with Mark Osborne.
“The loud, silly innocence of Mr Hillenburg’s imaginary world, where double entendres seem to bubble up and dissipate faster than you can catch them,” AO Scott wrote in reviewing it for The New York Times, “is a welcome antidote to the self-seriousness and brutality that rule so much of the popular culture.”
The movie made an estimated $140 million (Dh514.1 million) worldwide. The second film, ‘The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water,’ with Hillenburg as an executive producer, earned an estimated $325 million worldwide.
Hillenburg is survived by his wife, Karen (Umland) Hillenburg; a son, Clay; his mother, Nancy; and a brother, Bryan.
The success of his character and his show — the constant references, the countless products, authorised and not — sometimes left Hillenburg uneasy.
“At first it’s both weird and flattering,” he said, “and then after a while you get tired of seeing it. It loses preciousness after a while.
“One night I was really beat, we worked really late and went to get food at some takeout place. And I leaned over against this gumball machine, just exhausted, and there was a SpongeBob looking back at me. And it’s just, like, ‘Oh, brother.’”