Back in my inaugural GT post, I mentioned that my future postings would include “ranting about how the first 3 seasons of Spongebob were the only ones worth a damn.” I’m happy to announce that this day has finally come, and that Burnernator keeps her promises.
While doing my “research,” I came across this article that does a pretty decent job at explaining what happened to the Spongebob we know and love. To summarize: the show’s creator/producer and a bunch of the OG writers left after the first Spongebob movie. The characters have had their primary traits magnified to the extent that they aren’t really characters anymore. The animation went to shit (overly stylized and simplified).
This article isn’t perfect, obviously. I absolutely despise its use of the r-word, and I think it misses something pretty crucial:
The difference between the old episodes and the new is that the old episodes were actually trying to say something. They weren’t David Lynchian explosions of chaos like the new ones are. They were creative, funny retellings of classic stories. They were wry, as opposed to mean-spirited. Allow me to drag y’all down Examples Lane!
“Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy Episode III” introduces Man Ray, an infamous supervillain and stand-in for A Clockwork Orange’s Alex DeLarge. In an attempt to rid him of his evil ways, Spongebob and Patrick utilize a “tickle belt” while giving him their version of the Ludovico technique - “goodness lessons.” Man Ray fools them into taking the belt off, and runs to a nearby bank to rob it. But when he tries to commit evil deeds, he can’t help but burst out laughing and exclaims “the belt is gone, but I still feel its infernal tickle!” He renounces crime, but in later episodes, he’s back at it. He was cured, alright.
“Just One Bite” is a zany tale of addiction and how far you’ll go to get your fix. Squidward starts out having never touched a Krabby Patty, even though he’s surrounded by them all day at work. But after Spongebob relentlessly pressures him to take “just one bite,” he’s hooked. He’s fantasizing nonstop about Krabby Patties, he eats one out of the garbage, and finally, he breaks into the restaurant and eats so many that he explodes. “Yeah,” the paramedic laughs. “I remember MY first Krabby Patty.”
“Frankendoodle” is a rendering of the classic monster tale - misguided scientist creates something in his own image, only to have the creation grow stronger and more sentient than anyone can manage. Eventually, the creation attempts to unseat the creator. “YOU DOODLE,” Spongebob’s sentient drawing proclaims in the episode’s climax. “ME SPONGEBOB.”
There is a reason this formula works so well. These are stories that everyone can recognize, told in ways that viewers of all ages can appreciate. They hold up, even in our post-2016 hellscape.
Old Spongebob was pretty damn progressive for a children’s show. Squidward’s interests, which include clarinet-playing and interpretive dance, are never really questioned. Two male characters raise a baby together, but still struggle with the impact of gender roles on parenting. Two characters learn that it might not be a good idea to kill a health inspector. You know, as one does.
Feminism was pretty de rigeur. In “The Great Snail Race,” Spongebob is training his pet snail Gary to “run” a big race. He blows on a whistle and says “Let’s go, ladies! I call you a lady to humiliate and demean you. It’s a motivational tactic we coaches use.” Sandy, the show’s most prominent feminist, is shown walking somewhere far away. She suddenly stops dead in her tracks. “Hmm,” she says. “I don’t know why, but I think I’ll kick Spongebob’s butt tomorrow.” And she does, handily.
Even more modern media appears to be borrowing from Spongebob’s Golden Age. Bear with me for this example.
“Squirrel Jokes” is a pretty keen skewering of the stand-up comedy world. Spongebob is trying to break into comedy, and absolutely bombs during his first gig. He’s frantically searching the room for joke topics (forks, ketchup, etc.), then settles on the face of his supportive friend Sandy. “Did you ever notice how...big squirrel’s teeth are?” he says. The audience chuckles, and Spongebob knows he has an in. “You could land a plane on those things!”
The show is a smash. Spongebob is basking in his success when Sandy approaches him backstage. “Those jokes are hurtful,” she tells him, and he promises to stop using them during his shows.
For the next gig, he’s back to floundering. The other jokes just aren’t working. The audience chants for him to get back to the squirrel jokes! “You have a choice to make,” Spongebob thinks to himself. “Your friends, or your career.” He drops the mic and walks offstage. The audience gasps. There’s a beat, and then he bursts back onstage wearing giant fake teeth and screeching “HOWDY, Y’ALL!” The audience erupts in cheers. Sandy is furious.
In Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice (released in 2016), Keegan-Michael Key’s character Jack is a member of a small, somewhat unknown improv troupe. He gets his “big break” as a cast member on the movie’s equivalent of Saturday Night Live, which his fellow performers resent him for. Jack returns to the improv show for a special guest appearance, and the members of the audience shout for him to do his famous SNL bit. The show goes on as normal, but when it starts to flounder and lose the audience’s interest, Jack bursts into his SNL persona, drawing the ire of his friends.
To be fair, this could all be because I was in the right place at the right time. In 1999, when the show’s pilot episode (“Help Wanted”) debuted on Nickelodeon, I was 9 years old and utterly hooked. I’m 26 now, and my 25-year old sister and I still roar with laughter when Mr. Krabs hollers “SO LONG, SHRIMP!” at Plankton while an actual shrimp looks around quizzically. Or when Patrick says “the inner machinations of my mind are an enigma.”
My husband-to-be, however, is nearing 35 and was not quite dialed in to the show when it was airing. He doesn’t have the fierce nostalgic devotion to it that I do. He never will. Thankfully, he’s willing to indulge me as I wear out my DVDs of Seasons 1-3, in the guise of “educating” him.
In conclusion, I love you, Old Spongebob. Thanks for everything. And I wumbo, you wumbo, he she me wumbo.