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SpongeBob SquarePants (also simply referred to as SpongeBob) is an American animated comedy television series created by marine science educator and animator Stephen Hillenburg for Nickelodeon. The series chronicles the adventures of the title character and his aquatic friends in the fictional underwater city of Bikini Bottom. Being the fifth-longest-running American animated series, its high popularity has made it a media franchise. It is the highest rated series to air on Nickelodeon as well as the most profitable property for Paramount Consumer Products, having generated over $13 billion in merchandising revenue as of 2019.
Many of the series' ideas originated in The Intertidal Zone, an unpublished educational book that Hillenburg created in 1989 to teach his students about undersea life. He began developing SpongeBob SquarePants into a television series in 1996, and in 1997, a seven-minute pilot was pitched to Nickelodeon. The network's executives wanted SpongeBob to be a child in school, but Hillenburg preferred SpongeBob to be an adult character. He was prepared to "walk out" on Nickelodeon and abandon the series, but he compromised by creating Mrs. Puff and her boating school, so that SpongeBob could attend school as an adult.
Nickelodeon aired a preview for the series in the United States on May 1, 1999, following the airing of the 1999 Kids' Choice Awards. The series later officially premiered on July 17, 1999. It has received worldwide critical acclaim since its premiere and had gained enormous popularity by its second season. The thirteenth season began airing in October 2020, and the series was renewed for a fourteenth season on March 24, 2022. The series has inspired three feature films: The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie (2004), Sponge Out of Water (2015), and Sponge on the Run (2020). Two spin-off series, Kamp Koral: SpongeBob's Under Years and The Patrick Star Show, premiered in 2021. As of February 2022, four additional films are in the works – consisting of three character spinoff films for Paramount+ and a new theatrical SpongeBob film.
SpongeBob SquarePants has won a variety of awards including six Annie Awards, eight Golden Reel Awards, four Emmy Awards, 19 Kids' Choice Awards, and two BAFTA Children's Awards. A Broadway musical based on the series opened in 2017 to critical acclaim.
The series revolves around the title character and an ensemble cast of his aquatic friends. SpongeBob SquarePants is an energetic and optimistic yellow sea sponge who lives in a submerged pineapple. SpongeBob has a childlike enthusiasm for life, which carries over to his job as a fry cook at a fast food restaurant called the Krusty Krab. One of his life’s greatest goals is to obtain a boat-driving license from Mrs. Puff's Boating School, but he never succeeds. His favorite pastimes include "jellyfishing", which involves catching jellyfish with a net in a manner similar to butterfly catching, and blowing soap bubbles into elaborate shapes. He has a pet sea snail with a pink shell and a blue body named Gary, who meows like a cat.
Living two houses away from SpongeBob is his best friend Patrick Star, a dim-witted yet friendly pink starfish who resides under a rock. Despite his mental setbacks, Patrick sees himself as intelligent. Squidward Tentacles, SpongeBob's next-door neighbor and co-worker at the Krusty Krab, is an arrogant, ill-tempered octopus who lives in an Easter Island moai. He enjoys playing the clarinet and painting self-portraits but hates his job as a cashier. He also dislikes living between SpongeBob and Patrick because of their childish nature. The owner of the Krusty Krab is a miserly, greedy red crab named Mr. Krabs who talks like a sailor and runs his restaurant as if it were a pirate ship. He is a single parent with a teenage daughter, a grey sperm whale with a red-heart nose and yellow ponytail named Pearl, to whom he wants to bequeath his riches. Pearl does not want to continue the family business and would rather spend her time listening to music or working at the local shopping mall. Another of SpongeBob's friends is Sandy Cheeks, a thrill-seeking and athletic squirrel from Texas, who wears an air-filled diving suit to breathe underwater. She lives in a tree enclosed in a clear glass dome locked by an airtight, hand-turned seal and is an expert in karate, as well as a scientist.
Located across the street from the Krusty Krab is an unsuccessful rival restaurant called the Chum Bucket. It is run by a small, green, one-eyed copepod named Plankton and his computer wife, Karen. Plankton constantly tries to steal the secret recipe for Mr. Krabs's popular Krabby Patty burgers, hoping to gain the upper hand and put the Krusty Krab out of business. Karen supplies him with evil schemes to obtain the formula, but their efforts always fail and their restaurant rarely has any customers. When SpongeBob is not working at the Krusty Krab, he is often taking boating lessons from Mrs. Puff, a paranoid but patient pufferfish. SpongeBob is Mrs. Puff's most diligent student and knows every answer to the oral exams he takes, but he panics and crashes when he tries to drive a real boat. When Mrs. Puff endures one of SpongeBob's crashes or is otherwise frightened, she puffs up into a ball.
An unseen figure called the French Narrator often introduces episodes and narrates the intertitles as if the series were a nature documentary about the ocean. His role and distinctive manner of speaking are references to the oceanographer Jacques Cousteau.
While pitching the cartoon to Nickelodeon executives, Hillenburg donned a Hawaiian shirt, brought along an "underwater terrarium with models of the characters", and played Hawaiian music to set the theme. The setup was described by Nickelodeon executive Eric Coleman as "pretty amazing". They were given money and two weeks to write the pilot episode "Help Wanted". Drymon, Hillenburg, and Jennings returned with what was described by Nickelodeon official Albie Hecht as, "a performance [he] wished [he] had on tape". Although executive producer Derek Drymon described the pitch as stressful, he said it went "very well". Kevin Kay and Hecht had to step outside because they were "exhausted from laughing", which worried the cartoonists.
In an interview, Cyma Zarghami, then-president of Nickelodeon, said, "their [Nickelodeon executives'] immediate reaction was to see it again, both because they liked it and it was unlike anything they'd ever seen before". Zarghami was one of four executives in the room when SpongeBob SquarePants was screened for the first time.
Before commissioning the full series, Nickelodeon executives insisted that it would not be popular unless SpongeBob was a child who went to school, with his teacher as a main character. Hillenburg recalled in 2012 that Nickelodeon told him, "Our winning formula is animation about kids in school... We want you to put SpongeBob in school." Hillenburg was ready to "walk out" on Nickelodeon and abandon the series, since he wanted SpongeBob to be an adult character. He eventually compromised by adding a new character to the main cast, Mrs. Puff, who is a boat-driving teacher. Hillenburg was happy with the compromise and said, "A positive thing for me that came out of it was [how it brought] in a new character, Mrs. Puff, who I love."
Within its first month on air, SpongeBob SquarePants overtook Pokémon as the highest rated Saturday-morning children's series on television. It held an average national Nielsen rating of 4.9 among children aged two through eleven, denoting 1.9 million viewers. Two years later, the series had firmly established itself as Nickelodeon's second highest-rated children's program, after Rugrats. SpongeBob SquarePants was credited with helping Nickelodeon take the "Saturday-morning ratings crown" for the fourth straight season in 2001. The series had gained a significant adult audience by that point—nearly 40 percent of its 2.2 million viewers were aged 18 to 34. In response to its weekend success, Nickelodeon gave SpongeBob SquarePants time slots at 6:00 PM and 8:00 PM, Monday through Thursday, to increase the series' exposure. By the end of 2001, SpongeBob SquarePants boasted the highest ratings for any children's series, on all of television. Weekly viewership of the series had reached around fifteen million, at least five million of whom were adults.
SpongeBob SquarePants has been widely praised particularly for its appeal to different age groups, and the show has earned numerous awards and accolades throughout its run. James Poniewozik of Time magazine described the title character as "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." According to Laura Fries of Variety magazine, the series is "a thoughtful and inventive cartoon about a hopelessly optimistic and resilient sea sponge ... Devoid of the double entendres rife in today's animated TV shows, this is purely kid's stuff. ... However, that's not to say that SpongeBob is simplistic or even juvenile. It's charming and whimsical, but clever enough to appeal to teens and college-aged kids, as well." The New York Times' critic Joyce Millman said SpongeBob "is clever without being impenetrable to young viewers and goofy without boring grown-ups to tears. It's the most charming toon on television, and one of the weirdest. And it's also good, clean fun, which makes sense because it is, after all, about a sponge." Millman wrote, "His relentless good cheer would be irritating if he weren't so darned lovable and his world so excellently strange. ... Like Pee-wee's Playhouse, SpongeBob joyfully dances on the fine line between childhood and adulthood, guilelessness and camp, the warped and the sweet."
In 2005, an online video that showed clips from SpongeBob SquarePants and other children's shows set to the Sister Sledge song "We Are Family" to promote diversity and tolerance was attacked by an evangelical group in the United States. They saw SpongeBob being used to "advocate homosexuality". James Dobson of Focus on the Family accused the video of promoting homosexuality because it was sponsored by a pro-tolerance group. The incident prompted the question whether SpongeBob is gay. Although the character has enjoyed popularity with gay viewers, series creator Stephen Hillenburg had already denied SpongeBob is gay three years earlier, clarifying at the time he considered the character to be "somewhat asexual". After Dobson's comments, Hillenburg reasserted his position, stating that sexual preference does not play a part in what they are "trying to do" with the series. Tom Kenny and other production members were distraught that the issue had arisen. Dobson later said his comments were taken out of context and his original complaints were not with SpongeBob, the video, or any of the characters in the video, but rather with the organization that sponsored the video, the We Are Family Foundation. Dobson said they posted pro-gay material on their website, but later removed it. After the controversy, John H. Thomas, the United Church of Christ's general minister and president, said they would welcome SpongeBob into their ministry. He said: "Jesus didn't turn people away. Neither do we."
Queer theorist Jeffery P. Dennis, author of the journal article "Queertoons", argued that SpongeBob and Sandy are not romantically in love, but added he believed SpongeBob and Patrick "are paired with arguably erotic intensity". Martin Goodman of Animation World Magazine called Dennis' comments regarding SpongeBob and Patrick "interesting". Ukrainian website Family Under the Protection of the Holy Virgin, which has been described as a "fringe Catholic" group by The Wall Street Journal, criticized SpongeBob SquarePants for its alleged "promotion of homosexuality". The group sought to have the series banned, along with several other popular children's properties. The National Expert Commission of Ukraine on the Protection of Public Morality took up the matter for review in August 2012. Questions of SpongeBob's sexuality resurfaced in 2020 after Nickelodeon's official Twitter account posted an image of the character, in rainbow colors with text celebrating the LGBTQ+ community and its allies during Pride Month. Although the post did not make any assertions about SpongeBob's sexual orientation, numerous users responded on social media, claiming they already had their suspicions that he might be gay or reasserting Hillenburg's description of asexuality.
Originally, SpongeBob SquarePants was streaming on Netflix. However, the series was removed in 2013 due to their deal with Viacom not being renewed. The series was also available to stream on Hulu starting in 2012 until being removed in 2016. The series later streamed on Amazon Prime Video in 2013 after the Netflix deal ended. As part of the rebranding plan of Paramount+, the series joined along with other ViacomCBS shows on July 30, 2020.
Currently, the first 6 seasons are available to be streamed on Prime Video and the first 12 seasons through Paramount+. The series is available to stream on Netflix in Canada