Nov 29, 2018

How Nickelodeon’s ‘SpongeBob’ cartoon became a cultural phenomenon.

Who lives in a pineapple under the sea? SpongeBob SquarePants—that’s who.

The oddball yellow sponge from the fictional undersea community of Bikini Bottom is one of the most recognizable cartoons of all time, thanks to creator Stephen Hillenburg.

Nearly 20 years after the series first aired on Nickelodeon, SpongeBob SquarePants is still going strong. The hit show spawned hundreds of episodes, several feature films, and a Tony Award-winning Broadway show.

Beyond that, characters and images from the show are pervasive throughout fashion, music, and Internet culture.

"SpongeBob is one of the most significant television series in meme history."

“SpongeBob is one of the most significant television series in meme history,” Know Your Meme managing editor Don Caldwell told Wired.

He added that the show currently has 90 sub-entries and some 290 related entry search results on the website—that's more documented memes than The Simpsons, the longest-running primetime scripted series in history. Evil Patrick Star and Tired SpongeBob are among some of the most prevalent and popular ones.

"SpongeBob clearly resonates with a large part of internet culture like no other, and I don't think this is simply driven by nostalgia,” said Caldwell.

The show pervades hip-hop culture as well. According to Genius, the SpongeBob SquarePants TV series is referenced in hundreds of hip-hop lyrics, from D12’s song “Keep Talkin'” in 2004 to YouTube mixes of SpongeBob trap tunes. SpongeBob himself has been mentioned over 100 times on songs by artists ranging from Wu-Tang Clan to Smokepurpp.

Chuuwee, a Los Angeles hip-hop artist who collaborated with DJ duo Cookin Soul on the SpongeBob rap “Bikini Bottom,” told Noisey the impact on music is connected to the show’s influence on fashion and streetwear, saying that “growing up, we all had Jordan Dub Zeros with SpongeBob on the side and SpongeBob backpacks.”

He added, “They started printing SpongeBob on shirts and sweaters hoping it would bring people in. Once Bay Area rappers and tastemakers started wearing them in music videos, it set up the show as an acceptable staple in the culture.”

The SpongeBob character and his zany undersea community have inspired plenty of other merchandise, including lunch boxes and backpacks, mugs and notebooks, earning more than $13 billion in merchandise sales, according to The New York Times.


The hit show also inspired several fashion collaborations with a variety of brands and designers, including Vans and Moschino. Others in the industry, like PSD Underwear, paid tribute to Hillenburg and thanked him for “all the laughs.” Designer like Marc Jacobs, who has the square sponge tattooed on his arm, has praised Hillenburg and the show in the past.

"The colors of that cartoon are really beautiful and really sophisticated and interesting,” Jacobs told The Cut.

And where better to rock that SpongeBob gear than in a SpongeBob-inspired Toyota Highlander, which the auto giant unveiled in 2013.

The colorful cartoon character even influenced the close-knit scientific community. In 2011, they named a new fungus, spongiforma squarepantsi, after the titular character.

For approximately $2,416 a night, excluding holiday pricing, travelers to Punta Cana, Dominican Republic can stay in a pineapple like their favorite undersea dwelling friend.

Hillenburg never anticipated that the small-screen star would become a global brand.

“I thought we’d get four seasons, but it’s still going,” Hillenburg explained to The Guardian in 2016. “I see SpongeBob on ice-cream trucks a lot and I’ve got bootleg SpongeBob merchandise from Mexico. In Egypt, they even wear hijabs with SpongeBob on them.”

Behind this wide-ranging legacy and the deep connection celebrities and fans feel for the apple-cheeked undersea creature, Hillenburg’s legacy will likely continue traveling beyond Bikini Bottom for a long, long time to come.