Stephen Hillenburg and the Creation of SpongeBob

This is the story that's passed around Hollywood of the creation of 'SpongeBob SquarePants,' the last original cartoon.

Let me start with this: I honestly don't know if this story is true. I want it to be. It varies from the Wikipedia version. However, what does Wikipedia know? This is how it was told to me, so that's what I'll recount to you. There's actually a moral to the version I heard. HA!

Some backstory: Many moons ago, I was fortunate enough to work on an animated series for Spike TV. (Remember them?) Our production offices were located in the Nickelodeon building in Burbank. It was awesome. There were a ton of creative people. Everywhere you looked animators, writers and production staff had their cubicles decked out in the coolest sketches, designs and original artwork. When I say "decked out," I mean it. It seemed like ever inch of people's office space had something on it. A doodle, an idea, or a funny mish-mash of genres. Batman dancing with a Space Alien. That kind of thing. On my breaks I would just walk around and check out the cool kids cubicles. Looking back, I must've looked like an idiot. I don't care. After the show I was working on was cancelled, I actually pitched an idea to a couple execs. I still think the idea is funny and would've been a great show. What can you do? Anyway, during two different meetings, two different execs (one from Nick, one from Disney) told me why the project I was pitching wouldn't work at their Studios (they claimed to love the idea by the way–HA!) and how nothing fiercely original stood a chance anymore. The development system would end up killing it. Death by a thousand corporate notes. They both went on to tell the story of the Last Original cartoon: SpongeBob SquarePants.

This is how I heard it. I wont be naming names other than Stephen Hillenburg.

A long time ago Nickelodeon had a Development VP who was known for taking chances. Crazy chances. Evidently the guy would walk the halls, talk to artists, directors, almost anybody and if he thought they had good ideas, he'd get them a development deal. This was in the earlier days of Nick and they were really looking for a break-out show.

Well one of the people to get a deal was a young artist named Stephen Hillenburg. He needed to deliver three concepts for a new animated show. And so he did, working within the confines of what the studio said they wanted (and getting feedback from "The Development Team"), and rewriting, and getting notes and revisions from the Head Honchos. He turned in two different ideas that had gone through "The System." They both were turned down. Total failures. As to the third idea, The Development exec just kinda blew it off. Told Stephen to do whatever he wanted and walked away. Forgetting about the whole thing. It was bleak.

However, Stephen now had zero guidance and free reign to do whatever he wanted. He looked around and saw a sketch he had done of a Sponge wearing pants. (Maybe this was an idea he had kicked around and saved. I don't know.) He ran with it. With nobody around to say no, he worked under the radar and created a cartoon that broke most of the "Rules of animation and story telling." He did want HE wanted. He made a thing that HE would like to watch. And it worked. It paid zero attention to what was considered "tried and true." It wasn't noted to death. It was Stephen's vision and it snuck through. It beat the system because the system didn't know it was there. It would've killed it. Nickelodeon had a hit cartoon and they had almost nothing to do with it. The END.

SpongeBob doesn't make a lot of sense. It's the kind of show that would never survive today. Too many notes from people who frankly aren't funny and get paid to have creative ideas. Not a winning combination. When an unfunny person doesn't have something to add, they start to question the logic of a piece (A CARTOON!) and end up doing mostly damage. (In my opinion) SpongeBob has little to no logic. That's a huge part of the appeal.

How old is SpongeBob? Network heads explode. He has a job, but can't drive. Is he 11? Or 22? It doesn't matter. It's funny.

What does Patrick do for money? Network heads explode. "You've set up an economic system! SpongeBob has a job!" It doesn't matter. Patrick is a lovable idiot. It's funny.

Isn't Mr. Krabs kind of... mean? Doesn't matter. Funny.

Why is his Daughter a Whale? Shut up, it's Funny.

If we KNOW SpongeBob has a job, and Mr. Krabs is mean, how can SpongeBob go Jelly-Fishing whenever he wants? Shut. Up. It's. Funny!

How can there be a campfire underwater? Please leave my office.

Those are just a few of the kind of notes that would've killed SpongeBob. Thankfully they didn't. Stephan gave the Network 2 chances to do what THEY wanted. And failed. But in the end, he relied on himself and made an iconic show. The moral here, kids? To thine own self be true.

Hilariously, everyone is still looking for the next SpongeBob. Netflix, Amazon, Disney, all of em. You just have to wonder if they realize, they are the ones standing in their own way. The only other example I can come up with for a fiercely original cartoon is Adventure Time. It was part of a pilot program at Cartoon Network. They passed on it. Only after it was seen online and people went nuts for it, did CN pick it up. HA! (Sadly, Adventure Time wrapped production earlier this year.)

So the next Stephen Hillenburg IS out there. Let's hope the powers that be let him or her do their thing. Get the suits out of the way and let creators create. We all win that way.


Kim Dixon
EditorKim Dixon
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