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Adults Find Their Inner Sponge

Offbeat cartoon with a simple message has attracted a loyal grown-up following.


We are at the Goo Lagoon, a sunny strand of shore beneath a flowered sky in the underwater town of Bikini Bottom. Our hero, SpongeBob SquarePants, is too weak to compete in the weightlifting contest. But he's too naive to know it. So he flashes his gap-tooth grin, optimistically pumps his spindly limbs--they're barely strong enough for his rectangular yellow sink-sponge body--and confronts this challenge as he does all others: squarely.

Alas, he cannot hoist the twig, which is weighted with a single marshmallow at either end. Worse yet, he rips his square, brown pants while trying. And so begins another episode in the excellent undersea life of America's newest cult cartoon hero.

About 50 million viewers watch SpongeBob SquarePants every month. About 30 million of them are children (the target audience is ages 2 to 11). The little yellow guy recently surpassed "Rugrats," becoming No. 1 in kids' TV ratings. But what of the other 20 million spongeheads--adults who say they compulsively tune in to this invertebrate cast of honest, upbeat, innocent characters? (SpongeBob and his starfish friend, Patrick, once took a free balloon without asking and then turned themselves in for stealing.)

The cartoon dreamed up for kids has turned out to be a kind of brain balm for stressed-out grown-ups, folks who are tired of swimming with the sharks, of dealing with red alerts, job wars, Enron. People who'd like to get away from it all--at least from the neck up.

Even SpongeBob's creator, Steve Hillenburg, 40, hasn't a handle on SpongeBob's success with adults. "I just dreamed him up. I can't say why he's popular," he says from his office at Nickelodeon's Burbank studios. Hillenburg, like his personable protagonist, turns out to be more visual than verbal--and has lots of marine expertise.

Tales are surfacing across the country of adult SpongeBobians who feel a need for daily therapy with the little yellow fellow. In San Francisco, painter Megan Archer, 31, and her artist friends are "really into SpongeBob" for his "cool look," for the music (she breaks into the SpongeBob theme song while being interviewed) and the story thrust. "It's silly and simple. It deals with feelings. Someone may be mad and they don't know why they're mad, and so they all try to figure it out together. They're like one big happy family."

The show airs four times a day (morning, noon, evening and night), so SpongeBob fans have ample choice of when to send their brains on vacation. Those who want an extended holiday can veg out for hours with Nickelodeon's occasional SpongeBob marathons--the longest so far has been seven hours.

Though many adults got hooked on SpongeBob all by themselves, others were reeled in by kids and soon fell into a multi-generation viewing pattern. A divorced father in Orange County, for example, enjoys the show on weekends with his 12-year-old son and 60-year-old father. In New York, attorney Andy Borden watches with his 6-year-old son, Matthew, and then they sometimes call Matthew's 40-year-old SpongeBob-fan aunt, who lives in Illinois, to discuss the episode. "It's a way for them to bond long distance. The plot is what a child can relate to, but it's bizarre enough to tickle adult funny bones," Borden says. A woman in Saugus, who first met SpongeBob as a screen saver on her grandchild's computer, says she tuned in to see what it was all about: "I find myself watching when I'm nervous. It calms me."

Since SpongeBob's image recently started appearing on merchandise--from small cuddle toys for toddlers to air freshener for adults--it has racked up impressive figures. So far, $500 million worth of T-shirts, key chains, stickers, video games and software has sold nationwide. SpongeBob is also perking up sales for firms that have licensed his image on fast food, breakfast cereal and ice cream containers. In the works: a feature-length SpongeBob movie.

Cyma Zarghami, Nickelodeon's New York-based executive vice president, says it took about 16 months for the SpongeBob phenomenon to take full hold. The first episode aired in 1999 as the network's first original Saturday morning kids' series.

The big question for industry types who would like to emulate SpongeBob's success is the same one some adults ponder as they watch: What's so compelling about these silly sea creatures who live, walk, drive, sing and talk in an environment that defies all laws of physics? What's so lovable about a sponge who lives in a pineapple, adores his job as an underpaid fry cook, and strives only to do it better each day?

Professor Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University in upstate New York, says watching SpongeBob is like having "a really nice aquarium in your living room--with voices and action."

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