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Adults Find Their Inner Sponge

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

April 07, 2002|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"It's so gentle and soothing to watch," he says. "It's a kind of time machine that transports parents back to when they watched TV in their footie [pajamas]. It has the look of a classic old show and a certain innocence and wholesomeness of attitude that is clearly a throwback to a simpler time," he says.

"On the other hand, it's very hip in the way it's presented. It is very edgy to adults who know how to read and listen between the frames. There is irony and parody, but even that seems sincere and open." On campuses, he says, there are 19- and 20-year-olds who wouldn't be caught dead watching an episode of "Friends" who would not miss a single episode of SpongeBob.

Such popularity for a show that smartly hypes innocence and ethics is heartening to those who see the doomsday clock ticking and desperately want to turn it back. Indeed, if SpongeBob ruled, the worst that might ever happen is you'd get your burger without the pickle. (And he'd regret having ruined your dining experience.)

The basically six-character cast includes SpongeBob's best friend, Patrick--a pink starfish who lacks radial symmetry and dumbly suns himself until he turns rigid. And SpongeBob's pet snail, Gary, who meows like a cat and writes poetry. And the snide Squidward, an irritable octopus who works as a waiter, plays the clarinet and subscribes to Martha Stewart Living.

Sandy Cheeks, a girl squirrel from Texas (one of two vertebrates in the cast), lives in a pressurized dome and always wears diving attire. They are all squeaky-clean, lead simple lives and use their limited talents to enjoy life to its fullest, while earnestly trying to love one another.

Of course, there's the odd bit of violence, like a snowball to the head. Or bondage, as when SpongeBob is tied to a chair by the town meanie, one-eyed Plankton. But mean is different than evil. There is no evil, not even a sense of menace, in SpongeBob's soggy, safe world. Watching the show is no more subversive (or mentally challenging) than watching old films of Laurel and Hardy, who were two of Hillenburg's childhood idols. Every challenge SpongeBob meets is one he can beat by employing such old-fashioned virtues as hard work, honesty, humility and respect for his fellow creatures. Each silly, surreal episode amounts to a little morality play.

"The morality we all grew up with and are accustomed to is what feels right," says Hillenburg, who grew up in Anaheim in the '70s. "It's basically fair play. You shouldn't steal. Those sort of things. When SpongeBob's perseverance shines through, and you root for him--that's when the show is working."

It's easy to picture Hillenburg as a child. His face is still boyish and round, framed by longish brown hair reminiscent of a '60s surfer. His eyes are the shocker--an intense pale blue as luminous as the water in those Hawaiian coves he likes to imagine when he's stressed out. "For me personally, snorkeling in a cove in Hawaii--floating along and looking at all the animals and the colors. I mean, that's pretty peaceful. Everybody's got some fascination with undersea life, don't you think? It's so incredible.... "

Well, not exactly. What's really incredible is that he came up with this oddball, off-center concept that looks and sounds refreshingly new, even to grown-ups familiar with the total cartoon canon. From early Looney Tunes and Disney right up through "Ren & Stimpy," "The Simpsons" and "South Park," nothing is much like the land of Bikini Bottom. ("The name refers to the Pacific atoll," he says, ignoring reference to the nether end of a swimsuit.)

The cartoon's colors are quasi-Hawaiian, but not jarringly so. The music is likewise--island sounds mixed with old-fashioned sea ditties, tunes reminiscent of the Beach Boys, country, even diluted heavy metal. The look is bright and happy--but it does take place, after all, underwater. So there's a subliminal sense of submersion. The aquatic theme even extends to things not perceived by viewers as aquatic. The outlines of flowers in the sky, for example, are also the shapes of jellyfish floating in the ocean. Hillenburg is big on jellyfish. His cartoon hero hunts them--for the jelly.

Since he sold his SpongeBob concept to Nickelodeon in 1998, Hillenburg has worked in his own approximation of a dim, underwater world--a windowless, cozily cluttered room lit by a shaded lamp in the company's Burbank complex.

He says that at 40 he's the "old man" of the 50-person SpongeBob creative team he now heads, most of them guys in their 20s and 30s. "For some reason, not many women go into cartooning."

Even after all this time, though, Hillenburg looks like a fish out of water in this corporate condition. His childhood in Anaheim was marked by three loves, he says: "Diving, snorkeling and drawing. I got very fascinated with the ocean. I started diving at about 15. That's what really clicked me into wanting it to be a career."

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