The main characters of the hit TV show "SpongeBob Squarepants" may be a bunch of fish — technically a sea sponge, starfish, cephalopod, crustacean, phytoplankton and squirrel, to be exact — but the key to the show's enduring success could very well be that, for all of their silly underwater antics, the population of Bikini Bottom is endearingly human.
There is a scene in "SpongeBob's Big Birthday Blowout," the 20th anniversary special for the show that premieres on Friday at 7 p.m. ET, which plays with the underlying humanity of SpongeBob, Patrick, Squidward, Sandy, Plankton and Mr. Krabs in a particularly clever way. Yet even if the episode had not included that memorable visual gag, the fact remains that a big part of the reason why "SpongeBob Squarepants" has become the fifth-longest running American animated series — one that gets discussed on social media every four seconds, according to Nickelodeon — is that its colorful characters ring true even as each episode does its best to deliver surreal comedy to audience members who reply in the affirmative when the theme song asks "if nautical nonsense be something you wish."
Indeed Tom Kenny, the voice of the titular character, told Salon that one of the things he cherishes most about working on the series is how the show has had a meaningful impact on the lives of its viewers through both its characterization and humor.
"I remember at some Comic-Con, and some girl comes around my table, and she's kind of hanging around — a young lady I should say," Kenny recalled. "She kind of surreptitiously leaves a note on the table and then just disappears."
When he finally had the opportunity to read the letter, Kenny was struck by what the woman revealed.
"She was going through a really bad depression time and really considering doing something to herself. Then, SpongeBob came on and it really helped her," Kenny said. "It helped her reset a little bit. You know what I mean? She credits that with like, 'Wow, that pulled me, literally pulled me off of the ledge. Hey, there's funny stuff in the world.' She went and got help. Then, things were better."
It's a recurring theme in Kenny's interactions with fans — the show occupies a significant place in their lives and memories. He hears from people who were cheered up by "SpongeBob" while they were sick in the hospital and who had "a great childhood, and SpongeBob was a part of it."
"'My childhood was horrible and SpongeBob was a refuge from the horribleness.' 'I used to watch SpongeBob with my grandpa, and he's dead now. I always think of him when I see SpongeBob.' Things like that, that are just extremely touching," Kenny told Salon.
Carolyn Lawrence, who voices the karate-proficient scientist squirrel Sandy Cheeks, is proud of helping to bring to life a strong female character for kids to emulate.
"I had two young kids as well, so I have a lot of parents who talk to me about the fact that they love being able to watch Sandy and have their girls or boys watch Sandy, and that she is a role model," Lawrence explained. She gave Steve Hillenburg, the late creator of the series who passed away from complications of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in November, tremendous credit for creating "this character who was so multidimensional. And she is a great, great role model. And I do think Nickelodeon does a particularly good job with their female characters that way."
She added, "They did not write her in a way that was specifically, you know, stereotypically female. They really made her just an amazing character all the way around."
Rodger Bumpass, who voices the curmudgeonly Squidward Tentacles, observed how fans identify with the character's existential malaise — how, in effect, they first identify with SpongeBob as children, and then with his cranky character as adults.
"There's a passage of time that people go through coming into young adulthood — and that really is where people tell me, when I go to conventions and stuff — that when they were young they associated and identified with SpongeBob because of his youthful playfulness and innocence, and then as they get to be adults and learn what the real world is like, and for a lot of people, that's a traumatic passage of time," Bumpass told Salon, who speculated that a lot of young people struggle with "this adult thing" once they reach a certain age.
"Once they get used to it and mature a little bit, it passes," he added.
Even the dimwitted starfish Patrick Star — who is brought to life by Bill Fagerbakke — has managed to strike a chord with audience members.
"It's a childlike thing, really," Fagerbakke observed. "Everyone understands the idea of connecting to your inner child. Well, that's certainly the case with Patrick. I'm very much engaged with my inner seven-year-old lunatic. That's what Patrick is to me, I guess."
He also recalled how one fan's relationship with the show struck a chord with him.
"There are always the extraordinary stories," Fagerbakke explained, recalling an encounter with a fan at a San Diego Comic-Con. "This gal came up to me, she was about 20 and she said, 'Can I hug you?', and I went, 'Yes.' She goes, 'You saved my life' and her mother was there with tears running down her face. Her daughter had gone through a lot of depression and had a lot of very profound issues and for whatever reason, SpongeBob became something that she really embraced and helped her through."
The underlying humanity of the "SpongeBob Squarepants" characters doesn't simply resonate with the fans, but also with the actors themselves. Take Sheldon Plankton, the unicellular antagonist who alternates between wanting to steal the Krabby Patty secret formula and craving world domination. (When Salon asked voice actor Mr. Lawrence — no relation to Carolyn Lawrence — how these two schemes connect to each other, he assumed the Plankton voice and cackled, "All baby steps, baby.") On the surface level, Plankton is one of the show's biggest goats, a maniacal creature with a Napoleonic complex who is almost always humiliated when he tries to pull off his various evil plans. Yet that doesn't mean he lacks depth — or that Lawrence hasn't been able to identify with his character.
"I think I relate to the fact that he wants all these things," Lawrence told Salon. "He wants to achieve all these things, and overachieve, and he can't quite do it."
He added that "I've always felt like there are things that are not within my grasp. Yeah, I'm going to get squashed when I try to reach for it. So I feel that all the time, so I really relate to him. And plus I have a temper that I try to keep from coming out all the time, which Plankton certainly does not care when he's mad. He lets it go, and I try not to let it go. And if I do, I let it into my pillow hopefully."
Carolyn Lawrence had a similar observation about her relationship with her own character.
"Her strengths actually informed me in my personal life," she explained. "Oddly enough, I feel like the character and I have melded to a certain extent into one. Like watching her handle things on the show and playing her and her ability to problem solve and feel powerful and handle things and correct the stakes . . . I do think it inadvertently made me feel the same in my real life."
To be sure, not all of the characters' relatable qualities are sympathetic ones. Clancy Brown, the voice of the greedy restaurant owner Mr. Eugene Krabs, argued that the crustaceous cheapskate's antics act as something of a critique of the real-life business world.
"Think about when Steve created it," Brown explained, noting Hillenburg's fascination with marine biology and comparing oceanic ecosystems with the business world. "Mr. Krabs, he's a reflection of sort of the way business was in the '90s. Greed was not necessarily a bad thing."
After adding that his character is "like one of those knuckleheads that thinks corporations are people and the Krusty Krab is a living thing," Brown observed "that's sweet in a certain way, but it ignores what's developed over the last two decades, which is corporations becoming so avaricious and creating all sorts of problems. But Mr. Krabs is, you know, at that point he sort of thinks he's a job creator. He's the 'indispensable' member of society."
Brown hasn't always been happy with the social commentary offered through his character's story arcs. He cited the episode "Squid on Strike" — when Squidward and SpongeBob attempt to unionize against Mr. Krabs — as one example.
"I was very dissatisfied with that episode," Brown recalled, arguing that "the whole idea of unions is with collectively standing together, to make everything better for themselves and for everybody else. Supposedly if you all stand together and you try to improve the conditions of your workplace and your treatment, everything rises with that. Even the quality of the business goes up. That's supposed to be how it works. It's not supposed to be so adversarial. That was my problem with it. It just became this kind of adversarial thing and it shouldn't be that."
That said, Brown noted that the show's attitudes have evolved over the years, and that "Mr. Krabs becomes a problematic character the longer in the tooth the show becomes because he's all about money, and money is suddenly all about the accumulation of wealth. The wealth gap has gotten bigger since we started, so now there's a real sense of disenfranchisement from the employees and the ownership. That's not the show's fault. That's society's fault."
At the same time, Brown observed that even Mr. Krabs has a human side, one that becomes particularly evident in his relationships with other characters such as his daughter Pearl (played by Lori Alan) — who, to the ongoing mystification of the show's fans, is a whale. When I pointed out that this has prompted many theories about how a crab could father a whale, Brown insisted that the origin of their relationship isn't really that important.
"Like the secret formula, I hope it never gets told," Brown told Salon. "It's really irrelevant in the relationship to each other. Maybe they just don't want to know it. But Mr. Krabs is completely smitten and in love with his daughter — as am I in real life, and also my son. I totally get it."
He also saw something touchingly metaphorical in the idea of a parent-child relationship being analogous to the difference between a crab and a whale.
"There are times when reality overcomes you and you say, 'Wait a minute, who is this other person? They don't resemble me at all,' and then other times you look in the mirror and you say, 'Who am I looking at? Because I just let my kid get away with that thing that I would never let anybody else get away with. Why do they have this effect on me?'"
With 20 years under its belt, it's difficult to imagine where SpongeBob Squarepants will go from here. The cast members liked to joke about some of the weirder directions that might be in store for their characters.
"I think you just gave us an idea for a storyline," Bumpass told Salon when asked if a cryptozoological character like the kraken, or perhaps even a real-life giant squid, might wind up wandering into Bikini Bottom. He noted how, with the exception of one episode, no one swims in Bikini Bottom. "You only have one episode where creatures that we cast turn into their actual real life creatures and they actually swim around, but it's an interesting convention that Stephen came up with, that there's no swimming there. There are crypto aspects to that."
Mr. Lawrence, meanwhile, speculated on what would happen if Plankton was actually able to take over Bikini Bottom for more than the span of a single storyline.
"Yeah, well this is the theory which we haven't explored, but I think that if he really did get in charge all of a sudden, he would screw things up for a little while, and then Karen [his computer wife] would pull his plug, and take over, and everything would go back to normal and peaceful," Lawrence surmised. He added that this wouldn't be an assassination, per se, but rather that "she just puts him on ice. Gets him out of there for a moment, while she can run things, because she knows how to do it. Karen's smart." After all, Plankton can't ever be allowed to win because, as Lawrence put it, "he is a naughty boy."
When I asked Brown if Krabs may have a future outside of being a restauranteur — after all, there is a precedent for businessmen moving on to other projects, like running for political office — he said that he doubted this was in the cards.
"He wouldn't want to be mayor," Brown told Salon. "I think he's really afraid of stuff. I think he's really afraid of anything except running a restaurant. Because he's always trying out other businesses. I got all wrapped up in the Krabby Kronicle, which was one of my most horrible performances. [I disagreed with him on that.] Then there was Krusty Towers. But those just end up being sort of Fred Flintstone sort of vehicles for other jokes because he always fails at them, or some other character takes advantage of him. His real place is in the Krusty Krab, and when he's there that's where he's supposed to be."
Of course, like other classic animated TV shows such as Looney Tunes, the likelihood is that "SpongeBob Squarepants" will stick with its floating timeline and allow things to remain in their status quo forever — with SpongeBob manning the grill at the Krusty Krab, Squidward muttering to himself behind the cash register, Mr. Krabs in the back counting his money, Plankton scheming and figuratively face-planting each time, Patrick sleeping under his rock, Sandy getting into adventures and saving the day. That may even be preferable for a show which, though truer to life than its absurd tone would have one belief, nevertheless works best as a form of child-like escapism.
"One thing I'm realizing after years of SpongeBob is that he can stand up to any amount of different treatments, I guess the way that Jeff Jones's Bugs Bunny was different than Bob Clampett's or Tex Avery's Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck, or whatever," Kenny told Salon. "A lot of it depends on who wrote the script, whose concept it is, what storyboard team did the storyboard for that particular episode. And some of them skew, like you correctly say, some of them skew differently in different areas."
He emphasized that the versatility is one of the show's strengths as long as the writers — past, present and future — remain focused on keeping it funny.
"This all had its genesis with Steve — and hopefully we'll be able to continue on without too much corporate interference — is that it was really just about making something funny," Kenny explained. "Some shows focus on the childlike aspect of SpongeBob and things they can do by fooling around in the back of the classroom or whatever, or getting bullied by Flats the Flounder. Or sometimes, like you said, it's more about 'Midlife Crustacean' where it's about other, more adult concerns."
One thing that is certain, though, is that as the series celebrates its 20th year, it remains a testament to Hillenburg's imagination and creativity of its creators.
"I think it's deep, and heavy, and long-lasting," Kenny explained when discussing Hillenburg's legacy. "Not just on me and the cast, because he totally changed our lives, but people tell me all the time how things changed their lives. And they thank me for their childhood or whatever and go, 'Well, you know, thank Steve Hillenburg. I was just being me on the phonograph. He made the record.'"
He added, "Steve Hillenburg allowed me to help raise his baby, SpongeBob SquarePants. And it's been great to see what that has become."