The key to the enduring appeal of SpongeBob SquarePants, on his 20th birthday

SpongeBob SquarePants turns 20 years old Wednesday, May 1.
SpongeBob SquarePants turns 20 years old Wednesday, May 1.
Image: AP Photo/Charles Sykes
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Everyone’s favorite show about an optimistic yellow sponge who lives in a pineapple under the sea is celebrating its 20th birthday today.

Nickelodeon debuted SpongeBob SquarePants on May 1, 1999. Twelve TV seasons, two movie adaptations, and one Broadway musical later, that optimistic yellow sponge is an international superstar. By the time the show celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2009, it had been crowned the most widely distributed franchise in the history of Viacom (known then as MTV Networks). And as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Reddit have grown to be social media behemoths, those networks breathed new life into the series as internet memes. Dozens of dedicated SpongeBob fan communities and Twitter threads attest to the show’s enduring charm. When Stephen Hillenburg, the show’s beloved creator, died from ALS in November, there was an outpouring of grief and heartfelt tributes to the marine-biologist-turned-animator.

SpongeBob’s 20th year is already off to an impressive start. Super Bowl LIII’s halftime show featured a clip from season 2’s “Band Geeks” episode where SpongeBob and his motley crew performed at the “Bubble Bowl.” (It was arguably the best part of Maroon 5’s performance.) In February, Nickelodeon’s president announced the TV network’s plan to produce SpongeBob’s first-ever character spin-off shows. As of last week, you can have your very own SpongeBob Squarepants collectible meme toy, released by Nickelodeon just in time for the show’s birthday. 

In case you live under a rock (which is also where SpongeBob’s best friend, the lovable starfish Patrick Star, lives), the 11-minute show takes place in a town on the ocean floor known as Bikini Bottom. It follows the infectiously cheery and disarmingly naive SpongeBob SquarePants to his job flipping crabby patties, chronicling his adventures with his BFF Patrick and his feisty, fiercely loyal Texan squirrel friend Sandy Cheeks, and his perpetually annoyed neighbor Squidward.

And the show’s humor holds up—both for millennials who grew up on it, and for parents of today’s children, beaten down by repeated viewings of “Baby Shark.” Unlike many dull or maddening cartoons meant for children, SpongeBob is riddled with adult humor and multidimensional jokes that parents can laugh at with their children, recalling other classics of the genre, including Nickelodeon’s Ren & Stimpy and Rocko’s Modern Life—the show Hillenburg wrote for before SpongeBob. Adult viewers are also rewarded with literary references ranging from Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell Tale Heart, to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, to Nosferatu.

Kyle Jarrow, the writer behind the 2017 Tony-nominated Broadway musical adaptation, attributes SpongeBob’s massive appeal to this cross-generational quality. “For kids, it works because they like stuff that’s wacky and sort of off,” Jarrow told me. “For adults, it feels like a breath of fresh air because it’s unharnessed from reality, and there’s something about surreal, absurd humor that feels like a break from the real world.”

Jarrow, now 39, didn’t grow up on the show himself. He was introduced to it as a college student and was immediately drawn to the unyielding naïveté and optimism of the show’s central character. “As a kid, you kind of have that in you, so I think you recognize it in yourself,” Jarrow said. “But as an adult, we kind of wish we had more—or at least I do.”

Here are some of the show’s greatest hits, including some that have taken on a new life on the internet or in pop culture:

SpongeBob’s Krusty Krab Pizza song

And of course, Ariana Grande’s cover of it:

“I’m ugly and I’m proud”

“Is mayonnaise an instrument?”

The barnacle so ugly everybody died


(This segment inspired a “My Leg” SpongeBob fan account.)

“Is this the Krusty Krab?” “No, this is Patrick!”

“Are you feeling it now, Mr. Krabs?”

A visit from Nosferatu

Happy 20th birthday, SpongeBob!

Enjoy it more than Squidward enjoyed his.