SpongeBob and pal Patrick Star

May 01, 2024
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SpongeBob at 25: The Origins of Nickelodeon's Animated Hit (Exclusive) 

Co-creator Tim Hill on the legacy of Bikini Bottom's most famous resident. 

SpongeBob SquarePants has spent the last quarter century going from "just another cartoon on Nickelodeon" to becoming a load-bearing column of a certain generation's pop culture.

In the 25 years since SpongeBob's first appearance on the Kids' Choice Awards that aired May 1, 1999, Bikini Bottom's most famous (and fun-loving) resident has headlined movies, theme park rides, video games, comics, a Broadway musical and countless online memes. And it all started with the minds of Tim Hill and the late Steve Hillenburg.

Hill helped develop the show with Hillenburg — who died of ALS in 2018 — and was a writer for the long-running animated series. He also directed the franchise's third theatrical film, 2020's The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run. While Hill doesn't consider himself a co-creator of the mega-hit in the traditional sense, everyone's favorite talking sea sponge wouldn't exist without him. To celebrate the 25th anniversary of SpongeBob's debut, Hill spoke with the Television Academy about the maize-colored icon's origins and his lasting legacy.

What do you think stands out about SpongeBob? Why have this character and this show had such longevity?

A few factors for me. Character, for one. It's a short-form cartoon, 11 minutes long, and [the stories] move pretty fast. It's very entertaining, and it doesn't really slow down. Then there's the innovation of a show taking place underwater — which in and of itself has rules — but then we break all those rules by [portraying] surface life under the sea. There's really good transposition that I think always worked. Cars that are shaped like boats, very nautical themes, a seafood restaurant when they're all fish. (Laughs) It's funny, we always played with contrasts that didn't make sense, and it shouldn't have worked, but it totally did. We always thought that the stupider it is, the funnier. We were making that show for us. We didn't pander to kids, we just made something we thought was funny, and it translated.

Did you have any sense that you were making something that would grow to become what it is?

Here's the thing: Steve was the showrunner of [Nickelodeon's] Rocko's Modern Life. I was the story editor on that show. The deal he had gave him a chance to develop his own show. So, he had come up with all these funny drawings of sea creatures, including a sponge and a starfish, and he came over to my house to develop it. It was called Spongeboy at the time, but there happened to be a rock band with that name, so we came up with SpongeBob SquarePants, which was even better. Necessity is the mother of invention, I guess.

But we were able to combine all these ideas with his fantastic sketches. There's a book that has them, and they're really fun. He needed help writing, and we did a barter where he drew for me some images for a pitch deck that I was trying to get going. In that process, we were just making ourselves laugh. As [screenwriter] William Goldman once famously said, "Nobody knows anything," so we were hopeful [the network] would pick it up. We weren't trying to hit certain marks for the network or anything like that. I don't know if the network really knew what to do with it, because it was pretty out-there. They had a pretty good following as a network, so they could afford to take some risks. I'm glad they did, but we had no idea what it was going to be.

What about the cottage industry that it became? The merchandising alone has reportedly earned $13 billion in revenue.

Yeah, I'm not surprised. Steve always admired George Lucas. He read that George made most of his money off [Star Wars] merchandising, so he carved out some of that revenue for himself. I didn't get a dime from it. Back then, it wasn't a union shop, and I just signed away my rights for a fee. It was pretty standard at the time. Now, writers are covered under the Animation Guild. But, back then, they would buy you out. You wouldn't have a claim for residuals unless you wrote one of the songs; then you'd get an ASCAP residual. So, for newbies like me and Steve, they could say: "We want to make your thing, but you got to sign this." I mean, I'm not bitter about it. I was just having fun and didn't really care.

I don't see myself as a co-creator. I helped Steve develop the show. I worked on the pilot, developed premises for a series, and I worked on the [series] bible — which was really good. It was me, [director and storyboard artist] Derek Drymon and Steve coming up with it. It was great to work with Steve. We laughed so hard. It just was a great time.

Do you think about the legacy of the show?

There are now several generations that have grown up on it. Yeah, I do. I'm old enough to know Millennials or Gen Z's who grew up watching it and who really loved it. They always ask me about certain episodes, and either I don't remember, or when they spit it back to me, I go, "Oh, yeah, that was really funny." And I hear from relatives who love to watch the show with the kids. That was a big advantage of SpongeBob — you didn't just park the kids in front of the TV to watch some cartoon. Adults enjoyed it as well. So that's part of the legacy: You could still watch it at any age and get a laugh out of it or appreciate it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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