The Young Man And The Sea Sponge

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In July, SpongeBob SquarePants, the cartoon phenomenon, celebrated his 20th year.

According to Nickelodeon, the show, about a single male sponge who lives in a fully furnished pineapple and works as a fry cook, has generated $13 billion in lifetime retail sales of consumer products. The character’s wide eyes, apple cheeks, and toothy grin have graced everything from bait buckets to women’s underwear to a $75,000 diamond-encrusted pendant. It’s the face that launched a million memes, a Broadway musical, and the first square-shaped balloon in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. (Well, rectangular, technically.)

The likes of Barack Obama, David Bowie, Ariana Grande, Lebron James, and Marc Jacobs are fans; Isaac Hempstead-Wright habitually sang songs from the show on the set of Game of Thrones. In France, he is Bob l’eponge; in Hungary, SpongyaBob Kockanadrag; in Germany, SpongeBob SchwammKopf.

When the show premiered in 1999, it was shocking for its cheery innocence. Conceived in intentional contrast to the scabrous antics of the original Nickelodeon buddy cartoon The Ren & Stimpy Show, it was closer in tone to the Hanna-Barbera cartoons of old than the lewdness of The Simpsons, South Park, and Family Guy. It was, one cultural commentator suggested, as comforting and contained as an aquarium in your living room. The character’s biggest surge in popularity occurred around 2001; like Depression-era America delighted by the pluck of Mickey Mouse, SpongeBob brought laughter and lightness of heart into American households when they were needed most.

Read the full story at Longreads.

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