I remember exactly what I did on May 1, 1999: I watched “Help Wanted,” the pre­miere episode of “Spongebob Squarepants,” in which Spongebob (Tom Kenny), an anthro­po­morphic yellow sponge, becomes a fry cook at the Krusty Krab restaurant. The zany antics and crazy slap­stick hooked me imme­di­ately; I’ve been a fan ever since. As I’ve aged, I’ve come to enjoy the subtler, more sophis­ti­cated humor of earlier episodes inserted for older viewers. “Help Wanted,” for example, fea­tures the 1930 Al Sherman/Al Lewis song “Living in the Sun­light, Loving in the Moon­light” as covered by eccentric musician Tiny Tim in 1968. Such jokes attracted an atyp­i­cally older audience; 40 percent of season two viewers were ages 18 to 44. 

In the 16 years since, Spongebob has become a cul­tural phe­nomenon, with 9 seasons, 188 episodes, already one movie (in 2004) and many fans. Yet these days, my fanhood often mys­tifies peers who con­sider the show a shallow, sopho­moric destroyer of brain cells. This is true — of the show today. Series creator Stephen Hil­lenburg wanted the first movie to end the series after three seasons, fearing it would jump the shark if con­tinued. But Nick­elodeon wanted more, so Hil­lenburg let Paul Tibbets, whose show respon­si­bil­ities had been second only to Hil­lenburg, take over. Despite this con­ti­nuity, Hillenburg’s departure removed the show’s smarter humor, leaving behind only the childish imma­turity of every episode since —  fine for younger fans, but empty for the older.

I hoped “Sponge Out of Water” would tran­scend this. The premise had promise: A “real world” pirate (Antonio Ban­deras) dis­covers a book that con­trols Spongebob’s ani­mated world, with which he steals the secret formula of the Krabby Patty, the Krusty Krab’s sig­nature dish. This plunges Spongebob’s world into chaos and forces col­lab­o­ration with the vil­lainous Plankton (Doug Lawrence), the usual formula-stealing suspect. Some clever gags result, mostly from fourth-wall breaking (“All sec­ondary char­acters come with me,” a sec­ondary char­acter remarks when pri­maries take over). Welcome early show ref­er­ences also appear: Patrick Star (Bill Fager­bakke) shouts “FINLAND!” after a blow to the head (Season two’s “Frank­endoodle”); a cat­a­strophic incident elicits an off-screen “My leg!” (mul­tiple episodes). Unfor­tu­nately, most ref­er­ences descend below fanservice to self-can­ni­bal­ization, repeating what the show had already done better. A “real” pirate inter­acting with the ani­mated world? Patchy the Pirate, mul­tiple episodes. Plankton entering Spongebob’s brain? Season one’s “Plankton.” Time travel? Season one’s “SB-129.” Spongebob and Plankton singing about a generic virtue? Season one’s “F.U.N.” Spongebob and friends becoming super­heroes? Season three’s “Mermaid Man and Bar­nacle Boy V.” 

Not a single moment, moreover, stands out like so much of the early show’s comedy. Just think of some lone evocative words or phrases from the best “Spongebob”: “CHOCOLATE!”; “I am ugly and I am proud!”; “HINGA DINGA DURGEN!” —  and so many more. 

“Spongebob” not only can­ni­balizes itself, but also feigns rel­e­vance by adopting current trends without sat­i­rizing them. Ban­deras’ pirate is a Jack Sparrow knock-off; the super­heroes Spongebob and friends become mimic the current comic book craze —  both without effective parody. 

All this shows that the poor yellow guy is almost washed up. It’s dis­ap­pointing for longtime fans who expect better. But, more impor­tantly, it short­changes younger fans who don’t know the show can be any better.
Some­where out there is a five-year-old expe­ri­encing “Spongebob” for the first time with this movie. He may laugh now, but if he con­tinues watching the show as he grows up, he’ll find it grad­ually more unsat­is­fying. He will likely soon stop watching alto­gether, and won’t bequeath “Spongebob” to his children, dooming it to a cul­tural oblivion unworthy of its early promise.

But hope lingers. Last December, Paul Tibbitt announced that Stephen Hil­lenburg will return. There’s no guar­antee that the show will return to form. But on behalf of all “Spongebob” fans, I urge its cre­ative team either to attempt a renewal, or to leave this overused sponge in the sink. “Spongebob” deserves either renewed life or hon­orable death. If instead it drags on in medi­ocrity, then even my 16-year fanhood could dry out. And I doubt I’ll be alone.