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.