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Spongebob Squarepants’ creator Steve Hillenburg

SpongeBob SquarePants launched on July 17, 1999 as a Saturday morning kids series on Nickeloedeon. Now heading into its eighth season, the show’s fun-loving and innocent central character is a pop icon the world over. The most widely distributed show in MTV Networks’ history, currently reaching 171 markets in 25 languages, SpongeBob has appeared in People Magazine’s ‘Most Intriguing People’ list and has stoked controversy, making the front page of the Wall St. Journal under the headline ‘Something about SpongeBob Whispers ‘Gay’ to Many Men’.

Series creator Steve Hillenburg, a trained marine biologist, first dreamt up the idea for SpongeBob while working at The Ocean Institute in California. Here, he talks exclusively to Stewart Clarke about the past, present and future of the hit series.

TBI: When the show launched ten years ago it was very different to the popular animation series of the day – SpongeBob‘s innocent and fun-loving feel was in contrast to the tone of shows like The Simpsons and The Ren and Stimpy Show. Was that a conscious decision?

I was definitely interested in making a world that was different to anything on the air and to what had existed before. It was also to do with my interest in the ocean and background as a marine biologist. And I was conscious of creating something that I wanted to be my own. Working on Rocko’s Modern Life definitely helped – taking that experience and making the world I wanted to make.

TBI: Did the network want to have a lot of input given that SpongeBob was markedly different to other shows around at the time and a new show?

At the beginning people give you notes and you have to fight back. It was a new show and no-one knows if a new show will work. Nick had decided it didn’t want any more animal shows and wanted stories with kids, like Hey Arnold! They actually wanted to make ‘Arnold under the sea’ and make SpongeBob a child. I said ‘no, that’s not the show’.

TBI: What compromises did you make?

I said we’ll show the parents sometimes and put him in school – but it would be a [boat] driving school.

TBI: You’ve got seven seasons of the TV show and a movie under your belt, have SpongeBob and the characters evolved or are they pretty much the same as in season one?

The characters have evolved in the way that they are drawn and they way that they act. For anyone, at the start, it’s simplistic and as the show goes on the characters develop ticks and habits that you go back to. If you compare the first season with later ones they are different, but there’s something nice about both.

By the time we were in the third season I felt we had found a way of drawing the characters. We got into our stride in season two, but by the third season it was there.

TBI: The show has gone on to be a tremendous success and SpongeBob is a cultural icon that exists beyond TV. Did that surprise you and was the realization gradual or did it hit home all of a sudden?

I honesty never imagined it would become a global phenomenon. It gradually crept up on me. When it started I saw a billboard on Sunset Boulevard and I thought ‘this is crazy’. It’s like seeing a picture of your mother – and sometimes you don’t want to see a picture of your mother everywhere!

TBI: Given that the success was a surprise, what were your expectations for SpongeBob at the beginning?

I was thinking if we could make a pilot then we’d have one episode and have accomplished that. Then I thought if it did go to a full season that we’d get twelve chances to write stories and that might be it. I thought we might get a cult following, but that we’d make twelve shows and get cancelled.

TBI: This far along with the show, are you seeing that it has influenced other animated series on TV?

I’m now seeing shows made by a new generation, by people in their 20s. They’re making some real interesting stuff and I have to think that they have watched SpongeBob when they were younger.

I was influenced by Ren and Stimpy and old Warner Brothers stuff. I think SpongeBob has had some influence. Especially with shows that are surreal, fun and kid-friendly.

TBI: Many kids shows try to impart an educational message. SpongeBob seems very focused on fun, is there anything that kids can learn from the show?

Before SpongeBob, kids thought about dolphins when they thought about the ocean and now they can identify with lesser cared about animals like sponges and plankton. They’re a little more interested in the lesser known animals that are the stars of our show.

TBI: You’ve taken a step back from the day-to-day running of the show. Was that a tough call, you’re obviously not a control freak!

Animators are control freaks for certain! It is hard, but I made a conscious decision to step back. I’d done what I wanted to do with the day-to-day. The team has been doing a great job.

TBI: Have you thought about spin-offs featuring some of the other characters?

The show is about SpongeBob, he’s the core element, and it’s about how he relates to the other characters. Patrick by himself might be a bit too much. So I don’t see any spin-offs.

TBI: The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie was well received – is there any room for another feature?

The movie came after three seasons although I’d never been interested in that. But I had the idea of doing it so that the characters were on the surface and that would be the big hook for the longer show. Personally I like the short form and have no interest in doing another movie. The strength of SpongeBob is its simplicity.

TBI: Nickelodeon has obviously made the most of the success of the series and there’s a plethora of products and related merchandise. Do you have input into that side of things?

I don’t control the products I only have a say and will say if I’m uncomfortable, like making fish sticks – that wasn’t appropriate for a story about celebrating sea life. But I don’t own the show.

TBI: You’re heading into the eighth season. How long can the show go on for, do you see an end or can it go on for years to come?

It’s hard to write the show in its eighth season. Sometime in meetings stories will be pitched and I will think ‘we’ve done that before’. We have to work hard to come up with original stories. The show has been picked up for an eighth season and it remains to be seen how long it will go on for.  I don’t know how long we can go on – until people revolt and I see an ‘I hate SpongeBob‘ bumper sticker!

TBI: What else are you working on, do you have ideas for other TV shows that you’d like to get off the ground?

I don’t have any shows that I’m interested in doing. There’re a couple of other projects, but not any TV series. I’ve always been interested in festival animation. I’ve also been painting some seascapes.

TBI: You’re obviously connected to what’s going on in the animation industry. Do you think it’s tougher for new talent to break through now than ten years ago when SpongeBob started out?

Yes. When I pitched the show I handed out Xeroxed paper copies with the idea on. It was a very different environment, there’s so much animation now on YouTubea and on cable and it’s tough to get yourself known. The economy also has an effect and there’s much less getting made, but [new shows] are where new ideas come from and you’ve got to take chances.

TBI: What have you seen out there that excites you by way of new animation?

Chowder and Mighty B! They are both from people that worked on SpongeBob (Carl Greenblatt and Erik Wiese) but they are totally different shows. Also, a pilot for something called Adventure Time Theater (from Eric Anderson and Spencer Holt), which is a whimsical and silly show that has a lot of potential; it seems really different from what’s preceded it.