Stephen Hillenberg: An Appreciation

Who lives in a pineapple under the sea? For many kids of a certain generation – and maybe just as many parents – the answer is Spongebob Squarepants, one of the most beloved, iconic and unique characters in the history of children’s television.  The character and the television show of the same name was the brainchild of Stephen Hillenburg, who sadly passed away on November 26, 2018 due to ALS, or “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”.

Hillenburg path to developing Spongebob was a unique one. He was originally a professor at the Orange County Marine Institute and it was there where he created a comic book entitled “The Intertidal Zone” that he used to help teach marine biology to his students.  This drove his interest in art and animation and from there, he left teaching and started taking animation classes at California Institute for the Arts (CalArts), a school known for producing other famous animators. After making several short films at CalArts, he joined Nickelodeon and worked on some shows there including Rocko’s Modern Life.  While working at Nickelodeon, he continued to work on his original idea – “The Intertidal Zone” comic – creating and developing the characters that would eventually inhabit Bikini Bottom.  Hillenburg pitched his show idea to Nickelodeon in 1997, and a couple of years later, in June, 1999, Spongebob Squarepants premiered. Since then, Spongebob and his friends Patrick, Squidward, Mr. Krabs, Plankton and Sandy (along with many other colorful background characters) has grown into a worldwide phenomenon.  

Over the 19 years since its premier, the series has run for 12 seasons on Nickelodeon, there were two Spongebob movies and it even made its way to Broadway in 2018. For a show to last that long and to become so well known in modern culture was a testament to its ability to appeal to kids, parents and everyone in between.  

For students at East Brunswick High School, Spongebob was a defining part of their childhood. For Sophomore Matt Gonzales, the show was always there for him when he was younger. “I love the Spongebob series…it was something I would watch everyday.” For Sophomore Ian Artenstein, Mr. Hillenburg was an inspiration that has influenced him for a long time. “Stephen Hillenburg is an incredibly important inspiration in my life…From a young age Spongebob was my favorite show to watch. The crazy and memorable characters were always hilarious and made each episode so unique. The show was completely different from anything else. The show also has an unforgettable soundtrack, and most of the songs from it are some of my favorite in the world. The show also taught me so many life lessons, like learning how to tie my shoes, and it made everything interesting.”  

Stephen Hillenburg’s work was some of the most innovative and important work in the history of animation and entertainment overall. The characters he created were so unique and fun, and they helped a generation of kids learn true life lessons. Mr. Hillenburg will be missed but Spongebob will continue to live on for adults and kids alike.

By Ian Clark

This article was originally published in the East Brunswick High School newspaper “The Clarion” in December, 2018.