OPINION

If I May: The Brilliance of Stephen Hillenberg in Five Moments


By Jake May '19, Columnist | Dec. 5, 2018 | 148-11

Last Monday, Stephen Hillenburg, the beloved creator of “SpongeBob SquarePants,” passed away at the age of 57. He had been battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis for the past year. This tragic death hit me very hard. As a kid (and, now, as an adult), I was obsessed with “SpongeBob SquarePants.” I think it was the very first show that I found funny, so one could say that “SpongeBob SquarePants” had a hand in teaching me what comedy was. And what a great teacher I had. “SpongeBob SquarePants” employed word-play, visual comedy, unique animation and absurd premises to create a show that is enjoyable for all ages. Here are five of the show’s (and by extension, Hillenburg’s) finest moments:


Squidward Won’t Fit In
The first moment comes from the season three episode entitled “Club SpongeBob.” Perhaps the most well-known aspect of this episode is the Magic Conch, a magic-eight-ball type object that SpongeBob and Patrick believe to be omnipotent. The main arc of the episode is Squidward’s initial skepticism toward the Conch turning into begrudging acceptance. However, the moment I wish to highlight comes early on, before the Conch is even introduced. Squidward happens upon a small treehouse populated by SpongeBob and Patrick. Squidward asks what they are doing, and SpongeBob responds that he can’t say, as Squidward is not a member of the club. Squidward demands that he joins the club, but SpongeBob and Patrick insist that he wouldn’t “fit in.” Enraged, Squidward climbs up the tree and into the treehouse to confront them. Upon his arrival, it becomes clear that SpongeBob and Patrick literally meant that he would not fit in — the treehouse was tiny, and SpongeBob and Patrick had been trapped for days. This type of whimsical word-play is not only hilarious, but it also helps to build the world of Bikini Bottom. We never saw SpongeBob and Patrick stuck in the treehouse, but we are now laughing about the fact that they were.


Plankton. Krabs. SpongeBob!
Pivoting from a more obscure moment to an absolutely iconic one, this meme-able exchange between Plankton, Mr. Krabs and SpongeBob occurs in the fourth episode of the second season, entitled “Imitation Krabs.” During one of his schemes to steal the Krabby Patty formula, Plankton is caught — while standing atop SpongeBob’s nose — by Mr. Krabs. Mr. Krabs confronts Plankton by uttering his name, à la action movie villain. The shots cut between Mr. Krabs and Plankton as they up the intensity of their confrontation. After a final back and forth between the two, SpongeBob, who has been in the shot the entire time, simply says “SpongeBob.” This subversion of the trope creates for an incredibly funny and lighthearted moment. Furthermore, it’s enjoyable for kids (as it is a goofy back-and-forth) as well as adults (who will recognize the genre subversion).


It’s Not My Wallet
Another beloved moment occurs in the second-season episode entitled “Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy III.” Any fan of the show will know which moment I am pointing to here. Man Ray, Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy’s arch nemesis, is trying to return Patrick’s wallet. However, Patrick refuses to accept his own wallet, even though Man Ray explains that Patrick’s ID is inside. This exchange reminds me a lot of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First” routine, wherein one party will hilariously not budge on an issue. In both cases, the acting is crucial. “Who’s on First” would not work without Costello’s hilarious anger contrasted with Abbott’s steadfast insistence. Here, Bill Fagerbakke, who voices Patrick, brilliantly makes the choice to calmly say his lines, as if he can’t understand why Man Ray is getting so exasperated. On the other hand, Bob Joles, who voices Man Ray, has an uncanny ability to switch between a parent-like cadence of explanation and frustrated exasperation. The premise here is hilarious, but the voice-acting takes it to another level.


The Entire Episode “Reef Blower”
The “SpongeBob SquarePants” pilot consists of three mini-episodes, the second of which is entitled “Reef Blower.” This short episode lasts only two minutes and 50 seconds; however, the catch is that there are no words spoken at all. In this episode, SpongeBob and Squidward are cleaning their neighboring front yards. A single leaf falls onto SpongeBob’s front yard, causing him to employ a comically-large leaf blower to clear it away. As this episode is all visual, it would be foolish for me to attempt to explain it. Suffice it to say that Hillenburg brilliantly uses this episode to introduce many crucial aspects of the show: SpongeBob’s superfluous personality, Squidward’s curmudgeonly nature and the conflict that is inevitable when the two live next to each other. If you have time to spare, I highly recommend watching this episode.


Sweet Victory
No “SpongeBob SquarePants” best-of list would be complete without discussing the second-season episode “Band Geeks.” The entire episode contains so many wonderful details , including Patrick’s inability to understand the concept of an instrument, Squidward’s copious use of band-related puns, and the fact that Squidward’s fancy rival is named “Squilliam Fancyson.” However, perhaps the most iconic moment in all of “SpongeBob SquarePants” occurs at the climax of this episode: the rag-tag Bikini Bottom band performs a stunning, awe-inspiring and tear-inducing rendition of “Sweet Victory,” to the absolute shock of Squidward and Squilliam. I have watched this clip literally countless times. Before I had access to YouTube, I would scour the cable guide, frantically searching for when this episode would air next. I was not exaggerating when I said “tear-inducing” — I have cried watching this performance. The most wonderful thing about it is not just the comedic element of surprise; rather, it’s the fact that the animation creates an actually epic feeling to the entire event. If you haven’t seen this clip in a while, I urge you to watch it at all costs and try not to get goosebumps.