Today, at 57 years old, Stephen Hillenburg — the creator of Spongebob Squarepants — has died due to ALS. And for an entire generation of kids growing up in the late 90s and early aughts, myself included, Hillenburg’s influence cannot be understated. Because Spongebob was — and is, as the show remains on the air and as popular as ever nearly two decades after its debut — not just a beloved character. He was an icon who taught us that there is the power of rejecting cynicism and embracing the goofy goober within.
As a character, Spongebob is an unabashed weirdo who looks at the world with a wide-eyed enthusiasm that is never undercut by snark. He loves his friends, his job, his pet snail Gary, and just about everything and everyone else he crosses paths with. Lesser shows would have used Spongebob’s boundless optimism as a punchline, constantly mocking him for his naivete and making Squidward, Spongebob’s grouchy neighbor, the audience surrogate, cynically mocking the childish exploits of his next door neighbor.
But, young viewers were never asked to laugh at Spongebob. Instead, we were laughing with him, as his bliss for life was a quality that the show portrayed in an unmistakably positive light. Whether he was blowing a bubble, creating entire fictional worlds in a cardboard box, or trying to avoid getting eaten by the Flying Dutchman, by the end of the episode, Spongebob would be back to blissfully enjoying his fun-loving existence. As long as Spongebob is a happy, naive spongechild who effortlessly cruises through life while his jaded, bitter contemporaries struggle, Spongebob will continue to be eminently watchable to both kids and adults.
Part of what made Spongebob such a formative show for countless kids was its relentless and unapologetic positivity. For a young viewer like me, this was a radical lesson, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. Spongebob was weird as hell and by watching him, I learned that I didn’t need to stifle my goofiness for the sake of fitting in with the rest of the world. Because in Bikini Bottom, silliness wasn’t just tolerated, it was celebrated.
And the legacy of the absorbent and yellow and porous sponge who lived in a pineapple under the sea falls squarely on the shoulders of Hillenburg, as he managed to forever change the landscape of kid’s television without sacrificing his message of fun and joviality. So, thanks, Mr. Hillenburg, for creating a show that, to this day, can make me laugh until I cry and always reminds me that cynicism may be easy, but optimism is a lot more fun.