The Oral History of SpongeBob SquarePants
More than a decade has passed since Stephen Hillenburg’s porous protagonist established Bikini Bottom as a must-see outpost of popular culture. Tom Heintjes gathered insights and reminiscences from some of the people behind SpongeBob SquarePants to illuminate the making of a cultural phenomenon.
It’s SpongeBob’s ocean; we just swim in it. When the first SpongeBob SquarePants episode (“Help Wanted”) aired on May 1, 1999, it did so with little fanfare. If the formula—a goofy naïf and his eccentric fellow-travelers—sounded standard, its execution was anything but: The character’s indomitable optimism and childlike joy set him apart from characters whose appeal is predicated on an aspirational attitude of cool. SpongeBob’s rise to animation’s pantheon, not to mention his longevity, made his creator Stephen Hillenburg very wealthy and practically a household name, thanks to SpongeBob merchandise bearing his signature.
Hillenburg, a marine biologist by training, created Intertidal Zone, a comic book for his employer, the Ocean Institute. The comic book featured a sponge named Bob that was the first incarnation of the spongiform sprite. But his passion for animation led him to a role as creative director of Joe Murray’s cartoon, Rocko’s Modern Life.
On that program, Hillenburg became acquainted with the group of people who would become central to helping him realize his vision of a porous protagonist and his subaquatic friends, chief among them Derek Drymon, Nick Jennings and Tom Kenny. They bought into Hillenburg’s vision of SpongeBob as the eternal child who could see only the bright side of even the most oppressively punishing situation and who finds only the good in the most ill-intentioned people. From the beginning, Hillenburg emphasized that the stories should focus on the characters, never striving for the archly ironic, self-aware cool that might fleetingly catch viewers’ fancy but which inevitably wears out its welcome. To this day, long after Hillenburg handed his characters off to others, that approach remains the show’s credo.
SpongeBob’s evolution can be broken broadly into two distinct periods: prior to the movie, and after it. The first period began with its debut on May 1, 1999 (though Hillenburg had been developing the concept for years; some evidence shows it had been gestating since 1986). The series started strongly (in a vote of early confidence, parent network Nickelodeon aired its debut immediately following the broadcast of its highly rated Kids’ Choice Awards), and it found a loyal audience among children as well as adults who appreciated its whimsy and slyly deceptive sophistication. (Only later would the broadcaster learn that the program was also popular among college students in various states of sobriety and among gay viewers—but more on that later.)
SpongeBob’s first era ended in 2004 with the conclusion of the third season. Hillenburg announced that he was putting the series on hiatus while he focused on the theatrical movie. At the time, no one knew if more SpongeBob episodes would be forthcoming. The movie, released on Nov. 19, 2004, was a popular and critical hit, and a fourth season was announced. However, Hillenburg and creative director Derek Drymon chose to leave the show, allowing other hands to take the wheel. (Hillenburg retains a role as executive producer, though he no longer orchestrates every detail of the show as he had during the first three seasons.)
Telling the story of any animated property inevitably involves a narrative comprising many people who often play unsung but key roles in giving a show its character and sensibility. Hogan’s Alley spoke with some of those people who offered their insights and reminiscences about their experiences in animating the world’s most famous sponge.
Are you ready, kids? —Tom Heintjes
“I was just blown away”The odds of a property getting picked up and produced are remote, but Stephen Hillenburg had honed his chops on the critically acclaimed Rocko’s Modern Life. Just as importantly, Hillenburg had become acquainted with the coterie that would help him bring his vision to fruition.
Tom Kenny, voice of SpongeBob, 1999-present: My involvement with SpongeBob came about through my involvement with Steve Hillenburg. We worked together on Rocko’s Modern Life, a Nicktoons show created by Joe Murray. Steve was the creative director on that, and it was my first voice-over of any significance. He and I met there, as did a few other guys who would go on to become seminal in the birth of SpongeBob. Derek [Drymon] worked on that, as did Doug Lawrence, both as a voice and a writer/storyboard guy. Mr. Lawrence now does the voice of Plankton and writes for SpongeBob. Nick Jennings also worked on Rocko. He was one of SpongeBob’s early graphics mentors and a close collaborator of Steve’s.
Derek Drymon, creative director, 1999-2004: I met Steve at my first job in television animation on a show called Rocko’s Modern Life. Nickelodeon was producing it under the name Games Animation. [Steve] was a storyboard director, and I was a clean-up artist. Rocko was a storyboard-driven show, which meant the storyboard teams would work from an outline and would create the episode by drawing it out. Storyboarding was the best job you could imagine and I really wanted to do it, but I had no experience. I started self-publishing a comic book called Funnytime Features to show the show’s creator, Joe Murray, what I could do. When Steve was promoted to creative director of Rocko, I was bumped me up to storyboard artist largely based on what I did in my comic book.
Kenny: Rocko’s Modern Life was just one of those shows that were the first break for a lot of people who went on to do other stuff in the business. A few years later, when Steve was ready to pitch a character of his own, he remembered me and thought I’d be good for his new character, SpongeBob. He asked me to look at some stuff, and it was a very well thought-out, well-conceived bible, the only difference being that the character was called SpongeBoy. But there were character drawings—not really model sheets—but drawings of the characters, personality profiles, graphic studies of SpongeBob’s pineapple house and Squidward’s tiki head house, the Krusty Krab, a lobster-trap-shaped structure. It was typical Steve: fully realized before he even mentioned it to anyone. By the time I saw it, I was just blown away by the groundwork. And he learned a lot of those lessons from Joe Murray on Rocko. Joe was a very smart and creative guy.
Drymon: I was teamed up with the storyboard director Mark O’Hare, who had been Steve’s storyboard artist for the first three seasons of [Rocko]. Mark was one of the top guys on Rocko, and I was thrilled to be working for him. I was so excited to get the job—it was the first time I was getting paid for my ideas. I remember driving home on the day I got the promotion and thinking somehow it would all go wrong. I envisioned myself dying in a car crash on the way home. I was sure the universe wouldn’t let me be happy.
The job only lasted one season. The show was being canceled, and Nickelodeon was moving away from storyboard-driven shows like Rocko and Ren and Stimpy. I was very disappointed I wouldn’t be able to write any more. Steve was starting to think about creating and pitching his own show. I remember his bringing it up to Mark in our office and asking him if he’d be interested in working on it. Mark had just sold a comic strip [Citizen Dog] to Universal Press Syndicate, and so wouldn’t have the time. I was all ready to say yes to the offer but Steve didn’t ask; he just left the room. I was pretty desperate to keep writing so I ran into the hall after him and basically begged him for the job. He didn’t jump at the chance. I had hardly any experience, and Steve and I didn’t know each other very well, so I couldn’t blame him. Of course, Steve was never one to make a quick decision; he must have thought it over because he eventually offered me the job.
When Rocko ended, I went on to work as a storyboard artist on another Nickelodeon show. Steve and I would meet at his house after work a few times a week to work on the pitch for SpongeBob. It would have been 1996. Steve wanted to develop a character who had a very young, boyish attitude and cited Jerry Lewis, Pee-Wee-Herman and Stan Laurel as inspiration. The first time I went over there we sat on his bed and watched The Office Boy. Steve talked all through it, pointing out things he liked about the character Jerry was playing. The scene that was most SpongeBob in hindsight was the one where Jerry’s boss gives him the job of putting out hundreds of folding chairs in a giant auditorium. It looks like it will take hours. The boss steps out for a minute, and when he walks back in, Jerry had magically filled the place with chairs. We also watched a Laurel and Hardy short called “Towed in a Hole” where Stan is annoying Ollie and gets put in a little room as a punishment. Steve loved how Stan entertained himself by drawing on the wall and playing tic-tac-toe all alone—he was like a kid being put in the corner. Steve really wanted to capture that innocent, kid-like humor. The first time Steve showed me a drawing of SpongeBob we were in his office. It was just a doodle in his sketchbook. I was really surprised to see that the character was a square; at the time it seemed like such an odd design idea. It really impressed me as something unique. He originally thought of the character as an amorphous shape, like a real sponge, but had hit upon a kitchen sponge shape, and I think that’s when the character clicked in his head.
Eric Coleman [vice president of animation development and production at Nickelodeon, 1992-2008; senior vice president, original series for Walt Disney Television Animation, 2008-present]: One misconception is that it’s very difficult to get in and pitch your show, when the truth is that development executives at networks want very much to hear ideas.
They want very much to get the word out on what types of shows they’re looking for, and anyone who calls up and asks to speak to someone in the development department can do so. They might not get the head of the department, nor do they need to. They just need to speak to someone who can speak to the creative agenda of the network so they can craft their pitch so they can come back in with a pitch that is just what the network is looking for. That goes for outside folks. What happens frequently in animation is that people who work on one production really hone their skills and also learn about the creative needs of the network they’re working at and, most importantly, build key relationships with people on the production side, on the network side, all sides of the fence. Pitch meetings can vary dramatically from studio to studio or even show to show. I personally prefer pitches to be a smaller, more casual affair. I’m most interested in getting a sense of the creator as a talent, as someone who has a vision and a passion for the show. I am less concerned about a whole song and dance with a choreographed presentation with Powerpoint slides and foam-core stand-ups and mocked-up lunch boxes. I am much more interested in a creator who can really get my attention with characters and stories and a world that feels fresh.
Steve actually went above and beyond. He gave a great presentation. He came in dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, and he had an aquarium with little versions of the characters inside. He had rigged up a seashell that, when you held it up to your ear, played Hawaiian music instead of ocean sounds. So he had a good amount of razzle-dazzle to make the atmosphere fun, but that’s not at all what won the day. The show he pitched had art that really caught our eye and a character with such a funny personality. He was able to convey the sense of the show overall that just really seemed fun. In a pitch meeting like that, the goal is not for it to seem like greatest thing ever. The goal is for it to seem interesting enough to develop it further.
Jeff Hutchins, sound designer, 1999-present: I had worked with Steve before. He was the top director on Rocko’s Modern Life under Joe Murray. We had developed quite a relationship together and enjoyed working together. After a full season of working together, he started developing SpongeBob. At first, I only worked on animation sound, then expanded to all types of projects on the Warner Bros. lot. Eventually, I even joined the live-action group for a season and did no animation. While in midseason on a sci-fi show with Debra Messing [Prey], I got a call from Steve in my studio. He wasn’t happy. He knew I might be able to help. I still thank the Lord for that call.
I wrote down his wish list for his fledgling project’s pilot. He had been assigned a post-sound studio to work with on his pilot and didn’t get the treatment he deserved. I think he wanted to work with me again, but Warner Bros. was a really expensive place to do your sound work. Nickelodeon was still looking for the show to rip the roof off things. Budgets were tight on new shows. So anyway, [Steve] asked for maybe 20 things, like an ocean liner horn, that became [SpongeBob’s] ship horn alarm clock.
I knew I had the sounds he was looking for and told him just that. I offered him options and, in some cases, multiple choices. We agreed to meet at the Warner Bros. gate near the water tower in 20 minutes—just about enough time to drive from one end of Burbank to the other, find a place to park near a major studio, and walk to the gate. I could just feel that old pickup truck he drove back then peeling out. I recorded every bit of his whole list to a tape—I called them Show DATs—and was there to meet him when he got there. He was about as happy as you could imagine, and off he went. Next thing you know, I am working on the show. Ten years go by, and my career has taken off. He has helped me to make a good life from those choices. I’ve felt very rewarded for my loyalty to Steve Hillenburg. Thanks, Steve, for the job. I have you to thank for quite a lot.
Drymon: Steve’s original idea for the pitch was that we would write a storyboard for a possible episode and pitch it to the network. He wanted to write an episode with SpongeBob and Squidward on a road trip, inspired by the movie Pow Wow Highway. It’s a road trip movie staring Gary Farmer, who is an innocent, kid-like character who is traveling with a curmudgeon. The SpongeBob/Squidward dynamic really developed while we were working on it but eventually Steve gave up on the storyboard idea for the initial pitch. We resurrected the Sponge/Squid road trip during the first season and used a lot of the ideas for an episode called “Pizza Delivery.”
While we were trying to write the road trip storyboard, Steve came up with the idea of a starfish character. The original character was angry and had a huge chip on his shoulder because he was pink. He was the owner of a roadside bar that the guys went to on their trip and was a bully, but that didn’t last long. Steve was going through a lot of ideas at the time. We worked on and off for about six months, and when we were done Steve had all the characters and settings that became the show.
With the help of writer Tim Hill and art director Nick Jennings, Steve finished the pitch and sold SpongeBob to Nickelodeon. Meanwhile I had cowritten a pilot for Nickelodeon, so I had some idea of what they were looking for in their pilots. Steve and I had dinner and came up with the idea for “Help Wanted” based on an experience Steve had in the Boy Scouts. He and Tim worked it into an outline—the network approved it—so we were ready to go.
Coleman: It was all there from the very first pitch. This is SpongeBob, this where he lives, this is who his best friend is, this is the cranky neighbor who lives in between them, this is where he works, these are the characters at work, this is Sandy the squirrel in her tree dome. The relationships were there, and the core personality traits were all there. So as we moved forward in making the pilot and then picking up the series, it was just a matter of letting out the stories that Steve already had in his head. He didn’t necessarily have every story already worked out, but he had the relationships worked out. And when you look at the early episodes, they establish the relationships very clearly. And they not only establish the relationships, but they establish a simplicity in he storytelling, a variety in visual techniques. Episodes like “Ripped Pants” [season 1] which is one of my favorite episodes, were full of surprises. It had surprises in the type of story. Where other cartoons might have had loftier storytelling ambitions, here was a story on a very small scale about a character trying to connect with other characters around him, and he just had this vulnerability and sweet emotion. That story, which we’ve seen before, was told in a way that was never told before. Then to have a musical number at the end, with the funny backgrounds, kind of gave a glimpse of things to come.
Kenny Pittenger, background designer, 1999-present: Steve came at SpongeBob from a very character-first direction. It’s not so much what the characters are doing, but that they’re acting like the characters. You know who the characters are going in, and that’s what makes the comedy work, whether it’s Laurel and Hardy or The Honeymooners, Looney Tunes or Bullwinkle. Steve and I were both huge [E.C.] Segar fans, and his Popeye comics are the best examples ever of characters driving comedy. Steve just wanted to make a funny show that was character-based, like the things he enjoyed were.
Coleman: Steve came onto Rocko’s Modern Life in the third or fourth season, and he excelled at that. Through that, he was already established at Nickelodeon and was already a talent that people were excited to work with. So when he developed his own show, it was perfect for Nickelodeon, and it was perfect for him and the creative that he wanted to explore. It really fit the needs of the network. What he did so wonderfully was deliver all the elements of a really strong show in a way no one had seen before, and that’s not easy to do. But right from the beginning, it was a fantastic pitch, and there’s no way that I or anyone else could have foreseen that it would become a huge phenomenon, nor is it something that anyone was expecting or even considering. What we were focused on was just making a good show.
Kenny: Steve described SpongeBob to me as childlike and naïve. He’s not quite an adult, he’s not quite a kid. Think a Stan Laurel, Jerry Lewis kind of child-man. Kind of like a Munchkin but not quite, kind of like a kid, but not in a Charlie Brown child’s voice on the TV shows. Maybe he mentioned Ed Norton from The Honeymooners, but Pee-Wee Herman, Jerry Lewis and Stan Laurel were go-tos for us. It was a matter of tuning in on the frequency of the voice, like you’re tuning it in on a radio.
Erik Wiese, writer and storyboard artist, 1999-2005: I remember Tom coming into the room for the first time, and I watched Steve pitch his idea of the character to him. Tom found the voice in about 10 seconds—it was amazing to see him capture the character immediately. At that point, it wasn’t just a job for me. Steve was laughing, and that was really cool. Nick wanted me to stay on other shows, but I wanted to work on this character.
Paul Tibbitt, storyboard director, executive producer, 1999-present: I knew Steve from CalArts. We were there at the same time but in different departments. He was in experimental animation, and I was upstairs in character animation. And I knew him because I had a lot of friends who worked on Rocko. I had been working at Disney, and I left there and over to work on CatDog, and it was right around the same time he was doing the pilot. So one time I went downstairs to see the pilot, and he pitched it to me and a friend, and we thought, “Wow, that’s great, good luck.” No one ever thinks any of these shows are gong to get on the air, because they make a lot of pilots that never make it.
I was on CatDog for about a year, and SpongeBob got picked up. I was on a leave for a couple of months. When I came back, there was a note on my desk from Steve, so I went upstairs, and they told me that they’d seen some of the work I’d done at Disney, and they wanted to invite me on as a board artist. I was actually the first board artist on staff. Aaron Springer had been doing some work for them, but took off on a vacation, so I ended up being the first board artist.
Pittenger: When SpongeBob was picked up, I was working on CatDog, doing background layout and design. I had been absorbed by them right after I finished my work on the SpongeBob pilot. I wish I could remember exactly how I found out that SpongeBob had been picked up, and that they wanted me to work on it. What I do remember is that I was more than a little hesitant about leaving my comfy position on CatDog and the crew that I had gotten to know and love. Steve and Derek actually took me out to lunch to try to convince me to move over to SpongeBob! It’s absolutely mind-boggling to think of that. But, at the time I had no idea what SpongeBob would become—no one did. Even so, I want to go back in time and shake some sense into myself! I guess it all worked out, though. Thank goodness!
Jay Lender, writer and storyboard writer and director, 1999-2001: Steve and Derek disappeared into a little room in the rented space at 4040 Vineland, where we were making Hey Arnold, and they came out a few months later. I didn’t know what they were doing until the footage came back and I happened to walk by the editing room while they were reviewing it on the Steenbeck. Standing in the door, I saw the scene where that wave of anchovies breaks against the mast in the Krusty Krab, and I knew right away that I wanted to work on that show. Right away. Everyone felt the same.
Kenny: I was on location with Mr. Show when I got the call that SpongeBob was moving forward. I had a fake beard on, and it was 100 degrees, and I thought, “All right!” I was dressed like a wizard and we were shooting in a stable, and it smelled like poop. A recording studio sounded real good to me.
Steve and Drymon and Nick Jennings and I got together on weekends, on our own time, before he ever pitched it to Nickelodeon. We played with it and recorded things on a tape recorder, with Steve playing the other parts. The creative process was really exciting. We weren’t thinking, “We’re creating something that’s going to be worth a bazillion dollars,” because none of us cared about that. Steve didn’t care and still doesn’t care about that. But it was intoxicating, and I just wanted to be on this team that’s creating this cool idea.
Drymon: While we were writing the pilot, Steve was also doing auditions to find the voices. He had created the character with Tom Kenny. Tom came in a few times so we could pitch him what we were working to help him find the right voice. Tom had already worked on lots of other animated shows, and Steve wanted to find an original sounding voice. For the part of Squidward, Steve had Doug Lawrence come in and audition. We knew Doug from Rocko, where he was a storyboard director and where he also did the voice of Filburt. We were showing Doug the storyboard, and he started reading back to us in his Tony the Tiger/Gregory Peck voice. It was really funny, and we wound up having SpongeBob use a deep voice when he entered the Krusty Krab for the first time. Steve really loved the voice and decided to give Doug the part of Plankton. Doug went on to be a writer for the first season, which was helpful when we were writing lines for Plankton. Doug came up with the line “I went to college” for the first Plankton episode during one of the punch-up sessions.
We storyboarded the pilot in two weeks. The execs from Nickelodeon flew out to Burbank, and we pitched it to them from the storyboards. We had squeezy toys, wore Hawaiian shirts and used a boom box to play the Tiny Tim song that comes on in the third act. We really went all out in that pitch because we knew the pilot lived or died by if the execs laughed. When it was over they walked out of the room to discuss it; we figured they would fly back to New York and we’d hear in a few weeks. We were surprised when they came back in what seemed like minutes and said they wanted to make it.
Nick Carr, music editor, 1999-present: I first met Steve Hillenburg when I worked as a music editor at Warner Bros. studios in 1996. I was working on restoring the soundtracks for a bunch of great old classic Looney Tunes cartoons and some Disney cartoons when I was put on my first Nickelodeon cartoon, Joe Murray’s Rocko’s Modern Life.
Steve had just come on board as the director for the show, and we hit it off pretty good right from the start and had two great seasons, after which we both went on to our next projects, his being located in a place called Bikini Bottom. Mine was the “employment development department.” In 1999—about the time I was seriously considering a career change—the fateful phone call that would transform my life as I new it came, unannounced and extremely welcome, as I had been out of steady work since Rocko had ended production. I had not spoken to Steve since Rocko except once, when I bumped into him, purely by chance many months before the call, coming out of a liquor store well stocked and sporting a fine pirate costume with full beard…true story. I almost didn’t recognize him. I can’t remember if it was Halloween or if he had just pitched his new idea to Nickelodeon and was out to celebrate. In any case, the following year I got the call I was hoping for.
At that point the pilot had already been done, and I was asked to retool the existing music on it. When I first started on SpongeBob, my duties were mainly music editorial but would quickly thrust me into the composers/supervisor chair. We had no budget and no music—they blew the budget on a Tiny Tim song that appeared in the pilot [“Living in the Sunlight, Loving in the Moonlight”], a sadly familiar scenario with most cartoons for television. By the time it comes to consider the music, the budget is blown.
Wiese: At the time, I was finishing up work for John Kricfalusi on the Bjork and Ranger Smith cartoons and would soon be looking for work. A friend of mine, who I knew from Disney said, “You’ve got to meet my friends Derek and Steve at Nickelodeon. They’re working on a idea called SpongeBoy Ahoy for Nickleodeon.” So I met with Steve Hillenburg and Derek Drymon at the Nick studios; which was at the time located in the lobby of a nursing school in North Hollywood. When I first came into their development laboratory, Steve and Derek had already roughed out about half the episode on Post-It notes—a story artist’s best friend—and had it pinned on the wall. I showed Steve and Derek my portfolio and reel, and a week later I was to be Steve’s first hire.
Lender: I worked with Steve for three years, spent days and days in the same tiny office with him, for hours at a time, and never got to know him. There were a few people on the show who may have socialized with him—Derek Drymon, Paul Tibbitt—but I think I saw him outside the studio exactly two times: First, when we took the field trip to the Long Beach Aquarium, and then when we had the wrap party at that scummy bar on Cahuenga near Barham. He was a total mystery to me.
Steve was the guiding light behind everything that happened on SpongeBob. There was a sequence in “Neptune’s Spatula” [season 1] where SpongeBob is competing against King Neptune to see who can make the best Krabby Patty—all my gags were about SpongeBob doing things carefully and precisely, and when we were punching up the show before the pitch, Steve sat down on the floor and drew the bit where SpongeBob draws ketchup faces on the pickles, tucks them in under a blanket of cheese, and reads them a bedtime story. I saw that and knew why he was the boss.
He wasn’t possessed by the spirit, and he wasn’t some out-of-control goofball genius. He was incredibly patient. He listened. He thought things over. He drew slowly. He knew the gags were worthless unless they were hung on a story that meant something starring characters you cared about. But sometimes you’d catch him off guard with a gag and he’d chuckle, and you could see a little of that SpongeBob nervous energy under the surface.
Mark O’Hare, writer and storyboard artist, 1999-2001: At the time SpongeBob got going, I was shifting away from animation and Nickelodeon. I was busy doing a comic strip [Citizen Dog] during the early SpongeBob days, so I was on the periphery of that and looking in. I had moved to Orange County. My wife started teaching, and her fifth graders would do these overnight field trips to Dana Point on this old ship called the Pilgrim. College kids dress up as seaman and perform a sort of boot camp. They yell and holler and scare the kids and make them do chores, sing songs and build up this seafaring camaraderie while teaching them about the ocean. It’s so great. I mentioned it to Steve one time, and he tells me he used to work on the Pilgrim when it first started and that the director is still a good friend of his. I was so blown away. It wasn’t until then that I fully appreciated the degree to which Steve put himself into SpongeBob.
“The first few months of any show are chaos”
Once a show gets the green light, the real work begins. Though Hillenburg had identified they people who would be key in helping him realize his vision, the production would require other people who didn’t yet share Hillenburg’s vision, and those who were already involved would have to begin their part in building Bikini Bottom from the ocean floor up.
Alan Smart, supervising director, 1999-present: One memory I have of the first three seasons of SpongeBob is that we were always having to figure how to do the stuff on the show. The writers were always coming up with these crazy ideas, and we weren’t sure how to realize them. In one episode [“Frankendoodle,” season 2], SpongeBob finds a “real” pencil, and he draws drawings that come to life. We had to figure out how to make SpongeBob interact with a live-action-looking pencil. We also had to figure out how to make his pencil drawings come to life, some of which were drawn on the sand. Luckily, our extremely talented art director at the time, Nick Jennings, had lots of ideas on how to make these things work. One story set in the future [“SB-129,” season 1] called for all of Bikini Bottom to be in chrome because everything in the future is made of chrome. Another episode has SpongeBob singing a song on the beach. We had to figure out how to make a stage, curtain, lights and all the instruments look like they are made out of sand.
Coleman: I had a great relationship with Steve and a lot of respect for him—not only his talent, but his manner and his process. Our relationship generally went along these lines: He or members of his crew would pitch all the materials to me at some point: the premises and outlines and storyboards and animatics. I generally gave my notes just as a response to how I was feeling and reacting, not as an expert who knew more about any phase of the process than him. I will always give him credit: Whenever I would say, “This part isn’t working for me,” this part seems slow, this ending is unsatisfying, etc., his reaction was never, “Well, you’re wrong—you’re an executive and you don’t know what you’re talking about.” His reaction was, “Hmm. Well, I don’t want you to have that response, so let’s talk about why.” Sometimes the answer would be, “These are changes we can make. That’s a good note, let’s address it.” Sometimes his answer to me would be, “I hear what you’re saying, but I don’t think it’s going to be a concern because when we have music it will play much faster,” or “There’s going to a great bit of animation here that’s going to be so funny, and you’ve got to trust me.” And it was such a fantastic relationship that I was always happy to trust him. He always delivered. There absolutely were some instances early on where I was nervous about certain things because they were unusual choices, and I would tell him as much. He would listen, and sometimes he would convince me that it was going to be OK, and in retrospect he was always right.
I would say my notes [on SpongeBob] did not differ significantly from notes I give on other shows. Generally I try to give notes that support the story the director is trying to tell. So I generally give my notes as my reactions to what’s being presented, and then we discuss what next steps are. Sometimes it’s rewriting or boarding new sections of the story, sometimes it’s the show creatives convincing me how what they’re planning will work and how, in the final execution, I will no longer have the reaction or concern I’m having now.
For example, I remember one of the first premises was for “Bubblestand” [season 1], an episode where very little story actually takes place. I raised the concern that it felt too thin to sustain 11 minutes. And Steve convinced me that this simple setup was a perfect opportunity to really define the character of SpongeBob. And more importantly, he and his team proved it in the board pitch. It’s one of the first episodes, and it’s a classic. Unlike other series that take 10 episodes until they find their groove, SpongeBob hit the mark right from the beginning.
One of my favorite specific instances was “Graveyard Shift” [season 2], a scary episode at the Krusty Krab, and at the very end of it was a throwaway gag where the story resolves itself, and they say, “But who was turning out the lights?” and they say, “Oh, it was Nosferatu!” It was a completely random, disconnected gag, and it was funny, but it was just so weird and out of left field. I remember saying, “I’ve got to say, this feels really weird and just comes out of left field,” but by that point in our process, I had learned to trust Steve’s instincts and trust the process. I liked the fact that it made me a little nervous, because that’s the territory where the interesting things come from. So I said, “It seems like a crazy ending, but let’s do it,” and sure enough, I’ve had several people say to me that that’s the all-time funniest SpongeBob moment.
Kenny: My favorite situation is working with a creator who has a very strong vision, like Steve on SpongeBob or Joe on Rocko or Craig McCracken on Powerpuff Girls and Foster’sHome for Imaginary Friends or Genndy Tartakovsky with Dexter’s Laboratory. You can see their fingerprints all over their shows, just as clearly as you can see Willis O’Brien’s fingerprints all over King Kong’s fur. I’ve been lucky enough to work with those kinds of guys, and their vision for what they want to is so defined that my job in the machine that they’re in charge of is to make the sounds that help with the illusion of life. It’s like operating a marionette, and I’m pulling the string that controls the voice. One of the things Steve and all the other guys I just mentioned had to do is put on their armor and sally forth into battle, defending the integrity of their creation in the face of cluelessness from dopey bean-counters who want to do wrong things. It’s hard, really hard, to keep your concept from getting watered down. It’s a constant battle. Anything that reaches the air with anyone’s fingerprints is a miracle.
O’Hare: I worked with Steve on Joe Murray’s Rocko, and he and Derek would call me in for freelance for the pilot, some layout drawings and board stuff, this and that. I was working from home. Games Animation was the name that Nick animation was being produced under at the time. No one at Nick could ever explain why, so I was convinced it was some kind of tax scam. Anyway, Games was in the middle of the valley somewhere, this bizarre green medical-type building with X-ray techs training downstairs. It was the most anonymous hole Nick had footed the bill for yet, worse than Rocko. It didn’t even have the charm of those black and whites of Termite Terrace or Walt’s first joint or anything. Nick couldn’t even give you that. It was this big, boring medical box with a dying mall across the way. It was in the middle of the gi-normous smoggy ocean of the valley. They were about a block from where the two guys pulled a Butch Cassidy bank heist with machine guns block by block against the LAPD. Come to think of it, it was the perfect place to launch a cartoon.
Kent Osborne, writer and storyboard director, 2000-04: My brother, Mark Osborne, who co-directed Kung Fu Panda, went to CalArts. I think Steve Hillenburg was a class or two above him, but he was part of a class with Craig Mc Cracken, Paul Tibbitt, Mike Mitchell, Lou Romano, Conrad Vernon, a lot of people working today at Pixar, Nickelodeon, DreamWorks and Cartoon Network. When I moved to Los Angeles in 1992, I was pursuing acting. My brother had just graduated, and we shared a house together. The first people I met out here were all animators, kids who had just gotten out of CalArts.
I’d met Steve Hillenburg a couple of times through my brother. I’d seen the SpongeBob pilot—it was really good, and I’d heard the show was doing well. In 2000, they had a position open for a writer in the second season, and Steve brought me in for an interview. I went into the interview and was really nervous because I’d never done anything like this before. I didn’t know much about animation, other than what I watched growing up. They were seeing a number of people, and they wanted a one-page premise, a story that you could see SpongeBob doing. And they said, “We don’t want the roller-skating episode. We’ve all seen that.” I had no idea what they were talking about. And I was out of my element—I didn’t know what I was doing there. I really wanted the job and thought it would be a cool job, but I went in there and botched the interview.
At this point, I’d sort of given up on acting because I was really terrible at it. I started writing. I wrote plays, and I wrote a movie that I could act in and my brother could direct. It was called Dropping Out. It premiered at Sundance, and we had a screening of it at the Egyptian in Los Angeles, and Steve Hillenburg came to that screening. He liked it a lot, and he brought me in to interview for the third season of SpongeBob. At that point, I was really getting into comics. When I went into that interview, I brought a mini-comic I had done that was based on a play I had written. I made this comic just because I liked comics. I gave it to Derek Drymon, and he read it said, “We should hire this guy.” At this point, I knew Paul Tibbitt pretty well and had acted in a short film he wrote and produced with Mike Mitchell called Herd.
That time, they decided to take a chance on me, and I got the job. And the roller-skating reference was their way of referring to clichés, like everyone on a sitcom goes camping or something. They wanted stories that could only be SpongeBob stories. And that was part of the problem. By the third season, they had done 26 half-hours. I came with a million ideas, and I’d say, “Hey, let’s do this!” And they’d say, “Nah, we already did one like that.” And not just SpongeBob—[story editor] Merriwether Williams had worked on Angry Beavers, and she’d say, “Oh, we did that on Beavers.”
Coleman: Pilot production generally takes about six months. Following pilot production, there’s focus group testing, and it generally takes a couple of months to compile the results of focus group testing and internal feedback, and then a greenlight process can also take a few months. So between pilot production, the testing, and the greenlighting, it can take a year. Of course, that doesn’t include whatever time Steve spent developing the pitch on his own, at which time he pulled in some of his key collaborators, most notably Derek Drymon and Nick Jennings. I believe he had Tom Kenny in his head as SpongeBob’s voice from the beginning, because he worked with Tom on Rocko.
I should also point out how great Tom was in those early days. He’d attend pitches and contribute gags—it was like having SpongeBob himself right there in the room. He brought such vivid life to the character whenever he’d perform the voice, whether it was in creative discussions or recording sessions. He really helped inform the character from the beginning. And he’s so wonderful with the fans. For a voice actor, he kind of hit the jackpot with this one, and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.
Kenny: I had such an affinity with the character. I just knew no one else could do it the way I would. “I’ll love him! I’ll nurture your kid!” I feel very protective of not just SpongeBob, but all the characters. I really care about them. Even it had just run for a season or two and had become this cult thing that got rediscovered later, I would have been proud to be associated with it. The fact that it became this global juggernaut is just a weird happenstance. I never once heard Steve utter the word “merchandise.” Even when we got together on those weekends, it was just about making something that was meaningful to us.
Lender: The first few months of any show are chaos. Nobody knows how to draw the characters. Nobody knows how to write the characters. The pacing of the shows is off. Everything is in flux. It’s not until the shows start coming back and you watch them as a viewer, like anyone else would, that you really know what you’ve been making, and you suddenly say, “Aha! That’s what this show is about!” I’m pretty sure Patrick’s tantrum in “Valentine’s Day” [season 1] was supposed to be a one-time thing, but when that show came back it felt so right that his dark side started popping up everywhere. You can plan ahead all you want, but the characters eventually tell you who they are.
O’Hare: I didn’t work with Steve and Derek again until about a year later, when they were greenlit on some episodes. But I guess all that time Nickelodeon had been planning and constructing this giant new animation studio with all the branded orange glyphs and green goop and this forced-fun architecture that felt more like a Disney tour than a studio. Nick had thrown all their productions under one roof. So when I would come in, it felt completely weird for me since Nick to me was supposed to be like working in a trailer park. I mean, machine guns are just funnier than slime.
Sam Henderson, storyboard director, 2000-01: In 2000, Derek Drymon gave me a call. I went to art school with him and was in a few classes with him. I ran into him a few times after that. He told me I should move out to L.A. because my work would be perfect for animation. I never gave that advice more than a passing thought. Then he called me out of the blue and told me he was now creative director for a show called SpongeBob SquarePants and wanted to get print cartoonists he liked to work on it. It turns out he’d been following my career all along, and doing work regularly for Nickelodeon magazine would impress higher-ups there. If I was to take this job, I’d only have to work two out of four weeks, so that was an extra incentive. I was credited as storyboard director, a fancy term for gag writer.
Wiese: My job at the time was to develop the SpongeBob characters for overseas animation. I would spend the next two to three months working and reworking the animation mechanics of the characters, doing turnarounds, eyeblinks, mouth charts, and animating a few key scenes at the end of the pilot. Steve was really trying to achieve a distinct walk cycle for each character to show their individual personality. He was directing me to make SpongeBob more stiff and direct, almost marching. But after a few failed attempts I put it away and moved onto Mr. Krabs. I decided to try something more cartoony, just to clear my head of SpongeBob’s walk cycle. I animated Mr. Krabs’ little feet on a four-frame multi-blur cycle—I think it was the best solution to making him walk like a crab. I brought Steve to the pencil test machine and his eyes lit up and he laughed out loud. That was a good moment for me, and I realized at that point that he was SpongeBob. It clicked for me then that I needed to make SpongeBob’s walk cycle very similar to Steve’s. From that point on and through most of the first season I remember the board artists would observe Steve and put a lot of subtle little gestures and timing into their drawings and acting.
Pittenger: Back in May 1997, I had the incredibly good fortune to be asked to design the backgrounds for the SpongeBob SquarePants pilot. I remember the time well, because I was very green—I was 26, and I had only been involved in animation for about five months at that point. And, the truth is, I had almost no idea what I was doing. My previous job had been as an artist intern at another studio in town. Originally, they had brought me on to do character layout, but since the production was in such disarray, there was no character layout for me to do. So I ended up helping out the background designers by cleaning up their roughs. And, though I had absolutely no experience, and not much interest, in drawing backgrounds, they really liked what I was doing. So that’s what I continued to do. That is, until the hatchet fell and the whole crew was unceremoniously fired one day.
So, there I was—unemployed, with a pretty limited animation portfolio, and not a flippin’ clue as to what to do next. As fate would have it, I guess I had made something of an impression on a few people during my short tenure as an artist intern, because after a month of flailing and freaking out in the vast, murky ocean of joblessness, I was thrown a life preserver by a production assistant who I had worked with back on the failed project. He had found his way to Nickelodeon, and was working as the production coordinator on what was then called the SpongeBoy Ahoy! pilot. I really ought to track him down and kiss his feet, because if he hadn’t put in a good word for me I’d be a wino in an alley right now, and no one would want to read my reminiscences in Hogan’s Alley.
Hutchins: We were in the beginning of first season and still in development of what the show would sound like. My background had helped me to develop a polished sound through work on many episodes of television for the Walt Disney Studios. I also had been immersed into heavy use of the Hanna-Barbera sound effects library through my work on Rocko’s Modern Life. Steve wanted a campy, hand-done kind of sound. I was feeling my way through but needed inspiration. Steve had a copy of a cartoon done in France where someone had redone almost all of the classic sounds vocally or in a primitive way. It definitely made an impact. I felt fearless about grabbing a microphone and giving it a whirl, no matter what the task. I want thank Steve for igniting something and want to send out a shout out to French animation. Thanks for the inspiration. You can hear the campy, hand-done stuff start to surface by the middle of the first season and never ceased to be a big part of the sound of the show.
Pittenger: Once we dove into production on the first season of the series, we were faced with the task of designing the stock locations. These were the spots that we knew the show would return to again and again, and in which most of the action would take place, such as the Krusty Krab and SpongeBob’s pineapple house.
Steve had a clear vision of what he wanted the show to look like, and an even clearer vision of what he didn’t want it to look like, so much of what we in the background layout/design department attempted to do during those first days—there were three of us during the first three seasons—was to home in on what we thought Steve wanted and to translate that into a cohesive visual language. The main thing was to keep everything nautical—so we use lots of rope, wooden planks, ships’ wheels, netting, anchors, and boilerplate and rivets. Most of the houses in Bikini Bottom are called “stack houses” because they were supposed to look as though they were fashioned out of ships’ smokestacks. On the other hand, much of what you see on the show has a strong tiki influence—we use a lot of bamboo, woven mats, brightly colored fabrics, thatch and flowers.
Over the years, when people find out what I do for a living, what they ask me about the most are the sky flowers: “What are those things?” They function as clouds in a way, but since the show takes place underwater, they aren’t really clouds. Because of the tiki influence on the show, the background painters use a lot of pattern. So really, the sky flowers are mostly a whimsical design element that Steve came up with to evoke the look of a flower-print Hawaiian shirt—or something like that. I don’t know what they are either.
Wiese: During the first few years of SpongeBob, Steve had his hand in every part of production until it was finely tuned, altering the designs, storyboards, layouts and art direction some more until everyone knew what the vision of the show was. I seem to recall that by the end of second season the show he had really come to an end adjusting the show. It was finally the show it was supposed to be. Now when I look back at other animated television shows, I can see the evolution that it has to take before it finally reaches its final look—sometimes for better or for worse.
Pittenger: I was supposed to begin working on a Monday, and I remember reading through the rough SpongeBoy Ahoy! storyboard the night before and thinking, “Hmm, OK. I guess it’s kind of funny.” But, I really didn’t think it was all that great. Have I mentioned how green I was back then?
On Monday morning, I was placed at an old metal desk in a dark, windowless little room in this weird rented office space in North Hollywood—this was about nine months before Nickelodeon moved into the studio on Olive Avenue in Burbank—with Erik Wiese and Steve Hillenburg. Thank goodness they knew what they were doing! Steve had done all kinds of fun, lively, loose sketches for the SpongeBoy pitch bible, and they really set the tone for what the show would later become. I remember, however, that the first design I tackled that day was the interior of the Krusty Krab, and I started doing this tight, realistic, heavily rendered, leaden, monstrosity of a drawing that would have taken me all day to finish. Oh, I bet Steve was having some serious misgivings at that moment, because he had obviously hired a complete ignoramus. After some gentle guidance, I was able to loosen up and ultimately have a lot of fun working out the style.
In the 11 years since we began production on the first season, the way we draw the backgrounds hasn’t changed all that much. The line work has always been loose and playful—no drawing with a straightedge—with a lot of variation of line weight. Objects are never to have a “wonky” appearance, nor should they go to the other extreme and be too straight and symmetrical; they should be somewhere in between—sort of mushy or lumpy.
The finished designs—though I did the actual drawing—really reflect the input of everyone there. Not only did I get advice from Steve and Erik, but Derek Drymon, the creative director, and Nick Jennings, the art director, helped me out quite a bit as well. Once I got my stride and felt comfortable with what I was doing, I plowed through all 50 or 60 of the designs and was out of a job again a week later: After my work was done on the pilot, it was more than a year before the series got the green light and went into production. Luckily, CatDog was hiring in May 1997, so I actually transitioned right into that after I finished up the SpongeBob pilot.
“It’s like they’re all taking turns being some little slice of you”
Hillenburg decided early that he wanted the show to be storyboard driven rather than script driven, an approach that required artists who could take a skeletal story outline and flesh it out with sight gags, dialogue and a structure that would strike a balance between narrative and whimsy. While the writers came up with the premises, the greatest burden fell on the two-man storyboarding teams that worked in tandem on each episode.
Drymon: Steve really wanted to put together a team of young and hungry people to make the show. The core group had mostly worked with Steve on Rocko: Alan Smart, the supervising director, Nick Jennings, the art director, and me. But Tim Hill, who had worked on the bible, was unavailable for the story editor job, so we found Pete Burns from Chicago. We had never worked with him before, but he had turned in a test and we really liked an idea of his about SpongeBob ripping his pants—it became one of our first episodes [“Ripped Pants,” season 1].
Wiese: Whether a show should be script driven or storyboard driven is a decision that networks seem to meet with some trepidation, and SpongeBob was no different. But Steve wanted SpongeBob to be a storyboard/cartoonist-driven show. It was something he and Derek felt strongly about. He would hash out premises and outlines with the writers. They would act as the blueprints for the storyboard artists to work from. I felt like I was living out what had been described to me from other older cartoonists at comic book conventions who had worked on classic cartoons from the ’40s and ’50s.
Kenny: It was always Steve’s intention that the narrator be a nod to his beloved Jacques Cousteau. Jacques Cousteau’s voice is very dispassionate, very removed, very flatline, even when he’s describing something miraculous and beautiful. “Eet ees the most amazing thing I have ever seen I have ever seen in my life.” We found that after a while we had to make the narrator a little more playful than that. He has to sound a little fun and playful, or he just sounds bored. “Let’s check in on our favorite characters in Goo Lagoon.” And you don’t want the first voice you hear in an episode of your series to sound bored. So he’s become a little more playful, has a little more smile in his voice. So he’s got a little more twinkle in his eye, if an invisible character can be said to have a twinkle in his eye.
Sherm Cohen writer, storyboard artist and director, 1999-2005: For each SpongeBob episode, the storyboard team starts with a bare-bones story premise that covers the basics like the setup, the complication and the ending. The board artists are expected to flesh it all out and add lots of gags and silliness. We would spend the first week of our six-week rotation sketching and scribbling out a very rough board on Post-It notes and on storyboard paper, fleshing out the story using sketches and handwritten notes, which we pin up on the wall so we can see how the whole thing works together.
Drymon: Coming up with episode ideas was always tough. During the first season, we used up most of the story ideas that were in the bible, and so going into second season we had to figure out a way to generate new ones. One time we thought it would be a good idea to take the writers to the beach for inspiration, but when we got down there it was overcast and cold, so we had to stay in the car. We didn’t come up with too many ideas that day. Our story editor from the first season, Pete Burns, had left, and we brought on Merriwether Williams. I remember Steve told her it was her responsibility to get us to come up with new ideas, which is a tall order. She gave me a book called Zen and the Art of Writing, written by Ray Bradbury and was a collection of essays about the writing process. One of the ways he would inspire stories was to write nouns that interested him on a note card and hang them in his office. He felt just having the word in his eyesight would get his mind working. [Merriwether] took this idea and made it into a writing exercise. We would all write 10 nouns on small pieces of paper and put them in a hat. The hat would be passed around and you’d have a minute to scribble down an idea based on the noun you drew. It would almost always start a discussion, and we wound up getting a lot of episodes out of it. She really came up with a great addition to the process.
Merriwether Williams, story editor, 1999-2004: I was working as a writer on Angry Beavers, another Nickelodeon show. I’d already worked at Nickelodeon on several different shows as a story editor, which is a position they no longer have. But at that time at the network, a lot of shows were sort of outsourced to Klasky-Csupo or other animation houses. It was my job to put the Nickelodeon stamp on it, especially the kid point of view. So I had worked as a story editor in that capacity.
Vince Calandra, who had worked on Rocko, knew Steve Hillenburg, and Steve called Vince and asked him who he would recommend as the story editor, or head writer, on SpongeBob. Vince recommended me. [Prior to my arrival on SpongeBob] Pete Burns had been the story editor for, I think, the first 14 episodes. Pete had lived in Chicago, and he went back to Chicago, so they needed a new head writer.
Certainly, [Steve and Derek] knew me—it wasn’t like the first time they had seen me when I walked in. We had all been around that building for six or seven years. I was definitely a familiar face, even if they did not know my work directly.
When I arrived, it was Derek, Steve, me and Doug Lawrence in the [writers’] room. I inherited Doug; he had already been there. Doug and I certainly came from different backgrounds. It was a good mix. We called Doug the “wing nut.” I would say the wing nut is anyone who paces around the room and throws out anything, the craziest ideas but not necessarily the best at seeing the overall picture. Doug and I were the writers, and Steve and Derek were who they were. We kept it really small at first.
The thing I brought to the room that had not been there before was a real conscious analysis of first act-second act-third act structure, simple set-ups and paying stuff off. Tracking a character arc in the tiniest way. The funny thing is, when I first arrived, that’s how I was talking about stories, and they didn’t really know what I was talking about. That really not how Pete had talked about stories. He talked more about, “This happens, that that happens,” which is how some people do it, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I guess I came from a way of looking at it more formally.
Coleman: Merriwether played an important role. There’s an element to SpongeBob that has these very simple stories. When it works, it seems effortless and you don’t pay any attention to the work that went into it, but I can assure you that it’s not effortless. It requires a lot of discipline and a lot of crumpling up pieces of paper. If you look at the stories in a lot of the early episodes, they’re very, very simple, and that requires strong characters to carry them through, beat by beat. So it’s a testament to how great those characters are that they can pull it off. It’s not just a strong of gags for 11 minutes—there’s a real emotional underpinning in the series, especially in the early episodes.
Osborne: I was in the writers’ room with Steve, Derek, Merriwether and Mark O’Hare. The meetings would start, but we would just sit around talking about things that happened and funny things that happened to us when we were kids. It wasn’t like, “OK, let’s get to work!” And someone would start laughing at something and would say, “Oh man, we’ve got to make an episode out of that!” And we’d start trying to figure out how to craft a three-act structure around it. And we’d have all these ideas that never went anywhere up on the wall, and I’d look at those a lot.
Those exercises of pulling a noun out and having a minute to write were good. You’d pull a piece of paper out of a hat, and it would say something like “can opener,” and you’d have a minute to write as much as you could about that. You wouldn’t have any time to edit your thoughts—everything would just spill out. That would get things flowing. And everyone in the writers’ room had a specialty. One person would be really good with jokes, and another would be really good with structure. Derek came up to me and said, “You’re the wing nut!” I said, “What’s that?” and he said I was the guy who made everybody laugh, and it was my job to be funny. It was a great job, and I learned a lot about writing and animation.
Williams: Steve came to me and said, “Why don’t you go read a bunch of books about writing,” or something like that [laughter]. He wanted to keep the enthusiasm up in the room, because sometimes it can be a slog. So I went off and I read a bunch of books. And the one that really captured my imagination was called Zen and the Art of Writing, by Raymond Bradbury. He told a story about how he would tape to the wall certain nouns that he liked or wanted to work into the story at some point. And a word he used was “gusto”—write with gusto. And the way I interpreted those two things was that maybe we should stop editing ourselves so much.
So I came up with a game called “the noun game,” in which everyone writes three to six nouns on a piece of paper. They could be anything. And I’m not a stickler—it could be a verb, but in general nouns seemed to work the best. You put them in a hat or a bowl or some container in the middle of the table, and everybody picks one, and you have a minute or two to write a story. It doesn’t have to be cohesive, it doesn’t have to be anything; there are really no rules. It could just have an image; it could have a beginning, a middle and an end. Basically, there’s a time limit, and just write whatever comes to mind. A lot of times, we would all go around the room afterwards and read them, and often they led to something. They almost never ended up as the outline itself, but it was a really good springboard for us to get to talking about things that were more original.
Another exercise involved going around in a circle and telling a story, but everyone contributed just one line at a time. I came from a pretty big family, and when I was a kid, we used to play that game where you write two lines of a story and fold the paper over the first line so all you can see is the second line. The next person would add a line, and then fold the paper again so all you could see is that line. You continue until you fill up the page. Then we would read the story, and a lot of the time it made no sense, but it was really funny. It also got us so we didn’t edit ourselves so much: Just say it, whatever’s on your mind. Don’t overthink things so much. Say it was me, Mark O’Hare, Steve, Derek, and say Kent [Osborne] was in there too. I would start: “Once upon a time, SpongeBob found a mouse.” The next person would have to say the next line, and the next person would have to say the next line. We didn’t fold it over so we couldn’t read it, but there was definitely a time limit. Don’t sit there and think about it. Say it. It was an exercise for us to get out of our heads, be with each other and make each other laugh before we got down to the nitty-gritty of story writing.
O’Hare: To recharge the writing room and get us motivated, Steve and Merriwether would schedule off-sites at a restaurant or hotel meeting room where we would brainstorm. We had coffee and mini-bagels, and later in the day a meal like the type you get at weddings. The rest of the crew figured we were working, but for the record, I think it’s fair that everyone knows that we didn’t really come up with any better ideas in off-sites than at the studio. Windowless hotel banquet rooms are astonishingly uncreative places to form opinions about the world. But the little bagels were good.
Williams: I ran a tight ship. I’m a taskmaster like that. We met every day at 10 a.m. Everyone would have a draft of the latest outline, or whatever we were working on, on their desk in the morning, and they would have to read it. I was a real stickler about reading it before you came into the conference room. If you hadn’t read it and you didn’t know what you were talking about, go out and read it before you come back in. Even to Steve I would say, “Go out and read it.”
In all honesty, I’ll say that Derek Drymon did a better job of understanding people’s strengths and weaknesses [than me]. My approach was, if it’s not your strength, learn it. Visual gags were not my strength for a long time, but I worked on it. Keep trying. Keep pitching. You can’t not talk in my room—you’ve got to talk.
Doug and I would write a draft in the afternoon, and after that, there wasn’t really that much else to do. Writing would be done by four o’clock.
That’s still basically how I run shows that I’m head writer on. There’s a lot of down time for board writers, just blowing off steam, and then they’d stay there all night. Everyone was kind of allowed to work how they…well, that’s not true. The writers weren’t allowed to work how they wanted to [laughter]. They had to do it the way I wanted. But as long as board guys got their work done, they could do it the way they wanted.
Other staff members who weren’t on the writing team didn’t necessarily love the fact that we were done by four o’clock, but we came in and we got our work done. They resented that we were done and there wasn’t much for us to do, whereas they had a ton of work. But that kind of stuff goes on on every show.
The pressure of the job was far greater on Steve and Derek, and that was self-imposed. I enjoyed the job. I’ll be honest—Steve was a hard person to work with sometimes, because he was very demanding, but I loved it. I loved every minute of it.
Lender: Steve gave you the opportunities to do things that would really be memorable, if you could sell him on it. I campaigned for the Nosferatu gag at the end of “Graveyard Shift” [season 2], and he let me run with it. I drove all over town looking for books with scannable pictures of Count Orlok; I searched what little there was of the Web back then. I all but looked over Nick Jennings’ shoulder while he Photoshopped the smile on him to make sure it matched my board drawing. It was my baby, and I held its hand until we shipped it overseas. Hours and hours of my life over four seconds of screen time because it made me laugh.
Tibbitt: After I did my first board, my feeling was, “Oh, I have no idea if this is really what they want.” I’d seen the pilot, but at that point that’s about all there was: seven minutes of animation. So I half-expected Steve to come in and say, “This isn’t really what we’re looking for, so you need to start over.” Or even worse: “Move along.” But right after I pitched the first board, the light bulb went on because it was apparent that Steve and I were on a similar wavelength. Not to say my first effort was perfect, but I knew I’d “gotten” the character right after that first pitch. The feedback from Steve was very positive.
Lender: Derek had done his own comic book called and was plugged into the alternative comic scene, and he brought in two guys from the comics world: Kaz Prapoulenis, who had been doing his four-panel strip, Underworld, for alternative newspapers for years, and Sam Henderson, who had been self-publishing a book called The Magic Whistle. They brought completely different sensibilities to the show and kept us all on our toes. I ended up with Sam, who brought this literate oddness to everything he did. He wrote the sequence in “Squilliam Returns” [season 3] where we go into SpongeBob’s head to see how he becomes the perfect waiter by forgetting everything but “fine dining and breathing.” Sam created this amazing little visual metaphor, deconstructed it onscreen, then upends his own deconstruction in a way that nobody expects. It was brilliant.
Drymon: Steve and I had a pretty specific way of working. He would have an idea about something—I would give him all my thoughts and ideas on it—then he would think about it for a bit. I learned early on not to try and convince him of something, because he would always think it through anyway. Once he settled in to think I would take a walk, and by the time I got back he had usually made up his mind and knew what direction he wanted to go.
We adapted the same writing process that was used on Rocko’s Modern Life and didn’t change it much through our entire run on the show. We had a story editor and one or two writers who would meet every day with Steve and me, and we would work on outlines—we would finish one a week. The outline would go to a two-person storyboard team, who would have a week to thumbnail out the entire 11-minute episode. They would pitch to me and Steve on Friday, and we’d give notes. We’d meet again the following Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and then the board team would pitch their episode to the network on Friday. After addressing any network notes, the team would spend three weeks cleaning up the board, and then we’d go in and record it with the actors. It would then move into animatic, where we can edit the dialogue tracks in with the storyboard. Steve and I would work with an editor and a timing director for a week to work out the pacing of the show, and as the seasons went on Steve and I would do more and more of our rewriting in the animatic. Some episodes would need minor rewrites, but sometimes a show would need a big overhaul. The episode “Clams” [season 3] was almost completely reboarded in the animatic phase. Steve had storyboarded an episode of Rocko called “Fish and Chumps” that didn’t turn out how he had wanted it; the live-action, big-band footage and the Jaws-like theme were things we added.
Tibbitt: We had storyboard teams on SpongeBob. Once Steve had signed off on a story, those guys would draw their storyboards really rough, and between the two of them, they had two weeks to write a story and then three weeks to tighten up their drawings and clean up their boards. Early on, it was different for me. The guy who was going to be my partner didn’t want to come in to do the job; he wanted to freelance. So I was able to work on my own. I would write the whole story, and they would give me an extra week and hand off my roughs to Mark O’Hare. He was a better draftsman than I was, so he’d take my drawings and make them look like SpongeBob. Then Mark left to pursue other things, and I teamed up with other people. But that first season, I worked a little differently. The only drawback for me was, I would write for two weeks, and I would immediately have to start writing again, whereas the other guys would write, and then they had three weeks to just draw. But it worked for me. I could draw roughs and not worry so much about what the drawings looked like, and I could be free to come up with jokes.
Drymon: Comedy-wise, the weight of the show fell on the storyboard artist’s shoulders. Most of them were young and hadn’t really done too much yet. They had to pump out the jokes for two weeks then go right into clean-up. It’s a labor-intensive job and not for everyone. Paul Tibbitt was unique because he wouldn’t clean up his own thumbnails; instead, he’d work on a story for two weeks, then we’d have him do a different story for the next two weeks, then give him a week off. He storyboarded half the episodes by himself for the first season or two. Along with Paul there was Aaron Springer, who was also incredibly funny. These two guys really set the tone of the series that first season. No doubt, above all else, the crew really made SpongeBob what it was.
Vincent Waller, writer, storyboard artist and director, technical director, and creative director, 2005–present: Working on Ren and Stimpy and SpongeBob was very similar. They’re both storyboard-driven shows, which means they give us an outline from a premise after the premise has been approved. We take the outline and expand on it, writing the dialogue and gags. That was very familiar. The deadlines were a little more serious here. For me, SpongeBob was actually harder than Ren and Stimpy was. With Ren and Stimpy, when you would pitch a board, there would sometimes be changes to it, but on SpongeBob, you would pitch a board, and sometimes half to three-quarters would change, but your deadline didn’t change—you still had another week to turn it around. That’s a whole lot of writing in a very short amount of time.
Personality-wise, all the characters on the show are pretty simple. Where things get entertaining is whatever you’re bringing to it from your own experience. So it’s like they’re all taking turns being some little slice of you.
Williams: Just about every episode was sparked or inspired by something that happened to one of us, or a story from childhood. A lot of things were mined from our actual childhoods. We were recalling the feelings we had as kids. Then we’re laughing about it, and at each other, as grown-ups. Of all the shows I’ve worked on, we talked about our childhoods the most on SpongeBob. In the room, you had to be willing to tell your stories and look like a fool. There was definitely a closeness in the room.
The truth is, we all still get embarrassed, and we all still do stupid things, and we all still humiliate ourselves. A lot of it was childhood, but somebody could come into the [writers’] room and talk about something that was happening in their life then. Especially with animation people and cartoon people—it’s not like we’re the most mature lot. It wasn’t all reminiscing: Some of it was just our lives, because we’re not exactly grownups in a lot of ways.
Kenny: I do a bunch of different series, and some of them are very script driven. SpongeBob is so visually oriented—if I don’t have storyboard to accompany my dialogue scripts, there’s no point. I’m lost. The pictures are everything, and the action is everything. When you see SpongeBob’s words out of context, it doesn’t help. So I always read the storyboards the day before the recording. If you look at a dialogue script of the “SpongeBob B.C.” episode [season 3], it looks like someone took a bunch of Scrabble tiles and threw them into a script. But if you’re looking at storyboards, and you’re seeing three panels to a page with the dialogue written underneath—250 pages, usually—it works. Since we’re allowed to ad-lib with SpongeBob, I feel like the more we know going in, the better equipped we are to tweak jokes.
Reading the storyboards is one of the pleasures of the job—they still make me laugh. If something is really funny, I’ll show it to my kids, and they’ll laugh. And a year later, when it’s on the air, they’ll say, “Oh, I remember when you showed us this!”
Williams: At least on that show—and I’ve found this to be true on the other shows I’ve worked on—animation and filmmaking are such collaborative endeavors. And Steve was someone who had a lot of ownership feelings about the show. Ideas that people would bring in, that they came up with on their own, often died in the room. However, if everyone was present when an idea was born, it often gained enthusiasm. Everyone could add on to it, like adding a piece to a puzzle. By the end of, say, two hours, everyone would have contributed, and everyone will feel like the story was theirs.
Certainly, there was a lot of ego involved with the storyboard artists’ wanting to make it their own. My emphasis, and my job, was just to get the story out. I said, “Dialogue will change, so don’t get attached to it.” But I can watch SpongeBobs and know who said that line in the room and when.
Waller: When the board is done, you pitch it to the entire crew. That’s the same way we did it at Spumco. Everybody has a different style. There are people who are very quiet about it. They still do some amazing voice interpretations and acting, and some people are bigger and are much more broad when they’re doing the acting out. Some people are very quiet and subtle, and then you have guys like Mike Bell, who sometimes during his pitch would do back flips. Here’s a guy who’s like six-foot-three and about 300 pounds doing a back flip! Everyone has a different style. In fact, what got me hired is that I was over at John [Kricfalusi]’s house at a party, and he had a George Liquor board there. I flipped through it and kind of pitched it as I read it. I was just having fun at a party. The next day he said, “Hey—want a job?”
Cohen: At the end of the week, we would pitch the entire rough storyboard—about 175 pages of roughs—to Steve Hillenburg and Derek Drymon. After that first pitch, we would get a lengthy critique from Steve and Derek, discussing what works and what could be better. They would often spend hours in the trenches with the board artists, punching up gags and beating the story into shape.
One by-product of this process represents what I consider one the keys to the show’s success. I called it the “Stack of Pain.” While some pitches went great, there were many times when our first pitch was totally off the mark...it just wasn’t measuring up against the as-yet-unborn cartoon ideal that was hiding in the back of Steve’s imagination. When the storyboard wasn’t funny, the storyboard pages came right off the wall, and piled up and up and up in a gigantic pile of paper called the “Stack of Pain.” The point is that we always had to be ready to “kill our babies” and not fall in love with our drawings and ideas if there was a better idea or gag just over the creative horizon. The “Stack of Pain” was a constant reminder that it wasn’t enough to make a good cartoon; Steve and Derek were always there to push us further than we thought we could go to making a great cartoon.
The second week of storyboarding was spent implementing all the changes from that first rough pitch. We also punched up the gags and tried to make the drawings a little more legible. Dialogue would get refined at this stage, and all the odd bumps in the storytelling process are getting smoothed out. Week two equaled lots of late nights. At the end of the week, we’d re-pitch to Steve and Derek, and another tear-down and punch-up session would last late into the night. The next day was the day it had to be ready for the big pitch.
Williams: The credits on SpongeBob don’t necessarily actually reflect how it was done. They were not truthful. Outlines were physically written by Doug and me, each and every one. So if you see Doug’s name on some, and you see my name on others, it’s really not how it happened. Doug and I wrote the outlines for every single episode together. When we did bring in other people, it was always pretty much co-writing. When Kent [Osborne] came into the room, it wasn’t like he would go off and write something by himself. I was there, or Doug was there, and pretty much everyone came up with the story.
Tibbitt: The network would come down, and we would get the whole crew together [for a storyboard pitch]. At first it was nerve-racking, but it’s your job, and you find a way and you just do it, sink or swim. That’s how I did it. I’m lucky to have an extroverted part of me that was able to get through that. It got a lot easier as time went on.
Wiese: When we started work on the first season of SpongeBob, Tom Kenny was coming to storyboard pitches, which was extremely helpful. Once you’re done with a storyboard, you pitch it to the crew and network executives, and that was pretty stressful. From my experience, the majority of cartoonists tend to be people who don’t want to get up in front of crowd and perform, and here you’d have to get up in front of about 35 people, and hopefully they would laugh at your pitch. Then there are some storyboard artists like Aaron Springer or Paul Tibbitt who would just do the most amazing board pitches; they were fantastic to watch! At that final pitch stage, you get notes from the network, and if there was a joke that didn’t get a laugh, you’d rework it. That was our version of a Disney sweatbox. Tom was really great at coming up with more gags and funny lines for SpongeBob. To have Tom in the room going over your stuff one last time was really special.
Cohen: The big crew pitch was the big debut for each episode. This was the first time the crew or the executives would see the story in its cartoonified form. We had to make sure it was totally working by this point, because the success or failure of the storyboard would depend on how much the audience was laughing. Talk about pressure! If something got a big laugh, we’d make sure to milk it. If something fell flat, we cut it. The pitches were exciting, invigorating and scary as all get-out. We had a really supportive crew, though, so it was really a lot of fun.
After the crew pitch, we would endure one more round of critiques, based on the audience reaction and the notes from executive and [network] standards types. Then we would retire to our drawing caves to spend the next three weeks in the clean-up stage, going back to page one and really drawing the thing so it looks like a finished cartoon. The overseas animators would follow our storyboard drawings very closely, which is great if you give them a great drawing, but if you send them a crappy drawing it’ll look terrible when it comes back all animated in color.
There’s a lot less pressure at the clean-up stage, but it can also be tedious and boring to spend weeks cleaning up a board—making the compositions clear, adding lots of poses to delineate the action, putting characters on-model, writing scene descriptions, etc. This is the time we could crank the tunes or put a movie on in the background. Clean-up doesn’t take a whole lot of concentration, and the brain needs a bit of a break. But as the final deadline approached, we always had the adrenaline rush that Drymon called “boogie week.”
Tom Yasumi, animation director and animation timer, 1999-present: My job starts when a storyboard is finished. I “slug” it to give proper time between the dialogues for the animatic. Then in the animatic meeting, along with the producer and supervisors, we lock the show so the length is around 12 minutes. SpongeBob airs at 11 minutes, but they want some cushion for the post-edit.
Then I start timing, or putting action on the exposure sheets, which have 80 lines per page, each representing a frame of film, meaning 24 lines represent one second of movement. For example, SpongeBob’s normal walk is eight frames per step, so three steps would take one second. I draw poses when needed to make scenes work. I also match the mouth shapes to the dialogue and indicate all the camera moves and special effects. Basically, we animation directors put every element of the show together as a workable, cohesive whole, so we can send it to Korea, where they do the actual animation. We’re like conductors, in a way. But there are many in the industry who don’t really know what we “timers” do, which leads to my little story.
Several years ago, I got stuck going to lunch with one of our storyboard artists, who is no longer with the show, and on a way to the restaurant we were joined by the coworker’s friend, a storyboard artist who worked at Disney. All seemed fine until the coworker introduced me to the Disney guy as a “timer.” After that, the Disney guy could barely hide his disgust for me. Apparently, he blames the timers for all of his shows’ failures. If his show sucked, it was always the timer’s fault.
Waller: We ship very detailed boards to Korea. You could pretty much blow them up and use them as layouts, along with [exposure] sheets, design, color. We get back film, although it’s not film anymore—it’s digital. We sit back and look at it and call retakes if things are popping on or popping off, or if the color is off. Sometimes the perspective’s wrong or the fielding’s wrong. Basically, we pull it back to make sure it’s what we sent and expected to get back.
It’s usually about four or five months from when we send material to Korea and when it gets back to us. The episodes are all overlapping, but from start to finish on a cartoon it’s generally about nine months. Like a baby.
Kaz, writer and storyboard director, 2001: I got a phone call out of the blue from Derek Drymon asking me if I’d like to write for SpongeBob. Steve Hillenburg was a fan of my comic strip, Underworld, which was running in the L.A. Weekly, and thought I’d be a good gag writer. I was already a huge fan of the show and would tape it and watch it with my friends, so of course I said yes. I had never worked in animation but always wanted to work on a cartoon show ever since I was a kid. How often does a job like that fall into one’s lap?
I was still living in New York at the time, so I would fly back and forth from New York City to L.A. I worked for two weeks writing the thumbnail episode, and then I’d fly back home for three weeks. Then back to L.A. for two weeks. I was like a yoyo but having a great time.
For my last four SpongeBob episodes, I got teamed up with Carl Greenblatt. Carl was a young artist who came to cartooning from advertising. Carl loved to do really off-the-wall gags and jokes steeped in repetition, the kind of jokes that go on and on and stop being funny after a while, and when you’re just about to pull you hair out they’re funny again. By now I had gotten into the swing of drawing the most nasty cartoons and pitching them to Steve and Derek to get a laugh because they’d rarely laugh at anything that wasn’t disgusting. Carl and I would laugh ourselves silly about some supposed brilliant gag we wrote, but when we’d pitch it to Steve and Derek we’d just get “yes” or “that’s funny” but hardly ever laugh. It drove us crazy. I once apologized to Steve for pitching a lame joke but he told me to keep it in, saying “lame is good.” That’s what I loved about SpongeBob: It had smart jokes and dumb jokes. They threw everything at it, and it made the cartoon that much more chewy.
Osborne: I really liked writing for SpongeBob—it came easily. I remember that if Derek and Steve had a Squidward episode, they would give it to Jay Lender, because Jay really was Squidward. I liked writing for Mr. Krabs and his obsession with money. When I wrote for Mr. Krabs, he would just be ridiculously in love with paper money. It was 2000, and I was supporting [Ralph] Nader and was very anti-capitalism, as opposed to now, when I’m thinking about my retirement. It was easy to write for SpongeBob because he was such a dorky character, like Pee-Wee Herman or Jerry Lewis. It was easy to write in that voice because I’d sort of been a dork growing up.
Yasumi: In the early days of SpongeBob, among some storyboard artists I had a reputation for being a good animation director who could make a show work. While this was flattering, I didn’t write the shows. We don’t get to pick a show to work on, so sometimes I found myself working on a show that wasn’t funny to me. I can work on the timing of a joke, but if the joke wasn’t funny, it is like polishing a turd.
Those days, many of our board artists were straight out of college, in their early to mid-20s, and they all seem to think that they were some kind of geniuses. In some cases, they were. So naturally, just like that Disney guy, when the show turned out bad some blamed others, because in their minds they were always right.
This was made crystal clear to me when I bumped into another one of the former SpongeBob board artists. We were talking about the old days when he started telling the friend he was with that until I started working on his shows, the other animation directors ruined his shows. Now, I must admit I had enjoyed this kind of flattery over the years—who wouldn’t?—but this time, this guy seemed to really mean it, so I just told him the truth: that he’s giving me way too much credit for the success of his latter shows. This apparently devastated him, and he actually said, “Oh, don’t say that! That means I sucked in the beginning, then I improved as a board artist!” Exactly!
But more to the point, I see a red flag whenever any of my coworkers say my show this, my show that. It’s really our show. Only Steve Hillenburg can say my show regarding SpongeBob, and even he would give credits for all the help he has received. This is truly a collaborative effort: No one person can take the credit or the blame.
Lender: I don’t think there was a rivalry between the premise writers and the storyboard writers, but we rarely ended up doing what was in the premise when we got it. The premises were more like a proof of concept; they would either point the way or point out the pitfalls. We’d read them, boil them back down to the one paragraph idea, crumple them up and throw them away. Then, working from that one paragraph, we’d build a new show from the ground up. Most of the writers had worked as storyboarders—Derek, Steve, Doug, Paul—so I don’t think they took offense. They knew how it worked.
Waller: When writers come into the room now with premises, they’ve bounced the ideas around with [head writer] Steven Banks, and he’s knocked it back to them and made them think about other things. So by the time they come into Paul’s office to pitch the stuff, they’ve already got the idea worked out. We may change it while they’re sitting in there, but when they come, they’ve got a full-fledged idea.
Cohen:SpongeBob storyboards were typically about 200 pages, with three drawings per page. Many other series have longer boards, but we tried to not make the stories so crowded. It’s more fun to keep the story simpleand let the humor come out of the characters and goofy situations.
Tibbitt: Almost every studio has different titles. What we call “storyboard directors” are actually “storyboard writers.” We have a group of writers who do the premises and the outlines. A premise is about a page long, and an outline is about two pages. They set up the basic structure and give an idea of how to get from the beginning to the end of this premise. But the guys who actually do the rough drawings on the boards actually do all of the dialogue writing and most of the visual jokes. We call them directors, but really what they are are visual writers. They direct how the show is going to look in its visual form, and then that gets handed off.
It’s a different approach. Most shows will have a script, and they’ll give it to a storyboard director, and his job is to draw what’s in the script and then direct it. But our storyboard artists get a lot more input than they would at most jobs.
They used that approach on Ren and Stimpy, even to the point that they didn’t even have writers per se. They had some, but most of the ideas were coming from cartoonists. And it had been done like that before Ren and Stimpy, but there was a long period of time when that’s just now how they were made. So Ren and Stimpy opened the door for the possibility of that happening. I think Steve came along at a good time, when they were open to the idea of that, and they were looking for something a little different. Most people who work in animation don’t get that opportunity.
In a lot of ways, I really lucked out, because in a lot of ways it was exactly what I had hoped to do. That’s what happens a lot in art school: It’s a lot of self-training, and I had chosen the storyboarding route. I hadn’t concentrated on animating jobs, because there were signs that animating jobs were going to become sparse in the states, so I had been concentrating on character development, writing and storyboarding. It was a perfect fit for me.
Pittenger: The only real difference between the way we draw now and the way we drew then is that we abandoned pencil and paper during the fifth season. It was while we were working on “Pest of the West,” one of the half-hour specials, that we made the switch…did you notice? We now use Wacom Cintiqs, which are interactive LCD pen displays. So we can draw right on our computer screens and make immediate changes or undo mistakes. Many neo-Luddites—er...I mean, many of my cohorts—don’t like working on them, but I find them useful. There’s no substitute for the immediacy of drawing on a piece of paper, of course, but digital nautical nonsense is still pretty fun.
Lender: When it came time to staff up the show, I begged for a spot, and management said no. SpongeBob was going to be a board-driven show, which meant the board artists wrote the show as they went, working from only a premise or short outline. I had done some story consulting and script revisions on Hey Arnold, but I had never been a credited writer before, so they didn’t want to take me away from Hey Arnold, where I was doing well, and put me onto SpongeBob, where I might flop. In the end, I quit the studio to take Hey Arnold out of the equation. I spent two nervous weeks at home before I got the call from Derek Drymon, first to clean up Paul Tibbitt’s roughs for “Reef Blower” [season 1] as freelance work. So I had a foot in the door. Then they brought me into the studio and hid me in an office for a week wrangling the “Pickles” episode [season 1], which needed some TLC. One day Drymon came busting into the room, told me to grab my stuff, dragged me across the hall to another office, introduced Chuck Klein to me as “your director” and threw the premise for “Hall Monitor” at us. He shut the door, and it was like the last minute of The Graduate in there. I had no fucking clue what to do. Everything else I had done before that had a script, voices recorded—all you had to do was draw it, add some gags, and have it make filmic sense. With this, there was next to nothing. Starting a new board was terrifying every single time.
Kaz: Coming from the alternative comics world, I was blown away at how well the storyboard artists could draw. These artists could draw in any style and work really fast. I wasn’t good enough to do clean-up storyboards where the characters, drawings and props had to be perfectly on-model at all times, so I worked for two weeks until the crew pitch, and then I had three weeks off to return to New York City and back to my own work.
O’Hare: When you draw in animation all day every day, you naturally start thinking about design a lot and what makes a good design, but it can go too far. Early on, Steve asked me once about SpongeBob’s ridges, the wavy lines around the circumference of his head, and if that was a good idea to keep them. I told him to lose them, that a cleaner line would be easier to track. Derek was there and he totally disagreed—he thought the design was more fun and weird with them. Now that I look back on it, I can see how a lot of the designs of the show are off, not quite right. They don’t really want to work in animation, and that’s the great part, that’s the challenge in the drawing and the writing, for that matter. It’s the imperfections and work-arounds that stand out. Of course, Derek was right. I was stopped from screwing up SpongeBob on numerous occasions.
Lender: When we were writing the shows, we drew everything on Post-Its because everything got rewritten and reorganized over and over. It never made sense to draw anything directly on the printed 8 1/2 by 14 sheets. When Derek and Steve cut something, those Post-Its or pages would become “outs.” They were torn from the wall and tossed on the floor, and new pages or Post-Its went up to take their place. Rinse. Repeat. At the end of the second week of writing, you needed a shovel to get rid of the outs. Occasionally, we had to cut something really funny because there was no time at that part of the show or it was somehow working against the story or a character’s arc. Those drawings would end up stuck in some empty spot on the wall. Everyone had a collection of favorite cut gags or funny drawings all over the walls and windows of their office; pornographic drawings went on the back of your door, which faced the wall when it was open so visitors to the studio wouldn’t see them. You always said to yourself, “I’ll use it in the next show,” but you never did. I lost the best gag I ever wrote because it was undercutting a scene that was important to the story. The panels for that gag were on my wall from the day it got cut until the day we closed up shop. Over two years, in two offices. I won’t even talk about what the gag was because one day I’m going to use it.
Wiese: When working on writing in the storyboard environment, Steve and Derek were flexible enough to realize that everything was movable; it had to be. It was treated almost like a game for them, and they wouldn’t let it beat them. They weren’t afraid to move things around and quickly redraw entire acts in a mater of a few hours if they had to. As a young cartoonist, that was a hard pill to swallow because I was still feeling like every drawing was precious. I was still overdrawing my thumbnails then. But watching Derek Drymon draw with lightning speed was great, because he wasn’t hung up on doing a precious drawing—he was trying to get the story and funny ideas out there as quickly as possible. And if it didn’t work, it was easy to take it down. It was just a thumbnail. I can recall Aaron Springer making it something of a competition to try to beat Drymon to the punch. It was fun—and also hard—and I learned a lot from those guys.
Kaz: My favorite part of SpongeBob was writing jokes with Steve and Derek. We’d be drawing and writing as fast as possible trying to top each other. Often a corny or dirty joke would lead to something really funny and usable.
Williams: I like smaller stories, for two reasons. One, Steve really did want to keep the stories small. In certain ways, I didn’t really understand how to write small stories until I got to SpongeBob. We would write drafts, and Steve would say, “Smaller, smaller.” So I learned how to write these really tiny stories. The smaller they are, the more character moments you can have. The more time you can spend with their emotions. I think that is probably the most important thing in an outline: understanding what the character’s feeling and why. If the story doesn’t push the character to new places emotionally—and for a cartoon, to extreme places—I’m less interested. I think that’s where you get the greatest acting for the characters and the greatest gags, too. They all come from an emotional base.
I really think it’s tapping into how kids felt, and feel, really exploring it for 11 minutes, not just giving it a moment. I think a lot of cartoons gloss over that—it’s just action, action, action. And it doesn’t mean it can’t be visual. For instance, Paul Tibbitt came up with a gag that I thought was genius: SpongeBob is crying, which…in some ways, we always tried to get him to cry [laughter]. Every episode, we’d say, “How do we get SpongeBob to cry?” which is so different from any other show I’ve worked on, where it’s “our character has to be cool; he can’t cry!” I don’t remember what episode it was, but SpongeBob’s eyes were like a sprinkler, going tch tch tch [“Grandma’s Kisses,” season 2]. There were like seven sprinkler gags that Paul Tibbitt came up with, and they were all based on the fact that SpongeBob is crying and crying and crying. So it was taking the emotion and putting a silly gag on top of it. It totally works. That’s where I think this cartoon shines: when they took the little moments and milked them.
Lender: Chuck [Klein] taught me how to write in the style just by doing it really well in the same room with me. His dopey “I’m Squidward-idward-idward” dance in “Opposite Day” [season 1] was right on the money, SpongeBob-wise. Derek and Steve used to say “Dumb is funny.” Chuck got that right off the bat.
When Chuck left, I was partnered with Bill Reiss. Bill did the bit where Patrick was angry because “I can’t see my forehead” [“Patty Hype,” season 2], which I totally didn’t get it at the time. People constantly quote that back to me now; shows what I know. Bill’s “First National Bank of SpongeBob” bit in “Life of Crime” [season 2] is one of the most charming SpongeBob gags ever. Bill did adorable really well, so he wrote fantastic Sponge and Pat stuff. I was more of a Squidward man. But I know Bill’s sensibilities rubbed off on me, because I remember feeling weird about “I’m Your Biggest Fanatic” and “Krusty Love” [season 2],which were pretty angry shows.
Carl Greenblatt, writer and storyboard artist and director, 1998-2002: Each 11-minute episode was a scramble to get written. We’d get handed the outline on Monday, then go over it with Steve and Derek to make sure we knew what they wanted. Then we’d decide who’d write which half of the episode, and we’d draw as fast as we could to get it written in four days. We were scribbling it all out on Post-It notes, which made making changes easy, but led to an enormous pile of discarded Post-Its when we were done. There wasn’t a lot of time to coordinate. We’d check in with each other to show gags and make sure what we were doing was in sync. Then we’d pin it up on the wall to see how it all flowed. We had a cup filled with thumbtacks that we lovingly referred to as the “Cup o’ Pain” because you had to keep sticking your hand in there to grab tacks and you’d invariably get stuck with them. After Steve and Derek saw it and made their notes, we’d tweak and rewrite sections in a day or so and then re-pitch it. And then we’d tweak again and re-pitch. If we didn’t have it nailed by that second Friday, we’d stay late to get it all hammered out. When we finally pitched it to the crew, we had already pitched the board multiple times, so it was nice to show it to fresh eyes. Most of them couldn’t really see the small drawings, so they had to listen to you describe it and act it out. Pitching sight gags and action bits were the hardest, because they lose a lot of the punch and momentum in the description. The payoff to this stress was four weeks of drawing time, where we could just listen to music as we cleaned up the rough scrawls.
Cohen: After turning in a storyboard, most storyboard teams would collapse in a heap of exhaustion and tendonitis. But the most fun part of all is when you turn around and have a brand-new outline to get started on. Right now! Go go go! First draft due Friday!
Lender: After [working with] Bill, I did a stint with Dan Povenmire, whom I had boarded for on Hey Arnold. A few shows later, when Dan left for Family Guy, Derek pulled me aside and said, “I bet you’re glad that’s over, huh? You guys we always fighting.” And I said, “Are you kidding? We love each other!” Even Derek, who had known us both for years couldn’t tell. I’d show Dan what I was working on, and he would shout, “That’s awful! You’re the worst artist who ever lived!” or I would see his stuff and say, “That gag is a show killer! That’s not even remotely funny. Anyone who likes that is stupid!” and he’d say, “Well, I like it!” and I’d say, “That’s because you’re stupid!” and on and on. We’re both loud, completely tactless and very passionate about our ideas.
Osborne: When a show is picked up, the studio is basically paying for the production, and they charge the network. So these shows staff up, and everybody has an end date. It’s like, “OK, you’re going to start working, and in 40 weeks, you’ll have written this amount of outlines, and after that there won’t be any more work, and you’ll be let go.” It’s kind of exciting at first, because you think, “I’m going to be working for 10 months!” And then by around month nine, it’s kind of depressing.
Around the time I was about to be let go, one of the storyboard artists, Walt Dohrn, left to go to DreamWorks, so [SpongeBob] had an opening. Derek came to me asked if I wanted to try storyboarding. I said, “You’ve got to be kidding! I never went to art school, and I don’t know how to draw.” And he said, “You drew a comic—you know how to draw stick figures. You draw a square for SpongeBob, a triangle for Patrick.” I didn’t think I could do it, but we did one board where I teamed up with Paul Tibbitt. I did some drawings, and Paul would kind of restage them, and he was helping me a lot. They were great about taking chances on people. I think if that first board I did didn’t work, they would have replace me. But it worked—it was funny, and we pitched it, and I got to be a story artist. I worked with Paul Tibbitt, and we got to do 14 or 15 shows. It was great working with Paul, because he’d been on the show since the beginning.
Henderson: Working on the show spoiled me somewhat working in animation. Steve and Derek were more casual and open-minded about ideas and allowed writers to do their own pitches, which wasn’t the norm. Steve actually told me one time that his philosophy as supervisor was to not be like people he worked under. When I worked on other shows after that, it was a tighter ship, and my inability to work on model hindered me. On SpongeBob, drawing the characters loosely enough so that everyone was recognizable was OK with them. Just drawing a rectangle with eyes or a stick figure with four legs was acceptable for them, because somebody else would work from my roughs and do the finished art. My partner did all the clean-up, which most of the writers did to make the work tighter and legible enough for the animators to work from. Working from roughs as I did them wasn’t the way most shows worked. I always thought I didn’t have to be so tight and on-model if they weren’t the finished drawings, but that’s not how most animated shows apparently worked.
O’Hare: Derek would call me out of the blue for freelance, and it was tough to know the context of stuff. I remember they gave me this bad synthesizer song and told me to just do some kind of weird walk to it. So I animated this bizarre SpongeBob walk and turned it in, and that was that. Later on, Derek referred to it as “The Lost Episode” walk, so I just figured that it ended up on the cutting room floor, like a lot of stuff you end up doing in animation. I had no idea that he was referring to the actual name of the show [“The Sponge Who Could Fly,” also known as “The Lost Episode, season 3].
Lender: Caleb Meurer joined the show in second season, I think, as a storyboard cleanup artist. I was doing my “wise old storyboarder” act for him one day, trying to look like I knew what I was doing there, and I said “You know how you’ll know when SpongeBob is over? When they do the episode where it’s SpongeBob’s birthday and nobody remembers, and he feels sorry for himself until everyone jumps out and throws him a surprise birthday party.” And I swear to God, within two weeks that premise was assigned to me. Well, now I was committed…I couldn’t let SpongeBob die after my big speech, so, I picked up the premise, went to Steve’s office and said, “If you do this, SpongeBob will be over,” and told him I wanted another show. I don’t know if anyone had ever refused a premise before, but I’m going to say no one had because it makes a better story. Anyway, I think they tried to pawn it off on the other teams but nobody wanted it, so they threw it out.
Kaz: Steve teamed me up to write storyboards with Paul Tibbitt, and I worked on three episodes with him. He had a Xerox blow up of my Smoking Cat character taped to his door. It was Smoking Cat with a gun in his mouth. Paul barely spoke to me. He just kept his head down and drew. Come lunchtime he’d say, “See you later” and split. I later learned that he was going through some hard times in his personal life. In my book, Paul Tibbitt was the best SpongeBob storyboard writer. Though Paul himself often came off as dark and misanthropic, his SpongeBob was the warmest and silliest of all the cartoonists. He once turned down an episode because SpongeBob got hurt in it. I was more than happy to grab that episode, “I Had an Accident” [season 3], and break SpongeBob’s ass. Paul’s jokes and storytelling just blew me away. His drawings are amazing. I traded him an original Underworld comic strip just for some of his Post-It doodles.
My first episode with Paul was “Nasty Patty” [season 3], where Krabs and SpongeBob think they murdered the health inspector by feeding him a poisoned Krabby Patty. The health inspector never actually ate the patty but slipped and knocked himself out—but he looked dead. Krabs and Sponge decide to burry the poor devil, and the cartoon plays out like a desperate film noir. It was dark and silly stuff and right up my alley. I had to learn pretty quickly the differences between storyboards and comic strips and what kind of jokes and dialogue are appropriate for a Nickelodeon cartoon.
Tibbitt: I always like doing shows with Mr. Krabs. I thought the dynamic between a crusty old man and a fun-loving young sponge was some of the best stuff to work with. But also, the dynamic of Plankton and Mr. Krabs was great, sort of like Tom and Jerry. Plankton, being the only villain, sets up a whole different set of rules when he was involved. Any show that involved Plankton stealing the formula was always fun to do.
Waller: Squidward is hard to draw—he has a very odd-shaped head. Fortunately, his emotions are pretty even, but to get a whole lot of big emoting out of him is a challenge. His nose splits everything in half, so it’s always like, “OK, how am I going to work this and still make it read?” Sandy is a little symmetrical, and there’s the same problem with her. Her suit is a little clunky to work with. It’s not as boingy and cartoony as the rest of the show is. There’s a limit to what you can do with and suit that’s big and fat and big, fat shoes that don’t really bend.
Casey Alexander, storyboard director, 2005-present: Squidward is the character I relate to the most. In an exaggerated way, he’s the most human character. If I knew a human like SpongeBob, I probably would react to him like Squidward does [laughter]. But SpongeBob is great to work with as a cartoonist, because he’s basically a giant face. One of my favorite parts of the show is that we can go off model sometimes. So many shows are slaves to the models, and the animation suffers. If you look at some of Aaron Springer’s shows, there are so many expressions in there that other shows would have toned down, but the drawings are so funny that you have to leave those expressions in.
Greenblatt: “Squidville” [season 2] was one of the harder episodes we wrote because it was the first time we had to make Squidward the main person you cared about. The template for Squidville the town was Valencia, a city north of Los Angeles that’s a planned community, where all the houses and people look the same. The part of the story that was the toughest to get right was the scene where Squidward starts playing with the leaf blower. That transition from uptight guy to playful imp was the heart of the story. We had seen how he was beaten down by monotony, but now we had to see how he became like the SpongeBob of this new town. It was frustrating not to get that sequence right. This was one of those episodes where we got so burned out that we had to have some distance from it before we could like it again. That sometimes happens where you have the baggage of production keeping you from enjoying the final product for a while.
Osborne: I remember having a “eureka” moment with I wrote a joke about something that had happened to me in the past that was heartbreaking, and then years later I was able to be funny and get paid. In “New Student Starfish” [season 3], Patrick goes to boating school with SpongeBob and gets Sponge in trouble, and they end up fighting in the hallway. All the other students are cheering them on, screaming “fight! fight!” until they realize that Sponge and Pat are really lame fighters; they’re not even hitting each other, they’re just blindly manically swatting at the air, and one if the students says, "This is embarrassing.”
Well, that was all based on an actual fight that I was in when I was in the tenth grade. Me and this other kid named Mark Holste were the two worst lacrosse players on the team, and all the other kids made us fight in the locker room, and everyone was into it and screaming for blood until we actually started fighting. We tried to hit each other but kept missing, then we tried to get each other in a headlock, but it looked like we were hugging, then we slipped on some water and both fell down, then the other kids all stopped cheering and went outside to practice.
Drymon: A lot of episodes were inspired from things that had happened in our lives. The episode “Sailor Mouth” [season 2] was based on a time I got in trouble for saying the f-word in front of my mother. The scene where Patrick is running to Mr Krabs to tattle, with SpongeBob chasing him, is pretty much how it happened in real life. The button on the show where Mr Krabs swears worse than the boys was inspired by the fact that my mother has a sailor mouth herself.
O’Hare: “Krab Borg” [season 3] came directly from Kent Osborne watching The Matrix at home alone too much. He was coming in every day for what seemed like a month convinced that robots controlled the world. There were a lot of robot jokes in SpongeBob. I don’t know why. Someone should check into that.
Williams: We started “Band Geeks” [season 2] with the idea of a rival. We always wanted to do a rival show, and I think we tried to do a rival show for SpongeBob, and it wasn’t working. So we came up with the idea of a rival for Squidward, and in some ways it’s Squidward’s story, and SpongeBob and Patrick are just kind of around. I forget who was in band. I was not in band, but I think maybe Doug was in band. I think Steve was in band, too.
About halfway through my time on SpongeBob, I got a dog. There’s an episode of SpongeBob where Gary started choosing Pat over SpongeBob [“Dumped,” season 2]—that definitely came from me having a dog.
I love “The Secret Box” [season 2], where Patrick has a box and the curiosity is driving SpongeBob crazy. It’s a real small story. I’m pretty sure it’s based on another Derek story from his childhood. SpongeBob wants to see what’s in the box, and he pretends he doesn’t care, but that night his curiosity drives him so crazy that he sneaks out and tries to get into the rock and see what’s the box…it’s just a tiny story.
The story in “Rock Bottom” [season 1] is so simple. To me, it’s one of the best episodes. It just stayed with one idea. The episodes that don’t work as well for me are the ones that try to put in too many ideas. “Rock Bottom” was about how he keeps missing the bus and how that makes him feel. It was so small that you could explore gags and opportunities for gags. It was a good outline, and it was great for the board guys. In many ways, my job was to create situations where the board guys could be funny, to create a situation that could be funny, and let them go for the actual, specific jokes.
I loved the Mermaid Man episodes. You could always count on doing one or two a season. Steve was a real student of comedy, and he would talk about things that he was inspired by, and the Mermaid Man idea came from him.
Waller: I left SpongeBob and did more directing and supervising, and when I came back, they started me again in storyboard writing, but as the show was getting picked up again that [fourth] season, they asked if I would do more supervising. They know that I’ve been around animation long enough that if anyone has a question, I’ll generally know how it works. [As creative director] I’m in all the meetings from when the writers first pitch the ideas through when the storyboard writers pitch the board. I kibitz in that, and if anyone runs into trouble, I’m pretty good about getting people out of a story box. If they’ve pinned themselves in and can’t figure out how to get to the end, I’m generally pretty good at coming up with good exit plans that will work. It’s a group effort, and I’m just trying to punch things up and make things as funny as possible.
Alexander: One of the most challenging things is making sure the story is tight. You get an idea, and it’s really funny, but it’s sort of a diversion from the story. From the beginning I wanted to jump into the gags and make them really weird, and I guess I figured since we were getting the story given to us, we didn’t have to concern ourselves with the story so much. But as it went on, I realized that even though you’re getting that outline, you have to really evaluate whether the story structure works or not. That’s what I learned from Paul. If he sees something we can make funnier, he’ll tell us, but he doesn’t really give us notes about jokes. His concern is with the story, and he’s really good at singling out what’s not working. I’m still trying to get to the level Paul is, where I can look at a story and know exactly what to do with it. I’m still trying to get there.
“The recording sessions were always fun”
Once an episode is storyboarded, the voice cast gathers at the Nick studios, which house the recording studio. There, they’re given copies of the storyboards and begin recording under the guidance of voice director Andrea Romano.
Krandal Crews, recording engineer, 1999-2001: I worked on shows like Rugrats and Wild Thornberrys for the Klasky-Csupo studio, and I jumped from Klasky to Nick to work on SpongeBob. When I started at Nickelodeon, I was working on a couple of shows. I had already met Derek at Nickelodeon—my wife was working there. There were a lot of technical things going on with the records, but one thing I always thought was cool about Steve is that he would take creative over technical. If there was something that felt good and sounded good, we would keep it.
Wiese: While I was working in the development stages of the pilot, I remember Steve and Derek holding auditions throughout a few weeks as they were getting closer to finishing their pilot storyboard. Steve had worked with Tom Kenny on Rocko’s Modern Life and was also a big fan of [the HBO sketch comedy program] Mr. Show, of which Tom was a cast member.
Tom Kenny came in to the room, and Steve started pitching the pilot to him. About a quarter of the way into the pitch, Tom would start to say a few of the lines. Steve gave a couple of directions, and I remember Tom never turned away from the drawings; he was up really close to the drawings. This was the coolest moment of being in that room: About halfway through, Tom started doing the voice right after Steve would say a line. It was surreal and cool—SpongeBob had a voice!
Steve and Tom have a really strong connection and were able to shape SpongeBob some more. Before the hour was up I remember them working on what was to become the signature laugh for SpongeBob SquarePants. Moments after Tom had left the lab, everyone in the room felt like something really cool had just happened, and we were there to witness it. That’s when I knew I didn’t want to go back to feature animation, I wanted to work on this show.
Kenny: Steve knew me before SpongeBob, but he didn’t know the other voice cast. He told me he saw aspects of my personality reflected in SpongeBob, and he liked that because it made the character seem more real. He knew we shared a sense of humor and that this guy can sing like SpongeBob, this guy can cry like SpongeBob, this guy can ad-lib as SpongeBob. But he was able to intuit that the other guys who were cast as voices were also like their characters. Bill [Fagerbakke, voice of Patrick] is a big guy. The world is almost too small for him. He’s a force of nature, like Patrick. Rodger [Bumpass] is sort of like Squidward. And Clancy Brown is sort of like Mr. Krabs in that he can be a gruff, intimidating guy when you first meet him. No one is 100 percent like their character, but there’s enough there.
Osborne: I remember thinking about how much Rodger talks and acts like Squidward. That’s why it’s such a good voice—he’s so connected to it. And Bill is this big guy, and he plays Patrick so well. He’s just this big guy, and he lumbers around.
Tibbitt: When I was a storyboard artist, we didn’t go to the records. When we pitched the storyboards, sometimes Tom Kenny would be there to watch us act it out, so he had an idea of what we were going for. I wasn’t involved in the records at all until I took over as supervising producer. For me, stepping into a role that had been filled by Steve was the biggest challenge. The actors are all in the room together, and it’s an intense environment. It’s a different part of the process, one I had no experience with. When I took over, I felt a little like a substitute teacher. It was hard for me to direct the actors and also listen to what they’re doing so I could get a clear idea of which takes were working. Getting that roomful of actors to settle down long enough to do what you need is a challenge. In a way it’s the hardest part of the job, but in a way it’s the easiest, because they’re all so good at what they do. I was just a little overwhelmed by the whole process, so we hired Andrea Romano. She directs a lot of the Warner Bros. cartoons, Superman, things like that. She knows how to talk to actors, something I never really got the hang of.
Williams: I may have been to the records once or twice. Steve and Derek did not encourage that. They ran a very controlled ship in terms of compartmentalization. Writers were writers, board guys were board guys. They couldn’t help everyone talking to each other, but I would say it was very compartmentalized. There wasn’t a ton of people down there [for records].
Jennie Monica Hammond, casting supervisor and production manager, 1999-present: I was a receptionist at Nickelodeon, and when the pilot got picked up for SpongeBob, I interviewed for Steve Hillenburg’s assistant position, and I kind of worked my way up from there. When I got into casting, I worked on shows other than SpongeBob. After the movie, when we started up production again on the SpongeBob series, I moved on as production manager.
Casting for SpongeBob was a lot less difficult than a lot of other shows. On other shows, they do a lot of stunt casting or a lot of auditioning for incidental characters. We have about 10 actors—the six main characters and then four other actors who really do all of the other voices. Dee Bradley Baker does a lot of our incidental voices. Tom does a lot of our incidentals. We don’t cast outside of the main people very often, unless we’re doing celebrity casting. SpongeBob was actually a very good show for me to start off with in casting because it was a real gradual process. When Steve and Derek were casting for Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy, to the best of my knowledge, they already knew that they wanted Ernest Borgnine and Tim Conway. Steve and Derek liked them from McHale’s Navy, and they were the first two on the list when they wanted to cast. They went directly to them, and they both accepted. So that was not a difficult casting.
Kenny: We always record with a full cast, which is getting more unusual. That’s another thing that’s given SpongeBob its special feel. Everybody’s in the same room, doing it old radio-show style. It’s how the stuff we like was recorded. The only time that doesn’t happen is when somebody’s schedule doesn’t permit it. Say if Clancy Brown is doing a movie somewhere, we’ll work around it, but that’s rare.
With celebrities, it depends. Some celebrities want to come in and play with the cast. Like in the movie, Alec Baldwin was on the phone, but he was on the phone with us and recording his lines in real time. Jeffrey Tambor was always in the room with us and was loving it. The people who seem to enjoy that the most are the character actors. They seem to realize that they’re doing the same thing we are—we’re all character actors. With movie stars, sometimes they have to phone it in from their villa in France.
Tim Conway [voice of Barnacle Boy] and Ernest Borgnine [voice of Mermaid Man] come in to do it with us. They just enjoy coming in and acting with a bunch of young guys and farting around and laughing—it’s just fun to do when you’re 93 years old! It’s surprising how often we get to record with the big names. Sometimes they just can’t do it—they’ve got a half-hour during a break from a movie they’re recording in Prague, but when they can come in, they do.
Lender: The recording sessions were always fun when you could get to them. Clancy Brown would bust my balls the second I came through the door because my scripts were always long—and there wasn’t a line that he couldn’t spruce up with a nice four-letter capper; swearing always sounds great in Krabs’ voice. Bill Fagerbakke is the most thoughtful performer I’ve ever seen in the booth—he was always asking questions and really trying to get into the mindset, such as it is, of Patrick. Tom Kenny is just hilarious, the nicest guy ever, and a geek’s geek with wide ranging knowledge of comics, movies and music. He gave me a copy of a Riders in the Sky album once, new in the wrapper—I think he was carrying around extra copies in the trunk of his car just to spread the joy. He has an incredible talent for putting a new twist on that reductive, symbolic cartoon acting. We’re all used to it now, but when the show started, SpongeBob’s performance didn’t sound like anything anyone had heard before.
Kenny: Pretty much any cartoon you audition for, you have a drawing and a personality breakdown that may or may not give you examples. “Think Sgt. Bilko mixed with the Lucky Charms leprechaun,” or whatever. In that sense, auditioning for SpongeBob was pretty typical. What was atypical was the degree of detail about SpongeBob and the other characters’ personalities. It was obvious that as wacky and surreal as their world was, Steve had thought a lot about their world and mapped it out as if it was a real place. It was obvious that Steve had spent years thinking about it. Probably when he worked at a fast-food restaurant with a greedy boss he was thinking about it. When he was a marine biologist he was thinking about it. When he was making abstract, psychedelic animation, which is what he was making before Rocko, he was thinking about it. These people were as real as the people on Cheers.
I guess what was most atypical about SpongeBob was that when Steve heard me do the voice, he said, “That’s it—I don’t want to hear anybody else do the voice. We’ve got SpongeBob.” He said that to Nickelodeon. The network takes so long with casting, they’re not sure of themselves: “Well, let’s just listen to 100 more people.” It’s just a grueling process that takes forever. But one of the advantages of having a strong creator is that the creator can say, “No, I like that—I don’t care about celebrities.” One of the things networks always try to push is getting celebrities. But Steve had no interest in that and let them know that in no uncertain terms.
Lender: I had this dumb gag about Barnacle Boy’s “sulphur vent vision” in “Mermaid Man andand Barnacle Boy II” [season 1], and when Tim Conway got to the line, he said, “What the heck’s a sulphur vent?” Suddenly, Steve had the chance to hold forth on marine biology—his eyes lit up, and he delivered this long-winded explanation of undersea volcanism, and when he was done, there was this huge pause and Ernest Borgnine, who looks scary professionally, growls, “Oh yeah? Prove it.” For a split second everyone’s blood ran cold, then Borgnine broke up and we all laughed.
Another time we were doing the record for “Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy IV” [season 3] and Rodger Bumpass had to do this ungodly long series of throat-ripping shrieks while SpongeBob is zapping Squidward with Mermaid Man’s belt. When it was over, Justin Brinsfield, who was running the recording equipment, started clucking his tongue and shaking his head as he looked at the waveforms on his monitor. So he flips on the intercom and says, “Rodger, I think we had a peak on that first take—can you do that again?” And Rodger takes a tiny breath and says in this deadly monotone, “No.” And there was a pause, and everyone got ready to laugh...and Rodger never broke. Everybody shrank in their chairs and Justin said, “OK. Let’s move on,” and not another word was said about it. Chilling.
The saddest thing that ever happened in a SpongeBob record must have been when Tom Kenny had to dub Charles Nelson Reilly’s signature chortle because Reilly couldn’t do it any more. I don’t even like to think about it.
Kenny: No one else has ever done SpongeBob’s voice, and that’s a point of pride for me. If the character outlives me, somebody else will be doing SpongeBob. But I look at guys like Mel Blanc, who did Bugs and Daffy for the long, long haul, and guys like Casey Kasem, who did Shaggy for the long haul. I love doing the character and am thrilled that he’s been around this long and hope he sticks around a whole lot longer, because I love the situation and I love the people who work on the show.
I’ve had this conversation with the other voiceover actors, and we’re all very proprietary about the characters. SpongeBob really is important to me. I may not be the smartest guy in the room, but I’m smart enough to know I’ve got a great gig, and it’s the gig I’ve wanted ever since I was a kid. There are only a few professions for a guy who was aware of who Winsor McCay and Gertie the Dinosaur were can wind up in. Luckily for me, I blundered into the perfect situation. I’m always aware of how vanilla and unremarkable my real voice is. There are two kinds of voiceover guys. One is given a voice by Providence, like Don LaFontaine. That’s his real voice! Then there’s those of us who have this vanilla, Velveeta, white bread voice that, through a desire not to sound like yourself, you learn how to twist into enough places to sound like a few different folks.
Hammond: For the first three seasons, Steve and Derek sat in on the records, and they directed the actors. Now, there’s a voice director [Andrea Romano] who does that. As casting director, I didn’t have a whole lot to do with the actors, because all the decisions came from Derek and Steve, who knew exactly what they wanted. Unfortunately, I can’t take much credit [laughter]. I did the paperwork getting them in, that stuff, but Steve and Derek has a very specific vision of what they wanted and how they wanted it directed.
Kaz: I loved watching the voice talent record. It’s fun to hear four-letter words in the voices of your favorite, wholesome, children’s cartoon characters.
Kenny: If I had to pick a favorite character on the show, it’s probably Squidward. Rodger Bumpass is brilliant. I love W.C. Fields, that sort of put-upon, world-weary, at-war-with-the-world character. He has an extra dimension where SpongeBob and Patrick’s capacity of play mystifies him, but he’s also jealous of it. When he tries to participate, he just fails utterly because he doesn’t believe in it. In his way, Squidward is a deep character.
And I love watching Rodger as he records. He’s right next to me, and when he goes apoplectic as Squidward, his head turns red, and you’re afraid he’s going to have an embolism. The weird thing is, Rodger Bumpass really does own and ride a recumbent bicycle that he rides around Burbank.
Hammond: I loved Wednesdays. Wednesdays are still when we record. It’s the same record schedule we’ve used since 1999. The cast is like a little family. They work so well together. If I have questions for Paul, I’ll use them as an excuse to go to the records and check in with the ladies and gents. We record in the studio, so it’s right downstairs. And when I pop in now, it’s even more so. They were in tune with each other early on, but now they can finish each other’s sentences. Before you would have to say, “OK, one, two three, all the same time,” and now they’re just all in sync. It’s amazing to watch all the extras they put into it beyond the written scripts. The first time they’ll run through the as-written script, but then the next couple of times they’ll run through and add their little take on it.
Kenny: I don’t have any pre-show rituals. To me, the storyboard is the ritual. The writers have dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s, and that puts you in the right place. Then it becomes a matter of figuring out how to finesse the material and make it as good and as funny as it can, and maybe bring it in some unexpected directions.
The longer you do a show and the longer it’s on, it’s easy to fall into rhythms, and I don’t want to do that with SpongeBob. So I’m always trying to think of outside-the-box reactions and weird things you haven’t heard a million times before in previous episodes. It would be easy to rely on the same bag of tricks for 12 years, but part of the fun for me is thinking outside the square. Or the sponge.
Osborne: Tom Kenny would come to all the pitches, and he was really good about introducing himself to everyone in the crew and remembering who you were. I went to the records because I was the voices of a couple of different characters. In “No Weenies Allowed” [season 3] I was one of the weenies…weenie number 2, I think. And in “The Great Snail Race” [season 3] I play a guy who you think is a sportscaster, but it turns out he just wandered in. Sometimes when you pitched a joke, Steve would say, “Do you want to do the voice for that?” It was just for a line or two. And I still get residuals.
Crews: A lot of the younger people now will record a line, stop, record a line, stop. We would do two, two and a half pages of a run, and we would do it twice. Then Steve and Derek would decide which lines would be picked up. So it was kind of like an old radio show where the actors would jump in and do their thing during the run. I think that’s why it worked so well: There really was a feeling that the actors were all in there collaborating. And a lot of improv. They ad-libbed all the time. They all cracked me up, but some of the stuff Bill would do was just hilarious. For the most part, we would keep recording things until Steve or Derek gave us the look. We learned that when the line reading was over, just let the recording roll for another 10 seconds beyond the line, because you never know what might happen. We got good stuff like that all the time.
Kenny: So much of what I do is throwing stuff against the wall and seeing what sticks. Not only on SpongeBob, but on every show I work on. One of the things you get better at the longer you do it is how to do that judiciously and in a way that complements the aesthetic of each given show. An ad-lib that would work on SpongeBob is obviously not always going to be appropriate for a PBS kids’ show. If you’re doing ad-libs that aren’t appropriate, it’s just a waste of everyone’s time.
That’s one of the cool things about the job that you strive for: to make the ad-libs indistinguishable from the scripted dialogue, because you want it all to sound as if this fictional character is saying it on the spur of the moment. If something jumps out as an ad-lib, that kind of defeats the purpose of ad-libbing. The characters are great and the writers are great, and even without any ad-libbing, the show would be fine, but it’s nice to have this little opportunity to slap a little mustard on it.
Crews: It was a party. Not only were the actors there, but sometimes the wives were there, and sometimes family was invited to be there to watch the process. It was a free-for-all, but it was controlled in a nice way. Steve would always be inside the booth with the actors. Derek was creative director, but he also did all the voice direction, or they would split it. Steve would be with the actors, and we would mike the room so Steve and Derek could hear each other talking back and forth. I could talk to Steve as well, but most of the time I sat next to Derek. One of the great moments was when Ernest Borgnine and Tim Conway came down. They weren’t being directed like regular actors. You just had to be on it to make sure you got every single thing they were doing, and we would put it together later.
Recording a script usually took four hours. Everyone was pretty organized. We would record a show, and we’d do a gang of ADR (audio dialogue replacement). If the guys didn’t like the way some lines were performed, we would redo them. Maybe the line didn’t read well, and we’d have the actor come back in to re-record it.
There was a big record room, and there was a booth on the side. One room would fit about four people, and the other one would fit one person. Tom was usually in there by himself and was completely isolated. We always kept his mic up, and he could yell, he could do whatever he wanted, and it didn’t matter. It wouldn’t record onto the other actors. In the other room, it would be Squidward in front, then Bill, then Carolyn and Clancy. If we had a script of eight or nine people, we would have Carolyn step out when she’s not on the script, and other people would come in to do their lines, then Carolyn would come back in. But we would always try to get the incidentals out of the way to make sure people weren’t waiting around, and then we would blow through the script.
Kenny: Many characters’ voices develop and mutate over time, like Homer Simpson, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck or Popeye or whomever. Very few characters wind up with the voice they start out with, unless it’s an actor doing his own voice. If it’s a voice actor doing a character’s voice, I would say that 99 percent of the time, if you’re lucky enough to have your character last for a couple years, the voice changes. I would venture to guess that a lot of it is unconscious. You kind of find the sweet spot of the personality. Part of it, I think, is that the nature of the scripts and the stories you’re doing have a tendency to change a little bit, too, just like the Simpsons is a different show than it was 20 years ago. I was just watching season 1, and even the feel of the show and the stories is markedly different. Daffy and Bugs were much less nuanced characters in the beginning than they ended up.
I hear the change. I hear it. It’s mostly a question of pitch. I’ve read that the reason is because a new guy is doing the voice, because Tom Kenny has throat cancer, you know how the Web is. SpongeBob went from sort of a low-key character, reacting to things around him to being this super-exuberant character with all of his emotions on 11, and everything’s wild and over the top, and his personality got a little more extreme, and I guess I unconsciously mirrored that. It’s ironic, because the voice I’m doing now is harder on me, so I actually made my job a little more difficult.
It’s unconscious on my part. I don’t wake up and think, “Hmm, I’m going to change SpongeBob’s voice today, just for the hell of it.” It’s like erosion: a very slow process. As time goes on, you need to bring him to different places and more places, the more stories and scripts you do. The character’s psyche gets more defined, too, and you wind up going to many more different places within the character’s realm of experience. It’s such a gradual change that, not only do I not register it consciously, but nobody else on the show registers it, either. Nobody at Nickelodeon is going, “Hey, his voice is getting higher.” Steve Hillenburg isn’t saying, “Hey, his voice is changing pitch a little.” When you contrast season 1 shows with season 7 shows, there’s a bit of a change, but I don’t think it’s that extreme at all.
“Squidward dodged the bullet in that story”
Despite his carefree nature, SpongeBob couldn’t avoid controversy altogether. In 2005, SpongeBob was among the cartoon characters in a video espousing tolerance and understanding, and some conservative groups, most notably James Dobson’s organization, Focus on the Family, labeled the effort homosexual propaganda. Media speculation about SpongeBob’s sexual orientation grew.
Lender: A lot of people suggested that SpongeBob was gay or gay-themed, but it’s not. SpongeBob’s just a kid—sex doesn’t exist for him. It’s completely outside his understanding and doesn’t motivate him in any way. So in “The Fry Cook Games” [season 2], when Pat and Sponge get buff, take off their shirts and wrestle—and strain against each other—it’s because their dumb kid-argument has finally erupted into physical conflict, not because they’re gay. And when they strip down to their underwear, it’s because underwear is just funny, not because they’re gay. And when they walk off into the sunset, mostly naked, hand in hand, it’s because they’re friends forever and love each other like friends should, not because they’re gay. That said, it’s pretty much the gayest episode ever.
Drymon: SpongeBob isn’t gay or straight, he’s innocent. He’s just a kid. When your young son or nephew holds hands with another little boy, do you think he’s gay? If SpongeBob holds hands with Patrick it’s because he’s his best friend and he loves him. I think the whole thing is a part of a larger agenda to stigmatize gay people.
Yasumi: When some conservatives started saying that SpongeBob is gay and is turning the kids gay, we all found it very amusing because after all, SpongeBob lives next door to Squidward, who loves to sing and dance and plays with his flute all day! And they say SpongeBob is gay? Oh, but wait—this is only a cartoon!
Coleman: I had several reactions. One, I laughed, because it’s ridiculous. It also brought more attention to the show. It got people who didn’t know anything about the show talking about it and being aware of it, and it helped the show. But I was frustrated that someone could make an issue out of nothing purely to advance his own agenda and his own name. Here we are talking about Dobson, when I had never even heard of him before prior to that, and I would assume that 90 percent of the people talking about it had never heard of him. He very cleverly hitched his agenda to this very successful TV show, and he allowed it to pull him into the spotlight. So I thought it was aggravating that his tactic actually worked for him.
It made him look foolish to people who were already inclined to think he was foolish, but I think it raised his profile among people who didn’t know who he was. Ultimately, I think it made him look foolish because of the seriousness with which he attacked the situation, but I also blame the media for making such a big deal out of nothing.
The truth is, I don’t recall how many statements he made. He probably made one or two proclamations, and then it was like the media had nothing else to talk about: no wars or political questions or foreign policy. All they wanted to talk about is, “Is SpongeBob gay?” as if Nickelodeon was behind the scenes engineering that show for that reason. It was just a silly proposition. I really think he never had any goal other than exploiting the situation for his own gain.
I was not very concerned because I know Steve so well. I know what he thinks of the character, and I know his sense of humor. I know that he was not intending any kind of subversive undertone to the show. He is not the type of artist or writer who is trying to sneak in inappropriate double entendres or adult humor. And that’s one of the things I admired about him: how pure and innocent that show is, yet how it manages to fresh and irreverent in places while still being heartfelt and sincere. I’ve worked with a lot of very talented writers and artists who try to slide something in and get away with something, and Steve never, ever had that approach. So when all these charges came out that Steve Hillenburg was pushing this agenda, it was just ridiculous.
Kenny: Squidward dodged the bullet in that story. He’s taking his bubble baths and doing his interpretive dance. It’s been fun to ride those waves. The Christian right’s bizarre belief that the comedy of SpongeBob is an attempt by the creators of the show to inculcate preschoolers into a homosexual lifestyle is just wild. If only we could harness this phony anger and fake outrage into health care and education, we could move mountains. But I guess that kind of controversy means you’ve arrived. “OK, SpongeBob is an answer on Jeopardy, and the Christian right is mad at us: I guess we’re part of the cultural fabric.”
“We all loved what we were making”
Put a bunch of animators in a room and hijinks ensue. The SpongeBob crew was no different.
Lender: Everybody was inspired, and everybody got involved. Marcy Dewey and June Bliss from the production side went into the booth to record “The Dutchman’s Treasure!” chorus and other assorted bits. Don, the parking attendant from the studio on Olive Avenue, appeared as his live-action self in an episode. Alan Smart, the timing supervisor, submitted himself to a potential lifetime of ridicule by become the “Ja, buns und thighs” guy in “Life of Crime” [season 2]. We all loved what we were making, and nobody phoned it in. People worked through weekends and late into the night just to be a part of something great and to make it as good as it could be. And you’d be horrified to hear what we all got paid. When you compare our salaries to the amount of money our work generated, we may well be the lowest-paid people in the history of the planet.
Cohen: People often ask about what it was like working on SpongeBob, and it’s hard to give an answer that really captures the moment. Yes, we had an unbelievably great, supportive, creative, friendly and fun environment to work in...but we were so flippin’ busy all the time that we barely had time to notice. It was the best of times and the busiest of times.
Smart: On the first few years of SpongeBob, we all gave each other a lot of good-natured ribbing. Many on the crew did an impersonation of me that was a cross between Squidward and an extreme version of W.C. Fields; I don’t know why. I’m nothing like either of those characters. The person who got the most joy out of doing this imitation of me was Derek Drymon. So for Halloween one year, I came dressed up as Derek Drymon. I wore a dark wig and a big fake nose. His wife let me borrow one of his signature tacky shirts. I even snuck into his office and swiped his crusty slippers, which he was never seen without at work after three in the afternoon. Most people recognized who I was supposed to be, including Drymon.
O’Hare: Working in animation, everyone shares a love of the craft but the paths that bring people together are so different. And you’re so busy getting the job done that you often don’t have the time to fully absorb all the different perspectives you’re working alongside.
Kaz: The strangest thing that ever happened to me on SpongeBob happened on the first day. I’m in the hallway and hear, “Hi, Kaz” behind me, and when I turn around there stands Andrew Overtoom—my old slumlord from when I lived in Jersey City in the ’80s. Since leaving that crumbling tenement, I’d lost track of Overtoom, who in the meantime learned animation timing and moved to L.A., where he became an excellent and very funny director on SpongeBob.
Lender: Everybody was good at something on the show. Paul was good at the little nonsense bits with Pat and Sponge; Sherm did the best Sandy stuff and brought incredible appeal to all of the characters; Derek could just toss out gags endlessly and never got bogged down by rejection. I think my job was to just make a reliable show while the other guys took the weird chances and swung for the stands.
And then there was Aaron Springer, whom we all held in awe. He could just unscrew his head and get to places that the rest of us couldn’t. The sweater made of tears [“Dying for Pie,” season 2]. Pat back from “Survival of the Idiots” [season 2]. I couldn’t make my brain go there. His drawings were totally original, and he drew constantly. I was in his office once, visiting with Sherm, and Aaron was sitting at his desk with his back to us. He was drawing little elfy characters in his Snowflake Village style, with their eyes popping out, or standing in stocks, or being shot with arrows. He was drawing them across five sheets of paper that were randomly strewn across the desk—absent-mindedly drawing right from one sheet onto another without stopping or acknowledging the transition in any way, as though it were one big sheet of paper. If he had run out of paper he would have gone right onto the desk. I don’t think he even knew he was drawing. He did that all day. I’d give a million dollars to have drawn any one of those pictures. I think Sherm used to pick them out of the garbage.
Lender: Tom Yasumi, one of the timers, lived a few blocks from the studio, and he used to invite people over to his house at lunchtime to record music. So a handful of people with next to no musical ability would go write and record a “song” in an hour, and when Christmas rolled around Tom would have a whole CD of this stuff, duped up for everyone on the show. I’ve never made it through one of them—no one could—but there’s usually one good track in there where all the stars and gears somehow came into alignment and music came out, like infinite monkeys writing Shakespeare.
Kaz: Sometimes school children would be given a tour through the SpongeBob offices. I loved the look of disappointment in their eyes as they came face to face with the sad old nerds who actually drew the cartoons that they loved. Some board guys would actually lock their doors as the tours came around. It was better that the kids not step into some offices as they were decorated with Post-It drawings of the SpongeBob characters cavorting in the most disgusting, depraved, sexual scenarios that only the sick minds of jaded cartoonists could vomit up.
Marco Cinello, layout supervisor, The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, 2004: On my personal, crew-signed SpongeBob poster, Alan Smart wrote, “It was a pleasure working with you even if I didn’t understand a word you said!” It made me wonder how many people didn’t understand me as well through my thick Italian accent and didn’t say a word. Then I realize how lucky I was to be able to get away with some of the things I said! So I guess you’d better ask them because I’m pretty sure they have something funny to say about me.
Osborne: At the end of the season, all the storyboard artists would do these hilarious, crude drawings of SpongeBob on Post-It notes just to make everyone else laugh. And these drawings would go on the back of the door, because if the door was open no one would see them. Sam Henderson took all of these Post-Its and made them into a book and gave a copy to everybody. The name of the book was Behind Closed Doors. He didn’t want to put everyone’s names in case it fell into the wrong hands, so he made anagrams of everyone’s name and put them on the back of the book. They were hilarious. The anagram for me was Tek Bonerson. To this day, when I see Tom Kenny, he lights up and says, “Tek!”
“The stuff we like had a lot of music”
Not only did Hillenburg want his show to have a unique look; he also wanted it to sound different from other animated programs.
Drymon: At the time we were starting SpongeBob, a lot of the other shows were using the retro, Hanna-Barbera sound effects, and Steve wanted to stay away from that. He was looking for a whole new set of sounds. Steve had worked with Jeff Hutchins on Rocko’s Modern Life and knew Jeff would be the perfect guy. Jeff is obsessed with recording sounds—he would go out in the middle of a rainy night to record the sound of the rain hitting the street; he recorded his brother snoring. He told me one time he rented a car and took out the insurance. He rigged the car with microphones and drained the oil so he could get the sound of the engine struggling and pinging. I guess he beat the crap out the car and recorded it all. So Steve knew Jeff would kill himself to build a unique sound effects library for SpongeBob.
Hutchins: In a current SpongeBob, there’s a brief scene with a subway in it. When I was on vacation in London eleven years ago—this was before 9/11—I spent a day recording the London Tube. I rode all over recording it from the interior and exterior, riding it, starts, stops, announcements, rail noise, even the escalator from the top and bottom. It’s how I spend at least part of my vacations. These recordings help bring realism to the show. I would also like to thank the city of London for being such a good host. Today, I think people would be much more fearful and less carefree.
I also have recorded airline travel, even to the point of walking out on the runway and through the baggage area at Newark International with a Nagra reel-to-reel tape recorder, mic and headphones. No badge, No uniform, No official anything. It was not OK then, but little penalty if caught. The sounds I have from those days were great, but the ability to capture your environment, in an unaware and unguarded way, may be gone forever. Such are the times.
Carr: Steve wanted to approach the music for the show the same way we had done on Rocko, which had a wonderful original score by composer Pat Erwin and was augmented by music from the APM [Associated Production Music] library, as was done on Ren and Stimpy and as is done currently on SpongeBob, only with a Pacific island flair and a more over-the-top dramatic score to match the over-the-top antics.
The first season’s music came primarily from the APM library since they had a hug,e diverse selection of music, including lots of great old corny Hawaiian music and big, full, dramatic orchestral scores. I started digging into their archives for offbeat, quirky music that would properly paint the musical background that Steve was going for.
To his credit, Steve was also very interested in building a music library for the show using new, unknown talent to build a SpongeBob music library that could be re-edited and reused in all the various episodes. And so was born “The Sponge Divers Orchestra.” [Editor's note: The orchestra’s personnel includes Barry Anthony (composer, trumpet, woodwind and keyboard), Steve Belfer (composer and slide guitar), Michael Bolger (composer accordion, brass and keyboard), Nicolas Carr (composer/music editor, drums and percussion, guitar, bass, keyboards and vocals), Fabian Fernandez (composer and electric guitar), Sage Guyton (composer, ukulele, guitar and vocals), James King (composer, sax, woodwinds and slide whistle), Steve Marston (composer, bass guitar and keyboard), Eban Shletter (composer and woodwinds), Gary Stockdale (composer, keyboard and guitar), Jeremy Wakefield (composer, slack key and slide guitar, bass and vocals), and Ron Wasserman (composer and keyboard).]
Over the years, the show has also had numerous famous and not-so-famous guest musical talent, such as Tiny Tim, Dee Snyder, Junior Brown, Davey Jones, Pantera, Ween, the Meltones, the Blue Hawaiians, the Surfdusters, and many others whom I hope will forgive me for forgetting them.
Hutchins: Steve always encouraged original sounds. [For “The Great Snail Race,” season 3] I pulled several spark plug wires off my Camaro and drove it up a big hill by the Hollywood sign. It sputtered and sounded terrible—that was the idea, anyway. [The sound] played for Gary racing around going out of control. Pistons finally burst through his shell, and he crashed. The motor sound needed to be continuous, but building until a burst point. This was not a track available off CD. So I asked a friend to help drive a second car and record with a shotgun mic. That took most of a morning, and editing and working with the sounds took into the afternoon. It goes by in 10 or 15 seconds during the episode.
There’s a section of “Band Geeks” [season 2] where a marching band is playing while coming down the street. They were supposed to be playing terribly. Both music and FX were asked to give a version of what this band sounded like. Nick Carr, the music editor, found a piece of marching band music that was a band playing poorly. However, they were still professional musicians intentionally playing poorly; you could still discern the tune. I thought, “Well, let’s take this one step further. What if they couldn’t even play there instruments, let alone a tune?” I brought my portable DAT recorder to a musical instrument retail store and met two guys who worked on the loading dock. They packaged and shipped the instruments. I got these two guys to squeak, blast and squawk on most of the instruments they sold. Upon getting back into the studio with these wonderful, but ear wilting, sound effects, I built a marching band, one instrument at a time. They weren’t in any key and had no rhythm whatsoever. When you heard it, you just had to say “Ouch!” So come the big review for the show,. I played my version of the marching band for Steve. He thought that it was too far over the edge and ended up going with the music editor’s piece. Again, a lot of effort for something that lasts only 15 seconds on screen. In this case, the whole thing never made it on the air. Oh, well.
Greenblatt: When we were storyboarding “Band Geeks,” we knew that we had to have a big number at the end where everyone rallies together for Squidward. The story outline called for making it a really great marching band sequence, and it usually helps to have the music ahead of time to board to, so we started searching around. Luckily, Nickelodeon happened to have a large library of royalty-free music we were allowed to use. We sat there listening to marching tune after marching tune and they all sort of sound the same. And the more we heard, it didn’t seem terribly funny that the finale was just them playing marching band music well. But nestled in among the traditional marching band tunes was this over-the-top, ’80s-style rock song called “Sweet Victory.” It was different than what we were looking for, but it was so amazing that we knew we had to use it. So we boarded the sequence to the music, and it felt like such a better ending than any song we could have written on our own. We even got to give it an ’80s jump freeze-frame ending. I think my favorite part was Aaron Springer’s drawings of Patrick on the electric drums. That and SpongeBob saying, “It’s the thrill of one more kill.”
Hutchins: I usually use the sound of lake waves instead of ocean waves…Lake Ontario to be specific. I grew up in western New York. Our summer cottage was near Lyndonville, N.Y., just off Route 63, on an unpaved fire lane. The jet traffic is not too heavy, and there are a variety of areas to record. The main one is a small, rocky beach. However, there are areas of bluffs and stone walls that sound great as well. You’ll hear these sounds in Goo Lagoon or lapping against that small island surrounded by water that’s the above-water place marker for Bikini Bottom. The waves are closer together, and your ear figures out what it is many times faster than a large ocean wave. I may be able to get in three laps of lake waves before your ear picks up that the roaring sound is a large wave.
Most of the boats they drive around in are the sound of scooters or mopeds. Steve thought they were funnier-sounding than real boats. It also eliminates the need for the sound of surface water.
As when we first started, and still do today, each footstep is recorded by a Foley crew; this helps tell which character it is and what surface they’re stepping on. Some of the props used to create the characters’ sounds have changed a bit over the years. It’s always a sad day when one is broken, lost, springs a leak or is flat-out worn out. Mr Krabs has mostly been some spare rib bones, and Squidward has been a hot water bottle. SpongeBob’s funny cartoon steps are a high balloon squeak and a low balloon creak, with a different one for left and right. Squidward’s sput steps are just me making a funny vocal sound. Patrick is actually recorded with the Foley talent wearing a loafer (shoe). [Going] barefoot makes it tough to have much presence, so we decided that Patrick would be performed with shoes on.
The ukulele sounds in the show are recordings I made of Steve in his office, with his own ukulele. I use them for pointing, pokes and reactions.
In a few shows, a piano lid slams on someone. Part of that sound is a real and very expensive Steinway grand piano having the lid slammed down so hard tghat I think I loosen it up a bit. I needed that specific sound, and next thing I knew, I found my way onto a scoring stage in the middle of the night. Seeing as there was no one to ask and no one to say, “No, are you crazy?” I did the unthinkable: I raised that lid up as far as it would go, with a brick on the sustain petal, and let it go. As if once wasn’t enough, I did it again. This time, the lid felt a little wobbly, so I decided that was enough for one night. I think the piano was a little worse for wear. But aahhh, that lid-slam sounds great!
Some sounds and creatures have strange twists to them. Take clams, for example: In the show, scallops chirp like birds, usually bluebirds. Giant clams in the show are a blend of Brahma bull and grizzly bear. Clams have at times been the sound of a rooster. Yet Gary and his shell really have a clam-shell sound in the show, but he meows like a cat. Go figure.
Carr: Currently, the music for the show is for the most part created by The Sponge Divers Orchestra along with some original songs commissioned by our fearless captain, Paul Tibbitt. I still use the APM library to give the show its Ren and Stimpy/Rocko over-the-top style. I’ve also formed a new cartoon production music library, Animation Music Inc. It’s a production music library with lots of great, fresh music composed and performed by musicians specializing in music for animation and a small roster of really great composers who can create a custom score if necessary, and I use music from it on SpongeBob.
Kenny: Steve likes music, and I like music, and the stuff we like had a lot of music in it. Steve’s a Laurel and Hardy freak, and their stuff had a lot of music in it. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis did a lot of singing. I’ve also written some of the songs. When we wrote “The Best Day Ever,” my writing partner, Andy Paley, and I wanted to write a song that really encapsulated SpongeBob’s world view. We tried to think of who has written songs like that, and we thought of John Sebastian and the Lovin’ Spoonful, and Brian Wilson before he went nuts. There’s a lot of music on the show, but we thought it would be fun to have a song that comes from the character’s personality, like a musical extension of his personality.
Carr: When it comes to music, this show has a wide variety of styles to draw from. From Viking gladiators to plush tiki lounge to heavy metal to classical to spaghetti Western—it’s all in there. Listening to the beginnings of the show, the musical palette has grown considerably as the stories have evolved. [The music has gone] from mostly sea shanties and Hawaiian music à la Roy Smeck meets Pee-Wee Herman—still the main style for the show—in the early episodes, but it now includes film noir, West Side Story to Mancini, Jerry Goldsmith and Spielberg. There’s Broadway-type scores and plain old goofy, loopy, weird stuff. I try to push the envelope on this show without getting in the way of the story, and I try to push it up and way over the top when I can get away with it, all the time keeping it as funny and ridiculous as possible.
Working on this show has been one of the best and hardest creative experiences in my career up to now, and I am truly grateful to have been given the opportunity to be a part of it and to work alongside so many talented people, putting together something really special that touches so many people around the world. I couldn’t hope to find a better group of people anywhere. It’s been a great ride so far and I plan on riding this wave all the way up to the end of the beach.
Kenny: I guess they have a pretty vast library of Gary sounds by now, and they could pick and choose them, but we do Gary live every show, unlike Mel Blanc, who did the Road Runner’s “beep beep” once and only once. I’m very into recycling, but Gary’s voice is not Ed Begley-fied. Gary’s reactions have a slight, teeny variation. He’s mean sometimes, he’s fierce sometimes, he’s despondent sometimes. The funny thing is, Gary’s emotions are nearly as extreme as SpongeBob’s; he’s kind of bipolar as well.
Drymon: The end credits music was performed and composed by Steve Belfer, a friend of Hillenburg’s from CalArts. Hillenburg had told him about wanting to use ukulele music, and Belfer wrote the song on his own. It’s so long ago it’s hard to be sure, but I remember Hillenburg having the Belfer music early on, maybe before the pilot [“Help Wanted”]. It was the same thing with the Tiny Tim song, “Living in the Sunlight, Loving in the Moonlight,” that we used for the pilot. Someone had sent Steve a tape with a bunch of music, and Tiny Tim was on it. While we were developing the show outside Nickelodeon, Steve played it for me as an example of the spirit he was looking for.
When it came time to write the pilot, we had the idea to use the song in the third act. When we pitched the pilot storyboard to the execs, we played the Tiny Tim song, and I think it really helped sell it. We eventually got the rights to use the song for the pilot, but all we had was the crummy copy on Steve’s old tape; we couldn’t get ahold of the master for some reason. Luckily, one of the women who worked at Nick at the time knew somebody somewhere who had access to something, and one day she brought in a copy of it on CD. We were totally lucky that she had the contact, otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to use it. The sad part was Tiny Tim died right around the time we were writing the pilot, so he never knew we used his song. Much later on, when they were releasing the complete first season on DVD, “Help Wanted” had to be left off because Nickelodeon didn’t want to pay the Tiny Tim estate for the DVD rights.
“Lucky thing that Hasselhoff eventually said yes!”
Hillenburg put SpongeBob SquarePants on hiatus following season 3 to begin working on The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, which was released on Nov. 19, 2004. The movie also marked the end of Hillenburg’s direct involvement with the character.
Pittenger: Many people were astonished when SpongeBob ended after the third season. “It’s at the height of its popularity!” “But it’s so funny!” “Aren’t you guys getting great ratings?” “Has Steve gone crazy?” Steve had several reasons for ending it when he did, but even though I don’t know any specifics, the movie undoubtedly factored into his decision.
After we shipped the last show [of season 3] in February 2002, I was, for the first time in nearly five years, out of work. It was a really dry period for the industry, and jobs weren’t as plentiful as they’d been during the previous decade. The boom was definitely over. I was unemployed for seven months before I got work on a 3D Jimmy Neutron “ride film” that Universal was making for its theme park in Florida. I was brought in to design—yes—the SpongeBob section of the ride. Immediately after that was finished, I transitioned over to the SpongeBob movie.
Williams: The show ended. I didn’t leave the show—the show ran its course. No one knew if they were going to do any more [episodes]. It seemed like it was over at that time. Steve and Derek were leaving to do a movie for two years, and it was like, “SpongeBob is over—go get a job” [laughter]. And Derek, especially, has always encouraged me: “You did that—do other things.” And I’ve done a number of other shows since then. But I do feel that people remember those shows from the first three seasons more than some of the others.
Henderson: Steve said he was going to end the show after the third season so the show wouldn’t jump the shark. The show was such a cash cow for the station that it couldn’t afford to. Steve was able to leave and still gets a cut of the merchandising, so I’m happy for him.
Wiese: [Wiese left SpongeBob to work on Samurai Jack and Danny Phantom for a year but returned to do storyboards and character layout for the movie.] I always wanted to be a feature animator, and the movie felt like I was on the character animation end. It was a blast—it felt like coming home. We saw how stressed Steve and Derek were, so we wanted to work hard for them. We all felt like we had some ownership of SpongeBob, like we were a family that helped raise him—we loved the little guy! Those cartoonists are my buddies, and I wanted to put in all the extra effort I could for them. Seeing SpongeBob on the big screen…wow, that was huge. It was quite a journey.
Tibbitt: We were making a movie by unconventional means: We weren’t going to have a script. We were going to do it the same way we’d been doing the show. So we just started boarding. We had a basic idea, and we’d sit in a room—Steve and Derek Drymon and Tim Hill, Kent Osborne, Aaron Springer and myself—and we hammered out the story the way we would have in the old days, just pitching jokes, concentrating on a scene at a time and making sure everything was working. It was a different way of working, but not radically different for us. Obviously, going from writing stories that last 11 minutes to writing one that lasted 75 minutes was a challenge, but basically it was the same job for us.
Carr: As for the movie, once again, thanks to Steve Hillenburg I was able to be involved, as Paramount originally had its own ideas as to who would do the music. I ended up editing the temp music very much the same way I do the show. I also recommended that Steve consider using one of the bomposers from the APM/Sonoton library, Gerhard Narholz, to do the Film score. I use a lot of his dramatic scores from that library in the TV show, and I thought he would be perfect as his music naturally lent it self well to the dramatic portions of the show. Steve prevailed with Paramount: Gerhard got the gig, and I did the temp music, some of which ended up in the final movie.
Pittenger: My memory is far from perfect, but it seems like whenever the characters go up to the surface, we usually do live-action [backgrounds] or at least photographs. I’m not usually involved with that stuff. When they go to islands—as in “SpongeBob and the Big One,” the one with Johnny Depp—they are still technically underwater. We just made the underwater “ocean” out of mud. That being said, when they went to those islands in that episode, we wanted the backgrounds to look unlike what we would normally see in Bikini Bottom, so I designed the plant life to be more like what you’d find on dry land, like coconut trees and stuff.
Peanut Worm Productions [the arm of Paramount Pictures that produced the movie] set up shop on the entire twelfth floor of a building in Glendale. They put me in a corner office, which I would eventually share with two other artists, that had floor-to-ceiling windows. I had such a great view—with my new binoculars I could see the roof of my house two miles away. By the time I arrived on the scene, the writing was in full swing, and so was the ping-pong playing. I don’t want to imply that no one was working, but the stress level is a lot higher when making a feature film, so there’s got to be a release valve.
Cohen: I’ve never seen Steve happier than just after he finished roughing out the storyboards for the ending of the SpongeBob movie. He had been wrestling with the ending for quite a while, and finally he was ready to pitch his ideas to some of the other board artists. This was the sequence where Sponge and Pat miss the bus back to Bikini Bottom and they’re stranded on the surface world, thinking they’ll never get back in time to save Mr. Krabs.
In the movie, David Hasselhoff shows up in his classic red Baywatch shorts and grabs SpongeBob and Patrick, stuffs them in between his gigantic prosthetic pectoral muscles and swims off toward Bikini Bottom at a speedboat’s pace. Anyway, up until this point Steve had kept the whole idea a secret, and he wanted to unveil the animatic version of this sequence to get our first impression. Everybody was floored by the absolute weirdness and goofiness of the sequence, and Steve was positively giddy. Realizing that this ending was 100 percent dependent upon casting David Hasselhoff, first question to Steve was, “So, do we have Hasselhoff?” With a huge smile he says, “No!” I ask him, “Have we talked to Hasselhoff?” Steve, even giddier, says, “No!” Lucky thing that Hasselhoff eventually said yes!
Alexander: After graduating from CalArts, I started working at an independent animation studio. We were having a lot of fun, but we were having a hard time getting paid. An acquaintance of mine from CalArts [Andy Tauke] was the animatic director on the SpongeBob movie, and he called my roommate and asked if he wanted to assist him on the animatics for the movie. My roommate said, “No way, I don’t want to do that.” I really needed the money, so I offered to take the job. I didn’t really think anything of it.
I was in a room all day with Paul Tibbitt, Aaron Springer, Steve Hillenburg, Derek Drymon and Kent Osborne, and I got to see how they wrote the show. That job ended, but when they started up the new season [season 4], I ran into Paul and asked him if I could take the test for the storyboard cleanup job. He said there weren’t any positions open for storyboard cleanup, but if I wanted to take the test for storyboard director, I could do that [laughter]. When I sat down to take the test, I realized I had an insight into how they do it.
Cinello: The experience on the movie went so well and smoothly, both from a professional and human point of view, and such situations are hard to come by when under pressure to deliver a movie, especially a lower-budget one as SpongeBob. In my opinion it was all due to the overall lack of egos, and I credit that to Steve Hillenburg’s capacity to treat everybody as collaborators rather then employees, and to his overall vision of what his movie should be like. [It was the] best experience I’ve had in the animation business, and I believe it would be hard to duplicate.
I was brought in to help those guys expand the horizons and visualize what you can do with a bigger canvas like a movie screen. I believe everybody still remembers me for constantly saying, “We have to go wider...open the shot up.” It became a routine joke after a few months. But clearly, the first couple of weeks were a bit nerve-racking for me because not only I was the outsider on a crew that had known each other for a long time, but I also didn’t want to look like the bad guy who comes in and criticizes or points out things that don’t work.
In fact, I still remember with terror our first sequence meeting, There must have been 15 people in the room, and after I was introduced, [producer] Aaron Parry said something like, “And now Marco is going to tell us what’s wrong with these boards and how we can improve them!” At that point, I had no choice but to go for it and be honest and clear about what could be done. At the end I was a mess, but Derek Drymon was very kind in coming over to me and expressing his support for what I was hired to do, even if it required saying some critical things. After that, it was great fun to work in such a collaborative manner.
Pittenger: I was the sole BG designer for the movie, so I had a lot to do. I had to think much more cinematically than I did on the TV series, and I also had to design for a wider screen. I really started thinking more in terms of the Golden Section—1.618:1—because the aspect ratio of the screen was pretty close to it: 1.85:1. But what I really had to do was create. I did my rough designs on Post-It notes, because it’s nearly impossible to get too tight and overly detailed on a piece of paper that’s only three inches tall. So I ended up doing hundreds of little drawings for all these new locations. Only a fraction of the work I did there ever showed up on the screen, in marked contrast to what I do on the series. For one thing, on the series, we don’t have the luxury of time. I have, on average, seven and a half days to devote to each episode, so I can’t brainstorm and develop ideas to any great degree.
I worked on the movie for almost one and a half years, though there were still times when they needed a design right now!, and I had to crank something out in a hurry. There was never a dull moment. But, if a dull moment threatened to show its face, I headed over to the ping-pong table. When I started working there, I had never even held a ping-pong paddle. When I left, I was the ping-pong tournament champion.
Cinello: I believe the only real challenge came just at the very beginning of the production. I was hired to supervise the workbook—kind of a thumbnail version of the final layout—but I soon realize that it would have been difficult to translate the kind of control over the [background] design, and especially the composition of the shots that those guys wanted, into small thumbnails. The risk of being lost in translation over in Korea would be pretty high, and so would the re-dos and the costs. I proposed to the production to ditch the workbook and go straight into final layout, the traditional way: all drawn and with the final animation poses by the L.A. crew, and approved by Derek Drymon and Nick Jennings. Only then would we send it to Rough Draft for the animation. Luckily, [producers] Gina Shay and Aaron Parry agreed, and after a couple of weeks to readjust the production schedule, we were able to deliver the movie in time and with very little re-dos.
Drymon: I went into the movie knowing it would be the last work I did for SpongeBob. I started the show with Steve, and throughout the series we had a very close relationship. Work intermingled with our personal lives—we lived near each other, we were both married with young children, and our families spent a lot of time together. We ate dinner together, took vacations together, spent holidays together…it was ridiculous, but we enjoyed each other’s company.
I don’t know if I would have stayed on if he decided to do more. I was creatively burnt out on SpongeBob when we finished the movie, but I never considered doing it without him. SpongeBob was a lot of different things to different people, but for me it was about working with a friend of mine. I wasn’t interested in doing it alone.
Tibbitt: I was wrapping up on the movie, and the network wanted to do more shows. Steve said, “No, I want to finish the movie,” and he wasn’t even sure if he wanted to go back to the show. He felt he’d done what he set out to accomplish, and he wanted to take a step back and try something different. I had sort of been in training to take over the job. After we finished writing the last season, they kept me around because they had a couple of things in mind. Originally, they were going to do a couple of specials after the third season. I was shadowing Steve and Derek, and I got to go to a lot of the records and editing sessions. So I’d been training to do that job, not knowing it would be for SpongeBob. They just wanted to keep me around in case something popped up. But when we were working on the movie, they came in one day and said, “We want to make more episodes, but Steve doesn’t want to.” And I said, “I’ll do it.” They came back the next day and said, “Are you serious?” I said, “Sure.” It was just being in the right place at the right time.
Coleman: There was some uncertainty because Steve was the leader and the creative soul of the show. So when the show went on hiatus so he and the crew could focus on the movie, although Nickelodeon would have loved to continue producing the series and have new episodes earlier, everyone at the network respected the fact that this show came from that creator and this crew, and we’re not just cranking out widgets here, where we can put a different crew on and punch the clock. If you want that magical show, you need to get it from that magical crew. So we understood that we needed to take a break and focus on the movie.
It was a long hiatus. I believe Nickelodeon programming stretched out the programming for the third season as long as they could to cover the delay, but there certainly was a delay and a built-up demand. When we were discussing moving forward, Paul Tibbitt was a fantastic person to step up and carry the torch. He’d been with SpongeBob from the beginning. Looking back, it wasn’t a difficult decision. The audience was screaming for more SpongeBob, and we felt confident that with Paul at the helm and many of the returning crew members we could deliver the show and remain true to the creative vision for it and still have Steve’s blessing.
We tried to get as much of Steve’s involvement as possible. It was crucial that Steve remained as executive producer and blessed the transition to Paul. And Paul was very focused on living up to the high standards of the show. He never took it for granted, never felt entitled about having that position. He took very seriously carrying the show forward, not only because it was a ratings hit for the network. I think much more so, as an artist, he wanted to maintain the integrity of the show. He’s very talented and very serious about his work. He’s also serious about being true to the original vision of SpongeBob. He’s not someone who came in at a later season and said, “OK, now that I’m behind the wheel, I’m going to put my stamp on it.” [After Steve’s departure] I played the same role I had played while Steve was there. Paul had been there for years, and when I talk about the notes I gave Steve, that really means to Steve and the board artists and the writers and the whole creative staff. Everyone would be in those meetings together.
“OK, this is bigger than I thought!”
The leap from hit show to cultural fixture is never predictable. SpongeBob’s sudden ubiquity caught the crew off guard, but it was a pleasant surprise for all concerned.
Drymon: I was back east the summer after we finished the third season, just before we were going to start the [theatrical] feature. I was vacationing at Seaside Heights, down the New Jersey shore, where I had gone a hundred times as a kid. I was walking on the boardwalk with my daughter and hanging from every game booth were tons of SpongeBob dolls. That’s when I realized how big it had gotten. It was an odd feeling because Steve and I had finished all the television episodes we were ever going to do, and it seemed like the rest of the world had just noticed.
Lender: Chuck Jones used to say about the old Warner Bros. shorts that “we didn’t make them for kids, and we didn’t make them for adults—we made them for ourselves.” And that’s what we were doing on SpongeBob. You never want to do anything that’s hostile to kids, but the second you start talking down to them, or just shoveling filler at them, they can smell the dishonesty. Shows like that don’t have a long life. There may be series after series of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but nobody is running to watch the old ones, they’re just riding each wave of hype as it comes into shore.
Crews: I’m not sure anyone there thought it would become what it became. There were other shows there that the network was pushing, like CatDog and a couple of other shows. Hey Arnold was popular. It didn’t seem like the network was really on board to push it at first, all the way down to our premiere party, compared to other premiere parties, which were huge. And then the shows just kind of did its thing. I think a lot of adults immediately liked it.
O’Hare: I remember Nick exec Eric Coleman was pitching the show to New York to be franchised, meaning that the ratings were consistently strong enough to support a large campaign. Everyone pretty much felt that SpongeBob was going to the level that 999 times out of a thousand a show never gets to. It was really nice to watch that unfold from a distance. It just never happens. Never. I mean never. Does not happen, period. Do you people understand?
Cohen: Some time during season three or so, I was at the Department of Motor Vehicles getting my license renewed. I saw a woman’s cubicle that was completely plastered with pictures of SpongeBob. When an adult woman working in a state government bureaucracy felt comfortable with decorating her cube with SpongeBob, then I knew our show had transcended into something completely huge.
Tibbitt: I had taken a vacation to Europe. When I was there the first time, SpongeBob was nowhere. No one I met or talked to had ever heard of it. But when I wrapped up on the movie in 2003, I knew we had toys, and the ratings were good. But I was walking back to my hotel in Europe one night, and I was drinking a bottle of water. I went to throw it away, and right there on top of the trash can was a SpongeBob juice box. I thought, “Wow, I’m thousands of miles away from home, it’s the middle of the night, and I’m on some random street, and here’s a SpongeBob juice box.” That was when I realized it was everywhere.
Coleman: Realizing how huge SpongeBob had gotten was a slow progression because I was so immersed in every forward step. I was delighted when we made a pilot; I was delighted when the show premiered. I remember the first time I saw a bit of SpongeBob merchandise. It was a little plush hanging from someone’s rear-view mirror, and I remember feeling so happy because I knew someone had bought that with their own money because they liked the show, not because they were telling me a at a party how great SpongeBob is because they’re being polite. It was an instance where I knew someone really liked it. I remember getting excited when I saw the first T-shirts in stores. I was excited the first time I saw a bootleg piñata, because that was an indication that there was a greater demand for stuff. It would start to get referenced on the news and on other shows and in political cartoons. It was really exciting when it began moving beyond the confines of kids’ television.
Crews: I went to a reunion at my old job, and a couple of composers I work with had kids who were insanely into SpongeBob, but they were into it too. In the music world, you meet a lot of people, and if you tell them, “I work at Nickelodeon,” that doesn’t mean jack shit. But if you tell them you work on SpongeBob, the world stops. I started to feel like, “Wow, this show’s really cooking.” And these were guys I would never think were watching the show. SpongeBob was like an Adult Swim show before there was an Adult Swim. It was edgy, but not so edgy that Standards gets involved. It was perfect! Let me tell you, as a parent, I wanted to kill myself twice after I had to sit through Barney. By the time they got into SpongeBob, I thought, “Oh my God, I could sit here and watch it all day.” I almost think that SpongeBob was never for kids. It just happened to be for kids, you know what I mean?
When I was getting to know Steve, we had a great conversation about the Aquaman cartoon from Filmation. I think a lot of the influences of cartoons from the’60s and early ’70s are an ingredient in SpongeBob. SpongeBob is kind of a nerd, but he’s also kind of cool, so you like him for both reasons. And adults really dig it. I think part of the key to SpongeBob’s popularity is that every family has people who are like one of the characters. I know I’ve got an uncle who’s like Mr. Krabs. In fact, there are several Mr. Krabs in my family.
Coleman: It makes me smile when I see a lot of revisionist history about people who knew this was going to be the biggest thing ever right from the beginning, because that’s simply not true. What we were focused on is that Steve was an incredibly talented artist, and he delivered a sensibility and a show that just made us laugh. So from the very, very first designs, this character of SpongeBob—who loves his job so much that he is lying bed all night thinking about going to work the next day, the expression on his face and his posture—Steve could convey these in very simple line drawings. It really painted a picture of a very funny character. As we developed the SpongeBob pilot, he was able to put him in motion. The SpongeBob pilot is one of the best pilots I’ve seen because it conveys a strong personality for the character and a strong sensibility for the show overall. It’s interesting to remember that the show was not a huge hit immediately. It was just really good and interesting and went along in its own way for a while before people noticed it.
Henderson: When I started my tenure, nobody had heard of the show. People just thought that I had a gig in animation and when it was done, I’d come back to New York. A year later, it was as big as Sesame Street, where you couldn’t leave the house without seeing with a SpongeBob backpack. Friends and family asked if I could get them Happy Meal toys or T-shirts or things like that, as if working in a studio gave me unlimited access to merchandising.
I lived down South for a while a few years later, and my girlfriend at the time would use the fact that I worked on the show to get us into shows and things of that nature. She was disappointed that we would go to comics conventions and I didn’t get a table to sell sketches of the characters. To this day, it still impresses people. Not necessarily people who can get me any work, thought it gives me credibility trying to rent an apartment. I went to a high school reunion last year and got an award for “most successful” even though I was looking through couch cushions for change.
Yasumi: Even though SpongeBob is marketed as a children’s show, I don’t think any of us here make the show for the “kids.” What I mean is, we don’t dumb it down—this of course doesn’t necessarily mean the show isn’t dumb! We make what make us adults laugh. I think this is why the show has such a broad appeal. Not to compare us to the great Warner Bros. cartoons, but they too were not making them for the “kids.” They also had very little interference from the studio, because the studio heads had no clue about what was going on there. No such luck with SpongeBob, however. If we are left alone like the Warner Bros. animators from the constraints of being on a “children’s network,” we could be making even funnier shows. What you see on the air are, without exception, compromised visions. What makes me laugh the hardest is the stuff that never makes it on the air.
Alexander: I try not to think of how popular the show is. If I sat down to do boards and thought that millions of people are going to see this, I wouldn’t be able to get anything done. When we’re doing these episodes, it’s like we’re doing an extended comic strip. I don’t think of them beyond the boards, really. It really tripped me out when David Bowie did a voice in one of the episodes I worked on [“Atlantis Squarepantis,” season 5]. The idea of him reading dialogue I wrote is bizarre.
Hutchins: I was asked to sound design a SpongeBob video game. They really wanted to capture the right sound. A representative of the [game] company gave me a detailed list of their sound needs. I spent weeks building assets and mixing things together to really give them what they wanted. So finally, review time arrives. We made it into the review a good ways, and we came to the Kelp Forest background. Up he stood and loudly said, “Hey! That’s not the Kelp Forest!” I promised to pull up my backgrounds from the episode that it occurred in and mix them exactly as delivered, and he said he was “good with that.” I thought I was about the only nut ball who would notice such a thing. I was proven wrong.
Greenblatt: When you work on a show and you’re in these offices and cubicles all day, it’s easy to forget that other people end up seeing the work you do. I remember the first time we saw any SpongeBob merchandise was at Hot Topic, and it was a little sweatband. We were so excited to think that there was finally something with his face on it. We had no idea what was coming. It wasn’t until we had wrapped up production on the first three seasons that the show really started to become a megahit. Walking into Universal Studios and seeing him plastered all over the theme park is kind of surreal. It still feels like this weird little thing we did in our offices to make each other laugh.
Hammond: I remember when products first started coming out, and people would come back with something saying, “Oh my God, look what I found!” I think Hot Topic was the only place that carried anything with SpongeBob at first. It was very limited. And then I remember walking into a Target, and there was a whole display! Now we say that you could survive off SpongeBob products alone: the food, the bedding, the books, the clothes, the videogames. Some stuff came through the office the other day, and there was SpongeBob hummus and pita bread.
I remember reading about how Oprah and Julia Roberts talk about how a lot of relatives started coming out of the woodwork once they got famous. Now everybody I know is asking to come into the office to meet SpongeBob or get this or get that. OK, this is bigger than I thought!
Kenny: I love going to the studio and looking at the world through SpongeBob’s eyes for four hours. It’s really fun. And that’s really what it entails: just going in and being him, thinking like him, ad-libbing like him and singing like him. All your mental energy goes into being him and not being you. We’re totally concentrating on SpongeBob and Patrick and Bikini Bottom and making the jokes work in the context of that reality, and it is a reality, as crazy as it is, this weird other dimension where fire works under water, snails meow, and anchovies show up for the bus. The best cartoons are like that: The Simpsons’ Springfield feels like a real place, and even as crazy as Tex Avery’s world is, it feels like you could take a left-hand turn and see Screwy Squirrel.
It’s funny—a lot of on-camera actors ended up resenting the live-action characters they were portraying. Sean Connery wound up hating James Bond, [William] Shatner ended up hating Kirk, Leonard Nimoy wound up hating Spock, Bob Denver ended up hating Gilligan. I don’t feel that way about SpongeBob. Part of it is that he doesn’t look like me, so there’s never that feeling that this character is strangling me or holding me back, but it also has to with the fact that SpongeBob takes up one or two days of my week, and the other four or five days, I’m being any number of other characters that all have their own vibe and are nothing like SpongeBob. So I feel that this idea that Steve Hillenburg had and hatched with Derek Drymon and Nick Jennings and the other guys has been entrusted to me, and the other actors feel that way about their characters.
Bill Fagerbakke and I were ringing the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange last week, and I was thinking, “What’s wrong with this picture?” [laughter] We’re here now, and in 1997 I was in Steve Hillenburg’s tiny rented house. By the way, the market closed up 200 points that day. I had no idea SpongeBob would be this hugely popular, but I wanted to do it. Even if was never going to be more than a seven-minute short, I just really, really, really wanted to be that little yellow square.
This article first appeared in Hogan's Alley #17 (cover above right). To order a copy of the issue, just click the Paypal button. It is also available for the Kindle for only 99 cents (click here to see on Amazon.com).