Creator of ‘Spongebob,’ Stephen Hillenburg, passes at 57

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Jay Greer, Contributing Writer

Stephen Hillenburg, the mind behind the Nickelodeon animated series “Spongebob Squarepants,” passed away on Nov. 26. He had been battling ALS since his diagnosis back in March of 2017.

Hillenburg was born on Aug. 21, 1961, at the US Army base Fort Sill in Lawton, Oklahoma where his father Kelly was stationed. His mother, Nancy Hillenburg, was a teacher. Stephen attended high school in Anaheim, California. Throughout his childhood and adolescence, he maintained a passion for art and ocean life. He attended Humboldt State University where he earned his bachelor’s degree in marine science and a minor in art. After working at a few different jobs, he quit in 1987 to become a full-time animator.

“SpongeBob” may be the most recognizable achievement of Hillenburg’s animation career. Though, it is not his only successful project. In addition to the short films he made at CalArts, he was also a writer and director on the Nickelodeon animated show “Rocco’s Modern Life.” After working on the show, which aired in the mid-90s, he turned to several of his colleagues to help him create, pitch and broadcast “Spongebob Squarepants.”

“I wanted to create a small town underwater where the characters were more like us than the fish,” Hillenburg said to author Cherie Abbey in her book, “Biography Today: Profiles of People of Interest to Young Reader.” “They have fire, they take walks, they drive. They have pets and holidays.” He envisioned something that was “fantastic and believable.”

The show, taking place in the underwater town of Bikini Bottom, follows the spongy yellow protagonist SpongeBob Squarepants. He lives in a pineapple with his pet snail, Gary, and works at the fast food restaurant The Krusty Krab, as its fry cook. There are several other aquatic main characters: the dimwitted starfish Patrick Star, the pessimistic squid, Squidward Tentacles and the frugal owner of the Krusty Krab, Eugene Krabs. As Hillenburg stated, he wanted us to fall in love with the underwater city of Bikini Bottom because they were like us. Little things like boats instead of cars, and a boating exam to get a drivers license, makes the show relatable to everyday life.

“SpongeBob SquarePants” premiered on July 17, 1999, and before 2001 was over, it had the highest rating of any children’s show. Before long, the show’s total viewership reached over 61 million people, 20 million of which were adults. SpongeBob still airs new episodes, making it the longest running series on Nickelodeon with 19 years under its belt.

After many requests to adapt Hillenburg’s creation to the big screen, with Mark Osborne directing, “The SpongeBob Squarepants Movie” was released in 2004. It was a huge hit, earning over $9 million opening day and grossing a total of around $140 million. His second movie, “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out Of Water” grossed around $325 million. The show even spurred a musical on Broadway.

“I couldn’t picture my childhood without SpongeBob,” said Chuck Zarka, a William Paterson Alumni. “I felt like one of the characters watching it. Bikini Bottom was different than real life, and that always made me smile.”

While we are all in mourning, let us take comfort in that Stephen Hillenburg will never be forgotten, because he will always be with his viewers in Bikini Bottom.