Village Under the Sea: The Timeline of Cultural Influence that Created SpongeBob SquarePants

Prelude: Originally for this story, I was planning on writing a five-story-long epic that detailed this narrative journey about a lost seaman attempting to rediscover the aesthetic history of SpongeBob SquarePants and where exactly it came from and what it means. But as two years passed on and my energy steadily drained from me, I realized that being too ambitious was a bad thing. So, I instead decided to scale back my ambitions to produce content that people will not only like to consume but something that doesn’t drain my spirits to create. It’s best recommended that you read this in segmented parts to really let it soak in.

I Cannot Reveal the Words of the Golden Eel

I love the album The Mollusk by Ween. Many others love it too, but they only tend to remember one song off of it, that being the single Ocean Man, famously remembered as being the song that played along to the credits of some famous movie from a long-standing cartoon series. The song itself describes a mystical experience in which the narrator is guided by a figure known only as the ‘Ocean Man.’ The narrator constantly asks questions of him, making seemingly meaningless metaphors about how man’s condition relates to the ocean. If you ask the band about it themselves, they’ll probably scoff at you due to how much its demanded to be played at recorded venues like Live in Chicago or Live at Stubb’s.

Album cover for The Mollusk.

The Life Aquatic with Stephen Zissou

For a second, think about how the ‘Western’ world, or perhaps more broadly, the Old World, has historically perceived the ocean. What was the primary purpose of the ocean to most great civilizations’ operation? Well, starting all the way from Thales and his wacky theories of the Earth floating on water and water itself being the element and first principle of all existing things, Heraclitus later expanded on his ideas with the principle of panta rhei, describing that the cosmos is engaged in a permanent water cycle: “earth becomes water, water becomes earth, and in this permanent transition and change, everything is in fact one.” Thales’ and Heraclitus’ world reflected that of the sea: One that never stands still and is indestructible and giving away to the idea that no same instance is the same. In this way, the ocean was literally dynamic land that always remade itself. [3]

Miranda on the island in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, by John William Waterhouse, 1916
American poster for World Without Sun (1964).

The Killing of a Caviar Dish

On August 21, 1961 in Lawton, Oklahoma, a child by the name of Stephen McDannell Hillenburg was born to a father who was a draftsman and designer in the aerospace industry and a mother who taught visually impaired students. Fortunately, Stephen had no recollection of his life in Oklahoma, mostly remembering growing up in Anaheim, California. At a young age, Stephen developed a great interest in art that started off with his first drawing of an orange slice (yes, really), and it’s speculated that this creative skill and artistry came from his mother’s side: She was “really, really gifted and great painter” according to Stephen several decades later. But more on that side of him later. [8]

Nickelodeon Animation Studio on Olive Ave. in Burbank, CA.

Rocko was about what children were actually going through, in essence: emerging into a very scary world, because the world is fucking scary.”

— Martin Olson

Snapping back to Hillenburg’s role in the project, it was early on that the aforementioned Martin Olson encouraged him to create a television series based on the work he’d produced on Intertidal Zone. But this proposition scared him after years of witnessing Murray lose himself over the problems and demands of his own show. The ideas stewing in Hillenburg’s mind were still just seeds that were originally planted when he saw series such as Mighty Mouse and Pee-wee’s Playhouse, and he’d admit later on that it takes years for that spark of inspiration to result in something meaningful. For Hillenburg, a show like Olson suggested would require synthesizing his two interests of animation and marine biology, something that was especially enticing to him at the time considering the residual anxiety left over from suddenly changing careers. What finally convinced him to create this series was a drive to the beach on the Santa Monica Freeway one day. I think something called him.

A panel of the Intertidal Zone featuring Bob the Sponge.

Who Lives in a Pineapple Under the U.S. Empire?

The history that follows is self-evident and not really worth explaining: Hillenburg’s pitch gets accepted, he develops it as Nickelodeon’s first original Saturday-morning cartoon (in a betrayal of their market share), and it becomes an immediate hit. It reaches such levels of popularity that it becomes a worldwide phenomenon and, by the end of 2001, it boasted the highest ratings of any children’s series on television. Later on, Hillenburg avoided jumping the shark on directing the show after the third season and that movie (if you recall), and he remained away from it until new movie productions called his name. For critical response, let’s see how some old reviews received Hillenburg’s direction:

Engraving of wahine surfing after a drawing by Charles de Varigny (1829)

Ku mai! Ku mai! Ka nalu nui mai Kahiki mai,
Alo po ʻi pu! Ku mai ka pohuehue,
Hu! Kai koʻo loa.

“Arise, arise you great surfs from Kahiki,
The powerful, curling waves, arise with the pohuehue,
Well up, long raging surf”

Despite this, SpongeBob was not designed with this intimacy to indigeneity in mind while designing its aesthetic. Rather, it was concerned with capturing how Americans, particularly Californians, developed it as a lifestyle. The main issue with surfing, when it came to a propertarian culture that was newly introduced to it, was that the available area to find good surf breaks quickly became a coveted commodity. Logically, if you were a regular surfer who lived about a desirable surf break, you’d want to guard it jealously from others, right? The expression “locals only” was introduced as a commonality in beach towns, especially those that attracted seasonal vacationers, as a stark reminder of the fact that America in the ’60s was still defined by segregation. It was so bad that loose gangs formed with the intention of protecting their turf from outsiders, with the term ‘Surf Nazi’ being created to denote strict territorialism and hostility towards outsiders.

A screenshot from the episode Ripped Pants, which consisted of a musical segment that shamelessly hearkened back to the Beach Boys.
Pacifica at the Golden Gate International Exposition

If Tiki culture began as a restaurant theme made to look like a Hollywood set, alcoholic drinks dressed up in elaborate barware are its cornerstones and main actors. [16]

Of course, this concept can’t be brought up without mentioning just how much of an impact it had on the linchpin of animation at the time: Walt Disney. The American culture of labor had undergone a massive shift in the suburban explosion that led to the “9 to 5” work schedule that’s so mundane to us. With something as exotic as tiki culture that placed emphasis on a slower pace of living and a more carefree lifestyle, it proved the antithesis to the rapid spirit of the growing post-war economy. Hollywood was churning out productions like Blue Hawaii and Paradise Hawaiian Style and TV shows like Hawaiian Eye and Gilligan’s Island. The craze finally caught onto Disney with the opening of the Tahitian Terrance in 1961, and years later the famous Enchanted Tiki Room would open, featuring the world’s first audio-animatronics.

Concept art for Disney’s defunct Polynesian resort.
The “Baker” explosion, part of Operation Crossroads.

The Marine Biologist who Never Was (Conclusion)

Concept art for the Krusty Krab.

“The sea, the great unifier, is man’s only hope. Now, as never before, the old phrase has a literal meaning: We are all in the same boat.”

— Jacques Cousteau

Further Material

Square Roots: The Story of Spongebob Squarepants: A 2009 documentary that released on VH1 that focuses on how the show immersed itself into popular culture, giving an overview of its origins and showcasing just how broad its appeal actually is.

Works Cited

[1] https://www.stereogum.com/1951136/weens-the-mollusk-turns-20-an-oral-history-by-mickey-melchiondo/interviews/

Comic artist, metamodern philosopher, anti-schooling advocate, Cajun, color fanatic, & freelance astrologist. I write about your virtues and their aesthetics.