The Interview: 'SpongeBob' Creator Stephen Hillenburg
Tom Kenny, who voices the character of "SpongeBob SquarePants," says the show's creator, STEVE HILLENBURG, is a prime lesson in the importance of following your passions. Hillenburg was working as a marine biologist, but he returned to school to study experimental animation after he realized he didn't want to leave art behind. Now, Hillenburg, is surely the most famous marine cartoonist on land or sea.
As his smash Nickelodeon show celebrates its 10th anniversary, Comic Riffs caught up with Hillenburg to discuss innocence (SpongeBob), avarice (Mr. Krabs) and the glories of making a cartoon that's part Laurel and Hardy, part Jacques Cousteau.
MICHAEL CAVNA: So 10 years in, how's it feel to hit that milestone?
STEPHEN HILLENBURG: Ten years. I never imagined working on the show to this date and this long. It never was possible to conceive that. ... I really figured we might get a season and a cult following, and that might be it.
MC: When did you become convinced that the show was beyond short-term cult status?
SH: By the third season, it felt like [we had] a solid fan base, and the show was kind of clicking on all levels.
MC: With an underwater sponge for a star, perhaps no show is more acutely aware of -- creatively -- not wanting to "jump the shark." It that something you've been conscious of?
SH: Well, there was concern when we did the movie [in 2004] that the show had peaked. There was concerns among executives at Nickelodeon.
MC: Rewatching the pilot, "Help Wanted," so much of the style and polish are already in place. But do you see flaws and rough edges when you watch it now?
SH: The first season, it definitely looks a little loose and the characters are drawn without the same construction. By the third season, everyone had new kinds of tricks -- three-quarter-views of the characters, and nuances in cross-pollination between different storyboards. Everybody influenced each other as the show evolved and became more complicated and nuanced.
MC: You studied marine biology before going to CalArts for animation, of course. Had you always been interested in animation, though?
SH: Hugely. I definitely was interested and became real interested [when I started going] to animation festivals. I went to the Tournee festival and the Spike & Mike festival in the '80s right before. I was working at Ocean Institute -- I was a marine biologist, but I was trying to figure out [how to get to] art school. It was at those festivals ... that I thought: This is what i want to do. When I was at one of those shows, I saw several films ... made at Cal Arts ... and thought: That's were should I go.
In the '70s, as a kid, someone took me to a Tournee of Animation festival at the L.A. County Museum of Art. There, the foreign films -- I was knocked out by that, especially [Dutch animator] Paul Driessen. His ["The Killing of An Egg"]. ... That was the film that I thought was uniquely strange and that lodged itself in my head early on. I was interested in drawing my whole life. I dunno -- it didn't help me till later, when I rediscovered Driessen.
MC: So you become a marine biologist. How do you move into studying experimental animation at CalArts and considering it as a career?
SH: Honestly, I hadn't looked into the logistics and income. I just knew that's what I wanted to do. I thought, at least, I could get a job cleaning up somebody's drawings. ... Then, there was "The Simpsons" and "Ren & Stimpy" -- everyone was excited about the rebirth of the form. My timing was perfect. I didn't look at the career aspect -- it was what I was interested in doing. I was planning on being a starving artist. ... [I spent] several thousand dollars to make a film and [realized] I may not make it back -- I had loans out. Fortunately, Joe Murray [creator of Nickelodeon's "Rocko's Modern Life"] saw my film at Ottawa and a couple of my shorts and he took a huge chance. I didn't know how to storyboard -- I still don't. It was like perfect timing.
MC: So during "Rocko's," you meet ["SpongeBob" voice] Tom Kenny. Did you already know how you wanted your "SpongeBob" voices to sound?
SH: When I went in to cast the show, I got all these horrible impersonators of what I wanted. I knew I wanted Tom from the beginning, from working with him. [Beyond him] I had in mind kind of crude imitations of what I wanted.
MC: And how you did decide on the lengths of your episodes -- two episodes per half-hour?
SH: I always pushed back on doing long-form. I imagined SpongeBob as being simple and I wanted to concentrate on character humor. I never really wanted to deliberately try to write a half-hour show. I wrote the shows to where they felt right. I planned to have Patchy the Host stuff fill up the extra time. The show wasn't compromised by length -- I don't think SpongeBob works in long-form.
MC: That said, how did you approach doing the  feature-length film?
SH: We had the idea of SpongeBob going to the surface and entering our world -- that would be the hook. We thought it would be challenging. It was pretty brutal -- writing and producing that. In hindsight, it was a bloodbath. I feel good we did a decent job and got good reaction. I still honestly believe the best shows are the simplest short shows, for what SpongeBob is. He's kind of a different animal. We keep it simple and keep it about the characters -- it helps for production. We don't have a million backgrounds and a million incidental characters. We concentrate on what works well for television [so] the episode's funny.
MC: Were any particular influences at work when developing this comic approach?
SH: I think "SpongeBob" is born out of my love of Laurel and Hardy shorts. You've got that kind of idiot-buddy situation -- that was a huge influence. SpongeBob was inspired by that kind of character: the Innocent -- a la Stan Laurel. In deliberately trying to do a buddy show, there had been "Ren and Stimpy," which was so amazing. So I thought: "Where do we go after that?" It goes back to that kind of [innocent] character. ... The rule, I guess you could say: To keep the show about SpongeBob in the first four seasons; it had to involve SpongeBob and the theme of the show about his innocence. Even when he learns his first curse word [in "Sailor Mouth"], Krabs takes advantage of him and Squidward is trying to make him look bad. It always went back to that. ...
SpongeBob is a complete innocent -- not an idiot. SpongeBob never fully realizes how stupid Patrick is. They're whipping themselves up into situations -- that's always where the humor comes from. The rule is: Follow the innocence and avoid topical [humor].
MC: And what it's like in the writing room -- can you speak to how the ideas arise and get hashed out?
SH: Well, one thing: We mine possible storylines from individual writers' childhoods. A good example: In "Sailor Mouth," SpongeBob learns a curse word -- that's a classic thing all kids go through. We talk a lot about our experiences from childhood. Some of them end up in the story. Another example: "Patrick's Secret Box" -- SpongeBob wants to know what's up with the box. With that one, [staffer] Derek Drymon had a secret box [as a kid] and started tellling us about it. We wanted to make fun of him AND use it.
Another thing: In writing meeting, we use random word associations -- we pass 'em out and have to make a story out of it. It might be all crap except we might have 10 things that are kind of interesting. That kind of jogs things and ... helps get you off the same brain-track.
MC: As for "SpongeBob's" animation, it -- like so many shows -- is done overseas, I understand?
SH: We work with a studio -- Rough Draft. It's a husband-and-wife team in Korea. They produce "The Simpsons," "Dexter's" host of shows, Mike Judge. They hav a good crew there that knows how to draw stretch animation. Basically, we storyboard everything for the show ... it becomes a miniature layout ... and the Korean crew will use that. The rule is: Follow the board! ... Without having to know the English language, you can follow these sheets and produce the animation.
MC: Speaking of overseas, have you traveled much to foreign countries where "SpongeBob" is especially popular?
SH: That's a great perk. I've gone to Japan and Germany and it's a great opportunity. People are excited to have you. Next year, maybe Brazil.
MC: So many American comedies don't travel well overseas. What is it about "SpongeBob's" humor that is so universal?
SH: I think it's because of its simplicity. Everybody recognizes the childlike character. ... It's univerally understood -- it's physical comedy and you can understand.
MC: So in recent years, you stopping running the day-to-day and became exec-producer. Since this was your baby, your brainchild, what was that transition like?
SH: It reached a point where I felt I'd contributed a lot and said what I wanted to say. At that point. the show needed new blood and so I selected Paul [Tibbitt] to produce. I totally trusted him. I always enjoyed the way he captured the SpongeBob character's sense of humor. And as a writer, you have to move on -- I'm developing new projects.
MC: You've had an A-list of guest voices. Do you approach them -- they you? How has that worked?
SH: In the beginning, it was hard to get people. Most of the people that allow themselves to be on have kids who like the show. Often, they're kids are fans. They're doing it because they want to please the family.
MC: Who have been some of the best guest voices?
SH: From the very beginning, the first real guest stars were [Ernest] Borgnine and [Tim] Conway. Those guys were so fantastic. When you have a guest artist, you don't know how it's going to turn out. But Borgnine is the most animated guy on the planet. Those two are still doing Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy.
MC: So President Obama has offered that he's the show's First Fan. How did you react to that bit of news?
SH: Yeah, "SpongeBob SquarePants" is his favorite TV cartoon. That leaves me kind of speechless. There have been some administrations I wouldn't have been happy to hear that from.
MC: So would you consider Obama for a guest-voice gig if his people called?
SH: I can say, President Obama's call certainly would get through. But we only would cast someone if they came right out of the story. But I think he's got on a lot on his plate right now for a voice career.
MC: So, speaking as a marine biologist: Can SpongeBob save our oceans?
SH: People have to get together and [realize] how important our oceans are. One thing I'm hoping [will] come out of the documentary is the realization that the show came from something that's precious and that we need to appreciate it. It takes care of us. ... Hopefully, if you watch "SpongeBob," you see plankton and crabs and starfish -- and you'll [want to] take care of our oceans.
LATER TODAY: 'Riffs picks its favorite "SpongeBob" episodes.
| July 14, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories: Interviews With Cartoonists, The Animation
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