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Published: Friday, 7/17/2009

Happy birthday, SpongeBob

BY MIKE KELLY
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE

Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?

In the unlikely event that you don't know, we'll give you a few hints:

•People magazine listed him as one of its Most Intriguing People of 2001.

•His sex appeal rating came in just slightly below that of Justin Timberlake in a US Weekly magazine poll in 2003.

•He debuted in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in 2004, attended the White House Easter Egg Roll in April of this year, and has been featured in two "Got Milk?" ads.

Of course, we're talking about that indomitable invertebrate, SpongeBob SquarePants, a happy little cartoon character who over the past decade has parlayed a minor star turn in a Saturday morning kids' show into his current status as a genuine pop culture icon, possibly the most beloved and popular cartoon character in the world. (Take that, Homer Simpson!)

The first SpongeBob SquarePants episode premiered July 17, 1999, on Nickelodeon, and to commemorate the long-running show's 10th anniversary, the cable network will broadcast a 50-hour weekend marathon beginning at 8 tonight called the "Ultimate SpongeBob SpongeBash Weekend."

The celebration, which runs through Sunday night, will include 11 new SpongeBob episodes, the Top 10 classic episodes as chosen by viewers, another Top 10 of celebrities' favorite episodes, and an airing of the 2004 theatrical feature The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie (8 p.m. Saturday).

Since its launch in 1999, SpongeBob SquarePants has grown its viewership to more than 70 million a month. It's been the No. 1 animated program for children ages 2-11 for seven straight years, and is broadcast in 25 languages. The show is the most widely distributed property in parent company MTV Networks' history.

The show's creator, Stephen Hillenburg, is a former marine biologist who developed cartoon characters as teaching tools at a marine science center in California. From there he moved on to a Nickelodeon animated show called Rocko's Modern Life before launching SpongeBob.

The concept of the show is pretty simple. SpongeBob and his friends in the undersea town of Bikini Bottom - they include best buddy Patrick, a dim-witted starfish; Sandy, a squirrel in a diving helmet; Squidward, a grumpy squid, and Mr. Krabs, SpongeBob's tightwad boss at the Krusty Krab restaurant - go careening through life, trying to dodge potholes along the way. Despite the inevitable setbacks, SpongeBob's sunny disposition and relentlessly upbeat outlook on life always seem to win out.

The show's appeal, and its viewership, go far beyond the kiddie set. While the little ones love its silliness, parents - and plenty of adults without kids, too - can appreciate its more subtle humor. Barack Obama told TV Guide that SpongeBob is his favorite TV character of all time, and dozens of celebrities have popped in over the years to lend their voices to characters on the show. Among them: Whoopi Goldberg, Johnny Depp, Gene Shalit, Tiny Tim, David Bowie, Tina Fey, Tim Conway, Ernest Borgnine, and LeBron James.

Currently in the works is an hour-long TV movie scheduled for this fall featuring celebrity guests Will Ferrell, Ricky Gervais, Craig Ferguson, and Robin Williams.

Hillenburg says that SpongeBob's cross-generational appeal is not hard to explain. "Often [the humor] is not about how clever [the characters] are, it's just how silly they are," he says. "Most kids and adults can identify with that, and they don't have to be privy to the latest pop culture references, either."

The program has been credited by educators and others with helping teach young viewers the value of a positive outlook. Hillenburg concedes that's a nice thought, but adds that it's never been his primary goal. "We were, and still are, just trying to be funny," he says.

As far as the series' enduring success, its creator admits he's as surprised by it as anybody.

"I thought we would be canceled after the first season," Hillenburg says.



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