Stab Magazine | Revealed: SpongeBob SquarePants Creator Was A Surfer All Along
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Revealed: SpongeBob SquarePants Creator Was A Surfer All Along

Friends ridiculed cartoon idea around a Baja campfire.

style // Dec 6, 2018
Words by Stab
Reading Time: 2 minutes

Stephen Hillenburg was a marine biology teacher and cartoonist who created Spongebob Squarepants, an animated series that made over $13 billion in merchandising alone for its network, Nickelodeon.

Stephen died last Monday, aged 57, from Lou Gehrig’s disease (also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), a god-forsaken neurodegenerative disease that atrophies the muscles and doesn’t stop until it’s done. A sad, remarkable tale for sure, but why do we care? Well, Stephen Hillenburg was a lifelong surfer. That’s where the connection to the ocean that spawned the fifth longest running animated TV show in history came from. And amazingly, this little known fact was only acknowledged in the media yesterday.

This revelation of sorts comes from the New Yorker, via an excerpt from a Surfer’s Journal piece that won’t be out until the new year. It’s baffling how onto it the New Yorker editorial team is (they don’t miss shit!) and the sheer volume and quality of what they produce across all mediums is second to none. My only guess as to how they got their hands on the excerpt from “The Million Dollar Sketchbook”, an essay by Biddle Duke that will appear in the feb/march issue of SJ, is that William Finnegan (Longtime New Yorker staff writer and author of Pulitzer-winning Barbarian Days) has contact at the Journal who thought the information was worthy of rushing out before the print deadline, although that remains unconfirmed.

Who lives in a pineapple under the sea…

Biddle Duke was a friend of Stephen Hillenburg’s, and the piece describes the fateful 1994 trip to Mexico when Hillenburg first revealed his idea for a cartoon sponge who lives in a tidepool to his friends. “His hours not surfing were spent sketching in a little pad he carried with him—shells, sea life, shipwrecks in the distance,” writes Biddle. “One night at our campsite, Steve produced a sketchbook of ideas for a cartoon he wanted to create. We passed it around, a collection of dozens of drawings of a square kitchen sponge in shorts and a funny hat, and a variety of other sea-creature caricatures. He explained that his cartoon would take place entirely in a single tidepool, a tiny undersea universe.” Biddle and friends weren’t sold, remarking that, “sponges are sedentary, they don’t have features…” Hillenburg wasn’t impressed. “Exactly, that’s the gag. A sponge,” he said. “He won’t just be a sponge. He’s going to be a common kitchen sponge.” 

The success of the sponge from Bikini Bottom would have been unfathomable to the group sitting ’round the campfire 24 years ago, but you’d hardly describe Hillenburg as having the last laugh. Stephen stopped surfing in 2017 due to the deterioration of his muscles and a “decline” in his lung function. Biddle recalls visiting Hillenburg in Malibu last July, and despite being upset by his friend’s ill health and inability to get in the water, pointing out the irony of everything that had been written about him in the media.

“I joked that all the press had missed the best part of the ‘SpongeBob’ story” he writes. “His connection to the ocean as a surfer and how he’d shared his earliest sketches with pals on a surf trip to Baja. ‘You’ll have to tell that story one day,’ he replied.'” And that’s the beautiful thing about the surfing fraternity. Just when you think it’s all litreage and carbon strips, some guy with a sketchbook comes along and reminds you of what’s possible.

Read the original excerpt here, and keep an eye out for the first Surfer’s Journal of next year (they do it rather well too).

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