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Ethan Bauer: 20 years later, the enduring impact of 'SpongeBob SquarePants'

"The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie." (2004) Paramount Pictures
"SpongeBob SquarePants" has been running on Nickelodeon since 1999. YouTube
Tom Kenny (SpongeBob), Bill Fagerbakke (Patrick Star), Rodger Bumpass (Squidward), Clancy Brown (Mr. Krabs), Carolyn Lawrence (Sandy Cheeks) and Mr. Lawrence (Plankton) will all play human versions of their animated characters during the 20th anniversary SpongeBob special. Twitter
"SpongeBob SquarePants," the Broadway musical for everyone. Joan Marcus
"SpongeBob SquarePants," the Broadway musical for everyone. Joan Marcus
"SpongeBob SquarePants," the Broadway musical for everyone. Joan Marcus
"SpongeBob SquarePants," the Broadway musical for everyone. Joan Marcus
"SpongeBob SquarePants," right, is a quirky but loveable kitchen sponge who resides in a fully furnished, two-bedroom pineapple in the underwater town of Bikini Bottom, shown with his cranky neighbor, Squidward, in a frame from Nickelodeon's animated series "SpongeBob SquarePants." Nickelodeon
Kiddy Land toy store salesclerk Juri Igarashi arranges SpongeBob goods in Tokyo Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2006. In Japan, more than 30 companies are churning out goods plastered with SpongeBob's likeness, including everything from a 200 yen ($1.70) eraser to a 37,000 yen ($300) stuffed doll the size of a giant cushion. Kiddy Land manager Masanori Yamamoto says SpongeBob appeals to young people who want to be ahead of the crowd. KOJI SASAHARA, AP
They were once the best of friends and now ... they are the worst of enemies. The two biggest business adversaries in Bikini Bottom have a secret hidden past, and viewers finally learned how one-time best buddies, Plankton and Mr. Krabs, became lifelong enemies in "Friend or Foe?," a special "SpongeBob SquarePants" episode. Nickelodeon

My first-grade teacher and I share a similar taste in television, and in my 23 years, I've experienced no greater blessing.

The era was the early 2000s, and my parents had just told me my favorite show, "SpongeBob SquarePants," was annoying, dumb and not worth watching. Channeling a confidence that would rival SpongeBob's own, I confronted my teacher, Mrs. Pizarro, the next day at school. "Do you watch 'SpongeBob?'" I asked. And as clearly as I can see my keyboard now, I can see her saying, "Of course I do."

In that moment, I felt so proud and inspired, so seen and heard. And I told myself that when I reached 50 or however-many-years old, I wanted to be like Mrs. Pizarro — an adult who could still appreciate colors, emotion, nonsense and their combined charm.

Nickelodeon is marking the show's 20th anniversary Friday with an hourlong special called "SpongeBob's Big Birthday Blowout" at 5 p.m. MT. No disrespect to an episode I haven't seen, but an equally fitting tribute could've been re-airing "The Camping Episode." Among other memorable moments (remember, sea bears are only attracted by cubed cheese; sliced is fine), the episode is most known for "The Campfire Song."

SpongeBob opens with a slow-paced, charming tune. Patrick bobs his head and Squidward frowns on. By the end, SpongeBob speeds up the tempo so much that Patrick can't keep up and the song is transformed into a rock number, concluding with SpongeBob bursting through a bass drum screaming, "Oh yeah!"

Nickelodeon

"SpongeBob SquarePants," right, is a quirky but loveable kitchen sponge who resides in a fully furnished, two-bedroom pineapple in the underwater town of Bikini Bottom, shown with his cranky neighbor, Squidward, in a frame from Nickelodeon's animated series "SpongeBob SquarePants."

"Now wasn't that relaxing?" SpongeBob asks his companions.

"No!" Squidward yells.

The scene showed the three main characters at their most enthusiastic, most sluggish and most cynical, respectively. And it provided me and many other kids my age with something to talk about and even sing at school. It's like we'd all been to the same campout — like we'd all sang together, avoiding molten marshmallows to the face, without leaving our homes. SpongeBob's campfire and the accompanying song are, for the show's many fans, more influential or memorable than any real campfire. It provided a shared experience, offering one small example of the show's power.

"Spongebob's" influence on me next appeared in college. As a freshman at the University of Florida, I didn't really have any friends. I knew my roommate in high school, but we hadn't been super close. "SpongeBob" brought us together. He'd come over to my room after a stressful test or even just a regular day of class to watch old episodes, laugh and reminisce.

Eventually, my roommate and I even bought a set of heart necklaces with one half of the heart showing Spongebob, the other Patrick. As I write this, I'm still wearing the SpongeBob half.

He eventually evolved into one of my closest friends, and this January, when he got married, I was honored to serve as his best man. It was a pretty easy job — the main part was just writing a speech. And what was the thread holding that speech together?

You guessed it: "SpongeBob."

When I started grad school in New York last year, I knew not one person. I'd spoken to my roommate once before we moved in, and all I really knew about him was that he went to college at the University of Miami (my hometown), had two cats (I had one, too) and was from across the world. I'm ashamed to admit that before I met him, I didn't even know for sure whether Singapore was a country.

It turned out we shared many interests, including "SpongeBob." Soon after we started living together, he suggested we go watch the "SpongeBob"-themed Broadway musical. I'll admit I wasn't too excited at first. I thought the musical would taint the image of my favorite pop culture icon. I've never been so happy to be wrong.

Joan Marcus

"SpongeBob SquarePants," the Broadway musical for everyone.

It was brilliant for too many reasons to get into here, and we went back to see it together two more times, including the final Broadway performance. When it closed, walking past the Palace Theatre in Times Square felt like looking down on a casket. We scoured the internet together looking for bootleg copies or snippets of individual songs. And, I believe, in large part because of "SpongeBob," we hatched a friendship where even now, while I'm in Utah and he's in Miami, we talk every day.

The fandom wasn't limited to the two of us. We made two good friends from Chile and Greece. On an early outing together, one of the main topics of conversation on the Uber ride home was our favorite "SpongeBob" episodes, as well as our Chilean friend teaching us the theme song in Spanish. Still, their enthusiasm couldn't rival my roommate's and mine. I asked him earlier this week whether similar enthusiasm was common in Singapore. He suggested I speak with 26-year-old Sofia Tengku of Malaysia. When she was 9, her email address was spongebob_and_patricks_girlfriend. And to understand the show's influence, you should what she wrote to me:

"'SpongeBob' was one of the most iconic and profound cartoons of my childhood. It intrinsically taught me lessons of positive thinking, hope, friendship, being my authentic self and to never let life's downfalls or obstacles prevent me from pursuing happiness. It shaped my view of who I want to be — optimistic and wacky even if others found me stupid, crazy, annoying, strange or odd. SpongeBob never let anyone, not Squidward or Larry or anyone, phase him and his views or interests. Instead, he reveled in (his) friendships with Patrick, Sandy and Gary, (that) grounded him and supported him."

This is a profound (and accurate) assessment of the show's influence, but some of its impact is far less intense. It can be everyday things. My Twitter photo, for example, shows me holding a SpongeBob popsicle. Whenever I'm upset, all it takes to perk me up is one mention of "Dirty Dan." I just can't not laugh. And to this day, I still grip coffee mugs with my pinky out — and I doubt I'm the only one. But it's not just me. It impacts millions of people every day.

I can understand you might not believe me. You might be mocking me in your head, saying, "iT ImPActS MiLliONs oF pEOpLe evERy dAy." But don't take my word for it.

Let's hear from Syracuse University professor Robert Thompson. He researches pop culture, has seen every episode of "SpongeBob" and was even featured in one. In a recent interview, he told me that "SpongeBob's" meme factory — one of the most notable ways the show reaches millions — is the result of several factors, from its ubiquity among 20-somethings who grew up watching it to its downright brilliance. He even shows the season one episode "The Paper" to his master's students as an example of the shows unusual flourishes.

Tom Kenny (SpongeBob), Bill Fagerbakke (Patrick Star), Rodger Bumpass (Squidward), Clancy Brown (Mr. Krabs), Carolyn Lawrence (Sandy Cheeks) and Mr. Lawrence (Plankton) will all play human versions of their animated characters during the 20th anniversary SpongeBob special.

Twitter

Tom Kenny (SpongeBob), Bill Fagerbakke (Patrick Star), Rodger Bumpass (Squidward), Clancy Brown (Mr. Krabs), Carolyn Lawrence (Sandy Cheeks) and Mr. Lawrence (Plankton) will all play human versions of their animated characters during the 20th anniversary SpongeBob special.

"That," he said, "is one of the most brilliant 13 minutes of television I have ever seen."

Plus, he explained, "SpongeBob" tugs on universal human experiences in a way most TV programs can't. It's completely removed from reality. It transcends the way we normally categorize things. It's about a talking sponge who lives in a fruit and has a pet snail that meows. There's no race, no class, no recognizable geography — it exists entirely in its own world. And because each character's personality is so iconic, everyone, regardless of where they're from or what they look like, can relate.

"It's positively trippy," he added. "And that's why it works."

SpongeBob even has its own coded language, almost like "Seinfeld" for kids. "Seinfeld" references like Festivus, serenity now, yada yada yada, not that there's anything wrong with that, and being master of one's domain have become part of the American lexicon. SpongeBob's "alphabet" is much larger. Here's how you test whether you "speak Spongbob" (buckle up):

If you like your romantic partners long, tan and handsome; if you're ugly and proud; if you think claustrophobia means fear of Santa Claus; if you know the meaning of every letter in "fun" and "poop"; if you know the most important qualification for becoming a lifeguard; if you can only say ANCHOVIES in capital letters; if you've ever used your imaaaaginaaaaation; if you know the best way to dismantle the oppressive establishment is board by board; if the most dreaded part of your trip to the mall is the … gulp … perfume department; if you know who the real Dirty Dan is; if you know that bringing it around town is but a small fraction of the effort required to blow a bubble; if you worry about food going straight to your thighs; if you know the difference between Texas and being stupid; if you call him THE Hasselhoff; if the word enigma triggers an image of spilled milk; if you fear floating shopping lists; if starting an essay with "The" makes you shiver; if you've ever told someone to "firmly grasp it;" if you know who was Number One; if you've wanted to study Wumbology; if you know there's only one thing funnier than 24; if you can communicate with folks in Rock … pffff … Bottom; if you know what it means when the lights flicker on and off, the phone rings and there's no one there and … THE WALLS OOZE GREEN SLIME! No. Wait. They always do that; if you know when's the best time to wear a striped sweater; and when it comes to food you know it takes three days to make potato salad … THREE DAYS!; that mayonnaise isn't an instrument, and horseradish isn't an instrument either; that you should never get mad at a delivery person for forgetting your diet Dr. Kelp; and that the only proper way to address the dessert you love so much is CHAWWWKLITTT! And finally, a fluent SpongeBob speaker would know what attracts a sea bear, as well as how to stop one (bonus points if you know the same about a sea rhinoceros!).

It might be worth noting at this point that some people really don't like "SpongeBob." A 2011 study in the journal Pediatrics reported kids who were assessed after watching the show performed much worse than kids who watched educational television (one of SpongeBob's greatest weaknesses, along with giant clams and cheese graters) or even did nothing. That doesn't surprise me. The show is a colorful, sound-effect-filled stimulation overload. But performing poorly on an "executive function" test immediately after watching shouldn't brand it (a study that proves cognitive damage over time might be different).

"SpongeBob's" impact, rather, should be measured in the profound sense of belonging it can give people; in its ability to transcend cultural barriers; in its creativity; in its uniqueness. Perhaps Thompson put it best: "This," he said, "is one of the great shows American television has put on. … Kids are always gonna watch 'SpongeBob.' And adults are gonna sneak in to watch, too."

I can attest. 20 years on, the show still holds up. It's still fun, lively, surreal, crisp, colorful and downright weird. But perhaps the best thing about it is how well it captures emotions. At some point, all of us are Squidward, with his "I really wish I weren't here right now" button, or his phone greeting of "Hello, you've reached the house of unrecognized talent."

Kiddy Land toy store salesclerk Juri Igarashi arranges SpongeBob goods in Tokyo Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2006. In Japan, more than 30 companies are churning out goods plastered with SpongeBob's likeness, including everything from a 200 yen ($1.70) eraser to a 37,000 yen ($300) stuffed doll the size of a giant cushion. Kiddy Land manager Masanori Yamamoto says SpongeBob appeals to young people who want to be ahead of the crowd.

KOJI SASAHARA, AP

Kiddy Land toy store salesclerk Juri Igarashi arranges SpongeBob goods in Tokyo Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2006. In Japan, more than 30 companies are churning out goods plastered with SpongeBob's likeness, including everything from a 200 yen ($1.70) eraser to a 37,000 yen ($300) stuffed doll the size of a giant cushion. Kiddy Land manager Masanori Yamamoto says SpongeBob appeals to young people who want to be ahead of the crowd.

Or we're all Patrick, with his desire to "do nothing" better than anyone else, or his confusion, or even his definition of manhood: puffing out your chest, yelling "tax exemption!" and acquiring a taste for freeform jazz.

And certainly we sometimes wish to be as optimistic as SpongeBob.

"I don't know anyone over the age of 7 who can sincerely say it's the best day ever," Thompson observed. "But SpongeBob has no problem singing it."

I recently caught up with Mrs. Pizarro to tell her how she's impacted my life in a way she probably never expected. She's 63 and battling Parkinson's disease. She's long been retired. Even if she didn't really watch the show, I told her I appreciated her validation. She was thrilled to know she'd made that impact, however unexpected, and we reminisced for a while about some other interests we shared nearly 20 years ago.

Oh, and she was proud to report she, too, still watches "SpongeBob SquarePants."