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November 8, 2013

STAWAR: SpongeBob and me

— My status with our youngest grandchildren (ages 6 and 4) has risen considerably since they know that I’m a fan of the Nickelodeon cartoon show “SpongeBob SquarePants.” I could use some help since it’s hard to compete with grandma, who is always so much fun. I usually avoid getting down on the floor to play with them like she does, but I’m more than willing to lay around on the couch and watch all of the past SpongeBob episodes they have recorded for me.

Also as a courtesy to our grandson, I also watch several recent episodes of the new “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” This presents no problem, however, as I’m up on my TMNT lore, since our youngest son was a fan of the series on its first go-around.

A few weeks ago, when we made our annual Halloween pilgrimage to Huber’s pumpkin patch in Starlight, both grandchildren brought me drawings, that featured characters from the show. SpongeBob, his friends Patrick and Sandy, his long suffering neighbor Squidward, and his greedy boss, Mr. Krabs, now adorn a place of honor on our refrigerator, supplanting Thanksgiving pictures drawn by their older siblings a couple of years ago.

“SpongeBob SquarePants,” Nickelodeon’s highest rated show, was created by marine biologist and animator Stephen Hillenburg in 1999. It depicts the zany activities and adventures of a group of anthropomorphic animals (mostly sea creatures) in the underwater city of Bikini Bottom. The Imagine Game Network placed SpongeBob 15th in its top 100 animated series of all time and TV Guide ranked it as the eighth “Greatest TV Cartoon of All Time.”

Classifying it among his top 100 television shows, Time Magazine critic James Poniewozik has described it as “funny, surreal, [and] inventive.” Altogether the SpongeBob media franchise has earned more than $8 billion for Nickelodeon. SpongeBob merchandise was even evident during the Arab Spring protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and again later in Libya. According to the EnglishRussia blog the “SpongeBob Square Pants” theme song is “One of the most popular marching songs in the Russian army…” A popular YouTube video, showing marching Russian soldiers singing the SpongeBob song, was posted earlier this year.

Despite its popularity, the SpongeBob show has not been without controversy. The show has occasionally been assailed by conservative and religious groups for supposedly advocating “alternative lifestyles,”although its creator, Hillenburg denies it. Also a joint Nickelodeon and Burger King advertisement, featuring SpongeBob and rapper Sir Mix-a-Lot, was criticized for being sexist and inappropriate, considering SpongeBob’s core audience of children.

In 2011, psychologist Angeline S. Lillard, from the University of Virginia, published a study in the journal Pediatrics that asserted that, due to its rapidly changing camera shots, the “SpongeBob SquarePants” show significantly interfered with the cognitive processing and attention span of preschool viewers. Nickelodeon responded saying that the study had “questionable methodology” and was not intended for a preschool audience.

As a SpongeBob fan I’m in good company. In 2007, President Obama said that SpongeBob was his favorite cartoon character. The president and former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown have both claimed that they watch the show with their children.

SpongeBob references have even started intruding into my everyday life. At work I have found myself replying to e-mails I don’t understand with a picture of a quizzical Spongebob. The other day when my wife Diane ordered a crab cake for lunch, I found myself calling it (and more importantly thinking of it as) a “Krabby Patty” and I also have begun mentally referring to our favorite seafood restaurant as “the Chum Bucket.”

According to New York psychotherapist Varkha Chulani and Indian clinical psychologist Seema Hingorrany, “Adults who love to watch cartoons are looking for a quick escape from … hard reality.” They say cartoons help people revisit their childhood and reflect a strong belief in “simplicity and innocence.” They claim cartoon viewers work hard and generally have a good sense of humor.

Ironically SpongeBob himself fits this same description, as the online SpongeBob Wiki describes his personality as “Happy-go-lucky” but “clueless” and “innocent.” He is also said to be “immature, fun loving and hyperactive.” SpongeBob can be extremely determined and is often over-confident, as well as overly dramatic, as he tends “to make mountains out of molehills.”

Never-the-less he is typically “selfless, loyal, and kind-hearted.” The AskMen website conducted a poll to determine the top 10 irritating cartoon characters and SpongeBob ranked fourth, due to his constant well-meaning attitude.

SpongeBob is a far cry from most of the cartoons I grew up with back in the 1950s. Besides the Saturday morning fare, most local television stations also had afterschool cartoon shows, hosted by local TV personalities. In the St. Louis area, where I lived, we had Corky the Clown, Cookie and the Captain (not to be confused with Captain Eleven’s Showboat) and my perennial favorite, “Cowboy Bruce’s Chuck Wagon.”

Interspersed with live action segments and their version of a peanut gallery, these shows mostly reran old theatrical cartoons from the 1940s. I watched a lot of Looney Tunes which featured Warner Brothers’ characters, such as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Tweety and Sylvester, Pepe le Pew, Road Runner, Wile E. Coyote, Foghorn Leghorn, and many others. Bugs, perhaps more than any other cartoon character, perfectly represented the brash and cocky American personality of the 1940s. With carrot munching plagiarized from Clark Gable, a Brooklyn accent, and his catchphrase “Of course you realize this means war,” borrowed from a Marx Brother’s movie, Bugs was the prototypical “wise guy.”

Bug’s originator, cartoonist Tex Avery, once described how his creative team decided to portray Bugs’ reaction to the threat of the shotgun-toting Elmer Fudd. “We decided Bugs was going to be a smart-aleck…. That opening line of “Eh, what’s up, Doc?” floored them. It got such a laugh that we said, ‘Boy, we’ll do that every chance we get.’” I suppose deep down we all wanted to be as clever and flippant as the confident Bugs, as he outsmarted his adversaries while chomping on his carrot, like Groucho Marx chomped on his cigar, pacing his flow of one-liners.

MGM’s theatrical cat and mouse cartoon, “Tom and Jerry,” was the first of the Hanna-Barbera cartoons, which eventually blossomed into their large stable of 1950’s and 1960’s television characters, such as Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear, Pixie and Dixie and Mr. Jinks, Hokey Wolf, Snagglepuss, Top Cat, The Jetsons, The Flintstones, and many others. Hanna and Barbera dominated TV cartoons for most of my childhood and I watched a lot of them. Like Bugs Bunny, Yogi Bear, Snagglepuss and Top Cat all had elements of the fast talking con man, but they generally lacked the edge of the Warner Brother cartoons, which were originally aimed at adults.

Personally, I found Walter Lantz’s Woody Woodpecker too frenetic and the Disney television cartoons of the era too placid, to be very enjoyable. Jay Ward’s Rocky and Bullwinkle, however, is one of the few cartoon shows of the time that I believe approaches SpongeBob, in terms of creativity and inventiveness. Bullwinkle, another clueless innocent, eventually moved to top billing over the show’s run. Boris and Natasha were the perfect Cold War villains, as they attempted to carry out their orders from Fearless Leader, to “kill squirrel and moose.” As a bonus you also got Fractured Fairy Tales and Mr. Peabody (and his boy Sherman). Maybe someday I can get the grandchildren to check them out.

It’s unlikely that I will be taking our grandchildren deer hunting, mountain biking, or cross country skiing anytime soon, so it’s nice to have a quiet indoor activity to share, that they seem to like so much. I guess I’m just smarter than the average grandpa.

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at tstawar@lifespr.com. Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at www.planetterry.wordpress.com

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