Soaking Up Attention

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NICKELODEON

In America, if you want to be successful, you go to college, study hard and pack your head full of arcane knowledge. Then you head for Hollywood and learn to tell plankton jokes. That, anyway, was the route to fame and fortune for Stephen Hillenburg, an avid surfer, scuba diver and marine-biology teacher fascinated with tide-pool life. After he later went to art school and became an animator, he decided to base his debut cartoon, loosely, on the creatures that he had made his life's study. Very loosely. His star: a talking sponge who wears a tie, flips Krabbie Patties at a submarine fast-food joint and resembles a slice of Swiss cheese more than his real-water counterparts.

Hail SpongeBob SquarePants: delightfully biologically incorrect and the new invertebrate king of children's television. Launched in 1999, his sweet, surrealistic, self-titled Nickelodeon cartoon recently unseated the long-reigning Rugrats as the most popular kids' show on TV, attracting an average of 10 million kids ages 2 to 11 (and more than 5 million adults) each week.

Not bad for a complete nerd. Hillenburg says he conceived SpongeBob as an offbeat, dweeby child-man in the mold of Pee-wee Herman. (Hillenburg, who wears a funky surfer haircut at age 40 and hangs sea-life mobiles outside his office, fits the offbeat, dweeby child-man profile a bit himself.) Like Pee-wee, the squeaky-voiced sponge lives in a colorful, goofy wonderland--inside an undersea pineapple in the town of Bikini Bottom. "I wanted to create a small town underwater where the characters were more like us than like fish," Hillenburg says. "They have fire. They take walks. They drive. They have pets and holidays." Of course, there are a few differences. In Bikini Bottom, no one thinks it's strange that the town villain, the megalomaniacal Plankton, is a one-celled organism, or that SpongeBob's boss, a crab, has a daughter who's a whale (literally).

Like Pee-wee's appeal, SpongeBob's lies in his innocence. He's the anti-Bart Simpson, temperamentally and physically: his head is as squared-off and neat as Bart's is unruly, and he has a personality to match--conscientious, optimistic and blind to the faults in the world and those around him. He never seems to notice that his cynical neighbor and co-worker Squidward (an octopus) drips contempt toward everything SpongeBob does, or that his best friend Patrick Starfish is a certified nitwit. Kids are drawn by the show's loopy slapstick, grownups by its dry (so to speak) wit: "I order the food, and you cook the food," Squidward tells SpongeBob, describing their jobs at the restaurant. "We do that for 40 years, and then we die."

That dual appeal is a sign of a welcome change in animation. Cartoons have bridged kids' and adult entertainment since the heyday of Walt Disney and Chuck Jones, but the field went through a long creative slump in the '70s and '80s, as programmers churned out Saturday-morning knock-offs made mainly to shill toys (My Little Pony) or repurpose sitcom characters (The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang). Today cartoons have undergone a renaissance, as kids' channels such as Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network have given their animators the freedom of auteurs. Smarter and more idiosyncratic, these animators have created shows like Cartoon Network's The Powerpuff Girls that have become not just hits but cultural icons. "It harkens back to the old days at Warner Bros., when guys were creating Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny, and they had free rein," says Powerpuff creator Craig McCracken. There's still plenty of toy-driven junk, particularly in the anime-action category, but cartoons have also become more diverse (with new entries like Disney Channel's African-American The Proud Family) and ambitious (Cartoon Network's epic Samurai Jack).

Of course, there's still cashing in to be done--SpongeBob has lent his image to Target, Burger King and Nabisco Cheese Nips, and a SpongeBob movie is in the works. But, Hillenburg says, the art comes first. "I could get more money from a [broadcast] network," he says, but "I was interested in doing the show the way I wanted." Now that creators like him can do that, it is, in the world of cartoons at least, a great time to be a kid, a grownup or--best of all--a little of each.