Sunday 15 September 2019

Obituary: Stephen Hillenburg

Animator and producer who created the popular children's TV series 'SpongeBob SquarePants'

Stephen Hillenburg, who has died of motor neurone disease aged 57, was a marine biologist and animator who created the television cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants, the adventures of a bug-eyed yellow kitchen sponge with cardboard trousers and his various friends in the underwater city of Bikini Bottom.

The cartoon, frequently cited in the US as the most successful children's show ever made, first aired on Nickelodeon in 1999 and established itself not only as the highest-rated children's show on US cable television, but one with a substantial adult following.

By 2005 merchandise spawned by the series in the US was generating $1bn a year. In Britain, SpongeBob also drew large audiences on MTV.

In the three-dimensional Pixar era, this was an extraordinary achievement.

SpongeBob SquarePants was resolutely two-dimensional and its irrepressibly cheery and well-meaning title character had his irritating side.

The humour of the series ran heavily to slapstick and simple wordplay, via schoolroom gags involving underwear and bad breath, as SpongeBob, always setting out singing: "I'm ready, I'm ready, I'm ready," suffers an inevitable series of pratfalls.

Writing in The Telegraph in 2005, Tim Geary suggested that SpongeBob's appeal to grown-ups was based on the fact that the character lives in an adult world in which many of his fellow underwater characters are guided by avarice and mendacity: "It is this undercurrent of worldliness that gives the show its gravity, while SpongeBob's unashamed childishness keeps it light."

But SpongeBob's naivety and his flamboyant manner brought him a few land-based troubles. Conservative Christian groups attacked the character, sometimes to be seen holding hands with his best friend, an overweight pink starfish called Patrick, for promoting homosexuality. Indeed, novelty stores aimed at gay men in New York were at one point reported to be unable to keep up with demand for items such as SpongeBob dolls, key rings and even thongs.

In 2002, moved to clarify SpongeBob's sexual inclinations, Hillenburg informed The Wall Street Journal that SpongeBob was not gay, just "kind of special". But of such controversies, as of much else in life, SpongeBob presumably remained blissfully unaware.

Stephen McDannell Hillenburg was born on August 21, 1961 at Lawton, Oklahoma, and brought up at Anaheim, California, where, as a child, he liked to explore rock pools, bringing home things that "ended up dying and smelling really bad". During his time at Anaheim's Savanna High School, he took up snorkelling at a nearby cove and discovered a fascinating undersea world.

He went on to take a degree in marine resource planning and interpretation at Humboldt State University, also "minoring" in art.

After graduation he taught marine biology at the Orange County Marine Institute, where he wrote a comic book about rock-pool animals and developed his skills as an artist.

In the early 1990s he took a degree in experimental animation from the California Institute of Arts and in 1993 landed a job on the Nickelodeon animated TV series Rocko's Modern Life, the adventures of an Australian-immigrant wallaby. But his real love was drawing undersea creatures and in 1996 he pitched the idea to Nickleodeon for an animated series about a square sea sponge - a "Laurel and Hardy character who is a boy-man and a kind of oddball in this world''.

The first episode of SpongeBob SquarePants aired in 1999 and nearly 250 episodes have been made to date, along with two films and a Broadway musical. Hillenburg, who died on November 26, is survived by his wife Karen and by their son.

© Telegraph

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