The creators of the latest SpongeBob special "WhoBob WhatPants?" talk about the many sides of everyone's favorite animated invertebrate.
In TV cartoon years, SpongeBob is practically a senior citizen. The occasional Scooby or Smurf aside, most cartoon series are lucky if they graduate to a third season; by comparison, the "yellow, absorbent and porous" one is still going strong with a sixth season now on the air and a seventh in the works.
It's hard to keep a popular character like SpongeBob down, or safely within the confines of an 11-minute segment. His first breakout was in his 2004 feature film; since then his Nickelodeon series has seen a succession of double-length -- or longer -- specials airing in place of the standard 2x11 weekly shows. In his new 22-minute adventure "WhoBob WhatPants?" premiering this week, SpongeBob loses his memory and wanders off to a new life elsewhere, much to the consternation of his friends back in Bikini Bottom (except of course for the ever-dour Squidward.)
A combination of creative and business factors spawn (to use an aquatic metaphor) the specials. "Most of the time SpongeBob organically feels like an 11-minute cartoon, but some stories feel like they should be bigger and longer," says Roland Poindexter, Nickelodeon's VP of original animation programming. "Fortunately the show's crew has some flexibility in their production schedule. In two or three shows every year we let the episode be as long as it needs to be -- sometimes a half hour, and sometimes even longer [as in last year's 33-minute 'Atlantis SquarePantis' special]. We like to give our creative [people] space to expand and grow."
Coming up with an idea for an 11-minute-plus SpongeBob story is easy; taking it all the way to the 22-minute mark is a little more difficult: "It's definitely a challenge to keep things moving at that SpongeBob pace -- it's a rapid-fire thing," says Paul Tibbitt, the show's co-executive producer. "There's more room for quiet moments, the more mood-oriented stuff you don't usually get to do. That's always fun too."
The show had already done an episode with SpongeBob forgetting who he was, "but that was more about him losing his name tag," Tibbitt recalls. "But what if he really forgot? The idea started to crystallize then.
"We know we have to come up with a half-hour episode. It's sort of like 'let's propose this'" to the Nickelodeon programming executives, an idea that "obviously has to feel more special" than the average SpongeBob episode. "In this one he was going to a whole new city and meeting people there, and then there was the whole bubble thing on top of that."
In the opening minutes of "WhoBob WhatPants?" SpongeBob manages to alienate every one of his friends, who tag him with the derisive nickname "Idiot Boy." Leaving Bikini Bottom in shame, he loses his memory in a Wile E. Coyote-worthy fall off a cliff. Finding his way to New Kelp City, amnesiac SpongeBob is redubbed "CheeseHead BrownPants" and manages to rid the town of the finger-snapping, West Side Story-inspired Bubble Poppin' Boys (led by Ray Liotta, doing his first cartoon voice work since his Bee Movie cameo).
Once a long-form idea is in place, says Tibbitt, "we pitch it to the network knowing we'll have to fill that half-hour slot." When it's pointed out that SpongeBob is produced in-house at the network's Burbank animation studio, Tibbitt clarifies: "We call it [pitching to] New York. Programming likes to know what [the special is about] so they can bend their strategy to it."
Extra-length SpongeBobs are "something the network can promote," Poindexter acknowledges. "They draw a bigger audience than normal, which works well for our home video division. At the end of the day they work for every line of business we have."
If anything, a special like "WhoBob WhatPants?" is the locomotive propelling a veritable freight train of Nickelodeon programming and tie-ins. On October 2, an online game based on -- and promoting -- the special debuted on Nick.com, along with links to additional games, a custom video player, a message board and a slew of downloadables. The following day an assortment of related content and a preview of the special began airing on Nick.com's Turbo Nick video page (where an "Instant Replay" of the special became available following its cable premiere) and a similar assortment of content was made on Nickelodeon's wireless platforms.
If all the above isn't enough for the hardest of SpongeBob's hard core fans, back on cable TV-Nickelodeon a four-hour marathon of SpongeBob episodes preceded the special's October 13 premiere -- capped off with its DVD release (featuring a quartet of season five episodes and four original shorts) following the very next day.
According to Nickelodeon, "WhoBob WhatPants?" is the 108th SpongeBob SquarePants half-hour show. With the vast majority of those half hours consisting of two 11-minute shorts, and a relatively small number of them the longer-form stories, a conservative estimate of the actual number of SpongeBob s would have to approach the 200 mark. By comparison, Mickey Mouse has starred in approximately 134 theatrical shorts and Bugs Bunny in 172. The upcoming seventh season will consist of 26 half-hour shows, including the longer stories which are always included in the series' episode count. While Stephen Hillenburg, SpongeBob's creator, is no longer involved in the show's day-to-day production, he "still has the final say on everything," Tibbitt says. "He sees every outline, every premise, every storyboard. He's not in the office all the time, so we send him a huge box of stuff regularly. He has to spend a lot of time looking through all of it."
Tibbitt adds that the same crew is responsible for the longer SpongeBob specials and the 11-minute episodes. "A lot of people here have been working on the show for a while. Some of the crew changed after we took our break for the movie and then came back. We do have a lot of new artists, it's not all the same people who were here at the beginning -- and every once in a while we tell one of them 'it's your turn to do a 30-minute.'"
SpongeBob has gone in the other direction as well, at one point experimenting with short-form episodes. "We tried doing a couple to shake things up a little bit with four- and seven-minute episodes that we paired together [to fill the 11 minutes]. It was good but we never seemed to have enough time with the shorter ones -- 'oh, we could've put in this joke and this joke'; in 11 minutes we would've been able to." Tibbitt echoes Poindexter's sentiment that 11 minutes is the perfect length for a SpongeBob story when he says "the shorter and longer ones are more difficult, but that just might be because we're used to 11 minutes."
As for coming up with fresh ideas for a show going into its seventh season? "We've been at it for a while," Tibbett says. "It doesn't feel harder than before because it's always been difficult. We have a lot to live up to and we're always pushing to make sure we do. It's definitely a challenge, and it always has been. We've done so many [episodes], a lot of the time when we're pitching ideas we'll say, 'oh yeah, we've done that one already.' South Park did an episode called 'The Simpsons Already Did It.' Everyone's gone through that on their shows."
"I certainly hope SpongeBob goes on as long everyone enjoys making it," Poindexter sums up. "Almost everything has a natural ending; fortunately we haven't found that yet. Paul and his crew have come up with some of the best episodes of the entire series in this season and the upcoming seventh. It's truly a funny show that I don't think has yet hit its creative plateau."
Even so, there's the fear awaiting every long-running series: to use an apt metaphor for a show set underwater, has it "jumped the shark?" According to the majority of people voting on that famed website... it never has. To which Poindexter responds, "I like being right."
Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. His animation articles also appear in the NY Daily News and the New York Press.
Mind Your Business: How Will Artists Vote?Previous Post
Dr. Toon: All the Young Dudes