Spongebob Squarepants is a fast-paced children’s cartoon for a dual audience, written by a guy who is also a marine biologist. This is a highly successful and long-running show, with humour that broadly appeals.
This series has been running since 1999. Critics say the show has been declining in quality in the last few years, which is what critics also say of The Simpsons. What is the longest time a comedy series should run for? Are there any examples of comedy series lasting longer than a decade without a serious decline in quality? I can’t think of any myself.
Here I use Stephen Johnson’s 11 Categories Of Jokes to focus on the humour of Spongebob. I’ve used so many Spongebob examples in that original post that I’m ready to do an entire Spongebob post. (If you feel that analysing jokes takes the joy out of comedy, this post is not for you!) Studying humour is a lot like doing tennis drills. Concentrate on form and process during deliberate training sessions, but once you’re playing a game (actually writing comedy) we need to put everything you know aside and get into a state of flow.
It’s also worth looking at other people’s comedy writing to hone your own sense of what’s funny and what’s not. While I find most of Spongebob’s humour funny, I get annoyed with some of it, too. (Backed up by Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid sales as evidence, sexism sells.)
First a note about the structure.
THE PLOT STRUCTURE OF SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS
A lot of the Spongebob Squarepants episodes follow a very common plot structure for fast paced comedies of about 11 minutes long. (This is also about the length of a We Bare Bears episode — equally fast paced with a heavy joke density and surprisingly complex plots.)
The double thread plot is popular with Spongebob writers.
The plot will begin either with Spongebob or with his opponent.
Spongebob gets into trouble.
The opponent also faces challenges.
These two threads come together during the Battle sequence, and the audience learns how the two separate threads are inextricably linked. One thread doesn’t fly without the other.
Seinfeld also uses this structure a lot.
The characters who live in Bikini Bottom have their own web of opposition which provides the most layered and interesting conflict of each episode. However, there is usually a big, bad baddie who comes into town. In episode one it’s a hoard of hungry anchovies. In Bubblestand it’s a massive bubble which envelops Squidward’s house and carries him away, suddenly uniting the Spongebob/Patrick team with Squidward — they suddenly feel sorry for him.
Spongebob’s gang is made up of his best friend Patrick, who is the stupider but kinder version of Spongebob, much like the Greg Heffley and Rowley friendship in Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Then there’s Squidward making up the threesome, who is sort of part of their gang but not actually because he doesn’t find Spongebob and Patrick funny.
The threesome with two firmish friends and an oddball outsider is pretty common in comedy.
We have Seinfeld and George and then there’s the unfathomable quirk of Kramer across the hall.
As mentioned above, there’s the Wimpy Kid stars and then there’s Fregley, who would like to be one of the gang but is just too odd for even Greg and Rowley, who get up to plenty of odd stuff in their own right. That’s the raison d’etre of these super odd character of course — Fregley’s weirdness actually provides verisimilitude to whatever those other two get up to.
Although these characters spend a lot of time conflicting with each other, they do band together when a bigger, badder outsider comes along.
Spongebob wants a job at the Krusty Krab as a cook. He is sent out on an impossible mission to find a super powerful spatula (which he actually finds easily at the supermarket).
Meanwhile, back at the Krusty Krab, a whole lot of hungry anchovies turn up and create havoc for the restaurant owner and Squidward.
These two plot threads come together as soon as Spongebob arrives back at the Krusty Krab with his super powerful spatula, which just so happens to be exactly the unlikely implement needed to knock out meals at a super quick rate, feeding all the hungry anchovies and saving the day.
This is a quiet story, which goes well with the mesmerising activity of bubble blowing. Spongebob sets up a bubblestand (like a lemonade stand) right outside Squidward’s house.
Inside, Squidward tries to practise his clarinet, but the bubbles outside are creating an unlikely amount of trouble for him.
The threads come together when a bigger, badder opponent comes into town, suddenly putting these neighbours on the same side.
This episode does not have the dual plot line going on. It is a simple parable with a clear message for its viewers: If you keep recycling a joke it stops being funny and starts irritating people. You will alienate your friends. This episode therefore has the single strand plot line, like a parable. The New Equilibrium phase is actually a song, explaining the lesson in the way those old parables and Charles Perrault fairytales used to do in a paragraph.
This one opens with the POV of the opponent — the tiny Plankton, who wants Spongebob to help him clean up the beach, as he himself is too small to make a difference. Plankton is not a formidable villain, but is still an opponent, because SpongeBob does not want to spend his days cleaning up the beach. His goals are simply to have fun. Plankton is a fake ally opponent, instructing SpongeBob to be formidable, though Spongebob obviously doesn’t have it in him, being nice when he’s meant to be assertive. Spongebob eventually realises what the deal is and decides that if he can’t be aggressively, he can be aggressively nice. The entire story takes place on ‘the beach’, which is funny because there can’t be a ‘beach’ at the bottom of the ocean. The outtake shows him enjoying a game of volleyball, and the lesson is that it’s more fun to be nice than to be maniacal.
HUMOUR IN SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS
Even the music goes a long way towards setting a comical scene, with a tune by Tiny Tim in the pilot, and an outtake tune which sounds like slightly off-beat banjos. (Country music is easy to make fun of, just as it’s easy to make fun of country hicks.)
The entire series is ironic on every level. But let’s break it down just a little.
In that pilot episode, we don’t expect Spongebob to arrive back with a super powerful spatula which we have been told doesn’t even exist. On a story level, we didn’t expect Spongebob to secure his job at the Krusty Krab by saving his new boss from marauding hungry anchovies.
2. CHARACTER HUMOUR
This is where it’s very easy to get it wrong. But it’s also where a lot of excellent humour comes from.
GENDER, AGE AND POWER
A lot of humour derives from power flowing away a character, especially if that character generally has a powerful position in society. Mermaid Man, for instance is a parody on the superhero trope. Mermaid Man has no power at all really because:
- He lives in an old people’s home
- He dresses as a girl
Ageism is a slightly separate issue — we’re all going to get old at some point (if we’re lucky). Sexism, on the other hand, will never affect boys in quite the same way so it’s worth taking a much closer look at that.
While Barnacle Boy is neutral and therefore unproblematic, the fact that his sidekick Mermaid Man wears the bikini of shells means that Mermaid Man is doubly disempowered: age and gender expression are against him. At first glance this may seem innocent humour, except that the joke doesn’t work if genders are reversed.
EXERCISE: This is always a good yardstick to measure by. Does the joke still work if you reverse the genders? If not, it will stand out as horribly dated in a few decades’ time.
Spongebob Squarepants the series gets a lot of mileage out of sexist jokes, which is what inevitably happens when the entire writing team is men — they inevitably write for a male audience.
Why is the town called Bikini Bottom? Because for boys there seems to be some discomfort around female clothing. And anything that causes mild discomfort is ripe for turning into comedy. Pants in general are also generally funny in children’s comedy, but if those pants are related to sexuality, now you’ve got a joke that spans two opportunities for discomfort: bum jokes AND sexual humour, otherwise known as ‘adolescent humour’.
Every comedy needs a stoopid character. Spongebob Squarepants is pretty stoopid, but Patrick is even stoopider. The jokes get funnier once we realise this is their ‘thing’. Expectation makes humour work even better. It works best when the stoopid character comes up with something even stoopider than the audience themselves can imagine.
SOCIAL CAPITAL JOKES
Squidward Tentacles is set up as the Loser character from the very first moment we meet him with this visual gag of him trying to remove some graffiti which won’t come off with rubbing:
Even Squidward’s nose has a phallic quality to it, drooping in disappointment or whenever his attempts to climb up the social hierarchy have failed.
3. REFERENCE HUMOUR
Common experiences that the audience can relate to.
A lot of the reference humour is specific to the heterosexual male experience.
For instance, in Ripped Pants, Spongebob is having great success impressing a girl by cracking jokes, but along comes a ripped guy (a lobster) who invites them ‘both’ to come with him to lift weights. Apparently, the girl (Sandy) is completely unaware of what he’s doing — he’s inviting her to an event where he’s sure to come out tops, showing up the guy she’s with. Apparently she doesn’t understand that this is a pissing contest between two boys who are both trying to win her heart. This may work in comedy, especially for boys who are familiar with the pissing contest that is sexual hierarchy. In reality, girls are almost always aware of the social dynamics in which they are the ‘prize’. This kind of humour makes women, as a general category, out to be clueless, and reminds me of the horror genre, in which women are constantly sent into ridiculously obvious dangerous situations with ridiculously awful characters.
Now, on the one hand, NO ONE gets off scot free in this comedy — everyone is laughed at. But notice how Sandy doesn’t get to make her own jokes. Instead, she’s laughing her head off at Spongebob. Only the male characters are allowed to be both funny and laughed-at. That kind of asymmetry for the girls — who are always the ‘straight guy’ yet just as often clueless — is what’s problematic here.
Weirdly, we learn later in the episode that Spongebob has ‘lost his best friend’ (owing to bad jokes about ripped pants). Yet he interacts with this ‘friend’ like she’s a sexual target.
There are jokes in Spongebob which appeal to a mature audience but which safely pass over a child’s head. For instance, one episode opens with Spongebob intently peering at some sort of tentacled sponge on his TV. When his snail cat walks by Spongebob declares that he wasn’t really watching that, he was only switching between channels.
4. SHOCK HUMOUR
In Ripped Pants, Spongebob is trying to life ‘weights’ (marshmallows on a stick) when he rips his pants in front of a much entertained audience. This is both reference humour and slightly shocking, in that it exposes a part of the body not normally exposed.
5. PARODY HUMOUR
The beginning of the Jellyfishing episode features a heist movie parody. Patrick and Spongebob slide daringly down a rope but have to pause for a long moment to blow on their hands, which are burning in pain — something that never happens to real cat burglars.
In the Something Smells episode Spongebob eats a lot of onion and scares others away. He concludes he is too ugly to exist, at which point Patrick finds him in a dark place playing moodily on a grand piano, reminiscent of The Phantom of the Opera (even though I have never seen that show).
Superheroes often have a getaway vehicle with some amazing power in its own right, be it a magic carpet, turbo rocket or whatever. In the final episode of the season one, Barnacle Boy and Mermaid Man also have a vehicle with superpowers, but that superpower turns out to be a hindrance rather than a help: it is totally invisible. This means they can’t find it when they want it. They walk into it, walk around feeling for it, and one of them is always getting burnt to a crisp because he accidentally stands behind the exhaust pipe. This ‘burnt to a crisp’ scene happens twice. The first time we see how he gets burnt — the second time he walks onto the stage already crispified, and we feel a little smart knowing how he got that way.
EXERCISE: Can you think of something that is sometimes a help to your characters but is also, more often a disadvantage, getting them into trouble? List all the ways in which they can get into trouble then take two or three and repeat.
The entire Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy episode is about underwhelming jobs for two superheroes, providing one long juxtaposition. At another point in the episode, they are called upon to open a jar for Spongebob.
Everything is over the top. So, Spongebob doesn’t want to be late for his job interview? He’s set up a mechanical Wallace and Gromit type contraption to get himself ready in seconds. It even changes him out of his pants. Spongebob is scared about the interview? He literally tries to run away as soon as he gets to the place. This is a blend of hyperbole and reference humour, because we all know how we’d like to run away whenever we feel scared.
Spongebob doesn’t simply trip on a nail sticking out of the floorboards and fall over — he bounces and flips and enters into a neverending series of smacks, where gravity doesn’t exist.
Squidward doesn’t just get a minor injury catching jellyfish — his body is entirely covered in bandages and he wheels around on a gurney.
Spongebob Squarepants itself is a wonderfully wacky name, as is Squidward Tentacles. Notice, however, that not all the characters have wacky names. Patrick is aggressively ordinary. It’s this tension between weird names and normal ones that creates the humour — the difference draws attention to the wacky ones. These names also give us a clue about the character’s personality: While Patrick is often funny because he is stupid, he is always well-intentioned. In some ways he plays the ‘straight guy’, starting from the first time we see him, in which he gives Spongebob a pep talk about how Spongebob needs to go to his interview even though he’s terrified.
Sometimes wordplay involves drawing attention to language in a way that we may not have noticed before:
“The finest eating establishment ever established for eating!”
“Do you smell it? What’s the smell? A kind of smelly smell that smells… smelly!”
“This is my lab!” (Viewer expects to see a science lab but sees a dog) “And THIS is my laboratory!”
Juxtaposition is evident all over the storyworld, starting from the pet snail that meows like a cat. Another word for this is ‘surprise’. Yet we are not surprised at all, because in the real world, people tend to keep cats, not snails. A lot of the humour in this series comes from the writers and storyboarders pasting modern American life onto marine life — an awkward and funny endeavour.
I put any kind of ‘flip’ joke into this category.
Squidward is a more serious and adult character who occasionally reveals his childlike side by engaging in childish things like blowing bubbles when he thinks no one is looking. The juxtaposition between Squidward’s posing and his inner child provides plenty of humour. In this respect he’s like the Dwight Shrute character of the American version of The Office.
In the pilot, Squidward tells the boss Spongebob is definitely not right for the position, but instead of a flat no, Spongebob is sent on an impossible mission to find a thing that obviously doesn’t exist. (Obvious to the viewer, not to Spongebob himself.) This is the restaurant owner being a trickster. Note that because this is the pilot episode, the audience doesn’t know that this particular spatula doesn’t exist. That’s why we see Squidward and the restaurant owner chuckling about its non-existence after Spongebob has gone. (The message here is: Don’t worry about being too obvious. Joke density allows an audience to accept overexplanations, on-the-nose narration and a host of other storytelling techniques eschewed by other genres.)
But soon we’ll see that Spongebob himself is a trickster, as he finds a way to fulfil his mission. He goes to the supermarket and, believe it or not, they only have one in stock. (Audiences of comedy will also happily accept this kind of deus ex machina solution to a problem.)
Audiences love tricksters, and we don’t mind who the trickster is. In this series, everyone has their turn.
Spongebob doesn’t simply place meat patties onto the grill — he pings them out with his eye sockets. That’s just one example.
He regularly kills himself only to pop back up again. e.g. Slicing himself into thirds then immediately reforming into his character. He is literally indestructible.
His body morphs according to his emotions. Like Courage the Cowardly Dog, he can mould his spongey body into any shape that he likes. Whereas Courage does this once per episode, Spongebob does it frequently, as the story sees fit.
DELIBERATELY ON-THE-NOSE NARRATION
Spongebob Squarepants as a series makes heavy use of what I’ll call ‘on-the-nose narration’. In a straight (non-comedic) story, having a character announce to no one in particular all about the scene and backstory is a definite no-no, but here it is totally accepted. This is almost a kind of parody on stories in general. The writers are asking, “Why are we even telling you all this stuff? Why are you even watching this made-up crap?” The answer, of course, is you’re watching it PURELY for the jokes. There is no higher reason for these stories to exist — no moral, nothing.
As an example, take the pilot episode. Spongebob stands outside a restaurant and embarks upon a monologue all about the Crabby Patties, telling us that help is wanted and letting us know his reason for going in. (To get a job.)
Throughout the series, each episode is introduced by an ambiguously foreign-sounding narrator who invites us to remember that this is just a silly story and not to be taken seriously.
SPONGEBOB’S DIFFERENT VOICES
Related to this is one of Spongebob’s character traits: While he has a ‘Spongebob’ voice which we all recognise immediately, he regularly breaks out in a completely different voice (though voiced by the same actor). When he uses this voice he is usually parodying some other genre.
“I’ve been training my whole life for the day I could join the Krusty crew!” he says, flinging open the doors of the restaurant where he wants to get a job. Visually, this is like an old Western. In terms of dialogue, he is parodying any sort of ‘hero’s journey’ character arc, in which a boy (most often a boy) dreams of being something important and then achieves his wishes, but not without trials and tribulations.
11. MISPLACED FOCUS
Barnacle Boy and Mermaid Man are keeping watch on top of a tower, telling each other how they must always be prepared for when disaster strikes. Importantly, their dialogue comprises a list of cliches about being alert. But when Spongebob turns up unexpectedly they fall off the tower in fright. That’s when we learn Spongebob has only brought them donuts.
In Your Shoe’s Untied, the big reveal at the end of the story is that Spongebob’s cat-snail has feet with shoes on, which we can only see if he lifts up his slimy body. We saw Gary the snail wander into the living room at the very beginning of the episode, so the story feels circular and complete at the end, when it is revealed that Gary is the only creature in Bikini Bottom who is able to tie shoes. Yet we never thought to look.