Born in 1961, Hillenburg cut his teeth as a marine biology teacher in Dana Point, California, where he dreamt up the rough visions of SpongeBob’s Bikini Bottom homeland via illustrated teaching tools. Eventually, his passion for animation led him back to school, and his hyper, one-of-a-kind vision landed him a gig writing and directing episodes of Rocko’s Modern Life.
SpongeBob SquarePants debuted on Nickelodeon in 1999, kicking off an entertainment and merchandising empire that, so far, includes 12 seasons and two movies—The Spongebob SquarePants Movie and Sponge Out Of Water—with a third slated for a 2020 release. In addition to being a meme staple, the series has been dubbed or subtitled in more than 60 languages.
It all began with a simple pitch, however, which our own Zack Handlen detailed in this 2014 piece on the series:
When it came time to pitch the series, creator Steve Hillenburg had a vision. Coming fresh off a stint on Rocko’s Modern Life (a show that would eventually provide SpongeBob with a number of its key personnel, including Tom Kenny, the actor and voice artist who gives SpongeBob his distinctive nasal chirp), Hillenburg brought together ideas he’d been planning for years, a mixture of tiki culture (SpongeBob lives in a pineapple; ukulele music waves goodbye through the closing credits), his own passion for marine life, and a main character distinguished by his relentless optimism and fundamental sweetness. Hillenburg even wore a Hawaiian shirt to the pitch meeting. One of the elements that set the show apart from the very beginning was a consistent, confident commitment to these ideas, a kind of texture brought to life by the various, dedicated artists working behind the scenes.
Handlen went on to laud the series for “the fundamental simplicity of its attitude, a pervasive geniality that embraces the broad, the subtle, the absurd, and the surreal without ever seeming to strain.”
“We are incredibly saddened by the news that Steve Hillenburg has passed away following a battle with ALS,” Nickelodeon said in a statement. “He was a beloved friend and long-time creative partner to everyone at Nickelodeon, and our hearts go out to his entire family. Steve imbued SpongeBob SquarePants with a unique sense of humor and innocence that has brought joy to generations of kids and families everywhere. His utterly original characters and the world of Bikini Bottom will long stand as a reminder of the value of optimism, friendship and the limitless power of imagination.”