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SpongeBob SquarePants’ 20 years of brilliance, explained in 3 episodes

Among dozens of perfect episodes, these three exemplify what makes SpongeBob endure.

SpongeBob as the bandleader in “Band Geeks.”
Nickelodeon

SpongeBob SquarePants has grown up quite a bit since his TV debut as the eccentric inhabitant of a pineapple under the sea, surrounded by his equally eccentric aquatic pals.

The character and his eponymous Nickelodeon cartoon have spent the past 20 years working their way into nearly every corner of popular culture, spawning a multimedia franchise that spans nearly 300 episodes and counting, two movies, several video games, endless tie-in merchandise, and even a well-received Broadway musical.

The quirky yellow sponge — whose daily life includes working as a fry cook at the Krusty Krab, hanging out with his friends, and occasionally fending off a killer, sentient doodle or building campfires underwater — is no longer just the bright-eyed kid he was when the show premiered on May 1, 1999. Now he’s a very rich, very famous kid whose persona has essentially taken on a life of its own.

Part of that life is online, as SpongeBob has been woven into the fabric of the internet by way of a number of popular and transformative memes. Viewers who grew up with the character have, over the past four years or so, isolated some of the show’s most memorable moments into some of Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook’s best (and weirdest) jokes.

On one hand, it’s easy to see why a frame of SpongeBob clucking like a hen could so easily become a stand-in for more direct mockery. SpongeBob’s humor has always operated on multiple levels; the cartoon combines endlessly quotable one-liners with images whose meanings become delightfully malleable when taken out of context, as well as perfectly off-kilter line deliveries.

But to focus solely on the memes as proof of SpongeBob’s cultural cachet is to ignore the elements that really distinguish it as something special. At its best, SpongeBob SquarePants is a masterwork of containing so much unique, brilliant humor in each 11-minute episode. Anyone who loves comedy or animation should regard it as essential viewing.

While I could easily recommend dozens of episodes to the Sponge-curious, I’ve instead opted to highlight three that embody the main elements that make SpongeBob so great: the show’s visual gags, surreal sensibilities, and most importantly, its charming and lovable cast.

The best episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants are visually hilarious and innovatively animated (“Wet Painters,” season three)

One of SpongeBob SquarePants’ greatest strengths is how much its animators push the boundaries of their medium. So much of what makes the show funny is the look of it — how flexible the world and citizens of Bikini Bottom are, and the willingness of the SpongeBob creative team to change the show’s entire aesthetic in a single shot.

An episode from the show’s third season, “Wet Painters,” is a great example of SpongeBob’s visual dexterity.

SpongeBob and Patrick have been tasked with painting Mr. Krabs’s living room, and ordered to be careful of his precious framed dollar. Naturally, the boys get a speck of paint on the dollar. And from there, the show devolves into a wild array of facial expressions, rapid cutaways, and dramatic close-ups, all as SpongeBob and Patrick try to rectify their mistake.

A scene from the first minute of the episode, when Mr. Krabs is giving SpongeBob and Patrick their assignment, illustrates how SpongeBob mines jokes out of nothing more than its characters faces; take a look at the GIF below to see what I mean:

SpongeBob and Patrick’s faces in “Wet Painters.”
SpongeBob and Patrick’s faces get me every time.
Nickelodeon via Vox

The whole episode is a tour through SpongeBob’s versatile visage. But there’s one other image from this episode that fans of the show will remember:

A time card from SpongeBob
You’ve probably seen a time card from SpongeBob online at some point or another.
Nickelodeon via Vox

SpongeBob’s “hours later” time cards are a familiar plot device on the show, marking the passage of time with a narrated flourish. They’re ripe for meme-ing, to be sure, but they’re also perhaps the show’s longest-running sight gag, appearing in dozens of episodes as a quick cutaway that sets up the next joke.

“Wet Painters” makes these pretty floral titles more than just a transition between scenes; Patrick straight-up grabs one, as if he was holding them up the whole time, turning this already fantastic episode of SpongeBob into something meta. It’s a surprise reversal here, making the visual a joke all on its own.

SpongeBob offered many kids their first taste of the absurd (“SB-129,” season 1)

SpongeBob’s frequent metatextual goofs betray its status as something a little more thoughtful than you might expect from a kids’ TV show that got its start long before shows like Adventure Time and Steven Universe made that approach more of the norm. Part of SpongeBob’s charm, in the eyes of an aging audience, is that it contains plenty of clever, adult-oriented humor, packaged in a way that is still palatable for kids. A lot of that comes from the surrealism baked heavily into the show’s animation and storytelling, which relies on inexplicable absurdity and gags that make little sense in or out of context.

Consider “SB-129,” from SpongeBob’s first season, which features one of the most bonkers premises in the show’s history: Squidward gets extremely annoyed by SpongeBob and Patrick’s efforts to hang out with him, and in trying to avoid them, he literally ends up frozen in the Krusty Krab, where he eventually awakens 2,000 years into the future.

Stories about how weird and different the future is are generally fun; that’s why pop culture is rife with stories about time travel. But “SB-129” goes much further than flying cars and robot butlers, introducing numerous SpongeBob clones and a two-headed Patrick, all without explanation. Squidward copes with his new timeline by doing crunches on the floor, chanting “future” on repeat. And then he enters a time machine that happens to be collecting dust at the Krusty Krab, rocketing him back deep into a very primitive past. (This is where we meet a caveman version of SpongeBob, which has since become a popular meme.)

For the show to play with its timeline in such a dramatic way is both thrilling and slightly disturbing. Never does “SB-129” offer a more traditional “let’s see Bikini Bottom throughout history!” spin on time travel; instead, the episode ends on a fantastically strange note, sending Squidward into a dimension where he gets stuck without the time machine. He’s lost in a white void of nowhere, with no physical logic and an eerie sense of hopelessness. It’s so discomfiting that some fans have since theorized that the scene represents Squidward’s trip to purgatory.

But the question of whether or not Squidward might be, uh, dead in the void scene is a big step beyond the point. I will still always laugh when Squidward breathes a sigh of relief, happy to finally be alone, only to be overtaken by a bunch of omnipresent, unseen voices overwhelming him with the very thing he wants most:

Squidward in the nowhere dimension in SpongeBob.
Squidward briefly enjoys his trip to the one place he can be alone.
Nickelodeon via Vox

It’s a small moment that reminds me of the comedy inherent in some of our most jarring media — like the Red Room in Twin Peaks, or the short film Un Chien Andalou by Salvador Dalí. They’re all bizarre to the nth degree, so uninterested in aesthetic convention that their audacity becomes funny.

From there, the plot of “SB-129” heads back toward normalcy fairly quickly, with Squidward beating back against the current of madness to find the time machine and return home to present-day Bikini Bottom. But his jaunt into that surreal emptiness isn’t forgotten by us — it showed us the nihilistic depths SpongeBob was willing to go to.

SpongeBob SquarePants’ characters may be silly, but they’re good-hearted through and through (“Band Geeks,” season 2)

It’s difficult to imagine the under-10 set truly understanding the gallows humor of “SB-129.” But for anyone who couldn’t get into SpongeBob’s outlandishness, the show was built atop the same foundation that has supported all the best shows throughout TV history: a cast of compelling, well-defined characters, with so much heart and personality that it didn’t matter what they were up to because viewers would follow them anywhere.

Each one is a familiar archetype: SpongeBob is the eternal optimist, always energized and full of love and excitement for the world in front of him. Patrick, his starfish best friend, ratchets that excitement up several notches and adds an extra dose of cluelessness. They’re a perfectly matched pair who find the fun in everything, whereas their so-called other best friend, Squidward, is a misanthropic counterpoint. He’s a terrible clarinetist with a high opinion of himself that he’s absolutely never earned. And Squidward’s cynicism only feels more realistic and relatable as the viewer gets older; to be a Squidward isn’t a compliment, exactly, but it’s not a stigma.

SpongeBob’s boss at the Krusty Krab, Mr. Krabs, is selfish and greedy; Plankton, the rival owner of competing fast-food establishment the Chum Bucket, is the frustrated intellectual version of Krabs. Sandy the squirrel is the new kid (and rare mammal) in town who’s welcomed by the group, an outsider who runs a little hot and who’s way too cosmopolitan to be hanging out with such average folks.

Their average existence is part of what makes them delightful, though, and they’re all far more dimensional than these breakdowns suggest. That is also true for the expanded cast of fish that SpongeBob and crew encounter throughout the series, from the one background character who’s often heard shouting “my leg,” to miserable boating school teacher Mrs. Puff, to the retired, odd-couple superheroes Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy.

A great showpiece for SpongeBob’s cast is “Band Geeks,” a season two episode that is deservedly celebrated because it shows every character at their funniest. Squidward is challenged by his rival, Squilliam Fancyson — who represents everything Squidward wishes he could be, with a lot of money and a successful music career — to put on a band concert, something Squidward is in no way prepared to do.

So everyone in Bikini Bottom gathers to practice instruments they’ve never played and master them in a matter of days. It goes horribly — but that’s what makes the episode so much fun, as every character is pushed to their limit, including those we’ve only ever seen in bit roles.

Here’s a representative exchange from early on in the episode:

Squidward: People, people, settle down! Okay, now. How many of you have played musical instruments before?

Plankton: Do instruments of torture count?

Squidward: No.

Patrick: Is mayonnaise an instrument?

Squidward: No, Patrick, mayonnaise is not an instrument. [Patrick raises his hand again] Horseradish is not an instrument, either. [Patrick lowers his hand] That’s fine. No one has any experience. Fortunately, I have enough talent for all of you.

[Squidward laughs. Everyone stays silent.]

Mr. Krabs: When do we get the free food?

Squidward: Okay, try to repeat after me. [Squidward plays six notes] Brass section, go. [brass section repeats badly] Good. Now the wind. [wind section repeats badly] And the drums. [drummers misunderstand what Squidward means, so they blow on their sticks which blow out and stick Squidward to the wall] Too bad that didn’t kill me. [Next scene] Let’s just try stepping in the rhythm. Now I want everyone to stand in straight rows of five.

SpongeBob: Is this the part where we start kicking?

Squidward: No, SpongeBob, that’s a chorus line.

Patrick: Kicking? I wanna do some kicking! [Patrick kicks Sandy in the leg]

Sandy: Ow! Why, you ... ! Why I oughta ... ! [she jumps on Patrick and starts fighting him until they roll outside and the doors slam shut]

[Patrick is heard screaming outside. Everyone pauses and stare at the door, then Patrick sticks his head back in]

Patrick: Whoever is the owner of the white sedan, you left your lights on.

[Patrick walks in and it is revealed that Sandy has stuck his body in a trombone. Trombone notes are heard as he walks towards his seat. As he sits down, he makes a sound on his trombone. Makes a loud trombone noise as he opens his mouth.]

By the time “Band Geeks” aired, in season two, viewers knew SpongeBob’s characters well enough for this to read as an encapsulation of who they were in just a handful of lines. If I wanted to explain the show to someone, this is the episode I’d pick. Because for as much meanness as a scene like this may suggest out of context — everyone’s fighting, after all! — the whole cast comes together for a truly magnificent conclusion, one that many SpongeBob fans hold dear.

SpongeBob galvanizes the citizens of Bikini Bottom to put on the best darn performance ever to help out Squidward; he’s given up on himself and his dream at this point. And SpongeBob is so pure of heart that of course it works. He’s the one who wants everyone to be their best, and that’s why they love him. So they put on a melodramatic rock performance that is so hilarious and shocking and yet perfectly in line with who these characters are: deep down, even the villains of Bikini Bottom have good hearts.

That good-heartedness is why “Band Geeks” is such a classic episode of SpongeBob SquarePants: Like all the best SpongeBob episodes, it nails the show’s signature combination of absurdist humor and silly character moments. It embodies why it’s so fun to watch the show’s characters interact with each other in predictable ways; to laugh at its sharp, witty jokes; and to marvel at how its animation is so consistently disarming and funny. No wonder the show has lasted 20 years and is still going strong.