It’s been 18 years—yes, 18 years—since SpongeBob SquarePants moved into his pineapple under the sea (and our hearts), but the cube-slacked goofball is proving you can teach an old sponge new tricks.
Last week at San Diego Comic-Con, Nickelodeon gave fans a sneak peek at the absorbent and yellow and porous hero’s upcoming stop-motion Halloween special, “SpongeBob: The Legend of Boo-Kini Bottom.”
While details of the October adventure are still under wraps, the clip above features SpongeBob dressed as an adorable flower, Patrick dressed as an apparently unconscious knight and the surprise return of the Flying Dutchman for an unorthodox marshmallow roast and an unsolicited lesson in Halloween decorating.
“The Legend of Boo-Kini Bottom” marks Nickelodeon’s latest collaboration with Screen Novelties, the company behind the 2012 stop-motion special “It’s a SpongeBob Christmas!”
In anticipation of the upcoming special and 12th season, I sat down with “SpongeBob” stars Carolyn Lawrence (voice of Sandy) and Bill Fagerbakke (voice of Patrick), as well as supervising producers Vincent Waller and Marc Ceccarelli, to uncover the secret of SpongeBob’s longevity and discuss the continued evolution of this popular series.
David Onda: It’s awesome that you all are here, but what do you need to do press for? Who hasn’t heard of “SpongeBob SquarePants?”
Bill Fagerbakke: You know what, can you take this right to Viacom? Just go right to Viacom. Say, “Hey, leave these people alone. Just let them work.” [laughs]
Vincent Waller: But to answer your question—on Twitter, people are very interested in any little tidbit. We’re going to be talking about the stop-motion thing today. They’re all excited about that, they wanna hear about that. We only let them know a little bit at a time, because I don’t like spoiling things for people.
Carolyn Lawrence: We have a new special.
Onda: Yes! Please, tell me about “SpongeBob: The Legend of Boo-Kini Bottom.”
Lawrence: It’s stop-motion!
Waller: It’s for Halloween!
Lawrence: It’s amazing!
Waller: If you saw the Christmas stop-motion, it’s by the same folks that did that. We’ve been working with them very closely on the Halloween special.
Lawrence: It’s spoo-oo-ooky.
Onda: You're heading into the 12th season of "SpongeBob." What is the secret to the show's longevity?
Lawrence: Their brilliance. [points to Waller and Ceccarelli]
Waller: Honestly, I still think it’s basic. When you get kids early on, SpongeBob is the character that they want to be. He has all the innocence of a child, yet he has full, free reign. He doesn’t live in a house with his parents. He has a job that he loves. I think kids identify with that. That’s the thing they really want. They don’t necessarily want to be an adult. When I was a kid and I had fantasies about being a movie star, I never pictured myself as being a full-grown man movie star. It was me at a time wearing six guns and jumping off trains. That’s what kids want, and SpongeBob gives them that.
Fagerbakke: That’s probably the best, most astute rational I’ve ever heard.
Lawrence: I think it’s the simplicity of the humor, too.
Marc Ceccarelli: I think that’s a big thing about the show. We’re one of the few shows that our only mandate is just to be funny. We’re not teaching lessons.
Waller: We don’t have five minutes of apologies at the end.
Ceccarelli: It’s just dumb, stupid, fun comedy.
Lawrence: And oddly enough, the lessons are in there anyway.
Ceccarelli: I think when you’re being honest with your comedy, you can’t help it.
Fagerbakke: This is a massive industry, children’s entertainment. It is big. There are constantly people wanting to come up with a successful product. It’s not just a formula. There’s also this weird alchemy of the colors and the shapes and the sounds and the dynamics and the relationships of these characters that you can’t anticipate. You can’t say, “If I do X, Y and Z, I’m gonna get YY.” You don’t know that. It happens in a weird, organic, natural way. The more you manipulate it in a cynical hope, I think the less opportunity there is for really organic success.
Onda: Butch Hartman recently told me that advancements in technology, such as cell phones, have given him new stories that he couldn’t have done 16 years ago when “Fairly Odd Parents” started.
Ceccarelli: We tend to stay away from pop culture references and things that a lot of other shows do.
Waller: Or we take it and twist it. We did a thing called Whirly Brains at the beginning of this season, and it was basically spoofing on everybody with their little flying drones. The difference is, when they send off to get it, you basically scare yourself so that your head opens up and your brain can have a propeller put into it, and then they have a remote control to control their eyeballs and brain flying around looking at things. It’s modern stuff, but with a twist.
Fagerbakke: And then there was the one with the bulletin board, which was kind of like social media.
Onda: Bill and Carolyn, after all these years, are there still things that you’re learning about Patrick and Sandy?
Lawrence: Always. I’m always learning how far emotionally she can go, because her range is really wide. [laughs]
Fagerbakke: It is a therapeutic experience for me to do Patrick. I get to release some weird thing that’s in me. [laughs] It’s really, really fun. It’s more about joy than discovery for me.
Lawrence: I would like to have the capability to go to the moon and invent all the things that she invents. I like living through her, because she’s so highly capable.
Onda: Any series that runs as long as "SpongeBob" runs this risk of simply running out of ideas. How do you keep going?
Ceccarelli: I always wonder that myself, too. We have so many episodes we have to write each season. When you’re sitting at the base of that mountain looking up at it …
Waller: It can be kind of daunting.
Ceccarelli: Somehow or another—I don’t know if it’s the pressure of a deadline or what—it always seems to come out. Even when you’re spinning your wheels and you’re seeing the deadline looming and nothing’s coming out, for some reason, right before the deadline, ding!
Waller: An idea will stick.
Fagerbakke: Which also reflects your inherent ability to connect with the world of the show in a germane, intrinsic way. You’re not forcing stuff. It’s happening inside of your weird brains. Your brains are scary things.
Waller: It’s true.
Lawrence: Which also speaks to Steve Hillenburg when he first created it. His world was so complete. It’s been fun for us to play in all these years.
Ceccarelli: That’s the other thing. The characters are so well defined that they almost write themselves. You put them in a situation, and then you just kind of sit back and watch where they go in your brain. A lot of times we’ll just start with—we want to see Patrick off on his own this episode. Where is that gonna go? We have, like, five writers all together …
Fagerbakke: [to Ceccarelli] Do you draw from real life very often?
Waller: Oh, yeah. Usually that’s where it comes from. We’re throwing ideas around, and almost always it’s something that happened to somebody in life, taking it and working it back into the show.
Onda: After the “Boo-Kini Bottom” Halloween special, what’s next for SpongeBob?
Lawrence: Another movie. Twenty more seasons. [laughs]
Waller: Everything she said.
Watch full episodes of “SpongeBob SquarePants” with XFINITY On Demand now, and check out “SpongeBob: The Legend of Boo-kini Bottom” this October on Nickelodeon.