Feature

The Billion-Dollar Sketchbook

Animator and surfer Stephen Hillenburg’s brainchild made his debut around a Baja campfire. Knowing the artist’s background, that should come as no surprise.

Evenings around the campfire in southern Baja, we’d play music, read from manuscripts, tell stories, and talk about what was next in our lives, or what we hoped would come next.

It was that kind of trip in February of 1994—a group of seven of various ages, including my wife, the only woman, and our baby girl, traveling and camping in four vehicles, a month-long vanishing act into the wild to check in with each other and ourselves. It would turn out to be a seminal moment in each of our lives.

While most of us surfed, John Thorndike would sit in the bed of his red Datsun pickup, often with our daughter, Ellie, sleeping at his side, writing a memoir, his beat-up Dell laptop wired to the truck battery. At night he would read from it, the story of his heartbreaking decision to raise his son alone after his wife spiraled into schizophrenia, eventually taking her life. Another Way Home would be published to critical acclaim by Crown in 1996.

The expedition leaders were Chris and Jay Speakman. They’d explored Baja in the 1970s before spending a decade as commercial lobster fishermen in the Cranberry Islands off the coast of Maine. Their lives were in transition: both would move to the Pacific Northwest later that year.

I was in transition, too, between journalism jobs, and my wife Idoline and I were in the thick of raising our one year old. Ellie defied every worry about rough travel with a toddler, proving instead to be a sort of elfin peacemaker. Everywhere we went, from dusty, windswept campsites where feral surfers squatted, to federal police roadblocks, she was our protection and safe passage.

Our friend Stephen Hillenburg had driven down from Los Angeles with Jay. His hours not surfing were spent sketching in a little pad he carried with him—shells, sea life, shipwrecks in the distance. And he would beachcomb, collecting bits of rope and buoys, and extricating desiccated sea-life from the scum line. An unassuming marine biologist with a generous smile who never missed a chance to catch some waves, he’d studied animation at CalArts as a grad student, and was on a break from his job at Nickelodeon.

We surfed and fished and camped from Ensenada to Todos Santos, east around Baja’s southern tip into the Sea of Cortez. The winds howled hard offshore for almost the entire month, but the Pacific kept its end of the bargain, sending solid waves almost every day. Some evenings Steve would play the guitar, and Jay would accompany him on harmonica.

One night at our campsite, Steve produced a sketchbook of ideas for a cartoon he wanted to create. We passed it around, a collection of dozens of drawings of a square kitchen sponge in shorts and a funny hat, and a variety of other sea-creature caricatures. He explained that his cartoon would take place entirely in a single tidepool, a tiny undersea universe. The sponge would be the lead character.

“A sponge?” one of us remarked, incredulous.

“Sponges are sedentary, they don’t have features,” we pointed out. “Like eyes and mouths. They’re just blobs that don’t move.”

“Exactly, that’s the gag. A sponge,” Steve replied, clearly unimpressed by such predictable observations. “He won’t just be a sponge. He’s going to be a common kitchen sponge.”

We knew Steve as immensely industrious and creative. He’d made an ingenious comic book about marine life in a tidepool, as an educational aid, when he taught at the Ocean Institute at Dana Point. He’d won festival awards for two films he’d made as a grad student at CalArts. His drawings were loose, evocative, fun. He had a quick, easy, un-cynical sense of humor. But it’s fair to say that the group around that campfire was generally confident that while Steve, then 32, would likely have a successful career as a cartoonist and filmmaker, his sponge would remain in the pages of that sketchbook.

One night at our Baja campsite, Steve produced a sketchbook of ideas for a cartoon he wanted to create. We passed it around, a collection of dozens of drawings of a square kitchen sponge in shorts and a funny hat, and a variety of other sea-creature caricatures. He explained that his cartoon would take place entirely in a single tidepool, a tiny undersea universe. The sponge would be the lead character.

I’ve thought about that trip and that moment often. How the spark of an idea can become something huge through a combination of hard work, persistence, and creativity, and the ways we were all dreaming and scheming about our own lives at that time.

I remember calling Steve a decade later, in 2003. By then he’d made his common kitchen sponge into the hit cartoon, and mega brand, SpongeBob SquarePants. Over the years we would talk on the phone, but mostly I’d followed him in newspaper and magazine articles. After a particularly complimentary piece of news, I called to congratulate him. He’d completed three hit seasons of the cartoon by then, and he was exhausted. He was on his way to South Korea to oversee the animation of the first SpongeBob feature film. I joked that all the press had missed the best part of the SpongeBob story—his connection to the ocean as a surfer and how he’d shared his earliest sketches with pals on a surf trip to Baja.

“You’ll have to tell that story one day,” he replied.

I’ve told the little Baja anecdote dozens of times to my two children, who grew up watching the cartoon, and to their friends, and to my own friends. I tell it as a sort of parable: Look what can happen when you believe in something, even if others think it is small and odd. A bit like a teenaged Jake Burton Carpenter, fumbling around in the snowy Massachusetts woods in the 1970s with a plank of wood known as a Snurfer and declaring to friends: “We can make a way better one of these.” Or Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, fed up with poor climbing hardware as a young, dirt-bag climber, finally deciding to make his own. We all know how these stories unfolded.

*

Steve was standing in the middle of his street when I drove up last July to pay him and his wife, Karen, a visit. It had been eight years since we’d last seen each other, when Ellie and I had slept on his floor while in L.A. for a college visit.

The person I saw standing now was physically a fraction of the man I’d known. As I approached, he arched his eyebrows and shrugged apologetically, putting out his hands palms up. “No surf,” he said, shaking his head. The cove near his house in Malibu was flat. Then, he added with astonishing earnestness: “I don’t surf anymore. A.L.S. I have A.L.S.”

I’d heard the devastating news that Steve had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, more than a year earlier, when he’d been diagnosed. But I’d been reticent to reach out until I could coordinate a visit. A neurodegenerative disease that atrophies the muscles, A.L.S. eventually impairs mobility and motor function, including speech. For Steve, it has meant a significant loss of muscle mass throughout his body and a decline in his lung function. He understands what’s being said and what’s happening around him, but his speech now comes in single, short sentences. He stopped surfing in 2017, he was able to tell me, and rarely goes in the water anymore.

There is no graceful way to write about a friend who has been diagnosed with a disease like A.L.S., so I will leave it at this: he is not the same and never will be again. To say that hundreds of friends and colleagues are devastated would be a monumental understatement.

I rode into L.A. on waves of regret. We’d both dropped the ball on our friendship—kids, jobs, family, with lives on separate coasts and occasionally separate continents. Now, with Steve ambushed by A.L.S., I wanted to see him before too much time passed, to meet Karen and their son, Clay, again, and to talk about the places surfing had taken us. I wanted to learn from him, at last, how he pulled off the improbable miracle of SpongeBob SquarePants.

Steve and his team produced the first season of SpongeBob SquarePants in 1999. Another followed immediately. Initial audience response was solid, but it wasn’t until Nickelodeon began rolling out SpongeBob merchandise that everyone realized they had a smash on their hands. It was selling out in days. Within a decade of our Baja surf trip, SpongeBob would become Nickelodeon’s most successful, and lucrative, cartoon and brand.

But it was too late. He was unable to answer those questions himself anymore. The twinkle remains in his eyes, but the words don’t come. Instead, I immersed myself in him in the only way I could. I called on his family, friends, and colleagues. And I went on a SpongeBob binge of dozens of early episodes of the cartoon, watching day and night, then the two movies and the hit Broadway musical.

Steve still goes to the office every day, so I joined him, fulfilling a wish I’d always had to be in the recording studio with him. SpongeBob is created in the brightly painted Nickelodeon offices in Burbank, where doodling on the walls is encouraged and wide-eyed kids trundle through the halls on class trips. The cradle of the SpongeBob world seemed improbably sleepy on that Wednesday in July. I’m not sure what I expected exactly, but it was bafflingly low key, a dozen or more people quietly working on the next show—the very core of the brand.

There was a touch of sadness in the air, too. People I spoke with kept correcting themselves, catching the past tense in their descriptions of Steve’s guiding and much-admired hand in the show. Almost every conversation was tinged with heartache, and expressions of affection for the man who made it all happen.

Meanwhile, beyond Nickelodeon’s walls, the multibillion-dollar business that emerged from those sketches in Baja keeps booming. The little yellow sponge is a household name, as big and pervasive as Coca Cola and Beyoncé. By March 2019, the cartoon will have completed 12 seasons, 267 episodes, and 534 shows. There’ve been two movies, and a third is on the way. And, in addition to Broadway, the sponge itself is on every imaginable product, from oven mitts to teacups, Barbie clothing to socks, and in countless memes shared across college campuses—all this translated into every market-worthy language, from Urdu to Azerbaijani.

*

After that Baja trip in the mid 1990s, Steve began by taking his cartoon idea to a handful of friends he knew from CalArts, plus a few colleagues he’d worked with at Nickelodeon on the cartoon Rocko’s Modern Life. He pulled together the core group on the clarity of his concept, his friendship, his collaborative, congenial working style and, more importantly, his judgment, which many had witnessed on Rocko.

“I just knew if Steve was coming with it, it was going to be good and fun,” Alan Smart told me. Smart, who’d worked with Steve on Rocko, signed on for the SpongeBob pilot, and has been with the show ever since, now working as its supervising director.

The relationship with Nickelodeon has had its moments of friction over the years, but Steve’s pitch to network executives—complete with him in a Hawaiian shirt, a terrarium with little versions of the characters inside, and Hawaiian music—was by all accounts a hit. Nickelodeon loved it and signed on immediately.

Steve and his team produced the first season in 1999. Another followed immediately. Initial audience response was solid, but it wasn’t until Nickelodeon began rolling out SpongeBob merchandise that everyone realized they had a smash on their hands. SpongeBob stuff was selling out in days, and members of the crew and cast were seeing the yellow sponge on everything and everyone, everywhere.

In the 1980s, Steve and the Speakmans were among only a handful of Down East surf explorers. It was an idyllic time of lonely discovery. They scouted kelpy ledges and desolate, barnacled, bouldery points, often accessible only by boat, eventually nailing the combinations of tide and swell that can make surfing in eastern Maine impossibly finicky.

“Suddenly, we realized it was huge. The company couldn’t keep up with demand,” said Jennie Monica, who started as Steve’s assistant in 1998, and is now the producer of the show.

Within a decade of our Baja trip, SpongeBob would become Nickelodeon’s most successful, and lucrative, cartoon and brand. But why? What is it that made it so successful?

“That’s the question everyone would like to know the answer to,” said Tim Hill when I caught up with him. A long-time and close friend of Steve’s, and an early writer on the show, Hill is currently directing the third SpongeBob SquarePants movie.

I asked this same question of a dozen of people close to the cartoon. Any show’s success springs from an intangible alchemy of story, writing, acting, and directing. For example, SpongeBob’s voice actor and a key member of the show’s team from the start, Tom Kenny, is given much credit for the show’s success, as he instantly developed a keen sense of the character he plays.

But everyone agrees that the essential magic came from Steve. He wanted simple stories taken from real life experiences (a yearbook picture gone wrong, how a new fad or neighbor steals the attentions of your best friend, how a good joke overtold can go wrong) and a show with a moral code that reflected earnest sensibilities.

“SpongeBob is not cool, he’s not aspirational,” Hill noted. “He just wants to go to work and be happy. There’s an innocence to him, and that definitely had a winning quality. He sees the good in a horrible person. Steve thought he had a responsibility and was very clear about the moral code,” a code Steve himself seems to live by—the virtues of optimism, courage, the righteousness of industrial ardor, the importance of triumph over fear and elitism, the value of being in the moment, unfazed by fads. We all love goofy optimists who don’t care what the cool kids think.

What’s more, Hill added, Steve and the other writers were writing for everyone. “It never occurred to us to make this for kids. We weren’t trying to make kids laugh. We wanted to make each other laugh.”

*

Sitting next to Steve in the studio, watching and chuckling as another show came together for the 500-and-something-th time, the obvious occurred to me. Even as Steve clings to this one life, we will all laugh with his sponge, and with him, forever.

That he himself is the immortal SpongeBob is undisputable and often noted. It’s cliché, but of course art imitates life. I can’t help but hear Steve in SpongeBob’s glee, and his total lack of interest in grand, scheming ambition. Take, for example, the moment in the first SpongeBob movie when Plankton exclaims, almost frothing at the mouth: “I’m going to rule the world!”

SpongeBob regards the evil green little organism for a moment and replies deadpan: “Good luck with that.” That’s Steve.

Still, it’s unfair to make too much of the similarity—unfair to the many other writers who’ve given life to the character and unfair to Steve. SpongeBob is Steve’s creation—and the sponge is often dumber than a door.

I first met Steve in Maine in 1983. I’d been invited by a girl to visit her in the southeast corner of the state, where fingers of land point into the ocean toward a vast constellation of islands. I packed a wetsuit and a board, and drove up between college summer sessions in North Carolina. As it would turn out, the girl was a dazzling shooting star I chased for only a few years. It was the surfers I found at the end of that trail in Maine who’d become campfires in my life.

When I got to Mount Desert Island, I asked around about surfing, and was told that two Hawaiians and a Californian with surfboards lived out on Little Cranberry Island, some three miles off the coast. When I arrived on a small borrowed boat the next day, the islanders were having a July Fourth celebration, a picture-postcard scene in a meadow overlooking a placid cove, where stout, brightly painted lobster boats rocked at their moorings. There was music, and there was corn, clams, mussels, and lobster in large steaming pots. And, as luck would have it, also present were the Californian, Steve Hillenburg, and the two “Hawaiians,” who turned out to be the lanky, sandy-haired Speakman brothers.

There is no graceful way to write about a friend who has been diagnosed with a disease like A.L.S., so I will leave it at this: Steve is not the same and never will be again. To say that hundreds of friends and colleagues are devastated would be a monumental understatement.

The Speakmans weren’t Hawaiian at all. They’d lived on Maui where their father had been president of a small college, but Maine roots ran deep on their mother’s side. They’d spent almost every summer on the island. In the early 1970s, after college in Hawaii, they moved to Little Cranberry to take up lobstering.

There were no surfers—or at least very few—in eastern Maine in the 1970s and 80s. The brothers were it, and in the ensuing decade the two would pioneer wave riding on the remote, rocky coastline around the Cranberries, frequently surfing alone off their lobster boats. They kept boards below deck, logged detailed records of storms, swells, tides, and breaks, and had pictures of themselves riding meaty Maine waves taped to their wheelhouses. It was a sign of the lonely state of Maine surfing at the time that they greeted me, a wave-hungry stranger, like a long-lost member of their tribe. We’ve been friends ever since.

Steve had shown up on the island a few years earlier. “I remember hearing about this kid from California with a surfboard being on the island,” Jay Speakman said recently. “We couldn’t believe it. He just showed up one day with a board. It was 1980.”

Steve had grown up in Anaheim. His dad was an engineer at Hughes Aircraft and his mom worked as a curator and expert on early American textiles. On a trip in 1975, prompted by the approaching U.S. bicentennial, Kelly and Nancy Hillenburg took their two boys East to see where the Revolution was fought and independence won. Somewhere north of Boston, a flyer advertising what seems now to be an unlikely day tour to the Cranberry Islands caught their eye. They signed up, fell in love with Little Cranberry and its village, Islesford, and soon bought a summer house there. In the puzzle that makes a life, Maine would become a central, and inspirational, piece for Steve and his later cartoon creation.

SpongeBob would have been very different had we not made this place home in the summer,” Nancy Hillenburg told me.

It was on that island that the kid from the suburbs of Orange County would come to know and love the ocean. There, the Hillenburgs lived among working fishermen, their families, their colorful and curious gear, their boats, and the buzz of seasonal visitors. The island is a virtual caricature of quaint New England. You can almost hear Jacques Cousteau, whose show Steve loved as a child, and who was the inspiration for the French-accented voice that introduces the SpongeBob cartoon, welcoming visitors to Islesford: “Here we have ze little New Eengland island village wheech has made eets leeeving from one undersea species for more than 100 years, the Eastern Lobster.”

Like SpongeBob’s Bikini Bottom, where you have no sense of time, Islesford feels cut off from the world. It’s a place where change comes imperceptibly. The single restaurant on the island, the Islesford Dock, was run for many years by a stocky, muscular, former-Navy sailor named Ralph. Steve signed on as Ralph’s fry cook in the summer, flipping burgers and making lobster rolls, experiences he would later acknowledge as inspiration for SpongeBob’s own fry-cook career cranking out Krabby Patties for Mr. Krabs at the Krusty Krab.

Steve fell in with the Speakmans, occasionally crewing on their lobster boats when he wasn’t cooking at the Dock. Nowadays, the island and the nearby mainland are home to a hardy and growing group of surfers, but in the 1980s, Steve and the Speakmans were among only a handful. It was an idyllic time of discovery. They scouted kelpy ledges and desolate, barnacled, bouldery points, often accessible only by boat, eventually nailing the combinations of tide and swell that can make surfing in eastern Maine impossibly finicky.

Even as Steve clings to this one life, we will all laugh with his sponge, and with him, forever. That he himself is the immortal SpongeBob is undisputable and often noted. It’s cliché, but of course art imitates life. I can’t help but hear Steve in SpongeBob’s glee, and his total lack of interest in grand, scheming ambition.

Years later, in 1999, when Nickelodeon launched SpongeBob SquarePants, Steve sent his mom the first episodes of the cartoon: “Help Wanted,” “Reef Blower,” and “Bubblestand.” Everyone on the island knows everyone else—and everyone knows Steve—so his mom held a showing and invited all to see what Steve had been up to. Kids and adults packed the place.

In the opening cartoon, an eager SpongeBob applies for a job at the Krusty Krab. He marches down to the establishment singing, “I’m ready! I’m ready!”—the position of fry cook representing the pinnacle of his ambition. Mr. Krabs brushes him off, but the intrepid little yellow sponge returns anyway, and swings into action when a mob of angry, hungry anchovies invades the restaurant. Working at lightning speed, SpongeBob silences the braying minnows with a hail of Krabby Patties and delivers one of the cartoon’s signature messages: Hard work wins the day.

When the show ended, the Islesford crowd erupted in applause, and poured outside into the summer evening, Mrs. Hillenburg recalled. “I remember watching the kids skip down the street singing: ‘I’m Ready! I’m Ready!’ It was then I knew he had a hit.”

*

The last time Steve and Jay surfed in Baja together was in the winter of 2006, just the two of them. Steve had taken a hiatus from the cartoon. Making money was no longer a concern, and he’d long ago told me all he ever really wanted to do with his life was to be a painter. So he was painting and making a movie about Los Angeles.

One afternoon in Central Baja, an orca began thrashing fiercely offshore.

“We were camping,” Jay remembered. “The next morning we got up early to surf, and there were giant squid all washed up on the beach.”

Steve, the marine scientist, knew right away what had happened: The orcas had driven the squid onto the shore, and he identified them instantly as Humboldt squid. He was picking them up and examining them as potential dinner.

“That’s how he is. The surf was going off but we spent an hour examining the squid. Stuff would come up on the boat in Maine, too, some weird sea creature in a pot and he would just get jazzed. Just like a kid. That’s what I love about the guy.”

Two years ago, with Steve beginning to fall ill, Karen Hillenburg called Tim Hill and asked him to work with Steve on developing the script for the third SpongeBob SquarePants film. With Steve’s health failing and the cartoon about to celebrate two decades, Hill initially recoiled at the pressure the moment seemed to represent. “I didn’t want to be the guy who screws this up,” he told me.

Steve had an idea for the plot, and over the course of a few meetings, Hill relented and wrote the treatment. One thing led to another and Hill is now the director, which seems fitting. It’s a rescue story. SpongeBob must save his pet snail, Gary, who’s been taken by bad guys who want to harvest his trail of slime as a valuable skin treatment, Hill said.

Hill and I spoke for an hour, a conversation marked by gratitude, awe, and humor about his journey with Steve and SpongeBob. Ultimately, he explained, he agreed to direct the film to honor his friend.

“The story is nostalgic,” Hill said. “Steve is actually in the story,” a fitting first for the cartoon.

He paused and added, haltingly: “It’s basically a love letter to Steve.”

I remembered an exchange on that phone call I’d made to Steve back in 2003. He was by then rich and well-known in the animation world. We talked about going to Indo together, and I remarked how far he’d come since our dirt-bag Baja run.

“Not really,” he laughed. “I’m still just that guy with a wacky idea.”


Stephen Hillenburg passed away on November 26, 2018, shortly before this article first ran in TSJ.