More than a decade has passed since Stephen Hillenburg’s porous protagonist established Bikini Bottom as a must-see outpost of popular culture. Tom Heintjes gathered insights and reminiscences from some of the people behind SpongeBob SquarePants to illuminate the making of a cultural phenomenon.
It’s SpongeBob’s ocean; we just swim in it. When the first SpongeBob SquarePants episode (“Help Wanted”) aired on May 1, 1999, it did so with little fanfare. If the formula—a goofy naïf and his eccentric fellow-travelers—sounded standard, its execution was anything but: The character’s indomitable optimism and childlike joy set him apart from characters whose appeal is predicated on an aspirational attitude of cool. SpongeBob’s rise to animation’s pantheon, not to mention his longevity, made his creator Stephen Hillenburg very wealthy and practically a household name, thanks to SpongeBob merchandise bearing his signature.
Hillenburg, a marine biologist by training, created Intertidal Zone, a comic book for his employer, the Ocean Institute. The comic book featured a sponge named Bob that was the first incarnation of the spongiform sprite. But his passion for animation led him to a role as creative director of Joe Murray’s cartoon, Rocko’s Modern Life. On that program, Hillenburg became acquainted with the group of people who would become central to helping him realize his vision of a porous protagonist and his subaquatic friends, chief among them Derek Drymon, Nick Jennings and Tom Kenny. They bought into Hillenburg’s vision of SpongeBob as the eternal child who could see only the bright side of even the most oppressively punishing situation and who finds only the good in the most ill-intentioned people.
From the beginning, Hillenburg emphasized that the stories should focus on the characters, never striving for the archly ironic, self-aware cool that might fleetingly catch viewers’ fancy but which inevitably wears out its welcome. To this day, long after Hillenburg handed his characters off to others, that approach remains the show’s credo. SpongeBob’s evolution can be broken broadly into two distinct periods: prior to the movie, and after it. The first period began with its debut on May 1, 1999 (though Hillenburg had been developing the concept for years; some evidence shows it had been gestating since 1986). The series started strongly (in a vote of early confidence, parent network Nickelodeon aired its debut immediately following the broadcast of its highly rated Kids’ Choice Awards), and it found a loyal audience among children as well as adults who appreciated its whimsy and slyly deceptive sophistication. (Only later would the broadcaster learn that the program was also popular among college students in various states of sobriety and among gay viewers—but more on that later.) SpongeBob’s first era ended in 2004 with the conclusion of the third season. Hillenburg announced that he was putting the series on hiatus while he focused on the theatrical movie. At the time, no one knew if more SpongeBob episodes would be forthcoming. The movie, released on Nov. 19, 2004, was a popular and critical hit, and a fourth season was announced. However, Hillenburg and creative director Derek Drymon chose to leave the show, allowing other hands to take the wheel. (Hillenburg retains a role as executive producer, though he no longer orchestrates every detail of the show as he had during the first three seasons.)
Telling the story of any animated property inevitably involves a narrative comprising many people who often play unsung but key roles in giving a show its character and sensibility. Hogan’s Alley spoke with some of those people who offered their insights and reminiscences about their experiences in animating the world’s most famous sponge.
Are you ready, kids?
“I was just blown away” The odds of a property getting picked up and produced are remote, but Stephen Hillenburg had honed his chops on the critically acclaimed Rocko’s Modern Life. Just as importantly, Hillenburg had become acquainted with the coterie that would help him bring his vision to fruition.
A Hillenburg drawing of the character when he was going by his early working name. (Throughout the feature, click an image to see an enlargement.)
Tom Kenny, voice of SpongeBob, 1999-present: My involvement with SpongeBob came about through my involvement with Steve Hillenburg. We worked together on Rocko’s Modern Life, a Nicktoons show created by Joe Murray. Steve was the creative director on that, and it was my first voice-over of any significance. He and I met there, as did a few other guys who would go on to become seminal in the birth of SpongeBob. Derek [Drymon] worked on that, as did Doug Lawrence, both as a voice and a writer/storyboard guy. Mr. Lawrence now does the voice of Plankton and writes for SpongeBob. Nick Jennings also worked on Rocko. He was one of SpongeBob’s early graphics mentors and a close collaborator of Steve’s. Derek Drymon, creative director, 1999-2004: I met Steve at my first job in television animation on a show called Rocko’s Modern Life. Nickelodeon was producing it under the name Games Animation. [Steve] was a storyboard director, and I was a clean-up artist. Rocko was a storyboard-driven show, which meant the storyboard teams would work from an outline and would create the episode by drawing it out. Storyboarding was the best job you could imagine and I really wanted to do it, but I had no experience. I started self-publishing a comic book called Funnytime Features to show the show’s creator, Joe Murray, what I could do. When Steve was promoted to creative director of Rocko, I was bumped me up to storyboard artist largely based on what I did in my comic book. Kenny: Rocko’s Modern Life was just one of those shows that were the first break for a lot of people who went on to do other stuff in the business. A few years later, when Steve was ready to pitch a character of his own, he remembered me and thought I’d be good for his new character, SpongeBob. He asked me to look at some stuff, and it was a very well thought-out, well-conceived bible, the only difference being that the character was called SpongeBoy. But there were character drawings—not really model sheets—but drawings of the characters, personality profiles, graphic studies of SpongeBob’s pineapple house and Squidward’s tiki head house, the Krusty Krab, a lobster-trap-shaped structure. It was typical Steve: fully realized before he even mentioned it to anyone. By the time I saw it, I was just blown away by the groundwork. And he learned a lot of those lessons from Joe Murray on Rocko. Joe was a very smart and creative guy. Drymon: I was teamed up with the storyboard director Mark O’Hare, who had been Steve’s storyboard artist for the first three seasons of [Rocko]. Mark was one of the top guys on Rocko, and I was thrilled to be working for him. I was so excited to get the job—it was the first time I was getting paid for my ideas. I remember driving home on the day I got the promotion and thinking somehow it would all go wrong. I envisioned myself dying in a car crash on the way home. I was sure the universe wouldn’t let me be happy.
The job only lasted one season. The show was being canceled, and Nickelodeon was moving away from storyboard-driven shows like Rocko and Ren and Stimpy. I was very disappointed I wouldn’t be able to write any more. Steve was
The SpongeBob cast as shown in Steve Hillenburg’s series bible.
starting to think about creating and pitching his own show. I remember his bringing it up to Mark in our office and asking him if he’d be interested in working on it. Mark had just sold a comic strip [Citizen Dog] to Universal Press Syndicate, and so wouldn’t have the time. I was all ready to say yes to the offer but Steve didn’t ask; he just left the room. I was pretty desperate to keep writing so I ran into the hall after him and basically begged him for the job. He didn’t jump at the chance. I had hardly any experience, and Steve and I didn’t know each other very well, so I couldn’t blame him. Of course, Steve was never one to make a quick decision; he must have thought it over because he eventually offered me the job.
When Rocko ended, I went on to work as a storyboard artist on another Nickelodeon show. Steve and I would meet at his house after work a few times a week to work on the pitch for SpongeBob. It would have been 1996. Steve wanted to develop a character who had a very young, boyish attitude and cited Jerry Lewis, Pee-Wee-Herman and Stan Laurel as inspiration. The first time I went over there we sat on his bed and watched The Office Boy. Steve talked all through it, pointing out things he liked about the character Jerry was playing. The scene that was most SpongeBob in hindsight was the one where Jerry’s boss gives him the job of putting out hundreds of folding chairs in a giant auditorium. It looks like it will take hours. The boss steps out for a minute, and when he walks back in, Jerry had magically filled the place with chairs. We also watched a Laurel and Hardy short called “Towed in a Hole” where Stan is annoying Ollie and gets put in a little room as a punishment. Steve loved how Stan entertained himself by drawing on the wall and playing tic-tac-toe all alone—he was like a kid being put in the corner. Steve really wanted to capture that innocent, kid-like humor.
The first time Steve showed me a drawing of SpongeBob we were in his office. It was just a doodle in his sketchbook. I was really surprised to see that the character was a square; at the time it seemed like such an odd design idea. It really impressed me as something unique. He originally thought of the character as an amorphous shape, like a real sponge, but had hit upon a kitchen sponge shape, and I think that’s when the character clicked in his head.
From a scene that was eventually cut from “Rock-a-Bivalve,” Patrick explains his parenting philosophy (sketches by Jay Lender).
Eric Coleman [vice president of animation development and production at Nickelodeon, 1992-2008; senior vice president, original series for Walt Disney Television Animation, 2008-present]: One misconception is that it’s very difficult to get in and pitch your show, when the truth is that development executives at networks want very much to hear ideas. They want very much to get the word out on what types of shows they’re looking for, and anyone who calls up and asks to speak to someone in the development department can do so. They might not get the head of the department, nor do they need to. They just need to speak to someone who can speak to the creative agenda of the network so they can craft their pitch so they can come back in with a pitch that is just what the network is looking for. That goes for outside folks. What happens frequently in animation is that people who work on one production really hone their skills and also learn about the creative needs of the network they’re working at and, most importantly, build key relationships with people on the production side, on the network side, all sides of the fence.
Pitch meetings can vary dramatically from studio to studio or even show to show. I personally prefer pitches to be a smaller, more casual affair. I’m most interested in getting a sense of the creator as a talent, as someone who has a vision and a passion for the show. I am less concerned about a whole song and dance with a choreographed presentation with Powerpoint slides and foam-core stand-ups and mocked-up lunch boxes. I am much more interested in a creator who can really get my attention with characters and stories and a world that feels fresh.
Steve actually went above and beyond. He gave a great presentation. He came in dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, and he had an aquarium with little versions of the characters inside. He had rigged up a seashell that, when you held it up to your ear, played Hawaiian music instead of ocean sounds. So he had a good amount of razzle-dazzle to make the atmosphere fun, but that’s not at all what won the day. The show he pitched had art that really caught our eye and a character with such a funny personality. He was able to convey the sense of the show overall that just really seemed fun. In a pitch meeting like that, the goal is not for it to seem like greatest thing ever. The goal is for it to seem interesting enough to develop it further. Jeff Hutchins, sound designer, 1999-present: I had worked with Steve before. He was the top director on Rocko’s Modern Life under Joe Murray. We had developed quite a relationship together and enjoyed working together. After a full season of working together, he started developing SpongeBob. At first, I only worked on animation sound, then expanded to all types of projects on the Warner Bros. lot. Eventually, I even joined the live-action group for a season and did no animation. While in midseason on a sci-fi show with Debra Messing [Prey], I got a call from Steve in my studio. He wasn’t happy. He knew I might be able to help. I still thank the Lord for that call.
I wrote down his wish list for his fledgling project’s pilot. He had been assigned a post-sound studio to work with on his pilot and didn’t get the treatment he deserved. I think he wanted to work with me again, but Warner Bros. was a really expensive place to do your sound work. Nickelodeon was still looking for the show to rip the roof off things. Budgets were tight on new shows. So anyway, [Steve] asked for maybe 20 things, like an ocean liner horn, that became [SpongeBob’s] ship horn alarm clock. I knew I had the sounds he was looking for and told him just that. I offered him options and, in some cases, multiple choices. We agreed to meet at the Warner Bros. gate near the water tower in 20 minutes—just about enough time to drive from one end of Burbank to the other, find a place to park near a major studio, and walk to the gate. I could just feel that old pickup truck he drove back then peeling out. I recorded every bit of his whole list to a tape—I called them Show Dats—and was there to meet him when he got there. He was about as happy as you could imagine, and off he went. Next thing you know, I am working on the show. Ten years go by, and my career has taken off. He has helped me to make a good life from those choices. I’ve felt very rewarded for my loyalty to Steve Hillenburg. Thanks, Steve, for the job. I have you to thank for quite a lot. Drymon: Steve’s original idea for the pitch was that we would write a storyboard for a possible episode and pitch it to the network. He wanted to write an episode with SpongeBob and Squidward on a road trip, inspired by the movie Pow Wow Highway. It’s a road trip movie staring Gary Farmer, who is an innocent, kid-like character who is traveling with a curmudgeon. The SpongeBob/Squidward dynamic really developed while we were working on it but eventually Steve gave up on the storyboard idea for the initial pitch. We resurrected the Sponge/Squid road trip during the first season and used a lot of the ideas for an episode called “Pizza Delivery.”
While we were trying to write the road trip storyboard, Steve came up with the idea of a starfish character. The original character was angry and had a huge chip on his shoulder because he was pink. He was the owner of a roadside bar that the guys went to on their trip and was a bully, but that didn’t last long. Steve was going through a lot of ideas at the time. We worked on and off for about six months, and when we were done Steve had all the characters and settings that became the show.
With the help of writer Tim Hill and art director Nick Jennings, Steve finished the pitch and sold SpongeBob to Nickelodeon. Meanwhile I had cowritten a pilot for Nickelodeon, so I had some idea of what they were looking for in their pilots. Steve and I had dinner and came up with the idea for “Help Wanted” based on an experience Steve had in the Boy Scouts. He and Tim worked it into an outline—the network approved it—so we were ready to go.
Roughs by Jay Lender from a deleted scene from “Graveyard Shift,” in which SpongeBob is delivering mail to Floorboard Harry. This gag is the predecessor to the Nosferatu gag that concludes the broadcast episode, and Floorboard Harry initially flickers the lights.
Coleman: It was all there from the very first pitch. This is SpongeBob, this where he lives, this is who his best friend is, this is the cranky neighbor who lives in between them, this is where he works, these are the characters at work, this is Sandy the squirrel in her tree dome. The relationships were there, and the core personality traits were all there. So as we moved forward in making the pilot and then picking up the series, it was just a matter of letting out the stories that Steve already had in his head. He didn’t necessarily have every story already worked out, but he had the relationships worked out. And when you look at the early episodes, they establish the relationships very clearly. And they not only establish the relationships, but they establish a simplicity in he storytelling, a variety in visual techniques. Episodes like “Ripped Pants” [season 1] which is one of my favorite episodes, were full of surprises. It had surprises in the type of story. Where other cartoons might have had loftier storytelling ambitions, here was a story on a very small scale about a character trying to connect with other characters around him, and he just had this vulnerability and sweet emotion. That story, which we’ve seen before, was told in a way that was never told before. Then to have a musical number at the end, with the funny backgrounds, kind of gave a glimpse of things to come. Kenny Pittenger, background designer, 1999-present: Steve came at SpongeBob from a very character-first direction. It’s not so much what the characters are doing, but that they’re acting like the characters. You know who the characters are going in, and that’s what makes the comedy work, whether it’s Laurel and Hardy or The Honeymooners, Looney Tunes or Bullwinkle. Steve and I were both huge [E.C.] Segar fans, and his Popeye comics are the best examples ever of characters driving comedy. Steve just wanted to make a funny show that was character-based, like the things he enjoyed were. Coleman: Steve came onto Rocko’s Modern Life in the third or fourth season, and he excelled at that. Through that, he was already established at Nickelodeon and was already a talent that people were excited to work with. So when he developed his own show, it was perfect for Nickelodeon, and it was perfect for him and the creative that he wanted to explore. It really fit the needs of the network. What he did so wonderfully was deliver all the elements of a really strong show in a way no one had seen before, and that’s not easy to do. But right from the beginning, it was a fantastic pitch, and there’s no way that I or anyone else could have foreseen that it would become a huge phenomenon, nor is it something that anyone was expecting or even considering. What we were focused on was just making a good show. Kenny: Steve described SpongeBob to me as childlike and naïve. He’s not quite an adult, he’s not quite a kid. Think a Stan Laurel, Jerry Lewis kind of child-man. Kind of like a Munchkin but not quite, kind of like a kid, but not in a Charlie Brown child’s voice on the TV shows. Maybe he mentioned Ed Norton from The Honeymooners, but Pee-Wee Herman, Jerry Lewis and Stan Laurel were go-tos for us. It was a matter of tuning in on the frequency of the voice, like you’re tuning it in on a radio. Erik Wiese, writer and storyboard artist, 1999-2005: I remember Tom coming into the room for the first time, and I watched Steve pitch his idea of the character to him. Tom found the voice in about 10 seconds—it was amazing to see him capture the character immediately. At that point, it wasn’t just a job for me. Steve was laughing, and that was really cool. Nick wanted me to stay on other shows, but I wanted to work on this character.
Depictions of SpongeBob’s reluctant coworker, Squidward, from Steve Hillenburg’s series bible.
Paul Tibbitt, storyboard director, executive producer, 1999-present: I knew Steve from CalArts. We were there at the same time but in different departments. He was in experimental animation, and I was upstairs in character animation. And I knew him because I had a lot of friends who worked on Rocko. I had been working at Disney, and I left there and over to work on CatDog, and it was right around the same time he was doing the pilot. So one time I went downstairs to see the pilot, and he pitched it to me and a friend, and we thought, “Wow, that’s great, good luck.” No one ever thinks any of these shows are gong to get on the air, because they make a lot of pilots that never make it.
I was on CatDog for about a year, and SpongeBob got picked up. I was on a leave for a couple of months. When I came back, there was a note on my desk from Steve, so I went upstairs, and they told me that they’d seen some of the work I’d done at Disney, and they wanted to invite me on as a board artist. I was actually the first board artist on staff. Aaron Springer had been doing some work for them, but took off on a vacation, so I ended up being the first board artist. Pittenger: When SpongeBob was picked up, I was working on CatDog, doing background layout and design. I had been absorbed by them right after I finished my work on the SpongeBob pilot. I wish I could remember exactly how I found out that SpongeBob had been picked up, and that they wanted me to work on it. What I do remember is that I was more than a little hesitant about leaving my comfy position on CatDog and the crew that I had gotten to know and love. Steve and Derek actually took me out to lunch to try to convince me to move over to SpongeBob! It’s absolutely mind-boggling to think of that. But, at the time I had no idea what SpongeBob would become—no one did. Even so, I want to go back in time and shake some sense into myself! I guess it all worked out, though. Thank goodness! Jay Lender, writer and storyboard writer and director, 1999-2001: Steve and Derek disappeared into a little room in the rented space at 4040 Vineland, where we were making Hey Arnold, and they came out a few months later. I didn’t know what they were doing until the footage came back and I happened to walk by the editing room while they were reviewing it on the Steenbeck. Standing in the door, I saw the scene where that wave of anchovies breaks against the mast in the Krusty Krab, and I knew right away that I wanted to work on that show. Right away. Everyone felt the same. Kenny: I was on location with Mr. Show when I got the call that SpongeBob was moving forward. I had a fake beard on, and it was 100 degrees, and I thought, “All right!” I was dressed like a wizard and we were shooting in a stable, and it smelled like poop. A recording studio sounded real good to me.
Steve and Drymon and Nick Jennings and I got together on weekends, on our own time, before he ever pitched it to Nickelodeon. We played with it and recorded things on a tape recorder, with Steve playing the other parts. The creative process was really exciting. We weren’t thinking, “We’re creating something that’s going to be worth a bazillion dollars,” because none of us cared about that. Steve didn’t care and still doesn’t care about that. But it was intoxicating, and I just wanted to be on this team that’s creating this cool idea. Drymon: While we were writing the pilot, Steve was also doing auditions to find the voices. He had created the character with Tom Kenny. Tom came in a few times so we could pitch him what we were working to help him find the right voice. Tom had already worked on lots of other animated shows, and Steve wanted to find an original sounding voice. For the part of Squidward, Steve had Doug Lawrence come in and audition. We knew Doug from Rocko, where he was a storyboard director and where he also did the voice of Filburt. We were showing Doug the storyboard, and he started reading back to us in his Tony the Tiger/Gregory Peck voice. It was really funny, and we wound up having SpongeBob use a deep voice when he entered the Krusty Krab for the first time. Steve really loved the voice and decided to give Doug the part of Plankton. Doug went on to be a writer for the first season, which was helpful when we were writing lines for Plankton. Doug came up with the line “I went to college” for the first Plankton episode during one of the punch-up sessions.
We storyboarded the pilot in two weeks. The execs from Nickelodeon flew out to Burbank, and we pitched it to them from the storyboards. We had squeezy toys, wore Hawaiian shirts and used a boom box to play the Tiny Tim song that comes on in the third act. We really went all out in that pitch because we knew the pilot lived or died by if the execs laughed. When it was over they walked out of the room to discuss it; we figured they would fly back to New York and we’d hear in a few weeks. We were surprised when they came back in what seemed like minutes and said they wanted to make it.
Nick Carr, music editor, 1999-present: I first met Steve Hillenburg when I worked as a music editor at Warner Bros. studios in 1996. I was working on restoring the soundtracks for a bunch of great old classic Looney Tunes cartoons and some Disney cartoons when I was put on my first Nickelodeon cartoon, Joe Murray’s Rocko’s Modern Life.
Steve had just come on board as the director for the show, and we hit it off pretty good right from the start and had two great seasons, after which we both went on to our next projects, his being located in a place called Bikini Bottom. Mine was the “employment development department.” In 1999—about the time I was seriously considering a career change—the fateful phone call that would transform my life as I new it came, unannounced and extremely welcome, as I had been out of steady work since Rocko had ended production. I had not spoken to Steve since Rocko except once, when I bumped into him, purely by chance many months before the call, coming out of a liquor store well stocked and sporting a fine pirate costume with full beard…true story. I almost didn’t recognize him. I can’t remember if it was Halloween or if he had just pitched his new idea to Nickelodeon and was out to celebrate. In any case, the following year I got the call I was hoping for.
At that point the pilot had already been done, and I was asked to retool the existing music on it. When I first started on SpongeBob, my duties were mainly music editorial but would quickly thrust me into the composers/supervisor chair. We had no budget and no music—they blew the budget on a Tiny Tim song that appeared in the pilot [“Living in the Sunlight, Loving in the Moonlight”], a sadly familiar scenario with most cartoons for television. By the time it comes to consider the music, the budget is blown. Wiese: At the time, I was finishing up work for John Kricfalusi on the Bjork and Ranger Smith cartoons and would soon be looking for work. A friend of mine, who I knew from Disney said, “You’ve got to meet my friends Derek and Steve at Nickelodeon. They’re working on a idea called SpongeBoy Ahoy for Nickleodeon.” So I met with Steve Hillenburg and Derek Drymon at the Nick studios; which was at the time located in the lobby of a nursing school in North Hollywood. When I first came into their development laboratory, Steve and Derek had already roughed out about half the episode on Post-It notes—a story artist’s best friend—and had it pinned on the wall. I showed Steve and Derek my portfolio and reel, and a week later I was to be Steve’s first hire. Lender: I worked with Steve for three years, spent days and days in the same tiny office with him, for hours at a time, and never got to know him. There were a few people on the show who may have socialized with him—Derek Drymon, Paul Tibbitt—but I think I saw him outside the studio exactly two times: First, when we took the field trip to the Long Beach Aquarium, and then when we had the wrap party at that scummy bar on Cahuenga near Barham. He was a total mystery to me.
Steve was the guiding light behind everything that happened on SpongeBob. There was a sequence in “Neptune’s Spatula” [season 1] where SpongeBob is competing against King Neptune to see who can make the best Krabby Patty—all my gags were about SpongeBob doing things carefully and precisely, and when we were punching up the show before the pitch, Steve sat down on the floor and drew the bit where SpongeBob draws ketchup faces on the pickles, tucks them in under a blanket of cheese, and reads them a bedtime story. I saw that and knew why he was the boss.
He wasn’t possessed by the spirit, and he wasn’t some out-of-control goofball genius. He was incredibly patient. He listened. He thought things over. He drew slowly. He knew the gags were worthless unless they were hung on a story that meant something starring characters you cared about. But sometimes you’d catch him off guard with a gag and he’d chuckle, and you could see a little of that SpongeBob nervous energy under the surface. Mark O’Hare, writer and storyboard artist, 1999-2001: At the time SpongeBob got going, I was shifting away from animation and Nickelodeon. I was busy doing a comic strip [Citizen Dog] during the early SpongeBob days, so I was on the periphery of that and looking in. I had moved to Orange County. My wife started teaching, and her fifth graders would do these overnight field trips to Dana Point on this old ship called the Pilgrim. College kids dress up as seaman and perform a sort of boot camp. They yell and holler and scare the kids and make them do chores, sing songs and build up this seafaring camaraderie while teaching them about the ocean. It’s so great. I mentioned it to Steve one time, and he tells me he used to work on the Pilgrim when it first started and that the director is still a good friend of his. I was so blown away. It wasn’t until then that I fully appreciated the degree to which Steve put himself into SpongeBob.
“The first few months of any show are chaos” Once a show gets the green light, the real work begins. Though Hillenburg had identified they people who would be key in helping him realize his vision, the production would require other people who didn’t yet share Hillenburg’s vision, and those who were already involved would have to begin their part in building Bikini Bottom from the ocean floor up.
Alan Smart, supervising director, 1999-present: One memory I have of the first three seasons of SpongeBob is that we were always having to figure how to do the stuff on the show. The writers were always coming up with these crazy ideas, and we weren’t sure how to realize them. In one episode [“Frankendoodle,” season 2], SpongeBob finds a “real” pencil, and he draws drawings that come to life. We had to figure out how to make SpongeBob interact with a live-action-looking pencil. We also had to figure out how to make his pencil drawings come to life, some of which were drawn on the sand. Luckily, our extremely talented art director at the time, Nick Jennings, had lots of ideas on how to make these things work. One story set in the future [“SB-129,” season 1] called for all of Bikini Bottom to be in chrome because everything in the future is made of chrome. Another episode has SpongeBob singing a song on the beach. We had to figure out how to make a stage, curtain, lights and all the instruments look like they are made out of sand.
From Steve Hillenburg’s series bible, a chart showing characters’ relative height.
Coleman: I had a great relationship with Steve and a lot of respect for him—not only his talent, but his manner and his process. Our relationship generally went along these lines: He or members of his crew would pitch all the materials to me at some point: the premises and outlines and storyboards and animatics. I generally gave my notes just as a response to how I was feeling and reacting, not as an expert who knew more about any phase of the process than him. I will always give him credit: Whenever I would say, “This part isn’t working for me,” this part seems slow, this ending is unsatisfying, etc., his reaction was never, “Well, you’re wrong—you’re an executive and you don’t know what you’re talking about.” His reaction was, “Hmm. Well, I don’t want you to have that response, so let’s talk about why.” Sometimes the answer would be, “These are changes we can make. That’s a good note, let’s address it.” Sometimes his answer to me would be, “I hear what you’re saying, but I don’t think it’s going to be a concern because when we have music it will play much faster,” or “There’s going to a great bit of animation here that’s going to be so funny, and you’ve got to trust me.” And it was such a fantastic relationship that I was always happy to trust him. He always delivered. There absolutely were some instances early on where I was nervous about certain things because they were unusual choices, and I would tell him as much. He would listen, and sometimes he would convince me that it was going to be OK, and in retrospect he was always right.
I would say my notes [on SpongeBob] did not differ significantly from notes I give on other shows. Generally I try to give notes that support the story the director is trying to tell. So I generally give my notes as my reactions to what’s being presented, and then we discuss what next steps are. Sometimes it’s rewriting or boarding new sections of the story, sometimes it’s the show creatives convincing me how what they’re planning will work and how, in the final execution, I will no longer have the reaction or concern I’m having now.
For example, I remember one of the first premises was for “Bubblestand” [season 1], an episode where very little story actually takes place. I raised the concern that it felt too thin to sustain 11 minutes. And Steve convinced me that this simple setup was a perfect opportunity to really define the character of SpongeBob. And more importantly, he and his team proved it in the board pitch. It’s one of the first episodes, and it’s a classic. Unlike other series that take 10 episodes until they find their groove, SpongeBob hit the mark right from the beginning.
One of my favorite specific instances was “Graveyard Shift” [season 2], a scary episode at the Krusty Krab, and at the very end of it was a throwaway gag where the story resolves itself, and they say, “But who was turning out the lights?” and they say, “Oh, it was Nosferatu!” It was a completely random, disconnected gag, and it was funny, but it was just so weird and out of left field. I remember saying, “I’ve got to say, this feels really weird and just comes out of left field,” but by that point in our process, I had learned to trust Steve’s instincts and trust the process. I liked the fact that it made me a little nervous, because that’s the territory where the interesting things come from. So I said, “It seems like a crazy ending, but let’s do it,” and sure enough, I’ve had several people say to me that that’s the all-time funniest SpongeBob moment. Kenny: My favorite situation is working with a creator who has a very strong vision, like Steve on SpongeBob or Joe on Rocko or Craig McCracken on Powerpuff Girls and Foster’sHome for Imaginary Friends or Genndy Tartakovsky with Dexter’s Laboratory. You can see their fingerprints all over their shows, just as clearly as you can see Willis O’Brien’s fingerprints all over King Kong’s fur. I’ve been lucky enough to work with those kinds of guys, and their vision for what they want to is so defined that my job in the machine that they’re in charge of is to make the sounds that help with the illusion of life. It’s like operating a marionette, and I’m pulling the string that controls the voice. One of the things Steve and all the other guys I just mentioned had to do is put on their armor and sally forth into battle, defending the integrity of their creation in the face of cluelessness from dopey bean-counters who want to do wrong things. It’s hard, really hard, to keep your concept from getting watered down. It’s a constant battle. Anything that reaches the air with anyone’s fingerprints is a miracle. O’Hare: I worked with Steve on Joe Murray’s Rocko, and he and Derek would call me in for freelance for the pilot, some layout drawings and board stuff, this and that. I was working from home. Games Animation was the name that Nick animation was being produced under at the time. No one at Nick could ever explain why, so I was convinced it was some kind of tax scam. Anyway, Games was in the middle of the valley somewhere, this bizarre green medical-type building with X-ray techs training downstairs. It was the most anonymous hole Nick had footed the bill for yet, worse than Rocko. It didn’t even have the charm of those black and whites of Termite Terrace or Walt’s first joint or anything. Nick couldn’t even give you that. It was this big, boring medical box with a dying mall across the way. It was in the middle of the gi-normous smoggy ocean of the valley. They were about a block from where the two guys pulled a Butch Cassidy bank heist with machine guns block by block against the LAPD. Come to think of it, it was the perfect place to launch a cartoon.
From the early days of SpongeBob: Originally to be called SpongeBoy, the character’s name was changed to SpongeBob because Flaming Carrot creator Bob Burden owned the trademark to a character named SpongeBoy.
Kent Osborne, writer and storyboard director, 2000-04: My brother, Mark Osborne, who co-directed Kung Fu Panda, went to CalArts. I think Steve Hillenburg was a class or two above him, but he was part of a class with Craig Mc Cracken, Paul Tibbitt, Mike Mitchell, Lou Romano, Conrad Vernon, a lot of people working today at Pixar, Nickelodeon, DreamWorks and Cartoon Network. When I moved to Los Angeles in 1992, I was pursuing acting. My brother had just graduated, and we shared a house together. The first people I met out here were all animators, kids who had just gotten out of CalArts.
I’d met Steve Hillenburg a couple of times through my brother. I’d seen the SpongeBob pilot—it was really good, and I’d heard the show was doing well. In 2000, they had a position open for a writer in the second season, and Steve brought me in for an interview. I went into the interview and was really nervous because I’d never done anything like this before. I didn’t know much about animation, other than what I watched growing up. They were seeing a number of people, and they wanted a one-page premise, a story that you could see SpongeBob doing. And they said, “We don’t want the roller-skating episode. We’ve all seen that.” I had no idea what they were talking about. And I was out of my element—I didn’t know what I was doing there. I really wanted the job and thought it would be a cool job, but I went in there and botched the interview.
At this point, I’d sort of given up on acting because I was really terrible at it. I started writing. I wrote plays, and I wrote a movie that I could act in and my brother could direct. It was called Dropping Out. It premiered at Sundance, and we had a screening of it at the Egyptian in Los Angeles, and Steve Hillenburg came to that screening. He liked it a lot, and he brought me in to interview for the third season of SpongeBob. At that point, I was really getting into comics. When I went into that interview, I brought a mini-comic I had done that was based on a play I had written. I made this comic just because I liked comics. I gave it to Derek Drymon, and he read it said, “We should hire this guy.” At this point, I knew Paul Tibbitt pretty well and had acted in a short film he wrote and produced with Mike Mitchell called Herd.
That time, they decided to take a chance on me, and I got the job. And the roller-skating reference was their way of referring to clichés, like everyone on a sitcom goes camping or something. They wanted stories that could only be SpongeBob stories. And that was part of the problem. By the third season, they had done 26 half-hours. I came with a million ideas, and I’d say, “Hey, let’s do this!” And they’d say, “Nah, we already did one like that.” And not just SpongeBob—[story editor] Merriwether Williams had worked on Angry Beavers, and she’d say, “Oh, we did that on Beavers.” Coleman: Pilot production generally takes about six months. Following pilot production, there’s focus group testing, and it generally takes a couple of months to compile the results of focus group testing and internal feedback, and then a greenlight process can also take a few months. So between pilot production, the testing, and the greenlighting, it can take a year. Of course, that doesn’t include whatever time Steve spent developing the pitch on his own, at which time he pulled in some of his key collaborators, most notably Derek Drymon and Nick Jennings. I believe he had Tom Kenny in his head as SpongeBob’s voice from the beginning, because he worked with Tom on Rocko.
I should also point out how great Tom was in those early days. He’d attend pitches and contribute gags—it was like having SpongeBob himself right there in the room. He brought such vivid life to the character whenever he’d perform the voice, whether it was in creative discussions or recording sessions. He really helped inform the character from the beginning. And he’s so wonderful with the fans. For a voice actor, he kind of hit the jackpot with this one, and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. Kenny: I had such an affinity with the character. I just knew no one else could do it the way I would. “I’ll love him! I’ll nurture your kid!” I feel very protective of not just SpongeBob, but all the characters. I really care about them. Even it had just run for a season or two and had become this cult thing that got rediscovered later, I would have been proud to be associated with it. The fact that it became this global juggernaut is just a weird happenstance. I never once heard Steve utter the word “merchandise.” Even when we got together on those weekends, it was just about making something that was meaningful to us.
A SpongeBob layout sheet.
Lender: The first few months of any show are chaos. Nobody knows how to draw the characters. Nobody knows how to write the characters. The pacing of the shows is off. Everything is in flux. It’s not until the shows start coming back and you watch them as a viewer, like anyone else would, that you really know what you’ve been making, and you suddenly say, “Aha! That’s what this show is about!” I’m pretty sure Patrick’s tantrum in “Valentine’s Day” [season 1] was supposed to be a one-time thing, but when that show came back it felt so right that his dark side started popping up everywhere. You can plan ahead all you want, but the characters eventually tell you who they are. O’Hare: I didn’t work with Steve and Derek again until about a year later, when they were greenlit on some episodes. But I guess all that time Nickelodeon had been planning and constructing this giant new animation studio with all the branded orange glyphs and green goop and this forced-fun architecture that felt more like a Disney tour than a studio. Nick had thrown all their productions under one roof. So when I would come in, it felt completely weird for me since Nick to me was supposed to be like working in a trailer park. I mean, machine guns are just funnier than slime. Sam Henderson, storyboard director, 2000-01: In 2000, Derek Drymon gave me a call. I went to art school with him and was in a few classes with him. I ran into him a few times after that. He told me I should move out to L.A. because my work would be perfect for animation. I never gave that advice more than a passing thought. Then he called me out of the blue and told me he was now creative director for a show called SpongeBob SquarePants and wanted to get print cartoonists he liked to work on it. It turns out he’d been following my career all along, and doing work regularly for Nickelodeon magazine would impress higher-ups there. If I was to take this job, I’d only have to work two out of four weeks, so that was an extra incentive. I was credited as storyboard director, a fancy term for gag writer. Wiese: My job at the time was to develop the SpongeBob characters for overseas animation. I would spend the next two to three months working and reworking the animation mechanics of the characters, doing turnarounds, eyeblinks, mouth charts, and animating a few key scenes at the end of the pilot.
Steve was really trying to achieve a distinct walk cycle for each character to show their individual personality. He was directing me to make SpongeBob more stiff and direct, almost marching. But after a few failed attempts I put it away and moved onto Mr. Krabs. I decided to try something more cartoony, just to clear my head of SpongeBob’s walk cycle. I animated Mr. Krabs’ little feet on a four-frame multi-blur cycle—I think it was the best solution to making him walk like a crab. I brought Steve to the pencil test machine and his eyes lit up and he laughed out loud. That was a good moment for me, and I realized at that point that he was SpongeBob. It clicked for me then that I needed to make SpongeBob’s walk cycle very similar to Steve’s. From that point on and through most of the first season I remember the board artists would observe Steve and put a lot of subtle little gestures and timing into their drawings and acting.
A SpongeBob layout sheet.
Pittenger: Back in May 1997, I had the incredibly good fortune to be asked to design the backgrounds for the SpongeBob SquarePants pilot. I remember the time well, because I was very green—I was 26, and I had only been involved in animation for about five months at that point. And, the truth is, I had almost no idea what I was doing. My previous job had been as an artist intern at another studio in town. Originally, they had brought me on to do character layout, but since the production was in such disarray, there was no character layout for me to do. So I ended up helping out the background designers by cleaning up their roughs. And, though I had absolutely no experience, and not much interest, in drawing backgrounds, they really liked what I was doing. So that’s what I continued to do. That is, until the hatchet fell and the whole crew was unceremoniously fired one day.
So, there I was—unemployed, with a pretty limited animation portfolio, and not a flippin’ clue as to what to do next. As fate would have it, I guess I had made something of an impression on a few people during my short tenure as an artist intern, because after a month of flailing and freaking out in the vast, murky ocean of joblessness, I was thrown a life preserver by a production assistant who I had worked with back on the failed project. He had found his way to Nickelodeon, and was working as the production coordinator on what was then called the SpongeBoy Ahoy! pilot. I really ought to track him down and kiss his feet, because if he hadn’t put in a good word for me I’d be a wino in an alley right now, and no one would want to read my reminiscences in Hogan’s Alley. Hutchins: We were in the beginning of first season and still in development of what the show would sound like. My background had helped me to develop a polished sound through work on many episodes of television for the Walt Disney Studios. I also had been immersed into heavy use of the Hanna-Barbera sound effects library through my work on Rocko’s Modern Life. Steve wanted a campy, hand-done kind of sound. I was feeling my way through but needed inspiration. Steve had a copy of a cartoon done in France where someone had redone almost all of the classic sounds vocally or in a primitive way. It definitely made an impact. I felt fearless about grabbing a microphone and giving it a whirl, no matter what the task. I want thank Steve for igniting something and want to send out a shout out to French animation. Thanks for the inspiration. You can hear the campy, hand-done stuff start to surface by the middle of the first season and never ceased to be a big part of the sound of the show. Pittenger: Once we dove into production on the first season of the series, we were faced with the task of designing the stock locations. These were the spots that we knew the show would return to again and again, and in which most of the action would take place, such as the Krusty Krab and SpongeBob’s pineapple house.
Steve had a clear vision of what he wanted the show to look like, and an even clearer vision of what he didn’t want it to look like, so much of what we in the background layout/design department attempted to do during those first days—there were three of us during the first three seasons—was to home in on what we thought Steve wanted and to translate that into a cohesive visual language. The main thing was to keep everything nautical—so we use lots of rope, wooden planks, ships’ wheels, netting, anchors, and boilerplate and rivets. Most of the houses in Bikini Bottom are called “stack houses” because they were supposed to look as though they were fashioned out of ships’ smokestacks. On the other hand, much of what you see on the show has a strong tiki influence—we use a lot of bamboo, woven mats, brightly colored fabrics, thatch and flowers.
Over the years, when people find out what I do for a living, what they ask me about the most are the sky flowers: “What are those things?” They function as clouds in a way, but since the show takes place underwater, they aren’t really clouds. Because of the tiki influence on the show, the background painters use a lot of pattern. So really, the sky flowers are mostly a whimsical design element that Steve came up with to evoke the look of a flower-print Hawaiian shirt—or something like that. I don’t know what they are either. Wiese: During the first few years of SpongeBob, Steve had his hand in every part of production until it was finely tuned, altering the designs, storyboards, layouts and art direction some more until everyone knew what the vision of the show was. I seem to recall that by the end of second season the show he had really come to an end adjusting the show. It was finally the show it was supposed to be. Now when I look back at other animated television shows, I can see the evolution that it has to take before it finally reaches its final look—sometimes for better or for worse.
A drawing of Patrick from Steve Hillenburg’s series bible.
Pittenger: I was supposed to begin working on a Monday, and I remember reading through the rough SpongeBoy Ahoy! storyboard the night before and thinking, “Hmm, OK. I guess it’s kind of funny.” But, I really didn’t think it was all that great. Have I mentioned how green I was back then?
On Monday morning, I was placed at an old metal desk in a dark, windowless little room in this weird rented office space in North Hollywood—this was about nine months before Nickelodeon moved into the studio on Olive Avenue in Burbank—with Erik Wiese and Steve Hillenburg. Thank goodness they knew what they were doing! Steve had done all kinds of fun, lively, loose sketches for the SpongeBoy pitch bible, and they really set the tone for what the show would later become. I remember, however, that the first design I tackled that day was the interior of the Krusty Krab, and I started doing this tight, realistic, heavily rendered, leaden, monstrosity of a drawing that would have taken me all day to finish. Oh, I bet Steve was having some serious misgivings at that moment, because he had obviously hired a complete ignoramus. After some gentle guidance, I was able to loosen up and ultimately have a lot of fun working out the style.
In the 11 years since we began production on the first season, the way we draw the backgrounds hasn’t changed all that much. The line work has always been loose and playful—no drawing with a straightedge—with a lot of variation of line weight. Objects are never to have a “wonky” appearance, nor should they go to the other extreme and be too straight and symmetrical; they should be somewhere in between—sort of mushy or lumpy.
The finished designs—though I did the actual drawing—really reflect the input of everyone there. Not only did I get advice from Steve and Erik, but Derek Drymon, the creative director, and Nick Jennings, the art director, helped me out quite a bit as well. Once I got my stride and felt comfortable with what I was doing, I plowed through all 50 or 60 of the designs and was out of a job again a week later: After my work was done on the pilot, it was more than a year before the series got the green light and went into production. Luckily, CatDog was hiring in May 1997, so I actually transitioned right into that after I finished up the SpongeBob pilot.
“It’s like they’re all taking turns being some little slice of you” Hillenburg decided early that he wanted the show to be storyboard driven rather than script driven, an approach that required artists who could take a skeletal story outline and flesh it out with sight gags, dialogue and a structure that would strike a balance between narrative and whimsy. While the writers came up with the premises, the greatest burden fell on the two-man storyboarding teams that worked in tandem on each episode.
A drawing of Mr. Krabs from Steve Hillenburg’s series bible.
Drymon: Steve really wanted to put together a team of young and hungry people to make the show. The core group had mostly worked with Steve on Rocko: Alan Smart, the supervising director, Nick Jennings, the art director, and me. But Tim Hill, who had worked on the bible, was unavailable for the story editor job, so we found Pete Burns from Chicago. We had never worked with him before, but he had turned in a test and we really liked an idea of his about SpongeBob ripping his pants—it became one of our first episodes [“Ripped Pants,” season 1]. Wiese: Whether a show should be script driven or storyboard driven is a decision that networks seem to meet with some trepidation, and SpongeBob was no different. But Steve wanted SpongeBob to be a storyboard/cartoonist-driven show. It was something he and Derek felt strongly about. He would hash out premises and outlines with the writers. They would act as the blueprints for the storyboard artists to work from. I felt like I was living out what had been described to me from other older cartoonists at comic book conventions who had worked on classic cartoons from the ’40s and ’50s. Kenny: It was always Steve’s intention that the narrator be a nod to his beloved Jacques Cousteau. Jacques Cousteau’s voice is very dispassionate, very removed, very flatline, even when he’s describing something miraculous and beautiful. “Eet ees the most amazing thing I have ever seen I have ever seen in my life.” We found that after a while we had to make the narrator a little more playful than that. He has to sound a little fun and playful, or he just sounds bored. “Let’s check in on our favorite characters in Goo Lagoon.” And you don’t want the first voice you hear in an episode of your series to sound bored. So he’s become a little more playful, has a little more smile in his voice. So he’s got a little more twinkle in his eye, if an invisible character can be said to have a twinkle in his eye. Sherm Cohen writer, storyboard artist and director, 1999-2005: For each SpongeBob episode, the storyboard team starts with a bare-bones story premise that covers the basics like the setup, the complication and the ending. The board artists are expected to flesh it all out and add lots of gags and silliness. We would spend the first week of our six-week rotation sketching and scribbling out a very rough board on Post-It notes and on storyboard paper, fleshing out the story using sketches and handwritten notes, which we pin up on the wall so we can see how the whole thing works together.
From the Rocko’s Modern Life days (left to right): Mark O’Hare, Rob Porter, Alan Smart and Steve Hillenburg.
Drymon: Coming up with episode ideas was always tough. During the first season, we used up most of the story ideas that were in the bible, and so going into second season we had to figure out a way to generate new ones. One time we thought it would be a good idea to take the writers to the beach for inspiration, but when we got down there it was overcast and cold, so we had to stay in the car. We didn’t come up with too many ideas that day. Our story editor from the first season, Pete Burns, had left, and we brought on Merriwether Williams. I remember Steve told her it was her responsibility to get us to come up with new ideas, which is a tall order. She gave me a book called Zen and the Art of Writing, written by Ray Bradbury and was a collection of essays about the writing process. One of the ways he would inspire stories was to write nouns that interested him on a note card and hang them in his office. He felt just having the word in his eyesight would get his mind working. [Merriwether] took this idea and made it into a writing exercise. We would all write 10 nouns on small pieces of paper and put them in a hat. The hat would be passed around and you’d have a minute to scribble down an idea based on the noun you drew. It would almost always start a discussion, and we wound up getting a lot of episodes out of it. She really came up with a great addition to the process. Merriwether Williams, story editor, 1999-2004: I was working as a writer on Angry Beavers, another Nickelodeon show. I’d already worked at Nickelodeon on several different shows as a story editor, which is a position they no longer have. But at that time at the network, a lot of shows were sort of outsourced to Klasky-Csupo or other animation houses. It was my job to put the Nickelodeon stamp on it, especially the kid point of view. So I had worked as a story editor in that capacity.
Vince Calandra, who had worked on Rocko, knew Steve Hillenburg, and Steve called Vince and asked him who he would recommend as the story editor, or head writer, on SpongeBob. Vince recommended me. [Prior to my arrival on SpongeBob] Pete Burns had been the story editor for, I think, the first 14 episodes. Pete had lived in Chicago, and he went back to Chicago, so they needed a new head writer.
Certainly, [Steve and Derek] knew me—it wasn’t like the first time they had seen me when I walked in. We had all been around that building for six or seven years. I was definitely a familiar face, even if they did not know my work directly.
When I arrived, it was Derek, Steve, me and Doug Lawrence in the [writers’] room. I inherited Doug; he had already been there. Doug and I certainly came from different backgrounds. It was a good mix. We called Doug the “wing nut.” I would say the wing nut is anyone who paces around the room and throws out anything, the craziest ideas but not necessarily the best at seeing the overall picture. Doug and I were the writers, and Steve and Derek were who they were. We kept it really small at first.
From the Rocko’s Modern Life days: Mark O’Hare (left) and Derek Drymon.
The thing I brought to the room that had not been there before was a real conscious analysis of first act-second act-third act structure, simple set-ups and paying stuff off. Tracking a character arc in the tiniest way. The funny thing is, when I first arrived, that’s how I was talking about stories, and they didn’t really know what I was talking about. That really not how Pete had talked about stories. He talked more about, “This happens, that that happens,” which is how some people do it, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I guess I came from a way of looking at it more formally. Coleman: Merriwether played an important role. There’s an element to SpongeBob that has these very simple stories. When it works, it seems effortless and you don’t pay any attention to the work that went into it, but I can assure you that it’s not effortless. It requires a lot of discipline and a lot of crumpling up pieces of paper. If you look at the stories in a lot of the early episodes, they’re very, very simple, and that requires strong characters to carry them through, beat by beat. So it’s a testament to how great those characters are that they can pull it off. It’s not just a strong of gags for 11 minutes—there’s a real emotional underpinning in the series, especially in the early episodes. Osborne: I was in the writers’ room with Steve, Derek, Merriwether and Mark O’Hare. The meetings would start, but we would just sit around talking about things that happened and funny things that happened to us when we were kids. It wasn’t like, “OK, let’s get to work!” And someone would start laughing at something and would say, “Oh man, we’ve got to make an episode out of that!” And we’d start trying to figure out how to craft a three-act structure around it. And we’d have all these ideas that never went anywhere up on the wall, and I’d look at those a lot.
Those exercises of pulling a noun out and having a minute to write were good. You’d pull a piece of paper out of a hat, and it would say something like “can opener,” and you’d have a minute to write as much as you could about that. You wouldn’t have any time to edit your thoughts—everything would just spill out. That would get things flowing. And everyone in the writers’ room had a specialty. One person would be really good with jokes, and another would be really good with structure. Derek came up to me and said, “You’re the wing nut!” I said, “What’s that?” and he said I was the guy who made everybody laugh, and it was my job to be funny. It was a great job, and I learned a lot about writing and animation. Williams: Steve came to me and said, “Why don’t you go read a bunch of books about writing,” or something like that [laughter]. He wanted to keep the enthusiasm up in the room, because sometimes it can be a slog. So I went off and I read a bunch of books. And the one that really captured my imagination was called Zen and the Art of Writing, by Raymond Bradbury. He told a story about how he would tape to the wall certain nouns that he liked or wanted to work into the story at some point. And a word he used was “gusto”—write with gusto. And the way I interpreted those two things was that maybe we should stop editing ourselves so much.
So I came up with a game called “the noun game,” in which everyone writes three to six nouns on a piece of paper. They could be anything. And I’m not a stickler—it could be a verb, but in general nouns seemed to work the best. You put them in a hat or a bowl or some container in the middle of the table, and everybody picks one, and you have a minute or two to write a story. It doesn’t have to be cohesive, it doesn’t have to be anything; there are really no rules. It could just have an image; it could have a beginning, a middle and an end. Basically, there’s a time limit, and just write whatever comes to mind. A lot of times, we would all go around the room afterwards and read them, and often they led to something. They almost never ended up as the outline itself, but it was a really good springboard for us to get to talking about things that were more original.
Another exercise involved going around in a circle and telling a story, but everyone contributed just one line at a time. I came from a pretty big family, and when I was a kid, we used to play that game where you write two lines of a story and fold the paper over the first line so all you can see is the second line. The next person would add a line, and then fold the paper again so all you could see is that line. You continue until you fill up the page. Then we would read the story, and a lot of the time it made no sense, but it was really funny. It also got us so we didn’t edit ourselves so much: Just say it, whatever’s on your mind. Don’t overthink things so much. Say it was me, Mark O’Hare, Steve, Derek, and say Kent [Osborne] was in there too. I would start: “Once upon a time, SpongeBob found a mouse.” The next person would have to say the next line, and the next person would have to say the next line. We didn’t fold it over so we couldn’t read it, but there was definitely a time limit. Don’t sit there and think about it. Say it. It was an exercise for us to get out of our heads, be with each other and make each other laugh before we got down to the nitty-gritty of story writing.