If you spend any amount of time on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Reddit, odds are, you’re going to run into at least one of these SpongeBob memes.

These memes along with the fact that search engine traffic for SpongeBob SquarePants has slowly but steadily increased for the last few years could fool you into thinking this is a new show. After all, children’s shows are usually disposable, forgettable forms of media, good for a kick of nostalgia now and then.

But SpongeBob is actually kind of old now – certainly old enough for a boating license. He’s been around for 23 years, having started all the way back in 1999. And yet the show is still a mainstay in our popular online culture. In fact, more people are looking it up online today than nearly any point between 2004 and 2014 – and today’s level of interest in SpongeBob isn’t even at an all-time high.

There’s a fascinating business case study in here. The data backs me up here, too. SpongeBob isn’t just a funny show – it’s a $14.8 billion juggernaut media franchise, and the 31st largest in the world, beating out Frozen, James Bond, Superman, Star Trek, Fortnite, and Minecraft.

What’s going on here? How has SpongeBob maintained this much cultural relevance for such a long time? What’s the secret formula?

In this article, I’ll dive deep into the waters of Bikini Bottom to answer those questions. Are you ready, kids?

What exactly is SpongeBob?

Just in case you’ve been – like SpongeBob’s best friend – hiding under a rock since 1999, here’s a quick overview of the show. It was created by Stephen Hillenburg for Nickelodeon. The show takes place under the ocean in a town called Bikini Bottom.

SpongeBob is a fry cook at the Krusty Krab, a restaurant owned by the stingy Mr. Krabs. He works alongside his next-door neighbor, Squidward Tentacles, a disaffected millennial cranky guy who just wants to be an artist instead of a cashier. Both frequently have to fight off Mr. Krabs’ rival, Plankton, who owns a competing restaurant by the name of the Chum Bucket, whose failure he tries to compensate for by stealing the valuable secret formula to Krabby Patties, sold exclusively at the Krusty Krab. (Plankton, incidentally, has a computer wife named Karen).

SpongeBob’s best friend is Patrick Star, a starfish who isn’t terribly bright but is always down for adventures. He’s friends with Sandy Cheeks, the Buc-ee’s mascot a karate-fighting, science-conducting squirrel from Texas who lives in a glass dome under the ocean. He has a pet snail named Gary who communicates by meowing.

I could go on for a while, but you get the idea. SpongeBob is full of absurdist characters and plots that give the show – especially its earliest episodes – a liveliness, unpredictability, and memorability that were built to last. (This is also why many parents read it as “obnoxious” when walking in without context. Why wouldn’t they? It’s a loud, bright, childish screwball comedy!)

But of course, describing a TV show isn’t the same as watching it. Thankfully, you can get the gist of SpongeBob pretty quickly. Check out this quick compilation of funny moments if you want to get the idea.

How SpongeBob SquarePants bubbled up to the surface

Right out of the gate, SpongeBob was a huge success. Within just one month, SpongeBob was outranking Pokémon on Saturday mornings. The ratings were massive, and Nickelodeon fanned the flames by giving it the coveted time slots of 6 PM and 8 PM every Monday through Thursday. Adults started to watch the show too.

By 2001, SpongeBob was the most popular kids TV show on all of television, beating out every show even on larger TV networks. As many as 15 million people were watching the show on a weekly basis.

SpongeBob has won multiple Emmys, Annie Awards, and BAFTA Awards. The main character has been a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Scientists have named species after the show (Spongiforma squarepansii, Astrolirus patricki). The show’s imagery has even been coopted in revolutions overseas.

And as if all of that were not enough, the franchise has made almost $15 billion since its inception. It is a mind-bogglingly large success. It’s a testament to what can happen when you create something that people genuinely like and then put a truly enormous amount of money behind it to further advertise.

Why SpongeBob SquarePants, a cartoon from 1999, is still relevant right now in 2022

I promised that I would talk about the secret formula, and I’m going to deliver on that promise like it’s a Krusty Krab pizza. As I see it, there are six ingredients.

1. SpongeBob SquarePants has a massive chest full of gold coins.

Nickelodeon in the 1990s and 2000s was a powerhouse. Before SpongeBob was released, the television network was coming out of what many consider to be its Golden Age. The network was already in a position of power, and then SpongeBob blew up like nothing ever before. Revenue figures support this assertion, but if you want to really intuitively feel how successful the show was, read this comment thread on Reddit.

By Tomas Castelazo – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

That is to say, SpongeBob as a franchise accumulated a ton of money in its early years from its success. With that kind of capital stored up, the franchise was already well-positioned to be popular for many years to come. While no amount of money can force people to truly love a show enough to make memes out of it 20 years later, it’s still important to remember that the franchise had plenty of money needed to advertise and keep us aware of its existence.

2. Film and television, in general, are prioritizing existing franchises.

Another really important thing to consider here is that film and television, in general, have focused on sequels, prequels, interquels, spin-offs, and cinematic universes like never before. Much has been said about the lack of originality displayed by Hollywood studios and TV networks, and I don’t disagree with those criticisms. The cynics say that franchises are being milked for all they’re worth, and I, unfortunately, find myself agreeing.

From a business perspective, though, it makes sense. Movies and TV shows cost a lot to make, so if you have a franchise that is working, creating more content for it is a much safer business bet. You know you’ve got built-in brand awareness and an audience, making marketing a much less intimidating affair.

In other words, not only does SpongeBob have the money to stay relevant, the network has a really solid reason to keep pumping out new SpongeBob shows, movies, and merch.

But again – you can’t make people love something if they don’t love it. This is only part of the picture.

3. SpongeBob was so dominant on TV in the 2000s that it became nostalgic in the mid-to-late 2010s.

This is a simple point, so I won’t drag it out. It’s said that nostalgia comes in 20-year cycles. SpongeBob is a show that debuted in 1999. Its search volume peaked in 2019.

People who are now working as fry cooks and cashiers in restaurants themselves miss the days when they were watching SpongeBob in their childhood bedroom. This is not the reason for SpongeBob’s continued relevance, but it is a necessary prerequisite.

By Pieter Klimesch (photographer, characters owned by Viacom) – URL, Fair use

4. SpongeBob really understands kids.

Ultimately, whenever you see a product of any kind become a smash sensation, there is almost always one thing that is true: product-market fit is good. Nobody tells their friends about a product or a service or a TV show that they’re lukewarm about. For anything to spread like wildfire, it has to be a perfect fit for the people engaging with it.

With SpongeBob in particular, it could never have become a smash sensation if kids didn’t love it. If it were, it would have become yet another show that Nickelodeon canceled after a season or two.

So why did SpongeBob delight kids in the late 90s and early 2000s, and why does it continue to delight them today? I think it’s for two reasons.

First, SpongeBob prioritizes jokes. A lot of shows from that era tried to be preachy, telling moral stories. Others would talk down to kids as if they didn’t understand what was going on. SpongeBob, on the other hand, did not try to push any kind of moral agenda and it wasn’t afraid to tell the occasional intellectual joke. The mission was simple: just make kids laugh.

That’s not to say the show was immoral. If Squidward was a jerk, the show would push back. If SpongeBob did something mean, he would face consequences. But the show didn’t make a big production of it. If SpongeBob tried to cheat on his boating exam, then he would ultimately feel terrible about it and self-sabotage.

And that’s why it worked! The show met kids on their level and just told jokes and wanted to have fun. Kids intuitively sensed that the show was being authentic, and there was a relative lack of that in the media landscape. So it took off like a rocket!

Second, for all its humor, SpongeBob as a show also has a heart. As a character, SpongeBob is eager to please and always enthusiastic, just like kids. Similarly, Squidward is like a stand-in for adults who seem burned out and frustrated. Kids could relate to SpongeBob – his exuberant joy and, when he was upset, his unmitigated firehose of tears. A lot of kids shows focus on child characters. SpongeBob is one of the few that focused on a childlike character being thrust into the adult world and dealing with its struggles. That created the environment needed for a lot of funny jokes and situations, as well as some genuine, memorable pathos.

5. SpongeBob SquarePants might just be the first massively popular TV show to understand Zoomer humor.

The massive success of SpongeBob in the late 90s and early 2000s does not explain its continued success in the late 2010s and early 2020s, though. Indeed, not even normal nostalgia can explain it.

As I see it, SpongeBob got really lucky in the sense that its humor aged really well. SpongeBob is all about absurdist comedy. At the same time, if you pay attention to when SpongeBob memes started circulating online, you find it lines up pretty neatly with the rise of Generation Z. This is interesting because Generation Z has a known and empirically verifiable love of absurdist humor. This is not a coincidence.

The very generation that grew up with SpongeBob on TV is now just old enough to be nostalgic for their childhood. SpongeBob just happens to be one particular bit of yesteryear’s media that aged particularly well.

6. The absurdist humor of SpongeBob is a perfect fit for meme culture.

In order for a particular message to “go viral” on a platform, it needs to be a good fit. There’s a reason why companies that try their hand at memes often find that no one likes what they have to say. Corporate messaging, after all, is just not a great fit for memes.

Current meme culture is really heavily based on absurdist comedy. Some cultural commentators believe that internet memes are our way of blowing off steam because life is just ridiculous right now. Even major newspapers like the Washington Post have noticed that humor has gotten weird.

SpongeBob – with its weird situations and infinitely easy-to-take out-of-context images – is a perfect fit for our landscape of absurdist comedy. That, after all, was what made the show so special in its time and that’s why it’s such a natural fit for today’s social media.

Final Thoughts

Creating SpongeBob was capturing lightning in a bottle. The absurdist humor was a great match for kids then and, 20+ years later, the absurdist comedy is even more relevant than it was then. Combined with Generation Z nostalgia, the fact that the show has a lot of money, a good incentive to keep the franchise alive, it would honestly be weirder if SpongeBob wasn’t relevant online right now.