Why is SpongeBob so damn meme-able?
Evil Patrick. Blurry Mr. Krabs. Primitive Sponge. SpongeBob Squarepants‘s finest episodes may have long since aired, but the show, a perfect show, continues to delight in meme form.
SpongeBob memes have been an internet mainstay for the larger part of the 2010s. In fact, you’ve probably seen at least one Tired SpongeBob on Twitter today. Last month, the “Krusty Krab vs. Chum Bucket” meme enjoyed its moment in the sun. Before that, it was Evil Patrick, or Savage Patrick, depending who you ask. That one was so powerful that even brands got in on the fun — several weeks late, of course.
But what’s the secret formula that makes SpongeBob so meme-able?
Of course, a lot of SpongeBob’s meme appeal has to do with who’s creating memes these days: people who grew up with the show. SpongeBob SquarePants has been on the air since 1999, but its golden years continued until The SpongeBob SquarePants movie came out in 2004. After that, it’s widely considered to have jumped the shark, but there are still some good episodes in the later seasons — meaning that even younger teens likely caught one at some point.
“Everyone knows what SpongeBob is,” one fan said via text. (When asked about his favorite SpongeBob meme, he replied, “tHiS oNe.”) It’s true: for many online communities, the early aughts are prime childhood nostalgia territory. That makes them perfect meme fodder.
“When someone posts a SpongeBob meme, they can be assured that their audience knows what they’re talking about,” meme expert Jason Wong, who runs the product lab Dank Tank, said in an interview. Because of that baseline familiarity, he explained, there’s room for deep cut references — which means a deeper, more nuanced pool of material. And because the show has been on for so long — 11 seasons and over 200 episodes have aired, with more on the way — the pool is also unbelievably wide. Like an ocean, one could say.
Take, for instance, the “my leg” meme, which refers not to a specific episode of the show, but a joke that runs throughout multiple seasons. My Leg is arguably one of the more popular SpongeBob memes — it even inspired Fred MyLeg, the Twitter name attached to @foxygrandpa92, a mainstay SpongeBob meme account. People know what it means. And yet, in the show, it’s not even a plot point. It’s just a small motif.
Such is the cultural power of SpongeBob.
Aside from its ubiquity, the show is just relatable. Its cast of characters is not only huge, but varied in personality, which means every human quirk imaginable (SpongeBob’s disarming earnestness, Squidward’s angsty cynicism) has its moment in the sun. Wong, for example, said his favorite SpongeBob meme is Mocking SpongeBob, which pairs text in alternating caps with the below image.
“It’s passive aggressive, which is just like me,” he explained.
Lillian, another fan, said her favorite SpongeBob meme is a particularly earnest image of SpongeBob popping out of his own mailbox with the caption “me replying back to people .02 seconds after they text me.” (There are literally hundreds of versions of this on Twitter.)
“I reply really quickly,” she said.
On the other end of the meme spectrum, it’s undeniable that SpongeBob, while certainly earnest, is also pretty gross sometimes. There’s SpongeBob’s face after Squidward tries a Krabby Patty. There’s the macro image of the Nasty Patty. There’s Spongebob cutting a huge pimple off his nose during the Krusty Krab training video. There’s also the disturbing image below, which comes from the Season 2 episode “Squid’s Day Off.”
It is genuinely hard to look at. It’s also begging for a screenshot.
It’s not just the images, either. There are the show’s ubiquitous time cards, which are almost too easy to customize. There are the quote templates, like SpongeBob’s “I’ll have you know I stubbed my toe last week while watering my spice garden, and I only cried for twenty minutes,” which spawned a slew of riffs — mostly graphic ones, yes, but a few funny jokes, too.
And there are meme-able sounds, too, like Patrick’s bizarre “leedle leedle leedle lee” from the Season 2 episode “Shanghaied.” That clip was pretty much tailor-made for the Vine enthusiast. So is the strangely compelling moment when SpongeBob blow-dries a droplet of paint, then says, smugly, “yeah.”
To be clear, we haven’t even scratched the surface here. These days, a new SpongeBob meme emerges every week. There’s probably one brewing in the depths of Twitter right now. Who knows?
Wong says he wouldn’t be surprised if SpongeBob memes keep popping up for three to four more years. It makes sense — even if younger memers haven’t seen the best episodes, they’ve definitely been exposed to them through the internet. Plus, there are virtually hundreds of quotable SpongeBob SquarePants moments that remain untouched by Online’s magic wand. (When will “I’m ugly and I’m proud” get the attention it deserves?) Like the fabled Patty Vault, the treats are endless.
And, of course, there are more characters to be explored than just SpongeBob, Patrick, and Squidward. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a [major] Mrs. Puff or Sandy meme in the future,” Wong theorized.
There probably will be — if the “my leg” guy can make it, we’d like to believe that Sandy’s iconic hibernation face has some internet juice left.