Thursday, November 29, 2018

SpongeBob: More than "nautical nonsense."

     Sad to hear that SpongeBob creator Stephen Hillenburg died this week, at age 57.
     We boys loved SpongeBob. Loved him. His buddy Patrick, the goofy starfish who was even dimmer than SpongeBob, if such a thing were possible. The power-mad Plankton, desperate to steal the secret recipe for Crabby Patties and spirit it back to his Chum Bucket. The whining Squidward with his jazz passion—there was a jazz critic at the paper who reminded me of Squidward so much, from the nasal whine to the bald dome, that I almost pointed out the similarity to him.
    My boys and I would sing along with the rollicking theme song. "If nautical nonsense be something you wish—SpongeBob SquarePants!—Then drop on the deck and flop like a fish!" We went to the full-length movie. 
     There was inanity for the kiddies. And a grown-up wink often tucked behind all the innocent silliness. I was even able to use a SpongeBob moment to try to make a point about charges of racism, which I think are thrown around much too casually. This column is 16 years old, and might grate a bit with our current pieties: the president wasn't blowing kisses at Nazis back then, so perhaps we enjoyed the luxury of being able to make fine distinctions. 

     In a rare moment of perfect timing, I wandered downstairs this morning, searching for my shoes, just as the TV was showing the deepest, most profound scene in the entire oeuvre of "SpongeBob SquarePants."
     SpongeBob and his friend Patrick Starfish are in the midst of a heated argument that deteriorates into a rapid-fire exchange of insults.
     "You paint your fingernails!" accuses Patrick.
     "You don't even have fingers!" retorts SpongeBob.
     Patrick, clutches his head: "I can't believe I'm hearing this!"
     "How can you hear?" says SpongeBob. "You don't have ears!"
     "Holes!" the starfish yells, pointing at the sponge.
     "Conehead!" he answers.
     Now Patrick, who is indeed pink, screaming "Yellow" at SpongeBob, who is in fact yellow, strikes me as the perfect embodiment of what many people choose to interpret as racism or ethnic hate, when it is actually just the expression of a convenient slur.
     It was odd, almost uncanny, to see the episode again this morning, because just the other day I was describing it to a colleague, who had challenged me over my plans to return to a local legend's radio show.
     "How," he said, amazed and indignant. "HOW can you go on Steve Dahl's show after what he said about you?"
     What Dahl said is that I'm a Jew. The week before, I had spent a few hours on Dahl's show plugging my new book. We ended up having a good time, dancing on the corpse of Bob Greene, with such joy and gusto that Dahl asked if I'd come back and do it again next week. I said sure, but then surprised him by adding that I'd return if he paid me something. Fun is a job if you have to do it regularly, or as the great James Thurber once wrote: "Even the most pleasurable of imaginable occupations--that of batting baseballs through the windows of the RCA Building--would pall a little as the days wore on."
     Dahl seemed to understand. "No problem," he said. "We'll take care of you."
     The next week, when I didn't hear from him, I shrugged and figured he let it drop. People typically let things drop. No biggie.
     The next Monday, a friend took me aside. Did I hear what Dahl said about you? He asked, with all intent and seriousness, as if someone had died. A caller wondered why you didn't come back, as you promised, and Dahl ripped you for wanting money and called you a Jew.
     Steve Dahl beating up on somebody who isn't there is typical—of him, me and everybody I've ever met in my entire life. What is rarer is my colleague, and I'm not naming him because he is actually a shy guy, despite his profession, and possessed of the quaint notion that his work should be filled up with other people actually making news. He confronted me, honestly shocked, sincerely curious. This was the oldest, vilest slur against Jews: money-grubbing. How could I associate with anyone who expressed it?
     The worrisome thing, for me, is that it had bothered me not at all. I assume people are anti-Semites. Frankly, I gave Steve credit for expressing his slur on the air, rather than whispering it to his buddies.
     Doesn't this condone it, my colleague demanded, not buying my argument? Doesn't this make the slander more acceptable?
     I told him the SpongeBob story. People get mad, they reach for whatever they think will hurt somebody else. If they're yellow, they call them yellow. If they're pink, they call them pink. There's an editor at the paper whom I've looked at over the years, narrowed my eyes, and thought, unkindly: "You big, Semitic, flame-haired S.O.B." That isn't being bigoted. I'm big, I'm Semitic, I'm—OK, not flame-haired, though I wish I were—but certainly an S.O.B. What it is, and what Steve's crack, and most such cracks are, is collecting every quality you can think of relating to the person you're mad at and spewing them back in a bad light. If I were angry at Reese Witherspoon, I might blurt out, "You button-nosed saccharine little megabucks movie fodder!" That doesn't make these bad qualities.
     Frankly, and this might be a false distinction, I differentiate between the Dahls of the world, airing the biases we all share and suppress, trying to be funny, and, say, the Pat Buchanans, who are pretending they're rational when, in fact, they're hatemongers.
     A lot of entertainment involves insulting someone; you need villains to hijack the planes, dupes to slip on the banana peels. We've purged culture of the traditional butts of villainy and humor, and so are stuck with those unidentifiable Eurotrash terrorists in black sweat shirts and clowns culled from the traditional power elite (Austin Powers is British; imagine if he were Jewish, or black).
     There is so much actual hate in the world (the Palestinian, send-junior-to-the-mall-to-blow-himself-and-a-few-Jews-up hate), I just can't see getting worked up over someone cracking a joke, or trying to. I find the insults flying between SpongeBob and Patrick hysterical. Then again, I am not a sponge or a starfish. We have come to that.

     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 24, 2002


  1. No real comment ither than it is a perverse pleasure to be lieing in bed, awakened by my cold induced hacking cough at 4 am, and forced to ponder big issues. I dont know whether I agree with you or not- but I need to think about the points you make, so I am doing so ( despite the fact that I have a running battle with my grandkids who force me to watch Sponge Bob - which I find to be an annoying, silly show. (Sorry.)

    1. Sorry about the cold. If it helps, that's pretty much the process by which I write this stuff. Lay in bed, think about something, get up, write it. SpongeBob can be annoying. It's an acquired taste.

    2. Think about how copper wire was invented...two Jewish guys fighting over a penny. Then try not to chuckle. It's one of my favorite "Jews and money" jokes.When I've posted such jokes online, I've been labeled a slef-hating Jew, which is fine by me. I've never cared for the Slefs a whole lot. Most of them don't like words, which makes them anti-semantic.

      Somebody, perhaps Leo Rosten, once commented in a semi-serious vein about the way Jews can detect prejudice. If someone asks "Are you Jewish?" you are probably talking to a fellow tribesman. If they ask "Are you a Jew?" they probably aren't, and may not be all that supportive. And if you hear "You Jew?"...start running. Works for me. Thoughts?

  2. SpongeBob SquarePants? I remember going to see that movie with my kids too. If they wouldn't have been so young I would have went to a different part of the multiplex and watched anything else.
    There was another mind-numbing children's program that they watched called Teletubbies. I don't know if that one had some kind of deep meaning of some sort but I remember there being some speculation or a conspiracy theory that the gay community was indoctrinated children or some such nonsense.
    I guess I was just a sesame Street guy.

  3. When I was SpongeBob age, 1950 or so, we kids had acquired the full lexicon of insults our fathers were wont to bandy about. One day, wanting to express a minor annoyance at a friend who lived next door, I started to roll out one of the familiar epithets, but before I could quite get it out of my mouth, "You Jaaaaaa..." I realized that Marshal was indeed a Jew and tried to swallow the word, not too successfully. I don't know how the episode affected Marshall, but I've remembered it with shame for almost 70 years.


  4. Sponge Bob, Teletubbies, Steve Dahl. Three things I have experienced just a few times, yet way too many. Teletubbies obviously aimed at the pre- coherent toddlers, just like any iteration of the Steve&Gary Show. I would guess that Sponge Bob was the deepest of the three. Demanding to be paid for a repeat appearance could be the sanest thing you have ever done, Neil.

    1. I wouldn't put Teletubbies and SpongeBob in the same catagories. The Teletubbies are weird eye-candy for toddlers. SpongeBob is frenetic romp with an actual storyline. Dahl ended up paying me a $200 Lettuce Entertain You certificate for each appearance which, in my drinking days, was a boon. I had to use them at a specific restaurant in one sitting, which made for some very high end lunches with fine vintages.


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