I missed out on Spongebob Squarepants as a child. It was the classic, “I didn’t have cable.” And somehow I never got around to it until almost my senior year of college. I’d seen the first few episodes, but then there was a hook. There was a decisive moment when I became acutely interested and ‘hooked.’
“Pizza Delivery.” The Krusty Krab incidentally decides it wants to sell and deliver pizzas, so Spongebob and Squidward become deliverymen and spend the bulk of the episode trying to get un-lost on their route. When the two finally arrive with the pizza, the customer becomes immediately irate when they forgot the drink that he apparently didn’t even order.
He refuses the pizza. Spongebob breaks down crying in a hysteria. Spongebob’s infinite enthusiasm and optimism are crushed in the face of despair and the reality of customer service.
The façade is gone.
Squidward stands up for Spongebob and briefly berates the customer, reassuring Spongebob that the two of them are in the right. It’s a heart-wrenchingly sobering moment, to see that action come from a character who makes a hobby of taking pleasure from Spongebob’s suffering.
The next episode elicits a similar response from us and from Spongebob, but this time, it happens repeatedly, every couple of minutes.
‘Home Sweet Pineapple.” Spongebob’s home is eaten by nematodes, and he’s temporarily homeless. He’s struggling to find somewhere to live as an alternative to moving back in with his parents. It’s easy to forget that Spongebob is an adult, living on his own and supporting himself with his job at the Krusty Krab. He seems like a child so often. And this episode has made it clear that it is a point of pride and great effort that Spongebob did move out and support himself.
But every alternative fails. He and Patrick build a model-size home, and as it shatters over his head, so do our hearts. He attempts a night as Patrick’s roommate, but is incompatible with Patrick’s endless snoring/sleep-sighing and satirical hogging the sheets (rock). It doesn’t work out, either, as Squidward’s roommate. And Spongebob is homeless and alone, in every sense.
Spongebob has given up all hope, his parents have arrived to pick him up, and he has lost the life he worked so hard to build, his everything. But, by miraculous fate, we have a happy ending: the seedling of his pineapple home sprouts and grows him a new pineapple. Voila. Back to the wonderful life.
Spongebob is a character iconic for his wacky antics and esoteric understanding of the non-logical physics of the undersea, Bikini Bottom world, a foil against the relatable, bitter Squidward. And through his infinite earnest and optimism, Spongebob experiences a flurry of effortless successes. But that bubble is occasionally popped, and Spongebob is “Faced with Reality.”
There are another few characters in media who have similar dynamics with similar tragic moments. I’d like to highlight Danger & Eggs’s Phillip, the anthropomorphic mutant egg and rules-and-safety-obsessed costar, and Sarah Silverman, as the fictionalized version of herself in The Sarah Silverman Program.
Danger & Eggs follows daredevil D. D. Danger and safety-chief Phillip on their exciting adventures within the park. That’s symptom one for this trope, checked off: isolated environment. The two are kings of the park, and it is their domain. Although they often encounter invasive threats to the park, the two of them are still in their element and are core members of the park’s ecology.
Second symptom of the trope, check: self-appointed positions. There’s no standard for reference. Especially in an isolated system it’s impossible to tell what’s actually going on and what subjective lenses are present. And it’s either comical or tragic when some objective standard is introduced, and the fantasy is dissolved.
“Lost-and-found Administrator,” “Self-Trained Self-Help Self-Awareness Expert,” and today’s “Park Activity Expert” are just a few of the titles claimed by Phillip. And there’s some butting of heads when the fatalistic official, Sheriff Luke, is introduced. As well as the times when Phillip is shown to be powerless to the rules of others: the administrative procedures of Parks and Paperwork Department, the authority of Sheriff Luke, even just the visiting hours of the park visiting center.
Phillip apparently holds 31 park duties, but none of these give him the authority that is projected onto him. His own primary authority is an extensive and evolving “rulebook” that he constantly references, but that he himself wrote. And he faces tragedy when his standards of rules and safety aren’t enough to protect D. D. .
And of course, the third symptom: an obsessive or anxious personality, whether actual or figurative/incidental. Phillip probably has some level of OCD, and this sets him up to respond more adversely when something hostile to his world is introduced. His particular fixations are with rules, procedures, and safety.
And the final core example. Sarah Silverman. Her character in The Sarah Silverman Program[j1] is oblivious to the feelings and actions of those around her. She is a caricature of infantile satire. “Making New Friends” follows Sarah as she abandons the core cast and her friends for being monotonous and finds new friends. When she mostly fails to connect with them, she returns to Steve Agee &co and expects to be welcomed back with as open of arms as was the Prodigal Son, not realizing how she may have hurt those close to her. And she is forced to face this reality and make reparations.
Sarah Silverman was faced with the very real possibility of losing all her friends and her support system. And the rest of the time, she is in her own fantastical world, getting high and somehow being productive, unashamedly wetting her bed, and suing Mongolia for the rape of Russian Jews by Mongol hoards many, many centuries ago.
The “Straight Man” is a core part of traditional comedy. He acts as a grounded foil to point out the silliness of some other character’s antics. He knows what real life is. Some shows never break the kayfabe, and despite any Straight Men, still maintain the rules of the universe as being absurd and non-logical (eg: 30 Rock). But many shows do occasionally pop the bubble and show that there is a world outside the show (or park, in the case of Danger & Eggs). And that crack in the surface can either lead to comedy or tragedy. It’s shocking when it leads to tragedy.
Not every story with a Fairy Godmother ends “Happily Ever After.”
Symptom 3: Spongebob has his pride in his work and faith in his friendships with Patrick and Squidward and Mr. Krabs, so he’s devastated when anything happens to suggest otherwise.
Danny Pudi’s Huey Duck from Ducktales 2017 has his Junior Woodchucks Guidebook, which is practically identical to Phillip’s Rulebook.
Justin Roiland created an animated parody series Mr. Sprinkles that acted as a sequel to Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat. What’s unique about the titular Cat in the Hat is that he visits the real world. Not some world of Truffula Trees. And Roiland follows up that story to show both the obvious incompatibility with a possibly-imagined character, the Cat in the Hat, and the real world and the passage of time, with both tragic and comedic results.
The revelations of outside standards happen time and time again in s1 of Spongebob Squarepants. In “Musclepants BuffPants,” Spongebob is set next to a standard and forced to learn that, despite temporary appearances, he knowns nothing about bodybuilding and fitness. “The Chaperone” pairs him as high school dance date to recently-stood-up Mr. Krabs’s daughter Pearl. Spongebob couldn’t find a date to his own junior prom, and now he makes a fool of himself, failing to understand how he should try and impress Pearl. Regardless of his infinitely good intentions, Spongebob is forced to come face-to-face with his own conventional social inadequacies, until the comical turnaround and happy ending. And in any kids’ show, an episode’s arc often follows the protagonist’s wacky antics and situational ignorance that go too far and either get or almost get someone close to him heart, as with Spongebob’s friend Sandy in “Sandy’s Rocket” and “Texas.”
The titular Dick Gently from BBC’s Dirk Gently’s Wholistic Detective Agency is introduced like this; he does whatever he wants and has an unshakeable faith that the consequences will help him solve some unknown mystery. And Elijah Wood’s pessimistic self is stuck between convincing Gently of some supposed reality or to join in and be happier.