Hillenburg revealed his ALS diagnosis last year. In a statement, Nickelodeon confirmed his death, saying, “Steve imbued SpongeBob SquarePants with a unique sense of humor and innocence that has brought joy to generations of kids and families everywhere. His utterly original characters and the world of Bikini Bottom will long stand as a reminder of the value of optimism, friendship and the limitless power of imagination.”
SpongeBob SquarePants debuted on Nickelodeon May 1st, 1991 and quickly became one of the network’s signature shows with a sense of humor that appealed to both kids and older viewers. The series has since aired nearly 250 episodes and has been spun-off into movies, comic books, video games, theme park rides and even a Tony-winning Broadway musical. On top of all that, SpongeBob fans have repeatedly turned to the show as a never-ending fountain of internet meme fodder.
Hillenburg was born in Oklahoma, but raised in Anaheim, California. As a child, he was obsessed with the sea and the films of oceanographer Jacques Cousteau. He later graduated from college with a degree in natural resource planning, with an emphasis on marine resources. During college, however, Hillenburg also nurtured his artistic talents, and for years he taught marine biology using illustrated stories he wrote and drew himself. At one point, he even created an educational comic book, The Intertidal Zone, which featured “Bob the Sponge.”
In the late Eighties, Hillenburg left teaching to focus on animation. His 1992 animated short, “Wormholes,” won Best Animated Concept at the Ottawa International Animation Festival, and for the next several years he worked as a director and writer on Nickelodeon’s Rocko’s Modern Life. While working on Rocko’s Modern Life, a fellow writer read The Intertidal Zone and convinced Hillenburg to turn it into his own program.
In a 2009 interview with The Washington Post, Hillenburg spoke about the influences behind SpongeBob‘s comedic appeal, saying “I think SpongeBob is born out of my love of Laurel and Hardy shorts. You’ve got that kind of idiot-buddy situation – that was a huge influence … SpongeBob is a complete innocent – not an idiot. SpongeBob never fully realizes how stupid Patrick is. They’re whipping themselves up into situations – that’s always where the humor comes from.”