Paul Tibbitt interview

by Fiona Rae / 26 September, 2009
The executive producer of SpongeBob SquarePants talks about 10 years of the little yellow optimist.

Here is a question that all children in the known universe can answer: who lives in a pineapple under the sea? If you didn't know the answer, you have been living under a rock for the past 10 years, because that's how long a square yellow sponge in pants has been entertaining kids. Yes, SpongeBob SquarePants is 10, which in cartoon years is like a kajillion and is therefore cause for celebration. Executive producer Paul Tibbitt, a laid-back Californian, has been there from the beginning.

How have the 10th birthday celebrations been going for SpongeBob? Well, so far so good. We started in January with a cast read at the Sundance Film Festival, which went well, and we've had a marathon of SpongeBob shows and a DVD set of the first 100 episodes, and we had a big 10th birthday special in July.

It sounds like the best job you could have. Yeah - I'll go with that. I was always interested in cartoons as a kid, always doodling during class when I should have been learning math, but it paid off.

How did you meet [SpongeBob's creator] Steve Hillenburg? We went to school together at CalArts, which was the school started by Walt Disney. Steve was downstairs in a department called experimental animation, which was a little more - I don't want to say more creative - but yeah, more creative. They were doing art films and we were all trying to get jobs at Disney. He's a very low-key guy but has a really good dry sense of humour; he's a great guy.

Is it unusual for animated shows to go for 10 years? Yeah, there are exceptions, but it is a little unusual. The Simpsons is definitely an exception, and we seem to be. It's a rare thing when you can get something that can be sustained for this long and still be fun to make and still have people who want to watch it.

Was there a point when you thought, "Wow, this is getting huge"? Probably when I travelled to Europe and I started seeing it all over the place and I realised, "Wow, it's not just Americans any more, it's all over the world now." That was kind of exciting.

SpongeBob is such an optimistic character. Is it difficult to keep that optimism going? Not as difficult as it is to keep it going in real life. We know him really well now, we just know what he would say. You have to have a little bit of optimism deep down inside.

Do you find yourself thinking, "What would SpongeBob do?" It's almost like I have a SpongeBob organ inside me that just works. I can tap into that.

A bit of yellow, square-shaped stuff near the heart ... Near the gall bladder.

What did you make of religious groups having a panic about SpongeBob's sexuality? It was ridiculous. There's so much in the world that's more important than deciding the sexuality of a sponge that wears pants under the ocean. We sort of had a chuckle and went on with what we were doing. We mostly ignored it.

There have been some pretty famous people who have lent their voices to the series. Are you guys now so popular that you can get anyone you want? Most of the people who we've got that seem like big-time celebrities - like David Bowie and Johnny Depp - they do it because they like to watch it with their kids. I don't know that we could get anyone, but it's much easier to get people who like to sit down and watch it with their children.

Are there another 100 SpongeBob stories? I think we could come up with 100 more. It definitely hasn't got easier over the 10 years, but they're such well-developed and precise characters that their personalities are really sharpened. Sometimes it's hard work; sometimes I'm still surprised that we're able to come up with stuff. I wouldn't say, no, there are not 100 more, but it's not going to get any easier.
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