How did a Nickelodeon cartoon that debuted in 1999 become the most-memed TV show of all time? Sure, images of hall monitor SpongeBob, greek god Squidward, blurry Mr. Krabs and various background fish are funny enough without their context, but it’s pretty clear that SpongeBob has unanimously become the most beloved cartoon of its era. Since its late ’90s premiere, it’s gone on to Broadway, the big screen and video games, and the show has become god-tier television for millennials, Gen Z—or maybe they just embrace the memes, but still—and even rappers. Practically every week, there’s a popular new SpongeBob meme, and the show itself is still grabbing headlines—most recently due to speculation that SpongeBob is gay.
Its lasting legacy is due in part to its humor, whose appeal reaches far beyond kids who are bored on a Saturday morning. Between its occasional adult-themed innuendo, ridiculous facial expressions, endlessly quotable lines and incredible comedic timing, SpongeBob isn’t just one of the funniest cartoons of all time—it’s one of the funniest shows, period. The buddy comedy of SpongeBob and Patrick always ends in hysterical hijinks, the workplace dynamics at the Krusty Krab are painfully relatable and the annoying neighbor plots that result in Squidward nearly having a stroke may be the show’s funniest punchline.
Rewatching SpongeBob for the first time in years is a surreal experience. It’s like an art installation of live memes. It’s obvious that the show has aged impeccably. Yet when binge-watching season after season, the drop-off in quality after Season 3 becomes glaringly apparent. Production for that season was halted to work on the show’s 2004 partially-live-action film The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie—a box office smash which still holds up—but unfortunately, once Season 4 got underway, the episodes just don’t pack the same amount of laughs (or style of said laughs), which may be due to the show’s creator, Stephen Hillenburg, stepping down as showrunner.
SpongeBob is still chugging on, though—its 11th season was just released on DVD—but its humor has gone from effortless hilarity to cheap obnoxiousness, and the animation style has evolved from simple to busy. As sad as that trajectory may be, you would practically never know those new episodes existed, just based on the classic SpongeBob content that circulates through social media every day. In an ode to one of TV’s most beloved shows—and a particularly good one for comedic relief while in quarantine—we rounded up 10 of the best, funniest and most iconic episodes. The show’s first five seasons are available to stream now on Amazon Prime, with all 11 seasons are now streaming via Paramount+. so get ready to make memes until sun down and revel in the lap steel guitar interludes and French-accented “one eternity later” cutaways.
Honorable Mentions: “Krusty Krab Training Video,” “One Krabs Trash,” “The Great Snail Race,” “Rock Bottom,” “Idiot Box.”
This entire episode can be summed up by one line and SpongeBob’s subsequent facial expression: “You like Krabby Patties, don’t you Squidward?” Many of us know the feeling of not wanting to give someone satisfaction when we realize they were right all along, and Squidward takes this quandary to extreme heights—so much so that he explodes and decapitates himself. SpongeBob has always excelled at its slapstick comedy, and Squidward (along with Plankton) is usually on the receiving end of it, but it never gets old.
Patrick wandering the streets of Bikini Bottom at night, terrified and muttering fake siren sounds into a walkie-talkie with an ice cream cone on his head, is peak SpongeBob. There’s city-wide talk of a maniac on the loose, which turns out to be SpongeBob, who’s simultaneously investigating the maniac. None of this would’ve happened if it weren’t for Mrs. Puff, who gives SpongeBob a hall monitor uniform at boating school, suddenly empowering him with what he believes to be legitimate law enforcement credentials.
Season 1 of SpongeBob achieves astounding humor with such simple storylines. All it needs is a wooden bubble stand and its trio of main characters. This episode excels primarily because of the ridiculous routine that SpongeBob invents in order to properly blow a bubble. SpongeBob insists that his over-the-top technique (“Pelvic thrust! ... Stop on your right foot. Don’t forget it! Bring it around town”) is essential to the art of bubble blowing, but Squidward doesn’t believe him, resulting in a series of pathetic failures and a fit of pent-up rage—potentially the most laugh-out-loud moment of the show’s history.
Any time a sitcom character attempts to trick someone into thinking they’re far more impressive than they really are via some over-the-top scheme, it always goes poorly—it’s practically TV law, but that doesn’t stop these characters from trying. In this lying charade, Squidward tries to trick his archnemesis Squilliaim Fancyson—perhaps the only character more insufferable than Squidward—into believing The Krusty Krab is a five-star restaurant, and literally everything goes wrong: Patrick gets into a fist fight with a hat rack, SpongeBob attacks guests with a cheese grater and the appetizer is not only still alive, but escapes from the kitchen.
One reason SpongeBob is so good is that many of its storylines would still be funny in live-action form. There’s almost a Seinfeld-like outrageousness to many episodes, which is best exemplified by “Nasty Patty.” Much like the maniac in Hall Monitor or the robot in Imitation Krabs, SpongeBob likes to play around with false identities, and the misunderstanding that arises in “Nasty Patty” is also incredibly rich. SpongeBob and Mr. Krabs overhear from the news that there’s a man posing as a health inspector, just so he can eat out for free. When a legitimate health inspector visits the Krusty Krab, they decide to make him the most disgusting Krabby Patty possible, and he eventually falls unconscious. The pair think he’s dead, so they’re left scrambling to hide the body before the cops get suspicious. When the health inspector starts to regain consciousness, they successfully convince the cops that he’s a zombie—you can literally imagine Seinfeld’s Kramer trying to explain this story to George, Elaine and Jerry, and none of them believing him.
SpongeBob has some of the best single-appearance characters; take for example: Smitty WerbenJagerManJensen, Bubble Buddy and the Hash-Slinging Slasher. The latter character gets his time to shine in the episode, “Graveyard Shift,” but by the end, we realize that he technically doesn’t exist. After Mr. Krabs announces that the Krusty Krab will be open 24/7, Squidward realizes SpongeBob is terrified of the dark and decides to play a prank by telling him a ghost story. Similar to the aforementioned WerbenJagerManJensen (“He was number one!”), Squidward completely makes up the existence of the Hash-Slinging Slasher, only for the joke to be turned on himself when he finds out he’s real. By the end of the episode, they learn that a nerdy teenager simply matches the description of the Hash-Slinging Slasher, and there’s no such thing as this murderous fry cook ghost, but SpongeBob and Squidward’s shared fear couldn’t be more genuine.
The SpongeBob candy bar episode rivals the iconic chocolate factory episode of I Love Lucy—the cocoa-themed humor of both episodes is just timeless. SpongeBob and Patrick become door-to-door chocolate salesmen, and they meet strangers who are psychotically enthusiastic and bitterly skeptical about their candy. The pair gets duped by a scam artist who tricks them into buying his products instead, but somehow they manage to sell all their chocolate and end up on a date at a fancy restaurant with two of their customers: an elderly woman and her gravely old mother who is essentially reduced to a skinless nub in a wheelchair. If you haven’t screamed, “You just can’t wait for me to die, can you?” at your friend in an ornery, hoarse old person voice, you’re missing out.
Shanghaied might be the most underrated episode of SpongeBob due to its high laugh ratio. Between Patrick’s scream of “Leedle, leedle, leedle, lee!,” SpongeBob’s assurance of “Keep going. You’re good, you’re good, you’re good” when guiding Patrick as he completely wrecks the Flying Dutchman’s ship or their traumatic trip through the mall’s perfume department, it’s the episode that keeps giving. And it wouldn’t be an all-time-great SpongeBob episode unless Squidward gets tortured via hilarious means. This time, Squidward suffers the wrath of a hellish, demon-and-spaghetti-filled alternate dimension and the Flying Dutchman’s explosive snot.
If you polled people on their favorite SpongeBob episode, the number one answer would be “Band Geeks” by a large margin—and for good reason. The most iconic scene is, of course, the motley crew’s Bubble Bowl performance of “Sweet Victory,” with Squilliam fainting in disbelief on scene. It’s the best SpongeBob musical number by far, and the rest of the episode has some of the show’s greatest jokes. Patrick’s question of “Is mayonnaise an instrument?” or Squidward’s deadpan line of “Too bad that didn’t kill me” after he’s been pelted with drumsticks when the novice drummers mistakenly try to play them like horns, just kill every time. The reason this episode falls just short of the best of all time is that the plot itself isn’t as intrinsically funny as some others—though it’s nice to see Squidward with a rare happy ending.
Club SpongeBob is the series’ most perfect episode. It has all the elements of a great SpongeBob episode: an outrageous premise, classic jokes, a satisfyingly goofy twist at the end and Squidward being driven so crazy by SpongeBob and Patrick that he’ll eventually need a therapist—or a straitjacket. You’ll probably remember this episode best by its central object “the magic conch,” which gives advice to the three main characters as they’re stranded in a kelp forest. Squidward’s luck with this Magic Eight Ball of sorts is unsurprisingly worse than SpongeBob and Patrick, who end up with a delicious feast from a cargo dump while Squidward is left frying a cockroach over a bonfire. I won’t spoil the ending, but the way this trio are saved from the forest is so impossibly idiotic that it’s perfect.
Lizzie Manno is an associate music editor, Coldplay apologist, bread obsessive and lover of all things indie, punk and shoegaze at Paste. Follow her on Twitter @LizzieManno
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