Although it’s easy to idolize our favorite artists, there exists an equal charm to uncovering and understanding the stories behind your favorite stories— allowing yourself the opportunity to engage with that artist’s inspirations and their preliminary works. This same interest has led me to make a habit of researching the individual artists behind my favorite cartoons— following them on social media (when possible), looking into the films/ shows/ comics/ etc. they reference, which studios they’ve worked at, and, perhaps the most fun, discovering the in-production pieces they created during their show’s production. Particularly since I’ve begun writing and researching animation for this blog, I’ve also noticed that I’ve accrued several “little things” of interest and appreciation; that, even if they may not prove immediately relevant to a certain article, I find myself repeatedly going back to and being influenced by. One such work (that admittedly has taken residence in my notes since I researched exposure sheets) is the “Sponge Boy” pitch bible written by Stephan Hillenburg— a document written and illustrated by Hillenburg to pitch Nickelodeon executives the show we now know as Spongebob Squarepants. Of course, I’m predisposed to enjoy something like this. I’m already a massive Hillenburg and SpongeBob fan, and I’m creatively nosey and love peeking behind the current of any creative project I enjoy. However, I feel the appeal of this pitch bible, even so far removed from its creation, extends beyond just die-hard fans. The pitch bible for “Sponge Boy” acts not just as a delightfully interesting look at Hillenburg’s creative process but also as a heartwarming, thorough, and infectiously enthusiastic reminder of the amount of hard work that goes into any animated project.
A pitch bible, also referred to as a “show bible” or just a “bible,” is a document outlining the primary elements of a project (such as characters, backstories, settings, episode overviews, etc.) to ensure canonical/narrative consistency throughout the production of a television series, movie, comic, etc. The creator/lead creative on the project typically writes the pitch bible early on— even before a project has been picked up for production— to establish the premise and status quo of the story. In other words, the creator writes a pitch bible so executives can understand the concept and intent behind the work; why they should consider producing their show. Then (if the show is greenlit), the writers would utilize the pitch bible in the same way a visual artist refers to a model sheet, with both being internal documents that draw the lines the artists will color within.
In the case of Spongebob (a phrase I use unsurprisingly frequently), the show’s creator wrote the pitch bible to show to Nickelodeon executives so they would invest in a potential pilot episode. The series creator, Stephen Hillenburg, based the show around his 1984 independent comic The Intertidal Zone, which he made while teaching at the Orange County Marine Institute as a way of helping introduce the course material to his students. Notably, The Intertidal Zone also featured the character Bob the Sponge, a plucky sea sponge who narrated the comic’s lesson on maritime history and marine life. Hillenburg would continue teaching marine biology but would shift careers to pursue a master’s in animation, after which, in 1993, he became a creative director at Nickelodeon on one of their first “Nicktoons,” Rocko’s Modern Life. While at Nickelodeon, with the encouragement of his colleagues, Hillenburg began developing The Intertidal Zone into a television series.
The pitch bible for SpongeBob SquarePants acts as an informative time capsule that, despite its differences from the eventual series, unveils and underscores the series’ core. For reference, the pilot episode of SpongeBob SquarePants would first air on May 1 of 1999 (following the broadcast of that year’s Kids Choice Awards, let’s go); this pitch document collects pieces of writing and concept artwork dated from 1995-1997. Thus, many elements present in this pitch changed as the series developed further, most apparent being the name of the show’s main character: “SpongeBoy.” Throughout much of the show’s early production, and even into the production of the show’s pilot, the series carried the original title of “SpongeBoy Ahoy!” However, after discovering a mop product already claiming the “SpongeBoy” trademark, Hillenburg renamed the show, and its titular lead to SpongeBob. Yet, so much of what makes the character so indelible and enduring has its roots exposed here; Hillenburg explains aspects of SpongeBob’s character— like his optimism, innocence, idiosyncratic logic, and aspirant nature— plainly, but with meticulous detail. Moreover, he highlights enlightening elements of the show’s fundamentals, like how much of the show stems from how Spongebob, “Unaware of his talents, […] cheerily strives to assimilate in a world where unbridled creative thought is a catalyst for conflict. Luckily, his failure to fit in is mitigated by his optimism and his ability to turn a loss into a win for himself.” (Hillenburg, 10.)
Additionally, if you are a fan of the series, the pitch bible gives a glimpse into several in-progress and alternate versions of characters and episodes. Beyond just the change in the showtitle, several delightful little discrepancies make their way into these descriptions: the change from “Crusty Crab” to “Krusty Krab,” Squidward playing the oboe instead of his clarinet, Sandy not yet being a scientist and instead living underwater as a thrill-seeking stunt. As well, seeing descriptions for future iconic episodes like “Reefblowers,” “Bubblestand,” and “Pizza Delivery” remains prevailingly endearing throughout. Notably within these descriptions is an outline for “20,000 Patties Under the Sea,” which wouldn’t become a proper episode until season 5, airing as the series 97th episode.
Throughout its pages of episode overviews, character descriptions, sketched concept art, and paintings, Hillenburg maintains an elated passion for his ideas that elevates the pitch– an underdog unto that itself you can’t help but root on. This enamoredness even exceeds the series; of course, a familiarity with the material allows you a charming retrospective lens, but Hillenburg’s enthusiasm to tell his story remains the pitch’s most enduring trait. The “Sponge Boy” pitch serves as a testament to the hard work and dedication that goes into any animated project, but also a reminder of the fun of sharing your ideas with others.
The full pitch bible is available on the internet archive; this is not an ad, I just like cartoons!