Twenty years ago, a seminal event in children’s programming hit the airwaves. On par with Pee Wee’s Playhouse, Rugrats, and The Looney Tunes, this sensation took over pop culture in a daring tour-du-force, providing Bugs Bunny-esque shenanigans with the anarchic nature of 90s programming. I’m talking, of course, about SpongeBob SquarePants. It can be argued that SpongeBob is the children’s television answer to The Simpsons – it combines clever writing, childish humor, and a knack for world building into an era-defining masterpiece. And while the show has waned over the past few years, and lost its creator, Stephen Hillenburg, along the way, it has still run for twenty years, a record-setting run, and seen its titular character appear on merchandise, in cinema, on Broadway and even at last year’s Super Bowl. So in honor of the big 2-0, I thought we could take a trip down memory lane with the Top Ten SpongeBob SquarePants Episodes of All Time.
That’s right, we’re going to take a look at the ten episodes of SpongeBob that have had the greatest impact on the cultural lexicon, executed the funniest jokes, and just demonstrated the form at its zenith. Think “Jellyfishing,” “Squid On Strike,” and “Pressure” for context. Now, obviously there are tons of great episodes from this two-decade run that I could choose from. There’s episodes that gave us iconic quotes and lines, like “Tea At The Treedome,” “Pickles,” “Texas,” “New Student Starfish” (“You know what’s funnier than 24?”) and “Shanghaied.” There are episodes that just, all around, have terrific concepts, including “Squirrel Jokes,” “No Free Rides,” “Bubble Buddy,” “Rock Bottom,” and “Hooky.” Some episodes are iconic because of their music, such as “Your Shoe’s Untied,” “I Had An Accident,” and, of course, “Best Day Ever.” And some episodes, at the end of the day, are just stone-cold classics, like “Suds,” “Survival of the Idiots,” “Squilliam Returns,” “Krusty Krab Training Video,” “Ugh,” and “Club SpongeBob.” I even considered the guest-centered episodes, which would reflect the draw of SpongeBob as a pop culture icon, including Johnny Depp, Marion Ross, Brian Doyle Murray, and more. I desperately wanted to include a Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy episode, to pay tribute to Ernest Borgnine and Tim Conway’s iconic performances (II, IV, and V are the best). And it cannot be overstated that “Atlantis SquarePantis” starred David Bowie. Yes, that David Bowie. But at the end of the day, there were ten solid, fantastic episodes that I felt perfectly summed up our tiny friend who lives in a pineapple under the sea. And now, say it with me…ARE YOU READY, KIDS?
One of the reasons “F.U.N.” works is because it has a solid joke-per-minute ratio. The humor is pretty rapid-fire, ranging from the absurd (the extreme nature of the Krusty Krab’s shutdown over Plankton’s theft of the secret formula) to the morbidly dark (upon defeating Plankton, Squidward’s comeback is “How does it feel to be the most hated thing in Bikini Bottom, Plankton? I would know!”) to the outright silly (when Mr. Krabs instructs SpongeBob, in a crowded theater, to “Reach into his pocket and see what he’s got!” the rest of the theater uses this as an opportunity to rob their neighbor). But beyond the cleverness of the jokes, “F.U.N” works because of the relationship between SpongeBob and Plankton. A cross between The Odd Couple and Romeo and Juliet, the episode revolves around SpongeBob’s optimistic, innocent fun trying to reform Plankton’s penchant for destruction and chaos. Epitomized with the famous “F.U.N.” song, as SpongeBob explains to Plankton that “fun” is an acronym (“friends who do stuff together/U and me/aNywhere and any time at all”), we see their different worldviews collide as Plankton (who initially imagines “Fire, Uranium, and No Survivors”) slowly comes to the light and makes his first friend. Plankton’s reform is up to debate – he still tries to betray SpongeBob in the end, but he wasn’t acting for anyone when he tries on his own pair of square pants. But one thing’s for sure – when they break up, it is treated with a touching, apt spoof of most cinematic breakup scenes. “F.U.N” is the episode most fans think of when they think SpongeBob, and it makes sense why.
9. “The Camping Episode”
The best episodes of SpongeBob often involve the eponymous Sponge and his neighbor Squidward engaged in a Bugs Bunny/Daffy Duck battle of luck – albeit with SpongeBob more innocent and unassuming than his hare counterpart. The premise is simple: Squidward wants to get some rest while SpongeBob and Patrick go camping, only to discover they’re camping in his backyard. Desperate to prove that he’s a better camper than them, and to shame them into shutting up, Squidward joins them, only to be tormented at every step of the way. Much like Bugs and Daffy, the humor derives itself from Squidward’s failures at basic tenets of the situation, while SpongeBob and Patrick possess a natural flair. Sometimes the failures aren’t even his fault – Patrick accidentally sets his marshmallow on fire multiple times, and each attempt to blow it out scalds Squidward (in perfect Looney Tunes fashion, he successfully ducks once, only for the flaming mallow to turn around and hit him from behind). And like the best episodes of SpongeBob, the climax comes in song form – here the catchy, repetitive “Campfire Song Song.” In the end, Squidward tries to prove the duo insane by proving that the dangerous “Sea Bear” they’ve read about in the tabloids doesn’t exist, only to lure a Sea Bear that is willing to attack Squidward for every little thing he does, from playing the clarinet badly to limping away to crawling. He even tries doing nothing, only for the bear to return, just because “I guess he doesn’t like you!” It’s silly, entertaining, and features peak schadenfreude – all the makings of a classic children’s cartoon.
8. “Dying For Pie”
Similar to the Bugs-Daffy relationship of “The Camping Episode,” “Dying for Pie” also thrives on the Squidward-SpongeBob relationship, albeit with a darker tinge. After insulting SpongeBob on Employee Brotherhood Day, Squidward is forced to make SpongeBob a gift. He instead chooses to buy a pie from a pirate, unaware that the pirates are selling Bomb Pies (yet another example of the inherent silliness of the show). After assuming SpongeBob has eaten the pie, a guilt-ridden Squidward opts to give his neighbor the best last day anyone could wish for. Much of the episode’s humor derives from SpongeBob’s naïve optimism in his friendship with the cynical, anguished Squidward. He knits the poor squid a sweater of eyelashes, and later tears when Squidward rejects his love. He has a list of fun things he wants to do with Squidward with the best things in red (“EVERYTHING’S in red,” Squidward notes). And throughout it all, Squidward endures the wrath of the town as SpongeBob takes him on a day of fun. But lest you feel bad for Squidward at any point during this ordeal, his first thoughts after SpongeBob’s “demise” is “I’m such a good person.” Meanwhile, while most of the humor is Squidward’s forced day of innocent joy and fun, Mr. Krabs comes along to instill the episode with a splash of darkness. Upon learning of Squidward’s presumed murder, he grimly condemns Squidward with the iconic statement, “The boy cries you a sweater of tears…and you kill him.” And after the main duo heads off for the day of “merriment,” Mr. Krabs hangs a Help Wanted sign in the window while muttering, “Note to self: Watch Out For Squidward.” At the end of the day, our favorite sponge is unharmed – he never ate the pie, he saved it for later. But the blend between darkness and sweet is what makes this episode an all-time great.
There are two types of great SpongeBob episodes: ones where SpongeBob must interact with real-world items (Patchy, hooks, etc.), and ones where the writers pay homage to their favorite cartoons. “Frankendoodle” does both. Combining Monty Python-esque humor with the famous Daffy Duck sketch “Duck Amuck,” “Frankendoodle” finds SpongeBob and Patrick battling a demented version of SpongeBob they crafted with a real-world artist’s lost pencil. Part of the brilliance of the episode is that, for it to work, you have to establish the breaking of the fourth wall. SpongeBob and Patrick aren’t just a normal sponge or normal starfish – they are objectively cartoon sponges and starfish. It’s the only way for it to make sense for them to bring cartoons to life with a human pencil – because they are now, inherently, adding to their own painted world. The show works with this concept in unique, clever ways, including the duo worshipping the “Giant Pencil,” a Wile E. Coyote-style of drawing weapons and escapes, and the hilariously crass erasure of SpongeBob’s butt. But perhaps even more importantly, it manages to craft some hilarious jokes about the nature of art and creation – after SpongeBob doodles a jellyfish, the usual idiot Patrick notes, “Pretty good, SpongeBob. But it’s lacking basic construction, and your perspective leaves something to be desired.” Is this commentary on art critics, a moment of genius on Patrick’s part, or both? And in classic Frankenstein fashion, DoodleBob is a stammering sociopath, created by two lovable doofuses and thrust into an unrelenting world. As SpongeBob declares, “He was but a two-dimensional creation, lost in our three-dimensional world.” Or, as Patrick says, “So…he’s a drawing?” “Frankendoodle” is SpongeBob at its silliest and smartest, and we are all the better for it.
6. “Pizza Delivery”
That’s right, it’s the famous Krusty Krab Pizza episode! If you can’t tell from this list by now, the best episodes of SpongeBob usually involve SpongeBob interacting with a polar opposite – usually Squidward. Here, after being sent by Mr. Krabs to deliver a “Krusty Krab Pizza” (a smashed up Krabby Patty designed to trick a gullible customer), SpongeBob and Squidward become lost in the Bikini Bottom wilderness, battling the elements and their own shortcomings along the way. The jokes in this episode are among its finest, mostly devolving from Squidward’s selfishness and SpongeBob’s above-and-beyond love of the customer. Whereas Squidward is ok eating the pizza the minute they begin to starve, SpongeBob refuses to lose grasp of the pie, entertaining himself with a variety of songs about their journey, including jingle, beat boxing, and a surprisingly spirited rock ballad. And in between bouts of verbal sparring, SpongeBob drops random insights surrounding “famous pioneer tricks” he once saw in a movie, including hitchhiking, algae growth, and, eventually, riding a giant rock like a car. In the end, “Pizza Delivery” provides not only a spot-on satire of how customers treat customer service workers, but also provides Squidward a rare moment of compassion for the bane of his existence. It’s a surprisingly warm moment between the two of them, and one of the show’s best. Of course, there’s also the episode’s secret hidden pleasure: how does one make a Krusty Krab Pizza? Many experts have tried to figure it out, and all have been in vain. It’s one of the show’s key secrets, and one that will never be revealed. And perhaps that’s for the best – let the episode’s brilliance exist in its magic bubble.
“Procrastination” is the episode that made children say, “Is that what I have to look forward to in the future?” and adults say “YES, THANK YOU! SOMEONE GETS IT!” It is, without a doubt, the best demonstration of procrastination and writer’s block ever put on film. Like another great episode, “Rock Bottom,” the setup here is not so much SpongeBob driving his acquaintances crazy, so much as the world around SpongeBob drives him crazy. When scheduled to write an essay for Boating School, SpongeBob is immediately excited at the prospect of writing 800 words. Of course, thanks to procrastination and an inability to put pen to paper, this obviously doesn’t get done until the last minute. He immediately becomes distracted by the world around him, from people playing outside to minutes of sharpening his pencil to calling all his friends at midnight to wake them up and talk. The episode also takes Spongebob’s tasks to a ludicrous extreme (he dreams he burns his house down as it chastises him for his laziness), but its smarter moments come in the former of the honest, realistic forms of procrastination that SpongeBob endures – the ones that we all do to put off work assignments. He’s constantly eating and drinking, taking naps, and suddenly noticing his kitchen is “dirty” and proceeding to excessively clean it for hours on end. One of the episode’s smartest moments comes when SpongeBob takes hours to write the word “The” before deciding to take a break – I for one know this was how I got through college. In the end, the procrastination ironically proves helpful, as the events of the episode give our Spongy friend a list of things to not do at a stoplight, but it’s all in vain – the paper is disregarded by Mrs. Puff, and SpongeBob’s hard work is tossed aside. “Procrastination” is one of the most intelligent episodes of the show to date. Want proof? Why do you think this Wednesday Listicle is going up on a Thursday?
4. “Help Wanted”
The episode that started it all, “Help Wanted” is about as brilliant a pilot as a show could ever hope for. While several shows lose ideas and jokes from their pilots that they thought for sure would be big hits (New Girl had Schmidt as a Barney Stinson/Joey Tribbiani cross, and Pam Poovey used to utilize a dolphin puppet), most of the jokes in “Help Wanted” remained staples through the run of the show. There’s the Jacques Cousteau-esque French narrator, the introduction of silly songs, the clear relationships between the characters, and the zany hijinks that the show would be known for. When we first meet SpongeBob in his famous house, the narrator introducing him deridingly notes, “Yes, of course he lives in a pineapple, you silly!” as if this would be common knowledge. Now, I won’t pretend everything in this episode is perfect – it’s clear with hindsight that the actors and characters were still finding themselves, as the voices weren’t their iconic selves yet, Patrick is far too intelligent for his own good, and Mr. Krabs, while clearly greedy, is not as covetous as he becomes in later seasons. And yet, even without some of the show’s strongest tools, the humor is still there from the get-go. There’s SpongeBob’s casual strolling through the spatula aisle to complete Mr. Krabs’ impossible task intercut with nematodes destroying the Krusty Krab. There’s Squidward’s half-hearted “hoorays” when SpongeBob is hired at the end of the episode. And above all, there’s Mr. Krabs’ self-serious Jaws-esque monologue about, and I quote, “smelly smells that smell…smelly.” Not all pilots deserve to make Top Ten lists. But when a pilot is this good, and this iconic then you better your bottom that it deserves a slot in the Top 5.
3. “Band Geeks”
“Band Geeks” is perhaps the most well-known episode of SpongeBob in existence. It’s so beloved, it made an appearance at this year’s Super Bowl (sure, it was a half-assed attempt for Maroon 5 to earn brownie points, but even so). After lying to his arch-nemesis Squillium that he has a marching band, Squidward is forced to recruit his neighbors to learn how to play well enough to perform at the Bubble Bowl (halftime at a real-world football game; upon seeing the drunken sports fans, SpongeBob notes, “Maybe we’re near one of those toxic waste dumps.” For much of the episode, audiences have a chance to revel in Squidward’s constant consternation and embarrassment as the rehearsals go…about as well as you’d expect. Every character gets a great moment to annoy Squidward, from Sandy fighting everyone to Mr. Krabs struggling to play with his claws to Plankton trying to sound smart by talking loudly. Patrick, of course, shows up as an agent of chaos, asking if “mayonnaise is an instrument,” and irritating Sandy until she shoves him through a trombone. Meanwhile, baton twirlers end up spinning so fast they fly off and crash into a blimp, forcing the band to play an impromptu Taps as Squidward goes fetal. And yet, as fun as it is to watch Squidward get tortured for eleven straight minutes, the show makes the wise decision to give him the win. Not only is it the funnier choice, but it also happens to be, dare I say, uplifting? With Plankton on keys, Patrick on drums, Krabs on an unnecessary keytar, Sandy on bass, Mrs. Puff on guitar, and SpongeBob singing, the town pulls together to perform “Sweet Victory” in a triumphant moment of coming together. Squidward is thrilled, Squillium has a heart attack, and SpongeBob delivers the hilariously over-the-top line “It’s the thrill of one more kill” – a moment that the animators claim is the best they’ve done on the show. Hilarious and heartwarming in equal measure, “Band Geeks” lives up to the hype.
2. “Chocolate With Nuts”
“Chocolate With Nuts” works because its humor all derives from the same source: the ridiculousness of SpongeBob and Patrick. By satirizing the entrepreneurial experience in order for the duo to enjoy “fancy living,” the show spoofs the work force by putting two lovable nincompoops through the ringer. Most of the humor derives from their gullible stupidity; a good third of their customers are a con man who tricks them into buying candy bar carriers and candy bar carrier carriers, inevitably earning them a net loss (as Patrick puts it, “We’ll take 20!”). Patrick’s solution to their issues moving merchandise is “Let’s get naked!” which SpongeBob advises they save for “real estate.” And Patrick’s inherent stupidity creates jokes out of his understanding commands literally – to flatter a customer, he creepily tells him “I love you,” and when advised to focus on the customer, Patrick’s eyes bulge from his head and follow the customer around. But beyond the humor derived from insane characters in ordinary situations, “Nuts” is most famous for seeing what happens when our favorite characters interact with crazier characters. Their first attempt results in a psychopath chasing them repeatedly while dementedly shouting “CHOCOLATE!!!” (In a classic misdirect, he ends up just loving chocolate, and buys their entire stock). And in an attempt to “stretch the truth” and flatter an old woman, they end up stumbling upon an ancient worm woman with a New York Jewish accent trapped in a Grey Gardens-esque hellscape (she’s old enough to “remember when they first invented chocolate”). A beloved episode for most fans, “Chocolate With Nuts” is a masterpiece in placing your ridiculous characters in ordinary situations and slowly upping the ante.
1. “Graveyard Shift”
If you’ve been following this site from the beginning, this should come as no shock to you. I’ve already named “Graveyard Shift” as one of the greatest Halloween TV Episodes of all time, and it’s not even a Halloween episode! It’s placement as the #1 SpongeBob episode just seemed obvious. But before we even get into all that, let’s break down why this episode is so great. For starters, it features every major character operating in peak form. The episode’s story – SpongeBob and Squidward are trapped in a creepy Krusty Krab after hours – comes when cheapskate greedster Mr. Krabs decides to stay open 24/7 because a customer doesn’t understand what the word “closed” means (both a brilliant satire of the work force and just a dumb joke). SpongeBob reacts to the news with perfect optimism (and gullibility, once Squidward starts making up tales), while Squidward begs customers to murder him. Even Patrick shows up briefly in top form – he relishes in a 3 am Krabby Patty. But beyond the characterization, the episode works because the jokes are so solid. The episode captures the ambiance of the night shift perfectly – the echoing of random noises, the complete darkness, the insane terror that something’s going to get you even though it’s statistically/factually impossible, and so on. The way Squidward taunts SpongeBob fleshes out their relationship, like a douchey teenager torturing some poor kid with a clearly made-up story. Their animalistic forms are used for humor, as SpongeBob constantly rips his own arm off painlessly and callously to prove points (and provide visual gags). Squidward panics that a ghost is coming for him when the walls begin to “ooze green slime,” before remembering that they “always do that” (a horrifying notion in a restaurant). And when SpongeBob assumes that the cloaked man coming to murder them is Squidward in disguise demonstrating his love to entertain him, Squidward matter-of-factly notes “SpongeBob, there are two problems with your theory. One, I hate you. And two, how can that be me when I’m STANDING RIGHT HERE?!?” And how can I forget the show’s greatest visual gag: NOSFERATU?!? “Graveyard Shift” is not just SpongeBob’s finest fifteen minutes – it’s one of television’s finest, too.
And that wraps up the Top Ten SpongeBob SquarePants Episodes of All Time! I hope you’ve enjoyed this nostalgic trip down memory lane. Feel free to challenge my positions in the comment section below, or you can debate if SpongeBob qualifies as a Baby Boomer, considering he owns prime real estate on a fry cook’s salary. So long!