This Sunday marks the premiere of The SpongeBob Musical, the first live-action (if you don’t count the porn parody) take on the iconic yellow happy sponge created by our Lord and Savior Stephen Hillenburg. The show has award-winning Tina Landau as a director, a $15-20 million budget, and a soundtrack that includes a song by the late David Bowie. But what the show does not have is Squidward dabbing.
For those of you who do not know what I’m talking about, recently, a Vine of a Universal Studios employee dressed as Squidward perfor—ugh, just watch it.
Naturally, given the dab’s immense popularity, this went viral, and now the whole internet world knows what the Squidward dab is—except for the cast of The SpongeBob Musical. I know this because I asked the man playing Squidward about it. More on that later.
It has certainly been quite the endeavor to translate some of television’s most iconic imagery into the tangible world. I mean, what is SpongeBob SquarePants if not a yellow sponge?
According to Variety, executives at Nickelodeon were in no rush to make the musical, but when they found out that 25% of SpongeBob fans are full-grown adults with zero children, they realized
they were sitting on a fucking gold mine "the property might be a good fit for the multigenerational Broadway audience.”
While the adult world spends millions to carefully retell a beloved story with just enough reference to the source material to appease diehard fans and just enough Broadway pizzazz to entertain newcomers, just beneath the surface of the internet, SpongeBob is thriving in a new form, one it was practically destined to take. The real legacy of SpongeBob isn’t a Nickelodeon production. It’s memes. Whether it's the more recent Caveman Spongebob or the now-classic Serious Fish meme, the internet has deconstructed and reclaimed images from our beloved childhood show.
As the saying goes, sometimes you have to set things free even though it's hard. Director and “co-conceiver” Landau has been working on this show for eight years, workshopping ideas, designs, actors even, and generally figuring out how to recreate the iconic franchise without completely replicating it.
"Bikini Bottom doesn’t exactly look like the town from the TV show because that’s just kind of… sand and bunch of buildings, isn’t it?" Gavin Lee, the Drama Desk award-winning actor who plays Squidward, told me. "They’ve come up with this new concept of Bikini Bottom." But Hillenburg's vision will be integral. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Landau shared that when she asked Hillenburg what is essential to Bikini Bottom, he replied, "The light, the sky flowers—and bubbles.’”
If you were expecting big, boxy, Party City-esque costumes, think again. “We look like humans and we’re wearing clothes. It’s just the suggestion of what the character looks like,” Lee said, explaining that as an actor it’s always helpful when the director doesn’t expect a “carbon copy” of the most recognizable performance of the character. "It's quite clever what they've done." But don't get him wrong, he’s still playing Squidward.
“I feel very lucky because it’s so nice to be the person in this happy, happy, show, to be the one with all the sarcastic lines, and all the put-downs, and I never have to smile,” he said. Classic.
While those who grew up with the show may be wary of the new direction, fearing a “CHILDHOOD RUINED,” this thing is going to be hard to ignore judging by the list of contributors to the original soundtrack: Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, the Dirty Projectors, The Flaming Lips, John Legend, Cyndi Lauper, T.I., Plain White Tees, Panic! At the Disco, and of course David Bowie.
Squidward will be getting his very own glitzy number that includes tap dancing and, in Lee's words, "couldn’t be more Broadway if you slapped more sequins on me." But as of Wednesday, the Squidward dab, the subject of countless remixes and mashups, is absent from the number.
In a conversation about an anthropomorphic sponge and a tap-dancing squid, I still felt silly bringing up the Squidward Dab to a distinguished Tony-nominated actor. But I did it anyway.
“What’s it called? The dab?” Lee asked. He was surprised he hadn’t heard of it, because the cast regularly shares funny SpongeBob content.
“Well, you know I’m going to get off the phone and go look at it straight away,” he said. I took his word, deciding maybe it was best to not ask him about the other Squidward memes, including classics like the Squidward/“Mad World” mashup, the Squidward screaming sparta remix, “Squidward Chokes On A Fork For 10 Minutes," and the slew of Handsome Squidward falling mashups.
And as far as memes go, that’s just Squidward. There’s the Caveman SpongeBob meme, the Mr. Krabs meme, the Surprised Patrick meme, the 24-25 meme, Oh Neptune, You Like Krabby Patties Don’t You Squidward, Hoopla, Push It Somewhere Else, Too Much Sauce, Morbid Squidward, Morbid Mr. Krabs, all the time cards, Spengbab (have fun with that one), DEUUEAUGH, etc. Not to mention trap remixes like this:
There will probably always be SpongeBob memes. The images in memes convey human emotion much better than any language can.You have to admit that there is something fundamental, something relatable about these images. Memes take a human sentiment and distort it to its logical visual endpoint, and while that might be the purpose of cartoons in general, no one does it quite like SpongeBob.
SpongeBob has enjoyed pretty remarkable pop culture staying power, evidenced by the fact that it’s one of the longest-running shows on Nickelodeon, has two Emmy Awards, is worth over $8 billion, was the theme of Pharrell’s 41st birthday party, and of course, is headed to Broadway, a production that will no doubt be fun. But the real proof of the show’s ability to connect with people in a deep, strange, almost primal way is just some dank memes, my dudes.
"Any picture or visual of the show, you know it’s from the show." Gavin Lee said. "And it’s part of everyone’s life—well, maybe not part of everyone’s life, but it’s just there."