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Analytical thinking at the bottom of the sea.


SpongeBob on Broadway is sweet, silly, and … pro-science?!

Analytical thinking at the bottom of the sea.

Upon hearing an elevator pitch for SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical, you might not think it could work: “Let’s have costumed humans portraying abstract cartoon sea creatures, singing songs written by a variety of non-Broadway artists, such as Aerosmith, T.I., and They Might Be Giants.” Well, after 12 Tony nominations, including one actual win for Best Scenic Design, someone must have done something right!

Of course the show has all the silliness, optimism, and adorable sweetness you’d expect from the TV series, but here’s something you probably didn’t expect — it’s also got a solid pro-science, pro-intellectualism message at its core. The show could easily be interpreted as “the struggle of enlightenment values to triumph over the paranoia of the irrational masses”, and could actually be taken seriously as such.

In the SpongeBob musical, a volcano named Mount Humongous is about to erupt, threatening the very existence of Bikini Bottom and all of its inhabitants. The different characters have different ways of reacting to this news, most of which are comically nonconstructive: Mr. Krabs aims to sell as many Krabby Patties as he can in an Apocalypse Special. Patrick Star suggests everyone close their eyes, and maybe the problem will go away, an idea so well beloved by a bunch of sardines, that they turn him into their cult leader.

Analytical thinking at the bottom of the sea.

And then Plankton takes advantage of the fear and uncertainty of the situation to hatch an evil scheme: getting everyone into one place, ostensibly to escape the disaster, but really to hypnotize them into enjoying his Chum Bucket products.

The sense of futility among the characters is reflected in their songs, such as this line adapted from David Bowie: “Sit tight in your corner. No point in making plans. It’s all deranged. No control.” We also see classic logical fallacies, like the appeal to authority, when Plankton sings, “I’ve got a plan. And I went to college so you know it’s clever,” in the show’s opening number, “Bikini Bottom Day”, by Jonathan Coulton.

However, we also have Sandy Cheeks, who uses her science skills to construct a device that can actually disrupt the eruption, and save everyone’s lives! Unfortunately, she is met with some serious resentment — it seems there’s still a lot of discrimination against land critters in this town (Sandy is a squirrel, remember), and much of the mob blames her science for causing this volcanic problem in the first place. It’s a “kill the messenger” mentality of catastrophe denial.

Then, of course, there’s the hero: SpongeBob SquarePants himself! He floats above the insanity to realize the value of Sandy’s contribution, as well as the necessity of his super-strong friend Patrick, to enact her plan. He doesn’t care if everyone else thinks he is nothing more than a mere, simple sponge! He laments:

But fear, I fear, is dragging us down,
and now there’s panic that’s run amok,
in my simple town.
Just give me adventure,
I’m a contender and more,
(‘Cause you’re not a simple sponge).
I will show I’m not just the sponge next door!

-From “(Just a) Simple Sponge”, by Panic! At the Disco

Although Sandy is initially discouraged to go through with her plans, it is SpongeBob’s appeal to the power of science and community that eventually convinces her heroic side to emerge once more. Sandy had the power to predict this disaster, so she should have the upper hand in stopping it, and saving her friends, as well.

My machines, they made a real prediction.
It’s not science fiction.
There’s nothing we can do at all.

Why are you, waiting for the bottom to fall?
Not the time to drop the big beach ball.
All for one and one for all?

-From “Hero is My Middle Name”, by Cyndi Lauper

Then even Patrick starts to realize the inanity of his position as a cult leader as ultimately powerless and pointless. He learns the value of being with his real friends:

Never thought I could ride so high without you,
everything I’ve got’s so good, but not without you.
And suddenly nothing feels quite right,
why does the sunshine feel like night?
I’m only pretending I’m all right without you.

-From “(I Guess I) Miss You”, by John Legend

This is not to imply that the show is scientifically accurate. It is never explained how the Eruptor Interruptor works, nor how it would be possible for a sea sponge to even wear pants in the first place. At least this is par for the course for the TV show (which once referred to a caterpillar as a “worm”).

Analytical thinking at the bottom of the sea.

The point is that the moral of the show centers around the dangers of irrational thinking and the value of working through tough problems, even when it looks like all hope is lost. Towards the end, when the show gets to its version of “Best Day Ever” (adapted from the soundtrack for SpongeBob SquarePants: The Movie), it is NOT about how ignorance is bliss. That spell had been shattered! It is about how a community coming together to face a crisis can make it more palatable for everyone to get through, together.

But does the plan ultimately work? Or was it all in vain? Is the day really saved by the efforts of SpongeBob and his management skills? Or is there nothing left but a dystopian wasteland to sulk through? Perhaps I should not spoil the ending too much. Instead, I encourage you to watch the show for yourself! There are a LOT of great things to say about it, and its unapologetic pro-science message is only one of them.

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