The animated Nickelodeon show Spongebob Squarepants debuted in 1999 to much acclaim and has been entertaining audiences of all ages ever since, thanks to the work of the show’s creator, Stephen Hillenburg.
Packed full of wacky, absurd, surreal humor, the show’s action takes place on the ocean floor where a sea sponge, appropriately named SpongeBob SquarePants, gets into all kinds of off-the-wall adventures with his best friend, Patrick, a starfish. The two often cross paths with their best frenemy, a squid named Squidward, who finds Patrick and SpongeBob to be too childish and ridiculous for his tastes. Nevertheless, the show is crafted in such a way that you can tell there’s an underlying fondness implicit in Squidward’s attitude toward SpongeBob and Patrick. This attention to character development is part of the show’s vast success.
For 18 years, in TV and movies, Hillenburg’s characters have delighted children while managing to amuse their parents, as well as a considerable number of other adults who are drawn to the witty dialogue, elements of surrealist humor, and pop culture references that are clearly not intended for young children to understand.
Now, Stephen Hillenburg has revealed he has the neurodegenerative disease known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which is commonly called Lou Gehrig’s disease after the famed New York Yankees first baseman whose career was cut short when he was diagnosed with the disease in 1939.
According to a statement he sent to Variety, Stephen Hillenburg was diagnosed very recently, and he intends to continue working on SpongeBob SquarePants for as long as possible.
“I wanted people to hear directly from me that I have been diagnosed with ALS,” Hillenburg’s statement reads. “Anyone who knows me knows that I will continue to work on ‘SpongeBob SquarePants’ and my other passions for as long as I am able. My family and I are grateful for the outpouring of love and support. We ask that our sincere request for privacy be honored during this time.”
Stephen Hillenburg is a former marine biology teacher who dreamed up the idea for SpongeBob SquarePants and managed to get it produced as a Saturday morning cartoon on Nickelodeon before its escalating popularity catapulted it to primetime. Since then, it has become a multibillion-dollar franchise closing in on 200 episodes of the TV show, two major movies, and countless pieces of merchandise, including clothing, action figures, and books.
According to the Chicago Tribune, Nickelodeon released a statement about Hillenburg’s diagnosis.
“Steve Hillenburg is a brilliant creator who brings joy to millions of fans,” reads Nickelodeon’s statement. “Our thoughts and support are with Steve and his family during this difficult time. Out of respect for their wishes for privacy, we will have no further comment.”
According to the ALS Association, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis was first identified in 1869 by French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.
“Motor neurons reach from the brain to the spinal cord and from the spinal cord to the muscles throughout the body,” the ALS association writes on its website. “The progressive degeneration of the motor neurons in ALS eventually leads to their death. When the motor neurons die, the ability of the brain to initiate and control muscle movement is lost. With voluntary muscle action progressively affected, patients in the later stages of the disease may become totally paralyzed.”
Stephen Hillenburg is not the first famous person to be diagnosed with the disease. ALS first became widely known in 1939 when legendary New York Yankees first baseman Lou Gehrig was diagnosed. Gehrig’s Hall of Fame career was cut short by the disease, and he wound up passing away only two years after retiring from baseball at the young age of 37. Gehrig’s ordeal was chronicled in the film The Pride of the Yankees.
Today, due to advances in treatment, people diagnosed with ALS are often able to live longer than Gehrig. Famed physicist Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with the disease when he was 21; he is now 70-years-old. Such longevity, however, remains rare, and Hawking has been fully paralyzed since 1970.
Few TV show creators manage to even approach the success that Stephen Hillenburg has achieved with SpongeBob SquarePants. Regardless of the capacity with which he continues to work with the show, he has left a body of work that is sure to be enjoyed by children and adults for decades.
[Featured Image by Junko Kimura/Getty Images]