Whenever 4/20 rolls around, I occasionally rewind 11 years or so to a cartoon I directed and co-wrote for a short-lived animated sketch comedy show I created called VH1 ILLustrated back before VH1 became the celeb-reality network. Whenever I watch this one cartoon, I experience a mixed bag of emotions, but the most dominant one is frustration and sadness at what could have been. I’ll explain.
The show was in its second season, and after a tumultuous pilot and an even more chaotic first season (I was in my douchebag egomaniac 30s and didn’t know how to behave) the show was finally clicking thanks to executive producer Jim Biederman (Saturday Night Live, Kids in the Hall, The Tom Green Show, The Whitest Kids U Know), a show-runner who happens to be the most underrated hero of too many cable comedy shows. When Jim joined the show, he brought in amazingly funny writers like Jason Nash, Jeff Bumgarner, Kristofer Brown and John Christian Plummer. John and I went on to create an entire roster of animated shows together, including The Superficial Friends and Kung Fu Jimmy Chow for Heavy.com.
One of the holdover writers from the first season was Josh Faure-Brac, who wrote some of the most memorable sketches from the show’s brief run, so I was always looking for an excuse to collaborate on something with him. Our first co-written sketch was something I conceived (possibly while intoxicated) as a satire of the trippiest cartoon show on television at the time: SpongeBob Square Pants. Only, our version was known as Spongebong Hemp Pants — a filthy dish sponge who lived in an undersea universe inside a water bong.
The first episode featured Spongebong and his best friend Hashbrick (“Patrick” in the original show) resorted to stealing a car stereo to pay for “seaweed.” The second episode was an homage to Pink Floyd’s The Wall in which Hashbrick befriends Spongebong’s vapor trail, forcing lonely Spongebong to descend into madness. The third episode featured the character “Crystal Meth” who accompanies Spongebong and Hashbrick to a Phish concert.
Each episode killed in the read-through, but I was naturally concerned that a drug cartoon wouldn’t make it past the MTV Networks’ standards and practices department. To my surprise, it turned out the only note was that there needs to be some sort of anti-drug message in there somewhere, so at the end of the first episode I wrote a brief coda in which the police show up at Spongebong’s house and Spongebong declares, “We’re a couple of screwups! HAHAHAHAHA!” And so, it was approved for air! After Josh and I recorded the voiceovers (I play Spongebong, Josh plays Hashbrick) I handed the short off to my two best animators, Joe and Tom Costantini who absolutely nailed the look of the actual show — in my opinion, a crucial aspect of any good satire is authenticity.
Weeks later, after animation on the second season had wrapped, I flew out to Los Angeles to oversee post production at the MTV “Loft” in Santa Monica with the premiere date quickly approaching. Biederman and I scheduled the first Spongebong sketch to appear at the very top of the first episode of that season, with the subsequent sketches staggered throughout the 10 episode run.
When the day of the premiere rolled around and with a matter of six hours before airtime, we were wrapping up the assembly of the show and putting the finishing touches on the mix when our executive in charge of production from VH1, Julio Kollerbohm, pulled Biederman and I aside with some urgent news. It turns out the network legal department got cold feet over the Spongebong short and decided to call Nickelodeon to ask for permission to air the cartoon. At the last minute. On afternoon of the premiere. Frankly, if someone had called me at the last minute and demanded I watch and approve a cartoon that mercilessly lampooned my premiere animated brand, I would’ve laughed and said “no way.” Of course that’s exactly how Nickelodeon responded. No way. And VH1 conceded.
In a panic, Biederman and I tried to contact the creator of SpongeBob, Stephen Hillenburg, to see if he might overrule Nickelodeon’s verdict. No dice. Hillenburg didn’t return our calls. The cartoon was dead. With the clock ticking down, we swapped in another sketch from a later episode and raced to Culver City where the show was beamed to New York for air.
After the premiere, the ratings for the show were respectable, and we topped the network among men 18-35. But we barely made a blip across all networks, and wouldn’t see any real ratings success until the show migrated over to MTV2 where it would routinely beat its Wonder Showzen lead-in.
But I can’t help but to think about the one that got away.
What would our ratings have been like had Spongebong aired in the premiere? I don’t know for sure, but I got a big hint after the emergence of YouTube where copies of the three Spongebong episodes leaked out. (How could that have possibly happened? Hmm.) In total, the cartoon has been viewed tens of millions of times on YouTube. It’s been remixed, mashed-up, subtitled, assembled into one long episode and even overdubbed into German. There are 23,000 YouTube search results for “Spongebong,” and the top five most-viewed versions have been watched 9,450,349 times, 1,352,591 times, 1,258,363 times, 1,043,070 times and 720,369 times — each one of the first two pages of most-viewed shorts officially qualifying as having gone “viral.”
Now imagine that kind of traction applied to the platform of a basic cable television network. It’s entirely possible that based on the success of Spongebong alone, we could still be producing that show to this day. Hell, I might not have been screwed by the Great Recession due to the income from the series. Who knows. It might’ve also been canceled after season two, in spite of its would-be success. After all, this was the network that undermined its own show by asking its sister-network for permission to air a perfectly legal satirical short.
One way or another, and through no fault of my own, the fatal choice to call Nickelodeon stripped the show of what could’ve been the spark that would’ve ignited a big hit.
Life is kind of like that. Even with the best of intentions, we’re almost never in control of our own fate, and a snap decision by a complete stranger could change our path forever. Yeah, that’s a little deep for a drug cartoon, but in my case it’s actually very salient. We can do our best to grab the wheel, but we’re never fully steering our own crazy train. The real pisser is that I’d bet whomever decided to call Nickelodeon that day in early 2004 doesn’t even remember the name of my show or the ill-fated cartoon that got cut at the last minute. But thanks to YouTube, none of it matters any more. While I’m not collecting a penny from those videos, it’s satisfying to know that it’s been seen and enjoyed by considerably more people than who watched the entire series run of VH1 ILLustrated. So, at the end of the day, I kind of won.