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Unidentified Voice: Are you ready, kids?

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Oh, we're about to find out what President Obama, Scarlett Johansson and LeBron James have in common.

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They're all said to be fans of SpongeBob SquarePants, as are millions of other people around the world. This year marks SpongeBob's 10th anniversary, so NPR's Elizabeth Blair tries to figure out why he's lasted so long.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: SpongeBob SquarePants is crazy popular. One week last month, nine of the top 20 spots on cable were SpongeBob - nine of the top 20. How can that be? My 4-year-old likes it for the gags.

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Robert Thompson, Ph.D., of Syracuse University, likes the aesthetic.

Dr. ROBERT THOMPSON (Syracuse University): It's just so trippy. With shows like SpongeBob, who needs drugs?

(Soundbite of TV show, "SpongeBob SquarePants")

Mr. TOM KENNY (Voiceover Artist): (As SpongeBob SquarePants) Hail, O Great Swammy of the gnarly ponders, we seek audience with thee.

Mr. BILL FAGERBAKKE (Voiceover Artist): (As Patrick Starfish) Plus, we want to talk to you.

BLAIR: SpongeBob makes no sense. He lives underwater in a pineapple, in a place called Bikini Bottom. At heart, he's an eternal optimist.

(Soundbite of TV show, "SpongeBob SquarePants")

Mr. KENNY: (As SpongeBob SquarePants) Well, we've burned our food, ruined our tent, and lost all our water. Patrick, we are going to need to use our razor-sharp quick wits if we're going to make it out of here alive.

Mr. FAGERBAKKE: (As Patrick Starfish) Gotcha.

BLAIR: But he's also prone to melodrama. Tom Kenney is the voice of SpongeBob.

Mr. TOM KENNEY (Voice of SpongeBob): SpongeBob is pretty bipolar. I mean, his highs are very high, but he can also be dashed into the most abject sorrow.

(Soundbite of TV show, "SpongeBob SquarePants")

Mr. KENNY: (As SpongeBob SquarePants) Oh, that stupid toy.

BLAIR: It's a wild bunch down there in Bikini Bottom. There's an evil Plankton, the greedy Mr. Crabs, and…

(Soundbite of TV show, "SpongeBob SquarePants")

BLAIR: …Squidward, SpongeBob's cranky neighbor.

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Mr. ROGER BUMPASS (Actor): (As Squidward) All right, what's going on? What are…

BLAIR: It's like "The Honeymooners" meets "The Flintstones" on speed - underwater. SpongeBob's best pal is a lumpy starfish named Patrick - think Barney Rubble, only dimmer. Their relationship makes the show, says 7-year-old Jamie Sunata(ph).

Ms. JAMIE SUNATA (7-year-old SpongeBob fan): SpongeBob SquarePants is about friendship.

(Soundbite of TV show, "SpongeBob SquarePants")

Mr. KENNY: (As SpongeBob SquarePants) I'm waiting, I'm waiting, I'm waiting.

Mr. FAGERBAKKE: (As Patrick Starfish) I'm waiting, I'm waiting…

SPONGEBOB AND PATRICK: We're waiting, we're waiting…

Mr. KENNY: (As SpongeBob SquarePants) We're waiting.

Mr. FAGERBAKKE: (As Patrick Starfish) SpongeBob, what are we waiting for?

Mr. KENNY: (As SpongeBob SquarePants) We're waiting for the mailman. He's bringing me a free toy.

Mr. FAGERBAKKE: (As Patrick Starfish) I love toys. Can I wait for your toy with you?

Mr. KENNY: (As SpongeBob SquarePants) Why, sure.

SPONGEBOB AND PATRICK: We're waiting, we're waiting, we're waiting…

BLAIR: SpongeBob is so popular, Nickelodeon squeezes everything they can out of it. Brown Johnson is Nickelodeon's president of animation.

Ms. BROWN JOHNSON (President of animation, Nickelodeon): So if we're feeling sort of down in the ratings, we just put it everywhere.

BLAIR: Sometimes it's on eight times a day. The guy who created SpongeBob is a marine biologist turned animator. When Stephen Hillenburg first pitched SpongeBob, Brown Johnson says it was a fight to put it on.

Ms. JOHNSON: Certain parts of the business at Nickelodeon were like, oh no. It'll never be successful. It's about a sponge. What's that? And it's yellow. And that's a bad color. And, you know, it's like not eating yellow M&Ms or something.

BLAIR: And now you can buy SpongeBob underwear and SpongeBob mac and cheese.

Mr. BOB THOMPSON: (Syracuse University) I don't think we can possibly overestimate how much this has penetrated American culture.

BLAIR: Syracuse University's Bob Thompson.

Mr. THOMPSON: You watch it when you're a little kid and you like it 'cause it's pretty and it's funny, and they do goofy things. You watch it again when you're 10 and suddenly, all of the new mysteries of life begin to sort of pop up in here as well. And then you watch it when you're a 21-year-old in a frat house and suddenly, it's got a whole other quality that appeals to you.

BLAIR: Forty-five million people over 18 watch SpongeBob every month, according to Nickelodeon. Tom Kenney says he'll gladly be the voice of SpongeBob for another 10 years.

Mr. KENNEY: Even if the show doesn't go for 10 years, I'll be the guy pushing a grocery cart around with the tin foil hat on his head going, hey, you know who I used to be? Ba-a-a-a. Does that ring a bell? Remember that show? Ba-a-a-a. Give me money, give me a quarter.

BLAIR: As part of SpongeBob's 10th anniversary celebration, tonight there's a special episode with a guest appearance by Johnny Depp.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

INSKEEP: And if you can't get enough, you can watch a video of the actors who provide the voices of SpongeBob and his friends, at npr.org.

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INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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