If any cartoon character from the last 20-odd years has ascended to the pantheon occupied by Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, and Betty Boop, it’s SpongeBob SquarePants. The little yellow sea creature, created by the late Stephen Hillenburg, has been inescapable since he debuted in 1999. While we can credit a lot of that success to Nickelodeon’s massive marketing machine, "SpongeBob" wouldn’t have endured this long if there wasn’t true artistry behind the show. In truth, "SpongeBob SquarePants" has produced some of the finest and funniest episodes of television in history.
But that kind of quality can’t keep up forever, and the underwater topography of "SpongeBob SquarePants" has just as many valleys as it does peaks. So today, we’ll be consulting the IMDb user ratings to find the highest highs and lowest lows of "SpongeBob," from the episodes that make us fall in love with the absorbent weirdo to the ones that make us wish we could feed him to the sharks.
Best: Sailor Mouth/Artist Unknown
Our countdown to the best "SpongeBob" episode begins with "Sailor Mouth." The show doesn’t often go in for pat moral lessons, but the anti-swearing story here does nothing to get in the way of the laughs. It helps that the show cheekily plays with the moralizing, since they can’t have SpongeBob and Patrick actually swear without getting pulled from the air. Thus, Bikini Bottomites’ curse words are censored with nautical sound effects like dolphin chattering, foghorn blasts, and seal barks. Imagining the 13 dirty words (or "sentence enhancers," according to Patrick) is funnier than hearing them could ever be.
"Artist Unknown" has its own subversive moral about the way rules stifle creativity. It’s also a perfect summation of SpongeBob and Squidward’s clashing personalities, besides being just plain hilarious. Squidward’s artistic pretensions soar when he starts teaching his own art class … until he finds his only pupil is SpongeBob, who effortlessly outdoes him in every way. Squidward recovers when an art collector offers millions for one of SpongeBob’s pieces. When it breaks, Squidward scrambles to get SpongeBob to make another, but finds his "lessons" have killed the sponge’s talent. Squidward’s frustrations and SpongeBob’s relentless cheerfulness (when he fails and flees to the dump, he happily sings, "To the dump-dump-dump!" to the tune of "Charge!") are at their funniest here, culminating in a hysterical final twist.
Worst: My Leg/Ink Lemonade
"SpongeBob" went on hiatus in 2002 to give the United Plankton crew time to work on "The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie." After the movie premiered, Nickelodeon commissioned more episodes — but from here on out, they’re made without Hillenburg or his co-producer Derek Drymon. Like the little boy in "Pet Sematary," "SpongeBob" came back changed. All the elements are there: Surreal randomness, the stock music and sound effects, detailed, off-model close-ups. But something’s … off. It’s like watching someone with no engineering experience try to build a car just by looking at a finished Camaro. Everything’s there, but it doesn’t actually work.
"My Leg" takes one of the series’ most beloved running gags and explains it to death, revealing that the poor schlub shouting "My leg!" whenever disaster strikes has actually been faking his injuries to get near the nurse he’s crushing on. "Ink Lemonade" takes all the pieces of a classic SpongeBob and Patrick vs. Squidward episode and puts them together wrong. Patrick sets up a lemonade stand, but when Squidward, like an octopus, gets startled and sprays ink in Patrick’s glass, he decides to go into the ink-selling business. This means watching Squidward, who for once hasn’t done anything to deserve it, suffer endlessly, and watching sweet, innocent Patrick turn actively malicious as he torments Squidward to get more of that sweet, sweet ink.
Best: Welcome to the Chum Bucket/Frankendoodle
In "Welcome to the Chum Bucket," Plankton’s longest long game finally pays off: After years of losing poker games to Mr. Krabs, he finally wins SpongeBob’s contract and tries to force him to recreate the secret Krabby Patty formula. Dramatic musical numbers and a robotic SpongeBob ensue.
The real fun, however, comes in the second half of the episode with "Frankendoodle." A live-action "artist at sea" drops his pencil into Bikini Bottom, where SpongeBob and Patrick discover it has the magic ability to bring drawings to life. Things go south pretty quickly when SpongeBob draws himself, creating the monstrous DoodleBob, voiced in a hilarious gibberish performance by writer Paul Tibbitt. It’s an effective little adventure story, and the moment when DoodleBob suddenly turns coherent and growls, "You doodle, me SpongeBob" is downright chilling. Moreover, the episode crams in some of the show’s funniest gags: Patrick’s punch-drunk reactions to getting clobbered with a wrench ("Where’s the leak, ma’am?") and a bowling ball (”Finland!") are some of the series’ most quotable moments.
Worst: SpongeBob, You’re Fired
Viewers who grew up on "SpongeBob" have come to love the characters like old friends. But many episodes suggest the writers don’t care nearly as much — and this installment is a perfect example. It should be obvious what "SpongeBob, You’re Fired" is about, but this double-length episode also features the hero’s adorable squirrel friend Sandy feeding toxic waste to her desperate neighbors. Moreover, nostalgia may paper over what a terrible boss Mr. Krabs is in the classic episodes, but at least he never fires his most enthusiastic employee just to save five cents. Exaggeration makes for good comedy, but in "SpongeBob, You’re Fired," the writers accidentally find the point where it stops making us laugh and just makes us question the whole premise. They also cross a line we didn’t even think existed by managing to turn out something too weird for "SpongeBob" with a sequence of a giant, walking Krabby Patty eating restauranteurs in food costumes alive.
Best: Graveyard Shift/Krusty Love
Anyone who’s ever worked a night shift will be able to recognize the mood of "Graveyard Shift." Upon encountering a customer arriving at closing time, Mr. Krabs decides he’s going to keep the Krusty Krab open 24 hours a day. To pass the time, Squidward decides to prank SpongeBob with a bogus story about the haunting of the Krusty Krab by the "hash-slinging slasher." Like any good storyteller, he knows how to draw it out, and even though the story takes up a good chunk of the episode, it’s never dull for a moment. And that’s before it starts looking like the slasher isn’t so bogus after all, appearing as a hunched, shadowy figure with hateful red eyes. It all turns out okay, though, with a resolution that shows just how special "SpongeBob" is — how many kiddie cartoons could work in a cameo by the star of the 1922 silent classic "Nosferatu?"
"Krusty Love" sets up a romance between the hilariously mush-mouthed Mr. Krabs and SpongeBob’s driving teacher, Mrs. Puff. As it turns out, Mr. Krabs can be persuaded out of his cheapness: He goes so ga-ga for Mrs. Puff, he treats her to "imported music" (a live-action scuba diver at a piano), fabulous hats, and fur coats, among other gifts.
Worst: Squiditis/Demolition Doofus
Squidward tries to get out of work again in "Squiditis" by faking an illness, leading a paranoid SpongeBob to think he’s caught Squidward’s "disease." Then, SpongeBob takes another driving test in "Demolition Doofus." But this one’s even more disastrous than usual, landing Mrs. Puff in the hospital with a punctured inflation sac. After years of antics, this is finally the last straw for Mrs. Puff, and she plots to kill SpongeBob by entering him in a demolition derby. When that doesn’t work, she decides to just run him over herself.
Seeing one of the show’s most beloved characters become an attempted murderer is not a great time. But if anything, Mrs. Puff comes off better in this episode than SpongeBob. Our little yellow beacon of hope and innocence’s first response to the agony he’s caused Mrs. Puff is to crack a lame joke about changing her name to Mrs. Pop. You may be just as eager to see him dead as his teacher is after that. But even if the characterization lapses don’t bother you, the episode doesn’t have much else to offer, taking a classic slapstick setup and using it to deliver zero laughs and an almost impressively lazy resolution to Mrs. Puff’s dilemma.
Best: Nasty Patty/Idiot Box
In "Nasty Patty," SpongeBob and Mr. Krabs become convinced their health inspector is a con man scamming them for free food. They decide to get back at him by serving up the grossest Krabby Patty ever concocted. Fortunately, the (real) inspector chokes on a fly and knocks himself out before he can taste the nasty patty. Unfortunately, the Krusty krew think they’ve poisoned him, and rush out into the rain to hide the "body." This may not sound like comedy material, but it’s as funny as "SpongeBob" gets, not least because of the running gag of the poor health inspector getting knocked back out every time he’s about to wake up. When he finally rises, he is beaten to a pulp by the rest of the cast, who think he’s a zombie.
Next, in "Idiot Box," SpongeBob and Patrick buy a huge, expensive TV and immediately toss it in the garbage so they can play in the box. Squidward, of course, can’t believe how dumb they are, but then becomes obsessed with his neighbors’ apparent ability to bring their imaginations to literal life within the box. This is the episode that gave the world the image of SpongeBob saying "Imaginaaaaation" while producing a rainbow from thin air, which the crew obviously knew was a winner, as it’s a running gag. Even Squidward gets in on the act.
Worst: Growth Spout/Stuck in the Wringer
"Growth Spout" starts with a setup that is deeply gross on multiple levels. Mr. Krabs’ whale daughter Pearl goes through puberty all at once in the middle of the night: She erupts in body-horror growths straight out of "Akira" and turns into a monster who constantly shouts for more food. Mr. Krabs spends the next 10 minutes sneaking around Bikini Bottom to steal food for her and hilarity stubbornly fails to ensue.
In "Stuck in the Wringer," we learn that SpongeBob dries himself off after showering (try not to think too hard about how this works underwater) by running himself through an old-fashioned laundry wringer, to the bafflement of anyone born in the past 50-odd years. When he gets stuck, Patrick tries to help by sticking SpongeBob to the wringer with "Forever Glue," for reasons known only to the writers (our money’s on deadlines). Given that everything has to go back to normal by the end of the episode, he should sue for false advertising.
The episode is nothing but a parade of miseries for SpongeBob, which are mostly Patrick’s fault. Worst is the climax, when SpongeBob has finally had enough, and justifiably blows up at Patrick. This is somehow supposed to be bad, and half of Bikini Bottom shows up to chew him out for being a bad friend. They make up in the end, but viewers have a harder time forgiving Patrick — not least of all for wasting their time.
Best: Wet Painters/Krusty Krab Training Video
In "Wet Painters," Mr. Krabs gets SpongeBob and Patrick to repaint his house, with the warning that he’ll hang their rear ends on the mantel if they get paint anywhere but the walls. Guess what they do? While many episodes are noisy, frantic, and blunt, this one enhances some of its best jokes by letting them pass unremarked, like when Patrick somehow pops a window off a wall, leaving a flat expanse behind, by slamming into it.
Meanwhile, "Krusty Krab Training Video" is exactly what it says and, if anything, is even funnier. The United Plankton crew clearly knew at least as many adults watch "SpongeBob" as kids, because this one becomes even funnier once you’ve been subjected to the real-life instructional videos it parodies so exactingly. From the cheesy graphics to the dramatic montage with a score just different enough from "Eye of the Tiger" to keep from getting sued, it is a flawless spoof. And there’s still room for plenty of plain old silliness, like the little fish shouting "Hoopla!" or the narrator singing the theme music to announce the Krabby Patty for so long, he has to catch his breath midway through.
Worst: The Splinter/Slide Whistle Stooges
"SpongeBob SquarePants" has always served up a heaping helping of gross-out humor. But sometimes, the crew seems to be competing to outdo each other in ickiness, and in the process, they forget the "humor" part. "SpongeBob" has never gone grosser than "The Splinter," which has next to no plot, other than watching SpongeBob’s thumb get more and more disgustingly infected. Most nastily, there are multiple graphic images of squirting pus, first landing straight in Squidward’s eye and then literally gushing out in gallons.
Once again, Patrick only makes his friend’s problems worse. He poses as a doctor and hammers the splinter further in, then worsens the infection by rubbing garbage all over it. Patrick’s always lived by his own skewed logic, but in the classic episodes, it’s at least clear how it makes sense to him. In episodes like this, his actions are just random nonsense with no purpose except to keep the story going.
"Slide Whistle Stooges" isn’t as actively repellent, but that’s about all it’s got going for it. Squidward episodes must always manage a precarious balance between making characters annoying to each other but not the audience, and this one tips all the way over to the wrong side of that equation. How, you ask? In this episode, SpongeBob and Patrick play slide whistles. And that’s all that happens for 10 long minutes.
Best: Chocolate with Nuts/Mermaidman and Barnacleboy V
"Mermaid Man and Barnacleboy V" brings back recurring guests, daytime TV veterans, and "McHale’s Navy" stars Ernest Borgnine and Tim Conway as the titular dynamic duo. This time, Barnacle Boy becomes a supervillain and SpongeBob and friends become superheroes … for all of a minute, before they accidentally defeat themselves. Regardless, we can all agree that the International Justice League of Super Acquaintances could give the Avengers a run for their money.
But even that can’t measure up to "Chocolate with Nuts," in which Squidward’s "Fancy Living" magazine inspires SpongeBob and Patrick to make extra money as door-to-door chocolate salesmen. It probably created more memes per minute than any other episode: Patrick taking SpongeBob’s advice to "flatter the customer" by flatly saying "I love you" and getting a door slammed in his face, the wild-eyed loony screaming "Chocolate!" as he chases SpongeBob and Patrick down the street, and the guy with "glass bones and paper skin" are all classics. And then there’s the withered old bat with the skeletal face and the Noo Yawk accent, who remembers when they first invented chocolate (which she always hated). She became one of the show’s best-loved characters, even though she never appears again.
Worst: One Coarse Meal/Gary in Love
It gets hard to know who to root for in Mr. Krabs and Plankton’s long-running feud in "One Coarse Meal." After Pearl interrupts yet another failed attempt to steal Krabs’ formula, SpongeBob’s boss realizes that Plankton is debilitatingly terrified of plankton-eating whales. Instead of using this knowledge to defend himself, Mr. Krabs makes a Pearl costume and torments Plankton at home until he’s literally driven his business rival insane.
Towards the episode’s end, it looks like Mr. Krabs might get his comeuppance when SpongeBob tells Plankton his boss is scared of mimes — but it turns out to be a ploy to traumatize Plankton yet again with an image of a whole pod of whales. As in so many later episodes, we’re supposed to think Plankton deserves whatever he gets because the series’ formula says so. But it backfires, and Plankton ends up becoming the good guy by default.
"Gary in Love" isn’t as actively disturbing, but it’s not much of anything else either. It is, in fact, a plot that was old long before we, or most of our parents, were born: SpongeBob’s pet falls in love with a snail we know is a girl, because she has long eyelashes and a bow.
Best: The Secret Box/Band Geeks
Patrick torments SpongeBob in "The Secret Box" by alluding to his knowledge of what’s inside the titular container. SpongeBob spends the next 10 minutes trying to figure out how to sneak a peek. It’s a classic example of the "SpongeBob" writers throwing whatever cracks them up into an episode with deliriously good results. Patrick’s uncharacteristically eloquent line, "The inner machinations of my mind are an enigma," is elevated to high art by Bill Fagerbakke’s reading. Admit you: You heard it in your head when you read it just now.
But even that line isn’t the reason this episode gets the top spot. That’s because its second half is "Band Geeks." Squidward’s nemesis Squilliam tries to expose Squidward’s fraudulent success by getting him to cover for Squilliam’s band at the Bubble Bowl. Squidward enlists the rest of the cast to throw something together, and what follows is a nonstop barrage of gags, without a clunker to be seen. From the first few seconds, in which a veterinarian interrupts Squidward’s clarinet practice because he thought he heard a dying animal, to the final performance, it’s all killer, no filler. Said final performance is perhaps the show’s most successful moment of sincere emotion, redeeming all of Squidward’s failures with a triumphant rendition of the gloriously cheesy hair metal track "Sweet Victory."
Worst: Keep Bikini Bottom Beautiful/A Pal for Gary
"Keep Bikini Bottom Beautiful" is a standard little story about Squidward being (unjustly) sentenced to picking up trash as part of his community service for littering. The episode earns its spot at the bottom for the back half, "A Pal for Gary." SpongeBob feels guilty about leaving Gary home alone every day while he goes to work, so he picks up a new pet to keep his snail company, ignoring the seller’s warnings. He names him Puffy Fluffy. Whenever SpongeBob isn’t looking, Puffy mauls Gary … but against all logic, SpongeBob always takes the new pet’s side.
That night, Puffy sheds his skin and turns into a hideous monster. Despite this, SpongeBob still takes Puffy’s side: Even when Puffy tries to eat him alive, SpongeBob blames Gary, laying pounds of verbal abuse upon his shelled back. "SpongeBob" and its characters have always had a loose relationship with logic, but this episode doesn’t even attempt to make sense of why SpongeBob would blame poor Gary for the monster’s actions. After all the affection "SpongeBob" has built up over the years, showing the hero abusing his faithful pet despite the evidence right in front of him feels like a betrayal. At least Puffy’s monstrous design is cool?