You are sitting home alone on Saturday evening. You have ordered enough pizza to feed a family of four and your only plans are to gorge on oily cheese and crust and binge-watch Game of Thrones until you fall asleep on the couch. Suddenly, you hear a loud thump upstairs. Your limbic system activates; your basest instincts trigger; you become an animal in the wild. You spring to your feet, your stance wide, your fingers tense, and your eyes alert.
You have become Primitive Sponge.
In recent weeks, Primitive Sponge has exploded in popularity. The premise is fairly simple: Take a relatable situation in which a person might might be surprised, scared, or generally in the throes of an immediate, survival-threatening crisis — discovering someone stole your lunch from the office fridge, say, or getting caught in flagrante delicto — and add a picture of SpongeBob SquarePants’ prehistoric alter-ego, Primitive Sponge.
Primitive Sponge, as its name might indicate, encapsulates some of the purest of human emotions — desperation, horror, fear, rage, panic. Also, Primitive Sponge is a sponge in a loincloth.
Maybe it’s his aggressive stance, or the way his fingers are flexed, as though ready to claw into an underwater woolly mammoth at a moment’s notice, but there is something about Primitive Sponge that makes it clear that the little yellow Porifera has seen some serious stuff. You understand Primitive Sponge, because you’ve been there.
To fully understand the meme, it’s important to know that there are two related, but distinct, sponges: Primitive Sponge, the loincloth-wearing sponge whose underbite-afflicted mug has become the face of the movement, and his more recent counterpart, Spongegar, who sports a one-shouldered animal-print cloak, a unibrow, and a generally less menacing demeanor. Spongegar is a more highly evolved sponge, but that works against him: When you need to represent the sensation of primal panic, you don’t want the goofy smile.
Primitive Sponge comes from an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants called “SB-129,” which aired during the show’s first season back in 1999, where SpongeBob, and his best friend, Patrick Star, roam the sea floor during the Cambrian era. Spongegar (again, flanked by his best friend Patar) didn’t appear onscreen until 2004 in a episode entitled “Ugh.” (Primitive Sponge also has a cameo appearance in the 2004 episode.)
(Interestingly enough, Spongegar’s name seems to have stuck in people’s minds, and many memes that actually feature Primitive Sponge are being labeled as Spongegar. Do not be confused: Primitive Sponge and Spongegar are distinct entities, and true memers will never refer to one by the other’s name.)
Clips of both the rugged-looking sponges have long been popular within the SpongeBob fandom, and Know Your Meme traces the first appearance of the Primitive Sponge meme back to Twitter user @SpongeBobGetsIt back in 2015. But for some reason, perhaps heat of the summer sun or Mercury’s retrograde, it has been having something of a second coming in recent weeks in certain pockets of Reddit, Twitter, and Tumblr. Consult Google Trends and you’ll see a sharp spike in searches for terms like “Caveman SpongeBob” and “Spongegar” starting around May. (Unfortunately for Primitive Sponge, people are searching for that term with significantly less fervor. Probably because they didn’t read this meme guide.)
To find out more about Primitive Sponge’s sudden ascension into the realm of top memes like Dat Boi and bees (which are, in case you’ve forgotten, dying globally at an alarming rate), I consulted the person behind @CavemansSponge, a Twitter account devoted entirely to Primitive Sponge memes. Its creator, a 21-year-old who asked to remain anonymous, says the Primitive Sponge account is the latest in a “huge network” of Twitter accounts they run as a full-time job. It’s only been a week since the account was created, and already the follower count has jumped to 162,000. “I noticed right when I started posting on this account everyone was already hyped and talking about it [Primitive Sponge],” they said. (For the record, the creator tells me this growth was “all organic,” and that they didn’t buy any of their followers. Sure.) “It’s a funny, relatable meme,” they explained. “The face he makes is hilarious.”
Primitive Sponge is, maybe unsurprisingly, the second SpongeBob SquarePants–related meme to take over the internet this year, following the classic Confused Mr. Krabs. (In case you’re not familiar, the Mr. Krabs meme involves a series of images of Mr. Krabs surrounded by a blurry circle and is often accompanied with the punch line “when you just wake up from a nap.”)
The beloved cartoon has emerged as a meme powerhouse: The source of not just Mr. Krabs and Primitive Sponge but also Imagination SpongeBob, Handsome Squidward, and Surprised Patrick. While a study back in 2011 seemed to indicate that the show would turn children into addled zombies incapable of paying attention to anything for more than a few, colorfully animated minutes of time, for adults — at least those adults who traffic in internet minutiae — the show seems to have had the opposite effect. People are focusing on SpongeBob SquarePants, especially as its most ardent fans enter the prime meme-generation ages of 16 to 22. More, they remember minute details from the show (i.e., the name Spongegar), which you could probably attribute either to nostalgia or the fact that much of the show’s humor was never intended for its young viewers. (Remember the time SpongeBob blew up a bunch of “balloons?”)
Of course, as with all great internet fodder, nothing can stay meme gold forever. Which leaves us wondering: Will we have to look further back than the Paleozoic to find the next great piece of the internet?