Beloved Nickelodeon cartoon series SpongeBob SquarePants might be the internet’s most fertile soil for memes. This week, we’re examining some of our favorites.
In case you’ve been living under a rock and don’t already know, you can learn pretty much everything you need to about the premise of SpongeBob SquarePants by listening to the theme song. “Who lives in a pineapple under the sea,” a pirate asks a chorus of kids who reply, in unison, “SpongeBob SquarePants.” “Absorbent and yellow and porous is he.” (Just imagine the kids shouting after every one of these.) “Who’s nautical nonsense be something you wish.” “Then drop on the deck and flop like a fish.” Translated out of pirate speak, the show is about an anthropomorphic cartoon sponge, who built his home inside a piece of fruit, and the undersea antics he gets into with his pals. In other words, it’s a show that asks you, the viewer, to lean heavily on your imagination. Pineapples don’t grow in the ocean! You just have to go with it.
Nowhere in the show are you asked to suspend your disbelief more than in “Idiot Box” (not even the episode devoted to Mr. SquarePants repeatedly ripping his pants as a joke until he annoys all of his friends and has to win them back by performing a Beach Boys–inspired number to a crowd of roaring fans). In this episode from season three, SpongeBob and his best friend Patrick Star have ordered a new television. When it arrives, the pair throws out the device and keep only the box it came in. SpongeBob’s neighbor, Squidward, is baffled by the move. Why throw out a perfectly good television? “We don’t need television, as long as we have our … imagination,” SpongeBob tells Squidward. On that last word, SpongeBob brings his hands together, raises them over his head and arcs them out as a rainbow appears following the path of his hands.
The rest of the episode involves Squidward getting angrier and angrier at SpongeBob and Patrick for all of the imaginary fun they have inside the box. When Squidward attempts to re-create said fun for himself inside the box, he fails. What he believes to be the sounds of a race car that he dreamed up in his head are actually the noises of a garbage truck picking up the box from the curb to bring it to the dump (with Squidward still inside). The plot mostly doesn’t matter — the bit that sticks, as far as memes go, is that singular image of a wide-eyed SpongeBob holding a rainbow in his hands.
As for the origin of “Imagination” as meme, the real growth came via Meme Generator and its ilk — the plethora of sites that lets users create classic Impact-font memes popular back in the old days. “Imagination” the perfect image macro. Anything you put on top of a picture of a sponge wearing a tie and holding a rainbow is funny. It works great with the literal caption, “Imagination,” but also works just as well if you slap, well, truly anything on top of it. “Procrastination.” “Russia Collusion.” “When you’re high AF and start seeing shit.” “Cocaine.” “Schadenfreude.” The options are endless.
There is one caption that is particularly pervasive in the Imagination meme canon. It’s one that’s particularly antithetical to the original spirit of the episode: “Nobody cares.” What better way to tell somebody off than by doing so with SpongeBob SquarePants, a seemingly innocuous character engineered to make children laugh. That inversion is what makes the “Nobody cares” caption so effective. You’re getting told that you are alone and worthless by a children’s cartoon.
It helps that apathy has become a predominant way of thinking online, where personal expression feels both vulnerable and ephemeral. There are millions of people trying to make a statement online — who cares about what you have to say in particular? “Nobody cares” SpongeBob feels a little like Bikini Bottom’s answer to “Condescending Wonka,” a picture of a smug-looking Gene Wilder. It’s rude. It stings! It’s not the SpongeBob SquarePants you thought you knew and loved.
Here’s a musical version of the meme — the original track is from a 2011 video from YouTuber Octopimp — featuring the phrase “Nobody cares” sung repeatedly to the tune of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. What could possibly hurt more than basically being told to screw yourself via a classical music–inspired riff on a meme derived from a Nickelodeon show I ask you? Nothing. That’s what.
The saddest thing about the evolution of the “Imagination” meme into the “Nobody cares” meme is that it goes against everything its source material was all about. “Idiot Box” was an episode about having fun with your friends. About encouraging other people to join in on the fun, to use their imaginations to temporarily abandon the soul-crushing boredom of suburban life and escape to better places. It was, quite literally, about caring! SpongeBob would have been so disappointed in us for using his image this way. Whatever that thing is you’re telling your friend, or your brother, or a random stranger on the internet that nobody cares about … you’re wrong. SpongeBob, in all his dumb, yellow glory, would have cared.