Tom Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants, is part of...

Tom Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants, is part of "SpongeBob's Big Birthday Blowout" on Nickelodeon. Credit: Nickelodeon/Robert Voets

SPECIAL "SpongeBob's 20th Birthday Blowout"

WHEN|WHERE Friday at 7 p.m. on Nickelodeon

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Are ya ready kids? "SpongeBob SquarePants" is turning 20, and SpongeBob, coincidentally, is having a birthday too. (How old is 'Bob? That mystery won't be revealed Friday). His friends, neighbors and co-workers decide to throw a surprise birthday party in his pineapple house. Preparations for this party do not go well, and in fact disastrously. ("Uh oh," says Sandy Cheeks. "I hope someone brings a wall as a present.") Meanwhile, 'Bob's dear friend and neighbor Patrick Star has taken him on a bus tour of the Surface World (that would be dry land) where David Hasselhoff is still surfing, or trying to, and where Kel Mitchell ("All That") reveals that he has an uncommon passion for canned beans. 

Besides a star cameo or three, "SpongeBob's Big Birthday Blowout" also features birthday wishes from a diverse group of stars (Are Sigourney Weaver and Rob Gronkowski diverse enough for you?) 

It all closes with this simple message: "Thank you Steve Hillenburg." Hillenburg, the series creator, died last November at the age of 57 from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

MY SAY The Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble (they're only made of clay), but our love for SpongeBob is here to stay. There's no obvious reason why it shouldn't stay either, and this Friday's special offers none either. We may grow old, but 'Bob does not. We may grow wise, cynical, jaded, or simply weary. But 'Bob remains as optimistic, upbeat, indefatigable, eager, and as industrious as ever flipping krabby patties. 

All this certainly isn't the only secret to his longevity but it's a big one. When Nickelodeon (officially) launched "SpongeBob SquarePants" on July 17, 1999, this was hardly the only series that had mastered the art of keeping both kids and parents tuned in. However, none worked that particular balance beam quite as effortlessly, particularly during the early seasons. Those other immortal animated series, "The Simpsons" and "Family Guy" (which also launched in '99) neither sought nor particularly wanted young children as viewers but "SpongeBob" was an instant hit among them, as well as among teens, young adults, and middle-aged ones — really, pretty much anyone who saw a little of themselves, or their better selves, in a square, porous, bright yellow sponge.

Then there were the other characters, each made more vivid by 'Bob while he, in turn, made each of them more vivid. The irascibility of Squidward, the parsimony of Mr. Krabs, the feistiness of Sandy, the innocence of Patrick and the evil of Plankton were all set in sharp contrast to our beloved sponge. They became equally beloved themselves.

"SpongeBob" was created by a shy, funny and immensely talented marine biologist by the name of Stephen Hillenburg who was intrigued by the comic idea of having a sponge live in a pineapple; or of a pet snail named "Gary;" or of an octopus named Squidward who played clarinet (badly). Hillenberg did and, with a huge assist from other gifted writers and animators, like Paul Tibbitt and Mr. Lawrence (who also voices Plankton), the rest is joyous cartoon history. 

And what finally can be said of this cast, with those perfect voices and comic actors behind each? They are the biggest gift here: For the first time in show history, each appears in an extended live-action sequence playing the human counterpart of his or her undersea self. There's Rodger Bumpass (Squidward) working the register at a burger joint, and Clancy Brown (Mr. Krabs) as its cheapskate proprietor. Carolyn Lawrence (Sandy Cheeks) is there, too, and so is Bill Fagerbakke (Patrick Star), who is about as dim (and hilarious) as you would hope.

Best of all is Tom Kenny ('Bob). To watch Kenny flip burgers with the joy and unbridled lunacy of his cartoon doppelgänger is to watch the other secret to this classic's longevity. Kenny is the true jedi master of animated comedy, and this sponge his masterpiece. A big "thank you" to him as well.

 BOTTOM LINE Fun, funny, and funky, plus this inspired bonus: We see the human cast for the first time.

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