A pop-culture quiz: "Do you smell it? That smell? That kind of smelly smell? The smelly smell that smells . . . smelly?" A good number of children in the 2-to-11 range, as the Nielsen ratings group them, will know the smell. So will many of their parents, a fair number of college students, and assorted hipsters of indeterminate age who surfed or stumbled into the undersea universe of a yellow kitchen sponge and got hooked.
For those who don't know, the sponge is SpongeBob SquarePants, the title character of the most popular cartoon on cable television. The "smell" was that of invading anchovy hordes — as detected by SpongeBob's boss, Mr. Krabs. He owns a restaurant where SpongeBob is a fry cook. Really.
For those, on the other hand, whose lives require fluency in Rugrats and Catdog, the fact that SpongeBob reels in 2 million children every night is a no-brainer. The show, which debuted on Nickelodeon three years ago and has since gobbled up the children's cable television market, is a loopy half-hour ride that youngsters clearly enjoy. It also has been aggressively marketed. Young fans can strap on SpongeBob backpacks each morning and tuck into SpongeBob sheets every night.
But it's that other part of the audience — the nearly 5 million adults who also tune in every week (and who purchase millions of dollars worth of the merchandise for themselves) — that is elevating SpongeBob from child's confection to cult classic.