Spongebob Cleans Up

He already has a top-selling T shirt and a videogame. You've seen the "Got Milk?" ad and the juicy Burger King promotion. What's left for "SpongeBob SquarePants" but a spot in prime time?

The irreverent Nickelodeon series, about the life of an earnest, unambitious kitchen sponge living at the bottom of the Pacific, has 2 million viewers a week. Those numbers beat the pants off the WB's "Pokemon" and make the show the second-highest-rated children's TV program behind "Rugrats."

"SpongeBob" also has something a lot of other cartoons don't: adult viewers, even those without kids. One third of the audience is older than 18-a figure sure to rise starting July 2 when Nickelodeon adds four new shows a week, Monday through Thursday, at 8 p.m.

What's the cartoon's appeal to college students and other adults? "It's a weird world, not another dog or cat show," says Steve Hillenburg, the program's creator and a former marine biologist. "It's new terrain and unfamiliar characters."

Indeed. SpongeBob lives in a two-story pineapple and works as a short-order cook at The Krusty Krab. His best friend's a slothful starfish, his neighbor is an embittered octopus called Squidward and he's got a crush on a squirrel in an oxygen mask.

How did Hillenburg dream up the show, which debuted in July 1999? "I wanted to do a comedy about an innocent character, sort of an oddball. And a square sponge seemed to squeak innocence." Forty episodes later, he can't pick a favorite, but will note the most outrageous: the one where Squidward gets stuck in the freezer and in trying to escape, gets sent forward in time.

Is there a "SpongeBob" movie in America's future? "There's a little talk on that one. It's a wait-and-see thing," Hillenburg says. "My dream is that the show remain funny and not get distracted from the main focus, which is this little world and this little character." Not to mention a big, new time slot.