WASHINGTON POST - Few people deliver as many round-the-clock laughs to so much of the globe.
Three-fourths of the planet may be covered by water, but most of the rest of Earth seems to be covered by the ocean's most wide-eyed character, SpongeBob SquarePants.
Stephen Hillenburg's multibillion-dollar brainchild has been viewed in at least 170 countries and translated into dozens of languages. The Nickelodeon show has spawned two feature films that combined have grossed nearly a half-billion dollars worldwide.
Amid all this success, "SpongeBob SquarePants," which was launched as a Saturday morning show in 1999 before moving to prime time, has retained its high creative spirit - with creator Hillenburg at the helm for most of those seasons.
And now we're reminded that we can't take Hillenburg's greatness for granted. On Monday (March 13), he announced through a statement to Variety that he has ALS. He only recently received the diagnosis that he has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a neurodegenerative disease.
Hillenburg, 55, says he plans to continue to work on the series."Anyone who knows me knows that I will continue to work on 'SpongeBob SquarePants' and my other passions for as long as I am able," Hillenburg said in the statement.
"My family and I are grateful for the outpouring of love and support. We ask that our sincere request for privacy be honored during this time."
Nickelodeon's statement said that "Steve Hillenburg is a brilliant creator who brings joy to millions of fans. Our thoughts and support are with Steve and his family during this difficult time." We share our profound appreciation of Hillenburg's gifts with his many fans.
In interviews, he always speaks with a focused specificity that reflects his marine biologist's mind - evidence of his professional life prior to his decision to alter his life's path toward animation.
The world's most famous marine cartoonist also displays the grounded humility of a man who was willing to be a starving artist just to work in his second field.
"Honestly, I hadn't looked into the logistics and income" of studying experimental animation at Cal Arts, Hillenburg told The Washington Post in 2009.
"I just knew that's what I wanted to do. I thought at least I could get a job cleaning up somebody's drawings."
And so the Ocean Institute biologist, inspired by animation festivals, professionally transitioned just as "The Simpsons" and "Ren and Stimpy" were exploding in popularity."Everyone was excited about the rebirth of the form," Hillenburg told The Post.
"My timing was perfect." Joe Murray, the creator of Nickelodeon's "Rocko's Modern Life," spotted Hillenburg's work at a festival and hired him for that show, where the rising animator would meet his future "SpongeBob" title voice actor, Tom Kenny.
Hillenburg created "SpongeBob SquarePants" with an eye toward joyful innocence. "I think 'SpongeBob' was born out of my love of Laurel and Hardy shorts ...," Hillenburg said. "SpongeBob was inspired by that kind of character: the Innocent - a la Stan Laurel."
And that is part of the reason that the show - which has been renewed through its 11th season - travels so well.
"Everybody recognizes the childlike character ...," Hillenburg said of the blend of traits and physical comedy. "It's universally understood."