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Spongebob: Mrs. Puff Was Created As A Compromise With Nickelodeon

The late 1990s were a banner time for Nickelodeon, with shows like "CatDog," "Blue's Clues," and "The Angry Beavers" in their prime. If you're thinking, 'Gee, that's a lot of shows about animals,' you're not wrong. The fat cats at Nickelodeon also noticed the trend, and weren't sure if the network, already filled with non-human series, needed a show about marine life.

For "SpongeBob SquarePants" creator Stephen Hillenburg, that meant compromising with Nickelodeon to make the character a little more childlike ahead of the series' premiere in 1999. "At the beginning people give you notes and you have to fight back," Hillenburg recalled in a 2009 interview with TBI Vision. "It was a new show and no one knows if a new show will work. Nick had decided it didn't want any more animal shows and wanted stories with kids, like 'Hey Arnold!'"

According to Hillenburg, the network envisioned a series in which the protagonist was a kid who happened to live underwater. "They actually wanted to make 'Arnold under the sea' and make SpongeBob a child," the show creator continued. "I said 'No, that's not the show.'" As a compromise, Hillenburg included some childlike elements. "I said we'll show the parents sometimes and put him in school." Not just any school, he explained, but a "[boat] driving school." That compromise inspired the creation of Mrs. Puff, SpongeBob's chronically exasperated teacher.

SpongeBob's driving lessons position him between childhood and adulthood

Mrs. Puff made her "SpongeBob SquarePants" debut in Season 1, Episode 4. Mary Jo Catlett, who voices Mrs. Puff, still voices the character today. That longevity was certainly a surprise to Catlett. "My agent said, 'You know, It's just a little interim cartoon show to fill in for another one for the summer," Catlett recalled on the SpongeBob BingePants podcast. "'It's only going to be in the summer.' Liar! Pants on fire."

SpongeBob is a perpetual thorn in Mrs. Puff's side, constantly putting her in danger – and setting off her puffer trigger – in his repeated attempts to get his license. Over time, Mrs. Puff became a fuller character with a noted dark streak, even emerging as a love interest to Mr. Krabs. For Stephen Hillenburger, Mrs. Puff was yet another character to explore in Bikini Bottom. Her job as a boat-driving instructor also adds to the mystique of SpongeBob's age. Per Nickelodeon's request, he is decidedly childlike, but his pursuit of a license, as well as his job at The Krusty Krab, makes him seem more like a teenager.

Many fans wouldn't have it any other way. "I always felt like the vagueness of SpongeBob's age was a big asset for the show, because it enabled them to do whatever plots they wanted," wrote u/SleetTheFox on Reddit. "If they wanted to do 'kid plots' they could. If they wanted to do 'adult plots' they could." SpongeBob's at drivers' ed are no exception.