Meet SpongeBob SquarePants, the kiddie 'toon that's now apparently bigger than purse-toting Teletubby Tinky Winky among the gay set.
In the vein of Scooby-Doo's Velma, Peanuts' Peppermint Patty, the Powerpuff Girls, Sesame Street's Ernie and Bert and his Winky-ness, Nickelodeon's hugely popular SpongeBob SquarePants is currently commanding It status in the gay community, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Nickelodeon and the show's creator deny any homosexual overtones in the bizarro underwater world of invertebrates, but that hasn't stopped the show from soaking up a large gay following, according to the paper.
With his strange psychedelic surroundings (that pineapple abode), quirky crustacean pals (like ever-cheerful buddy Patrick the starfish) and oddball humor (his motto: "Go SpongeBob, go SpongeBob, go self!", Mr. SquarePants is considered anything but "square."
"There is this innocence," 37-year-old Alex Fung, a clothing designer in New York, told the Journal. "He's not very masculine for a male character. And he's soft."
And he's not the only one. SpongeBob's cohort, Squidward the grumpy squid, listens to classical music and likes bubble baths. Patrick is often spotted holding hands with SpongeBob, and the two dream of being superheroes when they grow up (just like the crimefighters in their favorite TV show, The Adventures of Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy).
The Journal cites anecdotal evidence pointing to the show's popularity among homosexuals. Novelty shops catering to a gay clientele in such cities as New York and Atlanta are having trouble keeping SpongeBob memorabilia in stock, as everything from keychains and action figures to plush toys and squeezable dolls are getting snapped up at a record pace.
SpongeBob's exploding popularity among the gay community has caused such a stir that Tom Kenny, the comic who voices the star sponge, found himself skirting the issue when making an appearance last month on NBC's Late Night with Conan O'Brien (news - Y! TV).
"Whether he's intended to be a gay character or not, that's the question people are asking," said Kenny. "It's never been addressed by us on the show."
(Kenny did add, however, that "all the main characters are hiding horrible secrets of their own."
SpongeBob creator Stephen Hillenburg, who began his interview with the Journal by saying he is not gay, denies his aim was to portray a homosexual character. Instead, he says the show's theme appeals to everyone.
"I do think that the attitude of the show is about tolerance," Hillenburg told the Journal. "Everybody is different, and the show embraces that. The character SpongeBob is an oddball. He's kind of weird, but he's kind of special."
Hillenburg, who has a degree in marine biology, adds, "I always think of them as being somewhat asexual."
Gay or not, SpongeBob is definitely blowing up. The show has wrung out $500 million worth of merchandise, including video and computer games, books, lunch boxes and (we kid you not) thongs emblazoned with the show's hometown, Bikini Bottom.
SpongeBob ranks among the most popular shows on cable, sometimes scoring upwards of 40 of the top 100 spots in the Nielsens. Despite the fact that its target viewers are toddlers two to 11, 22 percent of the show's regular audience is in the 18 to 49 range, according to Nielsen Media Research, making it the most-watched show among adults on the cable network. (The Viacom-owned Nickelodeon runs SpongeBob several times daily, often as late as 11:30 p.m., while sister channel MTV airs it at 11:00 p.m.)
Although his contract has expired and he is no longer doing new episodes, Hillenburg has completed enough shows to run through next year. And, to the doubtless joy of gay and straight fans alike, he's currently working on movie version slated to ooze to screens in 2004.
Personally, I think Stimpy acted more gay then SpongeBob.