“Why is this episode named after Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy if they’re only in the episode for like a minute?” – Everyone at some point
Yeah, so, Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy are barely in this episode. At the beginning of the episode, we see them heading off on a trip and for whatever reason they figured it was a good idea to have SpongeBob and Patrick watch their lair.
While exploring the lair, SpongeBob and Patrick find one of MM and BB’s enemies, Man Ray, frozen in tartar sauce. They accidentally unfreeze Man Ray’s head, and he starts to speak to them. First he threatens them, and when that tactic doesn’t work he tells them that he’s reformed. That’s enough to get them to set him free, and of course he tries to attack them immediately, but they manage to keep him at bay thanks to the tickle belt that was put on him before he was frozen. Man Ray knows that the only way to get the belt taken him off of him is to convince them that he really has changed, so he tells them that he really wants to reform but doesn’t know how. They offer to teach him how to be good and Man Ray accepts, saying to himself that he’ll fake his way through this like he did in high school. Funny, that’s exactly what I say to myself in any situation where I have to pretend to be straight.
The lessons don’t go too well, because Man Ray keeps getting frustrated and threatening or attacking them, though they have the tickle belt to defend themselves. When Man Ray can’t stand being tickled anymore he starts begging them to take it off and he even says “please”, which is enough to make SpongeBob and Patrick think he’s good. So they take the belt off, and of course Man Ray immediately steals weapons from the lair and runs off to commit some crimes.
Except it appears that he can’t anymore. He tries to rob a bank, but he can’t get through a single threat without breaking off into giggles. Apparently the effects of the tickle belt have ruined him. So instead of robbing the bank, he opens a checking account, gets checks with little poodles on them, and gives up being evil. Until the next time he makes an appearance, anyway.
I really like this episode, but like everyone I have to question why it’s named after Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy if they’re barely in it and the episode has very little to do with them. I don’t like that I have to count this as a MM and BB episode when they’re only in it for like a minute. But, that is a very minor nitpick.
Man Ray is a pretty funny character. He talks very much like an old school comic book villain, too over the top to really be taken seriously but definitely amusing. The parts where SpongeBob and Patrick are trying to teach him to be good are great, the wallet scene is still one of the funniest scenes in the show as far as I’m concerned. It’s just a very fun episode.
The Krusty Krab is having a comedy night because that’s apparently something they do in this episode. SpongeBob is performing but his act doesn’t get any laughs. That is, until he spots Sandy in the crowd and starts making jokes about her teeth. When that gets some laughs, SpongeBob runs with it, making insulting joke after insulting joke about squirrels, and everyone loves it. Everyone but Sandy.
Sandy approaches SpongeBob after the show and tells him that his jokes were hurtful, but SpongeBob brushes this aside, insisting that they were just jokes, and that there isn’t anything wrong with laughing at yourself.
What SpongeBob says to Sandy in this scene is the same thing I’ve heard all my life when I’ve tried to tell people that I didn’t like certain jokes, and I’m sure everyone has heard something like it at some point. Hell, I’m sure everyone has said it themselves at one point or another.
Listen, I happen to have a very self-deprecating sense of humor. The majority of the jokes I make are at my own expense, I am completely comfortable with poking fun at myself. But the thing is, it’s always going to be a bit different when the jokes are coming from someone other than me. I don’t mind some friendly teasing and can easily laugh along with it, but there I’ll always have to draw the line somewhere. There are things that I am comfortable with people joking about, and there are things that I’m comfortable making jokes about myself but that I wouldn’t want other people making jokes about, and there are things that I would never joke about and that I certainly wouldn’t want someone else to.
Sandy lets it go, saying that she may have been oversensitive. However, the next day, it becomes apparent that SpongeBob’s supposedly harmless jokes actually are having an effect on her life. The other Bikini Bottomites are suddenly treating her like she’s as stupid as SpongeBob’s squirrel jokes paint her to be.
So she tells SpongeBob about this and asks him once again to stop with the squirrel jokes and tell some other jokes instead, and SpongeBob agrees. However, SpongeBob’s other jokes don’t get any laughs, so he quickly goes right back to squirrel jokes despite his promise to Sandy. And again he insists that all of them are laughing with Sandy and not at her.
Here’s the thing about the “we’re laughing with you, not at you” defense. It only works if the person who is the butt of the joke is laughing. And I mean genuinely laughing, not fake laughing because they’re uncomfortable and can’t speak up. If the person you’re claiming you’re laughing with isn’t actually laughing, then guess what? You are laughing at them, not with them.
Sandy invites SpongeBob over the next day and during his visit she acts incredibly stupid, just like SpongeBob’s jokes say, to the point that she nearly endangers her life. Still, she gets her point across pretty effectively. SpongeBob agrees not to tell any more squirrel jokes.
The next time SpongeBob performs he does open with a squirrel joke, but then immediately starts making jokes about sponges. And then about crabs, and then about fish, and about starfish. The crowd loves every single joke, and Sandy is no longer a lone target. So, okay, when someone says they’re offended by a joke made about them, I don’t think the best solution to that is to make offensive jokes about everyone, but I also don’t think we’re supposed to look too deeply into this. In the context of this episode, the best thing SpongeBob could think of was to take the attention off of Sandy, and make sure no one in particular was singled out by his jokes.
While one could take the squirrel jokes to be a representation of jokes about race or sexuality or gender, I think the episode and particularly the ending work better when we… don’t take it that way. It’s better to think of the squirrel jokes as hurtful but not necessarily oppressive, because the latter is a discussion that this show would definitely not be able to handle. This episode at least gets across the point that even things that are meant to be “just a joke” can be harmful.
For what it is, I think this is a decent episode with a good message. Sandy isn’t usually an easy character to empathize with, but you do feel for her in this episode. And as for SpongeBob, this is one of those rare episodes where he has a flaw that isn’t just “too innocent/naive”. He’s so desperate to please the crowd that he jeopardizes his friendship with Sandy. He basically gaslights her into being okay with the squirrel jokes, and then breaks his promise to her about stopping the jokes. Both are dick moves, but he ultimately learns his lesson and tries to make it right.