There's huge news in the 12-and-under set: SpongeBob is back.

Despite recent controversy over whether the cheerful yellow sponge is gay, the fourth season of Nickelodeon’s “SpongeBob SquarePants (search)” premieres Friday night at 8:30 p.m. EDT, the first time in a year-and-a-half that new “SpongeBob” episodes will air on a regular basis.

The extended, “Sopranos”-style gap between new “SpongeBob” seasons had more to do with marketing than any creative block on the part of creator Steven Hillenburg (search).

With last fall’s big-screen release of “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie,” Nickelodeon thought it prudent to hold back on the new season of “Sponge-Bob” for fear of well, oversaturating, the market.

Instead, Nick aired “Sponge-Bob” reruns interspersed with the intermittent new episode.

“They were getting down to the bottom of the vault, and nobody was sure if there were going to be new episodes for a while,” says Tom Kenny, who is the voice of SpongeBob.

“It’s fun to be back in the saddle and to be doing SpongeBob again,” he says. “I always kind of miss him when I don’t do him for a while.”

The new “SpongeBob” episodes will air every Friday at 8:30 p.m. and, based on what we’ve seen of the first two episodes, there’s no deviation from the tried-and-true “SpongeBob” formula of fun.

All the regulars are back -- Patrick; Squidward; Mr. Krabs; Gary the Snail and the nefarious Plankton -- and the plots are as wacky as ever.

In the first episode, “Fear of a Krabby Patty,” Mr. Krabs decides to keep SpongeBob’s beloved workplace, The Krusty Krab, open 24/7 to one-up Plankton, who’s keeping his adjacent Chum Bucket restaurant open 23 hours a day.

Plankton, of course, has an evil plan: To make SpongeBob so delerious from his long hours at the grill that he’ll finally cough up the super-secret Krabby Patty recipe.

In the second episode, “Shell of a Man,” SpongeBob stands in for Mr. Krabs at a reunion of his service buddies -- after Krabs molts his shell and is embarrassed by his appearance.

After watching these episodes, it’s easy to see why “SpongeBob,” which premiered in 1999, has been the top-rated kids show (broadcast and cable) for the past three years.

“He’s just an unflaggingly positive, high-energy sponge who works passionately for minimum wage in a fast-food restaurant,” Kenny says of SpongeBob.

“And he has a circle of friends who are also oddballs and misfits in their own way.”