The late 80s and early 90s were such a fun time for cartoons. Television was rapidly expanding and there was huge demand for content for both children and adults. People who had grown up on Looney Tunes and Tom and Jerry were also making the cartoons and wanted to do better than what had become the standard for television animation. Disney got the ball rolling by injecting more money into the animation and overall production for its shows. In the process, the company proved that it wasn’t as big a risk as some thought to go straight for a syndicated order of episodes because there was always room for more cartoons on television. Other artists also started getting opportunities to create better and more diverse cartoons. These were actually funny and largely felt like a response to the very dry and formulaic works put out by Hanna Barbera and Dic.
Nickelodeon was one of the first cable networks to really go after children. It was somewhat of a contrast to its sister channel, MTV, which was going for a teen and young adult audience with the obvious focus being music. MTV grew more experimental as the years went on though and it even started airing animation. Up until that point, Nickelodeon was largely a network consisting of low budget live-action programs like You Can’t Do That on Television as well as re-runs of old general audience programming (Dennis the Menace, Flipper, etc.) with classic sitcoms at night. The only cartoons really being shown were Looney Tunes and some children’s animation the network licensed such as The Little Koala and David the Gnome. Parent company Viacom was seeing the success the big networks were having with exclusive children’s content and also with the stuff being made for MTV and decided it was time for Nickelodeon to get into the cartoon business.
The Nicktoons were born of this creative desire. The network sought upstart creators and basically gave them free reign to create a show that Nickelodeon would air as part of a block on Sunday morning. Saturday morning was the domain of the broadcast networks, but Sunday was essentially ripe for the taking especially as fewer and fewer families were spending the morning at church. The block launched in August of 1991 with three brand new cartoons: Doug, Rugrats, and The Ren and Stimpy Show. The construction of the block is interesting in that it began with a very grounded show about a middle-school aged kid in Doug, then went to a more imaginative show where babies go on adventures largely created in their own head, to the surreal and more classically constructed comedy show with Ren and Stimpy. The block was a huge success virtually guaranteeing future Nicktoons. It’s debatable which was more impactful, Rugrats or The Ren and Stimpy Show, but the latter definitely seemed to be the most influential on subsequent Nicktoons. Problems with that show also caused Nickelodeon to go ahead and found its own animation studio: Games Animation.
The first show launched by Games Animation was the Joe Murray created Rocko’s Modern Life. Premiering in the late summer of 1993, Rocko’s Modern Life was the fourth Nicktoon and first cartoon to be added to the lineup since its premiere two years earlier. It was a pretty big deal to have a new Nicktoon, and it also completed the Sunday block making it an even two hours. Joe Murray had wanted to make an independent film called My Dog Zero and only when Nick passed on that did he turn to Rocko. Rocko was originally conceived as a comic, but Murray wasn’t able to find anyone willing to publish it when peddling it around in the late 80s. He pitched the concept to Nick when it passed on My Dog Zero expecting them to pass, but hoping they’d at least give him some money for a pilot that he could put towards his passion project, My Dog Zero. Nickelodeon ended up not only commissioning a pilot, but also a 13 season order. After largely animating the pilot himself (“Trash-O-Madness”), Murray found himself in the unfamiliar role of a TV creator and director with a staff of over 200 people split between the US and Asia.
Rocko’s Modern Life would run for 4 seasons totaling 52 episodes (100 segments). During its run it helped further the careers of some pretty important people. It basically launched the career of voice actor Carlos Alazraqui (Rocko, Spunky) who went on to star in other Nicktoons as well as many Cartoon Network originals. Charlie Adler was already a name familiar to cartoon fans at the time, but his portrayal of the husband and wife duo Ed and Bev Bighead really showcased his talents as he often would record the duo’s interactions with each other in one take. It’s hard to imagine him being entrusted to perform the roles of Cow and Chicken for the show Cow and Chicken without the Bigheads. Tom Kenny was also cast as Heffer Wolfe and he is likely best known now as the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants. And it isn’t just Kenny who went on to star there, the first director hired by Murray for the show was the late Stephen Hillenburg who went on to create the aforementioned SpongeBob SquarePants.
The first season of Rocko’s Modern Life consists of 26 segments spread across 13 episodes. In this current climate of increased television time, I decided to take a trip down memory lane with Rocko and his buddies. A local retailer, Bull Moose, specializes in media such as music, games, and movies and I sometimes take a stroll through its retail location in nearby Salem, New Hampshire. It’s a great store that fills a niche that has been all but abandoned by most retailers. The current COVID-19 pandemic has shuttered all such spaces, but Bull Moose continues to operate as an online space. More importantly, the company continues to pay all of its employees which is an incredibly noble gesture and one that should be emulated by other companies. I wanted to show my appreciation for that by spending some money at the website, which is how I ended up with the complete Rocko’s Modern Life collection. In truth, this was a long time coming as I wanted to reconnect with the show. I see it sometimes on one of Nickelodeon’s channels, but the network seems to re-air a lot of the same episodes over and over. I also was originally holding off on buying this series as I hoped an uncensored version would arrive some day, but I have since given up on that.
Which is a good thing, because my re-watch of the first season could not have gone much better. Rocko’s Modern Life is a show about a wallaby named Rocko who has recently set out on his own in a 90s world. He’s an immigrant from Australia living in the US in the fictional town of O-Town, basically an every town USA concept. The show does not expressly state how long he’s been in the US, but long enough to have formed close bonds with friends Heffer and Filburt (Mr. Lawrence). Rocko lives alone in a small house with his happy, but dim-witted, dog Spunky. He works as a clerk at a comic book shop and he’s basically just struggling to get by. Many episodes focus on the mundane, like taking out the garbage or doing the laundry, but things go wrong with Rocko often remarking “[Blank] Day is a very dangerous day.” Episodes of the show are mostly stand-alone, but there is some semblance of continuity from one episode to another. We see Rocko get fired from one job and hired at a new one, characters reference past experiences, and eventually we’ll even see Filburt enter into a relationship with another character.
As a children’s show, Rocko’s Modern Life packs enough laughs to satisfy most kids, especially early 90s kids who had spent the past two years with Ren and Stimpy. It’s a disservice to call Rocko’s Modern Life a Ren and Stimpy clone, but both do love to indulge in gross humor. There’s lots of boogers, drool, farts, and vomit gags in this cartoon. Rocko and his friends are also prone to screaming with exaggerated results such as eyes popping out and brains bursting out of a skull. It’s a visual treat for those who enjoy physical comedy in their cartoons, especially cartoons that really take advantage of what the medium can do. It also allows the show to go to wild locations with Heffer spending an episode in “Heck” while Rocko gets to visit many different locations such as the beach, the movies, a plane, and so on. The show also possesses some surreal qualities such as the episode “Flu-In-U-Enza” where Rocko as a fever dream in which his vomit comes to life to coach him through his illness. Most of the world is also slanted with lines going to great lengths to not meet up. It’s a very stylized show, with good animation and colors.
Where Rocko really separated itself from its peers though is in its depiction of everyday life. Rocko being short on money and newly set free from adolescence makes the show extremely relatable for anyone in a similar situation or who has gone through it. Stretching a paycheck, managing responsibilities, taking care of yourself – these are things many of us only really become attuned to when we’re out on our own. Most can probably recall a gag or two from this show that went over their head at the time, only to have it make sense later on. Some of the plots are also very adult in nature with perhaps the best example being “Leap Frogs” in which Bev Bighead feels unwanted by her husband. It’s almost like a Simpsons plot or maybe even a sitcom as Bev tries to then make herself attractive to Rocko in hopes of making her husband jealous. It’s a really fun and interesting episode that was eventually deemed too adult and was pulled from Nickelodeon’s regular rotation.
Rocko’s Modern Life is profoundly funny in its writing, acting, and direction, but it also has some value to impart on its audience beyond that. It’s never preachy, and it also never feels like an arbitrary quota for educational content was in play, but nevertheless some episodes are beneficial for its younger audience in ways beyond mere entertainment. “Who’s For Dinner?” deals with adoption and the emotions one goes through when they first discover they’re an adopted child. Rocko is also a role model character for just how loyal and unfailingly kind he can be. He is at times meek to a fault, but learns to stand up for himself when the world really tries to screw him over. He is patient towards buddy Heffer, who in turn is a harmful glutton mostly oblivious to how harmful his actions are for Rocko. He does have his own reckoning in “To Heck and Back,” though his behavior doesn’t really change much following the episode.
As mention previously, there is some censorship when it comes to Rocko’s Modern Life. Often, the show got away with a lot and the episodes made it to air without controversy, only to be edited later. That’s true with the episode “The Good, The Bad, and The Wallaby” where a segment involving Heffer, a male, getting hooked up to a milking machine has been removed. My understanding is the segment wasn’t restored largely because it can’t be cheaply. When these shows were edited for air, no one had the foresight to think money could be made down the road so they just edited the masters and basically lost the footage forever. The episode was released on VHS unedited so they could have transferred it off of that if they were willing, but that didn’t happen. Future edits would be made to the show, such as rebranding the restaurant The Chokey Chicken as The Chewy Chicken, but Nickelodeon didn’t have anyone go back and remove the offending name from prior seasons.
The DVD release of Rocko’s Modern Life – Season One is bare bones. It was originally released by Shout! Factory on two discs with no bonus features. It’s also arranged in airdate order, which is not the preferred order to watch the episodes. The compilation release put out in 2018 containing the whole series is the same. It would have been fun to hear some commentary tracks by Joe Murray and some of the other creative people involved, but oh well. The episodes really stand on their own though, and Season One is the only season to feature the original theme song which I prefer to the one performed by the B-52’s in the subsequent seasons. Season One is also incredibly strong and it might be my favorite season of the show, but that remains to be seen as I work my way through the show. As a kid, The Ren and Stimpy Show was always my favorite of the Nicktoons, but as I get older I find Rocko’s Modern Life has taken over that throne. It’s funny, manic, and very 90s in its style and presentation, but also surprisingly relatable. I’ve had a hard time shutting it off and it’s been a real crowd pleaser in my home of four. Hopefully my enthusiasm continues and I come back and tell you how much I loved Season Two and beyond.