Tag Archives: stephen hillenburg

Dec. 24 – The SpongeBob Christmas Special

Original air date December 6, 2000

When I listed out the best Christmas specials over a week ago, I included the stop-motion A SpongeBob Christmas. And I stand by that as that special is pretty great. Before there was A SpongeBob Christmas, there was The SpongeBob Christmas Special. Confused? Well, there are only so many ways to title a Christmas special. To make things a bit easier (or more complicated) it’s also titled “Christmas Who?” This was a milestone episode of sorts for the now long-running SpongeBob SquarePants as it introduced Patchy the Pirate and his parrot Potty and told the story of how Christmas came to Bikini Bottom. It was also the first double-length cartoon for the show as most episodes are split into two segments. It’s probably not quite double-length though due to the live-action segments featuring Patchy, but you get the idea.

Meet the president of the SpongeBob fan club, kids!

SpongeBob Squarepants was created by the late Stephen Hillenburg, who got a lot of coverage on this blog in 2020 since I went back and revisited Rocko’s Modern Life, a show he was intimately involved with. It was due to the success of that show that Nickelodeon took a chance on a cartoon headed up by Hillenburg himself. Other veterans of Rocko joined him on SpongeBob, including Tom Kenny and Doug Lawrence, and his show has largely eclipsed the former in terms of popularity. It’s probably become Nickelodeon’s most recognizable show at this point and I’m not even sure another show could really challenge it for that title at this point.

Do you like alternate titles, because we’ve got one here.

In spite of SpongeBob’s popularity, the show has mostly been a blind spot for me. The show just came at a time when I wasn’t watching the channel, and even though I have kids of my own now, they’ve yet to really latch onto anything on Nickelodeon. Maybe they will in time, though with everything moving towards a streaming format I’m less certain of that. Even though SpongeBob SquarePants isn’t my childhood, I can recognize it for what it is: a pretty solid comedic cartoon. I see a lot of influences from past cartoons in it the few times I watch it, and I’ve never really had much of a reaction to it beyond that.

For today’s special, we’re heading to the home of Patchy the Pirate located in the unfestively warm California (I have a cold weather bias when it comes to Christmas).

Even though I’ve seen very little of SpongeBob SquarePants, I still really enjoyed the stop-motion special so I’ve always wanted to check out this one. It just took me going out of my way to make sure I saw it. Thankfully, I have cable still so I didn’t have to go out and buy this thing, and with 2020 just being a tenacious pile of misery, I actually welcomed Nickelodeon’s Christmas in July programming during the summer. That’s how I finally experienced the first SpongeBob Christmas special. Maybe it’s not the authentic, December, experience it was meant to be, but it also meant I got to re-experience it later in the year too thanks to the wonders of DVR!

The bird is the real star.

After a festive rendition of the show’s theme, the special begins at the home of the president of the SpongeBob fan club: Patchy the Pirate. Played by Tom Kenny, Patchy is happily preparing for Christmas in the not idyllic setting of southern California. Even though there’s no snow to speak of, Patchy’s house is pretty well decorated and he’s got his parrot, Potty (voiced by Hillenburg) by his side as well. Patchy is a pretty conventional looking pirate, while Potty is an intentionally obvious puppet. Patchy is welcoming, like a classic holiday special would be, though he has an antagonistic relationship with his parrot. He’s in the process of making cookies, and isn’t eager to share the dough with Potty.

R.I.P. Potty…

The segment is pretty long and probably overstays its welcome. There’s some visual jokes, like a predictable bubble pipe joke, but little truly lands. I did like that Patchy flips his eyepatch up to read a letter, revealing a perfectly functional right eye, and dons a pair of glasses with the right lens blacked out. The setup for the introduction of the cartoon is created when a letter received by Patchy asks about Christmas in Bikini Bottom, prompting Patchy to tell the audience that the dwellers of Bikini Bottom didn’t always celebrate Christmas. Before we can get to the cartoon though, Potty has to consume the cookie dough, and explode. It leads to the very bizarre image of Potty’s dismembered head suspended in the air while Patchy looks on with amusement. Poor Potty, Patchy is the asshole in this segment and yet it’s the bird who gets blown up.

Well Sandy, if you’re going to live underwater you should expect to get wet now and again.

The actual cartoon begins with SpongeBob (Kenny) outside the home of Sandy Cheeks (Carolyn Lawrence). Sandy is a squirrel living in the outskirts of Bikini Bottom, and being a squirrel, she needs oxygen in gas form to breath, so she lives in a bubble. SpongeBob is looking to infiltrate the bubble to drop some karate moves on her. I assume this is supposed to be a good-natured prank as SpongeBob doesn’t have a mean pore in his body.

Turns out, oak trees make pretty nice Christmas trees!

As SpongeBob prepares to enter the bubble, he notices Sandy lighting up a tree with lights. Mistaking this for fire (he’s not very smart), SpongeBob grabs a bucket of water and races inside only to douse Sandy herself. She’s rightfully annoyed, but soon realizes that SpongeBob has never seen a Christmas tree before. Not only has he never seen one, he’s never even heard of Christmas before. We then receive a montage of Sandy explaining Christmas to SpongeBob. We don’t actually hear what she’s telling him and can only see her pantomiming various parts of her lesson, most of which appear to have nothing to do with a discussion on Christmas (that’s the joke).

I love Squidward’s energy here.

SpongeBob is quite taken with the whole concept of Christmas (and who wouldn’t be?) and races over to The Krusty Krab to inform the others what Sandy has taught him. There he regales Squidward (Rodger Bumpass), Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke), and Mr. Krabs (Clancy Brown) a tale of Christmas with emphasis on Santa Claus. Mr. Krabs thinks it’s pretty great to hear about a guy who will give you whatever you want for Christmas and he’s eager to write a letter to the jolly, fat, man. Patrick is equally excited and sets out to write a letter to Santa as well.

SpongeBob is shockingly literate.

Squidward is the lone holdout. He finds the story preposterous and refuses to participate. SpongeBob tries to talk him into it, but he’s not coming around. All the while, Patrick keeps interrupting their conversation because his piece of paper has split in half. After he requests a new page a few times, we see what’s causing the problem. Patrick is sitting down with the pencil in between his legs pointing up. He then presses the paper down against the pencil in order to write on it. I’m now curious if he often has problems with the written word in other episodes.

Is he an inventor? I’m so confused by the existence of this competent machinery.

After the letter-writing is over, SpongeBob shows Patrick the machine he’s come up with to deliver the letters to Santa. They place each letter in a bottle and the machine fires it up to the surface of the ocean. It (shockingly) works just fine, and SpongeBob starts sending the letters to the surface. For his gift, he just wants to bring Christmas to Bikini Bottom, but the others want something more material. Patrick wishes to have more paper, and the message in his bottle is clearly ripped in half, while Mr. Krabs wants a pony…with saddlebags full of money. He gets it!

This is probably going to ruin the life of some castaway.

The other townsfolk get involved too and soon the surface of the water above Bikini Bottom is full of letters. Squidward is still holding out, and SpongeBob and Patrick get set to making the town look merry for Christmas via song. It’s called “The Very First Christmas,” and it’s plenty catchy. It’s not as good as “Don’t Be a Jerk,” but it’s fine. During the song, we see SpongeBob and Patrick chop down Squidward’s coral “tree” to set it up in town and decorate it with glowing jellyfish. Patrick is a natural fit for the top of the tree as the star.

Time for an image blitz because there’s a lot going on. First, SpongeBob and Patrick chopping down Squidward’s…tree?
At least they made it look nice.
Mr. Krabs coming in with the high notes.

When the song is over, Squidward is relieved that he can now peacefully go to bed. Only he can’t, because the entire town is outside his house to sing another song welcoming Santa. It’s basically “Jingle Bells” only with the words changed to reflect their Santa-eagerness. Time passes though, and as Squidward sleeps peacefully the folks outside sing all night to no avail. When the morning comes, everyone is still there, but there’s been no sign of Santa. The crowd angrily turns on SpongeBob, who shrinks before their gaze.

So who told them they should all stand outside and wait for Santa? Maybe that’s why things start to go wrong from here.
I admire that one fish in the front row still looking pretty hopeful.
This is how I felt right around noon of every Christmas Day for much of my youth.

Squidward rises to the misery, and is delighted! When the crowd leaves, he races outside to taunt SpongeBob about how wrong he was about Santa. SpongeBob doesn’t put up a defense and just stands there looking miserable. Squidward snaps a photo to remember this moment, and for some reason he gets off by putting his ass in SpongeBob’s face and slapping it. The cartoon literally tells us he’s being a jackass by superimposing an image of a donkey over him.

Squidward, feeling pretty god damn fabulous!
I don’t think SpongeBob can possibly be drawn any sadder.
Whoa Squidward! This is trending towards harassment here.
You’re lucky SpongeBob didn’t give you any advice on where to shove that thing. Don’t you feel like an ass now, Squidward?!

With Squidward’s antics mostly over, SpongeBob hands over the gift he made for him. SpongeBob was concerned that Squidward would be the only member of Bikini Bottom to not receive a present since he didn’t write a letter to Santa so he made him one instead. SpongeBob drags himself away leaving a stunned Squidward to stand there alone holding his gift. He opens it to find a clarinet that SpongeBob had made himself and instantly feels bad. Meanwhile, SpongeBob is miserable as he begins to take down the Christmas decorations he put on his own house as well as Squidward’s.

Raining underwater? It’s a Christmas miracle!
Looks like someone’s been hiding a secret Santa fetish…

Uncharacteristically, Squidward decides he needs to make things right. He goes home and puts on a Santa costume. I have no idea why he had such a costume in his house, but hey, it’s needed for the plot! He calls out to SpongeBob from his roof, before falling, leaving SpongeBob stunned with silent glee.

What’s with that look, Squidward? What did you think would happen?

Squidward gets SpongeBob to snap out of his trance long enough to tell him he’s here to thank SpongeBob for bringing Christmas to Bikini Bottom. He has to endure a pair of hugs from SpongeBob, but the exchange goes well for Squidward as SpongeBob heads back to his house. Feeling pretty good about himself, Squidward turns to enter his own home, but a little girl is standing in his way. She asks for her gift, and SpongeBob then reappears to encourage “Santa” to bestow a gift on this deserving young girl. Not knowing what else to do, Squidward ducks into his house for a present and ends up giving away a monkey wrench.

Squidward was not prepared for this contingency.
And he especially was not prepared for this!
Everyone seems to take their crappy gifts in stride, like this woman who wanted a new hairstyle, but instead was gifted a bowl of mashed potatoes.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t solve Santa Squid’s problem. A line of citizens has formed outside of his house and they all want a present. He goes in and out of his house getting items and gifting them to the people outside. They’re never what is asked of Santa, but the fish receiving them make do with what they have. They all seem to leave pretty happy, but they also leave behind an empty house for Squidward.

More or less how I feel every year when Christmas is over. Only there’s more stuff, a lot more stuff, in my house thanks to my kids.

With the crowd gone, Squidward removes his costume and wonders why in the world he just got rid of all of his personal belongings just to make SpongeBob happy. Oh Squidward, you just got caught by the Spirit of Christmas! A knock on the door comes from SpongeBob, who excitedly tells Squidward all about Santa, apparently oblivious to the fact that it was Squidward he encountered and not the real Santa. He mostly keeps repeating that Santa has a really big nose, though Squidward seems to take this all in stride.

Apparently someone was watching.

When SpongeBob finally returns home, Squidward notices a letter has been left outside his door. It’s from Santa! It thanks Squidward for bringing Christmas to Bikini Bottom, though makes no excuse for why Santa passed them by. Squidward can hardly believe it, but sure enough, up in the…sky?…is Santa in his sleigh. He’s portrayed with a live-action actor, played by Michael Patrick Bell, and he does a lot of “Ho ho ho’s” and waves. Squidward thinks he’s going insane and returns to his empty house. He breaks out his lone material possession, the clarinet SpongeBob gifted him, and seems to enjoy insanity. Above, we see Santa fly in front of a setting sun.

Santa, surprisingly being played by someone not named John Goodman or Ed Asner.
Squidward’s just taking it all in stride.
Hey look! A twist on the old moon shot!

At Patchy’s house, the special is over. He’s acting out some sea wreck thing and we interrupt him. He finds a present from a reassembled Potty has been left on his head, a nest full of wrapped eggs. Patchy doesn’t seem too interested and is more focused on the mistletoe hanging in his home. He stands under it hoping a woman will magically appear and give him a kiss, but instead Potty comes soaring in to do the honors. The episode ends with Patchy basically running from the sex-crazed puppet. The special ends on an external shot of Patchy’s ranch with a “Happy Holidays” message spelled over it.

A last bit of chaos at Patchy’s house lets us know we’re done.

The SpongeBob Christmas Special is a pretty satisfying piece of Christmas comedy. It starts with a solid premise, and then does a good job of playing with the viewer’s expectations. Squidward was setup to be a Scrooge, and I even found his choice of pajamas to be very Scrooge-like. I thought for sure we were going full parody when he went to sleep on Christmas Eve, but instead we got something very different. Squidward had to learn on his own that wishing misery upon others really doesn’t bring about good feelings in himself. It was sweet to see him affected by SpongeBob’s sadness, and he actually had to learn about Christmas the hard way when he gave all of his stuff away to maintain his ruse. I liked that he wasn’t rewarded with anything material in the end, he just did what was necessary (albeit, in a comedically exaggerated fashion), and found the true meaning of Christmas within himself.

When I saw this outfit I thought we were going full Scrooge. I’m glad I was mistaken.

The odd part of the special is the fact that Santa apparently planned all of this? Did he decide to fulfill SpongeBob’s wish through Squidward? Or maybe we’re supposed to assume that SpongeBob’s unorthodox way of getting everyone’s letters to Santa was simply a flop? SpongeBob did wait until the last minute to get those letters out and Santa is only capable of so many miracles.

The part of the special that didn’t add much for me was the live-action component. I just don’t find Patchy all that funny. I’m also not 7, so maybe it’s just not for me. The cartoon was entertaining, just that component felt a bit long. It doesn’t ruin it or anything, I could just do without.

The Christmas card ending; a tried and true classic.

This Christmas special isn’t as good as the one that follows, but it’s plenty entertaining for an annual viewing. And I feel confident in saying that anyone who likes SpongeBob probably enjoys this episode too. If you have cable, this one should be very to easy to view even this late in the game. It’s possibly available for streaming on Nickelodeon’s website, and it may even air today! It’s also available on various holiday themed DVDs and as part of the second season of the show. It’s also available digitally because it’s SpongeBob, one of the most accessible shows around. If you have yet to view it this year then find 20 minutes today and rectify that.


Rocko’s Modern Life – Season 3

The third season of Rocko’s Modern Life originally aired from 1995-1996.

My rewatch of Rocko’s Modern Life really could not have gone better. I suppose it would be better if it wasn’t during a pandemic, but what can you do? The show has been a delight, and while I felt Season Two was pretty much on par with the first season, I think an argument can be made that Season Three is the best one so far.

In case you need a refresher, Rocko’s Modern Life is a cartoon created by Joe Murray that managed to amass a team of extremely talented people, many of whom went on to create more wonderful television. Rocko (Carlos Alazraqui) is a wallaby from Australia trying to navigate the 90s. Season Two saw him deal with thorny issues like immigration as well as some health problems. Money is often tight and his job as a clerk at a comic book store hardly feels secure, but somehow he gets by. The show is able to mix in real world problems with insane lunacy. The phrase “insane lunacy” sounds redundant, but for a show like Rocko’s Modern Life the redundancy feels very appropriate.

For an adult, few things are more relatable than car trouble.

For Season Three, the show tackled more real world issues and even managed to strengthen its continuity somewhat. The relationship between Rocko’s best friends, Heffer (Tom Kenny) and Filburt (Doug Lawrence) added a combative element to the mix to differentiate the two. They’re pals through and through, but the two get on each other’s nerves and they frequently fail to see eye to eye with Rocko often getting stuck in the middle. And for Filburt, Season Three was a big one because he gets engaged to longtime girlfriend Dr. Hutchison (Linda Wallem) in “The Big Question” which is immediately followed by “The Big Answer” where the two tie the knot. The Bigheads are still around as well and get their own shorts to shine and the show even tackles its first musical with the eco-friendly “Zanzibar.” That one, interestingly, is immediately followed by the show’s first dialogue-free short “Fatal Contraption.”

Season Three of the show never fails to be funny and the gags are really upped for this third season. The show’s first Halloween episode “Sugar Frosted Frights” has a lot of horror-themed gags and it’s paired with another spooky episode, “Ed is Dead.” One of the show’s funniest episodes is also present in this season in “Fish-N-Chumps.” The boys go fishing, only to find themselves in turn being fished, and all the while Filburt drives Heffer nuts with his enthusiasm for a new watch. Tom Kenny does some excellent ad-libbing with a captain character who features two peg legs, peg arms, and even peg eyes (Family Guy totally ripped him off)! My favorite might be “Fortune Cookie” though, if I have to pick a most funniest episode since it features the incredibly quotable fortune that Filburt receives, “Bad luck and extreme misfortune will infest your pathetic soul for all eternity.” There’s an episode where Bev (Charlie Adler) is accidentally given a new nose which reveals to her that her husband stinks, a crazed tour guide stalks Rocko and Heffer on a trip to France, and there’s even a famous nude scene in “Camera Shy.”

I don’t think there’s a more outrageous scene in the show’s history than this.

Rocko’s Modern Life is rarely short on laughs, but what sets it apart from its peers is the infusion of real world problems. None demonstrate that better than “The Big Answer” in which Filburt and Dr. Hutchison find out that planning a wedding is awful, especially when your guests don’t get along. It’s a great episode because in the end they realize it’s their day, no one else’s, and they do what works for them. “Old, Fogey, Froggie” deals with getting old, and uses Mr. Bighead (Adler) as a way of exploring that subject. It’s a subject few children can relate to, but one I sure can.

We get another look into what gets Bev’s motor running: novelty noses.

Season Three is also the season where the show got metta before that was even something in style. “Wacky Delly” is a two-parter all about making cartoons. For this one, Ralph Bighead (Joe Murray) returns after airing the final episode of his cartoon The Fatheads and is eager to explore other, more respected, avenues for his art. The problem is the network he works for basically owns him and he owes it another cartoon. Rather than make something his heart isn’t into, he cooks up a plan to have Rocko and his friends make the cartoon for him assuming it will be so terrible the network will terminate his contract. Instead, the show is a huge hit forcing Ralph to go to extreme measures to sabotage it. He has a reckoning eventually, realizing his cartoon making is totally legitimate art and can be quite satisfying. It certainly feels almost autobiographical on the part of Joe Murray as Rocko was never his first choice to bring to life and it’s an episode many cite as the show’s best.

If you ever wanted to know how to make a cartoon, “Wacky Delly” has you covered.

It was also quite interesting to see the show branch into activism for its third season. I mentioned it earlier, but “Zanzibar” is not only the show’s first musical, but it’s also very much about environmentalism. The subject came about naturally, according to Murray, and the musical format was settled on to make the message of the episode not feel so preachy. It’s almost painfully relevant today, but at least the songs are quite catchy and pleasant so it hopefully won’t bring you down too much.

A new hero for environmentalists every where: Captain Compost-Heap!

Over the years, Rocko’s Modern Life has become somewhat infamous for its humor aimed at adults. These are the gags that when looked back upon viewers are shocked they even made it into the show. While there was no major act of censorship after the fact with Season Three, there’s still plenty of humor that’s a little blue. There’s an episode titled “Schnit-heads,” which is a surprising title all by itself. It features Heffer getting caught up in a sausage cult. Sadly, the phrase “sausage fest” is never mentioned. “Fortune Cookie” also features a segment that took a long time to get approval from Nickelodeon in which Really Really Big Man’s nipples go berserk. It’s as ludicrous as it sounds. Plus the whole time he’s trying to talk a bird down from a statue who’s threatening to defecate upon it. And the show even features some death in the episode “Bye Bye Birdie” when Heffer kills Filburt’s bird, Turdy, by sitting on it. Rocko and Heffer then try to hide it from Filburt in a Weekend at Bernie’s manner. Possibly the best piece of awkward humor arises in “An Elk for Heffer” in which Heffer is informed he needs to bring an elk home for dinner as part of a growing-up ritual with his family’s wolf pack. Heffer then goes out and finds an elk for a date not realizing the whole intent of the arrangement is to actually hunt and kill an elk and provide dinner for his family.

Heffer thinks he’s found love, but turns out Elky here is actually a racist. Maybe the show should have let the wolves consume her…

As far as physical releases go, the third season is also superior to the previous ones since it contains better bonus material. While I was hoping for actual commentaries on the episodes, there are what the DVD refers to as selected scene commentaries. It’s a misleading label as the feature is really just Joe Murray going over his thoughts and feelings on the third season of the show. He covers a lot of ground in the short run time and it’s definitely worth a watch and is more informative than the character portraits from the Season Two set. Again, it’s not what I was hoping for, but I did enjoy it.

The third season of Rocko’s Modern Life is simply the show at its best. I continue to be charmed and amazed by the quality and it truly is a show that can be enjoyed by all ages. It’s been a real hit in my house where I’ll watch it with my young kids and even watch it with my wife after they go to bed. I don’t know what the fourth season can do to top this one, but I look forward to seeing how it tries.


Rocko’s Modern Life – Season Two

rocko_season2

The second season of Rocko’s Modern Life premiered on September 25, 1994.

A few weeks ago I wrote about my reintroduction to Rocko’s Modern Life via the show’s first season. Rocko’s Modern Life was a favorite of mine as a kid, and if you had asked me to rank the Nicktoons back then it would have gone something like this:  The Ren & Stimpy Show, Rocko’s Modern Life, followed by who cares? Those two cartoons were so far above the others that they didn’t feel worth mentioning. Sure, Rugrats and Doug were fine for what they were, but they weren’t appointment viewing for me. And after a few years, none of them were as I felt I had aged out of them. I was a young, dumb, kid though and upon revisiting such works I’ve come to find that, if anything, I’ve aged into a show like Rocko’s Modern Life.

What separated Rocko’s Modern Life from the other shows was that emphasis on the mundanity of life itself. Rocko was challenged by simple tasks such as laundry, household cleaning, commuting, work, and all of those others things we as adults have to deal with that we really take for granted as children. Rocko’s difficulties encountered with these tasks are obviously exaggerated for comedic effect, but like all good comedy there is still an element of truth to all of it making the show arguably more relatable for an adult than it is a child.

rocko_filbert_wedding

Like Season One, Season Two of Rocko’s Modern Life is surprisingly topical in 2020.

When it came to Season One of the show, I was delighted by the humor aimed at adults. I remembered the Milk-O-Matic gag as a kid in which Heffer, a steer, is masturbated by a mechanical milking machine and knew there was humor in this show that really only older kids and adults would understand. That type of humor is more of a shocking variety of humor, what I had forgotten is the more nuanced approach such as the episode where neighbor Bev Bighead tries to seduce Rocko because her husband doesn’t make her feel attractive. It’s a pretty adult concept to try to base a cartoon intended for children around, and it’s even affecting in turning Mrs. Bighead into a sympathetic figure. And yes, there’s still plenty of physical comedy in that episode and all of them.

As I approached Season Two of the show, I was hoping for more of that style of story-telling:  mature in concept, but accessible for all via the physical comedy. And for the most part, Season Two really delivers. It starts off with a heavy hitter in the two-part “I Have No Son” in which we learn the Bigheads have an estranged son named Ralph (Joe Murray) who long ago disappointed his father by not accepting a job at Conglom-O where Ed worked. A father being so ashamed and disappointed of his son that it causes him to disown him is a pretty heavy subject for the show to tackle because it’s also a very real thing that happens. Ed looks down on Ralph for his wanting to be a cartoonist, but you can substitute that with pretty much anything and the episode would still work. And even though Ralph has found tremendous success with his cartoon The Fatheads (which is clearly inspired by his parents), he still hasn’t earned his father’s approval.

the_bigheads_reunited

The story of Ralph Bighead kicks off the second season.

The premiere is a pretty weighty episode to kick things off, but it manages to handle the delicate material with the show’s usual brand of humor. It does struggle a bit to fit it all into one episode and the resolution feels a bit rushed, but it’s still quite the achievement. The rest of the season will balance the absurd wackiness of Rocko’s world with actual real world issues and problems. Bev Bighead has to break the glass ceiling, so to speak, and go to work in one episode and another deals with Rocko having to thwart immigration officials who want him deported for an expired green card. That episode might actually hit too close to home for some given the current climate surrounding immigration in the US. A particularly heartfelt episode is “Tickled Pinky” in which Rocko deals with the fear of surgery when he finds out he needs to have his appendix removed. It turns into a story where Rocko meets a personified version of his appendix, named Pinky, via a dream. Rocko, in a bid to cheer up Pinky since he’s essentially about to die, takes Pinky out to essentially check off a bucket list of experiences for Pinky to enjoy before his time is up. It’s surprisingly sweet and it left me wishing I had thought of this episode when my own little boy had to have his tonsils removed.

Season Two is also not without its dose of more crass humor. The episode “Born to Spawn” basically deals with Filbert’s (Mr. Lawrence) desire to mate, though that part of it isn’t spelled out. It’s pretty funny though with that context in the back of your mind. In “Hut, Sut, Raw” Rocko, Heffer (Tom Kenny), and Filbert go camping and leave the confines of a modern camp ground to rough it in the woods. The DVD is censored to remove a scene where Rocko picks berries off of a bush, only to have a bear scream and run out from behind it implying that Rocko just picked one the bear’s “berries.” The final cartoon, “Eyes Capades,” revisits the old white lie of Rocko’s eyesight going bad due to too much “jacking.” In the context of the episode, the jacking is Rocko practicing for a jackhammer competition that’s basically figure skating on a jackhammer, but it’s obvious the episode is playing off the notion that masturbation in a young boy can cause blindness.

hqdefault-18

This is the season that features the Christmas episode basically making this a “must buy” for Christmas nerds like me.

A welcomed trend established by Season Two is that this show, unlike many other cartoons, actually has some semblance of continuity. Past episodes are referenced and new characters like Ralph will show up in later episodes at peace with his parents. The cartoon “Short Story” contains the most references when Really Really Big Man details Rocko’s good deeds and accomplishments for him in a bid to build him up. The episode “Rocko’s Modern Christmas” (which has been featured during The Christmas Spot) is the first episode to really bring the whole cast together when Rocko attempts to throw a party that everyone in town wishes to attend. It’s really satisfying to see the writers opening up the world of O-Town and incorporating a lot of these side characters.

In terms of missteps, there are few. The animation is as good, if not better, than the first season and the performances by the voice actors are all tremendous. Especially considering how much screaming is sometimes required of them. There are three oversized episodes in this season, which are episodes that dedicate both halves to one story and they are:  “I Have No Son, “Rocko’s Modern Christmas,” and “Cruisin’.” Of the three, only “Cruisin'” felt like it didn’t really need the extra time. It’s a bit of a weird episode in which Rocko and Heffer take Heffer’s grandfather on a cruise for old people (or rather, they got stuck on the boat by accident) and the ship enters the Bermuda Triangle making all of the old people young and the two young people old. It gives Grandpa a do-over with an old flame, a relatable and pretty adult plot, but one that struggles to remain interesting.

b-52s

Kate Pierson (left) and Fred Schneider (second from left) of the B-52’s were brought in to re-do the theme song. Their version would remain for the rest of the show’s run.

In terms of personnel, much of the folks involved with the first season returned for the second. Stephen Hillenburg was around to oversee everything as showrunner and creator Joe Murray still received several writing credits and remained involved. Doug Lawrence, also known as Mr. Lawrence, stepped back from directing, but still has a few writing credits. Some of the newcomers include directors Alan Smart, Pete Michels, and Howy Parkins. All would make future contributuons at Nickelodeon while Michels would go on to direct several episodes of The Simpsons and Family Guy. Voice of Rocko, Carlos Alazraqui, even received a writing credit for “Gutter Balls,” one of two writing credits he’d receive on the show. Considering that episode has four credited writers, I’m assuming he must had ad-libbed something that was considered large enough to warrant a credit. The only major change between seasons is the theme song which was reworked by Pat Irwin and re-recorded by Kate Pierson and Fred Schneider of the B-52’s. It’s still fine, though I miss the swank of the first season’s theme.

rocko_pilot

The pilot of the show is contained on this set and is notable for featuring a yellow Rocko.

The DVD release of the first season of Rocko’s Modern Life had the dubious honor of not containing any bonus features. Joe Murray was quite willing to contribute to these releases and for Season Two Nickelodeon at least made some effort to add a little extra, though not much. The original pilot of the show “Trash-O-Madness” is contained here. It’s not much different from the episode that made it to air, but it’s cool to see the original version of the show. There’s also a collection of segments hosted by Murray where he shares the ideas behind the show’s core characters while also demonstrating how they’re drawn. He doesn’t reveal any bombshells or anything, but it’s worth a look. That’s, unfortunately, all that there is for bonus material which means there’s no commentaries and no options to view the episodes uncensored.

Rocko’s Modern Life is a great cartoon series and I’m happy to say the second season is just as good as the first. The show definitely embodies that 90’s spirit of being a bit manic, loud, and certainly gross, but it also includes a surprising amount of heart and relatability as well. In some ways, it’s the perfect children’s cartoon because there’s plenty here to entertain a 7 year old while also keeping mom and dad engaged. And pretty much all are guaranteed to find something to laugh at as well, or be charmed by, or both! I’ve enjoyed it enough that I definitely intend to binge Season Three and report back here on how well I think it compares with the first two seasons, so stay tuned!


Rocko’s Modern Life – Season One

rocko_season_oneThe 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.

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Games Animation was created so that Nickelodeon could keep production of its Nicktoons in-house.

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.

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The main cast of the show (left to right): Rocko, Spunky, Heffer, Bev Bighead, Filburt, Ed Bighead.

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_brain

Plenty of classic animation gags are relied upon such as Rocko’s brain constantly jumping out of his head when he screams.

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.

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Many episodes contain Rocko tackling a common task only with disastrous results.

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.

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Each episode is introduced with a hand-painted title card.

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.

bev_seduction

Bev Bighead is one of the break-out stars in Season One. Her attempts to seduce Rocko in “Leap Frogs” is a real highlight of the first season.

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.

heffer_milk_machine

Sadly, we’ve been deprived of Heffer’s romantic tryst with a milking machine. The full clip can be easily found on the Internet, but it would have been great to have the original toon restored.

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.


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