Nickelodeon’s Rocko taught kids that the modern life ain’t the easy life

Nickelodeon’s Rocko taught kids that the modern life ain’t the easy life

The Internet is choked with nostalgia for the youth-oriented entertainments of the not-too-distant past: Tumblr blogs regurgitating images of half-forgotten toys; YouTube compilations of long-lost TV-show intros; countless blogs playing “Remember when?” with movies and video games whose rose-colored recollections aren’t always properly earned. With Memory WipeThe A.V. Club takes a look at some of our formative favorites with clearer eyes and asks that all-important question: Were they really that great to begin with?

My first memory of being emotionally upset by pop culture involves the Looney Tunes short “Rabbit Transit.” For the unfamiliar: Warner Bros.’ third and final take on “The Tortoise And The Hare,” starring Bugs Bunny and Cecil Turtle, finds Bugs outraged by the suggestion that any slowpoke reptile could outrun a rabbit. In an effort to disprove Aesop, he arranges a race with the nearest turtle, with both competitors agreeing not to cut corners and not to cheat. In the grand tradition of the Bugs-Cecil trilogy, cheating abounds anyway, with the racers getting assistance from a jet-powered shell, parcel post, and fake tunnels painted on the sides of trees. Both characters act like jerks throughout the picture, but in Bugs’ case, that’s how he’s supposed to act—he’s the charming rogue getting one over on the Elmer Fudds and the Yosemite Sams of the world. 

When Bugs doesn’t get one over Cecil—he wins the race but foolishly brags of breaking the speed limit, leading to the unnerving sight of the rabbit being dragged out of frame by a pair of intimidating motorcycle cops—it was a little more than my young mind could bear. In my youthful estimation, the outcome of “Rabbit Transit” was unfair. Neither character keeps his promise to the other, but Bugs isn’t supposed to lose. He’s supposed to come out on top; he’s supposed to get the last laugh. To see the good guy not only lose, but get punished for trying to win, was a raw and perception-altering experience.

“Rabbit Transit” wasn’t included in the package of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts Nickelodeon aired during the 1980s and ’90s, a limited slate of Warner Bros. cast-offs that helped fill airtime as the first kids’ network took its initial stabs at original programming. When those efforts expanded to include original animated fare, Looney Tunes On Nickelodeon was still part of the lineup, but the so-called Nicktoons were meant to stand out from the adventures of Bugs and friends. The goal of programmers like Herb Scannell was to push back against an environment in which cartoon development was based entirely on familiar products: toys, video games, box-office blockbusters, and established cartoon institutions. “If you were a producer with original ideas in animation, one place you could not go to was television,” Scannell told The Los Angeles Times in October 1993, shortly after the fourth Nicktoon, Rocko’s Modern Life, made its debut. 

Though no less inventive or creator-driven than the three series that came before it—The Ren & Stimpy Show, Doug, and RugratsRocko’s Modern Life shared with Ren & Stimpy an affinity for the animated old guard. Rocko’s Modern Life creator Joe Murray assembled his show from storyboards, rather than scripts, much like the artists who churned out cartoons from Warners’ famed Termite Terrace complex. The world around Murray’s protagonist—a happy-go-lucky wallaby transplanted to the fictional American city of O-Town from his native Australia—is vibrant and wavy, like the environments of an old Fleischer brothers comedy short. 

The show also subscribed to the Warner Bros. notion—seen in “Rabbit Transit” as well as any number of starring vehicles for Daffy Duck—that the good guy wasn’t always the winner. The show’s title was meant as a joke: Rocko enjoyed the convenience of life at the end of the 20th century, but that convenience came at a price, typically Rocko’s comfort or dignity. Yet this didn’t bother the kid who’d been so perturbed by “Rabbit Transit,” likely because of the way Rocko always bounced back. In early installments like “A Sucker For The Suck-O-Matic,” the character is duped again and again, as quick cure-alls and home-shopping deals backfire with hysterical results. But these are just the adjustments he has to make to live the modern life; the conclusion of “A Sucker For The Suck-O-Matic” even finds him content to live in the bowels of a massive, ravenous appliance.

In 1993, I was too young to define satire, let alone identify it. To me, Rocko’s Modern Life merely had an air of sophistication that its basic-cable contemporaries lacked. As such, it never felt like a “kids only” enterprise. In the early stages of the show’s run, the jokes draw on hassles and inconveniences that the average Nickelodeon viewer was years, even decades, away from dealing with themselves. It’s a send-up of suburban doldrums, uncaring mega-corporations, and household devices that don’t perform as advertised. (In the case of the Suck-O-Matic, sometimes they work too well.) As summed up in the L.A. Times, “Rocko is a child moving into an adult world,” and that appealed to me as a child moving into an adolescent world. Rocko’s original run corresponded with the last years of my elementary-school education, but I watched it more frequently as a middle schooler, when reruns were added to Nickelodeon’s daily after-school lineup. In Rocko, I found someone else who was learning how to take greater responsibility for his actions; in Murray’s onscreen surrogate Ralph Bighead, I found a fellow creative spirit frustrated by people who didn’t understand him or his work. (Like Ralph, I fancied myself a cartoonist; unlike Ralph, that pursuit never went beyond a few dozen volumes of staple-bound stories about slacker aliens and inept superheroes.) As evidenced by the ample innuendo and double entendre packed into its episodes, Rocko’s Modern Life aimed to entertain both kids and adults, but it did so from a perspective that made adulthood look like something worth striving for.

A segment like “A Sucker For The Suck-O-Matic” was a peephole into the world that existed on the other side of adolescence. How glorious it must be to have a job, which grants the employee the chance to grouse about the boss. What fun it must be to own your own home, so that you can grumble about appliances going on the fritz with other owners of homes and fritzing appliances. What toil and disappointment it was to be someone without a car, a name on the mailbox, and disposable income. That line of thinking is bullshit—it ignores the relative freedoms of youth, the stuff of many other Nickelodeon shows from this era—but Rocko’s Modern Life pulls back the veil of adulthood. As much as a cartoon about a wallaby can, at least.

It’s a strange variation on typical kiddie-entertainment escapism. For years, the programming strategy at outlets like Nick, the Disney Channel, and Cartoon Network has been one of aspiration: The elementary school and middle school students in the audience want to watch the stories of people who are older than they are—but only slightly. They want to vicariously experience the milestones that are just out of their reach: first kisses, driving tests, laughing into the wee hours of the morning with your best friends in the whole world. In recent years, Disney has taken this concept to extremes, capitalizing on the success of Hannah Montana by greenlighting a number of shows on which the protagonists enjoy a wealth and fame that no viewer will ever achieve. Story-wise, these shows are still about the challenges of growing up, but their millionaire protagonists make it difficult to find the charm and the appeal of the everyday that power series like Rocko’s Modern Life or The Adventures Of Pete & Pete.

The original Nicktoons were different. Doug was as close to standard Nick programming as these shows came, its animated elements employed solely to blow the trials of adolescence out of proportion and into the realm of fantasy. Elsewhere, Rugrats depicted characters who were younger than the tweens watching at home, the knee-level POV of Tommy Pickles and friends performing the Muppet Babies trick of adding fresh imagination and wonder to the everyday. The Ren & Stimpy Show was a psychotic break from all of that, as old Hanna-Barbera animal ’toons granted a Tex Avery elasticity and treated to an acid bath. Rocko’s Modern Life existed at the crossroads of its predecessors, combining Doug’s slice-of-life content, Rugrats’ innocence, and Ren & Stimpy’s gross-out humor, surrealism, and obsession with mid-century kitsch.

It was also, then and now, some of the funniest stuff to ever air on Nickelodeon. Much of the credit there goes to the cast, a group of relative unknowns that became some of the biggest names in voice acting. As a testament to their talents, two of the leads are virtually unidentifiable in their Rocko’s Modern Life guises: To have grown up with the show was to be completely mystified that Rocko’s chipper Australian accent emitted from the saddest deputy among the law-enforcement fuck-ups of Reno 911! Pitching his voice up and delivering lines in a dry monotone—when he isn’t screaming bloody murder—Carlos Alazraqui sits in the eye of the Rocko’s Modern Life hurricane, his faux-Aussie deadpan the perfect contrast to the insanity swirling around him. I kept a recording of Alazraqui warning viewers that “Laundry day is a very dangerous day” on my Yak Bak SFX (this was at the height of popularity of voice-recording toys like the Home Alone 2-inspired Talkboy—a trend the presaged the social-media echo chamber by a decade-plus) and played it on endless loops, trying to perfect my own rendition of Rocko. I never got it right—those accented pronunciations are just so hard to pull off when you’re talking through your nostrils.

As Heffer, the gluttonous steer (not a cow, mind you) raised by wolves, Tom Kenny sounds even less like himself. Far removed from his spastic Mr. Show voiceovers or the elfin cackle of SpongeBob SquarePants, Kenny’s portrayal of Heffer is drawling and husky—more excitable than Rocko, and recognizably dim-witted. Kenny sounds bovine without so much as a “moo,” an important distinction for the way Rocko’s Modern Life tapped into the world of O-Town as the series went on. Animal nature occasionally gets the best of the characters—particularly Rocko’s neighbors, Ed and Bev Bighead, both played by recording-booth regular Charlie Adler—but few are defined by their species. That’s another reason Rocko’s Modern Life felt so sophisticated to me as a young viewer: This wasn’t a “funny animal” show like Yogi Bear or Wally Gator; this was a funny animal show. Species was one note the writers could play, but they found greater rewards in depicting Rocko’s trustfulness, Mr. Bighead’s cynicism, and Heffer’s, er, piggishness. 

Episodes that play on these traits have aged much better than earlier standalone segments. In the beginning, Rocko’s Modern Life was a little bit like MGM’s “Of Tomorrow” series and a little bit like one of those Disney cartoons where Goofy gets in shape or learns the latest dance steps. As someone who grew to love the show’s full supporting cast, a season-one twofer like “Clean Lovin’” and “Unbalanced Load” feels incomplete. Alazraqui’s a decent solo act, but Rocko’s better as one voice in a chorus of crazies. By the second season, Murray and crew were playing to the strengths of their ensemble, beginning sophomore year with a Bigheads-centric half-hour, “I Have No Son!” Introducing Bev and Ed’s grown-up spawn Ralph, the episode sends Rocko and his turtle friend Filburt on a mission to reunite a family split by a father-son conflict and a pair of unflattering animated caricatures. It’s at this time that the more prominent members of the behind-the-scenes crew make their presence known: The opening credits include SpongeBob SquarePants creator, Stephen Hillenburg, and his fellow future Bikini Bottom residents Doug “Mr.” Lawrence and Mark O’Hare. Murray’s collaborator on the story, Martin Olson, would later join fellow Rocko staffers Dan Povenmire and Jeff “Swampy” Marsh on their Disney Channel series, Phineas And Ferb. All roads to the fully-realized worlds of those series run through O-Town and colorful denizens like the über-capitalist Chameleon Brothers, two wild-and-crazy lizards whose adaptability to any circumstance finds them working for Ralph’s animation department in “I Have No Son!”

“I Have No Son!” also sets the course for the pinnacle of Rocko’s Modern Life: Season three’s “Wacky Delly.” Here, the show hurls a pitch that shouldn’t sail over the heads of youngsters alone—“Wacky Delly” feels like it shouldn’t resonate with anyone that hasn’t spent hours hunched over an easel, drawing (in the parlance of the episode) lots and lots of little pictures. The intricacies of the plot are deeply insider-showbiz stuff, involving contractual terms, coastal elitism, and the drudgery of making a TV show. Yet, through the guilelessness of its protagonists, the Producers echoes of the script, and the sheer onscreen anarchy of the show-within-the-episode, “Wacky Delly” is a singular achievement in children’s programming.

The content is specific to an era and a POV, but the execution is timeless. The guys finish an episode, Ralph tries to ruin it, the “ruined” episode garners more accolades and praise than the previous “ruined” installment. With each sabotage attempt, Ralph only makes things tougher on himself. The parties involved might as well be a cat and a mouse, a coyote and a roadrunner, a rabbit and a turtle. Behind-the-scenes expertise—especially the knowledge that Murray was the first Nicktoon creator hired after the network infamously ousted Ren & Stimpy’s John Kricfalusi—enhances these sequences, but it’s not required. (Nor is a working knowledge of the Chuck Jones filmography.)

So why did I feel so twisted up by “Tortoise Beats Hare” when “Wacky Delly” left me in stitches? Because these kinds of trials were the rule, not the exception, on Rocko’s Modern Life. If anything demonstrates the maturity of the show, the way it never talked down to its viewers, it’s this: The reminder that you can’t always get what you want. Ralph is driven by understandable desires—artistic freedom, recognition, the drive to create something of value—but he doesn’t really achieve any of them. Using Wacky Delly as a platform for “art” gets the show canceled; his masterpiece, the world’s largest still life, is later compared unfavorably to the show.

That’s a tough lesson for kids to learn, and it’s hard-wired into much of Rocko’s Modern Life. It’s the medicine that goes down easier thanks to the slapstick, the goofy voices, and the spectacular colors. Paradoxically, it’s all of those things that make coming back to Rocko’s Modern Life such a hoot. At a time when I’ve dealt with all of the annoyances Rocko has dealt with—and then some—it’s nice to be reminded of the simple pleasure of a good bug-eyed-exposed-brain sight gag. On the days when you’re feeling more like the hare than the tortoise, Rocko and Ralph’s defeats are a welcome reminder that you’re not alone in that regard.

More Memory Wipe