An uneasy mix of adult storylines, innuendoes, and broad humor aimed at kids, the ’90s cartoon Rocko’s Modern Life remains a solid example of early “Nicktoons,” or animated series produced by Nickelodeon. The fourth Nicktoon to debut, Rocko’s boasts a sizable cult to this day, largely thanks to the fact that it tosses a bunch of goofily animated animals straight out of a brightly colored Sunday comic strip into the midst of decidedly mundane situations, from visiting the DMV to flying on a plane to cleaning an apartment.
The premise of Rocko’s Modern Life, dispensed with entirely in the show’s opening credits, couldn’t be simpler: Rocko (voiced by Reno 911!’s Carlos Alazraqui) emigrates to the United States from Australia, and spends the series trying to understand his new country’s strange customs and weird social mores. Joining him are his dog Spunky and his best friend Heffer (Tom Kenny), a rotund cow whose entire character arc revolves around not knowing he’s adopted. (That storyline features much of the first season’s best work.) The three tackle home-improvement projects, credit-card debt, and the sexual dissatisfaction of their next-door neighbors, a pair of frogs named the Bigheads.
The series, like most Nickelodeon shows of the early ’90s, was occasionally grating and often crushingly loud. The character designs are purposefully bizarre, as if daring viewers to watch, and the show’s love of weird, gross-out gags—like a beefy superhero forcing Rocko’s face into his chest, or Spunky being flattened and used as cement—speaks to its attempt to appeal to the kids of 1993, its debut year. At the time, Nickelodeon was selling itself as a network based as much around edge as around kids’ entertainment. It aimed to appeal to college students and parents as much as anyone else, and the aggressive aesthetic can be tiresome, particularly in earlier segments that feature the show trying things that don’t always work.
But the show is so relentlessly weird that it eventually settles into an entertaining groove. The early Nicktoons feature some of the strongest animation that had been seen on American television, and Rocko’s is no exception. The show isn’t at the level of the average Japanese animated series, or even what The Simpsons was doing at the time, but there’s still an impressive commitment to expressive character acting, well-drawn sight gags, and cartoony jokes that play with the form’s slapstick strengths.
Creator Joe Murray originally conceived of Rocko as a comic-strip hero, and those roots show throughout the series. The same way the Sunday funnies need to serve a dual audience, Rocko’s often succeeds best when it exploits the tension between Murray’s aims at larger social satire for adults, and the network’s need to entertain lots and lots of kids who mostly laugh at characters falling over. The best episodes of Rocko’s Modern Life embrace adult fears—as when Heffer briefly dies and goes to a network-censored hell named Heck (a friendly community)—and then add a healthy dollop of kid-approved absurdity. (The devil’s name in Heck is Peaches.) That formula served (and continues to serve) the Nicktoons brand well, and Rocko’s remains one of the best series of the brand’s classic era.
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