Season 1 Opening
Being born in the ‘90s had its benefits, especially for those who mostly grew up in this era, because this was around the time when cartoons made for young audiences started to get edgy and leap new bounds as to what the creators were able to get away with. This was around the time when The Ren & Stimpy Show still aired on Nickelodeon, and parents really started questioning what appropriate children’s programming was, and when the mentality of how “cartoons are generally made for kids” was still in effect (you can thank the ‘70s and ‘80s for that). But let’s face facts. When we were younger, we loved the insanity that went on in that small (or for some of us, big) electrical box that is television. Around this time, Ren & Stimpy wasn’t the only cartoon on Nickelodeon that warped our fragile, little minds. There was another that came close, only in my opinion, it added a touch of real life dilemmas that played a part in its scenarios, thus adding a large dose of social satire (by definition, literature or a form of art that pokes fun at certain time periods, groups of people or a single person, or lifestyles and beliefs) relating to topics such as consumerism, politics, and pretty much everything that involved the '90s. That cartoon was Joe Murray’s Rocko’s Modern Life.
"Garbage Day is a very dangerous day."
The series first came to light with a 1992 7-minute pilot episode entitled Trash-O-Madness, which Murray animated at his personal studio. Prior to creating it, he worked on cartoons independently throughout his college career. The concept began when he was making the character for an unpublished comic book in the 1980s which fell through. Around this time, Murray was working on his third indie film My Dog Zero, and he needed money to fund the project, so he salvaged Rocko and made the pilot to pitch to a network. This pilot never aired on television; however, it was included on the Season 2 DVD as a bonus feature, and upon completion, it was sent to Nickelodeon for approval. The pilot involved Rocko, a wallaby who moved from his home country of Australia to the United States that lives alone with his pet dog, Spunky, who has the IQ of a stick. He wakes up to notice that the garbage truck is about to approach his house, so he rushes to get the garbage out in time, all whilst dealing with a rabid dog named Earl (whom we later find out was part of an experiment gone wrong), and eventually dealing with a green slimeball found in his trash bin that’s really alive.
As it begins, you’ll notice that the intro looks a lot different than the one they decided to stick with when the series began. Another thing you’ll notice is that Rocko’s skin has a yellowish hue. This was because Murray intended the character to be yellow, but was changed to a beige color at the request of Nickelodeon so they could sell merchandise. Lastly, the animation is a bit rougher than what you’ll normally see in the rest of the show. In fact, the pilot was re-edited and placed into a regular episode as the second half, the first half being The Good, The Bad, and the Wallaby. Watching this version, which is 4 minutes longer than the original pilot, you can tell what scenes are from the original pilot, and what was put in to fill the other four minutes. Nevertheless, the pilot did contain what would be standard throughout the series, such as the overall concept of a wallaby from Australia living in the United States getting into strange predicaments whilst dealing with everyday life. Rocko’s voice didn’t change either after the pilot. He was voiced by comedian Carlos Alazraqui, who would later be known for voicing Winslow in Nickelodeon’s later hit CatDog, the Chihuahua mascot for Taco Bell, and would also play the role of Deputy James Garcia in Comedy Central’s live-action spoof of Cops, Reno 911! He would continue voicing the titular character throughout the entire run.
The show took its place alongside Ren & Stimpy and their biggest hit Rugrats as part of the Nicktoons family upon approval from MTV, and Murray was given a crew of animators and writers, along with creative freedom (something that is rarely seen nowadays) to create his series, and thus, we begin it all with...
The Good, The Bad, and the Wallaby
"Which is funnier, bananas or cheese?"
When the first season began, the animation somewhat improved in quality, similar to what happened with The Simpsons when it turned from a small 4-5 minute skit on The Tracy Ullman Show to a 30-minute TV show, however, it was a little rough around the edges at times, and some of the colors looked a bit washed out. Nevertheless, there was plenty of room to improve, and things were beginning to get rolling, as we are first introduced to the rest of the characters that would make their debut in future episodes, starting with the very first episode, where we are introduced to Rocko’s best friend Heffer (voiced by Tom Kenny), a fat, naïve steer (often mistaken for a cow) that has a terrible habit of eating way too damn much, but does care for Rocko’s well-being. Then we have Rocko’s other best friend Filburt (voiced by Doug “Mr.” Lawrence), a turtle with some rather strange social issues and is the victim of unusual circumstances (i.e. getting the same "bad luck" messages inside fortune cookies). Lastly, we have the next door neighbors, the Bigheads (both voiced by Charlie Adler), whom Joe Murray based off of the next door neighbors he used to have growing up. There are also other characters thrown into the mix, such as the Chameleon Brothers, who own several businesses for various services, the superhero Really Really Big Man, who has some pretty...odd superpowers relating to his nipples and chest hairs, and the duo of Bloaty the Tick and Squirmy the Ringworm, who live on the back of Spunky and satirize classic sitcoms, namely Gilligan's Island and I Love Lucy, complete with their own intro sequence, making it a show-within-a-show.
Along with the pilot, the first season was responsible for basically setting the stage of what we are going to expect with future episodes in future seasons. Environments are warped as if we were stuck in a drug-induced dream from the perspective of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, and the humor is almost on par with Kricfalusi’s Ren & Stimpy, in that it’s a bit raunchy to the point where Nickelodeon’s censor board was starting to ask questions. Think of it as a modernized version of Wackyland from that one Porky Pig cartoon. After all, this was made at the time when television animation was going through an overhaul, as a lot of the cartoons that aired in the ‘80s were basically 30 minute advertisements for children’s toys (admit it, you know that is true), and cartoons happened to be labeled as “kid’s entertainment”. In fact, one of the episodes was outright banned from being aired again during the show’s run due to complaints from parents about its sexual humor (“Leap Frogs”). There was also a scene removed in the episode “The Good, The Bad, and the Wallaby” after one airing where Heffer uses a milking machine on a farm and finds pleasure, implying masturbation. Speaking of, the fast-food restaurant that Rocko and friends frequent throughout is called Chokey Chicken, another reference to masturbation. The difference here is that they got away with this no sweat (for now, at least). Mind you that the deleted scenes in this and future episodes were not restored when they appeared on DVD in the U.S. Not even my Complete Series DVD set has them, which is a shame. However, everything else remained intact, including what I think is the dirtiest episode of all, "Clean Lovin'", where Spunky falls in love...with a mop.
Overall, the first season as a whole kicked things off nicely, but it was only the beginning for this wallaby and his troupe.
"Let the TV party begin!"
The second season began in September of 1994, 10 months after the end of the first season. One thing you’ll notice, as soon as the first episode of the season begins, the theme song changed to the one that we all recognize. The theme song from here until the last episode of the last season would be performed by two of the members of the ‘90s alternative group, The B-52s. Not only did it follow up the previous season with more edgy hi-jinx that we’ve enjoyed thus far, there were a couple milestones for the series that became notable. For one, the series got its first two-parter here, which opens up the second season. The episode is entitled “I Have No Son”, and we are introduced to yet another character, and though a minor character, he does serve a purpose in the series. The character is Ralph Bighead, a grumpy cartoonist who has his own studio and is the descendent of Ed and Bev Bighead, Rocko’s toad neighbors, and coincidentally, he is voiced by the creator of the show himself, Joe Murray. Secondly, Rocko got his one and only Christmas special, simply entitled “Rocko’s Modern Christmas”. It was basically a holiday-themed two parter talking about getting into the Christmas spirit and pretty much every other thing you’ve heard constantly from every Christmas movie and TV special out there. Altogether, the second season had a total of three two-part episodes.
The second season got more in-depth with character development, such as the relationships between Rocko, Heffer, and Filburt, and some more of the Bigheads’ backstory, again, with the addition of Ralph Bighead. Not only this, but one key entity is introduced here in the series’ universe: Conglom-O, the multi-billion dollar company that Ed Bighead works for, which has an intimidating slogan under its name that says “We Own You”. It basically serves as satirical symbolism on corporate America, where the fear of a giant conglomerate organization that pretty much controls everything, including water, electricity, economy, and even the entire government becomes reality. In this case, it’s a company that owns an entire town. As a kid, I never really paid any attention to that, because…well…I was a kid. I didn’t know jack, but as an adult with a college education, it’s clear as crystal. See, this is the beauty of looking back at cartoons you watched as a kid. There’s a lot of things that went over your head when you were younger, and when you go back to watch them, you fully appreciate what went into making the show.
"♫ We're a big, unruly mob! ♫"
The third season, even though it doesn’t really top what the second season accomplished, is still one of the best seasons in the show’s run, simply because a lot of the episodes in this season, to me, are the funniest. That's not to say a lot of the episodes from prior seasons (and some of season 4) weren't as funny, but a lot of these were just pure gold. Some of the episodes that caught my attention include one where Rocko and Heffer take a tour of France, which happens to be hosted by a psychotic bus driver ("I See London, I See France"), a two parter where Filburt gets married to the hook-handed Dr. Hutchison ("The Big Question" and "The Big Answer"), and the only silent episode where Rocko purchases an anthropomorphic juicer that makes his life a living hell ("Fatal Contraption"). However, the episode that stuck out to me (and probably most of you who watched the show growing up) is the two-parter episode, “Wacky Deli”, which also sees the return of Murray’s alter ego from the previous season, Ralph Bighead. This episode stood out because it has the best writing, the best jokes, and the best overall punchline. In fact, most people, when they think of this show, the first thing that comes to mind is this episode, and we all know the reason why...
Not only was this episode the funniest, in my opinion, I also loved the concept behind it. It served as a look at what goes into making a cartoon, even though the steps they go through is really just the bare bones. I could go on talking about what goes into the making of an animated show or movie, but if I were to do that, this article would be longer than the entirety of Gone With The Wind. Nevertheless, the story behind the episode and the interactions between our three main characters is just pure comedy gold, illustrating what could go wrong during the animation process that might actually be for the best.
One other episode that stuck out to me was the episode "Zanzibar". Why this was called that, I will never know, but here, Murray decided to show that he is pro-green, as in, he made an environmental episode about pollution and recycling, and to top it all off, he made it into a musical episode, similar to what would happen in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. All I can say about it is that once you see it, you won’t be able to get any of the songs out of your head for a long while. This, I think was Murray’s intention, as in, he wants to make sure that everyone got the message to recycle, not to dump your trash, don't cut down trees, etc. hammered into your brain, and to this day, he continues to channel this message, even in his next cartoon series Camp Lazlo and his web series Frog in a Suit, just not in a musical fashion. But overall, this and "Wacky Deli" are pretty much in my top 5 favorite episodes, and the season as a whole was an absolute joy to watch.
Sailing the Seven Zzz's
"I've come for what's mine, and I'll have none of your sauce!"
The fourth and final season of the series didn’t really change much from the third season, aside from a few minor differences. The episodes were more kid-friendly this time around, as the censors at Nickelodeon were starting to take notice about what is allowed on the network, so a few things were changed (i.e. “Chokey Chicken” is renamed “Chewy Chicken”). But aside from that, there’s not much difference from what was set in stone in prior seasons, so there really isn't much to say. The humor was still there, and we get to see the characters get involved into more shenanigans as usual. But did it leave that big of a mark on the series as a whole? Not really. In essence, it's similar to that of the first season in that the characters just get into random, weird scenarios relating to what's going on in the real world, with no two-parters or specials whatsoever.
Granted this season had a slew of great episodes, like the episode "Yarnbenders", where Rocko and Heffer read a sick Filbert a fairy tale with them in it...a rather warped fairy tale where Heffer wants to be a princess at the ball and Rocko as his date, all whilst enduring the perils spawned by an evil witch, who happens to be Filburt. There's also the episode entitled "Sailing the Seven Zzz's" (pictured above) where Ed Bighead acts like a pirate threatening Rocko to hand over a non-existent treasure map, all whilst he's sleeping (don't ask and don't question it). Aside from that, the fourth season pretty much did what the first season has done, and there isn't much to say about it. I cannot say that this is the worst season of them all, because none of the seasons were at all terrible, but I can say that this is the one that didn't accomplish much in the long run.
FINAL THOUGHTS AND CONCLUSION
Unfortunately, you could tell when things were coming to an abrupt end when you get to the last few episodes, because that's when they were wrapping things up. In fact, the last episode, which pits the characters into debating whose ancestors founded the city of O-Town...and that's it. No farewells or anything like it. What I think happened was that the show was cancelled after 3 years of being on the air, but don't quote me on it. But even if it only had 4 seasons in a span of three years, it did its job, and it did it well. Not only did it have great commentary behind it that reflected '90s culture, but it was also a great, adult-oriented show that aired on a family network. A video game was made for the Super Nintendo in 1994 to mixed reception (mainly because the entire game was an escort mission), VHS tapes containing a couple or several episodes were released under Paramount Pictures, and there was a slew of merchandise including toys and plushies. As for the show itself, after its cancellation, the series forever ran in re-runs...for at least a few more years until a newer Nicktoons lineup came to be. You know, when shows like Spongebob Squarepants, The Fairly Oddparents, and Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius saw the light of day.
In conclusion, Rocko’s Modern Life is a cartoon that is not only responsible for taking part in the overhaul of television animation, but became one of the highlights for Nickelodeon’s legendary Nicktoons line, let alone being one of the best cartoons of the ‘90s in my opinion. As I mentioned earlier, the series is available on DVD, and last I checked, the complete series set is around $20-$30, and trust me when I say that it's worth the buy. The question remains, however: Should the series be rebooted a la Mike Judge's Beavis and Butthead? My answer: No. It was a product of its time, and even if it gets to the point where its a few decades old, it'll hold up well on its own, and that's probably the best compliment you can give a TV show when it's done right.