Thoughts on Rocko’s Modern Life

I’m not sure if this is apparent to my readers or not, based solely on my body of work, but 90’s nostalgia has always been a big part of my life. I’m able to appreciate the beauty in many different forms of media spanning every decade, but 90’s kids shows are my entertainment “comfort food.” In case it ever needs to be said, let it be known that I love Pete and Pete, Recess, The Powerpuff Girls (and so on) to death. The reason I haven’t written posts about them is because I don’t feel like I have anything interesting to add to the conversation. I just feel it’s a waste of time for both me and my readers to retread the same ground which countless people online have talked about a million times already. That’s why the few nostalgic essays I’ve written thus far have focused on comparatively obscure offerings from my childhood and/or anything which I have a unique perspective to offer.

Anyway, the reason for this disclaimer is that I’m not sure if what I have to say about Rocko’s Modern Life constitutes any kind of astute, earth-shattering insight either. And yet, when I was looking through my blog history the other day, one thing in particular just felt wrong to me. I hadn’t talked about Rocko yet, despite the fact that it holds such a special place in my heart. It was and remains my favorite ’90s cartoon of all time, and I just wouldn’t feel right if I died tomorrow never addressed this show on theCarbonFreeze. So, whether I’m about to deliver any unforeseen prescience on the subject or not, let’s rectify that now, shall we?

Rocko‘s Legacy

Along with the first three seasons of Rugrats, I’ve always felt that Rocko’s Modern Life was the best animated series that Nickelodeon ever produced. Where the former found its niche by exploring how babies perceive the world around them, Rocko was able to present adult problems in a manner which kids could understand. This was a program that could not have been made in any other time but the 90’s animation renaissance, where struggling cable channels were willing to take a chance on unproven concepts. Throughout its run, Rocko was able to straddle the line between wacky slapstick for kids and thoughtful satire of everyday life for adults. It pushed innuendos to an extent the network would never allow again.* Rocko would have been funneled to Adult Swim had it premiered ten years later–had it even been greenlit at all. As is, it was one of the understated trailblazers which helped make something like Adult Swim a viable conception in the first place. It’s got the irreverent charm of SpongeBob, but with the good sense to end when it was still a quality product.**

On the off chance that anyone’s reading this who hasn’t seen the program for themselves, I cannot recommend it enough. In many ways, this is the cartoon which most completely embodies the philosophy as well as the quality standard that defined 90’s Nick. Rocko’s Modern Life is as emblematic of the network’s original identity as the iconic, (and tragically bastardized) “splat” logo we all knew and loved. It deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest animated productions of all time.

This probably deserves its own essay one day, but that original Nick logo was a work of pop art. It was messy, like kids playing outside. It could take any shape imaginable, just like a child’s imagination. The new, homogenized, logo is a betrayal of that identity and represents Nickelodeon’s abandonment of its founding principles. It’s bland, uninviting and corporate.

*ASIDE: You know you’re old when Rocko’s problems with credit bills, replacing appliances, getting to work on time and tight shopping budgets stop feeling like exaggerated absurdities and become all-too-relatable lampoons of our daily grind. That said, I’m glad I saw this show as a kid because it helped me to notice the ridiculousness of society while I was still malleable. As a result, it encouraged me to question the way things are and if they really need to stay that way. I hope other millennials were influenced by Rocko in the same way.

**The comparison with SpongeBob is particularly relevant, considering many of the writers who made that show got their start on Rocko. I notice a lot of similarities between the cast as well, particularly the trope of the ornery neighbor.

Rocko and Heffer

While Rocko’s age is never explicitly stated, we can determine from his perpetual money problems and dead-end job that he is probably in his early to mid 20s. However, unlike his more famous yellow-sponge counterpart, Rocko is a much more of an understated everyman, someone who is not blissfully unaware of the tedium baked into the society around him. Rather than enjoying childlike activities every episode (like bubble blowing, imaginary friends, jellyfishing, etc) our titular protagonist is forced to delve into the inanity of adult life. It’s difficult to imagine SpongeBob dealing with ceaseless government bureaucracy to fix the minor issue of replacing a gas-cap, for example. Or running for local office to try to make the world a better place, only to be stymied by the willfully ignorant masses. (You get the idea.) Indeed, so much of the humor of Rocko derives from the relatable hardships our beloved wallaby endures in his effort to scrape out a meager living in the madness. It’s more of a satire than pure whimsical escapism and, in my personal opinion, that’s what makes this series stand out above the other Nicktoons.

Admittedly, some of the Rocko-solo episodes can hit a little too close to home for me to laugh, but that’s where our supporting cast comes in.

In my estimation, Heffer Wolfe is the greatest cartoon character of the Nickelodeon pantheon. He’s the Cosmo Kramer to Rocko’s Jerry Seinfeld: a lovable slacker who somehow manages to get the most out of life despite putting no work into it. Heffer lives with his parents, has no life direction, eats too much junk food, yet still seems to have more confidence with women than Rocko. Throughout the course of the series, he would go to Hell (uhh, I mean “Heck“), fly a plane through a war zone to help an antagonistic acquaintance win at golf, join a cult of sausage-worshipers, incur the wrath of a poltergeist and host nudist parties. All the while, he never loses that trademark upbeat view of the world. In other words, Heffer is like a kid’s idea of adulthood–just having endless adventures without any restrictions from money or authority figures at all. He’s the personification of carefree fun in a world that punishes people for trying to abide by the rules.

I think the writers knew what they had in Heffer as the show went on, because the solo-Rocko episodes largely ceased after Season 1, and soon Heffer would star in his own plotlines without him. In fact, some of the more dramatic moments of the series revolved around him and his family. This includes “Cruisin’,” one of the rare two-part episodes where Rocko, Heffer and Grandpa Wolfe go on a cruise and get lost in the Bermuda Triangle. There’s also “Who’s For Dinner,” where Heffer copes with the revelation that he was adopted by a family of wolves. My favorite though, would have to be “Mama’s Boy” when Heffer tries to live on his own. Anyone who’s lived with a bad roommate can relate to Heffer’s struggles with a cockroach. Furthermore, I think every kid’s fantasy is to live in an unconventional house like Heffer’s in that episode. (He resides in a giant spinning chicken suspended on a thin metal pole.)

Filburt and Dr. Hutchinson

Despite my appreciation for Heffer, I’ve always identified the most with Filburt Shellbach. I think it’s partially because he’s so insecure and soft-spoken so, being a shy kid, I could see a lot of myself in him at the time. (The episode where Filburt struggles with singing in public was a particularly relatable story for me.) Usually Filburt was the universe’s punching bag, perhaps most famously in the fortune cookie episode. But he would occasionally come out on top due to sheer, inhuman force of will. It’s the perfect example of how you can only push the quiet ones just so far.

To complete the Seinfeld comparison, Filburt is our neurotic, unlucky George Costanza. Originally, he was a minor character who did not know Rocko and Heffer. Even after they became friends later on, sometimes Filburt was treated as an equal member of the friend group, and other times he was held at arm’s length by the other two. It was played loose depending on whichever dynamic suited the needs of the particular story best, similar to Stewie talking on Family Guy. Whatever the details of their relationship, I will go to my grave saying that both the funniest overall episodes, as well as standalone moments, occurred whenever Heffer and Filburt were allowed to interact with each other. Their personalities were perfect foils, and the writers did well to allow the two to interact even outside the purview of Rocko himself.

Filbert’s family. From left to right: Shellbert, Missy, Norbert, Gilbert, Dr. Paula Hutchinson.

Filburt’s underdog characterization made his arc all the more special though. He was the only main character to come out of his shell (pun intended,) meet a woman and gradually get married. In fact, Filburt’s relationship to Dr. Hutchinson formed the basis of four out of my five favorite episodes of the whole series. (That’s “The Big Question” and “The Big Answer” dealing with their engagement and wedding, plus “From Here to Maternity” and “Future Schlock” dealing with their kids.) That said, the Shellbach family’s development did not overshadow the other characters, nor did it change the show’s formula. Theirs was a perfectly understated wedding in contrast to the self-indulgent, schmaltzy garbage you usually see on TV. And their personalities remained consistent in post-couple episodes rather than merge into one vomit-inducing “perfect couple.”

With regard to Dr. Hutchinson herself, I appreciate how she was portrayed as a successful career woman without the writers making a big deal about it. She even proposes to Filburt, bucking thousands of years of gender norms with one simple, adorable moment. Even though there was a subtle joke that Hutchinson may have cheated with Heffer, she always had a warm, supportive dynamic with Filburt. It made me happy to think that the somewhat dorky, odd one out of the friend group was able to find some happiness in life, y’know?

The Bigheads

Ed “Mr” Bighead, Rocko’s stern and grumpy neighbor, is in many ways a tragic character, tortured by demons of such scale that the audience dare not fathom. He represents one possible future for Rocko and his friends as they age, entangled in the soul-sucking corporate slog. He works at Conglom-O, the massive corporation which proudly boasts “we own you,” and his responsibilities amount to no more than that of a replaceable cog in the machine. (“I’m the guy that checks the bottle caps on all the bottles.”) Several episodes imply that Ed is unhappy and stalled in his career (“Magic Meatball“). Others explore his descent into a midlife crisis (“Old Fogey Froggy”) and unfulfilled desires (“Closet Clown.”) To our heroes and younger viewers, Mr. Bighead is an antagonistic presence, but the show did a great job demonstrating how he got that way. To some extent or another, we’re all doomed to become a little like Ed Bighead: starting as idealistic youngsters, then slowly compromising our integrity to survive in a corrupted world.

While Ed’s professional life leaves something to be desired, he really lucked out in his relationship with Bev, similar to Filburt. Their marriage certainly had its problems, particularly in the early episode, “Leap Frogs.” As the series progressed, however, the two had several tender moments together. I loved the implication that they were into some kinky shit, mostly with their tongues but occasionally with giant hamster balls. It’s so cool that the writers were able to depict such antics in a children’s show and get away with it. But even cooler is the acknowledgement that adults can have fun too. Maybe we don’t always get to play baseball in the yard or reenact fairy tales, but we find ways to entertain ourselves nonetheless. It’s actually kind of wholesome that the creators should teach kids that getting older isn’t all doom and gloom. If that’s too risque for some people, then hopefully we can agree that Bev giving up her nose in “Nothing to Sneeze At” was sweet. She relinquished the ability to smell, as well as the positive attention derived from her nose, so that she can stand to be around her odorous husband again. That, to me, is beautiful. (This story is far more romantic when not summarized in three sentence.)

For the Bigheads, relationships and work collided in “She’s the Toad,” another favorite episode of mine. It’s yet another example of Bev’s love for her husband as she takes on his responsibilities at Conglom-O. It’s also a nice, low-key feminist arc for her character.

Rachel Bighead

Probably the most well-developed character in the whole series is Rachel Bighead, formerly known as Ralph. Rachel’s struggles during the series were a mirror image of her father’s. She was a dreamer with big plans for her own future, but got funneled into the corporate hustle without anyone asking what she wanted out of life. “I Have No Son” is one of the show’s masterpieces for depicting this tragedy in a way that makes neither her nor Ed the bad guy. I got legitimately choked up during the flashback scenes where Ed was so proud of introducing his child to the same company which provided him a stable, respectable living. (It reminds me of Mr. Banks from Mary Poppins and how excited he was for his son to make a first deposit–a sweet but misguided attempt at bonding.)* That said, I could identify firsthand with Rachel’s frustration at being pushed into a lifestyle she never wanted when no one ever gave her the option to go down a different path. You have no idea how much this episode hits home for me; it could have been about me and my own father.

*ASIDE: My biggest advice for avoiding these kind of unfortunate circumstances is to just let your kids find their own identity. Don’t force them into any particular career path, or sports, or a certain presentation/style they don’t like. I mean, ok, sometimes kids need to be given a proverbial push out the door. But if you notice that everything they’re doing is stuff that you, the parent, have picked out for them, maybe it’s time to take a step back. When you have a kid, you need to understand they’re going to find their own trajectory and you must prepare for the possibility that it’s something different that you expected. You’re making an independent, autonomous entity, not a mannequin or a pet.

While Rachel made a nice living as the creator of “The Fatheads,” (a raunchy cartoon within Rocko‘s universe) we discover that she’s even unhappy doing that. This was implied in “I Have No Son,” when Bev mentioned she wanted to be a great artist. We, the audience, can therefore surmise that cartooning was a compromise to be able to draw and still make a decent living out of it. In “Wacky Delly” it’s revealed that her real passion is to create the world’s largest still life. Again, I find this to be a compliment of Ed’s struggles to maintain sanity in an inherently insane world. We often have to compromise our dreams in order to make a living, for better or worse. Sometimes, even the people doing what others would consider an amazing job are still miserable. Rocko, alone among the Nicktoons, was able to present this harsh reality to kids in a way that didn’t sacrifice its humor. It’s almost like the only way to cope with this wild and crazy world is to laugh at it, and that’s what this show excelled at.

As far as Rachel’s transition goes, the post-script, made-for-Netflix movie Static Cling handled it as well as possible. I appreciate how it wasn’t hyped up to try to sucker in publicity. (Looking at you Disney, with your “two guys dancing for three seconds in the background” bullshit.) Even as a transwoman myself, I can’t stand that kind of self-congratulatory tokenism. Also, while the reveal did take me by surprise, in hindsight it does make sense with the character. When we knew her as Ralph, the character was always depressed. Even in the photo album Bev shows Rocko, we can see that Rachel never smiled in any of the pictures, for example. So, while I doubt Joe Murray always knew this would happen to Ralph, it doesn’t break the show’s continuity and in fact deepens the backstory from “I Have No Son.” (What I mean is, we can assume that Ed probably pushed Rachel in a lot of ways besides just a career path.) I thought it was a touching development, and I’m glad none of the main three cast members batted an eye about it. They just shrugged and thought it was cool–which if you ask pretty much any LGBT person, is our ideal scenario for coming out.

The Best Episode

I wonder if there’s even a single fan of Rocko that doesn’t consider “Wacky Delly” to be its most impressive achievement. As far back as I can remember, that was always the favorite of my friends and cousins who watched the show with me. In the early 2000s when 90’s nostalgia was big, it seemed to be the overwhelming consensus of everyone I talked to online. At one time, its score on IMDb was an impressive 9.9 out of 10 with dozens of votes. Not all series have a universally agreed upon magnum opus, but I think it’s safe to say Rocko’s Modern Life is one of them.

So what makes “Wacky Delly” so fantastic? If I had to hazard a guess, it’s the meta-commentary on the cartoon industry itself. Just like how “Chuckles Bites the Dust” is a standalone assessment on the power of laughter, “Wacky Delly” an irreverent love letter to the frustrations and fandom of animation. Both are deconstructions and assessment of the medium from which they came. In the case of “Wacky Delly” that means tackling a subject which both the kids watching and the creators themselves could appreciate.

This 22 minute story examines the relationship between an artistic work with both its creators and fans. Notice how Rachel (then known as Ralph) can’t see the greatness in her own show and resents the way it prevents her from pursuing other projects. (Shades of George Lucas’ relationship with Star Wars, I’d say.) Or the way the fans insatiably harass and attack the same creator they profess to love in order to take her possessions as souvenirs. (And this episode pre-dated Princess Diana’s tragic death and the insight into how ridiculous the paparazzi culture is.) It’s all about the various ways in which something as innocuous as a children’s cartoon takes on a life of its own and becomes something different to everybody.

There’s some great humor derived from the ego-driven clashes which often arise from the various personnel involved in making art, too. Heffer and Filburt arguing over the “Cheese Monologue” and destroying each others contributions (“The Salami Chase Sequence” and “Big Cheese Climax Ending”) is hilarious. Like, how could such a simple fun idea for a kid’s show produce such heated disagreements between people? The whole scenario reminds me of SMiLE, another project that was plagued and ultimately destroyed by in-fighting. But “Wacky Delly” helps me to appreciate the ridiculous absurdity in that situation, despite how disappointed I am that the album was never finished. Imagine what it must have been like for a bystander behind the scenes while Mike Love yelling at Van Dyke about the lyric “over and over the crow cries uncover the cornfield,” for example. When you take a step back, it’s actually pretty funny to picture grown men getting so worked up about something so trivial.

Then, the plot explores the idea of art through adversity, where sometimes a meddlesome voice in the creative process working against the others is what leads to a project’s brilliance. Every single move Rachel makes to sabotage the show, from exposing the film to airing a jar of mayonnaise for ten minutes, actually increases its popularity. Once she starts to work with Rocko and the gang, the show immediately takes a downturn. (Look at every director who flourished with a limited budget, or a slight bit of studio interference, and then suffered when given free reign.) Finally, it ends with Rachel finally completing her still life, only for no one to care. She joins the ranks of Monet and Tony Kaye, as an artist most remembered for a project they despised. It’s a beautifully hilarious bit of irony for Rocko‘s most tragic character.

In my humble opinion, “Wacky Delly” is not only the best episode of Rocko’s Modern Life, it’s the best standalone episode of any Nicktoon that’s ever been made. (I’m including the first three seasons of SpongeBob in that assessment.) It is better than both the salami and the bologna combined.

Quick Thoughts on “Static Cling”

I appreciated the way this special began exactly where the original series was intended to leave off, with “Future Schlock.”

The sequence where they explore the 2010s and poke fun at all the trendy aspects of our culture was a little cliche, but it worked. In any other series this would have felt like the writers’ struggling for relevancy, but Rocko was always about pointing out the day to day weirdness in society. Still, considering they only focused on surface-level satire (fancy coffee, 3D movies, smart phones & selfies, etc) rather than any unspoken annoyances or deep commentary on our social paradigm, I was a bit underwhelmed. Plus, I couldn’t help but feel like I’d seen these jokes a million times already. The old series did the social commentary far more thoughtfully.

I liked the meta-commentary of the Fatheads reboot, and the need to accept that things are never going to remain exactly as you remember them. If there’s one constant I’ve noticed through the course of my life, it’s that things change. Some people I thought were always gonna be my friends stopped taking my calls. Others I never would have thought I’d associate with became close friends. I visit my parents and certain shops I have fond memories of are closed down. Trees I remember as immobile pieces of the scenery are now gone forever. Nothing stays the same, no memory can be perfectly recaptured, that’s life. I thought that was a good message for the special to convey.

I thought Rocko himself was pretty whiny and annoying in contrast to his usual straight man personality, and frankly I wasn’t a big fan of the change. I guess no one else could have been the obligatory “person who rejects change” for the script to work, but it felt like they compromised his character a bit to do it. That said, similar to “Wacky Delly,” this was a good meta examination of art and its relationship to the audience. Sometimes a TV show is a comforting presence in an often unpredictable world. We like to be able to tune into an alternate universe where the status quo never changes, the characters are reliably consistent and everything can be resolved in 22 minutes. When certain shows end, it can be upsetting. I appreciate how this special explored this theme, I just believe it could’ve been done better.

I already touched on the Rachel plotline, but to reiterate, I think it was done very well. I’m glad it wasn’t the sole focus of the plot, which would have been too preachy and heavy handed. But I’m also glad it wasn’t a bullshit two-second throwaway scene in the background, which would have been insulting. I’d like for other TV shows and movies thinking about (re)introducing a trans character to use this as a guide.

Overall, Static Cling was a solid return. I enjoyed it, but I don’t think it’s as good as some of the better episodes of the original series. I appreciated it far more than the Hey! Arnold and Invader Zim sequel films, though. Frankly, I always felt that the entire jungle setup/backstory for Arnold’s parents was a huge misstep even as a kid. So the Jungle Movie was pretty much doomed to failure no matter what.* And I still don’t know what the fuck even happened in the Zim movie even after a second viewing.

*ASIDE: What would have interested me far more is a treatment of Craig Bartlett’s idea for a Helga spinoff. Even just a one-hour window into that world would have been awesome. I think Hey! Arnold‘s original fans, now mature, would have appreciated something like that far more than a childish and implausible romp through the jungle.

Rocko says Trans Rights

Additional Stray Observations

The big thing about Rocko everyone remembers is the insane number of innuendos they managed to get away with. I didn’t want to focus on this too much, because it’s been written about to death. (In my opinion, at the expense of further analysis of the show’s characters and additional, superior attributes.) But yes, for the record, it blows my mind they were able to make a prison rape joke (when Rocko’s car got impounded), a sex hotline joke and a “no tell motel” joke, among others. That kind of thing would never happen today, at least not to such a degree, but it’s what makes the series hold up for adults. 90’s Nickelodeon was the best for creative freedom and giving the parents something to chew on too. In fact, my mom used to lament Rocko‘s cancellation just as much as I did.

I love Bloaty and Squirmy, and unfortunately they seem to be relatively forgotten when people discuss this series. I admit that I didn’t remember them either until rewatching the series about 10 years ago, and it blew my mind. That’s an aspect of the old ’90s cartoons I really miss–the randomness. Specifically the shows-within-the-show you’d sometimes find back in those days. The best alternate example I can think of is Dexter’s Laboratory, where they’d cut to The Justice Friends or The Koos for a segment unrelated to the main continuity. I can’t describe why exactly, but it just makes the overall series feel bigger, y’know?

My favorite understated moment of the series is when Filburt’s kids are born and he says “I love you” to his wife. Heffer, not to be outdone, turns to Rocko and says “I love you, Rocko.” Then the two best friends smile at each other for a few seconds and the episode continues. This interaction is not played for laughs, nor done ironically, nor does it call undue attention to itself. It’s just such a small but important reminder that it’s okay to express warmth and compassion towards your buddies. Friends should be able to give each other hugs and say how much they care. If we lived in that kind of a world, I truly believe we’d all be happier for it. I bring this up to demonstrate that Rocko wasn’t just the crude, adult-humor-laden cartoon a lot of people make it out to be. It was that too, but could still be very touching when it wanted to.

1 Comment

  1. As I told you before, I remember my daughters watching this show. I must have watched a few episodes with them. But I was never very impressed with the show. I have a bad habit of dismissing shows if I don’t particularly like the animation style. If I don’t like the way the characters are drawn I don’t take the time to learn about what the story is about. Very shallow. I have been guilty of that with people in my life too, especially with women. If I didn’t find them attractive I never got to know them. Probably missed out on a lot of good things and good people by being so shallow. Your causing me to take a second look at things is just another of the good things I have gained by getting to know you. I am glad that you are so beautiful that I have payed attention to you. It would have been a great loss for me if I hadn’t gotten to know you, Cassandra.


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