TV

'Rocko's Modern Life' Was Nickelodeon's Last Great Show

How the show's brilliant visual language and dark social satire lead to the demise of the Nicktoon.
01 August 2017, 2:31am
Image via YouTube

Nickelodeon is bringing back Rocko's Modern Life, the mid-90s cartoon about an expat wallaby living in "O-Town" and navigating the anxieties of the times with his dog Spunky, and pals Heffer and Filburt. The show landed in the middle of the decade's cartoon renaissance, and remains a manic example of the subversive politics and aesthetics of a generation of children's programming that seemed to rage itself out of existence.

I say "raged itself out of existence" because Nickelodeon simply isn't making shows like that anymore. In fact Rocko's Modern Life has become hauntingly evocative for an era of TV that lampooned our media-soaked world. It highlighted the madness of pop-culture regurgitation and information saturation with double entendre and fart jokes. And now the weirdest thing about watching Rocko's Modern Life, is realising just how much it got right about 2017 in 1994. Even though eventually, its insights led to its downfall.

To understand Rocko's Modern Life we have to start with the 1980s and Ronald Reagan. Dutch's love for market deregulation is easily spotted in most 80s culture and politics, but its effect on the morning cartoon is overlooked. With his rollback of FCC regulations, Reagan allowed corporations and advertisers to finally blend products with children's programming, essentially allowing a wave of shows to be bankrolled by companies like Mattel and Nestle with the main aim of selling toys: Transformers, He-Man, and GI Joe. Ironically, as scholars like Sarah Banet-Weisser have explained, this created a pendulum-like reaction in the industry where auteur cartoonists such as Matt Groening, John Kricfalusi, Arlene Klasky and Gabor Csupo were cleverly able to produce artistically bold and (relatively) mature programs with lots of money behind them. What resulted was a boom of highly original and subtly radical animated programming, which found a ready home at Viacom's Nickelodeon—the MTV of children's TV.

Rocko's Modern Life: Season 1 Opening Credits

Enter the Nicktoon. Kricfalusi's Ren & Stimpy would shape the model for animated broadcastng that lent heavily on grotesquery, absurdism, bizarre visual language, and pitch black social satire. Early programs like Ren & Stimpy, Klasky and Csupo's Rugrats and the Steven Spielberg-produced Animaniacs established the Nicktoon brand: smart, naughty, troublingly subversive. Rocko's Modern Life was part of what was known as the "second wave Nicktoon," a group of programs which includes Hey Arnold, Angry Beavers, Aaahh!!! Real Monsters, and Doug.

Shows like Rocko's Modern Life and others from the "Nick is kids" era surreptitiously raised a generation of munt-headed anarchic weirdos. If Animaniacs and Ren and Stimpy brought postmodernism to morning cartoons, Rocko's Modern Life dissected it. It was a show about the collapse of individual identity in the early days of the information hive. O-Town is a neo-capitalist dystopian funpark that pushes mild-mannered Rocko to the brink of insanity every episode. The villains weren't lisping hunters or Russian spies but rather mega-corporations, bureaucrats, and rapacious businessmen.

The show examined the relationships that the outsider builds in such a society: the intersection of freaks, geeks, and weirdos standing stubbornly against a world of personal brands. Rocko, Heffer, and Filburt were stuck on the mall escalator of late 20th century collapse and rebirth. Unlike the Animaniacs they didn't subvert this universe by bringing chaos to it, but rather by trying to live amongst it.

For something vaguely related, check out our video on the the animator behind Star Wars and Jurassic Park:

All this was brilliantly translated via the show's experimental aesthetic. Nicktoons worked hard at being abrasive. Ren & Stimpy set the bar for booger-textured surrealism, the jagged harshness that was essentially Disney by way of a cocaine comedown. Rocko's Modern Life was a Mambo shirt crossed with a 60s department store brochure, by way of Terry Gilliam. It took the visual language of an idealised middle America and cranked the inherent weirdness to a cereal box maze extreme. That, and the asthmatic voice acting of the cast, lent the show this aura of addictive unpalatability: a chalky Halloween candy you couldn't stop eating.

Critics and parents naturally dismissed the premium Nicktoons as lowbrow ADHD inducing acts of crassness. They were that, but they were also much more. Nickelodeon built its empire on slime, fat-jokes, and Ren & Stimpy close ups. But wipe away the slime and parents had more to be afraid of than maybe they recognised. Yes, the fast food chain "Chokey Chicken" which Rocko and Heffer frequented was a masturbation pun, but a simple wank joke belied a much greater punch line that was the show's crux: society is awful, and capitalism is to blame. In one episode we saw a chicken named Karen go through a run of the mill job interview only to slowly realise she was auditioning to be slaughtered and deep fried. The show attacked materialism relentlessly. Class status and anxiety were the driving force of tension between Rocko and Mr. Bighead, and Rocko and his mates. Mr. Bighead was lost as a Hollow Man drifting the infinite office space of global mega-corp, Conglorm-O.

The show made a joke out of the unpinnable creeping existentialism that defined the 90s. It was less Saturday morning cartoon, more Saturday morning Camus. The shopping network is called 'Lobot-o-Shop' and literally brainwashes Heffer and Rocko into buying a vacuum that also be used for liposuction or neutering the dog. The show, with that typical Nicktoon prescience, has Rocko working in a comic book store, where het gets to be witness in and participant to the superhero comics shift from geek obsession to multi-franchise mega industry. The show itself was humanising, and deeply personal for Murray: the Bigheads' son Ralph is an animator with a hit cartoon skewering his parents' all-American suburbanism.

Rocko's Modern Life: Reboot Trailer

But at the core of it all is a disconnect: nothing can ever be simple in the world of unchecked capitalism—nothing is safe. "X is a very dangerous day" is the harried Rocko's catchphrase, after all.

And that is why the golden age of the Nicktoon died on the vine. Nickelodeon, an integral demographic cornering branch of Viacom's Conglorm-O-like media network was, after all, a business. Cartoons were still for selling merchandise and advertising. Ren & Stimpy, Animaniacs, Rocko's Modern Life all went the way of Rocky and Bullwinkle because they mercilessly lampooned the system which gave them their platform. Simultaneously, westernised anime like Pokemon was filling timeslots with less controversy and more profit. Kids didn't play with Rocko toys the way they did with Beyblades, and Nickelodeon executives knew it. Thus the Nicktoon as cynical polemic disappeared somewhere between Spongebob's sincerity and iCarly's canned laughter.

Rocko and Spunky lived on in Nick at Night 1 AM reruns, metastasising in blocks of nostalgia programming. The new-wave of cartoon innovators like Pendleton Ward (Adventure Time) and Rebecca Sugar (Steven Universe) have taken up the mantle, if not quite the anarchic-radicalism of the early Nicktoon. Rocko's Modern Life remains prescient. Rocko, the embattled immigrant, seems like a potent figurehead for those who feel alienated by the many horrors of 2017.

The show is being flicked back into 2017 on a wave of highly bankable Gen-Y nostalgia, the very kind Rocko would have hated. But you have to wonder though whether the anarchist wank jokes will be left in the past.

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