1993 was an interesting year for animation; “The Simpsons” entered its fifth season, “Beavis & Butt-Head premiered on MTV, and Hannah-Barbera attempted to reclaim their former glory by producing “2 Stupid Dogs” for TBS.
For all the beginnings there were also a few endings. Nickelodeon’s flagship animated shows “Ren & Stimpy,” “Rugrats” and “Doug” were nearing the end of their production cycles.
Enter “Rocko’s Modern Life.” “Rocko” was and is a beautifully bizarre show. With its adult innuendos, squash and stretch animation, and satirical nature, the show could in some ways be described as “Seinfeld” meets “Ren & Stimpy.” Take the episode “Trash-O-Madness”, wherein Rocko tries to take out his garbage without being attacked by an aggressive Pitbull. It’s an episode with an every-day relatable idea: doing something you don’t want to do. In this case, it’s taking out the trash. But it’s also so mundane that it’s almost strange to center a story around it. In fact, on its own, it’s almost about nothing. Then take things one step further by adding a layer of Warner Bros. style antics to the mix.
“Rocko’s Modern Life” had a certain edge not quite found in Nickelodeon’s previous efforts and helped usher in a new generation of animated shows.
As of this writing, Nickelodeon has released all three of their planned reboots, the other two being “Invader Zim: Enter The Florpus” and “Hey Arnold: The Jungle Movie.” Of the three movies, “Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling” feels the most timeless. Whilst “Jungle Movie” and “Enter The Florpus” were certainly high quality, they had their flaws. “The Jungle Movie”, as ambitious, adventurous and charming as it was, felt like a poor entry point for potential new fans, as it relies on a storyline set-up 13 years prior to the films airing. “Enter The Florpus” was fast, furious, and absurdly hilarious, but even then, it felt a bit much at times; after the first act, you began to feel a bit drained from all the yelling and bright colors. On top of that, the visual design for both films is slightly altered, and as such, it can be a smidge hard to adjust to. “Static Cling” on the other hand is near perfect. It’s as though the show never went off the air, providing the same biting commentary and cartoonish charm it had during its original ’93-’96 run. Even in a visual sense, the show looks exactly like it did back when (though now in high-definition).
We spoke to “Rocko” creator Joe Murray about coming back to the special, after twenty years off the air.
What made you want to bring the show back in the first place? Was it your idea or Nickelodeon’s idea?
It was Nickelodeon’s idea. They called me out of the blue. I was really kind of shocked. I guess they were kind of looking at a lot of their old ’90s properties and they thought, “Well ‘Spongebob’ has been doing really well for us, let’s bring back some of our other ’90s properties.” The series is more popular now than it was when it was out, it’s kind of interesting.
When they called you, were you initially down to do it?
No, I definitely was not down for it (laughs). I thought I could really mess it up. There are a lot of reboots that I thought shouldn’t have been made –– that they actually pulled back from the original. We had a really great crew on the series. I felt we did a lot and said a lot. I’m happy. I’ve kind of made peace over the last twenty years and feel really good about all the episodes that we did. Why mess with success? So I originally said that I didn’t think I wanted to do it, but I wanted to think about it.
I called Martin Olsen and Doug Lawrence, who worked on the original, and talked to them about it and they were pretty enthusiastic about the things we could do with it, and then I started thinking about a story and I thought “Yeah, that would be pretty cool.” So I went in saying, “I’m gonna pitch you this story and if you don’t like this story I’m okay, I can walk away from it. This is a story I want to do.” I thought maybe they might have a problem poking fun at themselves a little bit, since it’s about a network wanting to bring a show back by popular demand, but they went for it. So, we went forward with it and we put together a really good crew. We had a good time and it ended up being a really good experience.
Nickelodeon brought the show back along with “Hey Arnold” and “Invader Zim,” which are also properties from the ‘90s/early 2000s. That said, “Rocko” was always a satirical series. Where did the idea to make fun of a network banking on nostalgia come from?
“The Fatheads” (the fictional cartoon series that exists within the Rocko universe) was meant to be a satire on the entertainment business. In the initial episode with them, [Rocko, Heffer, and Filbert] go to Hollowood and everything’s a facade and pretty shallow. I thought “well, [Nickelodeon] is bringing back the series and we have ‘The Fatheads’… the story really came together. Rocko comes back from space and he misses his show. We could poke fun at how networks are bringing back old properties. And, you know, movies are always remakes of something. How many times are we going to see “A Star Is Born” redone over and over again? So I felt it was really ripe for something to be done with that.
It seemed really logical for it to be about change since it’s been twenty years. Doug and Martin and I sat down and went through all of the things that have happened over the past twenty years. It’s an endless list. It seemed perfect that Heffer and Filbert would embrace it and Rocko would be resistant.
When we look at a lot of the modern day satire, we think of late night, where most of the jokes revolve around Trump or someone adjacent. Was there an effort to avoid doing more topical material like that?
Well, there’s always the danger of dating yourself. I think one of the things we really worked hard in the ’90s to do was keep it from aging poorly. I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s held on so long and people still like it. It’s interesting though, because a lot of the things that we were satirizing in the ’90s are worse now. Like flying on an airplane (laughs), credit cards, buying technology equipment. I made a joke recently; we did a thing on “Rocko” where they go on an airplane and the baggage handlers shot his luggage into space. I was at this live event and I said, “It would be the same thing now, except they would charge you a hundred bucks.” And Conglom-O saying “We own you” and “We still own you”… the corporate world has gotten worse in the last twenty years in terms of the bridge between the corporate and the real working person.
Towards the end of the special, when they’re looting the blown-up remains of the Conglom-O headquarters, one guy just yells out, “This is the fruit of capitalist redundancy,” which is something I’d never thought I’d hear in a kids show. Do you think kids would get a joke like that?
No (laughs). That was actually a Martin Olsen line, to give him proper credit. Rocko has a history of doing this thing where there’s jokes that kids are going to get and jokes that they’re not going to get. But they can see the visual of the redistribution of profits to the everyman. So if they don’t get that line, then that’s fine.
Was there a concern regarding being too political with the special?
Well, before I signed on to do it, I sat down with top people at Nickelodeon, and I said, “I’m not interested in doing a watered-down version of ‘Rocko.’ So, if you want to sign on for this, then we’re gonna do it as much as we did it before. We went into politics on ‘Rocko.’ There was political and social satire that bit, and I don’t want to get away from that.” And I said, “f you say no to that, that’s fine, I’ll walk away. It’s okay. But if you’re on board for that, then let’s do it.”
So when I submitted a story, they were sort of like, “Well… okay… we signed on for this, so… we’re along for the ride.” It was kind of a pre-agreed-upon direction to make sure it was as biting as it could be.
One of the biggest changes with the special, and one that’s gotten a lot of attention, is the decision to turn Ralph Bighead into Rachel Bighead, a transitioned transgender female. Where did the idea to do that come from? Was there resistance from Nickelodeon or anyone on the crew, and has there been pushback from the public?
I wrote this original story that basically had Rachel, who was formerly Ralph, go off into the world to find herself. That was really as far as I went with it, because I wanted that character to go through a change that was difficult. I brought it to Doug and Martin and the idea to transition Ralph into Rachel was brought up. I thought it was great. It all seemed so natural. Rachel was always someone who’s had something going on with her identity. The story was about change, and there’s a history there of parent and child conflicts.
So I brought it to Nickelodeon as something that we really wanted to do. It was one of those things where I figured, if we’re gonna do this special, I want to address what’s modern. The whole way that the trans community has been represented has changed, and so has the way we view it.
There was a little bit of reluctance from Nickelodeon to do it. So we went to the top. We went to the President of Nickelodeon and asked her to sign off on it and she did, but under the condition that we brought on GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), which I thought was a great idea. So we did it. The community is very happy. I was a little concerned because, to me, it was a part of the storyline, and a natural progression for Rachel’s character to transition, and an overall point that encompassed and worked within the story. But I was worried it would overshadow the overall story –– which I kind of feel like in some ways it has. It’s garnered a lot of attention. There have been a lot of articles about it. As much as I’m proud of it, there’s still a lot of the special that I hope people can absorb and not be so preoccupied with that one point. But I’m really glad we did it, and based on the mail I get from transitioned people, it seemed like we hit the mark with it, so I feel good about it.
The overall response has been 99% positive. There are a few people who are mad and saying things like “YOU CHANGED IT!” but those are very, very few.
Getting a bit more process-oriented for a second, what was the process of writing and putting together the special?
We did this exactly the same way we did the show. We did an outline, and that outline went through a few drafts. It was like four or five pages –– usually for an eleven-minute it’s about two pages. This was 44 but it laid out the story structure. So then I brought Cosmo Segurson on as a co-director, and Tom Smith and Dan Becker, who are storyboard guys, and we all started writing the show with storyboards. All the jokes and visual gags are in the storyboards. There were even a few things in there that weren’t in the outline. We then turned that into an animatic, which is just a filmed collection of the storyboards, and we started cutting things out and timing it.
Plus, we did the backgrounds hand-painted on illustration boards? and all of the animation was done with pencil on paper. We didn’t go as far as doing cels, because I can’t stand cels. But we tried to regain that look as much as possible. We actually added cel shadows on the characters to make it look like the old days.
Are you happy with the overall visual presentation?
Yes. It took a lot of work. Somebody told me that “you seem kind of anti technology, but you must have used a lot of technology in making it.” I don’t feel like I’m anti-technology. I think there’s certain things about technology, just like anything else, that can be taken too far and sometimes it erodes our ability to have relationships. Plus, it’s far too easy to tweet and email things that can be damaging. I was a little taken aback the first time I saw “Rocko” in HD (high definition). It kind of freaked me out because I’ve never seen it like that. What’s interesting is that we did a screening with Jerry Beck, a known animation historian, and he was like, “Did you guys use cels on this? It looked exactly like it did in the ’90s.” That was pretty cool. I was really glad we pulled it off.
What are your thoughts on the current state of the animation industry? Would you say it’s changed a whole lot since “Rocko” went off the air? And if so, is it for the better?
That’s a tough question. It’s kind of veered off into either ultra edgy “let’s see what we can get away with” stuff or something softer, which even then is usually aimed at kids. I don’t know. I can’t say that something has really excited me. I think there’s a reason that “Spongebob” continues to be Nickelodeon’s most popular show.
The whole streaming world has also brought a different feel to the entertainment. We used to think that TV used to really eat up time — I used to call it the monster that needed to be fed — but we would do a season of thirteen episodes and think that it was high volume. But nowadays, you can binge-watch a thirteen-episode season in one night. And streaming just eats up content. You can go through it so fast. With Netflix, if you’re not bringing in the numbers, you’re off. It just takes two seconds. It took “Spongebob” two years to take off. Nickelodeon really had to believe in it and keep putting it out there. Audiences didn’t get it at first. I don’t know, I think there’s some of it that’s a bit too “immediate gratification-oriented.”
Now that you’ve brought “Rocko” back, would you consider bringing “Camp Lazlo” back?
It depends on the situation and what the relationship is and who’s in charge and what the budgets are like. I’m always willing to talk about things. I think it’s a pretty big long shot for Cartoon Network to want to do “Lazlo.” They seem to be going in a different direction. But I don’t know –– it would depend on the situation.
What are you doing now? I know you currently have a show at PBS (“Luna Around The World).” Do you think there could be more “Rocko” in the future?
I’m working on the PBS show. We just got another order. And then, I’m moving to Belgium next month. I’ve already started having discussions with Nickelodeon Europe, and some of the players over there, to develop some things that may or may not end up airing in the states. But Nickelodeon U.S. is still interested in doing something, so I’m not shutting that door.
You can watch “Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling” now on Netflix.