The early 1990’s were a boom period for animated television. The Simpsons had already graduated from short segments on The Tracey Ullman Show to a primetime series that was quickly becoming a pop culture icon. A few short years later, MTV had a controversial hit with Mike Judge’s Beavis and Butt-Head. Meanwhile, Nickelodeon was about to become an unlikely source for edgy animated material. The network was a staple of cable television thanks to a steady stream of children’s programming. Any kid of that era worth his salt had his TV set tuned to Pinwheel, You Can’t Do That on Television, Double Dare, or David the Gnome. Then, along came The Ren & Stimpy Show, which pushed the envelope has far as it could go with its adult themes and gross-out humor. It was definitely a far cry from the more wholesome Doug and Rugrats.
The success of Ren & Stimpy paved the way for Rocko’s Modern Life, which was created by cartoonist Joe Murray. The series followed the misadventures of a wallaby named Rocko who lived in O-Town with his dog Spunky. Rocko is best friends with Heffer, a somewhat dim cow, and Filburt, a nerdy, neurotic turtle who shared Rocko’s affinity for comic books. Rocko would occasionally have run-ins with his abrasive neighbors Mr. & Mrs. Bighead, the former of who works for the monolithic corporation known as Conglom-O. Its slogan, “We will own you.”
Murray and his fellow writers made no qualms about aiming for an older audience. The offbeat animation style and surreal nature of Rocko will recall the classic Looney Tunes shorts. They weren’t afraid of making fun of themselves. In the second season opener, “I Have No Son,” Rocko learns Mr. & Mrs. Bighead have an estranged son named Ralph (voiced by Murray), who gave up a promising career at Conglom-O to become a cartoonist. The episode throws jabs at temperamental artists, network sycophants, and crass commercialism.
As the title of the show suggests, Rocko navigated the trials and tribulations of modernity. Episodes revolved around topics such as unemployment, medical care, dieting, and the need to own all the latest gadgets. Though it originally aired in 1993, “Jet Scream” remains relevant to this day as it tackled the incompetence and intrusiveness of airport security. Many of the jokes and sight gags would hardly be considered kid friendly while sexual innuendos were frequent. The second episode segment, “Leap Frogs,” only aired once on Nickelodeon due to its racy content. In “Leap Frogs,” Mrs. Bighead turns her eye to a reluctant Rocko after being ignored too often by her husband. One of the most infamous scenes was featured in “The Good, the Bad, and the Wallaby” where Rocko and Heffer visit a farm. Heffer is accidentally hooked to a milking machine and makes what sound like orgasmic noises. That sequence was edited for later broadcasts and syndicated reruns. Unfortunately, the network only gave Shout Factory access to the edited version so the milking scene has not been restored. Not being familiar enough with the series, I could not tell if there were any other significant cuts for the rest of the episodes.
The cast features several familiar names. Carlos Alazraqui, who appeared on Reno 911!, performed the voice of Rocko along with other characters for shows like Rugrats, Family Guy, Hey Arnold, and Dexter’s Laboratory. Then, there’s Charlie Adler, who portrayed both of the Bigheads, has G.I. Joe, Transformers, and Tiny Toons, among others on his resume. The voice of Heffer comes from Tom Kenny, another prolific actor best known as the voice of Spongebob Squarepants. Speaking of which, Spongebob’s creator Stephen Hillenburg was a director on Rocko.
The video is presented in its original full frame aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The transfer isn’t spectacular, but the quality isn’t bad enough to detract from your viewing pleasure. Colors are a bit faded and there is a fair amount of grain mixed with the occasional speck.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo. The sound has a nice, strong quality to it though there is a little scratchiness on some episodes like “High Five of Doom.” It’s also a real treat to hear the theme song by the B-52’s after so many years.
Rocko’s Modern Life was originally released in ‘Best Of’ collections by Paramount before Shout Factory obtained the rights in 2011. This Complete Series collection consists of the same exact discs from the previously released DVDs of Seasons 1 through 3 along with Season 4, which will be available separately at a later date.
Season 1 contains no extras while disc 2 of Season 2 features Trash-O-Rama (8:19), the original pilot with a yellow-skinned Rocko. Behind the Characters with Joe Murray sees the show’s creator demonstrating how to draw the characters of Rocko, Heffer, Filburt, and the Bigheads while also offering his thoughts and recollections.
Disc 2 of Season 3 features Selected Scene Commentary by Creator Joe Murray (30:24) sees Murray providing an overview of season 3 and his favorite episodes.
Disc 2 of Season 4 comes with “Wacky Delly” Live 2012 (51:48), which was taped on October 6, 2012 at the Downtown Independent Theater and hosted by veteran voice actor Rob Paulsen. The event reunites the main cast for a live performance of “Wacky Delly,” followed by a Q&A. This is a really enjoyable watch.
The interior cover art features a cool mural of all the characters done by Joe Murray.
Film Value: 7
Rocko’s Modern Life has a sharp wit underneath its offbeat and surreal sense of humor. The show followed in the footsteps of Ren & Stimpy and could be considered a forerunner to Spongebob Squarepants. Parents should be warned the series had some surprisingly dirty jokes. Be prepared to do some explaining if you let the little ones watch.