Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Silly Adventure in College Radio

Just now, I was listening to a webcast of a radio show hosted by some current students of my college alma mater, William Woods University. Both of the hosts are current members of my old fraternity, Phi Gamma Delta, and I called the station using my silly Bugs Bunny impression to request a song. They played it. I called again admitting my identity, and shared a story with them that they relayed, and that I’d like to share with everyone else.

The year was 2006. I had already done the WWU radio class 2 years prior, with my own “Mighty Matt Show” and my contributions to the “C.P. and Flauaus” comedy show. We were all accused of a “Fiji takeover agenda”, we all got busted for being too edgy, but in the end, we all got an “A” in the class, and the shows are still fondly remembered.

My ’06 revival of “Mighty Matt” was a hit with friends on campus, but not so well-received by the then-current radio professor, and my inability to sell sponsorship for it lead me to a grade so bad I had to take a dance class to graduate. The less said about that, the better.

Grades aside, though, one aspect of my 2006 re-entry into college radio worked quite well. Perhaps not for my grade, but for show quality. I was an art major and always toiling away on some drawing, graphic design or painting project after hours anyway, so when my friend asked me to join her on her late-night radio show in the same building that imprisoned me, I jumped at the chance. She was dating my recently-graduated fraternity Brother at the time, was hysterically funny, and a huge music fan. We were (and still are) good friends, so the chemistry worked. To this day, I wish I had even a single recording of it. Her show differed a bit from my own, though, because she liked to play songs by jam bands that often exceeded 11 minutes.

11-minute songs worked fine for us, because halfway through an hour-long radio show, we wanted a break. So we’d pop in a lengthy song by a band called Widespread Panic and sneak out the back door of the arts building to engage in a conversation, a smoke and/or some caffeine. I’d wedge my wallet in the door so we wouldn’t get locked out.

One night, this routine ran into a problem: the wallet slipped out of the door. Fearing the worst, (dead air on the radio and ruined photography class prints) we had to flag down a security guard to let us back into the building.

After some begging and pleading, the day was saved. The punch line? When we finally got back to the studio, fearing the worst (dead air), the song was STILL PLAYING. On top of that, my photos had developed just fine.

These days, everyone in this story is forgotten, married, or involved in something awesome that doesn’t involve college radio or art. But I’ll never forget it. WWU radio, both times I did it, was fun…and through it, in many ways, I found my voice.

Rocko N'Roll

There are some elements of nostalgia that we remember so fondly that revisiting them can be a real letdown. We see a movie or tv show, or hear a song again for the first time in years, and suddenly wonder why we enjoyed it in the first place.

However, there are also those rare things that we enjoy even more upon rediscovery, and we realize that brilliance is often wasted on the young.

“Rocko’s Modern Life” definitely belongs in the latter category. I ordered the season one DVD of it on a whim, having seen a couple of episodes in reruns recently and enjoyed them. Holy shit! This was definitely not a kid’s cartoon at all. Much of the humor went over my head when I watched it as a kid, and being able to see multiple episodes in a row without commercials is a revelation. It didn’t just push the envelope, it stuffed the envelope, stamped it, and put it in the mailbox. Gags and stories involving sexually frustrated toads, nudists, bodily functions, phone sex, and a restaurant named “Chokey Chicken” are only scratching the surface. How about an episode in which a dog is so filthy that his skin is host to a Honeymooners-style sitcom starring a tick and a ringworm? Or the infamous recurring bit in which Rocko finds himself wedged between the breasts of a fat hippo lady, causing her to exclaim “How DARE you?!” before wadding him up into the shape of a volleyball and spiking him. Or even a cow going to “heck” and being tortured by a devil named Peaches who has milk-spouting udders growing from his head?

The characters are just as quirky as the situations they find themselves in. Rocko is the relatively normal one. A mild-mannered wallaby with an Australian accent and a taste for Hawaiian shirts, he lives in a dilapidated house with his dog, Spunky. His neighbors are a pair of toads named Ed and Bev Bighead. Ed is a cranky blowhard with what Rocko calls a “permanent wedgie”, while Bev is the original “desperate housewife” who tries to seduce Rocko on multiple occasions. Rocko’s best friend, Heffer, is an extremely fat, yellow cow with green hair and red overalls whose adoptive family is a pack of wolves. Heffer’s insatiable appetite is often the catalyst for conflict. Then there’s Filburt, a bespectacled turtle with a fondness for comic books and a nervous, Woody Allen-inspired personality.

Aside from its subversive humor and weird characters, “Rocko’s Modern Life” has everything that many cartoons being made today lack. The animation is fluid and spontaneous, often reaching levels of “squash and stretch” that you’d otherwise find in a cartoon from the 1930’s. The design style is unique. Everything in the backgrounds is crooked…catawampus houses, bent lamp posts, dented trash cans and impossibly-shaped trees. Incidental characters are oddball animals ranging from koalas to rhinos to elephants. The show is filled to the brim with funny sight-gags, with an emphasis on visual, rather than verbal, humor. A baseball playing shark steps up to bat and gets his eyeballs knocked out of his head. A vacuum cleaner has a dog neutering function (the icon is the shape of a dog, a minus sign and two baseballs!) a roller coaster called the “Nose Bleed” is literally shaped like a bleeding nose. Rocko’s reactions to some of these things would make Tex Avery proud: his eyes bug out, his brain pops out of his skull, and his face contorts into impossible expressions of surprise, fear, and rage.

There’s also plenty of slapstick. In one memorable episode, “Canned”, Rocko loses his job and is hired as a product tester for Mr. Bighead’s company, Conglom-O (We Own You!). The various inventions punish both Rocko and Bighead in violent, amusing ways.

The plots are well executed, following a golden rule that is often ignored in cartoons: keep it simple. Most are 10-to-15-minute shorts, built on seemingly basic situations: Rocko goes to buy something, Rocko goes to the beach, Rocko and Heffer go to the movies, trash day (a very dangerous day!), a trip to a baseball game, a conflict with the Bigheads, etc. Every time, though, something goes horribly wrong, turning something Rocko thinks will be easy into a nightmare.

Perhaps what makes such a bizarre concept work so well is the likeability of Rocko himself. He’s not a heckler, an idiot, a badass hero or a hapless kid getting bullied in school. He is an everyman in a world gone mad. He is, to a certain extent, us. We’ve all put off cleaning the house too long and faced the daunting task of cleaning it up before trash day. We’ve all had a quarrel with a neighbor. We all have that freeloading friend who eats us out of house and home, and we’ve all had to endure a trip to the DMV. These are situations that, while funny to us as kids, are even funnier on an adult level because we’ve now experienced them ourselves. It’s surprising how much life can imitate art!

It’s what cartoons SHOULD be: funny, visually expressive, relatable, and completely insane. It’s safe to say that they don’t make ‘em like this anymore…and that’s a shame.

UPDATE: Fan Kevin Martinez brought to my attention that in its day, the show wasn't well received by critics. Take, for instance, this article from Cinemafantastique magazine, in which the author dumped on it, lumping it together with other 'toons of the time and calling it a Ren and Stimpy ripoff. Needless to say, I believe the critic is way off. http://bp0.blogger.com/_XwGYOcz2ASU/RXSeT6NXClI/AAAAAAAAAoE/w2JiFxmBx70/s1600-h/cin06_pg21.jpg

Monday, February 6, 2012

28? Really? Now, What Have I Learned?

In keeping with my resolution to blog more, I figure that with my 28th birthday waiting for me at the end of the week, I should take a look at where I am right now in life.

Professionally, I never really know what I’m going to be doing on any given week. I don’t regret getting a Graphic Design degree in college, because I enjoyed it. But nobody could’ve predicted back in 2006 that it would become such a limited and competitive market. Am I doing much with it now aside from freelance work? No. But it DID open the door to other opportunities, and over the past 6 years I’ve done EVERYTHING. I actually have a hard time narrowing down my resume, because of the sheer number of jobs I’ve held, both temporary and long-term. If I haven’t been blessed with a lucrative, long-term career, at least I’ve been blessed with able mind and body and a good work ethic. My unofficial motto is that if you pay me 10 bucks an hour or better, I’ll do just about anything, right down to scrubbing your toilet. I’ve designed business cards, logos, fliers and album art. I’ve built things, proofread documents, written things, worked in warehouses, made phone calls in call centers, organized file cabinets, prepared food, worked with animals, archived important documents, organized events, shipped packages, mopped floors, and sold various items. With every door that opens, another is around the corner.

Graduate school is still on the table. I love to draw cartoons and have a place in mind to earn a degree in illustration…but I’m still on the fence about it. Will the degree actually help me, or do I just need to find the right opportunity on my own? I have some talent at voice acting, and as soon as I can nail down a few minutes in a studio or with a high quality recording microphone, I’m going to send out a demo to every agent I can find.

You miss every opportunity you don’t take, so they say. I have plenty, and the bottom line is, I just need to try harder at taking advantage of them.

For all the uncertainty career-wise, at least I’ve managed to make things work out well socially. For the first couple years I lived in Austin, I was rarely bored, but often lonely. I didn’t know many people my own age, the people I worked with didn’t really welcome me into their circle, and fresh from a stint in college out of state, most of my best friends lived far away. Many began to get married and start families, and through no fault of their own, grew more and more distant.

But eventually I began to meet new friends, maintain bonds with many from the past, and rekindle some that have surprised me. Facebook has been a big help. Meeting a core group of local friends has helped even more, and has branched out over the past couple of years to include a colorful cast of wonderful characters. The last two summers in Austin were brutally hot, but they managed to bring a great group of friends together through swimming pools, barbecues and beer. There’s rarely a Sunday afternoon now, regardless of weather, when at least a few of us aren’t doing something together. You’d be hard pressed to find a TV reality show with such a diverse group of people, all with wildly different jobs, interests, origins and beliefs…but somehow, it works. For all the complaints everyone makes about how Austin has lost its soul and purpose, it’s only done so on the surface.
So, as I enter my 28th year of life on Friday, I can proudly count my blessings. I still haven’t figured out what I want to be when I grow up, but I still have paths to explore. I’ve worked hard, played hard and gathered great friends along the way. Whether they live right down the street and I’ll see them next Sunday, or they live far away and talk with me often online or on the phone until 4AM, or I rarely hear from them unless the Cardinals win the World Series and they call me to gloat about it: I hope they stay on board. This ship’s still sailing.