Tuesday, February 14, 2012

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


  1. That pretty much sums up the show. Well said!

  2. Great review! One of my favorite all time cartoons ��

  3. Great review! One of my favorite all time cartoons ��