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17th Jul 2019

Rocko’s Modern Life was a cartoon for adults that just happened to be on kids TV

Wil Jones

This week, it was announced that a new special episode of cult 1990s Nickelodeon animation Rocko’s Modern Life would be coming to Netflix in August

Rocko’s Modern Life is far from the only cartoon of the 1990s to be getting a nostalgia-baiting new take at the moment. In 2017 Nickelodeon aired the TV film Hey Arnold!: The Jungle Movie, and this year has seen new versions of Disney’s Aladdin and The Lion King both hit cinemas – all of which are at least partially intended to target the now-adults who grew up with these cartoons.

But Rocko’s Modern Life coming back seems different, as it was essentially always a cartoon for adults that was squeezed into the Nickelodeon line-up. As opposed to outgrowing the show, most of its original fans are now probably old enough to truly ‘get’ it.

Nowadays, in the era of Family Guy, Rick & Morty and Archer, the concept of foul-mouthed animation not suitable for children is nothing remarkable. Yet when Rocko debuted on Nickelodeon back in 1993, that was not the case.

Rocko was part of the second wave of Nicktoons, the cable station’s original animation productions, following The Ren & Stimpy Show, Doug and Rugrats in 1991. On the surface, there was nothing controversial about it, featuring the adventures of three anthropomorphic pals – Rocko the wallaby, Heffer the cow and Filbert the turtle. So far, pretty standard, but instead of being kids in school or whatever, Rocko and his friends were in their early twenties, goofing their way through early adulthood.

Recess or Rugrats, this was not. They worked dead-end jobs, Rocko in a comic book shop, while Heffer and Filbert bounced from job to job. Rocko had a crappy apartment, and Heffer still lived at home. Rocko was even an immigrant, just trying to make a new life. It made no effort to be relatable to the youngsters watching on its original showing, instead reflecting the lives of its creators.

Today, such a set-up would be perfect for Adult Swim or FX, and would mirror the lives of many of the young adults who watch those sort of cartoons. But back then, there was no place for such animated shows (MTV had only just had launched Beavis & Butt-Head). Instead, the show had to be squeezed into the seemingly sanitized world of kids’ TV, the only audience for American animation at the time.

Yet despite being after-school fodder, Rocko’s Modern Life managed to get some seriously dirty jokes past the censors. Most infamously, Rocko spent one scene working at what is clearly a sex hotline, repeating “Oh baby” down the line. In another episode, Heffer was seen enjoying a milking machine far too much. Eventually, Nickelodeon caught wind of what was happening and made changes – a restaurant named “Chokey Chicken” was altered to say “Chewy Chicken” after its first airing, and a scene featuring Rocko visiting a motel with hourly rates was excised for reruns.

The new TV movie – entitled ‘Static Cling’ – was completed in 2017, according to creator Joe Murray, and has been sitting on the shelf after Nickelodeon realised they didn’t know what to do with it – hence it being offloaded to Netflix. It reportedly follows on from the finale of the show, which saw Rocko, Filbert and Heffer sent into space for 20 years, and will see them return to a world filled with technology they don’t understand.

Many of the kids who grew up watching Rocko’s Modern Life will now be the same age as the characters, and likely be able to relate the show in a way they couldn’t before. Hopefully, there will be no effort to insert more adult content into the show – an ill-advised Ren & Stimpy revival in the early 2000s already tried that, with disastrous results. Instead, the new film will ideally introduce a new audience to one of the half-forgotten gems of 1990s animation – especially now that it is far more socially acceptable for adults to watch it.