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Twenty Years of Very Dangerous Days

One of the most important lessons I ever learned as a kid, was that both laundry day, and garbage day, are very dangerous days. If you're of a certain generation, you've picked up on what the above is a reference to. A line repeated by Rocko, the main character on the 1990s animated series Rocko's Modern Life, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this past month. If you've read my column for any long amount of time, you've heard me mention this series before. It's one of my favorites, and my absolute favorite cartoon series. Considering it's from that golden age of TV cartoons that was the 90s, the fact that 20 years later the series is starting to get it's due is high praise indeed.

For the uninitiated Rocko's Modern Life is about the daily adventures and life experiences of Rocko, a wallaby who just immigrated from Australia to the city of O-Town. Alongside Rocko, there's his dog, Spunky, and his two best friends. Heffer, an overweight steer that was adopted by a family of wolves, and Filburt—Woody Allen in turtle form (who would later go on to marry a cat with a hook for a hand, named Dr. Hutchinson). Rocko's next door neighbors, a pair of toads named Ed and Bev Bighead, have a mixed relationship with their young friend. Mrs. Bighead likes Rocko. Mr. Bighead, however, despises him.

Rocko's Modern Life was unique in the sense that most of it's humor came from surreal parody and satire. The satirical elements focusing on cultural commentary. A running target being the influence of corporate America on the world. Mr Bighead works at Congolm-O, a company with no obvious purpose, whose logo is the world as the olive in a martini glass, with the motto “We own you”. Also, somewhat notorious, is the series use of adult humor. Jokes that went over our heads when we were kids, now land firmly in the middle of our faces. A smart series, with a moderate bit of edge for the time, most of which still holds up.

One of the most popular episodes of the series, is the third season's “Wacky Delly”. The episode not only stands out as one of Rocko's finest, but also as one of the finer episode of the era, as it's a direct satire on the industry of television animation. In the universe of O-Town, Ed and Bev Bighead have a son, who they initially disown, Ralph Bighead. Ralph rejected his father's corporate work life, and headed out to Hollowood to become a cartoonist, creating the wildly popular animated series “The Fatheads” (to add to the meta elements of it all, Ralph Bighead is voiced by Rocko series creator, Joe Murray).

“Wacky Delly” begins with Ralph finally at the end of his contract for “The Fatheads”, and looking forward to having the freedom to go out and create real art. However, his contract with the network states he owes them another series. Instead of spending his time tied down to another long running series, Ralph invites Rocko, Heffer, and Filburt—the biggest fans “The Fatheads” have—out to Hollowood to create his next TV series for him, thinking it will be such a disaster, the network will have no choice but to cancel the series, freeing him from his contract.

In a true “Springtime for Hitler” moment, the show—which is all about deli meats—becomes a massive hit. Ralph, shocked by his throw away series sudden success, does all he can to sabotage production. Over exposing negatives, and at one point telling the boys to just run a half hour shot of a jar of mayonnaise. Each time, the moves are viewed as genius works of television, the shot of mayo being declared “a powerful Warholian tribute”. When the last time you saw a reference to Andy Warhol in a children's cartoon?

Therein lines the genius of Rocko's Modern Life. It was a show that was not concerned with “how to keep kids captured for half an hour”, but rather a show where the brilliant creative team were trying to make each other laugh. Joe Murray assembled an amazing team of creative talents to helm this series. This is why we're still celebrating the show twenty years after it first graced our screens. Unlike some shows we watch as kids, that we later shudder at as adults, Rocko's Modern Life still entertains us. In an era in which children's TV animation was an embarrassment of riches, people are finally started to realize what a gem Rocko's Modern Life was.


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