Is 'Rocko's Modern Life' secretly the best cartoon Nickelodeon made in the '90s?

Rockos-Modern-Life

Image Credit: Everett Collection

Here’s the funny thing: When I was a kid, I didn’t like Rocko’s Modern Life. Or at least, not nearly as much as I enjoyed its Nickelodeon brethren. Ren & Stimpy could make me fall down and hit my head from laughing so hard. Rugrats was an eerily perfect vision of the weirdness of being a kid. And Doug… actually, I had an irresistible urge to punch Doug in the face, but Skeeter was the bomb. By comparison, Rocko’s Modern Life seemed… strange. I could never quite put my finger on it, until years later, when I rewatched the series and had a revelation: Alone among the Nicktoons, Rocko was a show about being an adult. The opening credits sequence presents the show’s protagonist growing from a lovable, naive little wallaby into an anxious adult living in the big city. Take out the “wallaby” part, and Rocko’s Modern Life almost sounds like the plot of a ’90s NBC sitcom, something wedged in between Friends and Veronica’s Closet.

It’s a bit crazy, looking back at Rocko now, to see all the talent at work in the show. Rocko was voiced by Carlos Alazraqui, later to star in Reno 911!, and his bestie Heffer was voiced by Tom Kenny, now and forever the man behind SpongeBob SquarePants. Creator Joe Murray came out of the indie-animation world (and was also an animator for MTV commercials, back when “animator for MTV commercials” was a mark of coolness) and Rocko had an intriguingly multi-level comic vibe. The show could be acidly satiric, especially in regards to Ed Bighead, a company man who worked at a bleak megacorporation called Conglom-O.

When Rocko was at its best, though, it could be incredibly profound. The episode that stuck with me the most when I was a kid was “Who’s For Dinner,” when Rocko meets Heffer’s family. It turns out that Heffer — a happy-go-lucky overweight cow — was actually raised by a family of wolves. When Rocko innocently points this out — “Heffer never told me he was adopted” — drama ensues, because Heffer didn’t know he was adopted. It turns out that his family had actually been planning on eating him as a baby… before they decided to raise him as their own. It’s simultaneously a heartwarming portrait of adoption, a semi-Orwellian fable, and just a really funny drawing-room comedy.

PopWatchers, am I the only one who didn’t understand the genius of Rocko’s Modern Life until I, too, was an anxious grown-up?

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

Comments (28 total) Add your comment
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  • Jose

    Oh EW, just do that ’90′s nostalgia issue that you so desperately want to publish already!

  • Lars Johnson

    100% agree. The issue would be a fantastic read.

  • Matt

    “Hey Arnold!” is still the best Nicktoon, but Rocko is easily my second favorite. OUTSTANDING show!

    • April

      Agreed.

  • Tony

    Rocko will always be my Golden Moment of the 90s, I used to LOVE Rugrats, but i cant ever watch it again, Even on Netflix..

  • Claen

    I only remember one episode – the Christmas episode with the robot Santa who shot lasers out of his eyes and sang “Ho ho ho. Hoho-ho-ho-ho-ho. Ho.” The rest of it was over my head.

  • Justin

    OMG. A 90′s nostalgia issue!?!? THAT would be the BEST iissue EVER!

    • Justin

      I really can’t express how much I’m loving this string of 90′s TV shows articles. This needs to lsat forever. I’m hoping to see something about Are You Afraid of the Dark Soon.

      • Jose

        They did that article weeks ago!

  • Abby

    Rocko never did it for me. I think I was put off by the animation style, or the humor, or maybe it just was over my head. It’s been so long since I’ve seen it I honestly can’t remember why I was so lukewarm about it. Maybe I should rewatch it as an adult and see if I like it better.

  • Mel

    Can Hey Dude make a comeback too? I haven’t seen that on TV yet, but I love these throwbacks and Kenan and Kel, is still funny after all these years.

    • Sandra

      I loved Hey Dude!

  • Tony

    Rocko was my all time favorite Nickelodeon cartoon before SpongeBob. It had all the absurd humor and biting satire of Ren & Stimpy, but with a sweet undercurrent that made it more palatable. No matter how ridiculous the plots were, you always rooted for Rocko and his undying (if unfounded) hope that things will work out in the end.

  • PennyBeGood

    I loved this show as a kid, but much of the humor went over my head. I re-watched a year ago on Netflix was shocked (in a good way) at how mature it could be sometimes. Also, Rocko had a brief job as a phone sex operator. How did that bit make it to Saturday afternoon cartoons? Ah, well, I’m glad it did.

  • Dwight Fry

    Two words…Wacky Delly.
    Best episode ever.

    • Matt

      I AM THE CHEESE! I AM THE BEST!

  • BobDecker

    Rocko is da bomb diggity. Ren & Stimpy was up there too as one of the best, but it started going downhill after they (foolishly) fired John K.

  • GoddessLu

    I always LOVED Rocko, which I discovered as a young 20-something along with Ren & Stimpy. The episode where Heffer discovers he’s adopted is PRICELESS and I love that his mother’s name is Virginia Wolf. Filbert and the 2 hairdressers Euro-trash twins, so many hilarious characters, including Rocko’s comic book store boss and Mrs. Bighead, with that voice…”EDDDDDD”….lol

  • GoddessLu

    Chokey’s Chicken? LOL

  • Filbert

    Heffer, Heffer, ask me what time it is

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